Category Archives: teaching

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.

RFKClose to fifty 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 Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy , as well as 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 more than 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.

Holy Family Values

Each week for the past many years, Garrison Keillor has told “Prairie Home Companion” listeners the news from Lake WobeLake-Wobegon[1]gon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” I’ll bet the Holy Family was like that.

Lots of people think their children are well “above average”—hence, the bumper stickers in which parents boast that they are the “Proud Parents of an Honor Student at _________.”115711-20[1] Everyone thinks their child is precocious and the smartest/best looking/most creative human being ever. Every parent expects their infant to earn either a full academic or full athletic scholarship (probably both) to the college of their choice when the time comes. I doubt there is a place for a bumper sticker on a donkey, but if there is, what would Mary and Joseph’s donkey sticker have said?b24ede2f59b807e062898eb6a63bb5de[2] “Proud Parents of the Savior of the World”? “Our Kid is God in the Flesh”? Because there’s precocity, and then there’s precocity.

In “The Nativity Story,” a significant amount of time is spent on Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. The filmmaker creatively lets us spend some time with these two young people, almost strangers to each other, who have been named as players in a divine plan that they have been told very little about. At one point, Mary asks Joseph what the angel had said to him.

Joseph: He said to not be afraid. (pause) Are you afraid?

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

Mary: Do you ever wonder when we’ll know? That he is not just a child? Something he says, a look in his eyes?

Joseph: Sometimes I wonder will I be able to even teach him anything.

No kidding. When it is predicted by the angels that the soon-to-be-born baby will “save his people from their sins,” one’s possible parental and step-parental contributions certainly seem to pale in comparison.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the mass quantities of commentary and artwork that have been produced over the last two thousand years, the canonical Gospels tell us remarkably little about holy family life. The non-canonical gospels, however, contain some stories that entirely corroborate Mary and Joseph’s pre-birth concerns. 4069-6820Jesus makes clay birds, which then come to life and fly away. Jesus strikes an annoying playmate dead. Jesus brings a less annoying playmate back to life after a fatal accident. School is a disaster, since every time a teacher tries to teach Jesus something, Jesus starts doing the teaching instead. Joseph and Mary’s worst fears come true.

The canonical gospels essentially leave us in the dark about Jesus between birth and thirty years old. We get the circumcision, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and a central text from Luke 2, twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. The various artist’s renditions I’ve seen of this story are pretty much the same—The-Jesus-2[1]Jesus, looking particularly Aryan in the center of a holy glow, pontificates and astounds while his learned elders in the shadows lean away in disbelief and awe and some scribe takes notes. It’s kind of how I remember myself as a fifth or sixth grader, astounding (annoying?) my teacher and fellow students with yet another piece of fascinating (to me), but useless (to anyone else) information. Lovely scene, except that it has a lot more to do with what we think Jesus at twelve would have been like than anything from the story in Luke.

The actual story gives us a glimpse into a real family, holy or not. After going to the feast in Jerusalem with friends and family, as is their annual custom, Mary and Joseph are returning north to Nazareth. Although they’re not sure where Jesus is, they assume that he’s running around with his friends somewhere in the traveling group, so they don’t worry about it. Good for them—he’s almost a teenager, and they’ve loosened the parental leash a little bit. Let the boy have some freedom. But when he doesn’t show up at the end of the day, they’re worried. After failing to find him in the caravan, they return in panic to Jerusalem, where after three days they find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers.” In response to his mother’s exasperated and relieved “What the hell is your problem?? We’ve been looking all over for you!!! We thought you’d 262jesus12[1]been kidnapped!!!!”, Jesus gives a predictable, smart-alecky twelve-year-old response: “Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Oh really?? “Guess what? You’re grounded! Once we get back to Nazareth you can ‘be about your Father’s business’ in your room!!” Luke chooses not to tell us if Jesus then received a well-deserved slap upside the head and lived under house arrest for the next year.

This is a real family, struggling with the challenges of love, faith, boundaries, and growing up. Despite the usual interpretations of this story, I think that Jesus had not gone to the Temple to school the experts—something he presumably could have done, given his pedigree and all. He was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.”Jerus-n4i[1]

I don’t know whether twelve-year-old Jesus thought he was the Son of God—my bet is that he didn’t. But he did know where he wanted to be—he wanted to be where he could learn. Certainly the mystery and splendor of the Temple would have been an attraction for any young Jewish boy. But the real attraction was that this is where learning happened. This is where the most intelligent and educated people of Jesus’ society gathered to debate, to investigate, to discuss, and to discover. And that’s where Jesus wanted to be—listening and asking questions. Even the Son of God had a lot to learn and knew how to get started. Put yourself in the right place and open yourself up.

Reflecting on this will be a wonderful preparation for the upcoming semester. The life of learning is so much more about quietness, attentive listening, and perceptive questions than conveying facts and information.ListenLearn-lg[1] This is where the divine in each of our human vessels gets awakened and fanned into flame. It’s a privilege to participate. When, as always happens, I find myself buried under and frustrated by piles of grading and endless department and committee meetings in a few weeks, I’ll try to remember twelve-year-old Jesus, who knew where he belonged. He was about his Father’s business. Go and do likewise.

The Sun and the Other Stars

RuaneOn the west side of the stone entryway to the beautiful humanities center on my campus, in only its fourth year of operation, is carved a memorable saying from the Gospel of John: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. On the top of the opposite east side of the entryway is the equally memorable closing line from Paridiso, the final book of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Ruane DanteThe Love which moves the sun and the other stars. In my estimation the choice of this passage for such an exalted position on the building is controversial; when the building was still in the planning stage, I made the tongue-in-cheek argument that nothing more appropriate could be inscribed on the front of a classroom building than what is written over the gates of Hell in Canto III of Inferno, the first book in Dante’s masterwork: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. But I lost the argument and had to settle for printing that line off and taping it on my office door. It must have worked, because very few students come to visit me in my office.

Dante’s vision at the end of Paridiso is the climax of an agonizing journey through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven. This capstone experience, strangely enough for a guy who is never at a loss for words, is one that he struggles mightily to convey. Beatific visionOne gets the impression that words fail him and his linear thought process is dissolved as he is subsumed into his long-awaited encounter with the Divine. But I’ve never found Dante’s vision compelling, simply because it’s just that. A vision. And it’s so Catholic, with multitudes of saints, angels, and Mary swirling around in a choreographed dance. I actually resonate more fully with Dante and his guide Virgil as they pick their way through the horrors of Hell and the trials of Purgatory—these portions of the journey I can resonate with because they remind me of the world I actually live in with all of its contradictory beauty and ugliness. That’s the world in which I will be embedded this coming semester that begins in two weeks with a bunch of sophomore students as we explore grace, truth and freedom in the Nazi era, finding glimmers of hope and nuggets of wisdom in the middle of the worst that humanity can devise.bonhoeffer

We will spend some of the semester with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant pastor and theologian who, imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison for more than a year because of his involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, found himself in his isolation fending off despair and realizing that whatever God is, God is none of the things he had always thought and taught. In letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer put his fears, his concerns, his hopes, and his life itself on display in language that is shocking and disturbing in its directness. We will consider two passage in a letter from Bonhoeffer to Bethge both in class and in on-line discussion forums letters from prison.

What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general.

Later in the letter, he repeats that “the time of Christianity is over.” Students in past versions of this course have been shocked that a Protestant pastor could write such a thing. But Bonhoeffer’s point is that none of the old formulas or descriptions work anymore, not in a world in which millions of human beings are disappearing as smoke and ashes from death camp chimneys. In a second letter a few weeks later to Bethge, Bonhoeffer continues the theme.

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

God wants us to live in the world as if God does not exist, Bonhoeffer writes. What can this possibly mean? Once a student commented in our discussion forum how sad it was that Bonhoeffer had lost his faith. To which I replied, “This is not a man who has lost his faith. flossenburgThis is a man for whom faith has come to mean something entirely different from what you are accustomed to.”

A few short months after he wrote this letter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenburg Prison, just a handful of weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Far from losing his faith, Bonhoeffer exemplifies a willingness to let faith evolve rather than crumble in the face of the greatest and most intense challenges. Shortly before his death he wrote a poem entitled “Who Am I?” in his notebook which ends in a place that provides hope for all persons of faith.

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all. . . .

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours!

Not long ago as I was driving to the 8:00 early show at church I caught a few minutes of Krista Tippett’s show “On Being” on NPR. Her guest was Margaret Wertheim, a physicist described in the promo as “a passionate translator of the beauty and relevance of scientific questions.”

http://onbeing.org/program/margaretwertheim-the-grandeur-and-limits-of-science/7472

Toward the end of the conversation Tippett notes that Wertheim, who was raised Catholic, has been described in the media as an atheist. “Are you an atheist?” Tippett asked. WertheimWertheim’s response brings us full circle back to Dante.

I’d like to put it this way: I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma.

I love Wertheim’s answer because it is infused with Bonhoeffer’s energy. Dogmas and religious formulas will always fail because God is bigger than that. Seeking the love that moves the sun and the other stars will always take us to places we do not expect, places of beauty and darkness, a search energized by a faith that cannot be lost.

Learning Our Lessons

I’ve often said during my close to three decades of teaching philosophy on the college level that I did not enter academia because it’s one of the few places a philosopher can find to make a living. I entered academia because I wanted to be a college professor—philosophy just happened to be the disciplinary vehicle that got me there. If it hadn’t been philosophy, it would have been history (and if it hadn’t been history it would have been literature . . .). Whatever it took to get me into the academic life. My approach to philosophy has always been contextual and historical; I have taken great delight in teaching regularly in an interdisciplinary course with a historian for over twenty years. As it turns out, my reading for the first ten days or so of Winter Break has reflected my love of history. Moving backwards from the first decade of the twentieth century to Ancient Rome, I have been reminded of just how relevant history is to understanding the present.

Everyone knows a version of the truism that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” but few know where the original of the truism came from. As it turns out, lots of people have said something along these lines, from Edmund Burke (“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”) and George Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) to Jesse Ventura (“Learn from history or you’re doomed to repeat it”) and Lemony Snickett (“Those unable to catalog the past are doomed to repeat it”). I finished the second half of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit just before Christmas. Goodwin tells the story of the first decade of the twentieth century, focusing on Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, two of the towering political figures of the time. I am a great fan of Goodwin’s work and anxiously awaited reading The Bully Pulpit between semesters after her October lecture on campus as part of my college’s centennial celebration.

The period of American history between the Civil War and the Great Depression has always been somewhat of an empty field for me, so I was fascinated to find that the politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a remarkably contemporary feel. A progressive movement (within the Republican party, no less) favoring the rights and interests of “the little man” is being resisted by big money, huge trusts and corporations run by fabulously wealthy individuals who are loath to release even a molecule of their power. The centers of activity are different from today—the progressive movement is centered in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and the West with conservative resistance centered in the Northeast, but questions about how economics, politics, the common good, and foreign interests should be balanced were the same then as they are today. The Great Depression that followed within a decade after the end of the events in The Bully Pulpit shows that they did not figure things out very well back then—will we do better? The best I can say is that the jury is out on that one.

My favorite takeaway from The Bully Pulpit is entirely personal. Threaded throughout the book are the stories of two remarkable marriages, Teddy and Edith Roosevelt, side by side with William and Nelly Taft. The letters exchanged were intimate and revealing, including the following tribute from William to Nelly which I copied verbatim into Jeanne’s Christmas card:

I cannot tell you what a comfort it is to me to think of you as my wife and helpmeet. I measure every woman I meet with you and they are all found wanting. Your character, your independence, your straight mode of thinking, your quiet planning, your loyalty, your sympathy when I need it (as I do too readily), your affection and love (for I know I have it), all these make me happy just to think about them.

“Wow,” Jeanne said on Christmas morning, “you could have written that!” She also claimed, as did Nellie, that she didn’t deserve such a tribute—but Bill and I know better.

Photo by Chris Boland, www.christopherinessex.co.uk

After The Bully Pulpit, it was on to SPQR (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus–“the Senate and people of Rome”), Mary Beard’s recent history of ancient Rome. One of my teaching partners this past semester in the interdisciplinary course in which I regularly teach is a classicist whose specialty is ancient Rome; when Fred gave the book an enthusiastic thumbs-up, I put it on my between-semesters reading list. I’m currently about half way through the book, and am reminded on almost every page to what extent the ancient Romans shaped our contemporary world. The issues they grappled with are still with us, issues almost too numerous to list. One in particular has caught my attention in SPQR, something about the Romans that I did not know until my colleague stressed it in a couple of lectures this past semester. Unique among ancient civilizations, the Romans were remarkably willing to incorporate outsiders into their world, not just as visitors, marginal members of society, or conquered people, but as citizens. The Romans were notably tolerant of different ways of doing things, an attitude that is, at least theoretically, something that we value in our country. Although the Romans were often suspicious and xenophobic in their initial actions toward others, the inhabitants of conquered territories were gradually given full Roman citizenship, along with the legal rights and protections that went with it. This openness, at least in theory, is something that we have aspired to during our country’s short history—which makes the current swing toward suspicion and concern about “the Other” in our politics and social attitudes so disturbing.

There are reasons, of course, to be careful about openness—like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, one never knows what one might end up with. One interesting example from SPQR illustrates the point. Roman religion was complex, with a pantheon of gods and goddesses and a dizzying array of practices and festivals to honor them, events that also marked celebration of culture and what it meant to be Roman. But the Romans were also remarkably open to incorporating new deities and practices into their religion. In the early part of the second century BCE, the Great Mother goddess, the focus of worship in part of Roman territories in Asia Minor, was brought with great fanfare into Rome, at the advice of an ancient oracle, to be incorporated into the Roman pantheon. She was the patron deity of Troy, the mythical ancestral home of Rome, so in a sense the Great Mother belonged in Rome. Beard reports that the temple built to house her “would be the first building in Rome, so far as we know, constructed using that most Roman of materials . . . concrete.” A deputation was sent to Asia Minor to collect the image of the goddess and transport her back—a deputation that included a highly placed senator and a Vestal Virgin. But, as Beard relates, “not everything was quite as it seemed.”

The image of the goddess was not what the Romans could possibly have been expecting. It was a large black meteorite, not a conventional statue in human form. And the meteorite came accompanied by a retinue of priests. These were self-castrated eunuchs, with long hair, tambourines and a passion for self-flagellation. This was all about as un-Roman as you could imagine. And forever after it raised uncomfortable questions about “the Roman” and “the foreign,” and where the boundary between them lay.

These are exactly the sorts of questions we must struggle with today. We might say that we will be accepting of the “Other” just as long as that Other over time becomes like we are. But what exactly are we? Romans regularly welcomed all sorts of people and practices into their sphere, and then had to grapple with the implications of openness. We must do the same, all the time remembering that were it not for a fundamental openness to strangers and the “Other” in our history, most of us would not be here.

Who Comes This Night?

Aleppo, Russians tampering with our election, a sharply polarized country, general mistrust in all sort of institutions, a truck driving into holiday celebrators in Berlin—the clashing of our world with the Christmas season has never been more dissonant. In his lovely holiday song “Who Comes This Night?’, James Taylor asks some very pressing questions:

Who sends this song upon the air
To ease the soul that’s aching?
To still the cry of deep despair
And heal the heart that’s breaking?

If there was ever a time when accumulated layers of consumerism and tradition needed to be peeled back from the Christmas narrative to reveal what lies beneath, it is now.

Christmas movies are a big deal at my house. Jeanne goes for the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th  Street,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and (her favorite) “White Christmas.” Those are all fine (except “White Christmas,” which I can take or leave), but I tend to favor more recent ones, like “The Holiday,” “Love, Actually,” and (my favorite) “The Nativity Story.” “The Nativity Story” presents a remarkably straightforward, hence beautiful, rendition of the birth of Jesus narratives. All of the standard elements are there—Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men at the manger, angels in appropriate places saying appropriate things, along with a particularly creepy father and son team of Herod the Great and Herod Antipas.

These standard elements, though, arise from a conflation of gospel texts. The authors of Mark and John apparently didn’t think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth important enough to even report on, while the authors of Matthew and Luke construct their stories from “cherry-picked” details. Luke does not mention the wise men or the star, but has angels singing to shepherds, who then visit Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew has no worshipping shepherds or even a manger, but wise men following a star visit the holy family in a house, probably in Nazareth, sometime after Jesus’ birth. Throw in Santa and some reindeer, and you’d get the usual front lawn decorations for the holiday season.

So where lies the truth? A friend, who recently passed away, tended to be rather definitive in his pronouncements. Once at lunch he said that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—he was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I think I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is “yes,” “no,” “let me think about it,” or even “which stories are you referring to?”—I’m inclined to say that “it doesn’t matter.” Our lives are built from stories that we embrace and own as ours—this story is one of the best. As I reported in this blog recently, a student of mine once said that even if it could be proven that Jesus never existed, she would “still be a Christian, because being a Christian makes me a better person than I would be if I wasn’t.” That’s a good start—the measure of one’s faith is what impact it has in real time on the life being lived.

Meister Eckhart once said that the Incarnation is something that happens within us, that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. But then Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, was fortunate to escape being burned at the stake, and died in obscurity. No wonder I resonate with his insight. At the climatic manger scene in “The Nativity Story,” the gold-bearing wise man Melchior, who looks amazingly like a colleague and friend of mine in the history department, gazes at the baby and says “God made into flesh.” The message of Christmas cuts across every one of the boundaries that we spend so much time drawing and protecting, for it tells us that the human and the divine belong together and that the only way that God gets into the world is in human form. That’s you. That’s me. That’s us.

The heart and soul of Christianity is remarkable both in its simplicity and its iconoclasm. God made into flesh. Remarkably small. Disturbingly fragile. Completely mysterious. And utterly true.

Merry Christmas

Bring It On

In a recent interview with Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being, Jesuit author and spiritual advisor James Martin spoke of how we have sanitized the Christmas story into something appropriate for polite conversation, crèches, cards, and movies.

I think it’s been tamed. It’s not only been commodified and commercialized; it’s been tamed. It’s a nice, pretty story about two nice, good-looking people, usually white, who had a pretty baby in a manger. But in a sense, it’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo. And it’s also—I have to say—it is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And I think we’ve tamed it. And in a sense, it doesn’t demand our belief. We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute” . . . And I actually have to say, I am really getting to the point where I’m starting to loathe the Christmas season.

One of the ways to avoid loathing the Christmas season is to pay close attention to what the gospel narratives actually tell us about the people chosen to usher Jesus into the world. They are just like we are—normal, challenged, hard-working human beings, just living their lives, who unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of events larger than they could comprehend.

Each new lectionary year begins with Advent, and each year a different gospel is on display. This year, Year A in the three-year lectionary cycle, we get the first of the four gospels, Matthew. It is a book written by a Jew for Jews about a Jew. Scholars tell us that this gospel was written 30-40 years after Jesus’ ascension; its author’s primary focus is to look back to events a half century past and convince a Jewish audience that Jesus, a Jewish man who was crucified as a common criminal, was actually the promised Messiah. The author’s intentions are clear from the start when the gospel begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back from Joseph through King David—from royal tribe of Judah from which the Messiah is to come—to Abraham. The author even points out some interesting details in this genealogy that the well-versed Jewish reader or listener would not miss.

It turns out that there are some questionable women in Joseph’s family tree. Salmon, David’s great-grandfather, for instance, marries Rahab whose story is told in the book of Joshua from the Jewish scriptures. The invading children of Israel send spies into the Promised Land to scout out the area; they end up in Jericho, a walled fortress that is the most important and powerful city in Canaan. They end up in the house of a prostitute named Rahab (what were they doing there?), who hides them from the king of Jericho and helps them escape from the city by dropping a rope from her window so they can climb down the wall to safety in the middle of the night. For her efforts, this non-Israelite prostitute and her family are the only inhabitants of Jericho spared when Joshua and his army, using information from the spies Rahab saved, conquers and destroys Jericho a few chapters later.

Salmon and Rahab’s son is Boaz. Perhaps it is because he is a half-breed that he is willing to marry the foreign widow Ruth. The story of Ruth and Boaz is beautifully told in the Book of Ruth, a hidden and seldom-read gem in the Hebrew Scriptures. During a famine, Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave Judah with their two sons in search of sustenance, which they find in the neighboring land of Moab. The sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, something which the Mosaic Law prohibited (just as it prohibited Salmon from marrying a foreigner, let alone a prostitute). But all of the men in the story die. Devastated by loss and with no means of support, Naomi sets out to return to Bethlehem after saying goodbye to her former daughters-in-law. Orpah sadly heads back to her family home, but Ruth will not leave Naomi, touchingly saying “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

It’s the beginning of an unexpected love story—foreign woman meets wealthy Jewish guy (Boaz). Ruth and Boaz’s grandson, Jesse (who is no more than half Jewish), has eight sons. The eighth son and runt of the litter, consigned to writing poems and killing lions while tending sheep, is David whom Samuel anoints as the second king of Israel. The line continues through Solomon, who is the product of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. Even the Messiah’s line has its questionable elements and characters—which should tell us something about the divine plan and priorities.

The birth of Jesus is set up by Matthew not with the women of the story, Elizabeth and Mary, in central roles but rather with Joseph, the descendant of David. He is the central character both in today’s gospel reading as well as the text in two weeks when he runs to Egypt in the middle of the night with his young family to escape King Herod’s murderous plans. What do we learn from Matthew and from Luke, the only other gospel in which Joseph appears, about Joseph? First, Joseph is the strong, silent type. While other major players in the stories of Jesus’ birth and formative years get major speaking parts, we have no record of Joseph ever saying anything. Mary gets the Magnificat, angels are singing and messaging at the drop of a hat, John the Baptist gets to yell “Repent,” Zachariah has the “Song of Zachariah,” the wise men have a brief speaking role, and even the minor character Simeon gets to contribute a song before he dies. But Joseph is silent. In reality, I suspect, he was capable of speech when necessary, such when he’ trying to find a place to stay in Bethlehem for his wife who has gone into labor, but he gets no gospel speaking role.

Second, Joseph is in touch with his inner self in a way that would make modern therapists proud. He pays attention to his dreams and acts on them. Mary briefly argues with the angel at the annunciation in Luke, but Joseph hears an angel in a dream, wakes up, and acts on what he’s heard, both in this week’s gospel and two weeks from now. No questions asked. In fact, he’s perhaps the greatest dreamer in the Bible other than his namesake and distant ancestor Joseph from Genesis. The difference between them is that Joseph in Genesis is not the strong, silent type, can’t stop blabbing about his dreams to everyone, and ends up in a well. Joseph knows that some things are meant to be acted on and not talked about.

Third, Joseph clearly is flexible and able to roll with the punches. One would think that the angel Gabriel might have made the annunciation to Mary and Joseph together, but no. Only Mary gets the message. We aren’t told if Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant because she tells him her story or because he happens to notice that she’s putting on weight, but because he is a “just man” he chooses to break their betrothal privately rather than making a public display of it as the law would have allowed. Finally, an angel gets around to telling Joseph in a dream and the betrothal is back on—but no sex until Jesus is born. The New Testament and tradition indicate that Mary and Joseph did have several children in the years after Jesus was born, so at least that worked out.

Finally, Joseph was a stepfather. As part of a “blended family” for the past three decades, I have had the opportunity to observe the challenges of the impossible job of step-parenting from close range. I wonder how Joseph processed being handed an impossible job, with no blueprint or instruction manual. All he wanted to do was marry the person he loved. God said, “Okay, but here are a few other things you get to do too.” I wonder if Joseph and Mary, overwhelmed with the task before them, threw themselves so wholeheartedly into the process of making this step-family work that they neglected for long periods of time to pay attention to their own relationship with each other. Did Joseph ever wonder when it would be “his time,” when he would be valued for who he was rather than for what he could do for Jesus, or Mary, or God? I wonder if Joseph ever saw “you’re not my real dad” in Jesus’ eyes or actions. Did Joseph ever resent Jesus’ biological connection with Mary, something that nothing Joseph ever did or said could possibly balance out? I wonder if Jesus ever told Joseph, at least when he had grown up, that he appreciated Joseph and that he apologized for the times he’d been a jerk.

In Santa Fe, there is a little church called the Loretto Chapel, located for the past many years on the grounds of a downtown hotel, which contains a “miraculous staircase,” built by a stranger with a donkey and a toolbox who showed up in answer to the prayers of the Sisters of Loretto. The newly built chapel needed a staircase to the choir loft; those who knew about such things said it would have to be a ladder, since a regular stairway would be too invasive of the chapel space. The stranger built an architectural marvel, a spiral staircase containing two 360 degree turns with no visible means of support and held together with wooden pegs rather than nails. The stranger disappeared without being paid after completing the staircase; not surprisingly, legend has it that the donkey-riding stranger was none other than St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

I tend to consider such stories to be apocryphal legend; we don’t even find out that Joseph is a carpenter until much later in Matthew when the people of Nazareth reject Jesus because this “carpenter’s son” claims to have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messiah. But this does sound like something that Joseph would do. There’s something spectacularly ordinary and efficient about Joseph. Something needs to be done, and he does it. After dealing with a pregnant fiancée he’s never had sex with, sleep-talking angels, a murderous king, lost reservations at the inn, delivering a baby in a barn, and being a stepfather, building a staircase that defies gravity for a bunch of nuns is nothing. Bring it on.

As I had the opportunity this semester to discuss some of the seminal texts of the Christian faith with my freshman students, I reminded them that at the heart of the Christmas story is an outrageously ridiculous, but beautifully attractive, idea: God chose to become human. God continues to engage with the world through humans. We have surrounded ourselves with all sorts of distractions in order to avoid grappling with a most basic truth, a truth worth remembering as we head into the final week before Christmas: God loves us. That changes everything.

Faith in a Post-Truth World

I really didn’t say everything I said. Yogi Berra

A short time ago, the Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year, an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Those of us who pine for the good old Comedy Central days of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” followed by “The Colbert Report” know that the Oxford Dictionary is a decade behind the dictionary times. The 2006 Merriam-Webster Dictionary word of the year was truthiness, defined as a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Colbert introduced the term on air in October of 2005.

Truthiness–The Colbert Report

There is little doubt that we find ourselves in a world of truthiness, where fact-checking is an obsolete job description and how one feels is a better guide to what is true than anything an “expert” might have to say. Pilate famously asked Jesus “What is Truth”?—the post-fact world answer is “whatever most aligns with how you feel,” or more simply, “whatever the hell you want it to be.”

This is no surprise, of course, to anyone who paid even marginal attention to the recently completed Presidential campaign. As the President-elect over many months made outrageously false and overblown statements on a regular basis, fact-checking sites fell over each other establishing the falsehood of many of his claims. And it didn’t matter. Unaware that we are in a post-fact world, many predicted that this time the outrageous attack on facts would derail his campaign. Those making such predictions (including myself) were under the false impression that one should be held responsible for how well what one says coheres with facts. But as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski noted at Harvard University’s recent campaign postmortem symposium,

This is the problem with the media [and I guess with millions of others as well]. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.

Or as CNN’s Scottie Nell Hughes (a Trump advocate), commenting on a recent Trump tweet that millions of votes—roughly the number of votes by which he trailed Hillary Clinton in November’s popular vote—were cast illegally, said:

One thing that’s been interesting this campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately anymore, as facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd — a large part of the population — are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts — amongst him and his supporters — and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and there’s no facts to back it up.

Apparently, we are also living in a post-coherence world.

Feeling the truth in one’s gut does a nice end run on the inconvenient and often challenging activity of, as I regularly challenge my students to do, earning the right to have one’s opinion. Constructing arguments, supporting one’s premises with facts, and being open to changing one’s views in the face of contrary evidence is just so damned annoying and a waste of time. As philosopher Roger Scruton notes, in the world before post-truth,

People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation. Such people have a far more complicated life than most.

But I should be fair here, assuming that we have not yet entered a “post-fairness” world as well. I have said and written more times than I can count over the years that uncertainty is a good thing, that certainty is vastly overrated, and even that there are some areas of human activity (such as philosophy) where facts and definitive answers are far less important than open-ended inquiry and the conviction that the most important questions are never closed. Isn’t this, in its own way, a push-back against the importance of facts?

Even more importantly, the life of faith seems by its very nature to be immune to fact-checking. During the Christmas season, for instance, conversations among persons of Christian faith often touch base with the foundational stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels. Did they really happen in the way the authors claim? Does it matter that the stories are not entirely consistent with each other, that none of them include all of the features of the nativity story that we are so attached to? What if we found out that none of the details really happened in the ways described? In truth (!), it’s just about guaranteed that none of the “facts” of the nativity story are “true” in a fact-checking sort of way—such is the nature of ancient texts and events that occurred (or didn’t) over two millennia ago. Does this then reduce faith to a “gut feeling” in the same way that “truthiness” reduces truth and facts? On a surface level, perhaps; but on the deepest levels, absolutely not.

I once asked a class a number of years ago, “If you consider yourself to be a Christian, would it make any difference to your faith if it could be definitively proven that Jesus never existed and that none of the stories in the gospel accounts are factually true?” I received a wide range of responses, but one in particular has stuck with me. A young lady, after much thought, said “No, I would still be a Christian because it makes me a much better person than I would be if I wasn’t one.” There is a great deal of wisdom in her comment. Faith holds the believer to a far more rigorous standard than mere feelings or even facts. Whether or not Jesus was born in a manger or Mary was a virgin when he was born is far less important than what difference the stories and teachings reported in the gospels make in ones’ life. I have often said and written that the best evidence for the truth of one’s faith is a changed life. As the blind man who is told by the Pharisee authorities that the man (Jesus) who healed him is a sinner said, “Whether he is a sinner or not I do not know but I know this—I was blind, and now I see.” That takes the issue to whole different level than fact-checking.

Constellations

I love the stars. Not as in “Dancing with . . .” or in Hollywood or Washington DC. I mean the stars in the heavens. The night sky in rural Vermont where I grew up, far from the glare of urban lights, was a source of endless wonder and entertainment. Part of the attraction of the stars was their sheer beauty and mystery, providing a glimpse of light-years past history; this was heightened by my love of the stories of Greek mythology. map1+[1]So many of the mythological heroes and heroines are up there—Cassiopeia, Gemini, Hercules, Leda the Swan, Pegasus, Andromeda, Orion (my favorite)orion-constellation[1]. I had a National Geographic star map of the Northern Hemisphere on my bedroom wall that showed the constellations in the night sky, traced from star to star as in the beloved dot-to-dot books of my earliest memories. I learned that, because of the tilt of the Earth, some of my favorite Northern Hemisphere constellations (like the Big and Little Dippers) could never be seen in the Southern Hemisphere and that folks “down under” got to see constellations (like the Southern Cross) that I would never see in Vermont. We never had a telescope, but I spent many nights looking at the stars through my Dad’s hunting binoculars.

Doubt A Parable JP Shanley[1]In the first scene of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn begins his Sunday homily by asking “What do you do when you’re not sure?” He then tells the story of the sole survivor of a shipwreck, a sailor who finds himself floating with a few salvaged provisions in the middle of the ocean on a raft he’s lashed together from floating spars. Using his nautical training, he looks toward the night sky and reads the stars, sets a course for home, and falls asleep. But clouds roll in and block the stars for the next twenty nights. Lost_at_Sea_by_relhom[1]As his provisions dwindle, as thirst and starvation threaten, he begins to have doubts. Is he still on course? Did he set his bearings correctly in the first place? Was his reading of the stars accurate enough to get him home? Or is he doomed to a slow and lonely death in the middle of an unfriendly sea?

As a philosopher, I am comfortable with doubt and uncertainty—I actively seek to foster the habits of challenging “givens” and questioning “absolutes” in my all-too-certain students every day. Philosophy, I tell them, is the art of asking better and better questions, but has little to do with getting definitive answers. Once several years ago my oldest son, who was then in his middle twenties, told his stepmother and me at a restaurant lunch “I don’t think I believe in God. I’m an agnosticthank_god_im_agnostic_bumper_sticker-p128680539739240818en8ys_400[1].” To which I responded “Good. You’re too young to be certain about anything yet, let alone about God.” And I meant it. Certainty is vastly overrated. Because with certainty comes closure, and with closure comes a “Get Out of Thinking Free” card that you can play any time someone challenges what you are certain about. This attitude about certainty and closure predates my academic path toward philosophy; in truth, it is probably the most fundamental and hard-wired reason that I became a philosopher. I’ve been suspicious of claims to certainty my whole life, even while growing up in an atmosphere of religious absolutes and conviction.

But there are times in everyone’s life, including mine, when it would be nice to see a few fixed points, to be able to take a reading on the stars. There is a part of me, although seldom allowed to have the floor, that longs for a certainty shared with others, the reassurance of believing that we’ve got it right, that we’ve got a map or a blueprint that’s reliable. My parents and other respected authority figures gave me such a map when I was young. Here’s the map of the spiritual life, and here are the fixed points that you can always rely on when you think you’re lost and need to find your way home. The Church. The inerrant Word of God. The plan of salvation. Original Sin. Heaven and Hell.Heaven-or-Hell-heaven-hell-1600x1200[1] The Easter story. The Ten Commandments. Conservative values. I could have tacked this map on the wall right next to my constellation map; I suspect a lot of Baptist kids did. But it wasn’t very long before clouds covered my spiritual sky. I had no difficulty using the language of the spiritual map I had been given, and could at least talk a good game with others who, using regular sightings of our common spiritual stars and constellations, reported success in navigating their way through the sometimes stormy seas of the soul. But truth be told, I hadn’t gotten a clear reading using that spiritual map in years. Sometimes I wondered if I had ever set a good course using that map. Maybe the map I had been given is gloriously attractive and infinitely interesting in its detail,Middle-Earth-map_UK_800_600_mapa_terra-media[1] but false. Maybe it’s like the wonderful maps in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, fascinating and detailed guides to a world that doesn’t exist. The time comes when the map and accompanying directions have to be tested and either updated or discarded. Otherwise they become a lie.

That’s where I was eight years ago when I went to Minnesota on sabbatical, intending to write about coping with the absence and silence of God. Perhaps the time had come to be honest and throw the map from my youth away, in order to find another one unencumbered. But I’ve slowly discovered something curious and hopeful since then, looking once again with older, more experienced eyes, at my spiritual map. For the first time my spiritual night sky has become less cloudy, and I’ve been able to see a few stars. And although I’m in a very different part of the ocean than before, maybe even a different hemisphere, some of the familiar constellations are in view. Easter is still there. Scripture is there, but looking a lot different, bigger and more colorful, than I remembered. m13[1]And my favorite constellation—the Incarnation. It’s never looked so bright and beautiful. There are some new ones that I’d never seen before—Community, Daily Prayer, Silence, Listening—and some of the constellations on my old map are entirely missing. There are still plenty of clouds in my night sky, and I’m looking forward to maybe finding out what stars these clouds are hiding. But I’ve seen enough to know that I’m not lost, that my old map was more reliable than I thought, and that a spiritual sky map should never be laminated and hung on a wall. One should never laminate something that’s alive and growing.

The Real War On Christmas

A few days ago I stumbled across one of the most remarkable tweets I have encountered in my limited experience with Twitter. A friend retweeted something from the Twitter feed of walshJoe Walsh, a former Illinois congressman turned conservative talk-show host, who had this to share:

If Jesus was back among us, he’d be a law-abiding gun owner. He’d support the Police. And he’d say “Merry Christmas” not “Happy Holidays.”

This, of course, led to a number of creative responses, including

  • No, he’d say Happy Birthday to Me or Merry Me-Mas
  • The most stupid thing ever said on Twitter? Take a bow
  • Like a brown skinned Arab man in sandals walking about with a gun isn’t going to get riddled with bullets?

The best I could come up for my own response was

  • If he was back among us, he’d say “JESUS CHRIST, WALSH!! WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU???

Apparently, Joe Walsh is imaging a Jesus ready to actually fight in the “War Against Christmas” that certain folks annually claim is being fought by political and social liberals such as myself as part of a continuing effort to make atheism the religion of the land.good-tidings-great-joy_zps3892bf561

A recent salvo in the war against the war on Christmas a couple of years ago was Sarah Palin’s Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. I won’t be reading this book, but I’m quite confident that I know the general thrust of her argument, if she bothers to have one. Liberal atheist grinches are out there trying to steal our crèches, monitor our language so that we will be embarrassed to say “Merry Christmas,” be forced to say something insipid like “Happy Holidays” or “How are you doing during this lovely Holiday season?” and make it a thought-crime to think about the baby Jesus. I find this paranoia amusing, sad, or maddening depending on my mood. If one’s faith is rattled by such matters, one has larger issues to confront than the possibility that not everyone shares one’s faith. The Incarnation that I celebrate at Christmas is at the center of what I believe concerning God—whether an oversized fake baby with a halo and pious expression gets to lay in a manger while observed by other pious statues and animals on the front lawn of city hall doesn’t have much effect on that belief.

This is not to say, however, that I deny that Christmas is under attack. It is, at least on two fronts. One of them is obvious—all you have to do is walk into any store where you can buy something between Halloween and January 1.lowes-christmas One Saturday in the middle of November, I needed a package of large paper lawn-and-leaf bags as I cleaned leaves from our tiny yard. Upon entering the Lowe’s a mile away and heading for the place where blowers, bags and rakes were two weeks ago when I bought bags the last time, I was immediately disoriented. Autumn leaf-control tools and accessories had been replaced by mass quantities of the worst that commercial Christmas has to offer. Fake trees, gaudy and tasteless lawn decorations and tree ornaments had taken over the right front quadrant of the store, supported by the ever-offensive strains of Xmas muzak in the background. WHAT THE FUCK!!!??? I thought, as I do every year in November when I am smacked in the face by the Ghost of Capitalist Christmas for the first time in the season. Halloween was just two weeks ago! Thanksgiving isn’t for another ten days! Thanks for making me hate Christmas all over again, Lowe’s!

I’m convinced that this is more than simple capitalism run amuck. There’s something sinister lurking behind the scenes. Everything we see and hear at the end of each calendar year is designed to convince us that we need to buy a bunch of stuff we can’t afford in order to prove our affection for people in our lives, all overseen by a fat guy with a white beard in a red suit.evil_santa1 What more insidious undermining of an adult, vigorous, intelligent faith could there be—the divine turned into a fat guy with a beard who can be bribed by good behavior into fulfilling even the most trivial desires? A jolly elf who effectively seduces millions of people every year into believing that and behaving as if the best place to celebrate Christmas is in one of our contemporary cathedrals of worship—providence-mall1the shopping mall. Get thee behind me, Santa.

The war on Christmas has been underway for a long time, waged not by liberal, politically correct atheists seeking to undermine traditional values, but rather by the insidious and inexorable pressure to trivialize and commodify everything. The heart of Christmas is no more present in lawn ornaments, “Put Christ Back Into Christmas” slogans, and “Merry Christmas” lapel buttons than it is in the extravaganza of holiday paraphernalia that screams at me every time I drive down the street or walk into a store between Halloween and New Year’s Day. The heart of Christmas is in the silent mystery of the Incarnation, in the strange and beautiful ways in which the divine chooses to enter our world in human form on a daily basis. There are many ways to connect and resonate with the heart of Christmas—Santa is not one of them.

But there is another front in the war on Christmas, this one self-inflicted by those of us who claim to be Christian. In a recent interview with Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being, Jesuit author and spiritual advisor James Martin spoke of how we have sanitized the Christmas story into something appropriate for polite conversation, crèches, cards, and movies.jim_martin

I think it’s been tamed. It’s not only been commodified and commercialized; it’s been tamed. It’s a nice, pretty story about two nice, good-looking people, usually white, who had a pretty baby in a manger. But in a sense, it’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo. And it’s also—I have to say—it is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And it’s just as shocking as the resurrection. And I think we’ve tamed it. And in a sense, it doesn’t demand our belief. We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute” . . . And I actually have to say, I am really getting to the point where I’m starting to loathe the Christmas season.

As I had the opportunity this semester to discuss some of the seminal texts of the Christian faith with my freshman students, I reminded them that at the heart of the Christmas story is an outrageously ridiculous, but beautifully attractive, idea: God chose to become human. God continues to engage with the world through humans. We have surrounded ourselves with all sorts of distractions in order to avoid grappling with a most basic truth: God loves us. That changes everything. And it doesn’t make me want to go to the mall or to church.

That Hopey Changey Thing

Although I was raised in the most non-liturgical version of Christianity imaginable, I love liturgy. When I was introduced to the annual liturgical cycle when I encountered the Episcopal church in my twenties, I found that I particularly resonated with Advent, the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas that kicks off the liturgical year. Advent is the season of hope and expectation, which this year is particularly welcome. Because for many of us, hope is a particularly scarce commodity these days.Cyprian

Cyprian Consiglio, the Benedictine monk, theologian, hermitage prior and musician who ran the retreat I attended in Minnesota a couple of years ago, defines “liturgy” as “ideology in action.” Annie Dillard defines it as a collection of words and phrases that human beings over the centuries have been able to address to God without getting killed (she also suggests that we should wear crash helmets to church).

Annie Dilard I like both of these definitions. I have a deep resonance with liturgy, especially liturgy expressed in music, something surprising given that there was none in my Baptist world growing up. Although “ideology” is usually something I accuse people I disagree with of embracing, Cyprian’s definition reminds me that at its core, ideology is simply the collection of beliefs, stories, ideas and commitments, some conscious and some unconscious, that guides a person’s actions and frames a person’s life. We are all ideologues. Liturgical frameworks provide a container that shapes this collection with reference to what is greater than us. Annie’s definition is a reminder that the very attempt to say or do anything with content and meaning referring to what is greater than us is at best misguided, at worst ridiculous.

004Of the many varieties of liturgical celebration I have encountered over the past several years, including a number of them at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota (the Benedictines know how to do liturgy better than anyone), the most striking is the Good Friday morning prayer service I have experienced twice with the monks at the Abbey. On Good Friday afternoon there is the large, austere three-hour service permeated primarily with silence and capped by kissing the cross that certain sorts of Christians are fond of (I’m not one of them). But at 7:00 in the morning, the Good Friday morning prayer service sets the tone for the day as a solitary monk chants the entire book of Lamentations from the Jewish scriptures. lamentationsNot familiar with that book? That’s probably because it’s the most depressing book in the Bible—perhaps anywhere. Lamentations is a litany of five poetic dirges over the destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the tone of the poems is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. In Psalm 129 the Psalmist writes “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long”—Lamentations is page after page of that sentiment.

Exactly two years ago I found myself sitting toward the back of Providence College’s main chapel waiting for the beginning of a service in memory of our beloved colleague and friend Siobhan who died far too soon in an automobile accident the day before Thanksgiving. As I sat with the several hundred persons who closed offices and cancelled classes in the middle of the day to honor ross-siobhan-headshotSiobhan and celebrate her life, I noticed in the program that the Old Testament reading was from Lamentations. “That’s appropriate,” I thought. “At least there’s nothing in Lamentations that will tell us we should not feel the devastating loss and sadness that we share right now.” But I had forgotten that just about half way through the poems, Jeremiah comes up briefly for air.

I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;

They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.

My portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him.

Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him;

It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.

IHopey Changeyt seem like only a short time ago that a dynamic, fresh new face burst onto the American political scene promising “Hope and Change”; not long afterwards Sarah Palin, not particularly enamored of this new guy, snarkily asked “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?” Politics aside, it’s a good question. The Apostle Paul famously wrote “Now abide faith, hope and love—but the greatest of these is love.” The editor of First Corinthians took out something else Paul wrote: “But sometimes the toughest of these is hope.”

Advent is the liturgical season of hope—my favorite of all the liturgical seasons because it means that the semester is almost over, I like purple, enjoy the Advent carols that only come around once a year, appreciate the opportunity to do something other than slog through the interminable Ordinary Time that has been going on since May, and because I am by nature a very hopeful person. But it has been a bit of a tough sell for many of us lately, with seemingly daily evidence that the world is a mess, no one has the capacity or wants to do anything about it, our country has elected a spectacularly unqualified person to be our next President, sprinkled with regular and tragic reminders that human life is fleeting and even the best can be taken away in a moment. “NPRThe world really sucks,” my lovely wife commented as we listened to NPR the other morning on the way downtown to the bus station so she could catch a ride to NYC for a weekend with her sister whose husband just died. And it does suck. But if we are willing to poke our heads even momentarily up from the shit, Lamentations tells us that hope is always appropriate—and is a choice.

Providence College’s annual Advent Lessons and Carols Service, an annual early December event, always opens with a beautiful hymn:lessons and carols

O come, divine Messiah!

The world in silence waits the day

When hope shall sing its triumph,

And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;

Come, come to earth,

Dispel the night and show your face,

And bid us hail the dawn of grace. 

Who doesn’t want sadness to flee away? Who doesn’t want to see the dawn of grace that will drive away the night? But when the sadness is palpable, when the night is especially dark, what hope can a song offer? More importantly, in the midst of Advent, do we have any reason to believe that what we hope for—a divine presence in the midst of human sadness and darkness—is anything more than a fairy tale we repeat regularly in order to convince ourselves that there is a glimmer of meaning in a horribly dark world?

According to Lamentations, we have reason to hope if we choose to have it. And the reason to hope will not be found in external events, which will be as they will be. Hope finds its home in waiting, in silence, in emptiness, and in the conviction that there is more going on than meets the eye. There are as many ways to nurture the space of quietness and silence within as there are people containing that space. Our task is to be ready, to prepare a space for hope and promise to be nurtured, even when every external indicator is that there is no reason to hope. As Lao Tzu wrote,lao tzu

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

I was taught as a child that I should find a place for the Christ child in my heart. I don’t exactly use that language any more, but I know what it means.

You come in peace and meekness,

And lowly will your cradle be;

All clothed in human weakness

Shall we your Godhead see.