Category Archives: stories

Sheets from Heaven

VT hunting seasonI grew up in hunting country where at the appropriate times each year the males of the species took their preferred firearms and started shooting things. I remember my father returning from a day of hunting with a partridge or two or even a squirrel in his backpack (much to my mother’s consternation). Every third year or so he would hit the jackpot and get a deer, setting us up with meat for most of the upcoming winter. My older brother became a fellow hunter with Dad when he reached the appropriate age, but when my time came, problems arose. I didn’t want to do it. hunting seasonI did not know that principled objections to killing non-human animals were available to me—it just was very clear to me that this was not something I wanted anything to do with. At the time I didn’t have any trouble eating the meat my father and brother brought home; it wasn’t until many years later that I cut red meat out of my diet.

The first reading a week ago Sunday from Acts told the story of one of the most game-changing events imaginable, a “kill and eat” scenario with implications far beyond mere dietary preferences. The story of Acts, of course, is about the early Christian communities and the spread of the “good news” inexorably from Palestine toward Rome and beyond. Often lost in the midst of the story is just how disorienting and belief-challenging all of this must have been. Major debates raged about exactly what this new system of beliefs is. Is it a new version of Judaism? If so, then new Christians are subject to the same dietary and behavioral rules from the Pentateuch that all Jews are subject to; male converts, for instance, should be circumcised. Or is this new set of beliefs something new altogether, perhaps a challenge and direct threat to Judaism? Complicating the issue, at least according to evidence from the gospels, is that Jesus himself was not always clear or consistent about who his message and teaching was for. Jesus was a Jew, and at times clearly said that kill and eathis message was for the “House of Israel,” while at other times he packaged it for everyone, including non-Jews.

In Acts 10 we find Peter, the man who perhaps knew Jesus best and who, as the lead disciple, is now at the forefront of spreading the good news, hungry and exhausted after an extended prayer session on the rooftop of a friend’s house in Joppa where he is staying. And then the strangest thing happens, as Peter reports to some critics in the next chapter:

In a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

The sheet is full of all sorts of animals that, according to Jewish law, must not be eaten under any circumstances, as Peter immediately recognizes.

unclean animalsBut I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

Peter knows the rules backwards and forwards; furthermore, he knows that for a Jew, strict obedience to these rules is required in order to be right relationship both with God and with his community.

But as seems to happen so often in the context of what we think we know about God and our relationship with the divine, the rule book is thrown out entirely.

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Imagine Peter’s consternation and confusion. Imagine the consternation and confusion of his fellow Jewish believers when they find out that he has been hanging out with and spreading the good news to Gentiles. For after the voice from heaven in essence tells Peter “You know all of that stuff about what not to eat in order to be in right relationship with God, the stuff that has defined the diet of a faithful Jew for the past couple of millennia? Never mind. You can eat anything you want,” CorneliusPeter is further informed that the human equivalent of unclean animals—the Gentiles—are now to be recipients of the good news that you might have mistakenly thought was just for Jews. There’s this Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius who has been asking some really good questions—go to his house and help him out. Subsequent chapters in Acts pick up the theme. Cornelius and his household convert to the message of Christ, start speaking in tongues as Peter and the other disciples did at Pentecost, more conservative Jews are appalled, and eventually there is a big council in Jerusalem to decide what the hell’s going on. But Pandora’s box has been opened never to be closed again. The old rule book is out, and it’s anyone’s guess where this is going to end up.

Don’t you hate it when someone changes the rules of the game just when you’ve gotten really good at working within the framework of the old rules? Just when you think you have everything relevant and necessary figured out, it all changes. In truth, we are currently in the midst of a radical, contemporary parallel of Peter’s vision.dt and owg In politics, one major party’s presumptive candidate for President has risen to the top of the polls by ignoring or deliberately breaking just about every traditional rule for success, while at the same time resisting the best efforts of traditionalists and moderates within his own party to derail his candidacy. Pundits and talking heads are reduced to “I don’t know” and “beats me” when asked to predict what is likely to happen in the next several months. transgenderPublic attitudes concerning homosexuality and same-sex marriage have evolved and shifted more quickly than anyone could have foreseen. People are talking about the rights of transgendered people. More millennials are checking “none” when asked about their religious affiliation than check the box for an identifiable religion; these “nones” exhibit little interest and find no home in traditional religious structures. Sheets from heaven filled with female priests, less-than-conservative Popes, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, and seventy-five-year-old Socialists are being lowered before the eyes of those who thought they knew what they were supposed to think about such things. What’s a person to do?hemingway

Jeanne and I saw “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” last evening, enjoying the sights of Havana that we experienced when we visited in 2003. Hemingway tells his young reporter friend on a couple of occasions during the movie that the value of a person depends entirely on how much that person is willing to risk. Sheets from heaven such as Peter experienced provide an opportunity for extreme risk—how willing am I to leave all of my preconceptions and frameworks of understanding behind in exchange for growth and change? Peter could have dismissed his experience as merely a result of overwork and hunger. But instead he helped to change the world. We are presented with similar opportunities every day.

Under My Skin, Part Two: Yes, It Hurts!

Bright and early on Wednesday morning, it began. Actually, it began around 10:30 on Wednesday morning—that’s bright and early for my son, who often works late into the evening. He had tattooed until midnight on Tuesday night. After Photoshopping two pictures of my dachshund Frieda into one, tracing the picture onto what looked all the world like carbon paper (familiar to those old enough to remember typewriters), then transferring the tracing onto my left arm, we were ready.

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“Looks like you’ll be doing paint by number,” I said to Caleb. “Thanks for reducing my profession to a kid’s activity, Dad,” he replied.

With a small light strapped on his forehead, Caleb looked like a miner. My sister-in-law LaVona had been asking me for a couple of days if I was nervous. I wasn’t, but even if I had been, I had announced to my corner of the world that this was happening, so I would be a great disappointment to all and a total pussy if I backed out now. cleatsI wasn’t sure what a tattoo needle biting into my skin would feel like, but it really wasn’t that bad (stay tuned). I told those present (Caleb, my brother, and me) that “It feels like a centipede is walking on my arm with tiny cleats on.” That was kind of a cool visual, one that worked for at least a while.

Caleb’s job was to do the tattoo, my brother’s job was to document the event with his camera and my tablet, and my job was to stay as still as possible as I reclined in the tattoo version of a dentist’s chair. All three of us are Tolkien fans, so we talked about our various favorite parts of the books and movies, then moved to “Breaking Bad,” “Rome,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Game of Thrones,” and every other movie and television show we could think of.WIN_20160413_12_51_08_ProWIN_20160413_12_06_29_Pro

 

 

 

 

This took up the first ninety minutes or so of the event, as Caleb tattooed from the bottom of Frieda’s outline (her coat) up through the right side of her face. I learned that different tattoo needles cause different uncomfortable and annoying sensations—the shading needle is not as intense as the outlining needle, for instance. But I was doing great—no cold sweats or familiar light-headedness that precedes fainting, and no fighting off the desire to scream or cry. I was the man, impressive to all present—especially me.WIN_20160413_12_51_16_Pro

The female contingent of my entourage—Jeanne, LaVona, and my daughter-in-law Alisha—Caleb’s partner in life and business as well as a tattoo artist in her own right—arrived around 1:00, fully expecting to hear screams, I think. They also were impressed with my Stoic determination. Jeanne tried to feed me an orange until Alisha reported that food is not allowed in the tattooing area. Apparently the Florida health inspector would not approve. Jeanne sat next to me on the opposite side from Caleb, LaVona watched Caleb’s activities with the same interest that people probably showed in Michaelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling, and Alisha—who sees and does this sort of thing every day—headed to the other room with Stephanie, the office manager, to do some paperwork and pay some bills. After a while, Jeanne and LaVona headed out to experience the wonders of downtown Fort Myers. They invited my brother to join them, but he knew better than to abandon his assigned photography tasks.WIN_20160413_14_07_55_ProWIN_20160413_13_51_37_Pro

 

 

 

 

About two hours in, we took a brief ten-minute break—I got to eat my orange (plus another), take a bathroom break, and was ready to finish this thing up. Caleb noted that it might feel a bit more painful when he started up again. That was an understatement. “FUCK!!!” my internal child yelled as we recommenced. “You’re right, that does hurt a bit more,” my outward philosopher commented. As it turns out, Caleb began to explain, first-time tattoo subjects tend to go through a version of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief while under the needle—I had spent the first two hours in Denial. But my best manly-man efforts kept me on top of sensations that were beginning to cross the line from annoying to “that fucking hurts.” And Caleb continued to fill Frieda in from the bottom up with his fancy tattoo-by-number instruments as I observed the process upside-down.WIN_20160413_14_26_29_Pro

At about the three-hour mark, Caleb got to Frieda’s left ear—the closest portion of the tattoo to my armpit. Apparently that’s a sensitive area. “HOLY SHIT!!!” my internal child screamed. “Are you using the outlining needle?” my external Stoic calmly asked—he was. Then he revealed that it was likely to get worse. Before long he would be returning to the bottom, coat area of the tattoo to add some shading (apparently the light colors have to be saved for last to avoid discoloration). “Whatever,” I thought—it can’t be any worse than it already is. About this time Jeanne and LaVona returned; after a few minutes of sitting next to me and observing that I was fidgeting more than when she had been there earlier, she helpfully suggested that I should sit still. “I’m doing the best I can!” I replied in a not-so-pleasant tone—Caleb observed that I had now moved from Denial to Anger. Helpfully, Tom Petty started singing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” right about then on the Pandora station Caleb had queued up, so I didn’t have to say any more.WIN_20160413_14_43_19_Pro

As he moved to the shading portion, Caleb reminded me of his warning that “this is not going to feel amazing.” It didn’t. For the first time I started practicing the deep breathing through my nose and my mantra from Psalm 133: “Surely I have set my soul in silence and in peace.” “You can scream, you know,” Jeanne reminded me. “That’s not how I roll,” I thought as I rummaged around for my silence and peace spot.WIN_20160413_15_14_51_Pro

I never fully found it, but got close enough to sort of stay on top of something that had passed from an annoying sting to at least the first circle of descent into pain. “How much longer do we have?” I asked Caleb as I moved from the Anger stage into Bargaining. “Not that much longer,” he replied, helping me skip from Bargaining over Depression into Acceptance.

I interpreted “not that much longer” to mean about five or ten minutes—by the time Caleb finished the shading and added some white highlights, it was about forty-five. In addition to the pain level increasing slowly but steadily, I also got a major left-cheek ass cramp that wouldn’t go away. Pandora gifted us with “Stairway to Heaven,” the greatest rock song ever, and shortly after, it ended.WIN_20160413_15_34_58_Pro

I rolled out of the chair, Caleb wiped the fruits of his labor down with alcohol, and I got to see the finished product in a full-length mirror for the first time. And there was Friedalina, with her “I am superior to you in every way” attitude, looking back at me from my upper left arm. It was worth it—I now have a tattoo immortalizing a dog, who also happens to have been the subject of my very first blog post almost four years ago and of my first short essay attempt at a writer’s conference eight or nine years ago.

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

From essay to tattoo—there’s something appropriate about that.WIN_20160413_16_04_14_Pro

lots of books

Forty-Seven Books

WIN_20160404_11_32_58_ProLast June as my sabbatical officially began, I decided to keep a running list of books read over the next year. Usually academics head into a sabbatical semester or year with a lengthy list of “must read” texts, tomes directly relevant to their research and the articles or books that are the required product of such semesters. Not me. My primary sabbatical project had over 300,000 words of my own writing from my three-and-a-half-year-old blog to work with. All of that writing was strongly influenced by dozens of books I read over the past several years; over the past nine months I have been in the enviable position of being able to read whatever the hell I wanted to rather than what I had to. As of today my “Read During Sabbatical” list is at forty-seven books and counting. A quick look at the list is very revealing, to me at least.

Mysteries11

I prefer my mysteries in series; over the past few months I have caught up on Anne Cleeves’ series set in Scotland’s Shetland Islands and Jussi Adler-Olsen Department Q series set in Copenhagen. pennyI’m just starting Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books set in southern Quebec, no more than an hour or so from where I grew up in northern Vermont. I’m pleased to see that there are twelve books in the series—that will keep me busy for a few weeks.

Why do I love mysteries so much? And why do I prefer them in series rather than in stand-alone volumes? The growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities of my mystery friends from volume to volume remind me of just how complicated and fascinating the human journey is. They remind me of me. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing exactly twenty years ago today, just as I can’t tell you what murder case Tommy Lynley and Barbara Havers were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. But I can tell you about how their love/hate partnership and friendship has developed and grown over their virtual years, just as I can tell you about my own wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in.

Novels—19

Each summer for the past couple of decades I have chosen a well-regarded novelist whose work I have never read and immerse myself in her or his work. This year I chose Joyce Carol Oates, which turned out to be a mistake. tarttAfter plowing through three of her dozens of novels (selections recommended by my Facebook friends familiar with her stuff), I decided that (1) I am impressed that she is one of the most highly thought of contemporary novelists and, (2), I am not sure why she is so highly regarded.

  • Best novel read: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. Close second: A Big Enough Lie, by my friend and colleague, Eric Bennett.
  • Worst novel read: A tie between Wm. Paul Young, Eve and James Martin, The Abbey

Theology (very broadly conceived)—6

I suppose it says something about my tastes that the two most recent theology books I have read are Pub Theology and Evolutionary Faith. These titles reflect dominant threads in my blog over the past few years. No Barth, Newman or Schillebeeckx for me—I agree with a Benedictine monk friend who was a high school biology teacher before he retired several years ago. In a group discussion he once said that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all of the theologians combined.” And he said it with a beer in his hand.

Philosophy (broadly conceived)—3

A philosophy professor who has read only three philosophy books during the first nine months of sabbatical? My philosophical hunger gets fed from many sources these days; very few of them are professional philosophers narrowly defined. But then, philosophy should never be “narrowly defined”—I tell my students that philosophy, the art of better and better questioning, is a natural human activity that can and should be applied to everything. It can also be stimulated by anything.Robinson

Collections of Essays—3

Two of the three volumes of essays on my list of forty-seven books are from Marilynne Robinson. Her novels, particularly Gilead, are pristine, beautiful, and powerful—her essays reveal the philosophical and theological underpinnings and insights that make such fiction possible. One paragraph of a Marilynne Robinson essay provides anyone with an attuned mind and heart with enough to chew on for days on end. Reading and digesting anything by Robinson requires work—work that is abundantly rewarded.

Memoir—3

Memoir has fascinated me ever since I was told seven or eight years ago at a writer’s workshop that my essays are “philosophical memoir.” The genre is tricky; it is difficult to thread the needle and use one’s own experiences as a pointer to something important instead of delusionally thinking that one’s self is that important thing. Perhaps my favorite book from the past nine months is an example of memoir at its best: meadRebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. It’s a book I wish I had written myself, given that Middlemarch is the greatest novel I’ve ever read. Guess I’ll have to write something else.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells aspiring writers that they should write what they would love to read. After reviewing my list of forty-seven books, I find that the relationship between reading and writing is both two-way and continuous. I do tend to write about themes that I love to read about and ponder, but I regularly gravitate toward new books that shine fresh light on what I’ve been writing and thinking about. I’m sure that a person with the proper training could conclude a number of things about me by studying my list of forty-seven books; my own conclusion is that Jeanne was right many years ago when she observed that I don’t need a lot of human friends, because my books are my friends. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to spend so much uninterrupted time with them.

For those who demand way too much information, here’s my sabbatical reading list as it currently stands, in the order that I read them:lots of books

  • Nesbo, Blood on Snow
  • Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
  • Klein, Travels with Epicurus
  • Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex
  • Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage
  • Tartt, The Goldfinch
  • Grose, A Good Place to Hide
  • Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem
  • Henry, We Only Know Men
  • Kanon, Leaving Berlin
  • Hawkins, The Language of Gracewatchman
  • Lee, Go Set a Watchman
  • Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
  • Cleeves, Raven Black
  • Cleeves, White Nights
  • Cleeves, Red Bones
  • Bennett, A Big Enough Lie
  • Cleeves, Blue Lightning
  • Oates, them
  • Wallace, Consider the Lobster
  • Ebrahim, The Terrorist’s Son
  • Jeeves, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods
  • Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys
  • Malesic, Secret Faith in the Public Square
  • Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints
  • Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing
  • Young, Eve
  • Martin, The Abbey
  • Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books
  • Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companionironic christian
  • Adler-Olsen, The Purity of Vengeance
  • Mead, My Life in Middlemarch
  • Wiseman, The Plum Tree
  • Gregory, The Taming of the Queen
  • Robinson, The Givenness of Things
  • Hannah, The Nightingale
  • Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene
  • Russell, Dreamers of the Day
  • Cleeves, Dead Water
  • Cleeves, Thin Air
  • Berghoef, Pub Theology
  • Adler-Olsen, A Conspiracy of Faith
  • Gulley, Evolutionary Faith
  • Russell, Doc
  • Russell, Epitaph
  • Adler-Olsen, The Marco Effect
  • Penny, Still Life

Jesus, Moe, and Curly

IT’S APRIL FOOL’S DAY–A PERFECT TIME FOR SOME IRREVERENCE!

One of my unexpected reading delights in the past few years has been discovering the writings of Anne Lamott. In her struggles with faith, she is equally intense in both her relentless pursuit of the transcendent and her irreverence. In Bird by Bird, she writes that “the mind frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colorectal theology, offering hope to no one.” The phrase truly inspires a picture worth more than a thousand words. I don’t mean to just pick on theologians, though; there’s plenty of colorectal philosophy, too. A Jesuit priest who was one of my professors and mentors during graduate school days once described logical positivism, the rigorously reductive philosophy of language that dominated philosophy in the English-speaking world during the middle decades of the twentieth century, as “mental masturbation.” I’ve been trying not to further develop the picture of Rudolf Carnap, A. J. Ayer, and Moritz Schlick in a Vienna Circle jerk, one that Ludwig Wittgenstein refused to join, ever since I heard the phrase.

My sense of humor tends toward non-sequiturs, irony, sarcasm, and (especially) irreverence. My comic heroes include Monty Python, The Three Stooges, just about everyone in The Blues Brothers, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and Gary Larson; I’ve frequently told my students that the day Larson stopped writing The Far Side  was one of the darkest days in the history of Western Civilization; Stewart’s retirement from The Daily Show rivals it in darkness. Given that academics tend to take themselves FAR more seriously than any group of human beings ever should, hardly a day goes by at work without my having the opportunity to be irreverent. Nietzsche (a very funny guy) wrote that “the noble soul has reverence for itself.” My response is that the healthy soul has reverence for very little.

Humor is one of the best antidotes to an overly serious and somber attitude toward things religious and spiritual. I learned this, amazingly enough, from my Baptist minister father whose sense of humor I inherited. He was always quick to shine an irreverent light on religious smugness and pomposity, although I most often saw his humor in action in the privacy of our home. There’s very little humor in the Bible; Jesus is not reported as ever even smiling (let alone laughing), so far as I’m aware. I wrote recently about a great novel in which two characters have an ongoing debate about whether Jesus ever laughed:

Making the Truth Laugh

But we only get a cardboard cutout Jesus in scripture—to see him as a man, I think some irreverent thoughts. Given that we human beings are flawed, imperfect, and funny to our toes but have perfectionist delusions, irreverence is a universal humanizer.

I like to imagine Jesus and his entourage sitting around a campfire telling off-color jokes, or the disciples having a farting and belching contest. It’s a given that each of the disciples had some peccadillo or personal habit that everyone else laughed at and made fun of. Jesus nicknamed James and John the “sons of thunder”—they were flying off the handle and getting inappropriately pissed all the time. Some laid back disciple (maybe Thaddeus—we never hear about him) was always playing practical jokes on them just to piss them off. Philip was a klutz, Bartholomew was a slob. Andrew snorted when he laughed like Jeanne does, causing everyone else to crack up (as she does). Matthew wrote “Kick Me” on the back of Peter’s robe. Someone in the group (probably Judas) was always trying to get out of paying his share at a restaurant. Everyone was always attempting to get Thomas to believe something without saying “I doubt it” first. They didn’t get their halos until a lot later. If the Bible censors and editors centuries later hadn’t been so humorless, we would have found out about the thirteenth through fifteenth disciples, Larry, Moe, and Curly.

Can’t you just see Jesus mocking and imitating the Pharisees’ tones of voice and mannerisms when they weren’t looking? Talk about irreverent—this guy made vats of wine for his first miracle, ate meals with the riff-raff of the day, and popped balloons of self-righteousness every time he saw them. I’ll bet he set people up just so he could do it. If there wasn’t a lot of smiling and laughing going on, the Jesus caravan  wouldn’t have hung together for so long. Son of God or not, he still had to put his robe on the same way as everyone else.

If God doesn’t have a sense of humor, we are in big trouble (or I am, at least). I admit that there’s a lot about divine wrath and judgment in scripture and the tradition, but enough already. I take comfort in one of the few references to laughter in the Bible. Heavenly strangers visit Abraham and tell him that he, at 100 years old, and Sarah, a 90-year-old spring chicken, will have a son within a year. Now the two of them have been trying for a long time (70-75 years) with no luck. Sarah, on the other side of the tent flap, laughs at the news—well to be fair, the KJV says she “laughed within herself.” It was probably one of those “yeah, right” or “whatever” sniffs or smirks. But her “within herself” laugh was outside herself sufficiently that the visitors hear it and call her on it. And then she lies and says she didn’t laugh. At this point the perceptive reader says “Oh Geez—you’re in trouble now. Aren’t you aware, Sarah, that in the very next chapter your niece-in-law Lot’s wife is going to get turned into a pillar of salt for just looking in the wrong direction?”

But Sarah isn’t divinely fried, or turned into a warthog, or a pepper shaker. After a brief “no I didn’t,” “yes you did” exchange with the divine visitors, Sarah leaves and Abraham starts bargaining with them over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. But three chapters later, sure enough Sarah’s and Abraham’s son is born. And they call him Isaac—“laughter.” He’s grain of sand number one in the great nation that has been promised to Abraham which will number as the “sands of the seashore.” If Lot’s wife had laughed first, then looked, she would have been fine.

No More Manna For You

joshuaA week ago yesterday the reading from the Jewish scriptures at church was brief and a bit odd. Early in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites cross the Jordan River and enter the land that has been promised to them, even though it is already occupied by nomadic tribes and city dwellers who are under the apparently mistaken impression that since they already have been living there for generations, it belongs to them. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, a whole generation of Israelites has been born and grown to adulthood who are unfamiliar with the foundational traditions underlying their heritage. First, the males of the new generation are all circumcised. After a short recovery period (recently circumcised guys aren’t going to be very good soldiers or anything else), we arrive at Sunday’s reading.

While the Israelites were camped . . . they kept the Passover in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the Passover, on the very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened bread and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Understanding the significance of this requires a bit of context—what was this “here today, gone tomorrow” manna all about?red sea

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

Manna turns out to be an Israelite culinary staple for the four decades of wandering in the wilderness. Not surprisingly, they get sick of eating the same damn thing for every meal—in Numbers, their dissatisfaction with their diet plays an important role in the development of a new leadership structure for the tribes. We find the liberated Israelites complaining—again. Everyone is pining for the wonderful variety of food they remember eating in Egypt. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” slaves in egyptOf course, they have conveniently forgotten that when they were in Egypt they were freaking slaves. God is understandably pissed (this is not the first time these complaints have arisen), and Moses is also annoyed. But Moses’ annoyance isn’t just with this rabble of complainers he is in charge of; he’s had it up to here with the Big Guy as well. He’s feeling overworked, overstressed, and unappreciated. After some negotiation with God and some creative input from Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, a new bureaucratic structure of authority is devised and everyone is happy—until the next time.

We discover in the Gospel of John that the Jews of Jesus’ day still took great pride in the fact that God loved their ancestors so much that they were fed for forty years with heavenly miracle food. The problem is, God is no longer in the manna business—according to the reading from Joshua a week ago, he went out of that business as soon as the Israelites crossed the Jordan River. dillardFurthermore, as Jesus reminds his Jewish brethren, eating manna apparently wasn’t that special. “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” Annie Dillard once called this the cruelest thing that Jesus ever said, but not really. Manna was a temporary stopgap to address an immediate need, it ended as soon as a better solution to daily hunger could be found, and it’s nothing to memorialize or interpret as proof that you are special.

Is there anything here for we contemporary folks, a lesson to be lifted out of the pages of Jewish scripture? The story of manna is both a coming-of-age story and a cautionary tale about not holding on to the old when the new is right in front of us. This could also be required reading for people who for a time are deservedly dependent on various social support systems and might be tempted to stay on the dole indefinitely. But as usual, I go first to the spiritual and psychological implications. My Baptist preacher father used to challenge his conservative listeners to “get out of the nursery” and spiritually grow up, noting that a thirty-five-year-old person still in diapers and sucking on a baby bottle would be a rather sad sight. grow upAnd yet that’s precisely what traditional religion often does for those it welcomes through its doors. It provides a lifetime of packaged answers and canned responses to important questions about what is greater than us when after a certain time individuals should be struggling with these questions without their hands being perpetually held. I remember being told as a kid in Sunday School that if the Israelites had taken the most natural direct route from Egypt to the Promised Land, it would have taken them no more than a few weeks. Instead it took them forty years, at least partially because they got used to living on divine handouts and the equivalent of nourishing baby food. The spiritual and psychological equivalent of manna is spooned out to the congregation in many churches every Sunday.

A final return to the newly circumcised and manna-deprived Israelites in the Book of Joshua is in order. It is worth noting that on the day after they celebrated Passover, the very day the manna dried up, “they ate the produce of the land.” In other words, they raided the fields of the people already living in Canaan—the Israelites had just shown up and had no grain-producing fields of their own yet.jericho When the divine handouts and support systems dry up, one needs to get creative. What’s going to replace the reliable divine infusions that are no longer available? It could be anything, including what might seem to be “out of bounds.” And what happens next? The Israelites engage in their first skirmish among many in the extended occupation-of-Canaan campaign that takes up the rest of Joshua—they lay siege to the walled city of Jericho. With help from a prostitute and by marching around the city until the walls fall down, Jericho is taken. Apparently divine help is still available—it just isn’t going to come in the package that we have become accustomed to.

anchor

Accept the Anchor

Is it ever right to hold a grudge? Is resentment or unforgiveness ever justified? These questions were front and center in a seminar with a bunch of freshmen not long ago; their answers revealed one of the most important and ubiquitous moral divides of all—the divide between what we think we should believe and what we actually believe. And behind the discussion loomed an even larger moral issue: moral compassWhere does a person’s moral compass come from, and is there any way of determining whether that moral compass is accurate?

I’ve been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and there are few areas of philosophy or philosophers that have not shown up somewhere in my classroom over those years. Ethics is my favorite systematic area of philosophy to teach on an introductory level, because ethics is where the often esoteric and abstract discipline of philosophy intersects immediately and directly with real life. And in the world of ethics, no philosopher ever got it better than Aristotle. Aristotle RaphaelHis framework for thinking about and trying to live the moral life is flexible, dynamic, creative and practical in that it provides broad but identifiable boundaries for the life of human excellence within which each individual human being has the opportunity to make many important choices about what sort of person she or he will be. Aristotle’s ethic avoids both the Scylla of absolute and rigid moral rules and the Charybdis of “anything goes” relativism by continually reminding us that there is a point to a human life, that some lives are clearly not worth living, and it is up to each of us to identify the purpose of our lives as we live out the process of shaping and defining that purpose.

The most important feature of Aristotle’s ethical vision is the virtues, which he identifies as “good habits,” habits that will more often than not facilitate the living of a flourishing human life. These he contrasts with vices, bad habits that tend to hinder the living of such a life. habitsThe notion of the key to the moral life being habits rather than obedience to rules is often both intriguing and confusing to eighteen-year-old freshmen; in seminar I focused my students’ attention on the “virtues as habits” idea by first brainstorming with them to produce a list of a dozen virtues, then providing them with a list of Aristotle’s examples of such habits scattered through the portions of his primary text on ethics that we had read for the day.

There were many virtues on our list that are not on Aristotle’s list. Where, for instance, are humility, honesty, patience, love, faith and hope? Perhaps even more confusing are some of the items that Aristotle does include on his list that were not on ours. There were several such items—wittiness, high-mindedness and right ambition, for instance—which raised eyebrows and provided an opportunity to consider just how different Aristotle’s definition of virtue is from our own. But the item on Aristotle’s list that bothered my students the most was “just resentment,” the idea that one of the good habits that will facilitate the life of human excellence is being able to tell when forgiveness is appropriate and when is it better to hold on to one’s resentment.forgiveness Aristotle did not list forgiveness as a foundational virtue but, as many of my students pointed out, we know better. Or do we?

“How many of you think that forgiveness is a virtue?” I asked my students—every hand went up. “How many of you can think of a situation in which it would be natural not to forgive?” Most hands, but not all, went up. I gave my own example of the latter. In the earlier years of my teaching career I often taught applied ethics courses, which usually turned out to be a crash course in various moral theories for a few weeks, which we then applied to four or five tough moral problems for the rest of the semester. capital punishmentThe issue of capital punishment, which I consider to be one of the toughest moral nuts to crack without making a mess, was often on the syllabus. I told my students that in the abstract I believe the best moral arguments are against capital punishment, starting with the simple point that to respond to harm with more harm reduces a society to the level of the person being punished. “But,” I quickly added, “I know that if someone killed my wife or my sons and was found guilty, if I lived in a state where the death penalty was on the books I would want to be the one to administer the lethal injection or pull the switch.” There’s a place where even if I have developed the habit of forgiveness, the habit of just resentment seems more appropriate.

Several students vigorously nodded their heads in agreement, but others pressed back. One student had learned an important lesson well from Socrates two weeks earlier when he told a friend why, even though he has an opportunity to escape his prison cell and execution, he will not do so. “Who are you damaging if you don’t forgive?” my student asked. “Not the guy who’s being executed. He’s dead. just resentmentBut you will never move on and will never get past what has happened if you carry resentment around for the rest of your life.” “What if I don’t want to move on?” I asked. “Then you’ll never be able to live Aristotle’s life of human flourishing,” she replied. Touché.

But most of my students agreed that to forgive indiscriminately is not natural to human beings, despite the psychological damage that accompanies lack of forgiveness. “So where did we get the idea that we must forgive regardless of the situation?” I wondered. “We certainly learned that long before we considered that not forgiving might hurtful to ourselves.” “I learned it in church,” one said, while another said that she had learned it in school (which, since it was a parochial school, is pretty much the same as learning it in church). That strikes me as the real truth. I learned that universal forgiveness is a virtue because I was taught at an early age that a first century Jewish carpenter said that we must love our enemies and told one of his followers that he should forgive his neighbor not the very challenging seven times but the impossible seventy times seven. Aristotle and JesusAristotle perhaps doesn’t put such a habit on his virtue list because he lived more than three centuries before the Jewish carpenter and was not inclined to include on his list habits that are humanly impossible.

Truth be told, we all have the foundational pieces of our moral lives given to us long before we develop the capacity to challenge them—and often we never get to the challenge part. I usually urge my students to question and challenge what they have never questioned and challenged. But on this given day it struck me that in addition to questioning, it is equally important to first identify what we have been given. The fact that my students thought Aristotle was wrong about just resentment because they had been carrying around the directive to forgive their whole life was not mistaken—it is just a fact. The Jewish carpenter was on display a few weeks later in seminar, and we remembered Aristotle.

Ileopardn The Leopard, a crime drama by  Jo Nesbo, the main character, an extraordinarily complex person in every way imaginable, is berating himself because he can’t seem to move past some inhibitions he has carried his whole life. A colleague suggests that he should relax.

You can’t just disregard your own feelings like that, Harry. You, like everyone else, are trying to leapfrog the fact that we are governed by notions of what’s right and wrong. Your intellect may not have all the arguments for these notions, but nonetheless they are rooted deep, deep inside you. Right and wrong. Perhaps its things you were told by your parents when you were a child, a fairy tale with a moral your grandmother read, or something unfair you experienced at school and you spent time thinking through. The sum of all these half-forgotten things. “Anchored deep within” is in fact an appropriate expression. Because it tells you that you may not be able to see the anchor in the depths, but you damn well can’t move from the spot—that’s what you float around and that’s where your home is. Accept the anchor.anchor

Not Feeling It

Let not the sun go down upon your wrath. Ephesians 4:26

After spending way too much time watching primary results on Super Tuesday evening, I spent some time the following morning (I guess that would be the morningSuper-Tuesday of Acceptable or Okay Wednesday) reading media summaries of and reflections on the preceding night’s festivities. Anyone who knows me or has read this blog more than once knows in what direction I lean politically, hence will not be surprised that I get news headlines and opinions daily by email from The New York Times and the Washington Post.

One of my favorite WaPo columnists is Dana Milbank; the title of his Okay Wednesday column was “Why Democrats didn’t feel the Bern.”milbank

Why Democrats didn’t feel the Bern

Seeking to explain why Bernie Sanders’ campaign, although far more successful than anyone predicted a year ago, hit a roadblock on Super Tuesday that may be impossible for him to get over or around, Milbank’s thesis was that “the Sanders challenge [to Hillary Clinton] was doomed by a fatal flaw: Democrats aren’t as unhappy as he needed them to be.” It’s hard to lead a successful revolution, in other words, when the people you need in the trenches of the revolution are relatively satisfied with the way things are going. What if the French peasants and working classes had said “well, things really aren’t that bad” in 1780s France? What if the majority of American colonists had thought “actually, I can sort of see why the British Parliament wants to tax us without representation”? mad as hellOf such attitudes a revolution is not made. Milbank’s suggestion was that Bernie needed Democrats to have the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” attitude made famous in the movie “Network” and currently on display with Donald Trump supporters. And Democrats weren’t feeling it.

Interested in what others thought of this thesis, I put the link to Milbank’s article on my Facebook wall without comment other than to provide the quote in the previous paragraph. Perhaps because of the timing of my posting the link, many readers assumed I was anti-Bernie and completely agreed with everything in Milbank’s column (neither assumption was true). My sole reason for putting it up was to see what others thought of the idea that revolutionary or radical change has to be fueled by extreme dissatisfaction and/or anger. feel the bernWhat I got instead was a bunch of Bern-lovers arguing that “it’s not over ‘til it’s over,” “the fix is in anyways,” “how can anyone say Bernie has failed when only fifteen states have chimed in?” and so on. Not wanting to get involved on either side of an issue that co-opted the one I wanted to discuss, I let things run their course without saying much. So I’m still wondering: Must anger and dissatisfaction be he primary driving forces behind meaningful change?

Politically speaking, I hope not. Anger is useful at times, but it is very hard to sustain—at least it is for me. Even in the turbulent 60s that I grew up in, anger was tempered with flower power and love-ins. When I hear people claiming that they are angry about everything and are willing to run the risk of electing a completely unqualified bigot to be the most powerful person in the world just to “shake things up,” I worry a great deal. But I am as aware as anyone of the need in our country for significant, meaningful, and permanent change in many aspects of our government, economy, and social structure. If not anger and dissatisfaction, what other possible source or sources of change might there be? My only recourse is to return what I have said and written many times (often to the consternation of my conservative friends and acquaintances)—cleansing the templeI am a liberal because I am a Christian. And being a Christian makes it very difficult to engage with politics as usual in recognizable political or even moral terms.

Let’s presume there is such a thing as “righteous anger.” Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is often pointed to by Christians as the primary proof that sometimes anger is justified and appropriate. But no one ever has suggested that his one-off anger episode changed anything permanently; chances are the money-lenders and sacrificial animal vendors were back on the job the next day. Justified anger is directed, as the phrase indicates, at injustice—something our society and our world is full of. Justice is one of the highest of human virtues, and we seem hardwired to recognize when it is violated. Revolutions fueled by anger are often aimed at correcting the most egregious of injustices. But such revolutions, even if well-intentioned and successful at first, invariably and predictably replace the corrected injustices with new ones, after a certain amount of time many people (often the same ones) are angry once again, and the cycle continues. Change for the sake of change is one thing, but change that truly establishes lasting justice is something that human beings have little experience with. This requires something greater than justice—something, I submit, that transcends mere hugivennessman capacities.

At its root, Christianity is not about justice at all. It’s about something that both transcends justice and opens the door to something altogether different: grace. In her recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Grace” explores how William Shakespeare treats this slippery concept in his later plays. One of Shakespeare’s middle plays, “The Merchant of Venice,” is one of the most brilliant explorations of justice and mercy ever written. But, Robinson argues, in his later plays such as “The Tempest,” Shakespeare takes on the more difficult challenge of investigating grace, “something pure and grander than mercy, something that puts aside the consciousness of fault, the residue of judgment that makes mercy a lesser thing than grace.” Justice is about fairness and mercy is about choosing to treat those who have done injustice as if they had not done so. But grace is something altogether different, an awareness that, in human hands, justice is often a zero sum game, a game whose rules have to be rewritten if we are ever to establish true change. Grace empowers a vision of human reality in which individuals are not lumped into categories, in which justice is not calculated mathematically, in which fairness is energized by a recognition of equal dignity rather than rights and entitlements, and which inspires “the intimation of a great reality of another order, which pervades human experience, even manifests itself in human actions and relations, yet is always purely itself.”republic

Those inspired by grace rather than justice need, first, to realize that grace cannot be institutionalized. Although a world or society of perfect justice has never existed, most human beings can imagine what such a society might look like—some of the great works of literature and philosophy provide us with glimpses. Grace is of a completely different order, calling for individual persons to bring a transcendent, divinely inspired energy into mundane human activity. That’s what the heart of the Christian message—Incarnation—means. The gospels are full of it—when Jesus advocates perspectives and actions that make little common sense but are strangely attractive and beautiful, he’s describing grace. We engage with it and come to understand it more effectively and deeply through parables, stories, and examples rather than rules and moral principles. And it cannot be systematized. But the good news is that it is applicable everywhere. Whether I am seeking to “Feel the Bern” or “Make America Great Again,” I can seek to be a vehicle of grace in a world that is crying out for something more than change for the sake of change.

ghost of jesus

The Ghosts of Jesus Past

My birthday is in four days (the big 6-0), so I’m doing a bit of thinking about where I’ve been and where I might be going . . .

living stonesToward the end of a particularly lively and deep seminar with my “Living Stones” adult Christian education group after church a few Sundays ago, I asked the group “so what makes us think that we are anything special, that Episcopalians have a better angle on God than anyone else? What makes us think that our way is any better than anyone else’s, Christian or otherwise, other than that it is our way?” Very quickly one person replied “it isn’t any better.” And everyone else in the group of fifteen or so proceeded to affirm this answer, either with positive head nods or similar verbal replies. We are all seekers after God, but other than the matter of “comfort zone,” there is nothing that makes our chosen framework for that search any better than the way of other Christian group, or the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or any other way for that matter. Oh my. So it has come to this.

Earlier in the discussion I had told the group the story of a conversation that Jeanne and I had with our good friends Michael and Suzy a few years ago as we traveled with them and their boys to some central Florida attraction. I don’t remember any of the details of the conversation other than something Michael said. ecclesiamHe’s a Catholic theologian, and offered that “I fully expect to see my Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters in heaven.” No extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”) for him. Those would have been burning-at-the-stake words for any Catholic theologian not many centuries ago; truth be told, the Baptists I grew up with would not only have wanted to virtually burn Michael (Protestants have done such things in the past), but would also have considered Michael as on the fast track to perdition simply because he is Catholic. I agreed with Michael, and had for some time, but to hear my Episcopal friends take his broad ecumenism without blinking as a “no brainer” was revealing. I had mentioned toward the beginning of seminar that my own spiritual journey and process of growth over the past few years has, among other things, been a slow process of putting some very loud and intrusive ghosts to rest. ghost of jesusBut by the end of seminar I could still faintly hear them rolling over in their graves. I could also hear, more distinctly, different ghosts altogether. The ghosts of Jesus past.

The fundamentalist, evangelical Baptists I grew up with had their own version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, although no one in the group knew Latin. We didn’t need to, because we knew the King James Bible backwards and forwards. The Bible is littered with verses that we took to mean that it is difficult to get into heaven, and those who don’t find the way are going to hell.tattoo

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.

There is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved.

Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

And we sang hymns and contemporary tunes every Sunday that doubled down on this exclusivity.the blood

What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Jesus died so I might live.

fire insuranceThese all lead to Fire-insurance policy Jesus, a Jesus whose whole purpose was to provide a way of escaping the wrath of a pissed-off God the Father and the eternal flames of hell. And, not surprisingly, we were convinced that our small group, and the few other groups who believed exactly as we did, had nailed it. We possessed the one effective policy—and all of the others were pretenders and fakes that would have no cash value on judgment day.

I was taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine—a doctrine that has confounded and confused the greatest philosophical and theological minds for the past two millennia—but in reality, it was divine Jesus who got all the play. human and divineI wanted to know what Jesus was like as a kid my age, but all I got was one story from years 2-30 about Jesus from the gospels, a story in which the twelve-year old Jesus is polishing his halo rather than acting as twelve-year old humans do. Grown-up Jesus never laughed, never had fun, was always serious, was always doing things that real human beings don’t do (like performing miracles and rising from the dead), wasn’t married, didn’t have kids—very difficult to relate to on a human level. So I came to think that despite the doctrine, Jesus in truth was a divine being pretending to be human for a certain amount of time, just so the human beings around him would be a little bit more comfortable. Jesus wearing a human Halloween mask was unapproachable, impossible to resonate with, and yet was the person in whom I was supposed to trust and believe, the guy who was my only ticket to eternal happiness.

I stopped believing in Halloween Jesus a long time ago, and I blame him for my immediate attraction as an adult to stories in which Jesus is acting like a normal, limited human being rather than God in the Flesh or the Savior of the World. I wrote on this blog a week or so ago about just such a story.imagesJMFY4ONJ

Mister Perfect has a Bad Day

If the Incarnation means anything, it means that God became meat (carne = flesh, meat). That crass equivalence reminds me that this is not a story of an ethereal and unapproachable bridge to an unknown God, but rather a story of divine love so extreme that all of the trappings of divinity are dropped in exchange for becoming human. It makes it a lot more possible to believe in a continuing Incarnation—God in us—if the model and paradigm was just like us and still was a worthy bearer of the divine.

Putting a stake through the heart of Fire-Insurance Policy Jesus was a lot more difficult and has taken a lot more time. He’s like a vampire—every time I think he’s done for, he pops up somewhere else in a slightly different form. hellfireBut putting Halloween Jesus in the grave has helped. What is the Christian faith really about? Escape from eternal damnation or a transformed life and working to establish God’s kingdom on earth now? With the help of mentors, conversations and books over the past several years I have strongly landed on the latter option. So much so that I can truthfully say that I don’t know exactly what will happen when I die, and it doesn’t matter.

I am not a God-believer because it guarantees me an attractive afterlife. I believe in God because it is the only framework within which I find the empowerment and direction to avoid cynicism and despair. And, sure enough, it is not only Christianity that provides such a framework. I am a Christian because it is my history, my heritage, my home. cloudsBut I can imagine a Muslim, a Jew, or any other God-believer finding similar strength and empowerment in their own histories and traditions (not so sure about the atheists, though—food for thought!). The Living Stoner who said that there is nothing special or better about our (my) way of doing things was absolutely right—as Marcus Borg writes, “there is a cloud of witnesses, Christian and non-Christian, for whom God, the sacred, is real, an element of experience.” This has nothing to do with doctrine, dogma, or intellectual affirmation. But the ghosts of Jesus past are not happy.

The Problem of Goodness

During the early years of my career I developed the habit of teaching at least one overload course per semester in my college’s evening program. The immediate reason for taking on the extra course was entirely mercenary—new professors don’t make a lot and we needed the money. sceTeaching in the evening school—it’s called the School of Continuing Education (SCE) at the college where I have taught for the past twenty-one years—provides unique challenges. The typical evening course has an eclectic group of students, ranging from day students who either are trying to earn an “easy” three credits or are making up for an “F” the previous semester to adult students who are earning an associates or bachelor’s degree one course at a time, a process often stretched over many years. I particularly love teaching adult students, grown-ups with life experience who often are either making great personal sacrifices returning to college after many years or who are in their fifties or sixties (or older) taking their first college course. Such students seize ownership of their education in ways that eighteen to twenty year olds seldom do. They challenge, question, participate, keep the teacher on her or his toes, and inject life into even the most boring topics. I stopped teaching regularly at night a number of years ago for several reasons, but still miss my SCE students.wordperfect

I remember with particular fondness an introductory philosophy course that I taught many years ago in the SCE, so long ago that I no longer have the syllabus and lesson plans in my digital archives (the documents were probably written in WordPerfect). The twenty-five students were the usual grab bag, including five or six youngsters from the day school, a couple of ROTC officers, some secretaries and administrative assistants from various departments and offices across campus, and a guy who had just been hired by the college as a night shift security guard. Before I even met my students I decided that they would be guinea pigs as I chose to scrap earlier versions of the syllabus and do something new. A standard topic in introductory philosophy courses is “the problem of evil”—why do bad things happen to good people, problem of goodnessif there is a good God why is there so much evil in the world, and so on. My intuition then (and now) was that a different angle on this stale set of questions was needed. What if we flipped the question on its head and asked where goodness comes from? After all, we are thoroughly familiar with the multitude of bad things that humans do and that happen to them. Instead of spinning our collective wheels there, why not investigate the phenomenon of goodness? How does goodness happen in a world where bad things grab most of the headlines and air space? I called the course “The Problem of Goodness,” and we were off.

I remember the discussions far more clearly than the texts and materials we used. I do remember spending class time with several films—“Schindler’s List, ” “Playing for Time,” and the wonderful “Life is Beautiful.”life is beautiful We read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of how the seeds of a powerful therapeutic technique for psychological healing were planted and nurtured in the midst of Auschwitz. But my main “take away” from this course came to light during one of our final class meetings. “What conclusions can we draw from our semester together?” I asked. “What have we learned about the possibility of goodness in the face of a world filled with evil?”

Various suggestions were offered, but I have never forgotten an idea contributed by one of the ROTC officers sitting in the back. “It seems to me,” he said, “that Goodness is perpetuated by individuals while evil, more often than not, is perpetrated by groups.” Such sweeping generalizations are always open to counter-examples, but at the time the students agreed that our studies that semester supported the conclusion. I have frequently returned to this thesis over the fifteen or more years since our “The Problem of Goodness” class, most recently in a colloquium I have team-taught twice with a colleague from the history department called “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era”—we will be teaching it for a third time in Spring 2017. In this focused investigation of goodness in the context of evil, the conclusions drawn by my students have been remarkably similar to those drawn by my students almost two decades ago—goodness is sparked by individual commitment—what is committed to is less important than the requirement that individuals must be willing, often contrary to powerful collective forces, to risk a great deal–even one’s own life—in the pursuit of goodness.Edmund-Burke

Edmund Burke famously said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In order, however, for this to be more than just another platitude we need to ask exactly what is required for good people to do something. It is one thing to rail against the failure of individuals to resist the collective power of evil, but it is another to specify what is needed for people to act. In the final seminar of my “Love Never Fails” colloquium, I gave my students the following assignment: Based on what we have learned, suppose that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

know who you areKnow who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. I cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. But one of the continuing themes of the semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied, this was not an academic exercise. socratesJust as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. As Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is the ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” There is no greater technique for escaping the iron grasp of ego and self-centeredness than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

fear notDon’t be afraid: There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

Reading and Writing

My twenty-plus years teaching at Providence College have afforded me an opportunity every semester for team-teaching in the large interdisciplinary program that is the heart of our core curriculum (a program I directed for four years ending last July). downloadTeam-teaching is fun, exhilarating, and demanding; this begins with the planning of the next semester’s syllabus. Faculty from different departments having different experiences with and notions about pedagogy bring all sorts of ideas to the table and do not always agree, particularly about the amount of daily and weekly work to schedule for our future students. My contribution to the discussion is always the same: “They should read until they drop, then write until they drop again.” In that order—there’s nothing that feeds intelligent writing more effectively than reading.

It is strange that I temporarily forgot this important connection between reading and writing during the past few months. The working highlight of the first half of my sabbatical was an intense spurt of writing from September to Thanksgiving, surely energized by a bicycle mishap in early October; I all of a sudden had to find something to do with the four to five hours per day during which I had been riding my bicycle and getting into the best shape of my life prior to the mishap. In addition to completing a second draft of my current book project, I was able to maintain my established blog routine of two new 1200-1500 posts per week—something that my most famous writing friend, kathleen Kathleen Norris, suggested last May that I would probably not be able to do while writing a book. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the book is closely related to my past three-and-a-half years of blog work.

But since Thanksgiving, the writing energies have begun to dry up. I still have been able to produce new blog posts, but a couple of them seemed forced and I was often writing under self-imposed deadline pressure. The proposal that needs to be written for my book draft wasn’t getting written. Just a few days before Christmas I realized one of the main reasons for my current writing malaise—reading and writingI haven’t been reading much for the past few months. There are a number of excuses I might offer, but none of them fully explain why, when I actually have more unstructured time than any grown-up should have, I have been neglecting my first love—reading. I’ve even gotten out of the habit of reading the daily psalms every morning. Very bad idea.

A quick review of my blog posts from a year ago was illuminating. Many of my late December and early January posts either mention or focus directly on either Barbara Taylor Brown or Christopher Wiman. Why? Because just before Christmas break last year the work of these two authors was recommended to me by two different friends, so I spent Christmas break reading several of Brown’s books and a memoir by Wiman. The point? I write about what I am reading—the ideas, images, and insights of a good book never fail to be evocative. my life in middlemarchSince I think best when I am writing, that’s where these ideas, images and insights become my own.

Awareness frequently produces change, and this time was no exception. Awareness of my reading slump caused me to pick up Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a biography/memoir centered on George Eliot’s masterpiece (and my favorite novel). Sure enough, several passages inspired by Mead’s book are central to my New Year’s Eve blog post, and others will form the core of my forthcoming Valentine’s Day post for Jeanne. Then for Christmas Jeanne gave me The Good Book, a collection of essays, edited by Andrew Blaumer, in which thirty-two writers from all sorts of angles write about their favorite passages and characters from the Bible. Although the older I get the less I believe in mere coincidence, good bookI “coincidentally” opened first to “The Womb and the Cistern Cell,” an essay by Brooks Hansen about John the Baptist.

John “just happens” to be one of my favorite characters from the New Testament; twice in the past four years I have had the privilege of giving an Advent sermon on John the Baptist Sunday in early December. On one end of his life is a miraculous birth narrative that in my estimation rivals that of his younger cousin Jesus, and at the end of his life he finds himself in a dungeon (a cistern well) and a state of despairing doubt. He sends a question via his disciples to Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? These are the last words we hear from this man, the first person recorded to recognize adult Jesus for who he was. Hansen finds this remarkable, and so do I; he concludes his essay by reflecting on the intimate connection between belief and doubt.

Light is born of darkness. Darkness is the necessary precondition of light. Belief, likewise, is born of doubt, the baptistwhich is its necessary precondition. Doubt is the soil from which faith grows. Therefore, if one is determined to imagine John the Baptist as the first and most authoritative voice to recognize Jesus as savior—the first, in other words, to believe—then John must, by that token have been the first to doubt. That, too, is Law. And if we ever encounter any teaching, or feel ourselves succumbing to any creed or system of belief, that does not admit this, and does not struggle intimately and often—in the cistern of its soul—with the fear that it is mistaken, misdirected, falsely premised, or corrupt at its heart—we should take heed:

That is not faith. That, in fact, is a fairy tale.

I wish I had read this before my most recent sermon three weeks ago—it would have made the cut. I frequently say and write that in just about all aspects of belief, certainty is vastly overrated—Hansen makes the same point much more eloquently. This is why reading feeds writing. Reading enlarges one’s vocabulary, broadens one’s perspective, and provides examples of the richness of language and experience. And it is fun—what’s not to love?