Category Archives: sacrament

When the Well Runs Dry

Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. Isaiah 12

Several years ago, during an infrequent return to northern Vermont where I grew up, Jeanne and I took a quick detour from Route 5 South to drive past the old homestead, the house in which I lived until age eleven. It was in poor repair, and seemed far smaller than when I was a kid. Most surprising was that Smith’s pasture, the cow pasture across the road that was the site of many childhood adventures, was gone. A tangle of trees and underbrush now grows where the gate to the pasture was. I’m hoping that if I had pushed through the brush I would have found Smith’s pasture on the other side, sort of like finding Narnia on the other side of the wardrobe. Because it was magic.

Growing up in the sticks has some definite plusses—how many city kids have a cow pasture at their disposal? Smith’s pasture was one of several unofficial playgrounds for my brother and me. Many were the summer mornings when my mother would pack us a lunch and we would climb over the fence into the pasture, limited only by the general directive to be back before dark. The generous Mr. Smith, whom I never met, gave my family free access to his pasture, while the evil Mr. Cole, who owned the adjacent pasture just down the road (and whom I also never met), refused such free access. Hiking, war games, superhero exploits—Smith’s pasture was the natural stage for just about anything two kids reaching double digits in age could come up with.

Vermont cow pastures bear little resemblance to the idyllic, flat pastures that bovines in other parts of the country enjoy. Smith’s pasture was a hill—a mountain in my childhood imagination—that  rose sharply from the road to a high plateau whose back boundary my brother and I never found. Large boulders and innumerable trees of all sorts were thickly spread across the hundreds of pasture acres. The slopes in portions of the pasture were steep enough that I often wondered what the dairy cows, not generally known for their mountain climbing abilities, thought of having to eke out their bovine existence in a less than congenial landscape.

Smith’s pasture was more than the regular locale for boyhood adventures. It was also the source of our annual Christmas tree. Each year in early December my brother and I would trudge up the hill in snow that was often waist deep, searching for the perfect tree. One year we returned at dusk with a tree so wide that it took us close to an hour to stuff it through the front door and so tall that our living room ceiling bent the top foot and a half over when we stood it upright. Only a special early infusion of Christmas spirit kept my mother from having a fit as we sawed off the bottom two feet in the middle of the living room rug.

It was only many years later that I put two and two together and figured out why Mr. Smith was so generous with access to his pasture. He may or may not have had a soft spot in his heart for children needing a place to explore—the real reason we had access to his pasture was the artesian well, located several hundred yards past the fence, which provided water for our house. A well-understood task accompanied our frequent treks into Smith’s pasture—don’t forget to check the well. It was my brother’s job to lift the hinged lid as high as he could—I was too small to do it—while I peered into the dim recesses below. “It looks fine!” “It’s a bit low!” or, one fateful afternoon—“It’s empty!!” This was distressing news, producing visions of no baths, no clothes or dish washing, and general aridness. The spring had widened a minor crack in the well wall into an exit route—it was many dollars and dry days later before the water was coaxed back into its proper location. When wells misbehave, life changes significantly.

One does not get very far reading in the Bible without encountering a well. In a largely desert landscape, of course, wells were both the source of life and the center of community activity. Isaac and Rebekah met at a well, as did Jacob and Rachel as well as Moses and Zipporah. Joseph’s older brothers threw him into a dried up well after he offended them one too many times. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4  is one of the most fascinating texts in the New Testament. Battles were fought over wells. They are so prevalent and necessary in stories from a nomadic, arid land that it’s easy to imagine that they are natural parts of the landscape. But they aren’t. A well is a human attempt to harness the power of something very necessary but also very powerful—a spring of water.

As I learned at an early age in Smith’s pasture, springs do not always cooperate with our attempts to control and tame them. In ancient texts, springs and sources of water are sacred. This is not surprising, because water is necessary for life. A spring—an oasis—stands for life, for rest and refreshment. But it is the random power of a spring that most directly brings the divine to mind. Springs are as resistant to our attempts to control them as they are to our expectations.  Just when we think that we have the water under control, it decides to go somewhere else. This is the deepest secret to its living water: it transforms every obstruction into a new expression of itself: It turns every apparent barrier into a new channel..

This would be a good thing to remember every time I think I have God figured out, whenever my path to a frequently visited well becomes a bit too frequently traveled. But the divine spring has a mind and will of its own, apparently, and if I don’t pay attention, I will find my well, so carefully built to contain the spring, empty one day. And this is not a good thing—as Peter wrote, “these are wells without water . . . to whom the gloom of darkness is reserved forever.” It is easy to forget that the divine spring was never intended to be contained permanently in any external well, whether a building, a book, or any specific location. The good news, as Jesus told the woman at the well, is that the divine spring is “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” And that well is me. And you. It’s a great idea—portable wells containing the most life-giving water ever imagined. I need go no further than where I happen to be to find out what the divine spring is doing.

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isa. 58:11

It Must Be A Miracle

582184_10102003755170495_50935280_n[1]My youngest son was always the inquisitive sort, the kind of kid who, from the moment he began to speak, fashioned most of his communication into questions starting with the word “Why?” The setting for one of his favorite stories is the beat up car I was driving when he was little; I was running errands and his three-or-four-year-old self was strapped into the car seat next to me on the passenger’s side facing the front. This was, as my good friend Marsue says, “before safety was invented.”

On this particular day, apparently, I had only sufficient tolerance for one thousand “Whys” before noon. As soon as he asked his one thousand and first “Why?” I yelled “STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!” To which, I’m sure, he replied “Why?” I have no recollection of this event, since it makes me look bad.

Here’s what I remember as my usual response when his litany of questions exceeded tolerable levels. After several consecutive “Dad, why . . . . .?” events, I would reply “I don’t know, Justin—it must be a miracle.”6012827422_f194ba4e9c[1]

And for a long time, that was an effective show stopper, because as Simone Weil wrote, “the reports of miracles confuse everything.” We want answers and explanations, and a miracle says “Oh, yeah? Explain THIS!” We can’t, because a miracle by definition lies outside the confines of human explanation. Or at least my explanation, as my son figured out before very long. One day in response to “It must be a miracle,” he shot back “Just because you don’t know the answer, Dad, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one!” True enough.

Consider what was perhaps Jesus’s most famous reported miracle—feeding 5000the feeding of the five thousand men (plus women and children). This miracle is reported in all four of the canonical gospels and, for once, they pretty much agree on the details. As is the case with all miracles, we are presented with a straightforward story of something happening that simply cannot have happened. What are we supposed to do with such a story, when we all know that thousands of people cannot be fed with five loaves of bread and two fish? How are we to think about, to be with, miracles?

I suggest that we begin with humility. Once a number of years ago, while a still untenured member of the philosophy department at my college, I participated in a symposium on the late fides et ratioJohn Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) which had been released the previous year. The symposium was a shared event between the philosophy and theology departments. One member from each department would present a 20 minute paper, and a panel of four philosophers and theologians would present brief comments. Sounds like a lot of fun, huh? The original presenters would have a chance for response, then the whole thing would be turned over to audience questions and interaction.

I was asked to present the longer paper for the philosophy department. In it I did what philosophers do—I raised what I considered to be some critical problems with the encyclical, suggesting that the Pope might even have gotten some important things wrong—for instance his conclusion that reason must always submit to the authority of faith when they are in conflict. I knew from the start, of course, that this might be a bit controversial at a Catholic college—I was right. The audience that evening was impressive in size, exceeding what I’ve seen for any academic event in subsequent years at the college.Pius The larger community, particularly the parishioners of St. Pius V church across the street, had been invited and came in droves, expecting I’m sure to hear a cheerleading love-fest for their beloved Pope. Instead they got me raining on their parade. A colleague reported afterwards that one woman complained during the paper to her neighbor in a stage whisper: “I can’t believe they let people like him teach here!”

Rumblings during my paper exploded into direct challenge during the Q and A. After defending and clarifying my position—pretty well, I thought—for a few minutes, an exasperated older gentlemen in the front row asked “Dr. Morgan, is there no place in philosophy for humility?” I responded, honestly but perhaps a bit uncharitably, with a guffaw of laughter (if introverts ever guffaw). “The longer I do philosophy, the more I realize how much I don’t know!” Now I understood where the man was coming from—a place where honest challenges to pronouncements from authority, especially authority supposedly representing God, are viewed as prideful or worse. Furthermore, philosophy has the reputation for trying to logically explain everything and dismissively rejecting anything that resists such treatment. This reputation, unfortunately, has a good deal of evidence to support it.hamlet_yorick[1]

From its ancient roots, though, real philosophy begins with humility. Hamlet had it right when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, I would add, your theology, your science, and anything else we use in our attempts to jam our vast, wonderful, and often terrifying reality into manageable boundaries and straitjackets.

Along with humility, the other ancient starting point for philosophy is identified by Aristotle, perhaps the greatest philosopher of all, when he wrote that “philosophy begins with wonder.” Wonder is what a baby shows with her frank and forthright way of gazing about in bewilderment, trying to balance her oversized head on her undersized neck as she wonders “What’s this thing? And what’s that over there? And holy crap what’s THAT??” Wonder and humility. Woven together, they turn philosophy, as well as theology, science, and everything else into foundational, intimately connected human activities. bubble_croman[1]Psalm 8 gets this connection exactly right. “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you arranged—What are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?” Wonder turns our minds and imaginations with expectation toward what is greater than us (“When I see the heavens . . .”), while humility continually reminds us of the vast gulf between us and what is greater than us (“What are we . . .?).

I once heard a homily on a different gospel’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. The homilist, a Benedictine priest, struggled mightily with the very notion that so many people could be fed with five loaves and two fishes from a kid’s picnic basket. The homilist set things up eloquently, paid proper attention to Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of hungry people, then hit a wall with the miracle itself. miracles“We modern persons have a difficult time with the stories of Jesus’ miracles,” he said, “since what they describe violates the laws of nature.” Accordingly, he did what most of us do when faced with such an apparent violation—he provided alternative interpretations of the story in which such a violation did not occur.

It’s possible, for instance, unless Jesus was dealing with a crowd of fools that day, that the little boy was not the only person among the thousands in attendance smart enough to have brought along something to eat. The “miracle” is not that a tiny amount of food was increased to feed thousands, but rather that the boy’s innocent generosity sparked similar generosity in others. Those who had intended to hoard their carefully packed lunches for themselves were suddenly motivated, either through inspiration or shame, to share with others around them.

And then perhaps a further “miracle” occurred, in that many realized that they didn’t really need all the food they had brought—five loaves and two fishes are more than one person can eat, right? So as a spirit of generosity spreads through the crowd, gluttony takes a big hit. If each person eats only what they need and shares the remainder, everyone has enough. An impromptu community is built on the spot, everyone learns to share with others as well as to stop eating too much, angenerosityd no laws of nature are violated. Thanks be to God.

Why was the homilist, and why are we, inclined to explain a miracle away, to bring it within the confines of what we believe we know and can explain? This is partly a failure of humility, an insistence that we are the center of the universe and that, as Protagoras infamously claimed, we humans are “the measure of all things.” But we’re not. We are subject to the laws of nature, but they are neither defined by nor limited to our experience and understanding. Remember Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”

But our dogged attempts to explain (or explain away) everything smells more like fear than lack of humility to me. What better way to carve a home out of a reality far beyond our control than to define it in terms of what we can control? And while humility is the antidote for hubris, the cure for fear is wonder. Fear turns us inward; wonder turns us outward, toward the infinitely fascinating reality in which we find ourselves. And ultimately, wonder turns us toward God, who crosses the vast distance between divine and human by infusing everything, including us, with transcendence. This is the miracle of the incarnation, that God inhabits everything, that we are living sacraments, testimony to divine love.imagesCASHIO2A

Thomas Jefferson once published an edition of the Gospels with all the miracles taken out, resulting in a very short book. A daily existence from which miracles have been removed is similarly impoverished. A good friend of mine who recently passed away defined a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” And that covers just about everything, from individual acts of generosity, through impromptu human solidarity, to feeding thousands with a kid’s lunch. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need only learn to see it with the eyes of wonder and humility.

God Might Actually Enjoy Us

A candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

In the academic world, teaching schedules are usually planned and assigned more than a year in advance; accordingly, I found out over a month ago what I will be teaching during the Spring 2018 semester. One of my assigned classes is “Contemporary Women Philosophers,” a course  I team-taught once a number of years ago and specifically requested when our preferences for the next academic year were solicited, so I’m pumped. I mentioned this to a colleague as we waited for our monthly department meeting a couple of weeks ago; my colleague asked “which philosophers are you going to use?” Off the top of my head I mentioned Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and Hannah Arendt . . . “What about Marilynne Robinson?” he asked. Great idea–Robinson’s essays and fiction are brilliant, and she happens to be the author of the book that is closest to perfect of any I have read.

GileadThe front and back covers, as well as the opening pages, of best-selling and award-winning books are often filled with excerpted and edited reviews from various publications, reviews so similar from book to book and so over the top that I often wonder if there is a central-clearing house where authors and editors can order canned reviews to their liking. But sometimes the reviewers capture a book’s essence perfectly—such is the case with Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Described as “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it,” and as

A book that deserves to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly . . . I would like to see copies of it dropped onto pews across our country, where it could sit among the Bibles and hymnals and collection envelopes. It would be a good reminder of what it means to lead a noble and moral life—and, for that matter, what it means to write a truly great novel,

Amen.midwest-church

In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Reverend Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy. Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. The prose is measured and profound. Ames writes that for him “writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.” On my best writing days I have this in mind as a standard.Grammie and Grandpa (2)

I have often thought that if my maternal grandfather, a potato farmer with an eighth-grade education who was the wisest and best man I ever met, had been a character in a novel, he would be Reverend Ames. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.”

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. dillardYou don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

For Reverend Ames, everything is a sacrament with intimations of holiness. And for this Calvinist preacher, the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

I don’t remember how Gilead came to me, or even when I read it for the first time (at least a half-dozen reads ago), but the Reverend’s struggles with the austere doctrine of his Calvinist faith are familiar. His is the religious world of my youth, a world that I have struggled mightily at different times to understand, to incorporate, or to leave.Calvin One passage in particular shook me to my core:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? . . . We all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.

The simple image of God as the audience for the artistic performance of the human drama and comedy, rather than the authoritative judge who is taking note of every single one of our failures, was transformative for me. I recall a similar moment early during my 2009 sabbatical when, d100_0230uring a noonday reading of daily psalms with a couple dozen Benedictine monks, we read in Psalm 149 that “the LORD takes delight in his people.” Who knew? Reverend Ames is right—we do think about this far too little.

Reverend Ames also provided me with a new angle on rational proofs for the existence of God, something I have grappled with both as a philosophy professor and as a human being for as long as I can remember. His advice is that belief in God isn’t about proofs at all. As a matter of fact, making rational proofs the basis for either defending or challenging one’s faith will eventually erode whatever faith one has.

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . ladder to moonCreating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

If someone asked me to identify and summarize the attitudes underlying my ruminations about the interplay of philosophy and faith in this blog, I would point to this passage. Thanks, Rev.

In the final pages of Gilead, Reverend Ames bumps into Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend who is leaving town on the bus. Jack asks Ames to say goodbye to his father for him. Ames agrees to do so, but then says “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” Aaronic-blessingHe uses his favorite text from the Jewish Scriptures, Aaron’s blessing from the Book of Numbers:

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Gilead has been that sort of blessing to me, more than any book I have ever read. I am most grateful.

How Can This Be?

I have a colleague and friend with whom I share a lot in common. Eric and I are both “Johnnies,” graduates of the St. John’s College Great Books curriculum (he graduated a few years before I did in the seventies). SJCWe are both Simone Weil scholars and aficionados (he founded the American Weil Society more than thirty years ago). He was an outside reader on one of my books, as I was on one of his a few years later. And we are both hardcore Protestants. I write about my Baptist roots frequently in this blog; Eric is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has been a theology professor, a college chaplain, and for the past several years has been a hired-gun interim pastor for several large Presbyterian congregations on the Eastern seaboard.

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” But I love Advent, Mary is a major Advent player, testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

A couple of years ago I read Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary. Toibin places the reader in the mind of Mary many years after her son was crucified. She is full of guilt and bitterness, has little use for Matthew and John who visit on occasion to fact check their accounts of Jesus’ life, and is convinced that her son’s death was not worth it. The book is not for the Christian faint of heart—the gentle, submissive, ethereal, and holy Mary of tradition and art masterpieces is nowhere to be found. But as always, I found it exhilarating to consider a religious icon as the flesh-and-blood human being that she was.

I believe that over the centuries Christians have made two mistakes concerning Mary. We have treated her either as a museum piece or as a holy relic. In the tradition I grew up in, we treated Mary as a museum piece. The only time I ever heard about Mary was around Christmas or if the text for the day was the marriage at Cana when Jesus is unaccountably rude to her. At Christmas, Mary showed up in the pageant.imagesCAXNTWCG I remember in various Christmas pageants being the innkeeper, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles; once I even got to be Joseph.  So there was a Mary wing in the Baptist Christian museum of my youth, but it was small and uninteresting.

In other Christian traditions, such as the one in which Jeanne grew up, Mary plays a slightly more central role. In these churches Mary often gets more face time in artistic representations than Jesus himself. Attention to Mary has evolved into complicated ritualistic forms which in some cases border on the cultish. San+Gennaro+Festival+Returns+New+York+Little+1r1OJyXXSo3l[1]You may remember a scene from the movie Godfather II  in which a much larger than life statue of Mary is carried reverently through the streets of Manhattan as onlookers attach dollar bills to her. Jeanne tells me that such Mary-as-a-holy-relic events are by no means uncommon—if it’s Tuesday, it must be time for another Mary parade!

Because we have either placed her virtually behind glass or smothered her in ritual, Mary has been effectively hidden from us. But if Mary is neither a museum piece nor a holy relic, who or what is she?

From the few details provided in the gospels, joined together with what we know about the culture in which she lived, we can sketchily picture Mary. Mary is young, most likely in her early teens.2006_the_nativity_story_007[1] She is engaged to Joseph, a man much older than Mary, an engagement arranged between Joseph and Mary’s father. Mary is almost certainly poor. Her skin is darker than suggested in traditional artwork. She has dirt under her fingernails. We do not know whether she has siblings, nor do we know from the gospels anything about her parents. She’s nothing special, just an insignificant young girl living in a nothing town in the eastern backwater of the Roman Empire. And she is visited by an angel.

In scripture, angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. This particular angel’s announcement to Mary is an explosion of beauty from the first sentence: annunciation1[1]“Greetings, favored one—the Lord is with you.” And in the narrative of incarnation that Advent prepares us for, the Lord is with all of us. “Greetings, favored ones—the Lord is with us.” We are all too aware of our humanity, of our shortcomings and failings, that we bear the burden, as John Henry Newman wrote, of “some aboriginal calamity.” But we are also the bearers of the divine. The promise of incarnation is that God chooses, inexplicably, miraculously, to inhabit flawed and imperfect matter, to become human. The promise to Mary is the promise to us—the Lord is with us. We, as Mary, are the wombs from which the divine enters the world each day. We are the incubators of God.  Mary’s response to Gabriel is the only one possible—“How can this be?” It is a mystery. It is also a great story.

When Mary gathers herself sufficiently to comment on the angel’s announcement after he leaves, she begins in the right place. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is saying that “I’m nothing special. I’m just a garden variety human being. But the divine has shown favor toward me and has bestowed blessing on me by choosing to inhabit me.” There is only one possible reason for this favor, because Mary knows that she has done nothing to earn it. This reason is love. Love is holy because it is a lot like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. The astounding mystery and wonder of God’s love for us permeates throughout the beautiful story of the Annunciation. This favor and blessing continues. hands_and_feet_2[1]The incarnation narrative—the story of God becoming flesh—is a direct response to our inherent flaws, imperfections, limitations, and evil. Divine favor and blessing is offered to all of us. And the status of humanity is raised when God inhabits it. I remember singing a Sunday School song that included the lines “we are his hands, we are his feet.” That is the mystery, the scandal, and the beauty of the incarnation story: God entrusts flawed human beings to be the divine in the world.

At St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota, Benedictine priestdiekmann[1] Godfrey Diekmann was a rock star. He and his mentor, Fr. Virgil Michael, were perhaps more responsible for liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church than any others. When I was a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute at St. John’s in the Spring 2009 semester, I heard many Godfrey Diekmann stories—his wit as well as his temper were legendary. My favorite of these stories might be apocryphal, but I heard it so often that I suspect it is true. One evening while eating with colleagues and students in the student dining room, Diekmann got involved in a spirited conversation about the heart of Christian theology and life. He startled those at his table as well as those within earshot by slamming his hand on the table and shouting “It’s not the Resurrection, god-dammit! It’s the Incarnation!” As students, stunned into silence, slipped away he added “But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe that we are invited to become the very life of God.” The Christmas we anticipate—that is incubating in each of us—is the moment of salvation as God enters time, history, and each of us.matthew_fox_original_blessing[1]

We are His hands. We are his feet. It almost makes me agree with former Dominican Matthew Fox, who has argued for years that the doctrine of original sin should be replaced with the doctrine of original blessing.

NativityAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. Advent reminds us that in our lives there is always a child ready to enter the world—the divine child that is in each of us and the child of God that each of us is. So here we all are, favored of God, loved by God, regardless of whether we feel it or deserve it. A great gift has been placed in us, a gift that carries with it unlimited responsibility. How will we nurture this child? How will we bring it to birth? What is incubating in each of us is as individual and unique as each of us is—and it is divine. How will we welcome this child? Mary’s response must be ours: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your Word.”024

A Modest Proposal Part Two–or why my time should not be for sale

A week ago I wrote about the most effective and illuminating hoax I ever pulled on my students. Here’s what we learned from it . . .

In a recent post I described a proposal concerning access to my services that I proposed to my students during a recent course.

A Modest Proposal

SandelWe were studying Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy, an exploration of how in our contemporary world market economies are generating market societies, societies in which ideas and values that have traditionally been considered as outside or above being reduced to numbers and dollar signs are gradually being sucked into the vortex of market activity. Everything, even the most revered and sacred activities, is up for sale. For general class discussion, I created a hypothetical scenario that I hoped would resonate with the group—student access to faculty time.

To set my proposal up, I described for my students how at various times during the semester student demand on my expertise and time often becomes very heavy. Specifically, my long-standing offer to read a couple of pages of students’ rough draft material up to a week before a major paper is due, drafts that I read on a first-come, first-served basis, creates a log-jam rivaled only by the queue outside my door during office hours in the days before a major assignment is due or an exam takes place. In the interest of streamlining the process and making my time most directly available to those who want it the most, I made the following proposal:

Preferred accessAt the beginning of each semester, my students will have the opportunity to purchase a Morgan Preferred-Access Pass for $250, a purchase that will provide a student with the following semester-long benefits:

  • Your rough-draft material will be read, commented on, and returned within six hours of receipt (unless it was submitted between midnight and 6:00 AM), even when there are several rough draft submissions ahead of yours that have not yet been read. Your Preferred-Access Pass, in other words, entitles you to the privilege of jumping to the front of the e-line.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass also entitles you to jump to the head of the line outside my door during office hours for one-on-one conversation with me.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass is transferable. For instance, if you believe that you are in good shape on a particular assignment and do not need my help or expertise, you may rent your Preferred-Access Pass to a fellow student lacking such a pass to use for that assignment only.
  • Please Note: Your Pass gains you preferred access to me by jumping the queue—it does not guarantee any particular grade on any given assignment.

After walking the students through the details of my proposal, I put them in small groups to discuss the ideas involved, reminding them to apply two tools Sandel identified as useful when testing such proposals with market creep in mind. Is there a problem of fairness involved? Is there a problem of corruption involved?

When we reconvened after ten minutes or so of group activity, it was clear that the students had taken my proposal very seriously, and they were not pleased with it. At all. It was a matter of figuring out what was at the core of their intuition that something was seriously wrong with this proposal. market meSoon various challenges were raised.

What about students who can’t afford the $250?

To which “Market Me” responded “What about them?” This is the way the market works—those who want what’s for sale badly enough will find a way to come up with the asking price. After all, if I tell a car salesperson that I really, really want the $50,000 car on the lot but only have $5,000 to spend, I will be told “too bad!” But someone pointed a possible difference—what I have for sale in my proposal is different from a car. What I have put up for sale is something that arguably should be equally available to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. There’s a problem of fairness, in other words.

Aren’t you already getting paid to provide access to students? We’ve already paid for access to you with our tuition money.

This prompted my providing my students with a peek into the world of a faculty member. Yes I am getting paid to provide access to students, to the tune of a required three or four announced office hours per week. gradingAnd that’s what your tuition is paying for. But my practice of reading rough draft material is above and beyond the call of contract and duty. Indeed, many of my faculty colleagues have pointed out the insanity of voluntarily taking on such a time consuming task, given the already enormous time challenges of college teaching. So I’m willing to amend my proposal—office hours will remain first-come, first-served, but preferred rough draft access will be for sale. And by the way, I am still committed to providing access to all of my students, even those who do not purchase the all-access pass. My proposal just adjusts the dynamic of that access.

Making extra money for yourself in this way makes you look sort of like a jerk.

Really? I’m just trying to make a buck here! But to keep the discussion moving, I asked whether they would feel better if I set up a paypalPayPal account and the $250 went directly to the Providence College General Scholarship Fund. Everyone agreed that this would solve this particular problem; I even got the impression that with this adjustment several students would give a thumbs-up to the amended proposal.

But they shouldn’t, because even if the money is shifted away from me toward a “good cause,” access to me has still been commodified. The fact that the $250 is going to the scholarship fund rather than my checking account does not remove the fact that my time is for sale. dont be a jerkAnd if I’m still a “jerk” for even coming up with this idea, we need to figure out why. What exactly is at risk here? What important value would be demeaned and corroded if this policy were put in place?

I’m concerned that even though you say you will still give access to everyone, you will unintentionally stop paying as much attention to those without a pass, even when you aren’t backlogged.

A corruption problem in other words—a value is being damaged by its being placed on the market. This gave me the opportunity to introduce a way of thinking about education that many professed to be unaware of—the business model. What if we think of higher education institutions as putting a product up for sale, a product that students are purchasing with their tuition? What is the product? happinessHow would the buyer be able to tell if their purchase was a good one?

As we talked about the business model of education, many students admitted that they do think of their four years at Providence College as something they have purchased with another end in mind, most likely a good job, a comfortable lifestyle, and the very happiness that we all claim that money can’t buy. “How are you able to tell if your purchase has been worth it?” I asked. With a bit of prodding, some admitted that their parents at least consider a low grade at the end of the semester to be evidence of a bad investment. Not only education but family relationships themselves start being judged with market categories. Finally, someone said what had been lurking beneath the surface throughout the discussion.love of learning

Students are supposed to love learning for the sake of learning, not for the sake of what they can get with it.

That such a statement is often immediately dismissed as idealistic and naïve is an indication of just how far down the market road of no return we have already travelled in our culture. But my students, although they admitted that they often ignore this conviction about education when buried under papers, exams, and stress about the future, all agreed that whatever the value is that is at risk of being corrupted in my modest proposal, “the love of learning” captures at least a portion of it.

Almost two years ago, in one of my many reflections on teaching in this blog, I wrote the following:tongue of a teacher

The Tongue of a Teacher

The whole process of teaching and learning, when liberated from my frequent well-meaning but misguided attempts to shape and control it, has transcendent energy behind it. This all sounds idealistic and impractical in a world where the value of higher education is often exclusively identified as and judged according to the standard of focused (and very expensive) job preparation. Maybe so—practicality has never been my strong suit. But identifying the tools of lifetime learning and honing skilled use of these tools through engagement with the greatest texts that human beings have produced is an activity whose importance transcends the size of one’s future paycheck.

Thanks to my students’ discussion of my modest proposal, I am once again reminded that at its heart, education should not be for sale. It’s too valuable for that.

Learning How to Read

There is a mystery in reading, a mystery which, if we contemplate it, may well help us, not to explain, but to grab hold of other mysteries in human life. Simone Weil

CB and LinusMy early years were full of apocryphal stories of how I learned to read. According to my mother, I was reading by age three without anyone having taught me how to do it. I was never without a book,  and lined up my menagerie of stuffed animals on the couch to read to them. Knowing how stories tend to take on a life of their own, I cannot attest to the accuracy of these reports (although it was my father rather than my mother who was prone to telling tall tales). I do know that my love of books extends as far back as I can remember, and that I know how to read before I could tell time or tie my shoes—perhaps my parents should have provided me with instruction manuals to read. Because I could read on a fifth grade level before starting first grade, according to the school board member who tested me at home, I went through first and second grade in one year. moving from one side of the room to the other in our little school after Christmas break. cursiveI’ve paid a lifelong price for that honor—I joined second grade when they were all the way to the letter “W” in their cursive writing studies. My “w’s.” “x’s,” “y’s” and “z’s” are fabulous, but other than that my cursive has been illegible, even to me, ever since.

Several years ago during an eye exam, my new ophthalmologist asked “do you read very much?” I laughed as I said “I read for a living!” The written word is not only the foundation of my professional life, but has also been my spiritual lifeline for most of my life. For many years all that remained of my religious upbringing was the Bible. bigstock-Holy-Bible-828340-300x235Even though I no longer believed it to be the literally inerrant word of God as I was taught, large portions of it resided in my memory, ready to be accessed in class and conversation as well as popping up even when uninvited. I memorized large portions of the Bible growing up, as all good Baptist kids should, continually reminded that “Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.” We were taught that since the canon of Scripture was completed, we should not expect further communication from the divine in the form of miracles, signs and wonders, or direct communication. We already had God’s final word to us in completed form; now we just needed to obey it and hang on until the Second Coming.

I was accordingly jerked up short a few years ago when I read in a book by theologian Patrick Henry that “God died because people forgot how to read.” I don’t entirely remember the context of the claim nor Henry’s explication, but I was reminded of the phrase this past week as I read a manuscript on SimoneSimone Weil’s philosophy as an outside reader for a prestigious academic press. In her “Essay on the Concept of Reading,” she argues that we “read” everything in our environment. “The sky, the sea, the sun, the stars, human beings, everything that surrounds us is something that we read.” This is much broader understanding of “reading” than our traditional Western conception, which considers reading to be an exclusively cognitive, intellectual, and mental activity—precisely the sort of activity I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours on this planet doing. So how is it that such a crucial, human defining activity as reading could be forgotten, even to the point of emptying the divine of content? The problem is not with reading per se—it’s that we’ve forgotten that reading is not just an intellectual activity. lectioGod’s death is not due to a misuse of or over-reliance on the activity of reading. It’s due to forgetting what true reading even is.

I had heard and read about “lectio divina,” sacred reading before I went on sabbatical to a AbbeyBenedictine college campus with a large abbey on site, but it had not struck me as a particularly interesting concept. Just another skill to learn, technique to master, perhaps—but really, if there’s one thing I know how to do pretty well, its reading. But after several weeks of daily prayer with the abbey monks, it dawned on me that lectio divina isn’t about words and meaning and retention at all. I often found that I did not remember, even for the amount of time it took to walk from the choir stalls to the front of the abbey and exit, which Psalms we had read nor any of the content. Yet I had a sense that what we were doing was far more important than reading a book, marking it with highlighter and pen in my usual method, and perhaps memorizing a phrase or two for future reference in class or conversation.choir stalls

What was happening in the choir stalls was not a mind event, but a full body experience bypassing my overdeveloped mind and seeping into all the other parts of me that had been starved for years. My bodily rhythms, my intuitions, my emotions, my spirit. The Psalms speak of God’s word all the time, but almost never of thinking about God’s word. jeremiahIt’s more like what Jeremiah reports: “The words were found and I did eat them, and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart.” Simone Weil was channeling her internal Jeremiah when she wrote that “I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it, and then I do not read, I eat.” And like a mother bird regurgitating food for the babies, an important word or phrase would come into my consciousness later in the day, one that I didn’t remember reading but which had dripped into my soul.

In our “real world” of immediacy, getting it done, making money and a living, is there a place for what I began to absorb in a monastery abbey in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota? Over the subsequent years I’ve seen small but important evidence of change in how I converse with people, how I approach the day, and a heightened and more immediate sense of when a layer is threatening to grow back over my divine reading space. silence-is-the-language-of-godLearning how to read differently is not just another technique; because it is a new way of being, it is transferable to everything. I went on sabbatical expecting to write about trying to sustain a life of faith when God at best is a silent partner who never writes, calls, emails, texts or tweets. Now the divine is everywhere and seems to have a lot to say. Reading the divine begins with believing that everything is sacramental, infused with the breath of God, with taking “the Word became flesh” very seriously. All of creation is a sacred text. I didn’t know it, because I didn’t know how to read.

A Common Criminal

During the Providence Friars’ recent exciting basketball season, Jeanne and I frequently watched a replay of the team’s most recent win the next day online. Every game has its ebbs and flows, including moments when in real time it appears that we are headed for defeat. The virtues of watching a replay the next day when the positive outcome is already known include no stress and the opportunity to savor the best plays in a way that is impossible in real time. Mind you, we have never watched a replay of a Friars loss—why submit ourselves voluntarily to an experience that we know ends badly? Even the worst of times can be weathered and perhaps appreciated when one knows that things work out in the end. Jeanne’s and my habit is entirely harmless when confined to our love of college basketball, theology of glorybut this is also how millions of Christians tend to treat Good Friday, the darkest day in the liturgical year.

In the religious tradition of my youth, Good Friday was a speed bump on the way to Easter. Our theology was what scholars call a “theology of glory,” one that emphasizes the power and glory of God as exemplified through Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world on Good Friday and his triumphant resurrection from the dead three days later. It is difficult to pay more than twenty-four hours of attention to the suffering and agony of the cross when you know that it all ends up in the right place. Although I left many features of my conservative Protestant upbringing in my rear view mirror decades ago, I did not start thinking differently about Good Friday and Easter until I encountered Simone Weil’s work for the first time twenty-five years ago. SimoneWeil writes that “The death on the Cross is something more divine than the Resurrection,” and suggests that the heart of Christianity would be complete with the Crucifixion even without the Resurrection. What happens if the focus of one’s Christian faith is Good Friday rather than Easter?

The Crucifixion without anticipating the Resurrection first moves our attention away from glory, power, and triumph, instead focusing us on suffering, pain, and weakness. This in itself brings home the fundamental fact of Christian belief—God became human, with an emphasis on the human part. This is something that a theology of glory tends to de-emphasize, at the risk of turning away from the most fundamental truths of the human experience. A couple of years ago I had a discussion with my after-church adult education group about the end of the jobs-restorationBook of Job in the Jewish Scriptures, an ending tacked on long after the main story had been written in which after forty some chapters of suffering Job gets back everything that he had lost. I asked the group why someone might have found it necessary to add this “happily ever after” ending to such a dark and human story. “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 contributed. “Which makes the better story?” I asked. The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something regular participant said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. theology of the crossA theology that depends on a triumphant, happy ending is one that runs the risk of failing to address the human condition as we find it.

In contrast to a theology of glory, the God of a theology of the cross addresses the human condition, not by overcoming it, but by becoming part of it. The vast distance between the human and the divine is mediated by the divine becoming incarnated in flesh and thus becoming subject to everything that human beings are subject to—including suffering and death.

Incarnation and crucifixion are expressions of love; resurrection is an expression both of love and power. Simone Weil focuses on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection in order to counter our common tendency to rush ahead to the Resurrection, thus failing to recognize the depth of the agony and suffering required for Christ’s mediation. She does not deny the Resurrection; rather, she asks us not to let our joy at the risen Christ diminish our understanding of the price required for us to be made the friends of God.

After the Resurrection the infamous character of his ordeal was effaced by glory, and today, across twenty centuries of adoration, the degradation which is the very essence of the Passion is hardly felt by us . . . We no longer imagine the dying Christ as a common criminal.all flesh is like the grass

The Incarnation and the Crucifixion focus our attention on unlimited love, something that we often are too quick to move past in our rush to a happy ending. But as Job tells us, “mortals die, and are laid low.” Good Friday reminds us that because of divine love the incarnated God did not seek to avoid this fundamental human experience.

St. Paul argued that the focal point of the Christian faith is the Resurrection: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain.” Simone Weil, however, asks us not to forget that more foundationally the Christian faith is vain if there is no Cross, no suffering and death of the divine mediator between God and humanity. Only when we see, as did the penitent thief, that the criminal hanging on a cross, rejected and despised by all, is the perfectly just God-man paying the ultimate sacrifice to achieve mediation between God and humanity will we begin to truly experience the mystery of the Christian faith. If the story ended with Jesus executed as a criminal and dead in a tomb, we still would have reason to believe in a God of love. Our very existence, as well as the existence of the reality we inhabit, is evidence of God’s choice to create in order to love. The story of a God who becomes fully human, who lives a life in time subject to all things each human being is subject to, including suffering, pain, loss, tragedy, injustice, and death serves to drive the point deeper.god is with us Good Friday reveals just how far the divine chooses to go with us—into the depths of despair and death.

The other day Jeanne and I were talking about what the indispensable heart of Christianity might be. My contribution was that “God is love, and God is with us.” Stripped of millennia of doctrinal and dogmatic accretions, that’s what the Christian faith amounts to. And it is on full display on Good Friday with Jesus dying on the cross. Even if there was no Resurrection, the Crucifixion and Incarnation provide everything one needs to know about the human relationship with the divine. God is love. God is with us.

Love That Will Not Let Me Go

One of the required performances for a professor returning from sabbatical is a public talk on campus related to her or his research and writing during the months away from the classroom and campus.most interesting man During the first weeks of my current sabbatical, I’ve been looking at some of the results of my Spring 2009 sabbatical, including the talk that I gave in Fall 2009 once I returned. Here is the beginning and end of it—a reminder of where I was then and where I have been going since then.

Introduction: The student of Western philosophy confronts a series of either/or dualisms which apparently demands that a side be taken on a number of matters, ranging from metaphysical through epistemological to ethical. Although contemporary philosophers have frequently and successfully attacked dualism in all areas of philosophy, surface level dualistic descriptions of the playing field are sometimes helpful in getting oriented to the strange and wonderful world of philosophy. After more than twenty-five years as a student and teacher of philosophy, I find that my own orientation on the dualistic playing field reveals some important patterns.

In no particular order of importance, I lean toward Heraclitus rather than Parmenides, Aristotle rather than Plato, Locke rather than Leibniz, school of athensAquinas rather than Augustine but Ockham rather than Aquinas, Hume rather than Kant but Kant rather than Hegel, empiricism rather than rationalism, realism rather than idealism, virtue ethics rather than rule oriented ethics, plurality rather than unity, Darwin rather than any of his multifarious opponents, Nietzsche rather than the majority of his opponents, the late Wittgenstein rather than the early Wittgenstein, and, in most cases, the particular rather than the universal. I can make intellectual arguments in favor of all of these inclinations, but I can also make arguments in support of the other side of the dualism in each instance—that’s what philosophers do. I simply know that I am philosophically most “at home” in a framework within which knowledge is constructed piecemeal from the bottom up through sense activity and experience rather than top down through the intuition or imposition of universal principles and truths. under construictionIf there is such a thing as human nature apart from particular human beings, I believe it is, to use Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful phrase, “something under construction” rather than a fixed form. These preferences incline me toward doubt and open-endedness in epistemology, toward suspicion in metaphysics, and cause me to both embrace pluralism and venture close to the kingdom of relativism in ethics.

These preferences are also, at least at first look, in direct conflict with the religious worldview within which I was raised. In my conservative and fundamentalist Protestant upbringing, I was taught to believe in the literal inerrancy of the Bible, to accept dozens of statements and claims concerning God and His relationship to human beings as factually true and immune to challenge or question. To ask questions or to doubt, or at least to do these things publicly, was to reveal the weakness of my faith. born againThe primary reason for being a Christian, for being “born again,” was to be saved from hell and to go to heaven. The faith I was taught was largely a faith motivated by fear, resulting in a great deal of exclusivity toward and judgment of those who did not believe as we did.

I’m quite sure that one of the primary reasons I ended up in academia and the vocation of teaching was the working out of a very poor fit between the religion I was taught and the person that I naturally am. My natural resonance with questioning and doubt, as well as with what is particular, open-ended, provisional, “this-worldly,” and contingent prepared me well for the academic life and the vocation of teaching philosophy. It is, at the same time, at odds with the faith of my youth at almost every significant point. Yet my Christian faith is part of my heritage, my history, my tradition. It is not an item of clothing given to me as a child that I was free to take off once I “put away childish things.” It is part of my fabric, my DNA. And I have carried it uncomfortably for many years.

the nice and the goodA friend’s question from long ago—“How can you be both a philosopher and a Christian?”—has lurked below the surface waiting to be addressed. One of the characters in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Nice and the Good speaks of “the faculty of colouring and structuring [one’s] surroundings into a moral habitation, the faculty which is sometimes called moral sense.” Many of the tools used to build a moral habitation come from one’s tradition and history, including one’s religion. A few years ago, I began the exhilarating but uncomfortable process of bringing the details of my faith up from below the surface where they had lain dormant for years, in the hope of finding for the first time ways to use the tools of my faith along with the tools of my vocation in constructing my moral habitation. How is that project going?penguin sabbatical Conclusion Outside the windows of my sabbatical apartment, windows which stretch from floor to ceiling along the entire width of the south side of the apartment, is a beautiful lake. 1836660_604566519623279_291098012_oOver the months I lived there, I watched hundreds of birds of dozens of sorts alight on this lake, stay for a while, and then move on. Sometimes they just floated for a while before flying away. Sometimes they plunged beneath the surface for an uncomfortably long time, then popped up way on the other side of the lake. A few I saw only once; maybe they found a better, more private lake where people aren’t staring at them all the time. But the people who are permanent Minnesota residents rather than a visitor as I was say that there are some pairs of birds—all sorts of ducks, loons, grebes, Canadian geese, eagles—who come back every year. For at least a part of every year, Stumpf Lake in Collegeville, Minnesota is their home.

These days I think of faith as being like this lake. I spent time on this lake as a young child, and had no idea it was this big. The portion I thought was the whole world turns out to be the shallow part of one corner of the lake. Upon return, I’m discovering depths that no one’s ever found the bottom of. I’ve never been a big fan of the water, and I’m not a very good swimmer. water wingsBut I’m getting better at it, and I don’t need blow-up water wings to stay afloat any more. I’m not sure what I want to call this place where I’ve landed. It’s disturbingly new, yet absolutely familiar. I believe I’m entitled to call it Christianity; as my wife told me a few months ago, I can put whatever label I want on myself. The following from Annie Dillard describes this place pretty well.

I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which God burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs.

If the stories in the Bible have any truth to them, apparently God has an inexplicable love for “purblind and clumsy amateurs”—amateursjust look at the disciples and others who followed Jesus. Just look at me and everyone else I know who is trying the Christian incarnational narrative on for size. The only people who regularly annoyed Jesus were the people who professed to be something other than clumsy amateurs in matters of faith. But the root of “amateur” is “amator,” the Latin word for “lover.” And that’s what I find here—a love that will not let me go. I find that to be amazing.

And I still do. Thanks to those of you who have been sharing this journey with me on this blog!

Unvisited Tombs

I saw a bumper sticker once that said “So many books, so little time.” I agree. Even though I sometimes feel as if I read for a living, the fear that I might live my allotted fourscore years and never get to read the greatest novel I’ve not yet read or the most profound play that has not yet crossed my path is palpable. At age 59, for instance, I’ve not yet read all of Dickens’ novels. That worries me. I’ve read most of them, but what if Little Dorrit or Martin Chuzzlewitt is better than Bleak House, my favorite? What if one of the handful of Flannery O’Connor short stories I’ve yet to read is more profound than “A View of the Woods”? What if I die without ever having read The Fairie Queen? Very disturbing.

I’ve chosen to address this fear systematically, by dedicating a central part of my summer reading list to one great author (by reputation) whose work I have never read. One summer it was Zola, another summer it was Trollope; I even slogged through the first half of Swann’s Way and joined the legion of readers who started and never finished Proust. Three summers ago, it was George Eliot. I had read Silas Marner,but never Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda. I was pushed in the Eliot direction because a colleague of mine had told me that his wife, who is also a voracious reader, has proclaimed Middlemarch as the greatest novel ever written. I finished it a few days before a visit to The Coop with my son. My colleague’s wife has a point.

Cambridge, Massachusetts is a book lover’s paradise. There are more bookstores per square inch in Cambridge than any other town I’ve visited, so many that I once even found a copy of my first book, a reworking of my dissertation, on an out-of-the-way shelf in the corner of an out-of-the-way little shop there. The only other place I’ve ever seen that book, other than collecting dust on my own bookshelf, is collecting dust in various libraries on college campuses I’ve worked at or visited. As David Hume said about his first publication, “it fell stillborn from the press.”

The central, largest bookstore in Cambridge is The Coop, an impressive establishment with several stories, balconies, nooks and crannies in which to sit and read—the sort of place I could easily spend a week’s vacation. Probably alone, though–I don’t think Jeanne could survive for more than a morning. Once while visiting the Coop with my youngest son, we walked past a table with a seemingly random collection of books on display. I picked up a copy of Middlemarch. Handing it to my son, I said “read the last paragraph.”

“Holy Shit!” my son exclaimed.

“I’d give my left testicle to be able to write like that,” I replied.

The paragraph he read was Eliot’s closing meditation on the remaining life of the main character, Dorothea Brooke.

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for 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.

Through Dorothea Brooke, Eliot inspires reverence for the sacredness of ordinary acts and feelings, bringing to mind the prophet Micah’s injunction to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Dorothea, to the great consternation of her wealthy uncle and guardian, regularly looks for ways to improve the living conditions of the impoverished tenant farmers working the hundreds of family acres, treats everyone as her equal even though societal norms claim otherwise, and improves the lives of those she touches with her natural generosity and truthfulness. Her gracious humanness is not religiously motivated; indeed, the only cleric in the novel is Dorothea’s ill-chosen and unfortunate first husband Mr. Casaubon, an academic so cerebral and lacking in affect that he regularly fails to recognize the real existence of anyone other than himself. The wellspring of Dorothea’s goodness is simply her own, expansive heart.

But the normal human constitution is not well tuned to the importance of ordinary deeds—all of us want to accomplish something magnificent, to perform historic acts, to live lives that are recognized, and to establish a great name on the earth. What is the value of attempting to live the life of virtue if no one notices? At the time I read Middlemarch I had not yet started this blog. I had written several dozen essays over the previous three years, both the vehicle and record of a spiritual awakening that was transformational. Family and friends had let me know, at various times and in various ways, that they were been touched deeply by them. But I wanted them to be published, and no publishing house had the good sense or spiritual acumen to take on the project. After the latest “thanks for sharing, but no” from a publisher, I said in exasperation to Jeanne “If these aren’t meant to be in print, what are they for?” As has happened so often over the past twenty-five years, she responded with the truth—“You may never know, and that’s alright.” In my thinking, the value of something is established by its being recognized. But perhaps in a different economy, value is measured in secret, even unknown ways.

In Matthew’s gospel, those who are invited to enter into the joy of their Lord are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave the homeless shelter, and visited those in prison, all the time unaware that by doing so, they were advancing the Kingdom of God. It’s almost as if they are surprised that simply acting out of human kindness and solidarity was enough to satisfy the divine requirements. But in a sacramental and incarnational world, it makes sense. What does the Lord require of us? Justice. Mercy. Humility. Perhaps I simply need to keep WWDD? in mind. What Would Dorothea Do?

Pleasure and Joy in the Work

As the end of the semester draws near and my upcoming sabbatical looms, I’m wondering what it will be like to be out of the classroom for fifteen months. This post from a year ago makes me think that it’s not going to be easy.

Last Saturday, virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman was the featured guest on ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite NPR show. PerlmanHe was a fascinating interview, full of stories about the world of being a recognized genius in the midst of mere mortals and the world of classical music. Guest host Michael Pesca asked Perlman “which would be better—the second-best violinist playing the best violin in the world, or the second-best violin being played by the best violinist in the world?” “The second one,” Perlman answered immediately, illustrating with a story from the life of another violin virtuoso: A woman once approached MenuhinYehudi Menuhin after one of his concerts and said “your violin was beautiful tonight.” Menuhin held his Stradivarius to his ear and said “That’s funny . . . I don’t hear anything!”

I remember something one of my teaching models and mentors in my early years as an assistant professor once revealed that he told his advisees when they sought his input about which courses to take the next semester. “Go for the jockey, not the horse.imagesCAXUPZEMA mediocre horse ridden by a great jockey will do better in a race than Secretariat ridden by a mediocre jockey. Something taught by the best professor on campus will always be better than the greatest syllabus in the universe taught by a less stellar professor. Arrogant? Probably. But absolutely true. Over the years I have often said that students will choose “challenging but interesting” over “boring but easy” every time. I have seen enough counterexamples over the years to know that this is not a self-evident truth, but it is better than that—a time-tested hypothesis.

I have cultivated my teaching craft for twenty-five years now, all the time making it known to anyone who would listen that I have the greatest job in the world, that I actually consider teaching to be a vocation rather than a job, and that I consider myself to be inordinately privileged to be able to make a decent living doing what I was born to do, something that, happy-april-fool39s-day-image1if I were independently wealthy, I would do for free. I pulled off my most effective April Fool’s Day stunt ever last year when I posted on Facebook that “Despite my frequent claims to the contrary, I have decided that my job really sucks.” People who don’t know me very well immediately commiserated with “I know, it’s that kind of day, isn’t it?” and “I know it’s a thankless job, but if it helps you’re doing great!” A colleague from my department came up to me at lunch the next day and said, with appropriate EeyoreEeyore-like visage, “Vance, I’m really sorry.” I think he was disappointed when he found out that it was a joke. Those in my closer circle of friends and colleagues knew, however, after a few seconds of confusion, that it was a prank. “You had me going for a second—Happy April Fool’s Day!” was their typical response. Because they knew that if I ever came to the point that I said “my job really sucks!” and meant it, I would no longer be me. Simple as that.

This sort of narrative breeds and exudes confidence, so much so that I’ve learned over the years that I often need to tone my enthusiasm for teaching down, lest I be misinterpreted as someone who has a superiority complex and never experiences the insecurities, mistakes, and failures that are necessary parts of a teacher’s life. Trust me, I’ve had more of these than I could possibly remember—the “it isn’t working” moment of alarm happens as frequently now as it ever has. But now it exhilarates rather than frightens me—I have fun with the moments that, in earlier years, might have paralyzed me in front of a class.

A couple of days ago, I introduced a bunch of freshmen to the Scientific Revolution in the interdisciplinary humanities program I direct and teach in. The class immediately brought to mind a class with the same material roughly a year ago with a different pair of colleagues, a class which almost became the sort of nightmare that all teachers fear. I came to class expecting to rely on what I modestly considered to be a fabulous PowerPoint show. And the computer wouldn’t work. What in earlier years would have caused the sweating of bullets instead spawned a few jokes, then a living illustration of the heavenly bodies moving in circles, epicycles, and eccentrics created by my assigning different students the roles of the various planets circling and interweaving with each other, all with the purpose of showing how a beautiful theory can become so complicated over time under the pressure of new and continuing data as to collapse under its own weight. EpicyclesMy guess is that the students will remember what we did far longer than if they had seen it on a screen. One of my colleagues asked “How did you come up with that idea?” My answer, as always, was “I don’t know—it just seemed that it might work.”

The process of transformation from scared-to-death graduate student to comfortable-in-my-skin professor has been a long one with many landmarks along the way. One of the first was my favorite movie, “Dead Poets Society,” which was released in 1989, the very year that I was thrown, as a completely inexperienced and totally frightened graduate student into my own classroom for the first time. It has become trendy recently to trash this movie in various ways,

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities,

but I don’t read such critiques. This movie was seminal for me, showed up at the right place at the right time in my life and continues to inspire my teaching energies. imagesDozens of scenes could illustrate; one will suffice. As the dynamic young teacher Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, gradually inspires his students to think for themselves, his young charges start taking their new-found freedom and running with it in unpredictable ways, as teenage young men are apt to do. One of these young men suggests at a school assembly that God wants girls to attend their all-boys school; the sheer outrageousness of the idea as well as the impromptu and disrespectful manner of his expressing it almost gets the student expelled.

The young man expects that Mr. Keating will admire his daring and creativity, but he soon finds out otherwise. “You being expelled from school is not daring, it’s stupid. You’ll miss some golden opportunities,” says Mr. Keating. “Like what?” “Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes.” I want my classes to be like that, I thought. I want to teach classes that will make students glad they came to my school. It’s one thing to see it in a movie, though; WFGit’s another thing to find the path that might lead, over a career, in that direction.

Three years later, at a silent retreat, I stumbled across the work of Simone Weil, who in Waiting for God expressed the energy and passion at the heart of the learning process so well, it became and remains my “teaching philosophy.”

Contrary to the usual belief, [will power] has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

Early in my life I had been infected by the love of books and of ideas; at this early point in my career it was becoming clear that all my teaching really amounts to is the desire to pass this infection on to others. All I want to do is to help others find the joy in learning that has sustained me through times in my life when there seemed to be nothing else worthwhile except a book. IsaiahSimone gave me the words to express what I’d intuited all along, that for me, teaching is a vocation, a sacrament, a holy thing.

Last year I was assigned to be lector on Palm Sunday at our church, something I had forgotten until I walked into the service. Completely unprepared, I read from Isaiah that “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher . . . Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” My best days are the ones when I don’t forget this.