Category Archives: teaching

Ordinary Lives

There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, or truth Leo Tolstoy

Although Jeanne and I have lived in our house since 1996, there has never been a time when some portion of the house hasn’t been under revision, ranging in seriousness from furniture arrangement through a new coat of paint to knocking down walls and starting over again. money pitOur largest project, transforming the basement into livable space, a three-year process that turned out to be about ten times more expensive than we originally budgeted, was finished a year and a half ago. Our most recent transformation was a small bedroom that has served multiple purposes, from a TV room to the living space for my son for four years through several eventful and difficult years that also just ended not long ago. We have finally turned it into the library/reading room that we have always wanted but have not been able to create until now.

Our library room has one large interior wall containing several dozen family pictures that we have never displayed fully. Both of us came into our relationship almost twenty-nine years ago with some pictures and many more have accumulated since. We have never been organized in our picture taking—years on end have passed with no apparent record of anything happening—but we have an eclectic mixture of items that will more than fill this wall. weaving-world-simone-weil-on-science-mathematics-love-vance-g-morgan-paperback-cover-artOne item on display is the cover of one of my academic books. Published almost ten years ago, the promotions people provided me with a half-dozen dust jackets suitable for framing, all of which have been collecting dust in one of my philosophy department office drawers ever since. I am proud of the book, but a book entitled Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics and Love was not likely to be a bestseller. And it wasn’t. Framing the dust jacket has given me yet another opportunity to think about how to measure success.

VM Ruane 8I have a new book under contract, to be a reality early next year–something I’m very excited about. I have been blessed with a number of high points in my career, but the vast majority of it has consisted of day after day in the classroom, days that turn into weeks, months and years that meld together into a generally pleasant but indistinguishable conglomeration. Will there be any more mountain tops? Are my most memorable experiences behind me? At the end of year twenty-five of teaching, I can’t help but wonder.

Not long ago I led a seminar during the morning of the first day of an Honors faculty two-day workshop with twenty colleagues. The text was a handful of essays from Montaigne; toward the end of a fine discussion we focused our attention on one of Montaigne’s many memorable reflections, this one from the next to last page of the Essais:

The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.

My colleagues were not unanimous in their reaction to Montaigne’s sentiment, but when are academics ever unanimous concerning anything, even the Pope’s Catholicism? A few suggested that this seemed to be both a recipe for mediocrity and a denial of the importance of miracles and ecstasy. emily_dickinsonA fellow philosopher said “Socrates would not have agreed with any of this,” and I overheard another colleague close by opining sotto voce that Emily Dickinson would not have approved either. They are probably right, although I suspect that Montaigne did not have Socrates’ past or Emily’s future approval at the top of his list of concerns as he wrote.

Other colleagues found much to like in this passage. richardgraceA professor from the history department who had just finished the final year of an outstanding teaching and scholarly career as he moves toward professor emeritus status said “I find this inspiring. It says that a beautiful life is not to be judged by whether you get your name on a plaque in City Hall.” This from a man who has a seminar room in our beautiful new humanities center named after him in honor of his extraordinary contributions over several decades to thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.

I agree that this passage from Montaigne is inspirational. He is not suggesting that mountain-top experiences are unimportant; rather, he is reminding us that a beautiful life is not constructed from such experiences. There is a reason why the majority of the Christian liturgical year, although seasoned with the miracle of the Incarnation and the rapture of Easter, churchyearis spent in long stretches of inwardness, waiting, and getting down to the day-to-day, week to week work of being a regular human being trying to live a life in the presence of the Divine. The biggest chunk of the liturgical calendar, from Pentecost Sunday in late spring to the beginning of Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is Ordinary Time. As the old saying says, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Montaigne suggests that the beauty of a life is to be judged by what you are doing between the miracles and the ecstasy.

A year or so ago, Jeanne and I had brunch with two couples after church, a lovely occasion that we all agreed should happen more frequently. All six of us have been to a few rodeos—at fifty-eight I was the youngest person at the table. Jeanne singingMy friend Marsue’s birthday had occurred a week or so earlier, so we all sang happy birthday as the waiter brought her a small dessert. The waiter remarked on Jeanne’s beautiful singing voice, a nice connection was made, and good vibes were in abundance. Jeanne and I tend to be generous with tips when the service is good; this time, Jeanne was so generous when bill-paying time came that the waiter returned with the cash, wondering if Jeanne had made a mistake. She assured him that she hadn’t; we then learned he would be headed for LA in a month to pursue a career in entertainment promotion. Grabbing his hands, Jeanne offered a quick, heartfelt and spontaneous prayer asking for the Divine’s blessing on this young man’s endeavors. “I’ll remember you,” he said to Jeanne as he headed back to the kitchen. And I’m sure he will—it was a lovely moment of grace in the midst of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.middlemarch

I have written in previous posts about my love for the closing paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It not only is the most perfect paragraph I have read in any of the hundreds of novels in my reading life, but it is also a perfect expression of the sort of life Montaigne considers to be beautiful. Of her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I would love to write a bestseller. I would love mine to be the first  likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. indexI would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. But I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

The Burden of LIght

TDWCeaching for close to twenty years in an interdisciplinary program with colleagues from a multitude of disciplines has provided me with the best that academe can offer a professor—a continuing education. In an academic world which so often demands narrower and narrower research focus and specialization from its members, it has been a gift to spend the majority of my career thus far at a place that welcomes breadth and encourages—and sometimes requires—its faculty to regularly wander outside their comfort zone in the classroom. In my early years at the college, a few of the older faculty—some of whom had been part of the creation of this interdisciplinary program in the seventies—used to joke that the course was really for the enjoyment and edification of the faculty. Students were allowed in only to pay the bills. I have learned more about history, theology, music, art, and literature through my participation in this program than I could have in any number of graduate courses.Caravaggio

I learned, for instance, about chiaroscuro from the art lectures offered regularly by a colleague from the history department who was frequently a member of my teaching team during my early years in the program. This colleague, now an emeritus professor, is a specialist in American Presidential history—and also knows a lot about art and music, especially opera. In painting, chiaroscuro is a technique that uses strong contrasts between light and dark, bold contrasts that affect the whole composition. Many Renaissance artists used the technique; my colleague’s preferred examples came from the work of Caravaggio. My colleague’s go-to illustration of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro was “The Calling of Saint Matthew.”

Calling of Saint Matthew

There is some debate concerning who Matthew is in this painting. Is he the guy with the beard pointing at himself (“Who, me?”)? Or is he the young counting money and not paying attention, to whom the guy with the beard is pointing (“Who, him?”)? I prefer the latter interpretation, but there is no debate about the power of light and shadow in this painting. The light shining from a window outside the top right of the canvas illuminates just enough of Jesus’ modest halo to make clear who he is, as well as the expressions on the faces of everyone at the table. But this light also makes the shadows even darker and more pronounced. Light does not dispel the darkness, but it changes everything. This light has transformed the life of the man on whom it is directed—for better and for worse.hast_ox_yoke[1]

According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus once said that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jeanne told me recently of an “aha!” moment she had not long ago related to this “burden is light” business. She (and probably everyone else aware of the passage and its context) always assumed that Jesus meant that the burden of following him is not heavy—it’s light. And I’m sure that’s what the Greek text implies as well. But thanks to the wonders of the English language, this passage can mean something entirely different and much more interesting. What if Jesus means that it is our burden—our duty—to illuminate the darkness, to bring light into a world that badly needs it? What if we read “light” in “my burden is light” as a noun rather than as an adjective? There are all sorts of light-related references attributed to Jesus, including that we are “the light of the world.” And yet Caravaggio and others show us through their skillful use of chiaroscuro that being a light-bearer comes with a built-in price—illuminating the darkness also involves revealing the shadows, both in oneself and in others. Sometimes commitment and faithfulness come with a cost.

freedomwriters[1]Jeanne went on to say that her new reading of “my burden is light” reminded her of an important scene from one of her favorite movies. “Freedom Writers” is the story of Erin Gruwell, played in the movie by Hilary Swank, a young, idealistic teacher in south Los Angeles in the 1990s who finds her enthusiasm and creativity stretched to the breaking point by students divided into gangs along racial lines and an administration who refuses to let Gruwell give the students books to read because the books might be stolen or damaged. Her unorthodox teaching methods incrementally have a positive impact on her students, but there is a price to be paid. patrick-dempsey-hilary-swank-in-freedom-writers[1]Toward the end of the movie Erin is having dinner with her father and breaks into tears. Her husband has left her, due to her 24/7 dedication to her job and a lack of time for him and their marriage. She sits, weeping, asking her father “Has any of this been worth it? Does it even matter? Have I made any difference?” Her father, who up to this point has been less than supportive of Erin’s commitment, looks at her and says, “You have been blessed with a burden, my daughter. I envy and admire that.”

Jesus told his followers that “You are the light of the world.”  Persons of faith are also blessed with a burden—a burden of light. This is not a burden of things to do, actions to perform, positions to take, any more than light considers illumination to be its job. Many centuries ago, Aristotle resonated with this insight when he argued that the moral life is far less about what a person does than it is about that person’s character, about who that person is. Just as light changes everything it comes into contact just by being what it is, so the person of character reveals herself and introduces light into the darkness simply by being, by showing up. And this is the call to persons of faith. 23390200_9895fcc823[1]Be there; show up; remember that we have the divine within us. The light may be dim, flickering, all but invisible, but it is the way in which the divine invades the darkness. It doesn’t simply remove darkness; indeed, it reveals new shadows and dark places that could not be seen before the light arrived. But our burden, shadows and all, is to be what we have chosen to be—divine light bearers.

Fear Itself

Long security lines at O’Hare airport. A plane falls out of the sky flying from Paris to Cairo, possibly the result of a terrorist attack. What do we want–freedom or security? I wrote about this last December . . .

Last Monday a segment of one of the NPR shows I listen to frequently was dedicated to the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, particularly focused on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “day that will live in infamy” speech to Congress and the nation that followed the attack on December 7th, 1941. FDR first inauguralDuring the segment, the person being interviewed mentioned a well-known passage from another of FDR’s speeches, his First Inaugural Address in 1933.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

In this speech, Roosevelt was drawing his listeners’ attention particularly to the economic fear that paralyzed the nation during the Great Depression. But his words have direct application to our country at the end of 2015—the greatest thing we have to fear is not ISIS, Muslims, immigrants, liberals, conservatives, global warming, Donald Trump, or any of the other people or things that we obsess endlessly about. It is fear itself.

fear notThere is a reason why the first thing angels say when showing up in various places in scripture invariably is “Fear Not.” Because when forced to choose between freedom and safety, human beings invariably prefer the latter. What do people want more, freedom or security? There is an exercise I do with my students frequently when this question comes up in class that never fails to be illuminating, an exercise that begins with my telling them a story. Just four short weeks after 9/11, I was scheduled to give a conference paper in Fort Lauderdale; as it turned out, almost half of the thirty or more scheduled speakers cancelled because they did not feel safe getting on a plane. Security was very tight at the airport in Providence, but I particularly remember the airport in Fort Lauderdale for our return flight. We arrived three hours earlier than we would have normally and needed every bit of those three hours to get through beefed-up security. There were soldiers in uniform with automatic weapons everywhere in the terminal, the security line was moving at a snail’s pace—and no one was complaining. security linesIndeed, many people went out of their way to thank the soldiers and security personnel for their service and for “keeping us safe.”

“Suppose,” I ask my students, “you wanted to fly home today and it took you more than three hours to get through security at the Providence Airport. What would your reaction be?” “I’d be pissed!” most of them say. What’s the difference between my experience in October 2001 and now? “People didn’t feel safe then, and they do now.” The takeaway from the exercise, without fail, is that freedom and all of that is great, wonderful, and at the center of our core values—until we don’t feel safe. When we think we are threatened or “under attack,” all bets are off—we are willing to set our core values aside in exchange for guarantees of security. And we will flock to the support of any person or persons who claim to have a strategy for keeping us safe. I am not in the classroom this semester because I am on sabbatical, but if I ran this exercise now, my guess is that students might be more tolerant of beefed-up security before a plane ride home. In the wake of an uninterrupted series of mass killings both abroad and in this country over the past several weeks, we are approaching that tipping point from freedom to security.fear and ignorance Iris Murdoch once said that one of the best questions a person can ask is “What are you afraid of?” These days the answer apparently is “everything.” You can smell the fear.

Albert Camus wrote in The Plague that the greatest source of evil in the world is ignorance; that case can be made, but I’m convinced that an even greater source of the worst that human beings can be is fear. Despite the best efforts of many, our current political cycle is being driven by a candidate for President who is extraordinarily skillful at building support out of any number of fears both hidden and public. This week Donald Trump proposed that until our leadership “knows what’s going on,” all Muslims should be prohibited from entering the United States. This was just another example of the sort of xenophobic and racist statements that he utters every other day. My concern is not so much Trump himself—I still am hopeful that his candidacy will fall by the wayside—but rather with why he has been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination unbroken for the past several months with no change in sight. trumpThis says a great deal more about the American electorate than about Donald Trump, who makes no secret about who he is. Why is such a person who regularly says things that eat at the heart of our most cherished values attracting noticeable voter support and endless media play?

Fear. Even FDR was not immune from its tentacles; his internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII for no reason other than their race is almost universally considered to be one of the darkest blemishes on American history in the 20th century. The day after Donald Trump’s call for banning Muslims from entering the United States, the Anti-Defamation League released the following statement:

In the Jewish community, we know all too well what can happen when a particular religious group is singled out for stereotyping and scapegoating. We also know that this country must not give in to fear by turning its back on its fundamental values, even at a time of great crisis. adlAs we have said so many times, to do otherwise signals to the terrorists that they are winning the battle against democracy and freedom.

Amen to that. When faced with evidence of having failed to live up to our hopes and claims, people often say “We’re better than that.” In our current climate, we have to be better than that.

I am not a big fan of the National Anthem. The tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is too difficult for anyone but a trained singer to perform well and many of its lyrics are violent and war-mongering. Give me “America the Beautiful” or “My Country ‘tis of Thee” any day. But the final line of the National Anthem is one that all Americans would do well to pay close attention to these days.land of the free If we are truly “the land of the free and the home of the brave” as the song claims, then we need to act like it. If freedom for all is our primary value, then we need to embrace courage and reject guarantees of security built on a foundation of fear and denial of freedom for some. We must resist the siren call of those who would play on our fears and the worst angels of our nature. The future of the American experiment is at stake.

A More Plausible God

I concluded early in my career as a philosophy professor that there are many problems in philosophy that cannot be solved—at least not as they are traditionally fashioned. Consider, for example, dualism—the popular theory that claims that human beings consist of two entirely different things: matter and something else. body and soulThe body, in other words, and something else. This something else, which is usually called the “soul” or the “mind,” is not physical, although dualists are hard pressed to say what this something else actually is. Dualism also has a very difficult time accounting for the obvious fact that the human body and mind interact constantly—something that they should not be able to do if they are substantially different. Rene Descartes, one of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition, when pressed to explain how two different substances can interact with each other eventually said “I don’t know—they just do.”

I have been thinking about a different philosophical problem over the past couple of weeks as I start considering the two General Ethics classes I will be teaching in the fall. Although the question of how a good and powerful God—a “perfect” God, in other words—can allow the suffering, violence, and pain that human beings and other living things are subject to in our world is not a question that fits seamlessly on the syllabus of an ethics class,just perfect I know that the question will come up. It’s difficult to avoid the problem of evil in a classroom filled with students who have, or at least the majority have, been taught in church and parochial education that God is perfect. I’ve included the problem of evil in dozens of courses over the past twenty-five years and have come to the conclusion that it can’t be solved—as long as we insist that we know the characteristics of the divine. But what if our insistence on God’s perfection is misguided? What if, in other words, we need to consider a different personality description than the one we have traditionally been saddled with? Are there more plausible ways to think about God?

In a November 2012 contribution to “The Stone,” a recurring New York Times column focusing on philosophy, Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony argues that there is a simple adjustment to the traditional, theistic conception of God as perfect that will solve the problem of evil. Stop thinking of God as perfect. HazonyHazony cuts to the chase quickly in his brief column:

Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God’s supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it’s reasonably clear that this can’t be done . . . I’d start with this: Is it really necessary to say that God is a “perfect being,” or perfect at all, for that matter? As far as I can tell, the biblical authors avoid asserting any such thing. And with good reason.

Hazony goes on to argue that the whole idea of God as a Perfect Being comes much later to theism, when Christian thinkers tried to bring the biblical text in line with the Greek philosophical tradition, in which folks like Parmeniproblem of evildes and Plato conceive of the divine as perfect. But this was a misguided project, since “you can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously.” In other words, and as usual, it’s the philosophers’ fault.

I often frame the problem of evil as a series of claims that are logically incompatible:

  • God is all good (omnibenevolent)
  • God is all-knowing (omniscient)
  • God is all-powerful (omnipotent)
  • Evil exists

The first three claims are fundamental to traditional theistic belief, while the truth of the fourth claim is self-evident to anyone who is the least bit observant of our surrounding world. Logically, all four claims cannot be true simultaneously. Blake's GodPick your favorite three to double down on, and the fourth has to be false. Which sucks, because any committed theist who is also an observant human being wants to affirm all four claims.

Heroic philosophical and theological efforts have been made to solve the problem of evil; the most obvious (but for many, the most disturbing) tactic is to stop thinking of God as a bundle of perfections. What if God is not all-knowing, all-powerful, all good, or any of the above? Hazony suggests that we ask a prior question: Where did theists ever get the idea that God is perfect in the first place? A careful look at seminal biblical texts indicates that such a conception is not to be found there. I will beConsider, for instance, God’s revelation of the divine name to Moses from the burning bush in the book of Exodus. God says I am that I am, at least according to most English translations. That’s a name consistent with an immutable and perfect nature. But, Hazony points out, that translation comes from the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew text into Greek already showing the influence of Greek philosophy on translators and interpreters. The better translation from the Hebrew of the divine answer to “What is your name?” is I will be what I will be, an imperfect verb tense that indicates incompleteness, process, and change. Which would explain why the God of the Jewish scriptures seems so imperfect, human, arbitrary, and so unlike the perfect deity many of us were taught to believe in. The ancient Israelites did not believe in such a God.

So if the God of Exodus and the Hebrew scriptures is not a bundle of perfections, then what is he/she/it? Hazony suggests that this God is exactly what the various ancient texts, particularly the Psalms, point toward:

The God of Hebrew scripture is meant to be an embodiment of what is, of reality as we experience it . . . It is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel’s faith: we hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.God hope

God as a promise and a hope, rather than a perfect Being—that, obviously, would be a game changer. Hazony suggests that early Christian philosophers and theologians imposed Greek philosophical categories on theistic belief because they feared that an imperfect God would not attract many followers. Instead, theists have inherited a God spoken of in sweeping idealizations of perfection, a conception whose relationship to the world in which we actually live is impossible to imagine. Traditional theism is losing ground in many parts of our country and the world; as Hazony advises at the end of his column, “surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.”

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost yesterday is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a church or religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

ubi_caritas_et_amor_wedding_sticker_template-re6fcd4ed855b45a3b33a27c44272a696_v9wf3_8byvr_210[1]

The Asshole Saint

One of my favorite courses is one that I am scheduled to team-teach for the third time with a colleague from the history department next spring. “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era,” taught as a capstone colloquium for second-semester sophomores in Providence College’s signature Development of Western Civilization (“Civ”) program, has been wildly popular—the students refer to it as “Nazi Civ.” I would like to think that it’s popularity is due to my colleague’s and my spectacular teaching abilities, but I suspect it is more because everyone is fascinated by the Nazis. Put “Nazi” in front of any academic course—“Nazi Accounting 101, “Nazi Intro to Biology,” “Nazi Marketing”—and the course would sell out. magdaMy colleague and I simply have the good sense to catch this lightening in a bottle every year or so.

Topics covered range far and wide; one of the most interesting, strangely enough, is the notion of sainthood. We study heroes and villains, persons who both exceed and fail to meet moral norms and standards (often the same person). And every once in a while, someone is described as a saint—usually a description immediately rejected by the possible saint. Magda Trocme, for instance, regularly dismissed claims that her actions, along those of her tiny French town of Le Chambon, which saved thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazis were “saintly.” She insisted rather that helping people in need and danger is simply what normal people do—nothing remarkable about it. Others had different attitudes about sainthood. Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who sacrificed his life for another man about to die at Auschwitz, let it be known from his youth that his goal in life was to be a saint. Yet when the main character in camusAlbert Camus’ The Plague is described as a “saint” by another character, he responds that “sanctity doesn’t really appeal to me . . . What interests me is being a man.” Our mostly parochial school educated students have heard about saints their whole lives, but now have the opportunity to think about what makes a person a saint, or even if there is any such thing. Is there a difference between sainthood and moral excellence? Is sainthood a proper goal for a human life, or is it something one stumbles into?

A recurring character in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series of mysteries that Jeanne and I are currently binge-reading raises the saint issue in an interesting way. Dr. Vincent Gilbert abandoned a lucrative medical career to live in and care for a community of people with Down syndrome. Based on that experience he wrote a book called Being, by all accounts a memoir of staggering honesty and humility. Staggering particularly because Dr. Gilbert abandoned his family to enter this community, walking back into their lives years later to find that his alienated son and wife want nothing to do with him. He’s temperamental, a contrarian by nature, very full of and in love with himself, and is generally disliked by everyone in town. bury your deadThese contradictions have earned him the title “The Asshole Saint” among his family and acquaintances who know and don’t love him.

In Bury Your Dead, the sixth installment in Penny’s series, Vincent is living in a cabin deep in the Québec woods because his family refuses to let him live with them at their hotel and spa in town. Inspector Beauvoir, another recurring character in the series who is recovering from serious gunshot wounds received a few weeks earlier, finds himself in the cabin when Vincent rescues him from a snowmobile mishap. As Vincent tenderly cares for the feverish Beauvoir, the Inspector compares his current situation to his previous medical care over the past weeks.

He’d been touched by any number of medical men and women. All skilled personnel, all well intentioned, some kind, some rough. All made it clear they wanted him to live, but none had made him feel that his life was precious, was worth saving, was worth something . . . [Vincent’s] healing went beyond the flesh, beyond the blood. Beyond the bones.

I wrote a year ago on this blog about the difference between “fixers” and “healers,” a difference that Inspector Beauvoir is taking notice of.

Fixing and Healing

The ability to recognize the value and dignity in another person, regardless of their status or situation, is one of the hallmarks of a healer—and perhaps a saint.

Less than a page after Inspector Beauvoir’s observations about Vincent’s healing abilities, the men enjoy a meal together while listening to a hockey game on the radio. asshole book clubBefore long Vincent says something judgmental and nasty about Beauvoir’s culinary preferences, as much in character as Vincent’s tender care a page earlier. “The asshole was back,” Beauvoir notes. “Or, more likely, had been there all along in deceptively easy company with the saint.” I have not yet finished Bury Your Dead, but a bit over half way through I have a sneaking suspicion that Vincent might have committed the unsolved murder that the Inspector and everyone else in town is seeking to solve. I won’t reveal down the line if my suspicions are correct—if I did, Louise Penny would have to kill me. But a killer saint might be a stretch—it’s challenging enough to come to grips with a saint being an asshole.

Or is it? When Camus’ character in The Plague says that he is more interested in being a man than being a saint, I suspect he is drawing a false distinction. Saintliness need not require rising above one’s humanity or leaving it behind. Instead, I prefer to think of saintliness as entirely compatible with being human—warts and all. The Protestant in me has always bristled a bit at Catholic veneration of the saints, primarily because raising them to veneration status removes them from the daily human grind and places them beyond the reach of reasonable human aspiration. AquinasI enjoy finding out that Thomas Aquinas had an eating disorder and that Sister Teresa could be a bitch and was hard to get along with. Why? Because it tells me the excellence that sainthood represents is a matter of being fully human. Each of us can learn to see another person as more than a problem to be avoided or solved, to be attentive to the other in the manner that their humanity deserves. Each of us can learn to be healers, in other words—even if we still occasionally are assholes. That’s what incarnation is all about.

To the Graduating Seniors

For those who read this blog regularly, it will come as no surprise that I believe I have the greatest job in the world. So great, in fact, that I don’t consider it to be a job at all. It is a vocation, a calling, what I was made to do—pick your favorite description. But every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began ten years or so ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Me: Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. One hundred and eighteen years ago,  at an obscure university about fifty miles north of here, books[2]Professor William James gave a talk to the Young Men’s Christian Association at Harvard University. The topic the group asked him to speak on that evening was “Is Life Worth Living?” For the next few minutes I would like to explore that topic—“Is life worth living?”—with you.

I know, I know—you’re thinking “Come on Professor Morgan, that’s really a downer. This is graduation weekend. We are expecting to hear how hard we have worked, that the world is waiting for us with open arms, that we can be anything we want to be if we simply set our minds to it.” I am well aware that this is what you want to hear this weekend, and I guarantee that plenty of people on this dais and the dais at the 013[1]Dunkin’ Donuts Center tomorrow morning will tell you exactly that. But for the moment—let’s get serious. No one in this room, especially those in the center front who are graduating tomorrow, wants to consider tough questions this weekend. But I guarantee that many of you already know, and everyone in the Peterson Center today who is over thirty knows, that someday, sooner or later, you will wake up and find that “Is life worth living?” is a very meaningful and pressing question. So note to self—when that day happens, remember these few minutes we have together today. It may save your life.

To remind you that there is a long tradition in which such questions are taken seriously, let me drop a few names on you from the distant past—your DWC days. Hey, what did you expect, I run the program! For instance, in his History of the Persian Wars, HerodotusWorldMap[1]Herodotus tells the following story about how a certain Thracian tribe welcomed the birth of a new baby. “When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.”

Ready for another story? In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche (never thought you’d hear from him at graduation, did you?) tells a story from Greek mythology. “According to an ancient legend, 67a37eee-699c-40f5-8fae-01aabd563d38[1]King Midas had long hunted the forest for the wise satyr Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into his hands, the king asked him what is the very best and most preferable of all things for man. The stiff and motionless satyr refused to speak; until, forced by the king, he finally burst into shrill laughter and uttered the following words: ‘Miserable ephemeral race, children of chance and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is—to meet an early death.’”

Had enough yet?  How about one more from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the last seminar with my Honors freshmen this semester? Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,”king_lear2_edgar_gloucester[1] living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward: As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.

Over and over again throughout literature, philosophy, theology and more, an important question arises that is as pertinent now, for everyone in this room, as it was several thousand years ago. How am I to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that frequently lacks either one? The world does not come to us wearing meaning and values on its sleeve. The universe does not care that you are graduating with honors and is oblivious to whether your hopes and dreams are realized.220px-Dorothy_Allison_at_the_Brooklyn_Book_Festival[1] In a reality such as this, where are meaning, values and purpose to come from?

Novelist Dorothy Allison provides a clue when she writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” In other words, you are responsible for being bearers of meaning into the world. Is life worth living? It is if you make it so. Truth, goodness, value, hope, all of those things that are central to a life worth living are not the objects of a treasure hunt. They are the products of a continuing creative task that each of you has been assigned as an educated and nurtured human being—to create the world that you want to believe in and live in.

For me, this task is best understood in a framework that includes what is greater than us, that is infused with the divine. Perhaps this framework will work for you as well. Benedictine sister sisterjoan[1]Joan Chittister expresses it this way: “Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.”

In ctintern-abbey[1]losing, let me drop one more DWC name. In his signature poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth describes our world as one that is “half-created, and half-perceived.” There’s not a lot that we human beings can do about the “perceived” part. As my wife would say, the world “is what it is.It-is-what-it-is2[1]” But great moral traditions from the ancient world to the present tell us that it is the “half-created” part that makes all the difference. The question is not “what is going to happen?” but rather “what am I going to do with what happens?”  The power and the privilege of shaping and creating a better world is yours. There will be days when life may not seem worth living—on such days, what will your response be? William James’ closing words to those young men at Harvard over a century ago are my final words to you. James said “These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Believe it.

imagesCABHGLT0

It’s That Time Of Year

On Monday, one of my Providence College faculty colleagues posted this on Facebook:

Today was my one and only day of exams, so all that stands between me and Summer research is:too many papers

  • 74 short papers
  • 28 medium papers
  • 32 long papers
  • 3 longer papers
  • 28 final exams

See you all on the other side…

I know this colleague well—when he says “long” and “longer” papers, he means it. I conservatively estimate that he has 600-800 pages of student writing to read, grade, and internally digest over the next few days. “The other side” is no more than a week away, since final grades have to be submitted quickly at the end of the spring semester—certain seniors getting their degrees at Commencement in two weeks may depend on their final grades from the just-finished term. I noticed, by the way, that over the next twenty-four hours my colleague did a whole lot of posting on Facebook about a lot of stuff having nothing to do with grading papers. I’m not surprised. grading memeAnything—including sticking a fork in one’s eye—is preferable to grading under pressure.

It’s that time of year—the time when teachers wonder why the hell they ever went into this profession in the first place. I’ve learned over the years not to whine and complain about grading papers and exams—at least not around my wife. After hearing me do so on a regular basis, Jeanne once simply asked “Isn’t that part of your job?” Followed by “If you didn’t assign so many papers, you wouldn’t have to spend so much time grading.” Both true—and both completely unwelcome observations when one is facing hours and hours of the worst part of one’s job. So professors usually save their most intense griping for conversations with other professors who are more than willing to play the “can you top this?” game when it comes to how much grading they have to do. I’m careful not to contribute much to such conversations these days—I’m on sabbatical, so I have no grading to do. Hardly the sort of person you want around when you are facing hours of virtual root canal. I have, however, twenty-five years of college teaching experience that qualifies me to say something about student assignments; unfortunately, I find that those qualifications don’t help very much. The question of what and how much to assign over a semester presents itself anew every time one starts thinking about a new class. It’s that time of year.

I realized the other day that once my colleagues finish their current round of grading papers and exams in a week to ten days, my sabbatical will effectively be over.ending sabbatical Technically speaking, it ends on June 30th; I’ve been telling friends and family that it actually ends on August 29th, the first day of classes in the Fall 2016 semester. But practically speaking, my colleagues’ current round of grading, followed by commencement a week from Sunday, are the last professor-related items that my sabbatical frees me from. I will be spending the summer months doing the exact same things I usually spend my summer doing—writing (which this summer means getting my book into the format my publisher wants) and planning for my fall classes. I’m pumped for both of these activities. There are few things professionally for an academic that beat getting a book published, but one of the things that (for me, at least) might rank higher is planning classes for a new semester.

One of the many wonderful things about the life of a teacher is that the world is created anew twice per year. I realize that many non-academics are under the impression that college professors, once they have taught a course two or three times with a modicum of success, continue to teach that course exactly the same way every time it shows up on the calendar for the rest of their careers. resetI’d love to say that this never happens, but my own experience on the inside of the academy has been that there unfortunately are such professors out there, hitting the reset button the first day of each semester as they prepare to bore their new students to death over the upcoming weeks. But I’m happy to report that such professors are rare and are becoming rarer. Like the dodo bird, the “I haven’t had a new thought or teaching technique in decades” species of professor will hopefully go extinct soon. I find that most college professors share my energies as they begin to think about the next round of classes a few months down the line—eternally optimistic, positively energized, and full of hope.

For instance, in the fall I will be teaching two sections of General Ethics, the philosophy department’s gateway course into moral philosophy, the place where the strange, unfamiliar world of philosophy and real life intersect most obviously and immediately. My two sections are full of twenty-five juniors and seniors each, most of whom are taking the class because they have to—an ethics class is part of my college’s required core curriculum. So how do I convince fifty students, who would probably rather be doing anything else than sitting in an ethics class, that they are about to embark on an unforgettable voyage?

How NOT to plan a syllabus.

How NOT to plan a syllabus.

That’s the never-ending and always exciting challenge to a teacher—the world created anew every semester.

General Ethics is my favorite course to teach; although I have taught three or four dozen sections of the course in my career, due to four years of heavy administrative duties followed by a year’s sabbatical, my fall ethics classes will be the first time I have taught General Ethics in five years. The last time I taught it I used an entirely new syllabus, essentially teaching ethics through literature. I was satisfied with both sections I taught that semester, received great student reviews at the end of the term, so common sense would indicate that I should pull that syllabus up on my tablet, change the assignment dates to match our fall semester meeting times, order the books, and move on to my next task.

But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? So today I begin planning for next fall’s General Ethics sections with a blank tablet screen in front of me. I’m convinced that these will be the greatest classes I’ve ever taught, that my students’ lives will be changed because of spending a semester under my teaching care, that a new book will percolate up from our brilliant and stimulating discussions, and that the last thing I’ll say before I breathe my last breath a few decades down the line is “Man those Fall 2016 General Ethics classes were terrific!” No pressure, of course—it’s all part of the wonderful life of being a professor. Even if we do have to do a lot of grading. I’ll keep you updated over the summer as I build the syllabus. Some things are more fun than sabbatical!

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

One of my favorite annual teaching activities is immersing freshmen in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.

Something Under Construction

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. Maria Popova`

In the 1992 Vice Presidential debate, with Al Gore on one side and Dan Quayle on the other, Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, asked two questions that have become part of Presidential politics lore: Who am I? Why am I here?

Stockdale took a great deal of criticism and heat for his performance as well as triggering a lot of laughter from those who supposedly knew better. But the Admiral was asking questions that those of us who have had to suffer through week after week of painful and embarrassing debates during our current political cycle would be happy to hear someone ask of themselves. Sometimes a bit of self-analysis and awareness is appropriate. Furthermore, Stockdale’s questions are two of the most fundamental timeless questions of philosophy. who am IWho exactly are we and what the hell are we doing here?

The “who am I?” issue is often packaged in philosophy classes as “the problem of personal identity.” How does a person stay the same over time? To get things going, I often ask my students how many have ever said something like “I’m not the same person that I was back then.” Every hand goes up, since everyone knows that even those parts of ourselves that we consider to be most important—our attitudes, beliefs, commitments, and so on—can radically change over time. Add that to the fact that scientists tell us that there is no cell in our body that will still be in our body seven years from now, and it becomes a challenge to identify exactly what it is about me that stays the same over time so I can still call myself the same person as I was throughout all of the changes that every person encounters.

Many philosophers and theologians have cheated (in my considered opinion) by saying that it is the “soul” that stays constant in the human person throughout all of the physical and experiential changes that each of us encounters throughout a lifetime. formsPlato insisted that the human being’s tool to engage with the unchanging and eternal Forms was the unchanging and eternal soul, an idea that traditional Christian theology has been more than happy to adapt to our connection with the divine. But press someone concerning what the soul actually is, and you will undoubtedly instead find out what it is not—it isn’t physical, it isn’t subject to change, is impervious to time, and so on. In short, the soul is the “whatever it is” that stays constant throughout a human being’s changes, but don’t ask for its positive characteristics. It is just a necessary placeholder. Unfortunately, one of the most important rules of logic is that one cannot define something negatively. lockeTheological issues aside, the soul hardly works as a standard for personal identity.

One of the most interesting and influential explorations of personal identity comes from John Locke, the great 17th century British philosopher. Locke suggests that one’s personal identity extends as far back as one’s memories extend—my identity, in other words, is the collection of all of those experiences stretched over time that can appropriately be owned as “mine.” “I” am the subject of all of these experiences. As my students point out in short order, there are plenty of problems with this notion.

  • Does this mean that a person with no memories, someone with advanced Alzheimer’s or in a comatose state, is technically not a person? Locke’s definition requires that we say “yes.”
  • Suppose that at (time A) 5 years old I go to disneyDisneyland, at (time B) 45 years old I am promoted to full professor, and at (time C) 90 years old my sons commit me to a nursing home. At 45 I remember going to Disneyland; at 90 I remember getting promoted but no longer remember going to Disneyland. Locke’s analysis requires me to say that Morgan B and Morgan A are identical, as are Morgan C and Morgan B. Morgans C and A, however, are not the same person. That violates the transitive law of mathematics and logic (A=B, B=C, therefore A=C), but who said personal identity is mathematically precise?
  • Human memories are notoriously inaccurate. What impact, if any, does this have on Locke’s proposed standard?

These and other puzzles arising from Locke’s analysis reliably produce great class discussions—but are we any closer to figuring out who we are?

brain pickingsIn a recent conversation with Krista Tippett, Maria Popova provided a 21st century version of Locke’s suggestions.

Identity for all of us is this perpetual process. It’s somewhat like constantly clearing out and rearranging an attic. And it’s as much about throwing out all the furniture and trinkets that no longer serve us as bringing in new ones . . . We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely curated catalog of those.

Popova’s reflections highlight a feature of a Lockean analysis that is easily missed—each of us has both the responsibility and the privilege of creating our own identities. under constructionAs Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “the human being is always something under construction.” We do not control much of what happens to us, but we do get to choose which features will rise to the level of “definitive,” which memories will serve as the foundation of who we are. Each of us, as Popova might say, is a curator of our identity. The more items there are to curate, whether experiences, texts, or other people, the more dynamic and nuanced each identity has the potential to be.

Popova is also willing to nod favorably toward the notion of the soul. It may not be the best choice as an anchor of personal identity, but Popova suggests that whatever the soul is, we have reason to think that it is real.woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote that “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” And she talks about the slipperiness of the soul and the delicacy and complexity of the soul. But I think the fullest people, the people most whole and most alive, are always those unafraid and unashamed of the soul. And the soul is never an assemblage of fragments. And it always is.

Philosophers are likely to complain that there is still no evidence to support believing in the existence of such a thing. But perhaps the best evidence in its favor is that multitudes of human beings seem bound, even hard-wired, to believe in it. Maybe that’s enough.