Category Archives: suffering

Who Would Jesus Bomb?

As I read listened to and read the summaries of the President’s speech on the ISIS/ISIL threat in Iraq and Syria last week, I was reminded of a post I wrote exactly a year ago in during a different flare-up in the Middle East. And I continue to wonder: Who Would Jesus Bomb?

There are many things that I love about visiting our friends Mike and Suzy. Included among those things are the various and random items spread about their house that make me think. We usually enter their house through the garage; next to the door into the house is an extra refrigerator/freezer containing, amongst other thing, the better-than-Bud-and-Miller beer that Michael always makes sure is on hand for my visits. I take full responsibility for raising Michael’s beer awareness over the years and proudly survey the contents each visit.

For all of the years we have been visiting, two bumper stickers on the outside of this refrigerator have frequently caught my attention. The first: When Jesus said “Love your enemies,” I think he probably meant don’t kill them. The second: Who Would Jesus Bomb?  Striking, provocative, and very timely. This week the most “do-nothing” U. S. Congress in recent memory is debating what should be done in response to events on the other side of the world—the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. Do-Nothing-Congress1[1]This is a Congress whose members have become so constitutionally incapable of true discussion and compromise that they would rather use each other’s toothbrushes than try to understand each other’s arguments. Yet now they are strangely united by the question of what is the best and most appropriate violent response to violence. Although possible diplomatic solutions have been proposed, the tenor of the conversation often is not so much whether to respond with violence, as when and how.

I do not pretend to know what is in the best interest of the United States or of those in the Middle East. Whatever votes are taken, whatever decisions are made, and whatever actions are endorsed will be fraught with uncertainty and subject to endless second-guessing. I am also strongly committed to the separation of religion and politics in the sense that public policy should not be fashioned with any particularly religious framework in mind. The most pressing questions for me these days are almost entirely personal. Over the past few years I have begun to explore the parameters of my Christian faith in new ways, discovering over and over again that these parameters are more expansive and flexible than I could have ever imagined. wwjd-bracelet[1]But the question of whether or how to respond to what the Syrian government allegedly did to its own citizens jerks me up short when considered in the light of my Christian beliefs. I find absolutely no justification in the seminal texts of my faith to justify violence under any circumstances, even if such violence is proposed as a measured and proportional response to violence of a different order entirely. And this concerns me.

Truth in advertising requires that I reveal that my natural tendencies lean strongly toward pacifism and non-violence. I grew up in the sixties in the midst of the Vietnam War; my brother, three-and-a-half years older than I, was a conscientious objector. The draft lottery ended just as I became old enough to be subject to it; had it continued, I would have followed in my brother’s footsteps as a conscientious objector or perhaps in the footsteps of others to Canada.Vietnam_War_Protest_in_DC,_1967[1] So it is not surprising that I resonate with the non-violence and pacifism of the Gospel texts—they align with and confirm my natural tendencies. For exactly these reasons, I am very cautious about making claims concerning the appropriate Christian position to take in cases such as have arisen in Syria. The philosopher in me knows that human beings, myself included, have a very strong tendency to interpret texts through subjective lenses and then treat that interpretation as if it was objectively true.

But I challenge anyone to find in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s parables, or his teachings from the Gospels anything that justifies responding to violence with violence, regardless of the nature of the violence that demands a response. This is what makes even sketching the outlines of a consistent Christian position in cases such as Syria so maddeningly difficult. Jesus in the Gospels continually stresses the importance of caring for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick—the disenfranchised and powerless, in other words. _143081042209598[1]And could there be a more blatant example of abusing the powerless than killing innocent civilians, particularly children, by using chemical warfare?

A text I have used frequently in classes over the past several years is Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Philip Hallie’s riveting account of how the villagers of Le Chambon, a small Protestant village in southeastern France, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them children, under the noses of the Gestapo and the Vichy police during World War II. Inspired by the Gospel in action as taught to them by their dynamic pastor, Andre Trocme, the villagers hid and cared for refugees in their homes, farmhouses, shops and places of worship until they could safely be taken across the nearby border into neutral Switzerland. And they did all of this, at the continual risk of their own lives, in the open while fully dedicated to non-violence.

Hallie reports that upon the publication of his book recounting the story of Le Chambon, the author of one of the first letters he received sought to remind him of just how limited and insignificant the Le Chambon story really was in the larger context of World War II and the Holocaust. “Le Chambon wasn’t even in the war,” the author of the letter wrote. “Reverend Trocme and a miniscule number of equally eccentric kindred-spirits had no effect,” and mattered only to mushy-minded moralists. Only vast forces “make history,” forces energized by power that overwhelms moral niceties over and over again. Le-Chambon-before-the-war-634x397[1]“Nothing happened at Le Chambon,” the letter concluded, at least nothing worth paying much attention to.

Hallie allows that “the moral brilliance of the villagers does not light up the moral darkness around the village as much as it makes that vast darkness seem darker by contrast.” Individual and collective acts of moral bravery in the face of inhumanity, terror, and violence often appear to have no greater impact than spitting into the face of a hurricane. Force can only be met by greater force, violence often can only be thwarted by violence. Hallie himself was a combat artilleryman in the European theater during World War II, and writes “I knew that decent killers like me had done more to prevent the mass murders from continuing than this pacifist mountain village had done.” So in the real world, a world in which no one loves their enemies and no one turns the other cheek, why even try to think through violence within a framework of non-violence?

The world in which we live does not accommodate non-violence as a response to violence, peace as a response to aggression, apparent weakness as a response to power. Every attempt to institutionalize goodness and organize moral behavior ends up playing the same sort of power game that is supposedly being opposed. The message of the gospel is gutted every time it is joined to recognizably effective tools of power, even with the best of intentions. As followers of Jesus, we are saddled with a perspective and a call that is guaranteed to be a failure. Teachings_of_Jesus_6_of_40._parable_of_the_leaven._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible[1]And this should not be a surprise, since the whole Christian story is rooted in weakness, suffering, loss and apparent failure.

But this is what makes the presence of true faith and belief in this world so crucial. We are told in the gospels that “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Despite its apparent insignificance, yeast over time works its apparent magic on the lump of dough, changing it incrementally into something entirely different. Who would Jesus bomb? No one, because that is not the divine response to even the most horrific of evils. We are called to be present in the midst of it all, not proposing policies that God would endorse or solutions stamped with divine approval, but rather as witnesses of hope, of the possibility of transformation, and of an insistence that a better way is possible. As Philip Hallie wrote to his letter-writing critic, “thanks for your point of view. But something really did happen there.” We are called to be catalysts for changes that often are so small as to seem invisible. But as the proverb reminds us, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

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Fake It ‘Til You Make It

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. I believe in God, and God exists

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

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

chart

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

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

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

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

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

The Imposter

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

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

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

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

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My Neighbor

0[1]Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement. It is a selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues–Iris Murdoch

I recently found myself in the midst of a Facebook discussion, the sort of online discussion that I try to avoid at all costs. The topic was same-sex marriage;s-FACEBOOK-PROFILE-PICTURE-RED-HRC-large[1] in the middle of some testy back and forth between persons of vastly different beliefs and commitments, one of the few students I am friends with on Facebook, a young Muslim woman, posted this:

I honestly wonder – why are some religious folks so quick to condemn and oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage and yet lack a response of even a marginally close degree of intensity to such inequalities of wealth and resource that inevitably lead to world hunger and suffering – inequalities which their respective religious texts and prophets make clear to condemn and resist far more than to gay marriage? I am not seeking to belittle or invalidate anyone’s beliefs but am genuinely seeking to understand the difference in importance given to these issues – I would truly appreciate an answer to this, from anyone here.

For me, at least, that cut through a lot of the bullshit that had been e-flying around in previous comments. I posted the following in response:

Unfortunately, I think it is because what the great religions REALLY require of us is too hard. The prophet Micah wrote that what God requires of us is to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” That’s a lot harder than taking positions on social issues that don’t cost anything. It’s very clear from reading Scripture that the measure of our journey with God is how we treat the poor, the needy, the disenfranchised, the suffering–not the positions we took on same-sex marriage, or abortion, or how often we were in church.Aime-Morot-Le-bon-Samaritain[1]

All of this is placed in sharp focus by a very familiar story. Is there any of Jesus’s parables more familiar than The Good Samaritan? And is there any parable whose message is more impossible to live out? Jesus uses the story to illustrate mercy, the second of Micah’s directives for following God, agreeing with the man who concludes that the true neighbor in the story was “the one who showed mercy.” I’d like to reflect on the Good Samaritan story with the last of Micah’s directives in view: Humility.

On its face, humility is not a popular virtue; indeed, self-effacement, being a doormat, deference to others—all popular synonyms for humility—seem more like vices than a virtue. aristotle-conferance_1[1]Humility is not included in Aristotle’s famous list of virtues, and philosophers for millennia have struggled with humility, often ignoring it or altogether denying that it is a virtue. One contemporary philosopher suggests that humility “seems at best a saving grace of the mediocre and at worst an excuse for passivity towards human wrongs.” It certainly doesn’t fit comfortably with the dominant American notions of independence, individuality, and aggressive achievement. And yet one can scarcely read a page of the Psalms or the New Testament without encountering calls for humility. So what exactly is being called for?

In the Good Samaritan story, the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all see the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead in the ditch. And yet their manner of seeing is very different. The story says that in the case of both the priest and the Levite, “levite[1]when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” I have heard and read many explanations, theories, and accounts of why these religious guys walked on by; the most common is both the priest and Levite assumed that the man was dead and did not want to violate the many prohibitions in the Law against those who handled holy things for a living touching anything dead. In other words, the priest and the Levite saw the injured man through the lenses of their societal roles and commitments. They saw the injured man with the eyes of the self.

“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” If the Samaritan had chosen, as the priest and the Levite did, to see the injured man through self-defining lenses, he also would have walked on by. Travelling on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the Samaritan was in enemy territory—Samaritans and Jews had nothing to do with each otherpara-1[1]. The man in the ditch was almost certainly the sort of person that the Samaritan had been taught to hate. The Samaritan is on a journey, undoubtedly in a hurry, with miles to go before he sleeps—why does he stop and allow his agenda to be seriously disturbed? What does he see that the priest and the Levite did not see?

As simple as it sounds, the Samaritan stopped because he saw the injured man unfiltered. Simone Weil calls this ability to see unfiltered “attention,” and suggests that it is at the heart of true human connection. “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” 1358330283_humility2[1]Another word for this miraculous ability to see unfiltered, to attentively look at what is in front of me unencumbered by my usual filters and agendas, is humility. And it is at the heart of true faith.

And this, I believe, is why defining ourselves morally in terms of positions taken on hot button issues is far more attractive than actually attempting to live a life guided by what the texts simone_coat[1]and principles of one’s faith actually demand. As Simone says, true attentiveness—true humility—is a miracle. Human beings are not naturally wired in this way. Iris Murdoch notes that “we live in a dream, we’re wrapped up in a dark veil, we think we’re omnipotent magicians, we don’t believe anything exists except ourselves. Our attachments tend to be selfish and strong, and the transformation of our lives from selfishness to unselfishness is sometimes hard even to conceive of.” This is what makes the Good Samaritan miraculous—he is able to truly see what is front of him and respond directly without a moment’s concern for anything other than what this man needs.

Iris Murdoch defines love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Love and humility, in other words, go hand in hand. Love and humility energize the apprehension of something else, something particular, as existing outside us. In our daily lives we are continually confronting something other than ourselves. We all, not only can but have to, deal with the resistant otherness of other persons, other things, history, the natural world, and this involves a perpetual effort. Good_Samaritan_Sicard_Tuileries[1]But at the heart of the Christian faith, illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan, is the promise that the possibility of transformative love and humility is in each of us, ready to be introduced into the world if we will only look away from ourselves toward what is directly in front of us.

We are called to cultivate Good Samaritan moments—moments in which the human being in front of us is not dark-skinned, poor, female, gay, disabled, conservative, wealthy, Muslim, male, straight, ugly, liberal, old, Christian, obese, or attractive, but rather is a person whose needs, hopes and dreams are real and independent of us. It is a task to come to see the world as it is, a task that can only be attempted with the miraculous energy of humility. When I believe that I have seen all there is to see, the Christ in me says “let me look again.”

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Joy in a Minor Key

400px-Circle_of_fifths_deluxe_4_svgAt some point early in their musical training, all serious musicians are introduced to the “circle of fifths,” a handy chart that maps out the complicated but fascinating relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, as well as the associations between the major and minor keys.I was fortunate to have Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard, as my piano teacher from age four to eleven—she was a stickler for theory and precision and had a large poster of the circle of fifths on the wall of her studio. I was immediately fascinated—it looked like a labyrinth or something out of The Lord of the Rings, and as I was gradually introduced to the twelve major keys, the twelve related minors, and their harmonic relationships I was able to trace geometrically on the chart the harmonies I had been hearing in my head for as long as I could remember.

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

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

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

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

Living Stones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Powers of Words

The building looked like the love child of a logic problem and a crossword puzzle. Richard Powers, Orfeo

            During the summer I tend to plow through a book per week, making up for all of the months during the academic year when I do not have the time to read anything other than what I have assigned the students or have been assigned by my colleagues and superiors. Powers orfeoLast week’s book was Richard Powers’ Orfeo. Powers is one of my favorite novelists, but I don’t recall ever having a conversation with anyone about his books. He’s the sort of author whose books win awards, whose novels reviewers rave about as “brilliant,” a “tour de force,” and “his generation’s Herman Melville,” but few people read. Orfeo is his eleventh novel—I’ve read them all, but could not tell you off the top of my head the plot of any one of them. Powers is incredibly smart, knows a ton about classical music, science, philosophy, politics and a bunch of other things—and he enjoys showing off his intelligence. His books often strike me as clumps of genius loosely connected by characters and a plot. What makes me keep track of when the next Richard Powers novel is coming out and purchasing it as soon as it is released is his mastery of the English language. I can think of no author—and I’ve read many—who astounds me more often, page after page, with a phrase or descriptive sentence that makes me put the book down and simply say “Wow. That’s beautiful” (or brilliant or a tour de force). Orfeo is no exception.

And so she sat pushing her pen across the page like a pilgrim slogging to Compostela.

compostelaReplace “pushing her pen” with “clacking his laptop keys” and I know exactly what Powers is describing. I’ve never made the pilgrimage to Compostela, but have talked to a few persons who have. It takes daily preparation beforehand, but above all requires a daily commitment. Some days will be bright and beautiful, filled with great conversation and a general joie de vivre. Other days will be drizzly, cold, gloomy, and invite one to stay in bed. But getting to Compostela requires putting in the miles every day, regardless of weather and/or emotional contingencies. Writing is like that. Waiting until the stars are aligned and you have something important to say means that you will wait forever. It’s like police work—days on end of boredom punctuated by unpredictable moments of sheer terror (or inspiration or insight if one is writing—hopefully writing doesn’t always inspire terror). The immediacy of regular blog writing is helpful—committing myself to two new posts every week guarantees that I won’t wait on elusive inspiration.

Dissonance is a beauty that familiarity hasn’t yet destroyed.

one of these thingsI try to introduce my students to the important concept of cognitive dissonance all the time, usually starting with a reminder of the Sesame Street game: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong.” Our natural tendency is to resolve dissonance into similarity, even if it requires forcing the issue. But part of a liberal education is a growing awareness that sometimes contradictions not only cannot be but should not be resolved. Familiarity breeds contempt, but dissonance keep us on our toes—and that’s a beautiful thing.

“Isn’t the point of music to move listeners?”

“No. The point of music is to wake listeners up. To break all our ready-made habits.”

TNelsonhe same is true of the learning process. Important thinkers from Aristotle to Simone Weil tell us that the struggle and process involved in grappling with unfamiliar ideas is often far more important than getting “the right answer.” In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Christopher Nelson (President of my alma mater St. John’s College) nails it: “A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match.”

We are brought back to ourselves by solitude, and from ourselves to God is only a step.

With this I return, as I frequently do, to a phrase from an obscure medieval nun that captures the essence of what I learned on sabbatical five years ago: My deepest me is God. Using the vocabulary of Christianity, Powers is identifying the truest meaning of incarnation, the divine embedded in human form. The point is just as powerful when taken outside of a religious context. Usually what I most need and desire cannot be found by turning outward to things, persons, jobs or events. The source of everything I need is internal. EttyI spent all of last semester with a bunch of sophomores studying how various people in the worst possible circumstances time and again came to this realization. Etty Hillesum was a case in point.

Etty Hillesum has been described as “the adult counterpart to Anne Frank”; her diary and letters, published as An Interrupted Life, reveal a remarkable awareness and compassion in the midst of some of humanity’s darkest days. She died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. Knowing that I taught a colloquium on various issues related to the Holocaust last semester, the President of my college recommended it to me at lunch the other day. I knew that the recommendation was a fortuitous one as soon as I read the introduction by Jan Gaarlandt. Gaarlandt writes of Hillesum’s “totally unconventional” spirituality and rejects the attempts by both Jews and Christians to claim her as typically Jewish or typically Christian as “unprofitable.” As I suspect is the case with most persons described as “religious,” Etty’s spirituality was uniquely her own; she regularly addresses God in her diary and letters as she would address herself.

I hold a silly, naïve, or deadly serious conversation with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God . . . I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call “God.”

This may not be “typical” in any sense, but it captures the incarnational heart of Christianity beautifully. As the medieval sister said, My deepest me is God.

Will the Truth Set You Free?

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

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

“It’s a Mystery”

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

“Unvisited Tombs”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

An Avoidable Form of Death

I got involved briefly in a Facebook debate the other day over whether Jane Austen’s novels have any redeeming value—I think they do. jane-austen-portraitSomeone with an opposite opinion quoted the following from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and so narrow . . . Suicide is more respectable.” Strange to say, suicide has been on my mind a lot during this just-ending academic year—and there it is again.

I mentioned toward the end of last Friday’s post that in one of her written assignments this semester, one of my students observed that “suicide is an avoidable form of death.” Applied to Ralph Waldo’s judgment concerning Jane Austin’s novels, avoiding suicide for Emerson simply requires avoiding Jane’s novels. My student’s reflection was focused on Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, where those who commit suicide are eternally condemned to existence as twisted, leafless trees, continuing to feel spiritual, physical and emotional pain, but literally rooted in one place for eternity. Dante takes delight in his imaginative assignment of punishments that fit the crime—in this case, those who deliberately rejected their mortal bodies don’t get them back.della vigne But they also do not escape the torment that caused them to choose suicide during their earthly existences.

After Dante absentmindedly snaps a twig off one of the trees, it begins oozing blood and screaming in pain. This is Pier Della Vigne, who was once Frederick II of Sicily’ chief adviser. Fourteenth-century politics were no less nasty than today—rivals filled with envy spread false rumors of Pier’s treachery, and Frederick clapped him in chains. Pier, distraught and depressed, hung himself. “My mind, moved by scornful satisfaction, / believing death would free me from all scorn, / made me unjust to me, who was all just.”

“What a pussy!” one of my hockey playing students said in response to my asking whether Pier’s suicide was justified or not. Apparently it is not manly to off oneself rather than try to live with the loss of everything one considers important while waiting for execution. “Does everyone agree?” monopoly-go-to-hell2-cardEveryone did, but not for the same reasons. “Suicide is a mortal sin,” some claimed, channeling what they had learned in CCD. “Life is precious and killing yourself is throwing God’s greatest gift back in his face.” “Killing yourself is selfish and is a cop-out. How does he know that things won’t turn around?” the incurably hopeful asked. Pier had lost hope; overwhelmed with the injustice of his predicament and seeing no prospects for a better future, he chose to end his life. And for that choice he gets buried halfway down the circles of Hell, exactly where my students agreed that he belonged.

“Who remembers Boethius from the end of last semester?” I asked. All but one or two of the eighteen hands went up, reminding me of how much I love teaching in the program. How many second-semester freshmen have read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy? 220px-Boethius_imprisoned_Consolation_of_philosophy_1385Upon request, one of the students reminded her colleagues of the predicament in which Boethius found himself seven centuries before Pier Della Vigne and Dante. Boethius was the primary adviser of Theodoric, one of the first barbarian emperors of the Western Roman Empire. Slandered and falsely accused of treason, Theodoric threw Boethius into a prison cell where he awaited certain execution. Just like Pier Della Vigne.

So what did Boethius do? He didn’t kill himself; instead, he invented an imaginary friend—Philosophy in the guise of a very hot woman—and wrote one of the great works of Neo-Platonic philosophy. Written as a conversation between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, Consolation of Philosophy is a classic text that struggles with perennial philosophical themes: free will, the problem of evil, the inscrutability of God, and more. Boethius stands as an alternative to Pier Della Vigne’s choice, demonstrating that suicide is, after all, an avoidable form of death. And oh yeah, Boethius was executed.

Questions like “When is a life not worth living?’ or “What things are worth dying for?” cannot be dismissed easily. I reminded my students of Socrates, whom they had also studied in some detail the previous semester. critoIn Plato’s Crito, Socrates finds himself in prison in the middle of the night, awaiting execution the next morning as the culmination of having been found guilty of a number of serious charges by a jury of his Athenian peers. His friend and follower Crito visits with the apparently great news that money has been collected, the jailer has been bribed, and Socrates is free to escape with Crito.

And he won’t leave. Crito can’t believe it and offers several reasons in succession why Socrates should escape—your family needs you, you can continue being a philosopher pain in the ass somewhere other than Athens, if you die people will think your friends were too cheap to bribe the jailer, Ssocratesocrates’ conviction was a miscarriage of justice—everything but the kitchen sink. Crito’s arguments are convincing—Socrates has taught him well—except to Socrates who responds that “there is a difference between living and living well.” Some things are more important than just staying alive—identifying the ways in which one chooses not to live is one of those things. Choosing the manner and circumstances of one’s demise sometimes trumps staying alive. As someone near and dear to me used to say, sometimes “life is overrated.”

So in a way, Socrates commit suicide by choosing to die in the face of available life. “Yeah, but that’s not suicide. He didn’t kill himself,” my hockey player said, knowing better than to accuse Socrates of being a pussy. “No,” said the guy next to him, “he just refused to escape from jail and avoid being executed when he had the chance. What’s the difference?” Most of the students agreed with the hockey player—if you didn’t actively take your own life, it ain’t suicide. Passively allowing someone else to do it when you could have stayed alive doesn’t count.

Burger King - Have It Your WayMy students had learned over a number of months with me that when philosophers get in trouble, they draw a distinction, precisely what they were doing here. When faced with a choice to die rather than live that was made on principle rather than out of depression or despair, they preserved their a priori rejection of suicide as ever morally justifiable by concluding that “this must not be suicide.” “Fine,” I thought, in a Burger King moment. “Have it your way.” I capped the conversation by briefly telling them the story of Cato the Younger from Plutarch’s Lives (a text we had not read but perhaps would have if this course were four years in length). CatoCato was a Roman senator and one of the great defenders, both in word and deed, of the late Roman Republic.

When civil war erupted after Julius Caesar illegally returned to Rome with his victorious legions, Cato fought as a general on the losing side. Immediately after his victory, Caesar dispatched a messenger to Cato offering clemency and promising an important post in Caesar’s proposed governmental structure, paying at least lip service to Cato’s well-earned reputation for incorruptible honesty and virtue. In response, Cato fell on his sword after saying “I could no longer be Cato under those conditions.” Just as Socrates, Cato imagined a life as an orbiting body around Caesar’s center of gravity and decided that death was preferable. Upon hearing of Cato’s suicide, Caesar commented “Cato, I grudge you your death, as you would have grudged me the preservation of your life.”

In a moment of either weakness or reality Immanuel Kant, who argued vociferously and consistently that suicide is never morally justifiable,  once admitted that perhaps Cato was the only morally justified suicide in human history. But one exception to the rule raises the likelihood of many more. imagesI asked my students to spend the last fifteen minutes of seminar writing in their seminar notebooks on “Was Cato’s suicide justified?” At least half of them, despite having learned from various authorities throughout their young lives that no suicides are morally justifiable, concluded that this one, at least, was. Mission accomplished—a few more small cracks in the wall of absolute certainty have been opened up. That’s why they pay me the big bucks—or should, at least!

Watching for an Hour

Some people can sleep anywhere. One of those people was a student in one of my seminars this semester. Bob (his name has been changed to protect the innocent) is a bright but apparently less-than-motivated student whose verbal work, such as participation in seminar, vastly exceeds his written or objective work, such as reading quizzes and the midterm exam. imagesCA4P0ANMHe’s one of those students who always has something to say that is relevant and insightful, carefully crafted to disguise the fact that he has probably only skimmed the reading, if he looked at it at all. After twenty-five years I recognize this sort of student more easily than he or she might wish. More important, I recognize this sort of student because on rare occasions I was “that guy” as an undergraduate myself (although not as frequently or as successfully as Bob). And he dozes off in class—frequently. The seminar rooms in our wonderful new Ruane Center for the Humanities are equipped with circular tables, so it’s not as if anyone can sleep in the back row. There is no back row. But that doesn’t deter Bob—if he needs a catnap he takes one. More power to him, I say; I often would like to do the same.

themerchantofveniceebookdownloadLast week our seminar text was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Following a setup lecture the previous day by my colleague from the English department, I decided to have students volunteer for the nine speaking roles in the dramatic Act Four trial scene and spend the majority of our two hours reading Shakespeare aloud, with pauses for commentary and general discussion as the spirit moved. Bob volunteered to read the part of Portia, the most important role in Act Four other than Shylock. In this act Portia and her sidekick Nerissa are pretending to be young men, a lawyer and his assistant. Since in Shakespeare’s world all female roles were played by guys, Portia and Nerissa in Act Four would have been played by guys playing a chick who is pretending to be a guy. maxresdefaultRight up Bob’s alley, as it turned out—he was excellent in the role.

Until it came time for Portia’s famous “The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” speech, that is. Instead of the opening lines of Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock’s mercy, there was an uncomfortable silence. Bob had fallen asleep. The girl playing Antonio sitting next to Bob elbowed him in the ribs, Bob’s head jerked up—“Oh! Sorry!”—and he proceeded to read Portia’s twenty-five line speech beautifully and with feeling. Pretty impressive—and he managed to stay awake for the rest of the act. Bob might suffer from narcolepsy, but my suspicion is that he simply doesn’t get enough sleep—a malady shared by most freshmen in college. So he grabs forty winks in class when he needs to. At least he shows up.

Today is Maundy Thursday, a part of Holy Week so full of drama and intrigue that it is very easy to miss some of the most interesting details in the narrative. After dinner, Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane for some one-on-one conversation with his Dad, while the disciples tag along. botticelli_sleeping_apostles_2_smallHe wants to be alone and asks them to stay and wait for him as he walks on a bit further. Jesus’ distress and agony as well as his fear of what is to come are palpable and are understandably the focus of most discussions of this part of the Holy Week drama. A less discussed, but equally important, detail is that the disciples fall asleep. They literally cannot keep their eyes open. On three different occasions, Jesus returns to them and finds them catching some Zs. The gospel account is very “high church” sounding, but Jesus is clearly pissed when he finds them asleep. DUDES! Really?? I’m over here literally sweating drops of blood, I’ve never been so scared and worried, and you’re ASLEEP?? WTF?? Wake the hell up! Can’t you at least do that much?

I’m sure their collective reaction was something like Bob’s when he was caught sleeping when he should have been channeling Portia. “Whaa? Oh! Sorry, man! James! Andrew! I can’t believe you guys fell asleep! It won’t happen again, dude!” But it does—three times.

On the few occasions I have heard this scene discussed, the focus is always on the disciples, so human, so weak, or so disinterested that they fall asleep at the switch. I’m more interested in Jesus’ reaction. He hasn’t asked the disciples to do anything for him; he doesn’t even want them around him. So why is he so upset to find them sleeping? What’s the difference between sitting on one’s ass doing nothing and being asleep? In one of his letters to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison, BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer uses this little scene to illustrate a profound insight.

Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” That is a reversal of what the religious person expects from God. We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

We expect God to do stuff, to solve problems, to kick ass and take names, but this God is not any of that. The only way this God can be in the world is to experience everything it has to offer, to suffer the worst it can do. The least that the disciples can do is be there, to pay attention, to be in solidarity with this man whom they love, whom they have followed, and whom they absolutely do not understand. Jesus feels alone and abandoned by everyone and everything; finding the disciples asleep simply confirms that what he is feeling is the truth.

What would it mean to watch and not fall asleep, to share in God’s sufferings? Where exactly is God suffering in our world? Everywhere that a human being has a need of any sort, God is in the middle of it. There is so much suffering that it can be overwhelming. No one of us, not even any one group of us, no matter how well-meaning, can make a significant dent. But Jesus isn’t asking the disciples to do anything other than to be aware, to be attentive, and not to tune out. If the answer to “what can I do to help” is “nothing,” at least the question was asked. Asking someone to bear the weight of the world alone is asking a lot—even of God.photo-1-e524059dbea1cebfe788ab374f45a37680085cdc-s40-c85

Wake Up and Smell the Mulch

snowmageddon-300x300It is April, and we have apparently survived a very tough winter. Actually, it was just a winter, with noticeable snow and cold temperatures—nothing unusual, except that in Rhode Island, we sometimes get no winter at all. So a normal winter provides ample reason to talk about “Snowmageddon, the “Snowpocalypse,” the Polar Vortex, and to wonder what ridiculous name the Weather Channel will come up with for the latest “storm” that promises to drop at least three inches of snow or the dreaded “wintry mix.”snowpocalypse My northern Vermont heritage, along with adult winters spent in Wyoming, Wisconsin, and Minnesota qualifies me to make fun of people who are unaware of what a real winter is like—Rhode Islanders generally fit the bill.

A few days ago I walked out the front door of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and was struck by a distinctive scent wafting on the breeze. Somewhere on the olfactory spectrum between a pristine pine forest and an overpowering air freshener hanging on the rear-view mirror of a car,mulch this scent had rotting organic material tones, with the tangy hint of chemicals. “I love the smell of mulch in the morning! Spring has arrived!” There are a number of interesting sights as well as smells that accompany the arrival of spring. That same day as I approached the house returning home briefly for lunch to check up on our four-legged daughters, I saw a squirrel hanging upside down by his back feet from the top of the metal shepherd’s-crook pole that holds several bird-suet cages on our side lawn, using his front paws to open the latch on one of the cages for a free lunch. Our blue spruce that the feeder is next to has apparently grown large enough that squirrel at feederan enterprising squirrel can leap to the feeder from the closest branch at risk of falling several feet to the ground. Amazing what some people will do for a taste of bird seed encased in blocks of greasy suet.

One of the perks of teaching at a Catholic college is that we get some extra days off around Easter. Easter is late this year, which is perfect because it is time to start getting the yard in shape—one of my favorite projects of the year. I use the word “yard” loosely, since we live in the city and our available land is postage-stamp size, comparatively speaking. That’s fine with me—we have lived here for eighteen years and I am regularly grateful that it takes no longer than twenty minutes to mow the lawn, back, front, and side. I have little interest in a luxurious, weed-free lawn. 005 (2)Indeed I suspect that in the height of summer at least one-half of our lawn is covered with what those in the know would call weeds. But the lawn is green, and that’s all I care about.

What I do care about is flowers. I had no idea how much pleasure there is to be found in the annual cycle of cleaning flower beds in late March and early April (I haven’t started yet, so I’m late this year), watching lilies, columbines, and peonies poke their heads through the dirt despite having as much as six-foot snow banks on top of them during the winter. I keep a sharp eye out for the first leaf and flower buds on the flowering cherry tree, roses, and hydrangea bush in front,100_0918 as well as the butterfly, blackberry, and lilac bushes in the back. I inspect each potential bud-producer every day and take it very personally when no progress is evident. The process has been entirely trial-and-error over the years; assorted azaleas and hydrangea bushes have failed to make an appearance in given springs, tulips and daffodils have tended to be a disaster, leading to digging up last year’s remains and replacing them with something that might possibly do better. The perennials and flowering bushes we presently have are survivors of Morgan’s version of natural selection—if you don’t show up when I think you should, you’re out. The plants that have survived both my impatience and incompetence over the years are hardy enough to survive nuclear winter. 757854410188[1]I’ve learned a few things over the years, of course—loosening the flower beds and working in bags of shit from Lowe’s (really—they contain manure), then covering with a layer of mulch is a stimulant for growth and a deterrent for weeds. The primary purpose of the mulch for me, of course, is to get high on the aroma. I never seem to buy enough bags, though, and always have to make another trip to purchase three or four more.

19cuaresmaC3[1]Luke’s gospel tells the story of a land owner who had as little patience with his plants as I have with ours.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Jesus must have had a bad experience with fig trees as a child; Holy Week Monday a couple of days ago is the day that Jesus killed a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, even though it was not even the season for fig-bearing. Jesus and the Fig Tree[1]He probably was in a bad mood because he knew what was coming in a few days. I completely understand the impatience of the fig tree owner. There is no room for fruitless and flowerless plants in my yard—no slackers allowed. But the fascinating part of the parable is the remedy suggested by the gardener, the resident expert, for the figless tree. He says “Let me disturb it at its roots, throw some crap in there, and I’ll bet it will start producing!” That’s generally the suggested solution for any recalcitrant plant. Cut it back to the ground, lop its branches indiscriminately—in short, do things to the plant that any sensible person fears will kill it, then wait and see what happens.

It seems to be a truism in almost all everything I’ve ever read about spiritual growth that such growth is impossible without conflict, pain, suffering, and violence. 250px-Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831[1]Even the great and extraordinarily difficult philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel wrote that “periods of peace are blank pages in the book of history.” I want to know why. Of course, the classic expression of this problem is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and, more problematically, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But I’m not that concerned about why human beings have to suffer and struggle—this is such an obvious feature of the human landscape that it hardly seems worth asking about. I’m more interested in what to make of a creating being who presumably had infinite options when choosing the guiding principles and template for the world to be created, and chose to do it in the most open-ended and messy fashion imaginable. This is not a world created with efficiency in mind.

1594489270[1]In her fascinating and eclectic memoir Wild Harmonies, classical pianist and dedicated environmentalist Hélène Grimaud writes that “we can be essential only when we are suffering. It encourages us to remain honest.” I think most of us would appreciate being given a shot at living essentially and honestly without suffering, but we don’t get that chance. Instead we get to do it as plants do it, through productive seasons and dormant, through times when even we are astounded by our beauty as well as those times when even the most generous observer would swear that we are dead. In a charismatic church I attended many years ago in a previous lifetime, Olive treewe often would start the morning service with an annoying song based on Psalm 52:8.

Like a tree, like a tree, I’m like a green olive tree
In the house, in the house of the Lord.
I will trust in the mercies of God forever,
I will trust in the mercies of God.

I’ve never heard such a song about being a fig tree.

The Hungry Person’s Bread

311878_web_vo.Capitalist-Christian_colI have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. One of them would be judged by many to be so extreme as to be ludicrous, but I actually believe it is absolutely true: It is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time. Outside of class, I share this truth only with people who I am virtually sure are of like mind. I was pleased to find out as I prepared for seminar a few weeks ago that the big guy agrees with me.

I wrote about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas a couple of posts ago—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world. St-Thomas-Aquinas1In addition, I am teaching in an interdisciplinary course this semester that addresses material from Charlemagne to the seventeenth century, two of the disciplines to be addressed in this course are philosophy and theology; guess what, dude—you’re doing Aquinas! Actually we did roughly two weeks on Aquinas, the first on his thought concerning the relationship of faith and reason, the second on the nature of law. My theology colleague chose the appropriate texts from the Summa Theologicasumma-theologica for seminar, and I got to spend a couple of hours of seminar time—twice!—working on the big guy’s work with eighteen second-semester freshmen who were less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake.

But the “Aquinas on Law” seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had this semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. That’s because wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks a very practical and contemporary-sounding question: “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” His answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginal budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Not like the otherSesame Street—some things just don’t go together.

Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. natural lawIn the big guy’s own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know from the natural law em-bedded in our natures to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.

Which brings us to “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables.javert and valjean Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.” “In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.

This in itself made my students uncomfortable; the big guy’s explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” ambroseIf you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes Ambrose:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” Acts-4.34-37These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it. If the big guy had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:

Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!

The Big Guy: I agree—to a point. “Each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.

Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!

BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.

Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.

imagesBG: According to the natural law, you are.

Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?

BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.

Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?

indexBG: I know of a guy who gave an important talk once that’s all about this. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Check it out.

In one very brief article, the big guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on. But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. there but for the grace6Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.