Category Archives: sabbatical

Flowering Trees

Several years ago, I spent spent the early months of the year on sabbatical on the campus of a Benedictine college in Minnesota. Lining the road on the fifteen minute uphill walk from my Ecumenical Institute apartment to St. John’s Abbey in the depths of winter were any number of small, leafless trees. Judging from their shapes and sizes, I guessed that many of them were the flowering sorts of trees that are always the harbingers of spring at home in Rhode Island. But as winter slowly faded and spring emerged with the pace of a turtle, I was disappointed to see that the buds on the trees were 78461814[1]clearly just plain old leaf buds. No flowering trees after all. I complained to Jeanne on the phone, as well as to my friend from Washington DC who commiserated—“back home, the cherry trees would have been in blossom a long time ago.”

On a walk to the Abbey several days later, as young leaves were emerging, I noticed some tiny flower buds hiding behind the new growth. This is bizarre—flowers after leaves? Sure enough, the trees I had been complaining about were flowering trees after all—they were just doing it ass-backwards. “Listen,” I said to a group of these trees, “you need to get your branches out of your roots and do this right. You’ve got this backwards—it’s flowers first, then leaves. What’s the matter with you??” cdurand[1]My annoyance level raised when I asked various Minnesota natives about what was wrong with their trees—there was no consensus. “The leaves always come before the flowers,” said one acquaintance, implying that the flowers-first trees I have known were mutants of some sort. Elisa[1]Another Minnesotan offered that flowers usually come first, but the winter this year was so unusual (too warm, too cold, too long, too short, too wet, too dry—take your pick) that everything got screwed up. Worst of all was the person who said “Oh really? I never really noticed which comes first.” What do you mean, you never really noticed?? This is important!

One morning early in what has come to be known as “Holy Week,” after spending the night with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, Jesus and his posse are talking a morning walk to Jerusalem. Jesus is hungry, sees a fig tree, and plans to have a breakfast snack. But, Matthew tells us, “He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves.” So Jesus curses the tree, “and immediately the fig tree withered away.” My goodness. I can imagine the disciples as the events unfold—several are trying to point out that this isn’t fig season, Andrew offers Jesus a bite of his bagel, Judas is looking in the community purse to see if there’s enough to buy Jesus some breakfast at the restaurant down the road, and Peter is going into immediate damage control. “What happens at the fig tree stays at the fig tree, right? Right??”, but Matthew is already making mental notes to put into his memoirs later.

cable[1]Imagine the stir if this happened today with 24-7 media coverage. “Jewish Holy Man Kills Innocent Tree in a Display of Temper.” Environmentalists would be outraged, talking heads from anger management therapists to tree-friendly carpenters to Pharisees to a cult of fig-worshippers would debate the topic on FOX, CNN, and MSNBC. Everyone would be trying to get an interview with Jesus, but no one’s gotten an interview with him ever, not even Rachel Maddow or Lester Holt. Peter, the spokesman for the group, tells some convoluted story about Jesus doing it as an illustration of what any of us can do with just a tiny bit of faith, but that sounds like a lot of spin.

In such situations, there’s always someone who’s looking for fifteen minutes of fame, claiming to have seen exactly what happened. “We’re talking with Fred bar-William, a local Jerusalem tanner. Fred, you were an eyewitness to what happened at the fig tree, right?” “Yeah, man, I was just sort of hangin’ around to see what was goin’ on, him being famous and all. He stopped with a bunch of guys by the treeFig-Tree-cursing-Tissot-300x225[1]—I couldn’t hear everything, but he was obviously pissed and dropped an F-bomb or two on the tree, then went on and stopped at the restaurant a ways down the road. I thought that was kinda harsh, and now look at it—it’s all, like, withered up and disgusting. I mean, we knew the guy had a temper with what happened in the temple market and all, but this is ridiculous. Like, you’d think a guy from the sticks would know when it’s fig time and when it ain’t.”

220px-TheByrdsTurnTurnTurnAlternate[1]The writer of Ecclesiastes and The Byrds remind us that “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven.” But seasons work differently in different places and times are unique to each person. Eventually, of course, the flowering trees along the walk to the Abbey flowered into glorious bloomflowering-tree-on-april-4-2011-bike-ride[1], and a less observant person than I would not even know that they became beautiful in an entirely unconventional and non-traditional fashion. To the casual observer, they’re just pretty trees, but I know their history. It’s a sort of organic, arboreal Goldilocks story, where each tree, and each one of us, survives through seasons of winter; we bloom in our own way only when things are “just right.” Those who are “happy indeed,” claims Psalm 1,

are like a tree that is planted

beside the flowing water

that yields its fruit in due season

and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all they do shall prosper.

Your Heart’s Desire

I received the welcome news this past week that my forthcoming book, which has been at the publisher for a few months patiently waiting in the editorial queue, has passed editorial muster and has been passed on to the typesetters. As my editor told me in the email, “things are rolling now,” rolling quickly enough that I might be holding a hard copy of the book by the end of May, early June at the latest. This will be my fourth book; when compared with other great events in a life–the birth of one’s children, great sex, eighteen-year-old Balvenie neat, the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, the Patriots winning yet another Super Bowl, getting your first tattoo–nothing beats seeing your book in print for the first time.

The forthcoming book is what I have to show for my 2015-16 sabbatical, along with a still occasionally sore ankle that I broke while on a sabbatical bike ride. The email from my editor reminded me of a dinner that I had with Jeanne at P. F. Chang’s in March 2015, just a few months before the beginning of my sabbatical. “This thing better have good news in it,” I said as I unwrapped my P. Ffortune cookie. Chang’s fortune cookie at the end of dinner. And it did.

You will receive your heart’s desire

“Great,” I thought. “I wonder what the hell that is.

It had not been a good day. That morning I had received a rejection letter from the ##### Foundation to whom I had applied for sabbatical funding the previous fall. In typical rejection letter style, I was informed that “We received 76 applications and awarded 10 grants. The quality of the grant proposals made the work of the selection committee challenging indeed. I regret to inform you . . . blah, blah, blah and so on.” Tsabbatical proposalhis sucked big time because of the two funding proposals I had sent out, this was the one I thought I had the much better shot at. Two weeks later, the other funding place rejected me as well.

I do not handle rejection well—not that I’ve had a lot of it in my career. I have never been an adjunct professor. Both of my teaching positions have been tenure track. Both times that I actually got an on-campus interview, I got the job. My ascent of the tenure and promotion ladder had only one easily correctable glitch. I have spent the past twenty-two years teaching at the same college, loving every minute of those years (or at least 95% of the minutes). Three books, a number of articles, a teaching award, two significant administrative posts—I'm OkayI’m not writing this to impress anyone, but rather to illustrate my inner dialogue every time I do get rejected. I immediately start trying to convince myself that I’m really okay, despite the fact that the ##### Foundation did not deem my sabbatical project worth spending a dime on.

These are the times when I am grateful both for my training in classical music and for being forced to memorize lots of verses from the Bible in my growing up years. As soon as I read the cookie’s promise that I will receive my heart’s desire, my memory tapes started playing a song I don’t believe I had thought of in years, perhaps decades. It is a solo from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with the seemingly appropriate (but very difficult to actually do) title “O Rest in the Lord.” I hate it when this happens, because the last thing I felt like doing that day was waiting or resting. My heart’s desire was to have funding for my sabbatical project, and what felixI considered to be my most likely source of that funding just said “thanks for playing, but no.” So “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires”? Whatever—I don’t think so.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a dramatic musical treatment of various episodes from Elijah’s life as described in the Jewish scriptures, including his getting to ride in a flaming chariot to heaven once his prophesying work was over. In Part One of the oratorio Elijah has one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God ever has or will experience. In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it.elijah All this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their god after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed.

But then King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” elijah and angelBy the beginning of Part Two, Elijah is fleeing for his life into the wilderness. Exhausted, he eventually collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and has a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And for once, God does something practical. While Elijah sleeps, an angel makes him breakfast; when Elijah stirs, the angel serves him the meal, then entertains him by singing a lovely setting of Psalm 37—which three thousand years or so later makes it into Mendelssohn’s Elijah as “O Rest in the Lord.”

Mendelssohn’s text rearranges a few of the verses from Psalm 37, but captures the point perfectly. For those who are fretting and stressed about what the future holds, the Psalmist provides a set of simple promises.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;

Do not fret over those who prosper in their way,

Over those who carry out evil devices.

Although this text is steeped in a religious perspective that I became familiar with before I learned to walk, the Psalmist’s advice sounds remarkably like what the ancient Stoics tell us—be clear about what is in your control and what is not. Don’t waste energy trying to control the latter and create your moral and spiritual home out of the former. What I can control is how I will respond to what the largely uncontrollable world hands me—disappointment, dashed hopes, unexpected opportunities, and a hell of a lot of the mundane, daily grind. The verbs in Psalm 37 are telling: trust, commit, be still, be patient, don’t worry, and take delight. These are the core of a life of centeredness and peace—something available even when things don’t go my way.Psalm 37

As I venture into the last third of my years on earth, I realize that I have often received my heart’s desire, and it almost never has been what I would have predicted. That day two years ago at P. F. Chang’s,  I did not even know what my heart’s desire was–I just knew that what I thought it was had just been shot down. As it turned out, I stayed home for my sabbatical year, spent more time with Jeanne (who happened to be unemployed and therefore home as well) than I have in years, cultivated my new bicycling obsession, got a tattoo, planned several new courses, recovered from a decade of intense administrative work, and wrote a book. You can’t make this stuff up, nor can you predict it–so “rest in the Lord” might be pretty good advice after all.

What Are You Looking At?

Almost every Sunday during the months I spent on sabbatical a few years ago in Minnesota, I saw a canine in church—I didn’t know the dog’s  name, but it looked like a Ralph220px-Suzisnow[1]. I learned several months later that the dog is a female named Caritas, but in my imagination she still is Ralph. Ralph was in church because she was a service dog—now enjoying retirement—for a regular parishioner who is profoundly deaf. The woman sat at the end of the front row so she could read the lips of the celebrant, while Ralph laid next to her, usually with her back half hanging out into the aisle. Ralph is a mutt, with a good deal of some sort of terrier, weighing probably no more than twenty-five or thirty pounds. I’m not surprised that Ralph is now retired, given how she sighed and creaked a bit when she got up or laid down; the white hair around her eyes and mouth looked more like signs of age than normal markings.

A lifelong cat lover, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for dogs over the past many years after marrying a dog fanatic and, more recently, being unexpectedly adopted by a dachshund as her pet human. $(KGrHqN,!i8E4r(HqlcsBORy0nku+w~~0_35[1]Ralph looked as if she would love to have a pat on the head or a belly rub, but I know better—don’t mess with a service dog while she’s on the clock. But just in case I, or anyone else within range, happened to have a hard time resisting the dog-lover’s urge to touch every dog, Ralph was more in-your-face than most service dogs. She wore a vest that, on its back, said “Service dog on duty. Do not pet.”

“Look—don’t touch.”Look_But_Don__t_Touch_PSD_by_archnophobia-1[1] This used to be my mother’s automatic command every time we walked into a store of any sort, from grocery to hardware to department. Every parent worth the job description has this directive in her or his repertoire, knowing that pre-civilized human beings are inveterate grabbers. hannaarendtsudomenica16ye8[1]Hannah Arendt once wrote: “Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians—they’re called children.” Absolutely true, and “Look, don’t touch” is one of the earliest and best tools to use for domestication purposes. In truth, though, the temptation to look and grab, rather than simply to look, is one that none of us ever truly overcomes. As soon as we see something, we want to possess it, to make it ours, to wrap it up in what Iris Murdoch calls “the avaricious tentacles of the self.”

Exhibit A is yesterday morning’s Sunday gospel, a strange story recorded in all three synoptic gospels . Yesterday was Matthew’s version. Jesus is worn out by the crowds and takes his best buddies, Peter, James, and John, with him to the top of a mountain for a break. While there, he is transfigured with Elijah and MosesRaphael Transfiguration[1], looking like a great laundry detergent ad. According to Mark’s version of this story, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Peter blurts out, “Let us put up three dwellings—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Why does he make such a random suggestion? Luke tells us—“He did not know what he was saying.” Far be it from Peter to say nothing when he doesn’t know what to say, to look and attend to what’s going on in silence and awe, or simply to say “Whoa!” or “Holy shit!” or “Who does your laundry?” No, he has to nail it down, organize it, put walls around it, and either sell tickets or write up a doctrinal statement and confession of faith. The voice from heaven makes it clear what Peter should be doing. “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him.

Scripture makes it clear that there is a time to look and a time to touch—and don’t confuse the two. In II Samuel, tuzzah-01[1]he newly crowned King David leads the army of Israel against the Philistines and recaptures the Ark of the Covenant. They place the Ark on an oxen-drawn cart and head back to Jerusalem in a parade complete with singing and musical instruments, led by David dancing in his underwear. The oxen step in a pothole and stumble, the Ark starts tipping off of the cart, and some poor guy namedfbade8d75c[1] Uzzah makes the horrible mistake of assuming that he should put his hand on the Ark to steady it, because maybe God would just as soon not see the Ark lying on its side in the mud. God strikes Uzzah dead on the spot for his efforts. “Look, don’t touch.” As a kid I thought God’s treatment of Uzzah to be a disproportionate response and grossly unfair, and I still do, but as Jeanne would say, “it is what it is.” And in John 20, the resurrected Jesus says to Mary Magdalene “Touch me not,” exactly what Ralph’s vest would have said if she spoke in King James English.

nh_old_man01[1]As a native New Englander, one of my all-time favorite stories is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face.” It’s the story of a boy named Ernest who lives in a New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hang some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_overlay_2[1]” The valley is Franconia Notch in the middle of the White Mountains, only forty miles or so from where I grew up, and was a regular point of destination for my family. I was crushed when I heard ten years ago that despite the best human preserving efforts, it finally fell off the mountain.

800890-M[1]According to Hawthorne’s story, there is a legend in the valley that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.” Ernest, who gazes daily with love and awe at the Great Stone Face, spends his whole life as a simple laborer in the valley. Occasionally a rumor would arise that the man resembling the Great Stone Face had appeared in town, but each candidate—a wealthy miser, a vain general, a pompous politician—turned out to be a fraud. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime.Stone-Face-by-visulogik-3001[1] Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to all of them, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that “man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture.” And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. imagesCASOE7U6In the book of Numbers, in response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. weil[1]“And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” Simone Weil comments: “To look and to eat are two different things. The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating. Looking is what saves us.” What are you looking at?

Valentine’s Day for the Mature

Human love in the purest forms we can know it, wife and husband, parent and child, has the aura and the immutability of the sacred. Marilynne Robinson

On Sunday mornings when we wake up early enough, Jeanne and I listen to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” on our local NPR station, which in its infinite wisdom has decided that this is a great time to air the best radio program there is. Appropriately for Valentine’s week, her conversant last Sunday was philosopher and author Alain de Botton–the topic was “The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships.”

On Being: The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships

Jeanne and I are almost thirty years into our relationship, and much of Krista and Alain’s conversation was spot on. Because it is the hard work that makes anything worthwhile–and worth celebrating.

On New Year’s Eve I saw a Facebook post that said “Like if you are going to celebrate New Year’s Eve in your pajamas at home with your pets.” quiet new yearI hit “like” immediately, because that is precisely what Jeanne and I have done for the past several New Year’s Eves and did for this most recent one as well. New Year’s Eve was forever ruined for me in my youth as I was annually brought to a “Watchnight Service” at church where everyone celebrated the new year in with sermons, prayer, and crippling boredom. But now I don’t think I could celebrate New Year’s Eve with traditional partying and drinking even if I tried—I’m introverted and I’m getting old.

I’ve often heard it said (and may have complained myself a few times) that Valentine’s Day both is a creation of Madison Avenue and is primarily for the young. It is indeed a big money-maker, charlie brownand I remember clearly how Valentine’s rituals were forced on me as early as first grade as we peered into our decorated brown paper bag containers, each of us hoping not to be the Charlie Brown of the class with the fewest Valentine’s cards (I often was). In my twenties I went through the uncomfortable process every year of trying to find an appropriate valentine for the person to whom I was married but did not love any more, if I ever had (I’m sure she struggled similarly trying to find one for me). But it does offer a yearly opportunity to reflect on important relationships, particularly with one’s significant other (if one has one).

I have never thought of my parents as a love story—they were my parents, for God’s sake. Bruce and Trudy's wedding picture (2)But a few weeks ago it occurred to me that Jeanne and I are both more than two years older than my father was when my mother died. I understand so much better now than I did twenty-eight years ago at least some of what he must have gone through, since I have no doubt that he expected he and my mother would see their fiftieth wedding anniversary (they made it to their twenty-seventh) and live together into their eighties as both his parents and my mother’s parents had done. For years Jeanne and I have had a good-natured disagreement about which of us is going to die first—neither of us wants to outlast the other. I can’t imagine life without the person with whom I have for better and for worse spent almost half of my years. My Valentine’s wish is what the author of the Book of Tobit asks: Mercifully grant that we may grow old together.

George Eliot uses this epigram to introduce one of the late chapters in her masterpiece Middlemarch, my favorite novel to which I returned when reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch a bit over a year ago. Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot was her nom de plume) lived a bit of a scandalous life by the standards of Victorian England, but I was amazed to see how many similarities there are between Jeanne’s and my relationship and Mary Ann’s relationship with the love of her life, George Henry Lewes. Mary Ann and George (Evans took her writing first name from Lewes) met in their early thirties, as Jeanne and I did. When we met, lewesJeannegeorge elot had never been married, while I had been divorced five months earlier; when she met Lewes, Evans had never been married, while Lewes was still married to his estranged wife who after their separation had four children with another man (due to the technicalities of British law, they were never divorced). I had two sons in tow when Jeanne and I met; Lewes had three sons in their teens when he and Mary Ann met, all of whom were at boarding school. To the great scandal of Victorian society, Evans and Lewes lived together openly without marrying for more than two decades in what appears to have been a very happy and fulfilling relationship. Jeanne and I did get married after being together for six months or so in a quick impromptu ceremony performed by my father because my mother was dying of cancer. Because no one other than our two sets of parents were able to attend, we fully planned for a big, blowout wedding once our new blended family got used to each other and “things settled down.” It’s now over twenty-nine years later—that wedding never happened.my life in middlemarch

I loved reading Rebecca Mead’s chapter on Mary Ann and George’s relationship because so much of it sounded familiar. To use an overused term, they were clearly soulmates; if the word means anything at all, it describes Jeanne and me as well. In an essay written while she was on her “honeymoon” in Germany with Lewes, Mary Ann wrote that “It is undeniable, that unions formed in the maturity of thought and feeling, and grounded only on inherent fitness and mutual attraction, tend to bring people into more intelligent sympathy with each other,” while in a letter to a friend later in life she wrote that “To be constantly lovingly grateful for the gift of a perfect love is the best illumination of one’s mind to all the possible good there may be in store for man on this troublous little planet.” During a rough patch a number of years ago, a dear and trusted friend told me that Jeanne and I are “home for each other,” and we are. It sounds as if Mary Ann and George were home for each other as well.

A few weeks ago, Jeanne and I hosted the first party we have had at our house in a long time. There were fifteen or so visitors there, all of whom are good friends but only two or three of whom had ever been to our house (which is a good indication of how seldom we have people over). Thank you comments over the next week repeatedly noted how peaceful and welcoming our home is and what a good team Jeanne and I are together. empty nestAs I did my introverted thing with two or three people in our little library room while Jeanne did her extroverted thing with everyone else, one of our guests and I talked about something she and her husband share with Jeanne and me. For the first time in thirty-five years of marriage, this couple is living in their house by themselves—no children, no guests, no long-term tenants. Similarly, the past couple of years have been the first time in our twenty-nine years together that Jeanne and I are by ourselves in the house. After years of not seeing each other for weeks at a time when Jeanne was travelling constantly for work, all of a sudden we are in each other’s space all the time.

“Has it been really hard?” my friend asked, silently implying that it had definitely been a challenge for her and her husband. I could truthfully say that while it is certainly different, it has not been hard at all (except when I am continually trying to go to some location in our little house at the same time that Jeanne wants to get there).

T1YhTWx

We have a quiet, normal life of the sort that those who only know the extroverted side of Jeanne would find hard to believe. Only those who lived through it would know how many life experiences, many of them challenging and difficult, have brought us to this very welcome place of peace and quiet happiness. Ours is not the sort of love story that people write novels or make movies about—there’s too much of the everyday and too little blockbuster drama to hold a viewer’s attention. Toward the end of Rachel Kadish’s Tolstoy Lied, the main character reflects on what she has learned about love.

Love–real love–is not cinematic. It’s the stuff no one talks about: How trust grows rootlets. How two people who start as lovers become custodians of each other’s well-being.

On this Valentine’s Day I am grateful beyond measure that I met this beautiful redhead at my parent’s house almost three decades ago—it is more than I could have hoped for and more than I deserve. There is one way in which I do not wish Jeanne’s and my relationship to be like Mary Ann and George’s. They both died at age 61, disturbingly close to the age that Jeanne and I are at now. And so I ask, mercifully grant that we may grow old together.The lovely couple

Turning Around

no smokingConversion is an odd phenomenon. I’ve often observed that those who convert, who ”tum around” radically in some aspect of their lives, tend to embrace their newly adopted beliefs and behaviors with a sense of urgency and commitment that can border on fanaticism. Thus those who quit smoking become front line enforcers in the “No Smoking” brigade, those who cut caffeine (or sugar, or anything significant) out of their diet will regale those of us who have not quit with endless data about why what they just quit ingesting will kill us, and someone who just lost fifty pounds looks at the ten-pound-overweight person with a judgmental eye.

But such converted commitments pale in comparison to the righteous energy of the religious convert. I’ve known many people who professed a st-paul-conversionSaul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type of conversion experience, reporting that while once they were blind, they now see. And that new vision often looks more like tunnel vision than anything else. The beliefs and accompanying rules of their newly found religious perspective, beliefs and rules that they either rejected with disdain or were entirely ignorant of just yesterday, suddenly become the instruments according to which they measure the acceptability quotient of those outside their group. And the outsiders are generally found to  be seriously wanting.

I was raised in a religious environment in which such “once for all” conversions were the hallmark of membership. But since I never had such an experience, born againI felt something like an outsider on the inside during all of my childhood and adolescent years. Although I stopped thinking of myself as a part of that religious community many years ago, issues of my religious identity were frequently front and center during my sabbatical residence a few years ago at an ecumenical Institute on the campus of a Benedictine University and Abbey.Abbey

I am comfortable as a non-Catholic in Catholic surroundings, having spent my last twenty-five years teaching philosophy in Catholic higher education. This was different, though, because the whole focus of my sabbatical experience turned out, unexpectedly, to be about my own spiritual identity. I’ve always called myself a “person of faith,” even a Christian, but was no longer sure of what I meant by that—all I knew was that the usual definition of  “Christian” was becoming less and less meaningful all the time. Seeking some sort of reawakening I took full advantage of the daily prayers at the Abbey, eventually receiving achoir stalls behind-the-scenes green light from one of the monks to receive communion if I wished, in total violation of Catholic exclusivity.

So I was somewhat taken aback by  a conversation with a fellow resident scholar at the Institute shortly before the end of my four and a half month stay. The topic of conversation was a former Institute  scholar who, during two year-long residencies at the Institute in the early nineties, wrote two books that spent several months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. She’s now a very famous author, and made a couple of brief visits to the Institute, Abbey, and campus while I was there. She even ate corned beef dinner with the current residents on St. Patrick’s Day; I got to speak with her for ten or fifteen minutes and, just like any other groupie, got her to sign my copies of three of her books. I wrote more about this author not long ago:

http://freelancechristianity.com/strange-and-beautiful/

Although she was on campus for several reasons during her brief stays, it was clear to me that she, as non-Catholic as I, was getting her spiritual batteries recharged as she sat a few seats over from me during morning, noon, and evening prayers. So it surprised me when one of my fellow Institute residents, a Catholic convert whose powerful intellect and even more powerful spirit I’d come to respect and admire, expressed annoyance at the famous author’s behavior. “It bothers me that she for years has come here to the Abbey, catholic_guiltand to other monasteries (as described in her books) to bask in the liturgy, take full benefit of the prayers and services, and get reviled, yet she remains non-Catholic,” he said. “If she’s going to reap the gains, she should also have to suffer through the shit that we Catholics have to put up with on a daily basis.”

I assured my colleague that Catholics have no comer on dealing with religious excrement; my whole stay at the Institute had focused on struggling with the constricting grave-clothes of my own conservative Protestant upbringing. Protestant guiltFurthermore, I reminded him, the transformation of spirit and  soul that had been taking place in me over the past months, about which the two of us had conversed many times, had centered around my full participation, as  a non-Catholic ,in the liturgical and prayer life of the Catholic Abbey. “Your criticism of her applies to me too,” I said, to which he replied “but this is all very new and unexpected for you.”Implied but unspoken was his expectation that I would eventually convert to Catholicism.

But I won’t be converting to Catholicism, any time soon or ever. I used to think this was because of the powerfully top-down hierarchy of the Catholic Church, ordain womenas well as its positions on any number of issues including the ordination of women and abortion. I still  believe its positions on these issues are utterly wrong. But I know many Catholics, including the one with whom I was having this conversation, who long for the day when the Catholic Church will adopt a stance that engages honestly with all of the complexities of the abortion issue and will finally come to the realization that women are full-fledged members of the human race and are just as suited, perhaps more suited, to pursue ordination as men.

The real reason I won’t become Catholic is because I have  no desire to become anything with a recognizable  religious label other than  committed seeker after God. I am officially an Episcopalian, confirmed in my late twenties as a response to a church whose liturgies and music I loved and to a specific faith community that embraced and nurtured me when I badly needed to be embraced and nurtured. For years I was not a regular attendee at any church services, Episcopal or otherwise, and my current regular attendance at Trinity Episcopal began three or four years ago when a close friend became their interim rector. But I find that many of the Episcopalians I know are perfectly willing to accept into their circle persons with all sorts of religious histories (or none at all). As I often tell people unsure about the rules and limitations of Episcopal worship, if you have a pulse, you can participate in the Eucharist at an Episcopal church.

I told my fellow resident at the Institute that, as far as I was concerned, what happened to me at the Abbey had nothing to do with its being a Catholic place of worship. indexIt had everything to do with its being the place that, unexpectedly, I met the Divine in a new and exhilarating way. Under different circumstances, it could have happened in a synagogue, a mosque, on a mountain-top, or in my chair at home. “Oh, I have to disagree with you there,” he said. “I know you do,” I responded as I thought “but it is my encounter with God that I’m talking about. That’s bigger than any religion.”

The Time of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

 

I just finished reading Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove, a novel I stumbled across in my college’s bookstore while looking for something else. I haven’t decided yet whether I give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, but one brief passage has stuck with me. As a sixteen-year old whose beloved father has just died (his mother died when he was much younger), Ove tells his parish vicar “that there was no need to reserve a place for him in the pews at Sunday service for the foreseeable future. Not because Ove did not believe in God . . . but because in his view this God seemed to be a bit of a bloody swine.” Those who are obsessed, as I am, with questions about what is greater than us often assume that the most important question is “Does God exist?” I submit that an even more problematic question is “What if God does exist, but has character traits entirely different from those we project heavenward?”

In her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made testament of youthinto a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Iris Murdoch grapples directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

Clouds of Glory

kant1[1]The great but incredibly difficult German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in a rare moment of clarity, wrote that all important human questions can be boiled down to these three: WHAT CAN I KNOW? WHAT OUGHT I TO DO?  and WHAT MAY I HOPE FOR? The Advent and Christmas seasons focus on the last of these three questions. A major figure in the seasons’ stories is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative who once sent his disciples to ask his cousin a “What may I hope for?” question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is one of the many imagesCAS1UEG4poignant and excruciatingly human scenes in the gospels—John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and his head will be on a plate soon. He is by no means the only prophet in the land—they came a dime a dozen in those days. Nor is Jesus the only Messiah candidate around—Israel is full of them. So John’s question is not an academic one. What he really wants to know is “has my whole life been a waste?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question relies on John’s knowledge of the prophet Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hopefully the message got back to John before he was executed by Herod. The man whom you baptized is the real deal–the Messiah has truly come. That’s what John foretold and waited for.

And that’s what we wait for every Advent and Christmas season. As Christians we anticipate and celebrate what we believe to be the single most important event in human history—the Incarnation. But there’s a secret, perhaps perverse part of me that asks, “so what?” What exactly are we celebrating at Christmas? imagesCAK1O2WOWhat difference do the circumstances of Jesus’ birth make, a story told differently by Matthew and Luke and considered to be so insignificant by Mark and John that they don’t even include it? As the 13th century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart provocatively asked, “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem?”

Collegeville lecture 3During the first five months of 2009, I spent a sabbatical semester as a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute on the campus of St. John’s University, run by the Benedictine Catholic order, in Collegeville, Minnesota. My academic plans were set; a well-defined book project was ready to be written. But upon arrival, it gradually became clear to me that something else was going on. For most of my then fifty-plus years, I had struggled with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity in which I was raised. What became clear to me in Minnesota was that what I thought was a long-term, low-grade spiritual dissatisfaction had become, without my being aware of it, a full-blown spiritual crisis. Beneath my introverted, overly cerebral surface my soul was asking John’s question—“Are you the one, or is it time to look for another?”

100_0331The answer developed quietly, subtly, unheralded, over the weeks and months. As I tested the waters of daily prayer with the monks at St. John’s Abbey, I noticed a space of silence and peace slowly opening inside of me that I had never known. No voices, no visions, no miracles—but I was writing differently. The low-grade anger that had accompanied me for most of my life began to dissipate. I felt more and more like a whole person instead of a cardboard cutout of one. The world looked different. I felt different. Eventually a few of my colleagues said “you’re not the same person you were when you first got here.” And they were right–I wasn’t. I began spending more time with the monks at prayer, often three times daily. Essays began to flow from a place I didn’t recognize, but really liked. Little had changed outwardly, but everything was changing.

As the day of returning home after four months drew near, I was worried. Would these changes be transferable to my real life? Would this space of centeredness and peace be available during a typical 80-90 hour work week in the middle of a semester? Or would these changes soon be a fond memory, to be stored in an already overfull internal regret file? 443px-Santa_Caterina_Fieschi_Adorno-dipinto_Giovanni_Agostino_Ratti[1]Two days before leaving, one of the Benedictines preached at daily mass (which I did not normally attend). In the middle of an otherwise forgettable homily, he quoted the obscure St. Catherine of Genoa, who said “My deepest me is God.” This was the answer. The space of quietness, silence and peace inside of me, the one I’d never known and had just discovered—is God. I was stunned. Tears filled my eyes. I tingled all over. I’m tingling all over right now as I write this. Because what I had been looking for is here. And it is transferable. Trust me.

I used to think that the evidence Jesus sent to John in prison—the blind see, the lame walk, and all of that—was all well and good, but I’ve never seen a blind person healed, I’ve never seen a cripple stand and walk. Faith 05[1]But I was looking in the wrong place. Because although I don’t see perfectly, I’m a little less blind than I was. My frequent tone-deafness to the needs of others is getting a little better. My inner cripple is now walking with a limp. Some days I even think I know what Lazarus must have felt like as his sisters started to unwrap his grave-clothes. A few paragraphs ago I quoted Meister Eckhart—but only half of the quote. The full quote is “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time?” The answer to that pressing question? He is born today. In us.

Let’s make this Christmas season a coming home, an embracing of the true, continuingwilliam_wordsworth[1] mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became flesh. And God continues to be incarnated in you, in me. This is our heritage and the promise to us. Our deepest me is God. William Wordsworth expressed this truth beautifully: “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.

I’m hoping that in the darkness of his dungeon cell, John remembered his father Zechariah’s words spoken at John’s naming ceremony, words that I’m sure were part of the family stories in John’s childhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth[1]The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,”  is the canticle that closes every morning prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. After a beautiful meditation on his new son’s role in the divine economy, Zechariah closes with a stunning promise.

In the tender compassion of our GodC-002-r%20Advent%202[1]

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Let’s walk in that dawn together.

I Will Bring You Home

imagesCACMK60OBaptist preacher’s kids get to do some very odd things. I memorized large portions of the Bible under duress, including–as a dutiful five-year-old–the names of the books of the Old Testament minor prophets to an obnoxious sing-songy tune. I could run through all of them in one breath—Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. These obscure texts were written in a distant time for a distant people in contexts and for reasons known only to the most narrowlnot-alone[1]y focused academics.  Yet there are memorable promises buried in these forgotten pages; in a recent Sunday lectionary reading, I was reminded of Zephaniah’s : I will bring you home.

Vermont, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Florida, Wyoming, New Mexico again, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Rhode Island. These are the states in which I have lived, in chronological order. A few footnotes: I lived in Rhode Island the first time for only one month, triumphantly returning sixteen years later for a period of time that has now lasted for more than two decades. I’ve now lived in Rhode Island for a longer unbroken number of years than any other state, including Vermont, the state in which I grew up.Thumbs-up-icon[1] Some of these states I’ve loved living in Thumbs-down-icon[1](New Mexico, Wisconsin, Rhode Island), some I’ve hated (Florida, Tennessee)—these judgments are comments about me rather than about the states, all of which I’m sure are lovely and eminently livable.

A friend of mine who knows Jeanne and I well said in an email to me a few years ago that “you and Jeanne are home for each other.” And it’s a good thing. When her mother died in late 2002, the last of our four parents to pass away, Jeanne said to me “now we’re orphans.” Indeed we were officially orphans, but we had felt as if we were orphans for most of the almost fifteen years at that time that we had been together. When Jeanne and I, along with my two sons (ages 8 and 5), set up housekeeping together for the firStress-ZebraStripes-240x300[1]st time in Milwaukee in August 1988, my parents were living over 1000 miles to the west in Wyoming and Jeanne’s parents were more than 1000 miles to the east in Brooklyn. These distances deprived our new step-family of badly needed support and wisdom, a situation made even worse when my mother died of cancer within two months of our arrival in Wisconsin, followed unexpectedly by my father-in-law’s passing just two weeks later. Jeanne read an article once listing a number of the top stress creators that a human being might go through in their lifetime, including changing jobs, moving, divorce, marriage, and the death of loved ones. We experienced all of them within the first tumultuous months of our relationship.

Although it would be another fourteen years before my father and mother-in-law died within a few months of each other in 2002, Dad of heart failure and Rose after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s, the distances between the two of us and our remaining parents never decreased. I learned immediately after my mother died the truth of what I had suspected all along—she was the one connecting thread that bound me tightly to my father, my brother, and other members of my extended family. Although Jeanne’s mother and four siblings remained and would have helped if they could have, they were still over 1000 miles away. For the day to day struggles of making our new family work, we were alone, often making it up as we went along.

Which often seems to be the human condition—making it up as we go along. As I read Psalm 22 at midday prayer several years ago with a few dozen Benedictine monks and visitors, the poignancy ripped into me. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry from the cross is perhaps the most convincing evidence in the gospels, in case I needed any, that Jesus was fully human, a man just as I am. This anguish-filled cry expresses a primal human fear—aloneness and abandonment. Jesus knew it was coming, as one by one his closest friends left him first in spirit (“Could you not pray with me even one hour?”) and then in body. Jesus’ cry in Gethsemane—“Let this cup pass from me”—was not about avoiding the pain and suffering to come. It came from the depths of Jesus’ humanity, a gut-wrenching terror of being hung out to dry with no one and nothing left to fall back on, of dying alone and abandoned. And on the cross the fear became a reality. Ellul.MoneyAndPower.83000Every human being’s worst nightmare come true. Alone. Abandoned. Lost.

My father’s favorite theologian, Jacques Ellul, once wrote a book entitled Hope in Time of Abandonment. Which is what Advent is all about. The heart of this hope is expressed in a line from one of my favorite hymns—“Alleluia! Not as orphans are we left in sorrow now.”0351=351[1] The promise and reality of redemption, that we are not alone, is throughout scripture. But so often it sounds like a platitude—“I am with you always,” “I will not leave you comfortless,” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Looks good on a plaque on the wall or on a bumper sticker, but when real life happens, the truth is in line with what a friend said to me once in the middle of a difficult time—“We come into the world alone and we leave the world alone.” Hard words, but true.

I was often challenged as a youngster to make a home for Jesus in my heart. For a five-year-old with a typically literal imagination, that didn’t make a lot of sense. I also heard a lot about God preparing a home for those who love God, a place in heaven after death. That didn’t interest me very much. But if we truly are not strangers in a strange land, if there truly is a home for each of us somewhere in this world of separation and alienation, that’s great news. A manger in a barn is not much of a home, but it has served as the centering touchstone for countless persons because a home is far more than a location or a physical structure. St Athanasius the Great[1]At the heart of Advent is the outrageous promise that we humans and the divine belong together. The fourth-century  church father Athanasius said “God became man so that man might become God.” There’s more in that claim than might be unpacked in a lifetime, but that’s the mystery that Advent prepares us for—a cosmic homecoming.

Constellations

I love the stars. Not as in “Dancing with . . .” or in Hollywood or Washington DC. I mean the stars in the heavens. The night sky in rural Vermont where I grew up, far from the glare of urban lights, was a source of endless wonder and entertainment. Part of the attraction of the stars was their sheer beauty and mystery, providing a glimpse of light-years past history; this was heightened by my love of the stories of Greek mythology. map1+[1]So many of the mythological heroes and heroines are up there—Cassiopeia, Gemini, Hercules, Leda the Swan, Pegasus, Andromeda, Orion (my favorite)orion-constellation[1]. I had a National Geographic star map of the Northern Hemisphere on my bedroom wall that showed the constellations in the night sky, traced from star to star as in the beloved dot-to-dot books of my earliest memories. I learned that, because of the tilt of the Earth, some of my favorite Northern Hemisphere constellations (like the Big and Little Dippers) could never be seen in the Southern Hemisphere and that folks “down under” got to see constellations (like the Southern Cross) that I would never see in Vermont. We never had a telescope, but I spent many nights looking at the stars through my Dad’s hunting binoculars.

Doubt A Parable JP Shanley[1]In the first scene of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn begins his Sunday homily by asking “What do you do when you’re not sure?” He then tells the story of the sole survivor of a shipwreck, a sailor who finds himself floating with a few salvaged provisions in the middle of the ocean on a raft he’s lashed together from floating spars. Using his nautical training, he looks toward the night sky and reads the stars, sets a course for home, and falls asleep. But clouds roll in and block the stars for the next twenty nights. Lost_at_Sea_by_relhom[1]As his provisions dwindle, as thirst and starvation threaten, he begins to have doubts. Is he still on course? Did he set his bearings correctly in the first place? Was his reading of the stars accurate enough to get him home? Or is he doomed to a slow and lonely death in the middle of an unfriendly sea?

As a philosopher, I am comfortable with doubt and uncertainty—I actively seek to foster the habits of challenging “givens” and questioning “absolutes” in my all-too-certain students every day. Philosophy, I tell them, is the art of asking better and better questions, but has little to do with getting definitive answers. Once several years ago my oldest son, who was then in his middle twenties, told his stepmother and me at a restaurant lunch “I don’t think I believe in God. I’m an agnosticthank_god_im_agnostic_bumper_sticker-p128680539739240818en8ys_400[1].” To which I responded “Good. You’re too young to be certain about anything yet, let alone about God.” And I meant it. Certainty is vastly overrated. Because with certainty comes closure, and with closure comes a “Get Out of Thinking Free” card that you can play any time someone challenges what you are certain about. This attitude about certainty and closure predates my academic path toward philosophy; in truth, it is probably the most fundamental and hard-wired reason that I became a philosopher. I’ve been suspicious of claims to certainty my whole life, even while growing up in an atmosphere of religious absolutes and conviction.

But there are times in everyone’s life, including mine, when it would be nice to see a few fixed points, to be able to take a reading on the stars. There is a part of me, although seldom allowed to have the floor, that longs for a certainty shared with others, the reassurance of believing that we’ve got it right, that we’ve got a map or a blueprint that’s reliable. My parents and other respected authority figures gave me such a map when I was young. Here’s the map of the spiritual life, and here are the fixed points that you can always rely on when you think you’re lost and need to find your way home. The Church. The inerrant Word of God. The plan of salvation. Original Sin. Heaven and Hell.Heaven-or-Hell-heaven-hell-1600x1200[1] The Easter story. The Ten Commandments. Conservative values. I could have tacked this map on the wall right next to my constellation map; I suspect a lot of Baptist kids did. But it wasn’t very long before clouds covered my spiritual sky. I had no difficulty using the language of the spiritual map I had been given, and could at least talk a good game with others who, using regular sightings of our common spiritual stars and constellations, reported success in navigating their way through the sometimes stormy seas of the soul. But truth be told, I hadn’t gotten a clear reading using that spiritual map in years. Sometimes I wondered if I had ever set a good course using that map. Maybe the map I had been given is gloriously attractive and infinitely interesting in its detail,Middle-Earth-map_UK_800_600_mapa_terra-media[1] but false. Maybe it’s like the wonderful maps in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, fascinating and detailed guides to a world that doesn’t exist. The time comes when the map and accompanying directions have to be tested and either updated or discarded. Otherwise they become a lie.

That’s where I was eight years ago when I went to Minnesota on sabbatical, intending to write about coping with the absence and silence of God. Perhaps the time had come to be honest and throw the map from my youth away, in order to find another one unencumbered. But I’ve slowly discovered something curious and hopeful since then, looking once again with older, more experienced eyes, at my spiritual map. For the first time my spiritual night sky has become less cloudy, and I’ve been able to see a few stars. And although I’m in a very different part of the ocean than before, maybe even a different hemisphere, some of the familiar constellations are in view. Easter is still there. Scripture is there, but looking a lot different, bigger and more colorful, than I remembered. m13[1]And my favorite constellation—the Incarnation. It’s never looked so bright and beautiful. There are some new ones that I’d never seen before—Community, Daily Prayer, Silence, Listening—and some of the constellations on my old map are entirely missing. There are still plenty of clouds in my night sky, and I’m looking forward to maybe finding out what stars these clouds are hiding. But I’ve seen enough to know that I’m not lost, that my old map was more reliable than I thought, and that a spiritual sky map should never be laminated and hung on a wall. One should never laminate something that’s alive and growing.

Disturbing the Peace

Last Friday I attended a talk on campus by civil rights lawyer and and law professor Greg Lukianoff on issues of free speech, trigger warnings, and a related host of matters on college and university matters that are regularly in the news. He is the co-author of an article in The Atlantic a bit over a year ago that raised a lot of eyebrows and generated a lot of conversation. I wrote about it in the early weeks of my sabbatical last August: 

I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace Baruch Spinoza Spinoza

One of the lead articles in the most recent edition of The Atlantic magazine is “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Lukianoff and Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind

Co-authored by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the teaser blurb for the article in the Table of Contents says “How a new strain of political correctness on campus is damaging higher education—and may be threatening students’ mental health.” It is an interesting read. Given Donald Trump’s current more-than-fifteen-minutes of fame, concerns about political correctness are in the news, safe spacebut in this article Lukianoff and Haidt are drawing our attention to what might be called “political correctness with a twist”:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. . . . It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.

The authors’ argument is largely anecdotal, relying either on their own experiences or on recent anecdotal stories and essays from various campuses across the country. seismic shiftThere is a great deal of speculation about the causes of this perceived seismic psychological shift among students over the past couple of decades, although virtually no data is provided to substantiate many of the authors’ claims.

In the first column of the article readers are introduced to two important terms that “have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance: Microaggression and Trigger warnings. Microaggressions “are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” Examples provided include asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that she or he is not a real American. Mrs. DallowayTrigger warnings are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response”; examples of texts deemed as needing trigger warnings on various campuses include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault). The many examples of these and related problems in the article are chosen and presented with the clear intention of “triggering” the reader into concluding “well that’s just stupid—political correctness, like a hydra, rears a new ugly head.” One of the authors’ primary concerns, repeated frequently throughout the article is that such attention to words and actions that might possibly somewhere, somehow offend someone will leave students unprepared to live and work in a world that doesn’t give a crap about what makes them feel uncomfortable.

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of a doubt?

Even though I have twenty-five years of college teaching under my belt,pc my experience on college campuses is deep but narrow, given that I have taught at my current college home for twenty-one years and have shaped my teaching and professional life within the confines of its “105 acre, park-like campus.” Serious conversations about the negative power of language on students in various groups defined racially, economically, by gender or by sexual preference have been ongoing on my campus for some time now. In my own philosophy department regular, continuing, and often heated debates occur about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate language in the classroom, in job candidate interviews, and in basic conversation with each other. What strikes some as obviously benign, scholarly, and insightful strikes others as ill-advised, insensitive, and downright offensive. That said, the tsunami described by Lukianoff and Haidt as drowning campuses nationwide has escaped my notice where I teach—at least in my classrooms. Perhaps this is because I have included this general “trigger warning” in every syllabus for every one of my courses for at least the past fifteen years:

Ine this course we will be considering some of the most important questions a human being can ask. Perhaps the most important feature of our considerations is learning to ask these questions clearly and precisely. Only then can possible answers be considered fairly. Although I have definite positions on the questions we will be addressing, my role as professor is not to tell you what to think. My role is rather to get you to think. Expect your assumptions to be challenged and comfortable ways of thinking to be disturbed. As the great 17th century philosopher Spinoza once said, I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.

During an oral final exam a couple of semesters ago a student told me that “This class really messed me up—but in a good way!” Mission accomplished.mission accomplished

The new fall semester is just three weeks old–here’s a bit of advice related to safe spaces and learning for the incoming freshmen:

  1. Free speech dictates that everyone has the right to their opinion, but not all opinions are equal. right to an opinionOne of the purposes of a liberal education is to help you become skillful at using the tools of lifetime learning; some of these tools, used properly, will help you learn how to distinguish a good argument from bullshit—even when it is your own argument. I often say that a liberally educated person earns the right to have an opinion. The process of earning that right begins with realizing that your opinion is not special just because it is yours, and without challenge and analysis it means nothing with regard to whether it is true (or even a defensible position).
  2. In the life of learning, comfort is vastly overrated. comfort zoneExpect to encounter people, ideas, situations and expectations that are both unfamiliar and well outside your comfort zone. You should be looking for these rather than trying to avoid them. If you manage to make it through your undergraduate college career without changing any opinion, belief, perspective or attitude, then your tuition dollars have been wasted.
  3. The world of adulthood into which you are making your first, tentative forays can be a tough, nasty place. The world out there is full of people, ideas, things, and events that couldn’t care less if they lie within your current comfort zone.it is what it is As my wife would say, the world is what it is. Your years in college are not so much about your landing a well-paying job after you graduate as they are about the construction of a powerful and flexible moral and psychological framework of belief and commitment, from within which you will engage with what’s “out there” on a daily basis. It is not the world’s responsibility to provide you with comfort and security. It is your task to create and maintain a moral and psychological home for yourself in that world using all of the resources available to you, resources to sustain you on a life-long journey. By the way, you’ll be making significant renovations and additions to this home your whole life. Your professors are here to assist you in the construction of that home—good luck!

A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match. Christopher Nelson