Category Archives: Religion

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Just the Facts

While running errands a while ago I drove past a billboard that raised my blood pressure a bit. It’s the sort of billboard that dots the landscape in various parts of the country but that one very seldom sees in blue state, outrageously liberal Rhode Island. billboardTrumpeting the “fact” that God created the heavens and the earth (because the first sentence of that irrefutable science text, the Bible, tells us so), it not-so-subtlely rejects the fact of Darwinian natural selection by putting a big X through the familiar cartoon chart of primates evolving into humans. “Jesus Christ,” I thought. “The barbarians have arrived.” Don’t get me started with the “Darwin is just a theory” crap—it’s a theory in the same sense that gravity is a theory. It’s a testable hypothesis that has stood up to the challenge of subsequent data and observations so well that one has to have a poorly hidden agenda driving one’s attempts to still deny it. More importantly, it is possible to believe in a creating God (as I do) and the truth of natural selection (as I do)—but only if one is willing to let the facts of science inform one’s divine paradigm. Oh well.

Later that same day (while still running errands) I heard something on the science guyNPR’s “Here and Now” that raised my blood pressure a bit more. At the beginning of a segment on the dangers of global warming with Bill Nye the Science Guy (I wonder if “Nye the Science” is his middle name and “Guy” his last name?), the interviewer played a brief clip from Mr. Guy’s recent appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire,”

http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/07/29/bill-nye-climate-change

crossfirewhere host S. E. Cupp berated him for his close-mindedness.

Isn’t it a problem when “science guys” attempt to bully other people? Really, the science group has tried to shame anyone who dares to question it [global warming] and it’s not working with the public!

When asked by the “Here and Now” interviewer to comment, Bill said

When you have a bullying person calling you a bully, you just have to roll with it. That’s fine. I just wonder what really motivates her. The evidence is overwhelming—other countries aren’t having talk shows like that.

I wonder the same thing—what is the motivation for denying something that the vast majority of qualified scientists confirm the truth of? The interviewer went on to note that every time their show has a segment on global warming, they receive dozens, even hundreds of emails complaining that they did not give equal time to “the other side”—factsrather than having a legitimate debate about the best ways to address global warming, apparently there needs to be a debate about whether it exists. My inner rational person wants to scream THERE IS NO FUCKING OTHER SIDE TO A FACT!!! Fortunately, Bill Nye and others have more patience than I do.

How is it that in the twenty-first century we constantly find ourselves spinning our wheels in belief ruts that advanced hominids should have escaped from centuries ago? In the mystery novel I am currently reading, Tana French’s Faithful Place, the main character and narrator tana_frenchFrank MacKey is discussing with his sister the frustration he faces when trying to teach his nine-year-old the difference between truth and bullshit.

I want Holly to be aware that there is a difference between truth and meaningless gibberish bullshit. She’s completely surrounded, from every angle, by people telling her that reality is one hundred percent subjective: if you really believe something is true, then it doesn’t actually matter whether it is in reality true or not. . . I want my daughter to learn that not everything in this world is determined by how often she hears it or how much she wants to it be true or how many other people are looking. Somewhere in there, for a thing to count as real, there has got to be some actual bloody reality.

This nails the problem on the head. In a world in which everyone is an expert, in which everything posted, texted or tweeted can immediately become truth without verification or testing, images1HFL89CVthe sharp line between truth and fiction becomes blurry and is ultimately erased, especially when the fiction one is spinning is something that one really, really, really wants to be true. Good luck to Frank, and to all of us, when trying to swim against that stream. Shouting “But there are no facts to support what you are claiming” into the maelstrom of “But I really believe and want this to be true” often seems to be an exercise in futility similar to spitting into a hurricane.

Except that everything I’ve been pontificating about so far—the importance of facts as the reliable touchstone and antidote to our penchant for believing things to be true just because we want them to be true—can easily and justifiably turned right back on me when the discussion moves to belief in God’s existence. As a Facebook acquaintance posted in a discussion recently, imagesBCBKIAMJ“Could some person who believes in God’s existence just provide me with ONE PIECE of evidence to support that belief?” The palpable frustration in her question is the same frustration I have with global warming and natural selection deniers. Yet I have regularly written in this blog over the past few years that when it comes to belief in God, the evidence rules change. Why do I think I can get away with that?

I have said and written that the best, perhaps the only, evidence for God’s existence is a changed life—and, of course, the person who claims her or his life has been changed is the primary judge of whether the claim is true. The evidence is subjective, in other words. john-wesley-1-1Many theists identify a powerful, life changing internal event as their primal contact with and evidence for God—I am thinking, for instance, of Pascal’s “Night of Fire,” of John Wesley’s “my heart was strangely warmed” and Simone Weil’s “for the first time in my life something drove me to my knees” as examples. But I have never had such an experience–my divine encounters end to be more like a steady drizzle than a downpour–and even the most powerful encounters of this sort are subjective and first person accounts. The “changed life” that I attribute to the presence of the divine in my life could just as easily be explained as maturation, finally growing up, learning to deal with my history or simply growing weary of wrestling with ghosts from my past.

Ultimately, the evidence for God’s reality in my life counts as evidence only because the belief is already in place. There are stories out there about atheists and agnostics who have been convinced of God’s existence because of convincing rational arguments and effective marshalling of objective evidence, but that has not been my path. I was born into an atmosphere saturated with belief in the divine and although my beliefs concerning what and who that divine is have morphed through many permutations and continue to do so, I still breathe that same God-infused atmosphere. That is undoubtedly not the sort of evidence that my Facebook non-believer acquaintance is looking for, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. This will be good to remember the next time I am sharply critical of people who shape their evidence to fit their beliefs. For better or for worse, with the highest stakes possible, I am doing the same thing.imagesCTV4CPOX

Give Us Barabbas

easter cantataAn annual musical fixture of my Baptist upbringing was the Easter Cantata. Each year on Easter evening our small choir would perform a contemporary setting of the Passion and Easter story from Last Supper through the Resurrection. My aunt Gloria was the choir director, several of my relatives sang in the choir from my pre-teen years on, and from about age twelve through high school I was the piano accompanist for this annual event. We weren’t that good and the quality of the music we performed was even worse, cranked out in some evangelical music factory on a regular basis in a sad mockery of the superhuman weekly bachcantata-composing efforts of my musical hero, Johann Sebastian Bach, in 18th century Leipzig.

The cantata score each year as well as our performance was completely forgettable, but I was reminded the other day of a striking feature of each cantata. During the portion portraying Jesus’ trial before Pilate, one male would sing the part of Pilate (my cousin Greg one year), another would be Jesus (my cousin Greg a different year), and the rest of the choir was the crowd singing “Release unto us Barabbas!” “Away with this man!” “We have no king but Caesar!” and “Crucify him!” I remember clearly the strange dissonance of these lyrics sung vigorously in a building dedicated to the worship of the man being condemned to death; even though the temptation was to consider the crowd as evil sinners, give us barabbasI also remember wondering if there might have been more than a few well-meaning folks in the group calling for Jesus’ crucifixion who actually thought they were doing the right thing. Sometimes “Give us Barabbas!” seems to make sense.

I think we find ourselves in one of those times. Regular readers of this blog know that I have been wondering about how Christians who are also Republicans fit all of that together and, most recently, why so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump. Then this past Sunday, Donald Trump gave the convocation address at Liberty University, the self-proclaimed largest evangelical Christian university in the world.

Donald Trump at Liberty Universitytrump at liberty

Interviews with students afterwards revealed strong support for Trump because of his perceived honesty, directness, outside-Washington status, business experience, and the perception that he had the best chance among the Republican candidates to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump’s inability to identify the location of his favorite Bible verse or to even quote it accurately, his apparent lack of any commitment to traditional Christian values beyond lip service, and the fact that a conservative Christian leader described Trump recently as “the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States” seemed to matter little, if at all. One student said “I know a lot of people speak of his ego and how that’s not a Christian value — but I honestly think his ego is what gets things done. I’m okay with an egotistical president. He wants to be the best, and I think for that reason, he gets things done.” When faced with the opportunity to judge a candidate according to the values he and his chosen university profess, this student chose to punt. “Give us Barabbas.”givenness

At the gym later in the day I read an essay from Marilynne Robinson’s recent collection The Givenness of Things that shone some new light on these matters. In “Awakening,” Robinson reflects on a contemporary phenomenon that runs rampant through our current public and political discourse—a professed “Christianity” that looks and sounds like anything but Christianity.

No doubt as a consequence of a recent vogue for feeling culturally embattled, the word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic. On one hand I do not wish to overstate the degree to which these two uses of the word “Christian” are mutually exclusive, and on the other hand I think it would be a very difficult thing to overstate how deeply incompatible they can be.

For many people, in other words, “Christianity” has become a tribal label, a marker of “us” vs. “them,” the very sort of tribalism that currently infects and threatens to permanently damage our political and social structures. Robinson notes that when the hallmarks of being a Christian are reduced to “are you in or out?” very un-Christian consequences are inevitable.saved and unsaved

The simple, central, urgent pressure to step over the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, and after this the right, even the obligation, to turn and judge that great sinful world the redeemed have left behind—this is what I see as the essential nature of the emerging Christianity. Those who have crossed this line can be outrageously forgiving of one another and themselves, and very cruel in their denunciations of anyone else.

How is it, I have been wondering recently, that professed Christians can support candidates and policies that are, by any stretch of the imagination, anything but embodiments of traditional Christian values? If Marilynne Robinson is right, it is because contemporary Christianity often is not a way of life or a commitment to the principles of a historic and beautiful religion—it is rather a way to facilitate what are often the worst tendencies in human nature and behavior.

People of good faith get caught up in these things in all times and all places. In the excitement of the moment who really knows he or she might not also shout, “Give us Barabbas!”

muslims are terroristsAll of this sounds rather harsh and judgmental—also not congruent with Christian values. So be it. I grow weary of hearing the name of my faith used in the service of un-Christian and inhumane policies and actions, in much the same way that sincere and serious Muslims must tire of hearing their ancient religion’s name used as a placeholder and justification for terrorism and murder. The truth of the matter is that Christianity as a lived faith runs contrary to much of our deepest, natural human wiring. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not. Tribal Christianity, on the other hand, appeals to the worst in our nature. As Robinson points out,

It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear . . . If the claims to Christian identity we hear now are rooted in an instinctive tribalism, they are entirely inappropriate, certainly uninformed, because in its nature the religion they claim has no boundaries, no shibboleths, no genealogies or hereditary claimants.

As Robinson writes, fear and the desire for identity and a place to belong can cause people of good will and intentions to choose and accept things that are in truth the very opposite of what they claim to believe in, even with the real thing right in front of them. But fear need not rule the day.voting

We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindnesses and predilections. The haunting fact is that we are morally free. If everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, it is only probable—but never necessary—that some of us join in.

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Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about God. That’s a strange thing to spend time doing, given that the very existence of God, and God’s nature if God does exist, has been seriously and vigorously debated since someone first looked into the sky and wondered if anything is out there. What sorts of evidence count for or against?images Is certainty possible? And if God exists, which God are we talking about? I am a skeptic both by nature and profession, but I also believe that God exists. How does that work?

I was recently reminded by the usual random confluence of events of a way proposed close to five hundred years ago to establish belief in God while at the same time doing an end run on all of the questions above. PascalThe proposer was the seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal; the proposition has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager,” one of the most debated and controversial arguments any philosopher has ever offered. Pascal was a world-class thinker who found himself knocked on his ass one night by what he interpreted as a direct message from the divine. It changed his life, moving him strongly in a religious direction and causing him to put his mathematical theories on the shelf.

Pascal lived in a time of skepticism; the medieval worldview had crumbled, Montaignethe Scientific Revolution was in full swing, and religious wars were being fought all over Europe. Michel de Montaigne, one of the most eloquent and brilliant skeptics who ever lived, was the most widely read author of the time. Pascal had no doubts about God’s existence—his “Night of Fire” had burned away any uncertainty—but he was smart enough to know that not everyone has such experiences. Lacking direct experiential evidence, and knowing that every philosophical, logical argument for the existence of God has been disputed by other philosophers using logical arguments, what would a betting person do?

Consider the options, says Pascal. Either you believe that God exists or you don’t, and either God exists or God doesn’t. That means there are four possibilities

1. I believe in God, and God does not exist

2. I do not believe in God, and God does not exist

3. I believe in God, and God exists

4. I do not believe in God, and God exists

Options 1 and 2 are essentially a wash. Believer 1 will probably live her life somewhat differently than Non-believer 2, but at the end of their lives they both are dead. End of story. But if it turns out that God does exist, then everything changes. Believer 3 is set up for an eternity of happiness, while Non-believer 4 is subject to eternal damnation. On the assumption that we cannot know for sure whether God exists but we still have to choose whether to believe or not, it makes betting sense to be a believer than to be a non-believer. As the handy chart below indicates, the believer either lives her life and dies or gets eternal happiness, while the non-believer either lives his life and dies or gets eternal damnation. So be smart and believe. QED.

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Many silent assumptions are woven into the argument, assumptions that have driven analysis and critique of Pascal’s Wager ever since. For instance, the argument assumes that there is about a 50-50 chance that God exists. evil and sufferingBut it could be argued that the preponderance of direct evidence from the world we live in (evil, disease, natural disasters, etc.) counts against God’s existence—the likelihood of God’s nonexistence is far greater than 50 percent. Others have pointed out that the difference between 1 and 2 is not negligible at all. Believer 1 might spend her life denying herself all sorts of experiences and pleasures in the mistaken belief that a nonexistent God doesn’t like such experiences and pleasures, while Non-believer 2 will enjoy such experiences and pleasures to the fullest. And what if God exists but is of an entirely different nature and character than we think? What if the things we believe will please God actually piss God off?

I find such critiques to be compelling and do not find Pascal’s Wager to be an attractive argument at all, but I believe in God’s existence so what do I know? I am far more interested in what Pascal says after the options are laid out to the person who buys the argument but is currently a non-believer. If I don’t believe in God’s existence but am convinced that a smart betting person does believe in God’s existence, how do I make that happen? just believeHow does one manufacture belief in something one does not believe in? Pascal’s advice is revealing.

You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. What have you to lose?

Pascal is borrowing a technique from Aristotle, who once said that if you want to become courageous, do the things that courageous people do. In this case, do the things believers do and one day you may find you’ve become one.

Pascal came to mind when I read a reader’s comment on my blog entry “The Imposter” a few days ago.

The Imposter

In response to my discussing imposter syndrome and our general human fears about inadequacy and lack of importance, the reader wrote

“Fake it until you make it” is actually almost a principle in Judaism, although not in those words. The medieval work seferSefer Hahinuch, which goes through the 613 commandments of the Torah according to traditional rabbinic calculation, states that a person is affected by his actions. If you do the right thing, little by little it can make you on the inside more like the act you are playing on the outside. Of course you can’t just do it to fool people. You have to intend to fulfill G-d’s will in the world and do things pleasing to Him according to what He has given us to work with. We do our job and keep refining it, and the work, the very inner struggle is pleasing to G-d because we are getting closer, because we are striving to be true to ourselves and Him, even though we know we aren’t there yet and never will be totally. But that is called doing His work.

Although this principle in Judaism reminded me of Pascal’s wager, it is actually very different. The Jewish principle supposes that one accepts that it would be good to live according to the rules and guidelines in the Torah but is not naturally inclined to do so. By putting these rules into action they become my own, all the time believing that becoming a person who does such things habitually is pleasing to God. But whether they are pleasing to God or not, they are arguably making me a better husband, father, son, Bros Kneighbor and contributing member of society.

Pascal’s suggestion is far less demanding, requiring nothing more than going through the motions of certain rituals on a daily or weekly basis. This is not likely to make me a believer or a better person so much as just a person with a very busy Sunday morning every week. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Father Zossima’s advice to an unbeliever who wants to believe is quite different: he recommends the “active and indefatigable love of your neighbor.” Much like the Sefer Hahinuch, Father Zossima provides no shortcuts to belief in God. Rather he recommends the difficult prescription of transforming one’s heart and mind by one’s actions. This doesn’t establish any metaphysical truths, but it does open the door to the good human beings are capable of. Whether God exists or not.belief

Donald Trump and Evangelicals

But understand this, that in the last days terrible times will come. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, wolf in sheep's clothinglovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. II Timothy 3:1-5

The other day as I listened to NPR as is my custom when in the car, someone mentioned that although Ted Cruz seems to have the approval of most evangelicals in Iowa, Donald Trump does well nationally among conservative evangelical Christians. It’s probably not right for someone who claims to be a Christian to have a “What The Fuck!!” moment, but I did. I’ve expressed my confusion before over how someone professing to be a Christian can sign on to the political platform of the Republican Party,

The Return of Republican Jesus

but that confusion pales in comparison to my complete failure to understand how evangelical Christians can support Donald Trump. Rather than ask my numerous liberal friends and social media acquaintances, who would be as clueless as I am about this phenomenon, evangelicals-cartoonI decided to go to the source. I gave some evangelical Christians the opportunity to explain this to me.

This was a bit trickier to do than it might sound—where is a liberal Episcopalian, freelance Christian who is off the charts liberal on social issues and most everything else going to find some evangelical Christians willing to talk with a reprobate such as I? Although I do not call myself an evangelical Christian, I understand the mindset and commitments of evangelicals very well—it is the faith atmosphere into which I was born and in which I was raised. My father, a Baptist minister, was the founder and President of a small evangelical Bible school in northern New England during my growing up years; I spent a year there between graduating from high school and going across the country to begin my college education.

My dad’s Bible school closed its doors a half-dozen or so years after my year there; I was interested to discover a Facebook page a year or so ago for former students to reconnect and reminisce. Several of the people who were fellow students with me over forty years ago are members of this site—it has become clear to me as I drop in on occasion that although I have evolved away from conservative evangelical Christianity over the past few decades, many of my former fellow students have not. donald and evangelicalsSo when I wanted to run my Donald Trump question past some evangelicals, I knew where to go. I went to the Facebook site and posted this question:

Could someone explain to me why so many evangelical Christians like Donald Trump?

Here are a few of the exchanges that ensued, lightly edited for space purposes:

Conversation One was not very fruitful:

  • Him: There is no one more unqualified for the presidency of this great nation than the person currently occupying that office.
  • Me: Which, of course, does not answer the question I asked.
  • Him: The answer is, any of the candidates on the Republican side, though not perfect, would be orders of magnitude better than any on the other side, current or running.
  • Me: keep calm and answer the questionYou’re certainly free to answer whatever question you want, even if it’s not the one I asked, but I’m not the least bit interested in a useless political debate. You and I disagree sharply, let’s leave it at that. If you’re interested in actually responding to the question I asked, it was: Could someone explain to me why so many evangelical Christians like Donald Trump? I fail to see how “I don’t like the President” or “anyone but Hilary or Bernie” addresses that question. I posted it because I thought in this group there might be an evangelical Christian or two who could provide some illumination, since I fail to detect any glimmer of Christian anything in Trump. X provided a reasonable explanation above–if you care to try as well, I’d be happy to respond.

He didn’t. Conversation Two at least appeared to engage with my question:

  • Him: Vance, I think it’s simply and only because there has been such a climate of PC that has developed over the years, it’s refreshing to hear a person simply saying what they think with really no thought that what he says (may…might…possibly…to some unknown and unnamed person…) be offensive sometime. That would be my guess.
  • Me: You’re probably right–which worries me greatly. To think that a person who is entirely unqualified to be President is attracting followers because he has no filter is scary. And it is anything but “refreshing,” unless one finds racism, misogyny and egomania “refreshing.” Also, the above does not explain why evangelical Christians would be attracted to him–what you describe is hardly a trait affirmed in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance.

Conversation Three was the most fruitful and most worrisome:

  • Her: Vance, I am not sure that I am the person to answer the big question, but I find it refreshing for someone in the spotlight to speak up and say what many Americans are thinking. In my circle of friends, who consider themselves evangelical, I am hard pressed to find quote unquote any evangelical Christians who would vote for him. Even though they like what he says. They believe he is too quick and they don’t like how he talks about the other people and lacks experience. anyone but hillaryLet’s imagine that he is the nominee…would evangelical Christians vote for him? I believe that they would. They would not stay home and not vote, like those who did in the last election. They don’t want another Clinton in the White House. I hope that I have shed some light on your question and that I was somewhat coherent.
  • Me: I would not be surprised if conservative folks, Christian or not, might vote for anyone to avoid a liberal as President–often votes are cast against someone rather than for. But with a number of Republican candidates with credentials that line up better with evangelical concerns, I’m just wondering why so many like Trump.
  • Her: I think that many, myself included, will get the same old “Beltway” Republican, who easily caves into the Democrats on the “Hill”. I want someone who will stand up for something, fight the good fight and if he goes down, let him go down swinging. The candidates that are running aren’t that way. They are tied to big money donations. Seriously, do we want Jeb Bush as the next president. conservativesTalk about someone who appears wimpy and whiny. Ben Carson is not going to make it, he knows less than Trump. Chris Christie, no way, Rubio, no way, Ted Cruz…maybe. There is so much discord between liberals and conservatives that I believe that Trump may not be so bad. Who knows what he will be like in the White House if elected. I believe that this election will be one of the scariest and not knowing who the real person is that is being voted for. Does Trump have a hidden agenda? Don’t know. Does he really believe what he is saying? Don’t know. I do believe the election will come down to who has the most votes. I must say I am looking forward to watching both conventions. Yes, they will vote the person and not what they say to avoid a liberal democrat. I brought my bibleThey see liberal democrats as big on spending and taxes. But the bottom line is, many people who are unemployed, have had cuts in pay, struggling with meeting their budgets, feel helpless about the immigration, and the feeling that their Constitutional rights are slowly being taking away… YES, they will vote for Trump.
  • Me: I appreciate your thoughts. As you might imagine, we’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But I am glad to have a discussion with more depth than the usual sound bites from both sides.
  • Her: I have enjoyed the discussion, also. I believe that is probably the biggest problem in America. People don’t talk to others who have different opinions. They shout, call each other names and don’t try to understand another’s point of view. Just because I understand another point of view does not mean that I agree. But I will still talk to that individual. I read your blog, food for thought and gives me another perspective of another person’s world view. Though I don’t feel insulated, I know that I am compared to others. It always surprises me when others don’t have my view. LOL!

In addition to agreeing with my Conversation Three partner that it always surprises me when others don’t share my views, my main takeaway is to note that my conversants said virtually nothing about Christianity, evangelical or otherwise. The reasoning provided could have been given by a conservative agnostic.kim davis

Which means that I remain confused. One of the fundamental commitments of evangelical Christianity is to bring one’s Christian faith “into all the world”—a Kim Davis-like insertion of one’s religious beliefs into secular society. Those who responded to my Facebook question instead relied on their conservative political leanings with nary a mention of how any of this squares with their being an evangelical Christian. I just don’t get it—my own social and political commitments are largely shaped by my faith commitments. As I frequently say, I am a liberal because I am a Christian. And I am still waiting for a Christian to show me how their faith meshes with their conservative agenda. Or with supporting Donald Trump, who sounds a lot like the sort of person Paul tells us to avoid in Second Timothy.

There was one person, though—my Conversation Four partner—who was clearly interested in voting for the best Christian among those running for President.

  • Her: I would like to know which of the nominees is truly the one that has a relationship with Jesus? Does anyone know?
  • Me: Ultimately that is not for us to judge. But we do have what they say and do as evidence. As the book says, by their fruits you will know them.
  • Her: Thanks Vance, but I was hoping for some names.kicking ass and taking names

The Best and the Worst: A Wish for the New Year

Love does not say “I ought to love”—it loves. Pity does not say “It is right to feel pity”—it pities. Justice does not say, “I am bound to be just”—it acts justly. George Eliot

There are eight to ten movies that Jeanne and I watch religiously during the Christmas season, from the obvious (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas”) to a few that are not as well-known. We ended our annual Christmas movie-watching binge on Christmas Eve this year with one of the lesser known films, the 2006 French film “Joyeux Noel.” Joyeux NoelOne of my favorites, this film is a fictionalized account of the 1914 Christmas Truce that spontaneously occurred in numerous places along the battlefield trenches throughout France during the first Christmas season of World War I. The movie is strangely both feel-good and devastatingly sad. The soldiers from both the German and the Allied sides are portrayed as humane and patriotic, willing to share in spontaneous brotherhood and solidarity for twelve hours or so, all the time knowing (as the viewer also knows) that carnage will return within hours and continue for another five hellish years. William Butler Yeats described it well: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.the second coming

I am not the first person during the past weeks and months to think of the next two lines from Yeats’ “The Second Coming” when considering current events: The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. From departmental drama to presidential politics to immigration crises to the war on terrorism, these lines capture the essence of the world we live in. During this holiday season, the closing lines of Yeats’ masterpiece are especially haunting: And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? What is this world that we have created? And what hope is there, as we move to yet another year, to stem the blood-dimmed tide and begin to do something different?

With a few notable exceptions, the public sphere these days is crammed to overflowing with people who embody Yeats’ observation. Those who have boundless passion and energy, grabbing all the headlines and air space regularly display the worst aspects of what humans can be—intolerant, judgmental, pompous, self-centered, ambitious for all the wrong reasons—while evidence of what is best about us seldom rises to our attention. my life in middlemarchI read in Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch the other day a line from a George Eliot essay that could have been written yesterday about many of our public figures. In a withering critique of Dr. John Cumming, a well-known nineteenth-century Scottish Evangelical preacher, Eliot comments on his ability “to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morality with a high reputation for sanctity.” Our current political landscape is populated with such people; as Eliot writes elsewhere, “one’s ambition is always in the inverse proportion of one’s knowledge.” And this is not forced on us—if pollsters are correct, this is precisely the sort of person that many of us are attracted to.

The obvious solution for this would be to find a way to spark the conviction of the “best” so that better people will seek the highest offices in the land. This is a problem that has challenged philosophers and others since Plato’s Republic—how is one to ensure that the best people are in charge of things (Plato essentially said they should be forced to do so)? My own thinking is that the “best” do not necessarily lack conviction as Yeats suggests; instead, the “best” are those whose conviction leads them to live the sort of life described by middlemarchGeorge Eliot beautifully in the final sentence of Middlemarch:

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Goodness does not enter the world on grand stages with fanfare and media coverage. Rather, the best people are those who live lives of excellence and virtue with conviction, seeking no reward or notoriety. How is such conviction cultivated?

Many argue that religious faith is the most likely, perhaps the only, source of moral excellence and conviction. There is strong evidence linking faith and moral excellence, but we are all aware of just how much damage and violence is done in the name of religious purity and conviction in our nation and world. In his recent book sacksNot in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks, until recently the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, reflects on the connection between faith and moral conviction:

Abraham himself sought to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry . . . To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege.

It is perhaps time for persons of all faiths to seek common sources of moral conviction, shared simply by being human.

George Eliot consciously intended her novels to be an inspiration for human excellence, but she spent most of her adult life as an agnostic, having left the Anglicanism of her youth behind in her early twenties. She found the wellspring of moral excellence and conviction in obvious, but often overlooked places—good and badour shared humanity and our capacity to empathize with others. Her answer to the perennial question “Why be moral?” is as direct as it is simple:

I am just and honest, not because I expect to live in another world, but because, having felt the pain of injustice and dishonesty towards myself, I have a fellow-feeling with other people, who would suffer the same pain if I were unjust or dishonest towards them. It is a pang to me to witness the suffering of fellow-beings, and I feel their suffering the more acutely because they are mortal—because their lives are so short, I would have them, if possible, filled with happiness and not misery.

This is not a call to debate, legislation, philosophical hair-splitting, or theological distinctions. It is a simple call to action. As the prophet Micah wrote so many centuries ago, “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” These are action verbs. We are called to do more than talk.

In keeping with Rabbi Sacks’ call, my New Year’s resolution is to find new ways to be a blessing in the part of the world that is in front of me on a daily basis. Perhaps if enough of us shared that resolution, our collective conviction might introduce some positive change into a world that badly needs it. It’s worth a try.

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The Impostor

A year and a half ago I wrote about the “Impostor syndrome” that afflicts many of us on occasion. As I begin the process of shopping a book to publishers, I’m returning to the big question–Am I good enough?

Drawing on data gathered during the most recent decennial survey of the American populace, the U.S. Census Bureau announced Wednesday that the country is composed of more than 316 million complete nothings who do not matter in the least. The Onion, 4/30/14

imposter-434At Justin’s Master’s degree graduation ceremony a few days ago, the Dean of Students offered a few closing remarks before officially conferring degrees on the several hundred graduates. “I know all of you have experienced impostor’s syndrome during your journey to this day,” she said, “that nagging and creeping suspicion that it isn’t really true, that you haven’t actually earned your degree. But it’s true. You have earned it. Congratulations!” There were many knowing nods and smiles in the crowd, because who hasn’t had moments of severe insecurity, times of worrying that today is the day that everyone will finally discover that you are a total fraud? Justin noted that when he went to the check-in table on the day of graduation to register and pick up his robe, hat, and hood he was expecting the person on the other side of the table to say that she had no record of him.

According to data compiled by the Census Bureau, no one has ever heard of 89 percent of Americans, while 93 percent do not possess even a single unique quality worth mentioning at all. In addition, officials affirmed that 76 percent could disappear tomorrow and nobody would know, care, or be affected in any way, and in fact the country might be better off without them.

PenguinsI remember clearly the many times during my college years that I thought something along the lines “If they (my fellow students, professors, wife, kids, the janitor) every find out how little I know, how scared I am, or how totally unqualified I am for all of this . . .” Because six years passed between my BA and starting graduate school, I decided to do my Master’s work at a small philosophy graduate program before moving on to a high-charged PhD program. The Master’s was scary enough, but I was sweating bullets all the time when doctoral classes began. My comments in class were received without laughter or dismissal, there was an “A” written at the end of papers returned from my professors, but my internal tape was always playing “Yeah, but . . .” My first days in front of a classroom as a graduate assistant with his own group of students were even worse, because there I really was an imposter. I had zero qualifications as a teacher other than having taken lots of classes myself; the first time a student who didn’t know any better called me “Professor Morgan” I thought I was going to pass out.careercoach11

Based on our analysis, we can conclude that the United States is a broad patchwork of nobodies; a collection of hundreds of millions of insignificant data points who, across all demographic characteristics, share the common trait of being entirely unexceptional. OnionWe tallied almost a third of a billion citizens one by one from all walks of life and discovered that each individual was even more forgettable than the last.

The impostor syndrome is closely related to an even deeper and more disturbing problem, the insignificance syndrome. This is what the quotes from The Onion are brilliantly and satirically plugging into—the deep fear that in the ultimate scheme of things, we don’t matter at all. I have written about the insignificance of human beings before,

Face to Face

an insignificance succinctly expressed by Blaise Pascal: Pascal“Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in its lofty and full majesty . . . This whole visible world is only an imperceptible trace in the amplitude of nature. . . . Let man consider what he is . . . as lost in this remote corner of nature, and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to estimate the just value of the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself.” The Psalms play on human insignificance frequently, as in Psalm 8:

When I consider your heavens,

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

which you have set in place,

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings that you care for them?

Psalm 139No wonder we often feel that we are largely insignificant and are impostors every time we seem to be important. Because we are.

The most remarkable and shocking feature of theistic belief systems is their attempts to convince us that in spite of our insignificance and ludicrous pretensions, the divine takes notice. The cycle of readings for yesterday’s Sunday morning service landed on Psalm 139:

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

If I were inclined to be an atheist, or at least an agnostic, it would probably be because of this very point—the idea that God cares about human beings in any specific sense at all. Most of what we observe and experience screams against it. Our obvious insignificance screams against it. From ClipboardBut for me, Psalm 139 rings as true as Psalm 8; each touches nerves of reality that cannot be ignored. Perhaps there is one place where I do not need to be an impostor or be overwhelmed by my insignificance, a place where I am known better than I know myself and am valued more highly than I could ever manufacture. Now all of those billions of insignificant data points look very different. And so do I.

Religionless Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secular Students Turn to Divinity School

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

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

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

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

nadiaTo which Nadia replied:

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

MajorMinor1

Joy in a Minor Key

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The readings from the Jewish scriptures today and last week are from the last chapters of Job, including a portion today that scholars say was added centuries after the main text. It reminded me of a post from a bit over a year ago–what can we learn from the “minor key” portions of our lives?

At some point early in their musical training, all serious musicians are introduced to the “circle of fifths,” a handy chart that maps out the complicated but fascinating relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, as well as the associations between the major and minor keys.I was fortunate to have Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard, as my piano teacher from age four to eleven—she was a stickler for theory and precision and had a large poster of the circle of fifths on the wall of her studio. I was immediately fascinated—it looked like a labyrinth or something out of The Lord of the Rings, and as I was gradually introduced to the twelve major keys, the twelve related minors, and their harmonic relationships I was able to trace geometrically on the chart the harmonies I had been hearing in my head for as long as I could remember.

Recently the following from Richard Powers’ Orfeo got me to thinking about the major and minor keys in a new way.

There’s joy in a minor key, a deep pleasure to be had from hearing the darkest tune and discovering you’re equal to it.

MajorMinor1A lot can be learned from the major and minor keys that is applicable to everyday life. Traditionally the major keys have been described as “bright, extroverted, upbeat” and so on, while the minor keys are “introspective, complex, sad” or even “depressing.” Yet the circle of fifths shows that each major has its relative minor that is literally only one note different—a note that makes all the difference. Powers, who is a classically trained musician, is noting something important about the minor keys—they are rich and evocative in ways with which the brighter and more popular majors cannot compete. Yet the dividing line between major and minor is razor thin—if we are to pay proper attention to the music of our lives, understanding how major and minor interweave is crucial.

I had the opportunity to explore this with “Living Stones,” the adult Christian education group that I lead after church once a month (and have written about in this blog)

Living Stones

last Sunday after the morning service. I was doing double duty, as I was also organist that morning,003 alternating with the organist emeritus every other week through the summer as the church searches for a new full-time music minister. The fifteen or so regulars have a wide range of experience with music (or lack of same), so I presumed no prior knowledge. Gathering in the choir stalls by the organ rather than in our usual location, I oriented them to the major/minor distinction by suggesting that in the cycle of liturgical seasons, Easter and Christmas are major key seasons while Advent and Lent are minor key seasons. We moved then to a listening exercise, as I played first My country“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” our closing hymn for the morning because of it being July 4th Sunday, in F minor rather than its original F major, then a representative minor key hymn, “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee,” in G major rather than its original G minor. As the Living Stoners compared the new keys to the hymn texts, they agreed that major is appropriate for the first hymn than minor and minor more appropriate to the second than major. Different texts require different tunes—and so it goes with the chapters and texts of our lives.

The Book of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures is a case in point. The story is familiar. Job, “a man blameless and upright . . . who feared God and shunned evil,” is the topic of conversation between God and Satan, “the accuser.” In response to God’s “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth,” Satan replies “Well duh! You give him everything he wants and you have built a protective hedge around him.” In response to God’s agreeing to remove the hedge at Satan’s suggestion just to see what happens, Job’s flocks, crops, Job-wife1servants and children are swept away within six short verses and one of the greatest texts on the dynamic of suffering is underway.

The drama of Job is relentless, with his suffering unaddressed by his apparently well-meaning friends and his less than supportive wife. Underlying it all is Job’s insistence that his suffering and pain is not justified in any sense that he (or any other human being) can understand. It is clear that he will not “curse God and die,” as his wife advises him to do—his commitment to his God is unshakeable. “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him.” Job’s commitment, however, is neither passive nor facile. He wants answers and challenges a silent God to provide them. With very few exceptions, the Book of Job is entirely written in a minor key; the message of Job is that sometimes minor keys do not get resolved into major keys. Sometimes the text of one’s life demands a minor key; simply “waiting it out” or longing for it to be something it is not is to rob oneself of the richness and depth that only minor harmonies can provide.

0_21_0706_stockdaleWhen God finally does respond to Job’s questions and challenges, it is in a way that on the surface, at least, is entirely unsatisfactory to our contemporary sense of fairness and justice. God does not provide any reasons for Job’s misfortunes, nor does God explain himself. Rather, God makes clear in a lengthy soliloquy that he does not have to explain himself at all. As Admiral James Stockdale once described God’s response to Job, “I’m God and you’re not. This is my world—either deal with it or get out.”

It’s a tough message for our modern sensibilities, but is far closer to the reality of the world we find ourselves in than the stories we tell ourselves about “things working out in the end” or “justice will prevail.” Whatever value there is in suffering cannot lie in hopes for its removal or resolution. Yet we continue to try. jobs-restorationThere is nothing hokier or more forced than to resolve a composition from a minor key to its accompanying major in the last measure of the piece. But this is precisely what we find at the end of Job. In the final verses of the last chapter, after Job has been subdued by the divine display of power and superiority, Job magically gets everything back—children, flocks, servants, lands—and even his useless “comforters” and unhelpful wife get told off by God. “And they lived happily ever after,” in other words. I learned from one of my theology colleagues a number of years ago that these closing verses are not in the oldest texts of Job, but were apparently added in several decades or even centuries later.

Why? I asked my group. Why would someone want to change the original minor key story of Job, resolving it to a major key in the last measure? “Because the original ending is too tough,” someone suggested. “Because people want to believe that the suffering has a point, that it is all for something,” another thought. Which makes the better story? The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something Living Stoner said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. If there is meaning in the minor key movements of my life’s symphony, it has to be in the movement, not because the final movement will return to a joyful major key. The major keys ride the waves, but the minor keys plumb the depths, depths that give a life its richness and texture.lean forward As Richard Powers suggests, there is joy and satisfaction to be found in the midst of the suffering, a joy that is largely unavailable in any other context.

A few months ago, MSNBC (the only 24-7 news channel I can stomach, and even that not for very long) had a new ad campaign: Lean Forward. Out of context, it made little sense. Lean forward to what? But in the minor keys of our lives, “lean forward” or “lean in” is far better advice than “hold your breath and wait it out.” The purpose of the minor keys is not to provide a temporary alternative to majors. Rather, as another ad campaign many years ago suggested, sometimes minor harmonies are the most important threads in “the fabric of our lives.”

Sam’s Inn

What would you call a friend who is as unpredictable as the weather, who shows up unexpectedly behind the scenes to arrange things in your favor on occasion but who never seems to be around at crunch time? What is the right word to describe an acquaintance who you are sure can help in difficult situations and never is available, but who also has just the right word or advice when you are least expecting it? Unreliable? A godsend? Disappointing? Big_Bird_-_Library_of_Congress,_Living_Legends,_Award_&_Honors,_2000[1]I just call her Big Bird. Once many years ago, when Jeanne joined my two young sons and I in a new “blended family”—it’s definitely a good thing that one doesn’t know what one getting into when one makes such decisions—she referred to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird.” It was a brilliant move on her part, locking into the imagination of a six and a nine-year-old accustomed to regular doses of Sesame Street an unforgettable image of the divine. My sons are now in their thirties, and the name my family uses most frequently when referring to “what is greater than ourselves,” specifically the Holy Spirit, still is Big Bird. We have shared the nickname with many friends over the years and it seems just random and strange enough to fit. She was a topic of discussion at lunch the other day.

As the agreed upon time for lunch with our friend Marsue came and went and Marsue did not arrive, I asked Jeanne “should I give her a call?” We were meeting in an unfamiliar part of town at a restaurant none of us had eaten at before—Sams InnSam’s Inn—an establishment chosen on the recommendation of a friend and because it is relatively close to where Marsue was dropping her husband Robin off for a VFW lunch that she was happy to escape by hanging out with Jeanne and me. Answering on the fourth ring, Marsue said she was running late and had just dropped Robin off. As I helped her try to figure out how to get from her current location to the restaurant, she hung up. Oh well, I thought—if she doesn’t show up in ten minutes I’ll call her back and give the phone to the waitress or hostess to provide directions.

Five minutes later, in walked Marsue with a story. When I had been talking with her on the phone, she was buzzing through a school zone at least twenty miles over the posted speed limit trying to make up lost time. She met a town cop coming the other way, he did a U-turn with his lights on, and soon she was sitting on the side of the road with a police officer approaching her window. pulled over“You know why I pulled you over?” he asked; “I know, I’m was going too fast. I’m late meeting friends for lunch at Sam’s Inn, and I’m not sure where it even is. Can you help me out?” Switching quickly from law enforcement to GPS mode, the officer assured her she wasn’t far from the restaurant and gave her directions, ending with “please be careful with your speed—this is a school zone.” He didn’t write her a ticket.

As we caught up on each other’s past few weeks, a common theme emerged—unexpected challenges that have upset our apple carts of plans. My sabbatical so far has been built around getting into the best shape of my life on my new bicycle, so I tip over and break my ankle. Jeanne was “celebrating” one year of unemployment that day; other than a welcome eight weeks of work in August and September, the job applications of a highly qualified and experienced professional have been met with the sound of crickets chirping.Marsue Marsue, a supposedly “retired” Episcopal priest, is trying to figure out what’s next. All three of us are dedicated persons of faith—none of us have a clue as to what God might be thinking. But then there are little incidents like Marsue’s with the policeman—if you’ve been doing this faith thing long enough, you will be able to tick off any number of situations like that. Instances where, out of the blue, something gratuitous reminds you that something bigger is going on.

As if on cue, Jeanne offered another example of divine randomness. We are counting our dollars more carefully than usual because of her unemployment, so when she found an online class on healing that she wanted to take, she wasn’t sure where the $350 course fee was going to come from. Until she remembered that for a while she had been squirreling extra money here and there, including the money she received in cards for her June birthday, in an envelope in the hutch cabinet (she calls it a “breakfront”—a Brooklyn thing, I think). Her remembrance was that there was $325 in the envelope, and obviously we could find the extra $25 somewhere (I could lay off Dunkin’ Donuts for a couple of weeks, for instance). Upon further investigation she discovered that in addition she needed to purchase $35 of text books, pushing the total to $385. So now an extra $60 was needed. Upon checking the envelope, KilianJeanne discovered not the $325 she expected but—you guessed it–$385.

I know, normal human beings are inclined to call such events “chance” or “coincidence.” But the three of us around the table that afternoon at Sam’s Inn have long experience with what the poet Kilian MacDonnell calls “Our preposterous God with a preposterous love.” I noted that this is so typically Big Bird. She can unexpectedly fund an online course perfectly but seems incapable of finding Jeanne suitable employment. She sends Marsue directions to the restaurant by way of a policeman who has stopped her for speeding. She can fill my days and weeks with all sorts of intimations of holiness and yet is too busy to prevent my ankle from being broken when my bicycle harmlessly tips over with me on it. The life of faith I am familiar with has as many What the Fuck?? moments as periods touched by grace. This is a constant reminder that God does not work according to our expectations. I need to learn how, as our rector described in his sermon last Sunday, how to recognize apparently bad news as part of the gospel’s good news, news that seldom reveals itself as we expect. Mary OliverMary Oliver’s poem “I Go Down to the Shore” captures it perfectly.

I go down to the shore in the morning / and depending on the hour the waves / are rolling in or moving out, / and I say, oh, I am miserable, / what shall— / what should I do? And the sea says / in its lovely voice: / Excuse me, I have work to do.

Tapestries or Quilts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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