Category Archives: suffering

Naming Our Demons

sheep on its backMy youngest son was a vet tech for a number of years and had many informed opinions about different types of animals. The stupidest animals he ever dealt with were sheep—I always knew that it is not a compliment when human beings are regularly likened to sheep in the Bible. For instance, Justin tells me that all one has to do to get a sheep to behave is to put it on its back. Once feet up, a sheep apparently believes that she or he has been conquered and will not struggle, no matter what is done to it. Just watch the movie “Babe” and you’ll find out how dumb sheep are.babe

“Babe” also lets us know which animal occupies the other end of the intelligence spectrum from sheep. Despite a lot of bad press of various sorts, pigs are incredibly intelligent; Justin says that the some of the pigs he dealt with were smarter than a lot of the humans he knows. Pigs get a bad rap—they have the reputation of being lazy, they are fat, they are dirty, and there is no situation in which being called a “pig” is a good thing. Pigs are animals-non-grata in the Bible—on the unclean and “don’t eat” list along with a number of other beasts.smart pig And pigs were major players in the gospel reading a couple of Sundays ago, one of the strangest episodes to emerge from the stories of Jesus.

In Luke 8 Jesus and his entourage are in the land of the Gerasenes, in what would be modern-day Jordan. There he encounters a man “who had demons,” a man who has been living naked “among the tombs” for many years. The man (or the demons) knows Jesus on sight and begs for mercy. After a brief exchange, Jesus casts the demons out of the man and, agreeing to  their request sends them into a herd of swine minding their own business close by. The pigs rush down a hill into a nearby lake and drown. The swineherds run to town reporting what just happened (and undoubtedly also to file a legal claim against Jesus for ruining their livelihood). into the pigsAlthough somewhat unusual, on one level the story is just another tale of Jesus’ compassion and healing powers; hidden in the narrative, however, are at least a couple of details worth considering.

The man knows Jesus’ name, but Jesus does not know his, nor apparently does he know the identity of the entities possessing the man. Jesus asks “What is your name?” to which the man answers “‘Legion;’ for many demons had entered him.” Contemporary scholars often stress that ailments identified as possession by evil spirits in the ancient world were almost certainly diseases such as epilepsy, psychological disorders, or any medical problem manifesting itself in unusual behavior or appearance. But we need not delve into a discussion of whether Satan and demons are real in order to find value in Jesus’ question to the man. In her Sunday sermon on this text, my good friend Marsue, who is an Episcopal priest, advised her congregation to “Name your demon.” “Have you ever felt that something just isn’t right, that something inside is out of whack but you don’t know what?” Marsue asked. As the saying tells us, your giant goes with you wherever you go. And so do your demons. ThoreauThoreau once wrote that most of us live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave never grappling with the sources of that desperation.

This applies not only on an individual but on a collective level. It is much easier to project our fears and concerns onto the “Other,” whether defined by religious commitment, racial identity, countries of origin, or sexual orientation, than it is to realize that our fears and concerns always are rooted much more closely to home than we choose to accept. Iris Murdoch once suggested that one of the best questions one can ask oneself regularly is “What are you afraid of?” If our consistent answer is “those who are most unlike us,” it is time to consider the possibility that we are turning others into what we are most uncomfortable with and fear about ourselves. The first steps toward naming my demons begin with identifying those persons and situations I am most uncomfortable with and asking “afraid ofwhat am I so afraid of? What is its name?” Just like vampires, our demons cannot survive when we shine light on them.

In the story from Luke, after Jesus casts the demons into the pigs, the news spreads quickly and the community comes to see the healed man “clothed and in his right mind.” Jesus is a rock star because he has made a man who everyone avoided like the plague whole again and the townspeople invite Jesus and the man into their town for a big celebration. Well . . . not so much. Instead, “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” There’s that “f” word again—what were these people afraid of? Their disturbing reaction to the healing of a tormented and troubled neighbor raises another important question. Not only does each of us need to ask “what am I afraid of?” but each of us also needs to ask “do I want to be free of that fear?” For years, the residents of Gerasa were very clear about who this demon-possessed man was and how to handle him. “Stay away from him.” “Don’t let the kids go near the cemetery where he lurks unaccompanied.” “He’s dangerous.” “There’s no hope for him—best to ignore him as much as possible.” healedBut now, all of a sudden, everything has changed.

Dealing with demons is a risky business. Risky because I might be so used to and comfortable with my demons that I cannot imagine life without them. As Jesus asked the man at the pool of Bethsaida, “do you want to be made whole?” Although we might deny it, the immediate answer for many of us is undoubtedly “I’m not so sure.” I can’t imagine myself without my prejudices, my preconceptions, my weaknesses—many of which I did not choose but which have defined me for longer than I can remember. This is also risky for those around me, because now all of their preconceptions are brought to light as well. All of the categories that defined the previously demon-possessed man—someone to be avoided, a dangerous person, insane, and so on—now have to be rethought. the otherMore generally, they have discovered that the “Other” is exactly the same as they are.

Retooling our preconceptions and discovering what is common among us rather than what divides us is very difficult work, work that directly challenges our comfortable categorizations. Do we really want to know that those whom we regularly keep at arm’s length are, regardless of religious commitment, race, or sexual orientation exactly the same as we are in every respect that matters? The citizens of Gerasa knew that what had just happened to the demon-possessed man was a total game changer—and they were not ready or willing to play the new game. We are not told how they responded to the newly healed man over time, but we do know that they asked the man responsible for the healing to leave. Naming our demons requires also taking responsibility for what comes afterward—a radical retooling and rethinking of everything we think, say, and do. That’s a lot of work—it’s a lot easier just to hang on to our demons. Unless we actually want to be made well.

What Do You Want?

Anyone who reads this blog regularly or even occasionally knows that I love movies. Solidly in my top ten, maybe even in the top five, is the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” About half way through the story, Ray and TerryRay Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) are in the bowels of my beloved Fenway Park. Ray has brought Terry there in an attempt to involve him in a ludicrous scheme that Mann is trying to resist getting sucked into. Mann was a major player in the 60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam protests who now, twenty years later, is tired of being everyone’s unofficial guru and voice of the flower power generation. He just wants to be left alone. “So what do you want?” Ray asks Terry.

Terry: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.

Ray: (gesturing to the concession stand they are in front of) No, I mean, what do you WANT?

Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.what do you want

Sometimes, “What do you want?” is just a question about one’s lunch or dinner preferences. At other times, the question raises far more important issues. In John’s gospel we find a classic “What do you want?” situation where a man’s health and happiness hang in the balance. It’s an odd story, relatively straightforward on the surface but with many layers of complexity underneath. While in Jerusalem early in his ministry, Jesus and the disciples come to the Pool of Bethesda, rumored to have healing powers, but only under special circumstances. “An angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.” A strange phenomenon, for sure, but hey, this took place before modern science told us that this sort of thing is impossible. Not surprisingly, the perimeter of the pool is crowded with “a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water.”bethesda

Among this multitude is a man who has been afflicted with an unspecified infirmity for thirty-eight years. When I first heard this story in Sunday School as a kid, I thought that this guy had been at the pool for thirty-eight years, which would definitely suck. But in truth, we are not told how long he has been there, nor why Jesus chooses him at random out of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people seeking healing to strike up a conversation with. Jesus asks the man a strange, seemingly stupid question: “Do you want to be made well?” All sorts of possible responses come to mind:

  • No, moron, I just like hanging out with sick people.
  • I thought I did, but now that you ask I realize that I sort of enjoy being incapacitated.
  • Yes, but the copay on my health insurance is so large that I have to wait for my next disability check to come in.

Ask a stupid question, you usually get a stupid answer. But Jesus’ question reminds me of a character from Louise Penny’s Still Life, who I wrote about a month or so ago.still life

Myrna, proprietor of a small bookstore in Three Pines, Quebec, and Inspector Gamache, Penny’s talented murder-solving hero, are having a conversation about the inevitability of change and the various ways in which human beings deal with it. For twenty-five years Myrna was a psychologist in Montreal, one hour’s drive to the north, before chucking it all, moving to rural Three Pines, and rebooting her life entirely. Why did she do it?

I lost sympathy with many of my patients. After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he’d come with the same complaints, “Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It’s not my fault.” For three years I’d been making suggestions, and for three years he’d done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn’t changing because he didn’t want to. He had no intention of changing. For the next twenty years we would go through this charade. And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him.

So maybe “Do you want to be made well?” isn’t a stupid question after all. It’s interesting that the man at the Bethesda pool doesn’t simply answer “yes” or “no.” Instead, he provides an excuse and defensive explanation for why he hasn’t been healed already. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Roughly paraphrased: “It’s not my fault that I’m in this position—I have no friends or family to help me out, everyone hates me, there’s a vast conspiracy to keep me from the pool, it’s unfair that only the first person in gets healed, yadda, yadda, yadda.” take up your bedMaybe he realizes, for the first time, what the cost of being healed might be. Is he ready to live without the limitations with which he has lived so long, which have in a strange way become his friends and enablers? Who will he be when he is no longer defined by his infirmity? Sure enough, Jesus heals him, he rolls up his mat and walks, and gets into trouble with the Pharisee Sabbath police because Jesus chose to heal him on the one day that it is illegal to do any work (including carrying your mat). Be careful what you ask for.

“What do you want?” It’s a question each of us would do well to consider carefully. As well as “What changes are you willing to undergo in order to get there?” We need to be sure that we wouldn’t prefer to keep things as they are.

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

Under My Skin

I hate being a disappointment to my son, but I know that I am. Caleb is a tattoo artist; as I reported on Thursday, caleb tattooJeanne and I have been witnesses of Caleb’s transformation from a tattooing rookie working on a friend in our dining room several years ago to an international rock star tattoo artist who owns two tattoo shops, a tattoo school, and takes several trips annually with our daughter-in-law Alisha to conventions and guest artistships in Germany, Italy, France, England, and all over North America. He’s a success in his field by all measures; we are inordinately proud and direct people to his Facebook sites to be astounded by his artistry as often as we can. But I know that deep down he considers himself to be a failure. Why? Because even though he has been perfecting his craft and growing his business for almost a decade, he has yet to achieve his greatest professional goal—tattooing his father and stepmother.

This is not for lack of trying. Caleb and I have had regular conversations about this:

  • Come on, Dad, you’ve got to get a tattoo.
  • Not happening.
  • Why not? You like them, you talk about them all the time. Come on! You’re a liberal! What could you possibly have against tattoos?
  • I have absolutely NOTHING against tattoos! It’s PAIN that I’m not in favor of!

And so it goes. Once a couple of years ago,Nietzsche I mentioned to Caleb that if I ever got a tattoo, it would probably be the iconic silhouette of Nietzsche with his trademark eyebrows and mustache. Unfortunately, Caleb interpreted my hypothetical situation as evidence of incremental movement toward actually getting one. He was mistaken. As he should have known simply from being my son, philosophers love to delve into hypotheticals.

  • If you lived in 1940s Nazi-occupied Belgium and were hiding a Jewish family in your attic, would you lie to the Nazi officer at your front door to keep him from finding out?
  • If you were on a life raft with a half dozen other people in the middle of the ocean, would you be willing to kill one of our fellow raft inhabitants so the rest of you could stay alive by eating him?
  • Would you be willing to murder someone for the good of mankind?
  • Kirk and PicardIf Captain Kirk and Captain Picard got into a fight, who would win?

Stuff like that. My hypothetical about tattooing was nothing more than the “if . . . then . . .” puzzles that are the bread and butter of all philosophy professors.

It’s not as if Caleb has ever hidden the fact that getting a tattoo hurts. A lot. He has a full back tattoo involving dinosaurs in a prehistoric landscape that his friend and tattooing mentor Lisa did over several sessions and many hours a few years ago; Caleb made it clear that the process was painful. Actually he said “It hurt like a motherf**ker.” yes it hurtsOn the wall of his original Connecticut tattoo shop facing the door hangs a large sign that says YES IT HURTS. I know that my pain tolerance is very low, so excuse me if I don’t willingly subject myself to something like that, no matter how beautiful and special the result might be.

I turned sixty exactly a month ago. Knowing that we were headed for a week with Caleb and Alisha, as well as my younger son Justin, my brother, and my sister-in-law, I chose to delay the spectacular celebration of my six decades on earth until we got to Florida. What exactly is the appropriate way to mark such an auspicious event?

Sixty Years On

Chances are we’ll be going to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, maybe to one of the billions of tourist attractions in the Orlando area, perhaps even back to Key West (although if we do, this time we’re taking the ferry rather than driving—the traffic jam going and coming last time was abominable). But none of those are sufficiently unique for this once in a lifetime occurrence. Knowing that deciding and planning would take several weeks of rumination and decision making, I started thinking about it last fall. And before long, it became clear what my sixtieth birthday present to myself would be.

Caleb and Alisha visited over last Thanksgiving week. As Caleb sat on the couch poking away at his phone as is his custom, I rocked his world.

  • Caleb, I know what I want for my sixtieth birthday.
  • What?
  • I want a tattoo when we’re in Florida in April.
  • Wait a minute. You want a tattoo? Are you shitting me?? You’re not having a senior moment???
  • No, I’m serious. I want a tattoo.
  • What do you want, that Nietzsche thing?
  • (I show him a picture on my laptop) Can you do this?IMG_9677
  • You want a FRIEDA tattoo? (uproarious laughter) Why am I not surprised? Yes, I can do that.
  • Then that’s what I want for my sixtieth birthday.
  • You’re not going to fucking back out of this, are you? You’re not going to change your mind?
  • No, Caleb, I want a Frieda tattoo.

Why a tattoo of my dachshund? What guy wouldn’t want a permanent reminder of the second most important female in his life?miracles happen

Sometime in the next seven days I will be getting a tattoo. If you hear screaming from the direction of wherever Florida is related to you, it’s me. I’m quite sure that an account of the experience will make it into a blog post soon! A good friend of mine once defined a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever, ever happen—and it happens anyways.” If so, there’s a miracle on the horizon. I’m getting a tattoo.

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 have written about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas on this blog before—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world.

The Big Guy and Me

St-Thomas-Aquinas1In addition, I frequently teach in an interdisciplinary course 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! The last time I taught this course 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 all 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.

A Practicing Atheist

A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook acquaintance posted the following:

When I say I’m an atheist, what I’m saying is that my personal journey of education and introspection has brought me to that conclusion. It’s about me and my choices. If you take that as an insult, please realize that, although Christians in this country get preferential treatment, not everything is actually about you. I am not bothered by belief. I do not consider the existence of every church a personal insult. Please enjoy your privilege and stop making atheism about you.

My response: “From a progressive Christian, thank you.” Her post reminded me of something Simone Weil once wrote about atheism. I reflected on it in one of my earliest posts on this blog.

Simone Weil writes that “Atheism is a purification.” Not where I come from. No word or phrase was more mysterious or terror producing for a young Baptist boy than “atheist.” I certainly didn’t know any, nor did my parents, nor did anyone in my extended family, nor did anyone who attended our church. But none of us knew any serial killers, either. Apparently atheists were out there somewhere, running Hollywood, teaching in secular universities, and generally sticking their thumbs in the eye of what they denied the existence of. It wasn’t clear to me how an atheist could even stay alive. If God snuffed out Uzzah just for putting his hand on the Ark in the Old Testament, how did people who had the nerve to say “God doesn’t exist” manage to last? I came to suspect that atheists were mythical creatures like unicorns and Big Foot, until one day I heard my aunt Gloria, who had a very loud voice, whispering to my mother in the next room about the new high school science teacher. “He spends a lot of time teaching evolution; I’ll bet he’s a practicing atheist.”

Now that’s a very interesting concept—a “practicing atheist.” What exactly does that mean? Is that someone who is very serious about atheism, who has gone beyond the lazy “God doesn’t exist” verbal stage and is actually putting this stuff into action? Does one practice atheism as I practiced the piano as a child, in hopes of becoming a concert atheist? Is the “practicing atheist” an atheist in training, sort of a double- or triple-AAA newbie practicing and honing his atheist skills until he gets to the atheist big leagues? Does the “practicing atheist” try it out for a while to see how she likes it? I mean, I could be a “practicing” any number of things, like a practicing vegetarian. I could do it for a while, and even realize that it was good for me, but before long I’d just have to eat some meat. Given my general obsession with the “God question,” maybe practicing atheism for a while would be good for the health of my soul, just as vegetarianism would be good for my bodily well-being.

Practicing atheism would put an end to creating God in my own image. I have known many gods in my lifetime, and every one of them is either a projection of myself or of the person(s) who introduced me.

  • A now silent God who stopped communicating directly with human beings several centuries ago, once the dictation of the divine word in print was finished.
  • A God who invites into the inner sanctum only those who have a special “prayer language.”
  • A God who “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” but who at the same time is so judgmental and exclusive that the vast majority of the billions of human beings who have ever lived will end up in hell.
  • An arbitrary God whose ire will be raised by the consumption of meat on Fridays during Lent, but who does not particularly care about pre-marital sex.
  • An exclusively masculine God.
  • A God who is more concerned with the length of male hair and female skirts than with the breadth and depth of one’s spiritual hunger and desire.
  • A God whose paramount concerns are one’s positions on sexual orientation, abortion, or universal health care.
  •  A God who micromanages every detail of reality at every moment, including tsunamis, birth defects, and oil spills.
  •  A God who is more honored by self-reliance than by compassion for those in need.

 And many more. As a practicing atheist I might still have anthropomorphic issues, but an anthropomorphic God would not be one of them.

Practicing atheism would be an effective antidote to any remaining obsession from my youth with what happens after physical death. We all sang songs about what a day of rejoicing it will be when we all get heaven. I don’t know any atheist hymns, so perhaps I should write one which draws my attention to now. As a child I thought that the only reason to become a Christian was to get an ironclad fire insurance policy from hell. We used to sing “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” Maybe I should love this world that is my home, one that I only get to live in for a short while. This is the world I’ve been given.

Atheism would provide me with new tools to apply to the problem of suffering and evil. Once I stop wondering why God allows the innocent to suffer, the guilty not to suffer, earthquakes to obliterate thousands, and the world generally to operate contrary to my wishes, the landscape looks quite different. Suffering exists—so does evil. The practicing atheist cannot ask “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” and asks instead “What does this require of me?” A fresh look at my world without God-tinted lenses reveals that suffering and violence are inextricably tangled with beauty. The waves on the ocean are no less beautiful because we know that sometimes people are drowned in them. A practicing atheist recommends a certain Stoic embrace of reality, rather than a childish affirmation of the parts I like and an impotent resistance to those I don’t.

Atheism would make it much more difficult for me to seek false consolations for disappointments, difficulties, and perceived injustices. I am reminded, year after year, that a significant majority of my students, most of whom are parochial school educated, believe that consolation is the only real reason to believe in God. But consolation, although emotionally attractive, is almost always an attractive lie. If my only response to human pain, mine or someone else’s, is that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us,” then pretty soon I become incapable of even seeing much of the suffering around me. There are times when Albert Camus’ project in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “to see if I can live without appeal,” has to be my project. What if this is all there is? What if the only responses available to suffering and pain are ours? What if I don’t get to pass the buck on to the divine?

“Atheism is a purification” is not a call to become an atheist. Rather, for me a serious season of practicing atheism would serve as a purgative, a process of spiritual cleansing, eliminating loose vocabulary, sloppy habits, and lazy certainties which dull my spiritual sensibilities. If my Christian faith means anything, it means God in the flesh, incarnated in all features of this difficult, troublesome, exhilarating and precious world that is a divine gift. Christianity will not be fully incarnated until it is joined with a respect and reverence for this world. Practicing atheism can help. As Simone Weil writes, “Let us love this country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love. It is this country that God has given us to love. He has willed that it should be difficult yet possible to love it.”

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.

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The Wisdom of Violet

All this thinking is highly overrated. Violet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

season five

As “Downton Abbey” continues through its sixth and final season here in the States, here are some thoughts from a few months ago from everyone’s favorite character . . .

The American showing of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey’s fifth season just ended, to the dismay of its millions of fans who now must wait until next January to get their next Downton fix. It’s a bit worse for Jeanne and me. Late last year Jeanne signed up to throw a few monthly dollars in the direction of our local PBS station; in return, we were shipped the full fifth season of the series in DVD at the end of January. The fifth season had just started its Sunday evening run a couple of weeks earlier, and now we had in our hands the rest of the season with no need to parcel the episodes out one week at a time. The DVDs showed up a couple of days before we got smacked with Juno, the first and worst of a series of winter storms that came in unrelenting succession over the next month. With Tuesday and then Wednesday classes cancelled, we binge-watched Lord Grantham along his relatives and homies cavort and angst through eight straight episodes—about eleven or twelve hours of viewing. And we wanted more.

All Downton fans have their favorite characters—I’ve noted in a previous post from a few weeks back that mine is Mister Carson, the erstwhile butler of the establishment.

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

violetBut everyone loves Lord Grantham’s mother Violet, the dowager countess and source of endless entertainment from meaningful glances to pithy retorts, a lovably manipulative force behind virtually everything going on in each episode with a wit as dry as a martini. Violet is played so memorably by Dame Maggie Smith that I cannot imagine anyone else being Violet (although I suspect Dame Judi Dench could do it, just differently). In this most recent season any number of Violet one-liners made me laugh, then think. Here are a few of them.

All this thinking is highly overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914 nobody ever thought.

Downton Abbey begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and in five seasons has proceeded through the Great War to the disturbing, iconoclastic years in the war’s wake, concluding the fifth season at Christmas 1923. In my twenty-plus years of teaching in an interdisciplinary humanities program, the most important thing I have learned about history is that no event ever changed the world so fully and irrevocably as World War One. yeatsWilliam Butler Yeats captured these dark transformations perfectly in his 1919 poem “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the

Worst are full of passionate intensity.

That these lines are directly applicable to our world a century later is testimony to just how complete the changes were.

Violet finds herself in a world she does not understand in which none of the fixed and reliable rules that have given her life and society stability apply. There was a time when people knew their place, when one knew what to expect, when things made sense. That world is gone, and she blames it on too much thinking. She might have a point. Not long ago some philosophical wag wrote that “Socrates may have been right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either.”

A lack of compassion is as vulgar as an excess of tears.

maryThis is Violet’s comment to her granddaughter Mary when Mary shows a remarkable lack of concern for her sister Edith’s sadness and mourning over the death of her lover and father of her child. It is a remarkable comment from a woman whose whole life has been defined by the sort of British aristocratic reserve that looks, at least on the surface, like lack of compassion on steroids. But an excess of any sort on the spectrum of emotion is “vulgar,” perhaps the worst thing that could possibly be said about a British aristocrat in the post-Edwardian era.

In my team-taught colloquium entitled “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom and Truth in the Nazi Era,” my students (and I) regularly struggle to find the appropriate emotional response to the horrors we are studying. At the end of our final class last week before spring break, my historian teammate Ray ended the two hours with a few minutes video from the liberation of Auschwitz. Emaciated, skeletal bodies piled fifteen feet or more high. auschwitzThese bodies being thrown one by one into a mass grave. Ray wisely ended the class with no comment, switching the computer off as students quietly gathered their things and filed out.

As I’ve been reading my students’ intellectual notebook entries this week, several have written “I don’t know how to respond to what I was seeing.” And neither do I. But our response cannot be academic and clinical, nor can it be a paralyzing wave of emotion. The worst that we humans can do to each other must be responded to with all of the resources available to us. Our response must be human, in other words. This reminds me yet again of why I resonate with a religion whose central truth is that God became human.

Hope is a tease to prevent us from accepting reality.

To which the idealist responds that realism or pragmatism is a device to help us avoid dreaming of and hoping for what could be rather than settling for what is. I have written occasionally about the dynamic of hope in this blog,

Hopeful Thinking

and like to think of myself as a “pragmatic idealsimpragmatic idealist” or perhaps an “optimistic realist.” These things really are not contradictory, although many (including Violet) assume that they are. The philosopher in me tends toward realism, with Aristotle, David Hume, William James as three of my most important philosophical influences. Yet that realism is tempered by my faith which in my understanding both applies directly to the real world I struggle with every day yet offers transcendent hope that there is more to reality than what I struggle with every day. I resonate with Hamlet’s conviction that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy”—this is how I manage to be both a philosopher and a Christian, something that a good friend worried that I would not be able to pull off many years ago.

Thanks, Violet, for your thought-provoking insights and asides—keep them coming!violet 2

imagesCA56HDJ9

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

We Are Not Alone

This Christmas season seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe and in our country jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.