Category Archives: teaching

The Sea of Ignorance

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones. Jamie Holmes

On a slow day a couple of weeks ago I baited my multitude of Facebook acquaintances who are fellow alums of St. John’s College (“The Great Books College”)st johns into an online conversation by listing, in no apparent order, a number of my philosophical preferences honed over several decades of studying and more than twenty-five years of teaching philosophy. I had started a recent blog post with this very same list.

Love That Will Not Let Me Go

but only a few of my fellow Johnnies read my blog regularly, as far as I know, so I thought I’d tweak them directly by putting the list up on a “Johnnies Only” Facebook group page. One of the great features of a shared St. John’s education is that every alum has encountered the same authors, regardless of when they graduated—great booksthe Great Books curriculum changes less often than the worship of a liturgical church. Furthermore, I knew that all of my fellow alums would have at least spent a bit of time with each of the couple of dozen philosophers on my comparative list. I suspected that it would generate discussion, since no St. John’s graduate can resist expressing her or his opinion on just about anything—and I was right. In less than a minute one acquaintance commented “I disagree!” followed by dozens more. A sampling:

  • I could hardly disagree with Mr. Morgan’s preferences, but I don’t share a lot of them.
  • I like Aristotle as a naturalist, although sometimes he didn’t extrapolate the process from what he was observing.p and a
  • Mr. XXX (a previous commenter), I assume that you are joking when you suggest that any reasonable reader would see Plato and Aristotle as anything other than polar figures defining an essential duality in ontologic thought.
  • I’ll say that where Vance speaks of his preferences for isms and concepts (empiricism vs. rationalism, the particular vs. the universal, etc.), he seems to be choosing half a loaf rather than the entire loaf. That is, the best philosophy will find a place for the particular AND the universal, the empirical AND the rationalistic, etc. Indeed, some of the philosophers Vance prefers (e. g., Aristotle, Nietzsche, later Wittgenstein) do precisely that.

You get the point. I did not participate in the discussion at first—it was as good as a classroom seminar taking off so energetically that I no longer needed to direct it.

Eventually the discussion turned toward m and dDescartes (Mr. Certainty) vs. Montaigne (Mr. Skepticism). I have written frequently in this blog about my conviction that certainty is not only vastly overrated but also is not generally available to creatures with knowledge tools such as ours—hence my love for Montaigne and my weariness with Descartes. This did not go over well with some of the Facebook participants.

  • Me: Montaigne would actually agree with the last sentence in Pascal’s first paragraph, and “the common talk of life” is probably the best place to begin philosophy. There’s a reason why I love Epictetus and the Stoics as much as I love Montaigne. And as a final comment–certainty is vastly overrated.
  • Mr. X: I am not sure you are right, Vance.
  • Vance Morgan: That certainly would not be the first time–but about what?
  • XXX: About certainty being overrated!
  • Vance Morgan: I might be wrongI’ll take open endedness and the real possibility that I might be wrong or have a lot to learn on anything whatsoever over conviction of certainty any day!
  •  XXX: Wit, are you saying you are certain that certainty is overrated?
  • Vance Morgan: It is highly probable that certainty is overrated–but I might be wrong.
  • XXX: Ok now I am on board!

Imagine my pleasure just a few days later when the NY Times feed in my morning email announced an Op-Ed with the provocative title “The Case for Teaching Ignorance.”ignorance

The Case for Teaching Ignorance

“I’m going to read this” I announced to Jeanne—“Of course you are,” she replied—and I was not disappointed. Of course who wouldn’t expect a philosophy/humanities professor to resonate with passages such as

The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.


Educators should devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.

This is great stuff for someone (me) who defines his home discipline of philosophy as “the art of asking better and better questions” and tells his students that his job is to disturb their peace.

stemBut what made Jamie Holmes’ essay particularly satisfying and fascinating is that it is a report straight out of STEM world (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for those of you who are tired of being overwhelmed by acronyms). The term is typically used when addressing education policy and curriculum choices in schools to improve competitiveness in science and technology development. Politicians and educators of all stripes and persuasions have been urging the importance of educating students in the STEM disciplines for some time now; these are the disciplines on the cutting edge of the future (and ones that might actually get a college graduate a freaking job). Calls for STEM emphasis in education and curriculum development, either directly or indirectly, are often energized by the assumption that it is time to de-emphasize fuzzy humanities and liberal arts curricula as we train the next generation for what is to come.

So it was a pleasure to read STEM people from neuroscientists to surgeons saying things like

Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.


Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.

Michael Smithson, one of the scholars referenced in the article, provides an interesting metaphor to illustrate the important dynamic between what we know and what we don’t know. Isle of KnowledgeImagine human knowledge as an island in a vast sea of ignorance. The island is dynamic and growing—living in the middle of it one might think it is a continent and be unaware of the surrounding sea. Smithson points out that the larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. Pushing the metaphor further, James Holmes writes that

Mapping the coast of the island of knowledge . . . requires a grasp of the psychology of ambiguity. The ever-expanding shoreline, where questions are born of answers, is terrain characterized by vague and conflicting information. The resulting state of uncertainty, psychologists have shown, intensifies our emotions: not only exhilaration and surprise, but also confusion and frustration.ocean tide

Exactly—this is why the teaching profession and facilitating the life of learning is so exhilarating and fascinating. I like the shoreline analogy, adding only that the shoreline between sea and land is always fluctuating as the tide rolls in and rolls out. The line of demarcation between land and water, between knowledge and ignorance, is shifting sand—that’s the territory of true learning. The pedagogy of uncertainty and ignorance favors questions over answers, uncertainty over certainty, the unknown over the set and established.

Focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge. . . . Giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential.

Happy semester to my colleagues in the teaching profession as they joyfully make their new charges aware of our collective ignorance!


It is the happy life that asks more of us than we realize we have and then surprises us by enabling it in us. Joan Chittister

As I organize various materials in preparation for my big sabbatical writing project, I find myself returning to various themes that I have considered frequently over the three years of this blog’s existence.cropped-penguins11 One quick way to do that is to see how many times I have tagged a post with certain key words, something that WordPress makes it very easy to do. The most used tags are not surprising:

Jeanne: 157; God: 184; Jesus: 102; Faith: 126; Philosophy: 163; Teaching: 131

I’m sure Jesus doesn’t mind losing out to my wife, and she won’t be surprised that philosophy beat her out. Other non-surprising categories include

Writing: 49; Silence: 28; Humility: 41; Introverts: 29; Grace: 43

Perhaps the stat that raised my eyebrows the most was

Happiness: 4

Really? Out of almost three hundred blog posts I have tagged Evil (39) ten times more often and Idolatry (9) twice as often as happiness? That can’t be right. Using another handy WordPress tool I found out that I have actually used the word “happiness” thirteen times in three years of blogging—apparently only four times did I deem my use of the word important enough to consider the post to be partially about happiness. aristotle3[1]Aristotle, my top candidate for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition, famously wrote that every human being above all wants to be happy—they just disagree about the definition of the term. In my case, at least, Aristotle appears to be wrong.

On the whole, happiness as conceived in our present culture is a lousy goal for a human life. It’s a feeling, an emotion, a “feel good” state that certainly does feel good when one is experiencing it, but its ephemeral nature makes it more of a tease than a legitimate life project. But Aristotle’s word usually translated as “happiness” does not mean a feeling, smiling a lot, or anything of the sort. The word is eudaimonia, literally “good spiritedness,” which is best translated as “human flourishing” or “human fulfillment.” imagesCA88EEB4What people want, in other words, is not a life filled with nice feelings and lots of smiles and laughter. What they want is a life that means something. A lifelong process that over time turns one’s best potentials into actuality. A life, to borrow from Thoreau, which at the end will not leave one wishing that one had bothered to actually live rather than just mailing it in. That’s a program I can resonate with.

Of the many spiritual guides whose insights have influenced me over the past several years, none is more capable to reorienting me quickly and connecting me with what I know to be true in my deepest me than Joan Chittister. Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyShe tells the story of a Muslim elder known for his piety and virtue who, when asked how he become so holy, would always reply “I know what is in the Qur’an.” When he died, everyone raced to his hut to see what was in his copy of the holy book. The person who got there first reported to the rest that “What is in his Qur’an are notes on every page, two pressed flowers, and a letter from a friend.” Chittister comments that the sage had learned that “If the question is, what is really important in life?—the answer is only life itself, living it well, immersing it in beauty, love, and reflection.”

The three things found in the elder’s Qur’an are telling. The heavily annotated sacred text shows that he understood the importance of reflection, of hearing, reading, marking, and inwardly digesting what is read as well as what is experienced, as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it. Reflection is part of a well-lived life, something that I have been happy to rediscover in the first few weeks of sabbatical after several years of feeling obligated to squeeze reflection into the momentary cracks of a manic daily schedule. Our contemporary world provides little support for such reflection; indeed, calls for such times of stepping back and considering who we are and why we are doing what we are doing are considered luxuries that only a privileged and pampered few have access to or can afford. imagesCAM825NOBut as Chittister notes, “we are meant to be about more than money and social craftiness. We are called to be more than simply passersby in life.”

The two pressed flowers in the elder’s Qur’an are reminders of beauty, beauty that calls us to remember that there is in life, deep down, an essential basic and beautiful goodness that redeems all the moments we ourselves overlay with greed or hatred or anger or self-centeredness. This morning in the midst of writing this essay on our back yard deck, I heard the distinctive call of a cardinal, my favorite bird (next to penguins). As I paused to listen, the cardinal flew in all of his scarlet glory to perch on the branch of a dead tree in our neighbor’s yard about fifteen feet from where I was sitting. I thought for a moment about quietly switching my tablet to camera mode and trying to get a picture, but chose instead to simply be with my feathered friend. “Hey, dude,” I said—“looking good!” He sang his distinctive tune for me a couple more times, then darted off on his cardinal way. Moments of beauty such as that, even if only a minute or so long, go far toward sustaining my deep belief in the goodness of things, despite what appears to be daily and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. no man is an islandSuch moments, Chittister writes, “are the heartbeat of the universe. They make us glad to be alive.”

The letter from a friend in the elder’s Qur’an is a reminder that we are all interconnected—in John Donne’s overworked phrase, none of us is an island. In my own natural solitude and introversion, this is a greater challenge to incorporate than reflection and beauty. Thank goodness for Jeanne who reminds me to stay in touch with a colleague and friend with whom I had a chance conversation, for my cousin who posted old family pictures on Facebook over the past couple of days, and even the service in Philadelphia remembering the wonderful life of a good friend—these remind me that connectedness to others, even those whom I do not know but are sharing the human journey with me, is the most important part of a well-lived life.

What does any of this have to do with happiness? Most of us are familiar with the saying that “Life is what happens while you are making other plans”—I suggest that happiness is what happens as one seeks to live a flourishing and meaningful life. Herodotus quoteHappiness is best understood not as a life’s goal, but as the by-product of defining a purpose in life and pursuing it with all of your heart and mind. The Greek historian Herodotus once wrote that no person should be considered as happy in the eudaimonia sense until that person is dead. That’s because true happiness, the life of eudaimonia, is a process, not a goal, a process that stretches from birth to death. This involves reflection, beauty, other people, and so much more.

Happiness is what outlasts all the suffering in the world. It is the by-product of learning to live well, to choose well, to become whole, and to be everything we are meant to be—for our sake and for the sake of the rest of the world, as well.

Disturbing the Peace

SpinozaI do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace Baruch Spinoza 

            One of the lead articles in the most recent edition of The Atlantic magazine is “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Lukianoff and Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind

Co-authored by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the teaser blurb for the article in the Table of Contents says “How a new strain of political correctness on campus is damaging higher education—and may be threatening students’ mental health.” It is an interesting read. Given Donald Trump’s current more-than-fifteen-minutes of fame, concerns about political correctness are in the news, safe spacebut in this article Lukianoff and Haidt are drawing our attention to what might be called “political correctness with a twist”:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. . . . It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.

The authors’ argument is largely anecdotal, relying either on their own experiences or on recent anecdotal stories and essays from various campuses across the country. seismic shiftThere is a great deal of speculation about the causes of this perceived seismic psychological shift among students over the past couple of decades, although virtually no data is provided to substantiate many of the authors’ claims.

In the first column of the article readers are introduced to two important terms that “have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance: Microaggression and Trigger warnings. Microaggressions “are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” Examples provided include asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that she or he is not a real American. Mrs. DallowayTrigger warnings are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response”; examples of texts deemed as needing trigger warnings on various campuses include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault). The many examples of these and related problems in the article are chosen and presented with the clear intention of “triggering” the reader into concluding “well that’s just stupid—political correctness, like a hydra, rears a new ugly head.” One of the authors’ primary concerns, repeated frequently throughout the article is that such attention to words and actions that might possibly somewhere, somehow offend someone will leave students unprepared to live and work in a world that doesn’t give a crap about what makes them feel uncomfortable.

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of a doubt?

Even though I have twenty-five years of college teaching under my belt,pc my experience on college campuses is deep but narrow, given that I have taught at my current college home for twenty-one years and have shaped my teaching and professional life within the confines of its “105 acre, park-like campus.” Serious conversations about the negative power of language on students in various groups defined racially, economically, by gender or by sexual preference have been ongoing on my campus for some time now. In my own philosophy department regular, continuing, and often heated debates occur about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate language in the classroom, in job candidate interviews, and in basic conversation with each other. What strikes some as obviously benign, scholarly, and insightful strikes others as ill-advised, insensitive, and downright offensive. That said, the tsunami described by Lukianoff and Haidt as drowning campuses nationwide has escaped my notice where I teach—at least in my classrooms. Perhaps this is because I have included this general “trigger warning” in every syllabus for every one of my courses for at least the past fifteen years:

In this course we will be considering some of the most important questions a human being can ask. Perhaps the most important feature of our considerations is learning to ask these questions clearly and precisely. Only then can possible answers be considered fairly. Although I have definite positions on the questions we will be addressing, my role as professor is not to tell you what to think. My role is rather to get you to think. Expect your assumptions to be challenged and comfortable ways of thinking to be disturbed. As the great 17th century philosopher Spinoza once said, I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.

During an oral final exam a couple of semesters ago a student told me that “This class really messed me up—but in a good way!” Mission accomplished.mission accomplished

The fall semester starts in a week or so—even though I am on sabbatical, I am thinking about the incoming students, particularly the new freshmen. If I had the opportunity, here are a few pieces of advice I would give them:

  • Free speech dictates that everyone has the right to their opinion, but not all opinions are equal. right to an opinionOne of the purposes of a liberal education is to help you become skillful at using the tools of lifetime learning; some of these tools, used properly, will help you learn how to distinguish a good argument from bullshit—even when it is your own argument. I often say that a liberally educated person earns the right to have an opinion. The process of earning that right begins with realizing that your opinion is not special just because it is yours, and without challenge and analysis it means nothing with regard to whether it is true (or even a defensible position).
  • In the life of learning, comfort is vastly overrated. comfort zoneExpect to encounter people, ideas, situations and expectations that are both unfamiliar and well outside your comfort zone. You should be looking for these rather than trying to avoid them. If you manage to make it through your undergraduate college career without changing any opinion, belief, perspective or attitude, then your tuition dollars have been wasted.
  • The world of adulthood into which you are making your first, tentative forays can be a tough, nasty place. The world out there is full of people, ideas, things, and events that couldn’t care less if they lie within your current comfort is what it is As my wife would say, the world is what it is. Your years in college are not so much about your landing a well-paying job after you graduate as they are about the construction of a powerful and flexible moral and psychological framework of belief and commitment, from within which you will engage with what’s “out there” on a daily basis. It is not the world’s responsibility to provide you with comfort and security. It is your task to create and maintain a moral and psychological home for yourself in that world using all of the resources available to you, resources to sustain you on a life-long journey. By the way, you’ll be making significant renovations and additions to this home your whole life. Your professors are here to assist you in the construction of that home—good luck!

A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match. Christopher Nelson

A Hard Saying

In today’s gospel reading from John, a number of Jesus’ followers complain after one of his teachings that “this is a hard saying; who can understand it?” When Jesus responds with a few more of his patented cryptic remarks, the writer tells us that “from that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” These are not just hangers-on or fringe bystanders, looking to be entertained by another miracle. They are disciples, people who have been following Jesus for some time and have been witnesses to and recipients of the vast range of what the man has to offer. And they’ve had enough.

These frustrated former disciples have a point. I have to honestly admit that I might have gone with them. The sermon that causes them to finally fold up shop and go home is indeed a difficult one, wrapping up with the claim that only those who drink Jesus’ blood and eat his flesh will have eternal life. But this is by no means the only “hard saying” that they’ve heard from Jesus. From selling all you have being a prerequisite for following him, and letting your enemy smack both sides of your face while giving him your sweater to go with the coat he stole, to letting the dead bury the dead and hating your father and mother if you want to be his disciple, Jesus is full of “hard sayings.” Small wonder that Christians generally, lacking the guts to simply walk away, tend to water down and systematize the radical elements of the gospel into manageable directives. These reduced commands require behaviors and commitments that, although burdensome at times, can be carried out by any reasonably dedicated and sincere adult. For many of us, “this is a hard saying—who can understand it?” is not really a question of understanding at all. For we understand the hard sayings all too well, and conclude that they are just too much.

In October of 2006, the news of a shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA burst onto the nightly news. A neighborhood milkman carrying a small arsenal of weapons walked into the school and started shooting, killing five and wounding many more before turning his gun on himself and committing suicide. In the midst of deep grief, the interconnectedness of the Amish community was demonstrated through comprehensive mutual support and, most shockingly, immediate forgiveness. At a prayer service the night after the shootings, the Rev. Dwight Lefever of Living Faith Church of God said that earlier in the day he was in the kitchen of the shooter’s family home when an Amish neighbor came by. “He wrapped his arms around Charlie’s dad for an hour,” Lefever reported. “He said, ‘We will forgive you.’” The pastor’s conclusion: “God met us in that kitchen.”

For the past few years, I have included this tragic event and its aftermath as the central part of the midterm exam in my General Ethics class. I provide my students with a newspaper account of the Amish community’s reaction to the shootings, and then ask them to try to make sense of what happened, particularly of the immediate forgiveness offered to the shooter’s family, within the structures of the moral frameworks we have studied during the first half of the semester. They can’t do it. Furthermore, many of my mostly parochial-school educated students find something twisted, even offensive, in the willingness of the Amish community to forgive the murderer of their children. Comments range from “this is completely abnormal” to “these people are sick.” After several semesters of this assignment, no student has yet commented favorably on a quote from a member of the Amish community included in the article: “Our faith tells us to act like Christ did on his way to the cross.”

Once shortly after reading the midterms, I was drinking a beer with a colleague at the local watering hole on Friday afternoon, unwinding from the week. I described the reactions of my students to the behavior of the Amish, reactions that were still fresh in my mind. In response, he said “I also am shocked by what the Amish did, but I don’t know why. As a Christian, I should be shocked that I’m shocked. They are just trying to do what Jesus said to do.”

Perhaps I can excuse my 19-20 year old students for being unable to find a place for radical forgiveness in their moral worldviews, which have been heavily influenced not only by strong family connections but also by a culture of the self and Christianity on the cheap. But what about me, someone significantly older and more experienced than my students? As someone who has grappled with issues of Christian faith from my youth, my own temptation is to think of the Amish as über-Christians, somehow capable of moral heroics that normal persons such as I can only admire from a distance and not even aspire to. That rationale is particularly tempting because I, as many mainstream Christians, have been encouraged to think that it is the priests, pastors, monks, nuns, and missionaries who are the elite corps of Christians, freeing me to reduce expectations considerably.

But there is nothing in the Gospels to justify that easy out. Jesus’ call to take up my cross and follow him does not contain a loophole or room for an amendment. Which brings me back to the beginning—“this is a hard saying.” Christ apparently demands everything of me, which is far more than I can give. I can’t love my neighbor as myself. I can’t love God more than I love Jeanne. I can’t sell all that I have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. It’s too hard, and I’ve grown tired of pretending that a lukewarm, watered-down version is sufficient. Maybe I’m one of those who should “walk with Him no more.”

But that’s not an option for me. I identify with the remaining disciples who asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So, where does that leave me? I want to follow. I can’t follow.

A still small voice offers a bit of hope. “Of course it’s too hard. Of course you can’t do any of these things. That’s the point. I can, and I am in you.” If divine love has indeed overcome the world, then perhaps it can even overcome me.

Love That Will Not Let Me Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabbatical Report–The Early Returns

I have been on sabbatical officially for a bit over a month—in many ways, it doesn’t feel any different from the middle of any summer for an academic. I’ve been reading and writing a lot, something that all academics do during the summer. I’ve been spending a lot of time working in the yard, something I always enjoy doing in the summer. WIN_20150701_150659The greatest evidence that this summer is unusual is that since July 1 I have been riding my new bicycle 15-25 miles every day. And this reminds me that this isn’t just the summer—it’s the beginning of sabbatical. I received sufficient funds to purchase a beautiful new bicycle from my very generous colleagues who teach in the academic program I directed for the past four years, money presented to me as a thank you gift (along with a very expensive and very lovely bottle of Laphroaig) at a surprise reception after the program’s annual end-of-the-academic-year workshop in May. laphroigI have only been to the gym twice since July 1 (my habit has been four times per week for the past twenty or more years) because I have ridden my bicycle every day but two since July 1. I highly recommend it.

August tends to be the month when professors remember that they actually will be teaching classes within a few weeks and put the final touches on each of their fall syllabi (or begin their syllabi if they are less anal about class preparation than I tend to be). And now I’m beginning to feel weird, because I have no syllabi to prepare. With a full academic year sabbatical, I will not be in the classroom again until the day after Labor Day 2016. I know that my colleagues who are getting ready for the students who will arrive on campus in a month are probably jealous of those colleagues who are on sabbatical—but I don’t feel guilty about that. I felt the same way each of the last six Augusts about my colleagues who were beginning sabbatical. Unfortunately sabbatical only shows up once every seven years—that means that six out of every seven Augusts a professor is going to be overwhelmed by envy.

sabbaticalExplaining sabbatical to non-academics is very difficult, and in my experience most academics do a lousy job at such explanations. Most non-academics do not know exactly what sabbatical is. But they do know that for a semester or year the person on sabbatical is not going to be in the classroom, which means (obviously) that sabbatical is vacation. When a teacher is not in the classroom, she is not working—right? No amount of explaining that sabbatical is the time when professors research, write and publish, all of which are requirements for promotion and tenure (another academic thing non-academics don’t get), or of describing the hoops that must be jumped through (proposals, committees, etc.) in order to be approved for tenure matters a whit. What makes you so special to warrant getting several months off every seventh year? Paid, no less? Do you think you work harder than normal people do? Do you live in a rarified atmosphere than normal mortals can only aspire to? This, of course, is likely to produce an ill-conceived and defensive response from the academic, who then comes off sounding as if she really does think she is special, that he does work harder than anyone else, that the academic does deserve a perk that virtually no one else has access to. But I think we can do better than this, fellow professors. Step one—stop apologizing for having access to something that, netflix family leavein a better world of work and employment, would be the norm rather than the exception.

The other day on one of the NPR shows I listen to when in the car (I forget which one—they all start melding together after a certain time), Netflix’s newly announced policy of a full year’s paid leave to new parent employees was the topic of discussion. “Wow, those wild and crazy companies like Netflix, Google and Microsoft! Unlimited vacation time, no required number of working hours per week, and now this! What will they think of next?” A bit of perspective was provided by a caller about twenty minutes in. The caller was from Scotland but married an American and lives in the U.S. He reported that when each of his children was born, his wife was allowed a mere six weeks of paid maternity leave, then she had to return to work.scotland parental leave By comparison, when his sister gave birth recently in Scotland, by statute her employer was required to provide her with six months of paid maternity leave, to be followed by six more months at half salary if she chose to avail herself of it. “What’s driving me crazy about the conversation so far,” the caller said, “is that everyone is saying what a great and spectacular thing policies like Netflix’s family leave program are. But this is how things should be. Every employer beyond a specified size should have to provide a year’s paid leave. This isn’t a luxury—it’s how people should be treated.”

Rather than getting defensive when conversing with non-academics about sabbaticals, professors should make a similar argument to the one offered by the guy from Scotland. The idea of Sabbath and sabbatical is ancient—most people who know anything about it know that several chapters in the Pentateuch from the Jewish scriptures describe in detail how a scheduled change in the daily, monthly, yearly routine is to be a fundamental part of the fabric of Israelite life. ot sabbaticalNot just for people, but also for the land, for non-human animals, and even for God itself if the divine seventh day rest in the first chapter of Genesis is to be taken seriously. Why are the Sabbath and sabbatical years commanded in the Jewish law? Not because the children of Israel worked harder than anyone else or because they deserve it more than other human beings, but because the rhythms of work and rest, of activity and contemplation, of expending energy and recharging batteries, are built into the very fabric of the world we find ourselves part of. Stepping back and taking a look at things from a different angle in the middle of a culture fully dedicated to manic production and 24-7 work sounds like a quaint luxury, but really it is a psychological necessity.

Joan Chittister, one of the most powerful voices for peace and justice in our world who happens also to be a Benedictine nun, puts it nicely when reflecting on the genius of Benedict’s Rule:chittister

Benedictine leisure is a life lived with a continuing commitment to the development of a culture with a Sabbath mind . . . The purpose of Sabbath is to reflect on life, to determine whether what we’re doing and who we are is what we should be doing and who we want to be. Sabbath is meant to bring wisdom and action together. It provides the space we need to begin again.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Jeanne pointed out that employers could set up programs where employees wanting sabbaticals could have a seventh or a tenth of their salary set aside from each paycheck to accumulate until the seventh or tenth year came—and sabbatical money would be waiting for them. Good start, I say, but I’d go even further—savvy employers will fund these sabbaticals because it will empower their employees in a way that a raise or a couple of extra vacation days could never do. The immediate pushback, of course, is that such a proposal strikes directly at the heart of capitalist efficiency and productivity. To which I respondpoint

I myself am a testimonial to the power of sabbatical. As Joan Chittister writes in the above passage, one of the purposes of sabbatical is to determine whether who we are is who we want to be. During my last sabbatical, before I even was consciously aware of it, I started asking that question—and I found that at least in some important parts of my life the answer was “no.” I was not the person I wanted to be. In reflecting, then acting, on that emerging awareness, internal changes occurred that would have never happened without the time and space provided by sabbatical. It offered me the opportunity to begin again and changed my life—I highly recommend it.highly-recommend

My Imaginary Friend

From as early as I can remember, I had an invisible butler. My mother enjoyed laying my clothes out for the next day when I went to bed, but every laying out clothesonce in a while it was clear that someone else was stepping in to take care of my sartorial needs. I would wake up with unmatched socks laid out, or two shirts but nothing for the waist down, or no underwear, or shoes but no socks. Not wanting to insult my mother, I asked my father what was going on. “Oh, that’s your invisible butler,” he said. “Fancher Offenhowser Bullsmith.” “Since when have I had an invisible butler?” “Since he just showed up one day.” “How come I’ve never seen him?” “Because he’s invisible.”

It’s kind of cool but very unusual to have an invisible butler. My brother and mother—along with my father, of course—knew about it, but I didn’t tell anyone else. No one in first grade mentioned having an invisible butler, and I had already learned that I was different enough from my colleagues in school to negate the necessity of telling them about Fancher. He didn’t seem to work regular hours; I became suspicious when I put two and two together and realized that evidence of Fancher’s handiwork only showed up when Dad was home. WIN_20150716_185711But then at Christmas when I was five or six, amidst the usual paraphernalia under the Christmas tree was something entirely unexpected. Fancher had become visible. Not only did I now have a visible butler, but my butler was a troll.

Trolls have little cache these days—they are so stupid in the movies that they get turned into stone in “The Hobbit” by the rising sun, they fight on the wrong side of every fantasy epic battle, and they lurk on the Internet in order to mess up as many serious conversations as possible. But it wasn’t always that way. In the early 60s trolls were the thing. Thomas DamThe story of Thomas Dam, the Danish fisherman’s son who started carving trolls out of wood in the 1930s to support his impoverished family can be found on-line:

By the time the early 60s came around, Thomas Dam’s “Good Luck Trolls” were being machine produced to satisfy increasing demand and burst onto the international scene. Everyone wanted one. Soon there were cheap knock-off imitations everywhere, something that the Thomas Dam website warns against.

According to old fairytales trolls have magic powers. They love to make you smile and be happy. Some people say that Trolls also bring good luck. But be careful: only the ORIGINAL Dam Troll has magic powers. Therefore…look for the Dam logo and thereby be certain that you have the ORIGINAL GOOD LUCK TROLL.WIN_20150801_145305

Not to worry—Fancher has “Thomas Dam” stamped between his shoulder blades and “Made in Denmark” imprinted on the back of his neck. He’s an original. I apparently could get $200-$700 for Fancher on Ebay, depending on how close to mint condition he is, but that ain’t happening. He is my now retired butler, and he isn’t close to mint condition.

The arrival of Fancher kicked my father’s imagination into high gear as my cousins and brother now wanted trolls. They each received a small, cheap knock-off troll, each with unusual names. Dutch schultzJ. Arthur Flegenheimer for my brother (Dutch Schulz’s real name), Kempster Bloomville for one cousin (name taken off an exit sign on a Wisconsin interstate), and a temporarily nameless one for another cousin. My aunt kept pressing for a name, not wanting one son to feel inferior with a nameless companion. Speculation concerning the troll’s name was of the sort going on in the Gospel of Luke when friends and family wanted to know what Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby’s name was going to be and Zechariah wasn’t saying anything. Zechariah and ElizabethSitting next to Aunt Gloria in the second row of church on a rare Sunday morning when he wasn’t preaching, Dad passed her a note in Zechariah-like fashion: “His name is Luman Lunchmonkee.” Gloria had a giggling and snorting fit entirely inappropriate for the director of the church choir—she had to absent herself from the sanctuary until she regained her composure.

In case you are becoming more and more worried about my sanity and that of my extended family, let me assure you that I can recall no moment at which I believed that Fancher was alive or could do anything other than stand pleasantly smiling with his arms outstretched wherever I placed him. Invisible friends who suddenly become visible are fun, just as long as you don’t cross to the other side and start thinking that they are real. This is a point that those proclaiming atheism love to make on a regular basis.

atheist imaginaryImaginary dovenapoleonYet there are billions of human beings who shape their whole reality and might even stake their lives on the premise that a certain invisible friend not only exists but plays an exceptionally important role in our understanding of ourselves and the reality we find ourselves in. I happen to be one of those billions of human beings. So have I simply transferred my childhood connection to my invisible butler to a far more interesting and complex imaginary friend who is no more real than Fancher? childish thingsDidn’t a text supposedly inspired by this cosmic imaginary friend suggest that when one becomes an adult, one is supposed to put away childish things?

So how do we gather evidence for the existence of something? When is it appropriate to believe in something whose existence you have not verified in the usual, direct sensory ways? This issue often arises in philosophy classrooms. When it does, I ask my students How many of you believe in the existence of Mongolia? All hands go up. How many of you have ever been to Mongolia? No hands go up. Then how do you know that Mongolia exists? My students generally provide a number of sensible reasons:

  • Because I have read about Mongolia in a book or on-line in stories written by people who have been there (although the authors of these sources might be lying).map of mongolia
  • Because I have seen pictures of Mongolia (even though we know that pictures can easily be misidentified or photo-shopped).
  • Because someone I know has been to Mongolia and told me about it (although this trusted source might be bullshitting me just for the fun of it).

The purpose of the exercise is to demonstrate that we believe in the existence of thousands of things that we have not experienced directly. The testimony of others, although not perfect or entirely reliable, serves as a reasonably solid foundation for much of what we believe. Life is too short and human capabilities are too finite to limit our existential belief commitments to only those items that we have experienced directly ourselves.

For many, belief in the existence of what is greater than us—what some dismiss as an “imaginary friend”—begins in exactly the same way. The sacred texts of the great monotheistic religions are accounts of what people over the centuries have believed concerning the divine. This does not prove that something greater than us exists, any more than Wikipedia entries about Mongolia prove the existence of Mongolia,Notre Dame but they are a good place to start and there is no reason to dismiss them just because they are referring to something that we might lack direct experience of. For instance, I had believed in the existence of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for decades before I actually saw and experienced it for the first time a few years ago. But I doubt I would have eventually doubted its existence if I had never seen it myself. The indirect and second-hand evidence for its existence is too overwhelming. So it goes with God—it’s difficult to dismiss theism as a pervasive “imaginary friend” phenomenon when the reports are so ubiquitous.

But there’s nothing better than direct encounter. In my favorite book from the Jewish Scriptures, Job expresses it well. After decades of believing in God because of secondary evidence passed down over the generations, in the midst of intense pain and suffering he encounters the real deal.job “My ears had heard of you,” Job says, “but now my eyes have seen you.” First person contact trumps any number of secondary sources, but does not negate those sources—it gives them new meaning and energy. How do I know that God is not a figment of my imagination? As I have often written on this blog, the best evidence of divine reality is a changed life. I can organize the story of my life around the “before and after” of that encounter spread over several months a number of years ago. I’m not interested in proselytizing or evangelization—you should believe what your own experience can support. But as the formerly afflicted man in the gospels says, “I was blind, but now I see.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


The Right Niyyah

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Krista Tippett’s radio program “On Being,” a show that I frequently catch several minutes of on Sunday mornings as I drive the fifteen minutes from our house to the early show at church. A few weeks ago, her guest was Rami Nashashibi, Founder and Executive Director of the Inner-city Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, in Chicago. He’s also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Sociology of Religion and Muslim Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.nashishibi

On Being: A New Coming Together

Tippett describes Nashishibi at the beginning of the interview as using

Graffiti, calligraphy, and hip-hop in his work as a healing force on the South Side of Chicago. A Palestinian-American, he started his activism with at-risk urban Muslim families, especially youth, while he was still a college student. Now he’s the leader of a globally-emulated project converging religious virtues, the arts, and social action. And he is a fascinating face of a Muslim-American dream flourishing against the odds in post-9/11 America.

Not surprisingly, the conversation was wide-ranging, fascinating, and introduced me to a number of matters and issues that are well outside of my usual frame of reference. What particularly grabbed me, however, was a brief exchange toward the end of the interview, just as I was pulling into my usual parking spot at Trinity Episcopal.

Krista Tippett: I told you I was on your Twitter feed, and I love this. I think it was really recent. You wrote: “My 4-year-old discovers the spiritual power of her name as she looks over and seriously asks, ‘Daddy, do you have the right niyyah?’” What does niyyah mean?

Rami Nashashibi: So niyyah — in kind of Arabic-Muslim parlance — is spiritual intention. niyyahAnd oftentimes — it’s both the Swahili and Arabic word. And oftentimes, Muslims are always asked before they pray, before they do any act of service, before they engage in anything that has any kind of sense of worship associated with it, is it being done for the right niyyah? Is it being done for the right purpose? Are you attempting to get fame or credit? I think, yes, there was a song that had used her name in that way and the light went off in the middle of it and turned over to me on the couch and asked me that question. Honestly, I looked at her and I didn’t have an answer for her for I think a good 20 seconds. She nodded her head and she said, “No, probably not.”

And I said, “What?” We then had a conversation. I said, “Well, at least keep me in your prayers that I have.”

This four-year-old’s simple question—Do you have the right niyyah?—has stuck with me ever since. So has her response to her father’s lack of response—“No, probably not.” It’s hard enough to figure out what the right thing to do is on a daily basis; adding in that it should be done with the right intention, for the right reasons, seems like piling on.intentions and actions As a philosophy professor who has taught introductory ethics courses more times than I care to count over the past twenty-five years, I have thought about this a lot. When I ask my students “What is more important—what you do, or why you do it? Actions or intentions?” they usually split roughly down the middle.

And so do the great moral philosophers. There is the tradition of those who say that only results matter (since they can be observed and measured publicly) and intentions are irrelevant. Then there is the other tradition (spearheaded by Immanuel Kant) who say that results are irrelevant—the true measure of the moral life is internal. Were your intentions pure? Was your heart in the right place? If so, then you are morally in the clear, even if the results of your intended action go “tits up” (to quote my brother-in-law).

VgMKgyZMy students are pretty smart, and it doesn’t take very long before they realize that the “results or intentions” question is a false dichotomy. Because in truth, normal human beings care about both. If morality is just about doing the right thing, then the person who identifies the things that should be done and does them—even if for all of the wrong reasons, such as self-righteous smugness or the praise of others—is morally in the clear. But Nashashibi’s four-year-old daughter is right—we want not only the right thing to be done, but for it to be done with the right niyyah, the right intention or reason. And that sucks, because it takes things straight into the human heart. For those who profess the Christian faith, it also takes things straight into the world of grace.

The first thing I ever learned from Scripture about the human heart as a young boy was from JeremiahJeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked—who can know it?” Far less attention was paid to the Psalm that is recited in liturgical churches during the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, O Lord, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and renew a right spirit within me.” Straight from the Jewish scriptures is both the problem of and the solution for right intentions. As a flawed human being, I am incapable of doing things for the right reason, but help is available. Through divine grace the heart is changed and turned toward the good. Rami Nashishibi’s daughter is right when she doubts that her dad has the right niyyah, so long as that depends on his own energies and strength. But when the divine gets involved, everything changes.

The mystery of grace is exactly that—a mystery. Divine grace enters the world through flawed human beings, strangely enough, and there isn’t enough time to try to figure it out. Grace is something to be channeled, to be lived, not systematized and turned into dogma or doctrine. My bright abyssThe poet Christopher Wiman writes beautifully about this. Through many years of cancer treatments, he learned to hear God, then to channel God, in the most unlikely places, the very places where divine grace apparently lives. Wiman writes that

God speaks to us by speaking through us, and any meaning we arrive at in this life is composed of the irreducible details of the life that is around us at any moment. . . . All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

The right niyyah is not the result of struggle, training, or calculation. And as the author of Deuteronomy tells us,deuteronomy

Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.

All I have to do to have the right niyyah is to open my heart, open my mouth, and let it out.

To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another. What I crave now is that integration, some speech that is true to the transcendent nature of grace yet adequate to the hard reality in which daily faith operates.

Slightly Improved

I have no idea why or how Miss Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard School of Music2139064083_fa0e5dd401[1] with a degree in organ performance, came to spend most of her adult life teaching piano to kids in central, rural Vermont. She was my first piano teacher, from age five (or was it four?) until age eleven. I spent forty-five minutes per week with her in the piano studio attached to her small apartment. While many of her students found her intimidating, she reminded me a bit of my imperious but loving paternal grandmother. But she could have been the Wicked Witch of the West and I would have put up with it, because piano was my life.

Music is in my genes from both sides of the family. I don’t remember when my older brother started piano lessons, but some of my earliest memories involved my mother forcing him to practice his lessons as well as my jealousy that he was getting to do something I wasn’t old enough for yet. He was an indifferent musician—he could play the notes but had no love of it. I was a different matter. I recognized the piano as a soul mate as soon as I started lessons. As I got old enough for school, I would rush to our old uprightimagesCAQOJENP as soon as I got home and play until my mother forced me to leave the bench for supper. The piano was my best friend.

Miss Munn recognized immediately that she had a “true believer” on her hands and allowed me to progress through the standard lesson books at a much faster pace than most. She was a member of a national organization of certified piano instructors, meaning that once per year representatives of this group would visit, listen to her students play assigned pieces and sight-read new ones, grading the students (and presumably Miss Munn) in any number of categories. I remember the two judges as Kafkaesque,Kafkaesque[1] austere, unsmiling, unmoving, seated primly next to each other about five feet away on the left side of the piano, silently making checks occasionally on a sheet in front of them. Come to think of it, they looked and acted pretty much as I figured God looked and acted all of the time.

Miss Munn shared the judges’ scores with her students once she received them from the central authorities in the mail. I recall as if it were yesterday when she reported to me the results of my first judging: Twelve positive checks and zero negative checks. I was thrilled—I had set a goal of being perfect, and I had been. Miss Munn’s comments on my perfect score, however, were unexpected. She said, I’m very pleased with the number of positives, but I’m concerned that you had no negatives. What? What could be better than perfection? She continued by pointing out that my zero negative score was reflective, not of perfection, but of a strong sense of perfectionismPerfectionism[1] that is not desirable in an aspiring pianist (or anywhere else, I suspect). By being so concerned with not making any mistakes, I had closed off the possibility of additional positive checks only available if one is willing to take risks. I don’t remember exactly how I processed Miss Munn’s unexpected reaction to my perfect score, but I must have taken it to heart. My score on next year’s judging was twenty-seven positive checks, three negative checks. At least at the piano, I’d begun to learn that growth and excellence begin with embracing imperfection.

As Jeanne said when I told her this story, that’s a pretty difficult lesson for a five-year-old to learn. Indeed—it’s a lesson that I still struggle with. Miss Munn may have convinced me that perfection is not to be sought at the piano, but Jesus said “Be Ye PERFECT![1]Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father in heaven is perfect” (when he was speaking in King James English). That’s an even tougher lesson for a five-year-old, but it stuck. Not as something to strive for, but as an eternal impossible guilt-producing standard whose roots went deeper every year. As I grew older, I knew that this was an impossible standard. I even have said in class, to the nervous discomfort of my students, “What the hell kind of a moral standard is that”?

imagesCA6KS6YVIn  The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch asks “What of the command ‘Be ye therefore perfect?’ Would it not be more sensible to say ‘Be ye therefore slightly improved?’” Three decades earlier, she built this tension into one of her novels. The central structural pillars of The Belln43712[1] are the dueling Sunday sermons of James and Michael, rivals for the leadership of a lay religious community. James, on the one hand, is convinced that moral perfection is well within any human being’s reach—we know what is required of us and just need to stop thinking and do it. Perfection is measured by the external standard given to us by God through Scripture and tradition. We fail to be perfect through weakness of will. Throughout the novel James is also revealed as judgmental and self-righteous, rigidly insensitive to the nuances and realities of other people.

Michael, on the other hand, preaches that moral behavior begins with an honest assessment of one’s limitations and imperfections—“one must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles.” Although Michael’s position is far more humane and embraceable than James’, his life is a series of continual missteps for which he seeks and expects immediate forgiveness from himself and others. When, due to his moral blundering, a member of the community commits suicide, Michael himself becomes suicidal as he realizes that his lazy acceptance of his own limitations has poisoned his relationships and caused him to blindly miss the importance of continually striving for perfection. Contentment with “slight improvement” has become identical with self-absorption and stagnation.

So there’s the problem. How am I to embrace imperfection while at the same time avoiding complacency? My best clue, which I borrow from Jeanne who is far wiser than I on these matters, has to do with “the law of love.”imagesCAH78QB6 Perfection is a deadly burden as long as it is a standard of judgment. But through the lens of love, it becomes something different. As long as my image of perfection is avoiding judgment by making no mistakes, I live in fear and am doomed to failure. Miss Munn, however, wanted to show me that the growth inspired by taking risks and making mistakes without fear is directed toward a perfection of a very different sort. The wise Abbess in The Bell tells Michael toward the end of the book that “The idea of perfection moves, and possibly changes, us because it inspires love in the part of us that is most worthy.” As First John tells us (once again in King James English), “perfect love casteth out fear.”mural perfect love with cars[1]

Facts, Words, and the Word

TheHobbit_Sdtk_Cover_1425px_300dpi1[1]The day after Christmas a few years ago I went with my son to see Peter Jackson’s movie version of “The Hobbit,” Part One. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I knew I would. I have been a Tolkienphile since my early teens, when The Hobbit was assigned by Mrs. Lord (a great name for a teacher) in my high school honors freshman English class. I loved it, and innocently said to Mrs. Lord “I like this—has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact he has,” she replied, and turned me on to the wonders of The Lord of the Rings. It set off a love affair with J. R. R. Tolkien that has lasted for over forty years. Although I have strayed in the past few years, my first encounter with hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, orcs, and humans in Middle Earth caused me, going forward, to religiously read all four books once every three years. And I suspect that had Mrs. Lord not assigned The Hobbit, I might not have discovered Tolkien for many years after, if ever. It was one of my first examples of the joys of unexpected literary discoveries. It probably also explains why I have never read a word of the “Harry Potter” series”–the next generations Tolkien, I suppose.

muriel_barbery_personnalite_une[1]I still enjoy the unforeseen pleasures of a new literary find. I recently reread one of my favorite novels, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and asked myself, upon finishing, a Mrs. Lord question: “I wonder if she’s written anything else?” Thanks to the wonders of Amazon, I found out in less than a minute that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is gourmet-rhapsody3[1]Barbery’s second novel, that she studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and worked for a number of years in France as a philosophy teacher. I immediately ordered her first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, to read during the break between semesters.

It’s a short novel—a novella, really—that can easily be read in one day, especially if you have a cold and are resisting the siren call of work-related emails that you want to ignore until after New Year’s Day. In the midst of the story about a world-famous food critic who has been told that he has no more than two days to live, I read a sentence that has stuck with me over the past several months, even as the details of Barbery’s story drift away. “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis between words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial dress.”

As I get older and become more able to put years of teaching experience and continuing personal transition and process into some semblance of context and perspective, I find myself placed often at the intersection of words and facts. Facts, the one damn thing after another that provide the stuff of reality, are naked and uninteresting until shaped by a context, energized by a story, or illuminated by narrative light. Yet we live in a world which often insists on just the facts. As the insurance investigators tell Pi Patel in Life of Pi, after listening to his story of survival involving a hyena, an orangutan, a tiger, and a carnivorous island, “for the purposes of our investigation we want to know what really happened.The-Life-of-Pi[1] We want a simpler story for our report, one the company can understand and that we can all believe.” But the notion that the truth is nothing more than facts properly assembled in appropriate order is itself the result of a particular narrative structure, a structure guaranteed to produce stagnation and mediocrity. “I know what you want,” Pi responds. “You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

If I have become convinced of anything in the twenty-five years that I have been teaching, it is that true learning only happens in the company of the desire to see higher, further, or differently. Accordingly, in the narrative of teaching and learning the atomic facts of reality are dressed up in various styles. Sometimes the dress is formal, sometimes casual, sometimes liturgical, and sometimes humorous. Occasionally learning happens best when facts are dressed as for a masquerade, deliberately seeking to conceal what is underneath. Almost never are facts served up naked, except to illustrate how dull and lifeless facts in the raw are, compared with what we might find in the word wardrobe to dress them in.

story_iStock_000015344866Small[1]Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that humans are story-telling animals, and as such we package the facts of our lives for ourselves and for each other in word-woven stories. But just as facts are, of themselves, incapable of conveying truth, so also it is often impossible for even the most skilled storyteller and communicator to encompass the highest truths with words. Human beings know this intuitively. Anyone who has ever tried to express the depths of real love finds that the reality always exceeds what can be expressed in words. As Reverend Ames says in Gilead, “you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.“ “Actions speak louder than words” is more than a truism or sound bite—it is an acknowledgement that the truth often must be shown rather than spoken or written about.

The inadequacy of both naked facts and the words we dress them in is shockingly apparent when entering the realm of religious conviction. This is especially the case when the religion in question involves sacred texts, words that supposedly carry divine weight in some fashion or another. inerrancy_Gerstner[1]I am a product of a version of Christianity that treats the Bible as literal fact—this leads to shallowness, agnosticism, atheism, or at worst, rigid self-righteousness. When the “facts” are dressed up in ornamental dress, the product is stories, metaphors, doctrine, or dogma, depending on the style and the word-fashion designer. But embedded at the heart of the Christian narrative is a challenge both attractive and provocative. As with all of the greatest truths, the most dynamic aspects of the relationship between the human and the divine cannot be reduced to words.

ChristmasB-in-the-beg[1]There is a reason why the writer of the Gospel of John begins by considering divine wordplay. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What sort of ceremonial dress is this? Alfred Korn puts it this way: “God is spirit, but at some point in history God became Word. This process of finding words for what cannot be expressed is incarnation.” As the Gospel writer tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The depths of divine love cannot be exhausted by words, by speech, by texts, by facts dressed up in even the fanciest garb. www-St-Takla-org--Coptic-Saints-Saint-Athanasius-03-01[1]These depths must be lived in and inhabited. And so the story goes—we are the continuing incarnation. As Saint Athanasius provocatively said, “God became human so that we might become God.” The Word continues to become flesh and live with us, because the Word is us. The life of faith is the life spent exploring what that amounts to and living it out.