Category Archives: teaching

Jesus on a dinosaur

Jesus is Riding a Dinosaur, and other observations

The next time someone says something like “These are $130 headphones that I bought for $30,” I’ll respond “I guess that makes them $30 headphones.”untitled

Phrases and words that should never again be used in movie or book reviews: “Tour de force.” “Electrifying.” “Astounding.” “Spectacular.” “Jaw-dropping.”1345499734169

matt-and-kim-4untitled (2)To the professional photographer taking family pictures for the church photo album: Posing people in their 50s, 60s and 70s in contortions appropriate only for younger folks could lead to problems. We’ll send you the chiropractor bill.

Another word that is vastly overused: “Outraged.” It is okay to be outraged by the abuse of children, the fact that people go to sleep hungry every night in this country, or anything Donald Trump or Ben Carson says, or people who think that only Christians from Syria should be allowed to enter the U.S. as refugees. It is not okay to be outraged by a longer line than usual at the grocery store, two people of the same sex holding hands, or having to push an extra button on the ATM to indicate which language you would prefer the machine to use when communicating with you.images18HF1BON

Taking one point off a student’s final course grade every time he or she asks a question that is answered in the syllabus might cause a few more students to read the syllabus. Maybe.


I usually make fun of New Englanders and their tendency to overreact and over-obsess about weather, but I’m hoping for a year off on tough winters. The last two have been murder.
Ode to New England

The next person who posts a picture of food on Facebook should be required to buy dinner for all of his or her Facebook on facebook

dachshund banana003How is possible that my dachshund, sound asleep in bed with Jeanne in the middle of the night, can hear me eating an insomniac banana at the other end of the house?

Sixty is the new forty. Or at least I hope it is—I’m getting perilously close.60-is-the-new-40

I am a proud, card-carrying introvert, but if it was as easy to make real friends as it is to build a significant contact list on LinkedIn, I would be willing to give the extrovert thing a try for a while.Linkedin

Jeanne’s and my latest television-watching obsession is The Americans. Who knew the 80s were so exciting and entertaining? It’s giving me a whole new outlet for my dislike of Ronald Reagan.untitled (2)

From The Onion: Sonny Corleone would still be alive today if he had EZ Pass.300_100317

This will be helpful for creationists:Jesus on a dinosaur

I Am Because You Are

I almost never give up on a book half-way through; I was reminded a few days ago of why this is a good habit to have developed. I was deep into a book that I should have loved. Patrick Henry (a descendant of that Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death!” fame),ironic christian the author of The Ironic Christian’s Companion, is a historian of religion and the former director of the ecumenical institute where I spent a sabbatical semester in 2009. But I was struggling with the book. I liked most of the author’s ideas, but not his writing style, the haphazard organization of the book, or what seemed to me a minor case of his being a bit too full of himself. I had not dipped into it for a week or so, and decided to give it one more go. I’m glad I did, because the next chapter resonated on several levels, beginning with perhaps the most famous claim in the history of Western philosophy.

“I think, therefore I am”—it is not much of an oversimplification to say that with this single sentence Descartes rewrote the playbook for Western philosophy and set Western philosophy and science on a path that it has taken more than four centuries to begin steering away from. The subjective turn, the insistence on certainty that begins with me, the dualism that separates mind from body as well as intellect from emotion—the list of thorny philosophical problems traceable back to Rene Descartes goes on and on. cogitoI am very familiar with Descartes—I wrote my dissertation on his moral philosophy in which he struggles mightily with the problem of how the solipsistic individual mind that is the center of his metaphysics is to live her or his life in a world that sharply distinguishes neither between mind and body nor between the autonomous self and the billions of other such selves on earth. Patrick Henry, a dedicated academic with a powerful intellect, writes that

When I used Descartes, as elaborated by a whole intellectual and academic culture, as my guide, I got the world wrong. I have spent much of my life trying to unlearn Descartes’ lesson.

Long before I went to graduate school, a theologian friend of my father’s once told me that the darkest day in the history of Western civilization was the day that Descartes shut himself alone in a stove-heated room and began to think. I didn’t know what he meant then, but I do now—and so does Patrick Henry.

Philosophical puzzles and problems aside, the real problem arising from the vision of reality that Descartes creates is that it closes each of us off from each other and establishes the autonomous human individual as the measure of what is true and real. becausePatrick Henry writes that he began to break free from Descartes’ hold when a friend from Kenya told him that “in Africa, we say I am because you are.” My existence is not self-defined; I cannot start from scratch and it is no accident that each of us finds ourselves surrounded by other human beings. We define ourselves not in the solipsistic privacy of our individual minds, but through interaction with others. This is a difficult thing for academics to learn; some of us never do. Trying to get academics to do anything collectively is often referred to as similar to trying to herd cats; it’s actually a lot more difficult than that. My years of chairing a large academic department, then directing an even larger academic program, revealed that trying to organize academics is like trying to herd cats when each of the cats has a PhD and truly believes it is the smartest cat in the room. The chances of creating an academic community when each individual in the community trusts her or his own intellect more than what might be learned from others are very small.

My own academic department is currently a prime example of what can happen when a group of very smart people over time becomes convinced that they have little or nothing to learn from each other, unless they already happen to largely agree with the others in question. My department is large as philosophy departments go; the very idea of more than twenty philosophers occupying the same space might be enough to cause normal people to despair. sienaBut for the first fifteen or so of the twenty-two years I have been a member of this department, we argued, challenged each other, took contrary positions, but were also mutually supportive and largely managed both to get along and learn from each other. For a host of reasons—more than I can even remember—this began to change several years ago.

Factions began to form, suspicion replaced trust, posturing replaced dialogue, and ideology replaced the pursuit of truth. After a few years of this poisonous brew stewing, we have come to the point where there is little conversation in the halls other than between people who know they all agree, no benefits of a doubt have been given in months, the administration and lawyers have become involved, and our dysfunction has made us the laughing-stock of the campus. Although I would love to think that I am the only person in the department who can listen to and communicate with all sides, I know this not to be the case. I am just as likely as anyone else to roll my eyes when certain colleagues raise their hand in a meeting before they even open their mouths, because I “know” that I will entirely disagree with what they say and since I “know” there is nothing I could possibly learn from this person; I have no doubt some of my colleagues have the same reaction when I raise my hand. better than thisA junior colleague said to me at lunch the other day “But we’re above all this!” And indeed we should be, but sadly we are not.

Patrick Henry tells a story of how a botched prayer unexpectedly provided an insight into why no one person’s or group’s intellectual commitments can possibly serve as a foundation for truth. Once when offering grace before a meal, Henry’s mother-in-law recited a well-known prayer that ends with asking God to “make us ever mindful of the needs of others.” Except that this time she closed the prayer with make us ever needful of the minds of others. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better counter to Descartes’ claim that my own activity of thought is sufficient to establish my identity. As Henry develops in the following pages, I (and each of us) need the minds of others because I cannot know enough, what I do know is distorted, my ways of knowing are different from the ways of others, and I can easily fool myself. Only through constant engagement with others, not in order to prove oneself right but rather in order to truly come to knowledge together, can a true community be formed.

I am continually reminded of this through regular seminars I conduct with friends and fellow travelers once a month after the morning service at Trinity_Cranstonthe Episcopal church I attend. I am the “professor” in the group and we use one of my recent blog essays as a jumping-off point for conversation each month. Yet I have learned far more about faith and life itself from the members of this group than they could learn from me in a million years. Each of us has developed not only trust in each other but reliance upon each other, because each of us knows that we are needful of each other’s minds, hearts, and experiences. Whether the situation in my department can be turned around or even salvaged, I do not know. But I do know that if there is any hope for improvement, it might begin with each of us taping on our bathroom mirrors and computer screens what Patrick Henry learned from his African friend: I Am Because You Are. Even if we don’t particularly like each other.

It’s a Mystery


The brand new installment in Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers mystery series just arrived–Jeanne and I are in disagreement about who gets to read it first. I am reminded of what I wrote a year ago about my love of mystery novels . . .

cunningham1When you aren’t reading philosophy, what do you like to read?” he asked. This had all the makings of a loaded question. When the president of the college where you are interviewing for a tenure track job asks any question, it’s loaded—but this one had all sorts of implications. He was a Dominican priest—what should I say? The Bible? The Summa Theologica? Three years earlier various folks had informally prepped me for what the president of the tiny college at which I currently worked and desperately wanted to leave would ask me and what answers he would want to hear, but no one had provided me with similar help this time. I was on my own. “Mystery novels,” I said truthfully, fully expecting that this probably sealed my not getting the job. “Me too!” he replied, and over the next half hour we compared notes—as it turned out, he was as big of a fan of Sara Paretsky and Anne Perry

anne perry as I was. He never asked me about my response to the college’s mission statement, why I wanted to leave one tenure track position in exchange for another; he didn’t even try to sound me out about what I thought it would be like to teach at a Catholic college as a non-Catholic. But I suspect he found out more about me from our conversation about mystery novels that he would have from my answers to any number of standard queries. Father Cunningham was a smart guy.

The story of how I came to love mystery novels parallels the story of the early months of Jeanne’s and my relationship. I often tell people that I read for a living. Actually I’m a teacher, but a philosophy/humanities professor spends far more time reading than in the classroom. Furthermore, I’ve been an incurable bibliophile since I started reading a couple of years before I started first grade. But even though mystery novels occupy a surprisingly large percentage of space on Jeanne’s and my many bookshelves at home, their entry into my world of that-which-must-be-read was relatively late. The early months of 1988 were more full of adventure, new beginnings, and over-the-top stress than any months Sante-Fe-NMI had previously (or perhaps have since) experienced. Jeanne and I met late in 1987; early in the New Year I went with her to Santa Fe, affording us the opportunity to find out whether actually living under the same roof would put a damper on our new relationship that had, up to this point, largely been one of lengthy, nightly long distance phone calls.

As Jeanne worked and studied through the final semester of her Master’s program at St. John’s College, I navigated the final stages of choosing a PhD program to start in the fall, struggled through the emotional and legal thickets of custody issues with my ex, and tried to find a job. I soon landed a piano-playing gig at a large Methodist church sixty miles south in albuquerqueAlbuquerque, which paid just about enough to cover the gas used for two weekly round trips in “The Bird,” Jeanne’s rather unreliable vehicle. I also found what would have been, under different circumstances and several years earlier, a dream job—working as a jack-of-all-trades in a tiny independent bookstore, called “Books West,” in a shopping plaza just a five-minute walk from Jeanne’s apartment.

Sue, my boss at “Books West,” soon realized that she had a rare find on her hands—someone who had actually read a lot of books. atlasshruggedWhen not working the single cash register up front, my duties included ordering appropriate selections for the one-shelf philosophy section which largely consisted of Ayn Rand junk and various new-agey stuff with the word “Philosophy” in the title, as well as making selections to beef up the “Fiction” section, which when I arrived contained nothing written earlier than around 1950. The store was tiny, so before long I had ordered way more than would fit on the shelves and my book selection activities went on hiatus. The bookstore had little traffic most of the time—there is just so much time that one needs to spend straightening out shelves that very seldom are touched—so fortunately Sue had no problem with employees reading at the front counter—just as long as it did not lead to ignoring a customer, should such a creature actually show up. What a job! Hours of reading time, and getting paid slightly over minimum wage to do it!

I am both an organized and an obsessive reader. Organized in the sense that I generally have a method to my reading schedule, obsessive because once I establish the method, I follow it through without deviation. I had a small bookstore at my disposal containing several genres of paperbacks I had never delved into. What to read? Where to start? Lord-of-the-RingsThe Science Fiction shelves held little interest, and I avoided Fantasy because I was quite sure that with The Lord of the Rings I had already read the best fantasy—several times—ever written. The Mystery section was promising, but I had no idea of who might be worth reading and who was just pulp mystery. I asked my co-worker John, a tall, skinny guy who next to my friend Anthony was the most “outed” I have ever encountered if he had an opinion. “I prefer Young Adult Fiction myself,” he said (he was probably thirty-five or so), “but I hear that P. D. James is pretty good.” “P. D. James it is,” I thought, and I grabbed Cover her faceCover Her Face, James’s first mystery. I loved it. I read her next one, then her next one, and didn’t stop until I had finished every mystery she had written to that point (that’s my obsessive method or methodical obsession in action). Then Sue Grafton. Sarah ParetskyThen Sara Paretsky. We’re talking two or three dozen 200-300 page paperbacks by this time. Jeanne graduated, we hightailed it out of Santa Fe eventually landing with my sons (we won the custody battle) in Milwaukee for the beginning of my PhD studies at Marquette, but I was armed with the names of several dozen more mystery writers to try out. Deborah Crombie. Elizabeth George. Anne Perry. Every one of them writing continuing series with returning characters and plots that develop over several volumes.elizabeth george

Why do I love mysteries? I suppose there are all sorts of reasons. I teach and write on the edge of mystery all the time, exploring the boundaries between the known and unknown in various areas of investigation—human nature, change and permanence, certainty and probability, reason and faith, human and divine. A student once expressed this sort of boundary analysis memorably in an oral exam several years ago. “It’s like being on the inside of a room with walls made of tinfoil,” she said. “You can’t get out of the room, but as you press against the walls from the inside, you can feel and then begin to imagine the shape of what’s on the other side.” I would add that there’s a certain element of moving the walls back a bit as the pressing and pushing continues. The room of the known gets larger, but the suspicion deepens that what’s on the other side of the tinfoil is far more interesting and greater than what is inside the room.

But I suspect that my attraction to mystery novels has a far less mysterious and far more practical explanation. Each of my favorite mystery authors writes in a multiple volume series, developing a handful of main characters throughout as they engage with and solve the latest murder. dalgleishAdam Dalgleish, Tommy Lynley, Barbara Havers, William Monk, Charlotte Pitt, Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Ferguson have become parts of my life not because they brilliantly solve case after case, but because their growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities over the years that they have been my mystery friends remind me of just how complicated and fascinating the human journey is. They remind me of me. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing exactly twenty years ago today, just as I can’t tell you what murder case Tommy and Barbara were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. BJulia S-Fut I can tell you about how their love/hate partnership and friendship has developed and grown over their virtual years, just as I can tell you about my wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in. (By the way, my latest mystery favorite is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series set in upstate New York. Its setting reminds me both of the rural Vermont of my youth and of the people I go to church with every Sunday. If you love the rural Northeast and/or Episcopalians, it’s to die for!).

Saint Keurig

She is the patron saint of efficiency, streamlined design, good taste and caffeine. Her name languished in obscurity for centuries, but she has recently become everyone’s favorite saint. And she has changed my life.imagesCAXCY4A8

Coffee has been a part of my life since I became conscious, but my mother did not drink coffee. This is surprising, since she was the product of several generations of Swedish farmers; Swedes are famous for the mass quantities of coffee they can consume. Grammie and Grandpa (2)My grandparents were a case in point. Grandpa would leave for the potato warehouse in the still, dark hours of the morning with a thermos of coffee that held eight cups of coffee or so, returning for breakfast with an empty thermos at 7:00. Grandpa and Grandma would share a percolated pot of coffee for breakfast (two or three cups each), then he would head off for the fields with full thermos, to be refilled again at lunch. They drank coffee at dinner—they probably drank coffee in their sleep. And they both lived into their eighties; when I visited the hospital room in which my grandfather eventually died, I was quite sure that the IV contained coffee. They drank real coffee—none of that pussy decaffeinated stuff (which I don’t think had been invented yet). This was coffee that would put hair on your chest (or at least on Grandpa’s—I don’t want to think about hair on Grandma’s chest). Most of my early memories of their house are olfactory—The sistersbread baking, meat frying or roasting, and always coffee percolating.

So no one knew what the hell was up with my mother. Her fellow family members thought of her as some sort of mutant when it came to the coffee issue. My aunts Elaine and Gloria, Mom’s older and younger sister, carried on the coffee inhaling tradition with gusto. I have few memories of either one of them without a coffee mug in her hand. My mother didn’t even drink tea. She drank a lot of water, fruit juice, and was in the vanguard of drinking the first diet sodas as they came out in the sixties. tab“Tab” was the first—if she was avoiding coffee and tea in order to avoid caffeine, she blew it with Tab. She also blew the unwritten law that human beings should not ingest things that are 99% unnatural elements.

I don’t remember when I first started drinking coffee; my Dad drank it (made by my mother, of course), so I’m sure it was during my high school years. I do, however, remember when I started drinking gallons of it, as a good half-Swede should. It was the year after high school, the year before I went away to college. I spent a year at the little Bible school my father was president of, in order to gradually move into the mode of being away from home before going away to college two thousand miles the next fall. Bible school was easy and boring, but it introduced me to the routine of being somewhat on my own and living at least a pseudo-academic life while also working thirty to thirty-five hours per week at the local supermarket where I had worked part-time during my last two years of high school. One day I decided to keep track of my coffee consumption, which I suspected was on the rise—that day from waking to sleeping, I consumed twenty-four Styrofoam cups of coffee. And that was a normal day. Ted, the manager of the supermarket, served as my coffee-consumption role model. In the years that I worked for Ted, I never saw him eat a bite of food—all he did was drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. The Styrofoam cups of coffee cost ten cents each from the machine in the break room—I’ll bet Ted spent three dollars per day at least. Ted was a no-nonsense guy and didn’t have the time to doctor up his black coffee with cream and/or sugar. I behaved similarly and have ever since.

imagesCACEHA7ZOn spring sabbatical more than six years ago my life was changed forever, because I discovered one of the greatest, nay miraculous, inventions ever conceived by the human mind—the miracle of Keurig. I was in residence at an ecumenical Institute for four months; the common space in the Institute’s central building, just three doors down from my little apartment, as well as the gathering area in the basement of the library just fifteen feet away from my office door had one of these eight wonders of the world. I carried many valuable things out of that sabbatical, but none were more life-changing than the Keurig machine. red keurigI told Jeanne when I returned about the magic of Keurig so many times that she got me a single-cup red one for Christmas.

Jesus said in the gospels that we should not keep our light hidden under a bushel, and I let Keurig light shine all over campus when classes started the next fall. Prior to the first philosophy department meeting of the semester, black and deckerI told the chair that we needed to get rid of the twelve cup Black and Decker coffee maker in the department office and get a Keurig machine. “Sounds like a good idea,” she said. “I’ll bring it up for discussion at the department meeting.” Bad idea—I thought I had taught her better. As the outgoing department chair, it was my duty to provide the new chair with various tricks of the trade I had learned in my four years running the department. The most important of these tricks was that the chair should bring matters to the department for discussion and vote as infrequently as possible. If something can be done without getting department input, do it. WMIMTrying to get twenty plus philosophers to agree on what day it is, let alone on something important, is an exercise in futility. If I had still been chair, I would have said to our administrative assistant Gail “order a Keurig machine and ten different flavors of Keurig cups for the department,” everyone would have Ooohed and Aaahed at it, Gail or I would have given a brief class on Keurig use and etiquette, and everything would have been done. But NO . . . the whole freaking department had to discuss and vote on it.

At the September meeting I made my Keurig machine pitch, half the department thought it was a great idea and wondered why the item hadn’t already been purchased. But then the other half, the folks who want to discuss and debate just to hear the mellifluous tones of their own voices, took over.

“I read online that Keurig cups have carcinogens in them.”

Office spaceShouldn’t we be buying coffee locally to help the Rhode Island economy?”

“I heard that there’s something in the cups that is dangerous for pregnant women.”

That’s when I lost it. Looking around the room of seventeen or eighteen guys and two women, one of whom was in her sixties and the other in her forties, I asked “WHO THE HELL IS GETTING PREGNANT?” But the debate continued until after a half hour I moved to table the motion. Because I knew how to get around this.

The October department meeting was scheduled at the same time as the monthly Faculty Senate meeting. Three members of the philosophy department were members of the Senate and needed to be there for an early discussion and vote, promising to get to the department meeting no more than a half hour late. These three were also Keurig opponents. I talked the chair into delaying the usual announcements and minutes approval, moving directly to taking the Keurig motion off the table. No conversation ensued, we took a vote and unanimously approved the purchase of a Keurig machine and all necessary accoutrements in five minutes. Signed, sealed and delivered before the missing colleagues returned from the Senate. industrialThey have never forgiven me (but they do use the Keurig machine).

When a year later I was asked to direct the Development of Western Civilization, I did things my way. My first executive decision was to retire the ancient industrial four-pot coffee maker and get a Keurig machine for the fifty or so faculty teaching in the program in a given semester. This started a trend—in short order, Keurig machines could be found in the Provost’s office, the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Liberal Arts Honors Program office, and every department worth the name on campus. After two years of using the philosophy department Keurig machine, the theology department upstairs even got their own.

civcoverlogo-588x290Now that my four years as program director have ended and I’m on sabbatical again, I occasionally wonder what, if anything, my directorship will be remembered for. Guiding the program through the first years of a new and improved version? Moving into a fabulous new humanities building designed specifically with the needs of this program in mind? My complete disregard for Robert’s Rules of Order when running faculty meetings? My starting every faculty meeting by saying “Here’s what we are not talking about today”? None of the above. Thanks to the wisdom and guidance of her blessedness Saint Keurig, I will be forever remembered as the director who got the Keurig machine.WMIM

Tapestries or Quilts

I am currently leading a discussion group focused, among other things, on the inadequacy of traditional religious structures to address real spiritual hunger. The foundation that recruited me to form this group provided us with the text to discuss, and the group members are not impressed. Their common complaint is that the book is haphazardly and randomly constructed, with little apparent concern for underlying theme or connecting threads. Reading it is like going through a buffet line, piling several random items on top of each other, and calling it a healthy meal.

I concur with my colleagues’ critique–I’m as interested in well constructed texts as anyone. But are our lives not often cobbled together in similar, seemingly arbitrary ways? My group’s concerns reminded me of an essay I posted three years ago today, one of my first essays on this blog. Are our lives more like woven tapestries or patchwork quilts?

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

The “F” Word

There’s nothing like unexpectedly dropping an f-bomb on a bunch of students. But it’s even better when one of them does it. I teach at a Catholic college, so one would think that the students would be used to talking about the f-word—we Baptists certainly were when I was growing up. F-wordBut dropping an f-bomb in class, even when the context is entirely appropriate and the word is germane, is like farting in church. Everyone clams up, an uncomfortable atmosphere fills the room, and no one wants to deal with it. And I am presented with, as professors like to say, a “teachable moment.”

Mark Twain once defined “faith” as “believing something you know ain’t true.” Strangely, I find that my largely parochial school educated students think of faith in this way. Faith is opposed to reason, to logic, to evidence, yet is the foundation of what they have been told are the most important truths imaginable. Things believed by faith are certain and beyond question; I’m reminded of the bumper sticker on a number of vehicles in the church parking lot of my youth: “bumper stickerGod Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But in my estimation just about all of the above “facts” about faith are false. I agree with Anne Lamott when she writes that the opposite of faith is not doubt—the opposite of faith is certainty. But that’s not something I can just drop early into a conversation about the f-word. I have to build up to it.

A good place to start is with another excellent insight from Anne Lamott—faith is a verb, not a noun. It’s an activity, not a thing. So what exactly are we doing when we are “faithing”? I use a good technique that I learned in grammar school—“Somebody use the word “faith” in a sentence that has absolutely nothing to do with religion, church, or God.” That’s a temporary challenge for many of my students, but pretty soon someone says something like “I have faith that the chair I am sitting in will not collapse.” Or “I have faith that the Red Sox will make the playoffs next year.” I suggest “I have faith that when the time comes, my friend John will make the right decision.” All of these sentences are still treating faith as a noun rather than a verb, as something you have rather than something you do, but progress is being sox

“Do you know that the chair isn’t going to collapse?” I ask. “Are you certain that the Red Sox will make the playoffs next year?” (especially since they have finished in last place in their division three of the last four seasons, with a world championship in the other season). “Well . . .no.” So you’re just guessing? In both cases, the answer there is “no” as well. Apparently faithing is an activity that occupies the vast territory between certainty and guesswork—the knowledge territory in which we human beings spend a great deal of our time. Although my student can’t prove that her chair won’t collapse in the next minute, she can refer to past experience to support her faith claim—she’s seen human beings in thousands of such chair situations in her life and has never seen a chair-fail yet. Red Sox fans can point to the positive second half of the season after an embarrassingly abysmal first half, the promise of three or four brand new young players, a shake-up in upper management, and so on. faithingMy faith in my friend John is not blind—I’m convinced that the phrase “blind faith” is an oxymoron—it is based on years of observing his careful consideration of important alternatives before making a decision. When removed from the confines of religion, faithing turns out to be a perfectly natural activity—the activity of moving past evidence in hand toward a conclusion for which there is not complete evidence. Faith is the activity of inching past probability toward something stronger (although the goal is never certainty).

With this in hand, we move to my go-to definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. My Catholic students who are largely ignorant of what the Bible contains are often surprised to find out that this is from the Book of Hebrews, the first verse of Hebrews 11 which is sometimes called “the honor roll of faith.” They are even more surprised to find that the definition says nothing about God, religion, heaven, hell, or any of the other accompanying items they are used to seeing in the entourage of a definition of faith. Instead, it is an excellent summary of what we have been discussing about faithing as a normal human activity.  We faith when we want to provide substance to something important that we are hoping for (the chair will hold me up, the Red Sox will make the playoffs, my friend will make a good decision). All of the items hoped for are “unseen” because they either have not happened yet or cannot be proven true with certainty. rene-descartesFaithing fills in the gaps between evidence and what we hope for, realizing that further evidence over time may force us to adjust our hopes or discard them altogether.

In one of his letters, Rene Descartes tells the story of a king who refused to eat anything unless he could be convinced with certainty that it was not poisoned. And he starved to death. Some things—most things—cannot be established with certainty. Sometimes we just need to faith our way along. Faith in the realm of things divine is a case in point. I cannot know with certainty anything about God or even that God exists. But this does not mean that I am guessing or shutting down my brain when I faith. I can point to any number of past and present experiences that I count as evidence from which to take a faith leap in the direction of the divine. As I wrote in a Facebook discussion not long ago, facebook“Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” Faith in the spiritual realm involves applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. I can’t prove it, but neither am I guessing.


Reading the Fine Print

As predictable as the change of seasons is the point in any given semester when students will approach me for the first time and ask for out of class help. Usually it’s after the first exam or paper has been returned. Students with dreams of an “A” dancing in their heads tend to make an appointment when their first major piece of graded work has a “C” or “D” on the top of it. I’m a user-friendly professor and am more than happy to meet with any student; when first approached, I usually raise the student’s eyebrows when I direct the student to be sure and bring the appropriate texts along for the appointment.

When Jane comes to my office, conversation begins with her saying something along the lines of “I don’t understand why I did so poorly—I’ve done all of the readings and haven’t missed any classes.” I know whether the latter claim is true already, and will be checking on the first claim shortly. First, however, I tell Jane that “whatever I suggest in terms of strategies or help is going to require more time and more work from you. If you’re looking for a way to do better in the class without working harder than you have been already, there is no such way.” This is undoubtedly a disappointment, since the reason Jane made the appointment was to get the “magic bullet” that will slay the dreaded “C” or “D” and make room for the “A” to which she believes she is entitled. Learning that there is no such magic bullet is never good news.

And it gets worse, as I next ask to see her texts. They look as if they had just been taken off the bookstore shelf—no dog-eared pages, no scribbled notes in the margin, no underlined passages, no highlighted texts—and Jane’s name isn’t even in it. Handing my heavily underlined, highlighted and annotated copy of the same text to Jane, I remark that “here’s problem number one. Your text should look like this.” I even go so far as to provide her with the key to my quirky markings, according to which I highlight in yellow the first time through, focusing the second time through primarily on the highlighted areas and underlining with a black pen those part that appear most crucial. Then after class I return a third time to write notes and comments from class discussion in the margins. Not only will following something like this procedure lock the material into the student’s memory by requiring something more than simply looking at words, but it will also condense the material for reviewing purposes when exam time comes.

I lost Jane’s attention as soon as she saw my copy of the text. Even though Jane doesn’t know what the colors and markings mean, she at least knows that they mean a lot of work. You mean I have to read more than once? That I have to read and think critically? That I have to read it again after class? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s going to take a lot of time and effort! And indeed it will. Jane has been introduced for the first time to the fine print in the life of learning—it’s hard. It requires building good reading and study habits. True education isn’t for lazy people and it isn’t for sissies. And it certainly isn’t for anyone who wants to cut corners, to get to a desired outcome without taking all of the necessary steps in between. Every one of them.

Mark’s gospel from last Sunday  includes a classic “fine print” experience. A young man (called a “certain ruler” in the Luke version of the story) approaches Jesus and asks “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that the young man knows very well what to do—he should keep the commandments. Jesus lists a few for the guy, just in case he had forgotten them. But the young man replies “Teacher, all these I have done from my youth.” He’s not looking for a “good boy” pat on the head from Jesus; he’s already past the point of thinking that simply following the rules is good enough, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place. The young man is looking for more. He’s thinks that he’s ready for the fine print.

We all know Jesus’ response—he reads him the fine print. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” We also know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” The fine print demanded the one thing the young man could not do. But what precedes Jesus’ reading of the fine print is even more interesting. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is a man who wants more, Jesus knows it, and Jesus loves him for it. But that damned fine print—the thing that you cannot do, that’s the thing that is required. And it will be something different for each of us. This story isn’t about the incompatibility of wealth and following Jesus at all. It’s about the fact that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “ when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of all disturbers of the peace. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and this is a sword that cuts deepest in those who are the most obsessed with knowing God.

This is a disturbing story because it absolutely runs roughshod over our idea that human dealings with God are transactional. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z not to die?” is the question we so often want answered, and this sort of question is always wrong when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical I heard the poet Michael Dennis Browne speak of an insight that unexpectedly came to him as he mourned the tragic death of his younger sister, a woman for whom family and friends had gone hoarse with their prayers and petitions for healing. And she died anyways. What the hell is going on? Browne said “It came to me that this is not a God who intervenes, but one who indwells.” That changes everything, in ways I’m not sure I’m fully ready to think about yet. But the following from Rainer Maria Rilke gives me hope:

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.

Casual, easy, they move in the world

As though untouched.


But you take pleasure in the faces

Of those who know they thirst.

You cherish those

Who grip you for survival.


You are not dead yet, it’s not too late

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.

Christians in the Public Square

At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? This was the question I was asked to respond to in a 500-1000 word essay for an online publication three or four weeks ago. To get my thought process going, I sent the question to a couple of Facebook groups I am part of to get their input–I wrote last week about their responses as well as my preliminary thoughts about the question.

It’s the Message, Stupid!cross and flag

I found the final draft challenging to finish–such a topic in 500-1000 words is similar to teaching the history of the French Revolution in fifty minutes (which I have done a few times). Yesterday was my deadline–here’s what I submitted (minus the pictures).

I recently reconnected on Facebook with a guy who was my best friend during a year of Bible school in my late teens—we had not been in touch for four decades. During an online conversation about some political/social issue, I mentioned that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. “That’s interesting,” he replied, “I’m a conservative because I’m a Christian.” Neither of us, wisely I think, pursued the matter further.

Answering the question “At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message?” requires first thinking about “the Christian message” itself. capitalismAs my exchange with my friend on Facebook shows, well-meaning people of Christian faith can disagree sharply about the implications of their faith as it is lived in the real world on a daily basis. For instance, Susan might be thoroughly confused about how a professing Christian like Jim can whole-heartedly and full-throatedly worship at the altar of American capitalism despite the devastation it leaves in its wake for millions of our fellow citizens, while Jim is just as confused about how a professing Christian like Susan can be pro-choice and completely supportive of same-sex unions. As progressive Christians and conservative Christians go to war in the public square over whose beliefs and principles are more faithful to the true “Christian message,” progressive vs conservativewe are an offense and stumbling block to those who do not claim to be Christian. And Jesus weeps.

The parables and stories of Jesus consistently stress a central feature of faith that contemporary Christians tend to forget or ignore—the heart of Christianity is subtle, secret, and hidden. Followers of Jesus are likened to yeast and salt, the publican’s private petition for mercy is raised above the Pharisee’s public pronouncements of righteousness, we are told to pray alone behind closed doors to our Father who is in secret, and Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity. The secret of lived Christian faith is that it is a way of life, not a set of principles or doctrines. Nor is it a social or political agenda. Given that Christianity is a way of life energized by love, it is to be expected that individual Christians will be as unique and various as human beings themselves are.

micahOne way of describing Christianity as a way of life begins with the prophet Micah’s directive to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” joined with Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But justice, mercy, humility and love incorporated in a human life are likely to look quite different depending on who the person is. We are not provided with ways to judge which manner of lived Christian faith is more faithful than another to the “Christian message,” because faith is always interior. I am the product of a conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical Baptist upbringing, so I often wonder how I came to be as politically and socially liberal on most issues as I am, particularly since people like my friend from Bible school and many of my relatives are products of conservative Christianity and remain closely aligned with its accompanying leanings on political and social issues. My faith journey has been informed by many factors over several decades, including many that I did not choose. I have no reason to believe that I have now arrived at a place where my ever-evolving understanding of what the Lord requires of me is more faithful to the “Christian message” than the often very different understanding my brothers and sisters in faith share whose histories and journeys are very different from mine.flag and bible

The ever-present danger of Christian political advocacy is that, due to the necessarily public nature of such advocacy, it is very possible for the advocate to mistake a set of political positions or the elements of a social agenda as necessary and universal hallmarks of being truly Christian. It is very easy for the advocate to confuse her or his own purposes and agendas for the message of Christ. The “true message” of Christianity then quickly becomes something to be argued about in the public arena by persons equally convinced that their own agenda best matches up to the demands of Christian faith, entirely undermining the description of early Christians in the Book of Acts as remarkable because of how much they loved each other. The best firewall against this is to always keep in mind that the “message of Christianity” is the lives lived by those persons who profess the Christian faith in their daily private and public lives. christian communityChristianity is a way of life that is not reducible without distortion to a political or social agenda. We are the Christian message.

By all means Christians should be politically active—this is both a right and privilege of citizenship. But do not give the impression or be under the delusion that the right sort of political positions or social policies are what Christianity amounts to. I recommend that Christians distinguish carefully between Christian political advocacy and Political advocacy by persons of Christian faith. The former is to be avoided at all costs, as no person should understand herself or himself as the spokesperson for all Christians or for God. I highly recommend the latter; if my Christian faith is serious, it will have a daily and direct impact on how I engage with others and my society. Do not advocate in the name of Christianity, but advocate as the person that you have become because of your Christian faith.

A Jesuit Frame of Mind

Francis JesuitThe recently concluded visit of Pope Francis to the United States has put me in a Jesuit frame of mind. The Jesuits are the first Catholics I ever spent extended time with, and they ruined me for the rest of them. I have spent the past twenty-seven years of my life, first as a student then as a professor, in Catholic higher education—and it all started with the Jesuits.

So how did an Episcopalian with deep roots in hard-core conservative Protestantism end up earning his PhD at Jesuit-run Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI? Because with my philosophy MA in hand, I wanted (against the strong advice of the professors in my analytic MA program) to do my terminal degree at a place known for its excellence in the history of philosophy. I applied to four, was accepted at three, and Marquette offered me the best financial deal. So Jeanne and I (we had met just eight months earlier) arrived with my two sons in tow for fun and games in Milwaukee in August of 1988. marquetteI swear that its being a Catholic, Jesuit university had exactly zero influence on our choice of Marquette.

During my years at Marquette there were significantly more lay professors than Jesuits on the philosophy faculty, but since at the time the philosophy department was the largest in the United States (I don’t think it is any more), there were plenty of Jesuits. Father Treloar, the head of the department’s graduate program, quickly became one of my two most influential mentors and over the months a strong friendship developed. Father Teske, an internationally renowned Augustine scholar, had a quiet intensity and power beneath his favorite uncle sort of exterior and persona. Father Naus, who among other things taught courses in the philosophy of humor, proved his bona fides by displaying a certificate from clown school on his wall.

Rev. John Naus, S.J., dressed as Tumbleweed the clown.

Rev. John Naus, S.J., dressed as Tumbleweed the clown.

Each of the half dozen or so priests I came to know impressed me as committed to their vocation, but equally (if not more) committed to the life of the mind and excellence in teaching and scholarship. I learned over time thatloyola Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, envisioned a different kind of monastic order, monks who did not have cells in a monastery but whose cell is to be where they are—in the classroom, in a laboratory, at a nursing home helping people. A Jesuit’s cell is to be where he is working. The Jesuits in the philosophy department lived this charism to the fullest.

Because I was five years or so older than the other new PhD candidates, I was able to avoid being placed in the large room with cubicles for the multitude of graduate students. Instead, for the three years I was at Marquette I was placed in the unoccupied office of a professor on sabbatical, a different one each year. philosophy departmentOne year I was directly across the hall from Dr. McNulty, a professor I never had in class because his area—contemporary political philosophy—was significantly different than my developing focus on early modern philosophy and ethics. He was an introvert, so am I, so during the year I was his across the hall neighbor we did a lot of nodding to each other and “good mornings” as we entered and exited our offices, and not much more.

During my last semester at Marquette—I had successfully defended my dissertation and was simply waiting for May to receive my diploma at commencement—joan of arc chapelI wandered one late afternoon into my favorite place on campus, beautiful little stone St. Joan of Arc Chapel. This tiny chapel built in 15th century France was gifted to Marquette by way of Long Island in the 1960s (it’s a crazy story—you can look it up); a particular stone in the floor at the front of the chapel was supposedly stood upon by Joan of Arc as she prayed before going into battle. The stone reportedly is always cooler than the stones surrounding it, I guess because Joan was cooler than everyone else. I never could detect a temperature difference.

A daily mass attended by a few students was in progress as I poked my head in the door, and I had a classic WTF moment. “Holy shit, that’s McNulty celebrating the mass up front! McNulty’s a priest???” And he certainly appeared to be, wearing priestly stuff and acting in priestly ways—but this was news to me. I had seen this guy once or twice a day every weekday for an academic year, and he had been on my radar screen for my two and a half years at Marquette. He never wore a collar, he never acted like a priest (my Protestantism is showing), preferring the baggy sweaters and threadbare trousers that most male academics love to wear. Suffice it to say that Jesuits, at least many of those I spent three years with, do not wear their ordination on their sleeve in the way that the members of the other three Catholic orders 140401JesuitDomincanI have taught and hung out with in the years since do. I like that.

I’ve learned a number of additional things about the Jesuits over the years since leaving Marquette in 1991, including that there is an intense rivalry bordering on serious dislike between the Jesuits and the Dominican Order—it’s an in-house family issue that non-Catholic outsiders such as I don’t entirely get. The Dominican Fathers run the college at which I have taught happily and successfully for the past twenty-one years; I learned early on never to talk about my bromance with the Jesuits within earshot of a Dominican. Once my first or second year into my current position, I was having a conversation in the philosophy department hall with a handful of colleagues, including a young Dominican priest. I mentioned tongue-in-cheek that I had the impression that for the uber-Catholics, including the Dominicans, on campus my being Protestant was far less of a problem than my having been educated by the Jesuits (ha, ha, ha). Without missing a beat, my Dominican colleague said “You’re right.” He wasn’t kidding.George Coyne

I recently heard an interview with Father George Coyne, the recently retired head of the Vatican Observatory, in which he tells a story that for me perfectly captures why I love Jesuits.

I gave a paper at a scientific meeting on the uncertainties in our determination of the age of the universe. There’s several methods we use for determining the age of the universe and a degree of uncertainty is involved with each of them. Well, whenever I’m at a scientific conference, I’m not dressed as a priest because it just — why? You know, it just confuses things.

But I had just given a talk in a church or something, so I gave this talk and I was wearing my Roman collar. So a gentleman stood up — the discussion period, question period, and the first thing he said was “Father.” And I trembled at the thought that he had, first of all, called me Father, but then he proceeded to build upon that and he said, vatican observatory“Father, it must be wonderful that, you know, with all the uncertainties we have in our scientific pursuits that you have this faith, this rock of faith to stand upon.” So what I did is I took off my Roman collar and faced him down and said, “Who told you that my faith was kind of a rock?” I said, “Every morning I wake up I have my doubts. I have my uncertainties. I have to struggle to help my faith grow.” Because faith is love. Love in marriage, love with friends, love of brothers and sisters, is not something that’s there once and for all and always kind of a rock that gives us support.

On Being: Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God

Amen, Father George. In a different world, a parallel universe, in which rather than meeting my first Catholic when I was in my twenties I was instead raised Catholic, I have no doubt the Jesuits would have gotten me. Big time.

gentle drizzle

Gentle Drizzle

IOresteian the interdisciplinary program I teach in and used to direct, the first semester faculty have to make many tough choices. Iliad or Odyssey? What texts from the Hebrew Scriptures? The New Testament? What to use from Plato and Aristotle–or, God forbid, Plato or Aristotle? And no less challenging—which of the triumvirate of great Greek tragedians? Usually it is a toss-up between the profundity of Sophocles and the brilliance of Euripides, but last fall my teammate and I opted for the first of the trio, Aeschylus. We spent a week with sixty-five freshmen in The Oresteia, a trilogy with enough violence and dysfunctional family intrigue to hopefully satisfy the most scandal-hungry eighteen year old. Perhaps some of the playwright’s profound insights into the human condition seeped in as well.

RFKAlmost twenty-five years ago, early lines from Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ trilogy, were quoted by Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis toward the end of a brief, impromptu eulogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated in Memphis earlier in the day. Kennedy, who would himself be killed by an assassin’s bullet just two short months later, included these lines from the Chorus’ first speech in the play as a sobering piece of one of the great speeches in American history:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I was reminded of both Bobby Kennedy and these lines from Aeschylus as I was listening to “The Moth Radio Hour” on NPR the other day.

Sala Udin on “The Moth”

Sala UdinOne of the story-tellers at the Moth event was Sala Udin who told of how as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi fifty years ago he came within an inch of losing his life after being stopped and then viciously beaten by the Mississippi State Police. In his jail cell, as he looked at his battered and disfigured face in the mirror, he thought “I don’t know why they didn’t kill me, but they should have. Now I’m committed. I’m clear. I will never stop fighting racism and injustice.Kasisi-Sala-Udin-copy I’m going to be a Freedom Rider for the rest of my life.” Udin and thousands like him were some of those drops upon the heart that Aeschylus wrote of over two millennia ago. Because of persons like Udin, change in the direction of wisdom incrementally but inexorably comes “against our will,” a change that although real is nowhere near complete.

I was born in 1956 and was too young to be directly involved in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, but have often wondered whether I would have wanted to be a Freedom Rider if I had been old enough and had been given the opportunity. I have no reason to believe that I would have, but take a small amount of comfort in the belief that once the habit is developed, courage tends to be available in the amounts needed by present circumstances. I have never been faced directly with the question of what I would be willing to stake my life on and possibly die for, amazing gracebut can at least hope that faced with the decision to act on what things are worth risking or even losing my life for, I would not immediately run away.

Jeanne and I recently watched one of our favorite movies—”Amazing Grace”—with a good friend who had not seen it before. The 2007 movie includes fine acting performances from various rising young actors who now are the hottest performers going—Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Romola Garai—the wonderful Ciaran Hinds (who knew that Julius Caesar was in the House of Commons?), and two of my favorite older actors, Michael Gambon and Albert Finney. images3FS0ITV3“Amazing Grace” is the story of William Wilberforce’s twenty year campaign to end the slave trade in England, finally accomplished in 1807 (the movie is a celebration of the bicentennial of that legislation). I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is, but as my good friend and colleague Rodney used to say, if it isn’t true it should be. It’s a great story.

Although there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” in the movie, no one is close to saintly or perfect. Wilberforce’s (played by Gruffudd) dogged attempts to end slavery meet with resistance for reasons that sound unfortunately familiar. Ending the slave trade will be devastating economically, there is “evidence” that the slaves in the colonies live better than the poor in Engwilberforce and newtonland, non-whites in the colonies are “the white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling will write decades later, and so on. As he encounters multiple defeats and disappointments, Wilberforce is on the brink of despair when he has a conversation with his childhood minister, John Newton (played by Finney). Before becoming a member of the clergy years earlier, Newton had been a successful captain of a slave ship; through various powerful and transformative experiences, he recognized the evil underlying his profession, and famously wrote a poem that he set to a familiar and popular tune. The result was “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most beloved song in the hymnal, in which the now-blind Newton wrote “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

In the middle of their conversation, Newton mentions he has heard that Wilberforce is returning to the faith of his youth; Wilberforce confirms the rumor, but says that while he badly needs divine inspiration and help, there have been no inspirational lightning bolts thus far. newton“Ah,” replies Newton, “but God sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms.” It is many more years before Wilberforce and his supporting cohorts from all walks of life land on a strategy that finally works, confirming Newton’s insight. The frontal attacks of previous years, energized by righteous anger, eloquent statesmanship, and the best of moral intentions have failed again and again. It is not until an obscure lawyer in Wilberforce’s entourage of like-minded persons suggests a new strategy—essentially “we cheat”—that success is finally won. Through behind the scenes manipulation and the use of a long neglected, virtually unknown set of maritime regulations, Wilberforce does a brilliant end run on his political opponents and slavery in Great Britain soon crumbles under its own weight. It will take more than another half century and a brutal Civil War for the same to happen in the United States.

gentle drizzleGod sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms. Ain’t it the truth? That certainly has been my experience, both in my own life and as I have observed the world around me for close to six decades. In its Latin roots, to “convert” means to “turn around,” but this turning is more often like a sunflowersunflower following the sun in its slow course across the sky than a dynamic and once-for-all event. I am an optimist at heart, something that is often difficult to sustain when I think about how much there is to be accomplished in my own life and in the world around me. But a steady rain, even a gentle drizzle, is better for my plants and grass than an inch-in-a-half-hour downpour. Beneath the layers of violence, hatred, ignorance and despair, something holy is lurking. Let the gentle drizzle and drops upon the heart release it.