Category Archives: teaching

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In Praise of Snobbery

Last July, in the middle of an interminable stretch of high-90s heat (very unusual for Rhode Island), I found out that I am a snob. Actually, I already knew that but appreciated the confirmation. This produced the essay below, in which I invite everyone to join with me in celebrating what makes each of us special (and also better than everyone else!).

images[1]A few days ago a Facebook acquaintance, who apparently lives in San Francisco, posted a link to an article from the latest edition of Travel and Leisure entitled  “America’s Snobbiest Cities”. His post drew attention to San Francisco’s being at the top of the list; my lifetime interest in snobbery caused me to click on the link and see what other cities had earned this distinction.

Travel and Leisure runs an extensive poll every year to generate a “favorite cities list,” and used selected questions from that poll in producing the list of urban snobs. “To determine which city has the biggest nose in the air, we factored in some traditional staples of snobbery: a reputation for aloof and smarty-pants residents, along with high-end shopping and highbrow cultural offerings like classical music and theater,” the article explained. “But we also considered 21st-century definitions of elitism: tech-savviness, artisanal coffeehouses, and a conspicuous eco-consciousness  (say, the kind of city where you get a dirty look for throwing your coffee cup in the wrong bin).” I made a few guesses as to who might be on the list, then proceeded to see how well I had done.

SF_From_Marin_Highlands3[1] (2)1. San Francisco

2. New York (makes sense)

1280-boston-ma-smart-city[1]3. Boston (absolutely)

4. Minneapolis/St. Paul (Really?)

300px-Santa_Fe_Palace_of_Govs[1]5 (tie). Seattle (makes sense by reputation, but I’ve only been there once in my life)

5 (tie). Santa Fe (I lived there for four years and don’t understand why it isn’t #1)

I don’t like ties in polls—how can there be a tie in snobbery? I thought for a moment about what a “snob-off” competition between Seattle and Santa Fe might involve in order to break the tie for fifth place, then continued.

ProvidenceSkyline3[1]7. Chicago (I can see that)

8. Providence

Wait a minute!! PROVIDENCE??? My town? You’re sure you don’t mean Provincetown? This is effing fabulous! I immediately shared the link to the article with my Facebook friends:

Guess who made #8 in Travel and Leisure’s “Top 25 Snobbiest Cities,” behind only San Francisco, New York, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Santa Fe, Seattle and Chicago? Our fair Providence! I love it!”

I tried moving on through the remaining top twenty snobby cities (I think DC was next), but couldn’t get past Providence being number eight, nor the fact that I thought this was really cool. brownUni[1]As I continued to think about it, supposing that those taking the poll had probably only visited Providence’s East Side around Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design (we all know that any place close to establishments of higher learning is snobby), something even more interesting dawned on me, prompting another Facebook post:

“After thinking further about the “Snobbiest Cities” poll, I realized that Boston (#3) is my favorite big city, I married a New Yorker (#2), and did my BA in Santa Fe (#5). And I have lived and worked happily in Providence (#8) for eighteen years! What does that say about me??”

This second post generated more comments than anything I’ve ever posted on Facebook. A sampling:

This explains a lot . . . (this post is from a current student—I’m intrigued)

Santa Fe is only #5? (from a former classmate in Santa Fe)

I don’t think Boston is snobby! Who said Boston is snobby? They aren’t worth your time. (Who said Boston is snobby? Umm . . . only every person who ever visited Boston??)

San Francisco is number one. Having lived there, I can say that it should be number two, behind New York. (Though maybe in per capita snobbiness it is number one.)

That you are well influenced?

That the poll was flawed?

I am surprised … New Orleans and Philadelphia are more plebian than Chicago and MINNEAPOLIS?

Wait, wait … there seems to be some confusion between “snobbishness” and plain old “xenophobia.” (Maybe, but that requires far too much thought)

All liberal. Go figure. (I knew that one was coming)

And from a good friend and colleague at my college: Despite your protests to the contrary, you’re an extrovert.

To which I responded, Bite your tongue, Christopher! But I very well may be an introverted snob. I feel an essay coming on . . .

556053_10100368381612200_1903425426_n[1]Christopher knows me well, and knows from our many conversations, most over either beer or something harder (scotch for me, Rusty Nails for him) that my extreme introversion is a fact about myself that is not only definitive but that I embrace happily. I get along fine with extreme extroverts, or at least a few of them (Christopher, my wife), but my own experience shows that it is more difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert than it is for an introvert to walk a mile in an extrovert’s shoes. It is not easy being an introvert in an extroverted world. Don’t believe me? Check out susan-cain-quiet[1]Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World that Won’t Stop Talking. In a world in which extroversion is taken to be the norm, an introvert can easily be misread as aloof, superior, stand-offish, or rude. My introversion has been misread regularly since I emerged from the womb. It doesn’t help, of course, that my vocation is one that screams “ELITIST!” to many. I have been encouraged as a child, adolescent, and adult to be more outgoing, to be friendlier, to be easier to get to know. And it hasn’t worked. Why? Because I don’t want to. It’s not that I enjoy being a snob, aloof, or having a superiority complex. It’s that I enjoy my introversion, which regularly sets me up to be misunderstood.

h5C1D6E42[1]I found the range of Facebook comments concerning the confluence of snobbiness in my life to be amusing, primarily because there was no agreement amongst the commenters as to whether snobbiness was a good or a bad thing. One person gets hot and bothered because her beloved Bostonians won the bronze medal in snootiness, while another person is annoyed because obviously superior and patrician Philadelphia and New Orleans lost out to a bunch of obviously bland and plebian Minnesotans. One person says “don’t worry, I’m sure you’re not a snob,” while another congratulates me on having a long history of snobbery. Bottom line, I think, is that all of us look for ways to separate ourselves from the crowd; it’s just that not everyone does it overtly. But under the surface, lines of division and hierarchy are always being drawn.

Which leads me to one final observation about snobby cities. You may have noted that there are no Southern cities in the top nine on the list, but there should be. I have lived in a number of cities in my life. The snobbiest was a large Southern city (which shall remain nameless).memphis1[1]This city, on its surface, oozed the fabled Southern charm, friendliness and hospitality. Living in this city for three years as a Northern fish out of water, however, revealed that this charm is only a few molecules deep and evaporates as soon as one seeks to get beyond “How y’all doin’ today?” Navigating the lay of the land required knowledge of and respect for iron-clad economic, social, and racial divides that were not to be crossed, especially by those who, to use Jeanne’s description, were “from the deep North.”  I admit it—I’m an introverted, overly educated, bibliophilic, solitude-loving, liberal Northeastern snob. But stop pretending that you aren’t a snob of a different description as well. Let’s all embrace our inner snob (you know he or she is in there) and enjoy knowing that the vast majority of human beings are inferior! You know they are! ;-)

Berlin

How to Herd a Hedgehog (or a Fox)

Classes begin soon and I am coming slowly to the conclusion that my summer reading needs to shift from the Scandinavian-authored mysteries I have been immersed in since late May (thirteen down and counting) slowly toward books related to upcoming courses. In the spring I will be team-teaching a colloquium with a colleague from the history department entitled “Markets and Morality.” Keynes HayekAs is always the case when teaching with someone from another discipline, I have a ton of books to read for the first time (as does she—just not the same ones). I have started with Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Economics is not only not my strong suit but is also high on my list of boring things, so it has taken several dozen pages to sort out what’s at stake in the early twentieth century debate between the theories of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek. Then I read this morning that “while Keynes, who was not without a large ego himself, was so confident he often changed his mind and admitted his faults, Hayek’s stance was based on absolute certainty that he was right in every particular.” “Aha!” I thought, “Keynes was a fox and Hayek was a hedgehog. That explains a lot.” This revelation will also be helpful going forward because I have learned that one of the most important things to find out about an academic is whether s/he is a hedgehog or a fox.

H and fI wrote a bit over a year ago in this blog about the hedgehog/fox distinction and how it can be a useful tool in both self-knowledge and understanding where others are coming from.

Hedgehogs and Foxes: A Primer

PlatoWhen orienting students for the first time to the important differences between Plato, who is considered by many to be the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition, and his star pupil Aristotle (who gets my own “best ever” vote), I introduce the hedgehog/fox distinction first for orientation purposes. Plato is the quintessential hedgehog, an eloquent constructor of large metaphysical frameworks and scaffolding within which the details of human experience are to be sorted. The FormsAs all hedgehogs, Plato is a “top-down” thinker, obsessed with certainty and Truth with a capital “T”. His realm of the Forms, silent and unchanging in their pristine and solemn beauty, provides a home for the equally beautiful human soul as well as a framework within which the mutable, ever-changing and not-so-beautiful (for Plato, at least) details of our daily experience are to be understood and situated. These details point toward the Forms, just as “truths” point toward the “Truth”—it’s a powerfully attractive model of reality. For hedgehogs, at least.

Aristotle metaphysicsIn his Metaphysics, Aristotle spends the first several chapters providing, in a shot-gun manner, all of the reasons he can think of why Plato’s Theory of Forms is the stupidest theory any one has ever come up with and why no one should believe it. Why? Because Aristotle is a fox, as dedicated to foxiness as Plato is dedicated to hedgehogery, and foxes have little patience for the detached-from-reality otherworldly musings of hedgehogs. Foxes build their understanding of the world from the bottom up; obsessed with details, foxes cobble together frameworks and structures of understanding only after spending a great deal of time collecting experiential data. Theories serve the details for foxes, just as details and facts bow to theoretical constructs for hedgehogs. A simple comparative example might help.

RepublicIn ancient Greek philosophy, the study of how individual human beings should behave (ethics) and the science of how to best form and administrate human communities (politics) were the same activity—both Plato and Aristotle contributed brilliant insights to these foundational investigations. In the Republic, arguably Plato’s greatest work, we encounter Socrates (usually the main character in Plato’s dialogues) and several of his friends and followers discussing “justice” at length. The angle they take on the question “What is justice?” is to consider “What would a just polis look like?” Polis refers to the small Greek city/states of Plato’s world—from this word we get terms like “politics,” “politician,” etc. The strategy is to discuss matters from broad questions such as virtue to detailed ones such what will the class structure of the imaginary perfectly just polis be theoretically without reference to communities that actually exist. When toward the end of the Republic someone asks Socrates “Do you think such a polis will ever exist in reality?” he answers “Probably not. But that’s okay—the model we have created is a valuable touchstone.”

When Aristotle begins investigating similar issues a few decades later, his approach is radically different. The first several chapters of his Politics are a detailed and wide-ranging account of the various ways in which a number of city-states scattered across the Greek peninsula are actually organized politically. PoliticsIn other words, Aristotle starts by gathering facts and making observations rather than with the constructing of organizational frameworks. Academics will recognize Aristotle’s plan immediately—he has sent dozens of grad students from his educational institution “The Lyceum” out into the world to gather relevant data, data that they will bring back to Athens and help Aristotle collate into a comprehensive report on the state of political structures in the Greek polis—a report in which they might get mentioned in a footnote. And it is this report that will be the jumping off point for Aristotle’s informed thinking about how a polis should be organized. Let theory be informed by reality, says the fox, rather than reality shaped by theory as the hedgehogs prefer.

Which strategy is better—the hedgehog’s or the fox’s? It is probably clear from this discussion, and has become crystal clear over the two years of this blog’s existence, to any reader that I am a dedicated fox. But in truth, neither is intrinsically better or worse than the other; rather, they are fundamentally different strategies that human beings use as we try to understand the world and our place in it. And each of us has either a dominant hedgehog or fox lurking inside, often making it difficult to get on the same page with colleagues who have a different animal than mine hanging around.DWc I have found this distinction to be very useful over the past few years. The coming academic year is my last as director of the interdisciplinary program that I have been in charge of since summer 2011; over the past three years, as faculty rotate in and out of the program, I have tried to lead, cajole, seduce and force over one hundred faculty through the early stages of the transition from an old version of the program into a new and quite different version. I’ve found that herding hedgehogs is quite different from herding foxes.

grade distributionTake any issue—grade distribution, for instance. In any given semester, there are 18-20 different teams of three faculty teaching 100 or more students in each section; the program I inherited had no policies (formal or informal) related to grade distribution. In other words, as in other areas of the program, the foxes had been running unsupervised in the den for a long time. As a result the average grades from team to team at the end of each semester varied wildly, giving rise to warranted cries of “UNJUST” from students in the “tough” sections, lack of respect for this core program from faculty and other constituencies on campus, and a general feeling of suspicion and finger-pointing among those teaching in the program trenches. What to do?

The hedgehogs insisted “we need firm and enforceable policies to get the outliers in line!” The foxes countered “any attempt to force grading policies from the top down will be a violation of our academic freedom!”academic freedom As a dedicated fox who has to summon my few hedgehog abilities when trying to get people to do something, I knew that some sort of policies were needed—so how do policies get established without imposition? And the game was on—over several semesters of debate, crabbiness, subcommittees, drafts, and angst, we came tentatively to a document that was successfully sold to the faculty as an “informal guideline” for people to refer to going forward (if they chose). “This needs to be a policy that everyone has to follow!” yelled the hedgehogs. “This violates my academic freedom and desire to do whatever I want without recourse!” shouted the foxes. And so it goes.

Hedgehogs and foxes can learn to live in harmony—but only when they recognize that the world would be a vastly different place without both structure and freedom, both Truth and the little truths we encounter every day. Hedgehogs and foxes can even survive in long-term relationships with each other, but the offspring are a problem. Who knows what you’ll get from a foxhog?foxhog

The Muslim/Christian Brotherhood

The never-ending violence in the Middle East has taken on new dimensions in the past weeks and months. I wrote the essay below exactly a year ago, but the point is even more relevant now than it was then.

Icblog_d216e4f627-thumbc[1]’m currently reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I first became aware of the book, as many people did, by being alerted on Facebook to a horrendous interview—“Is this the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done??”—that Aslan was subjected to by Fox.com. The interviewer was unable to get past the apparently incomprehensible notion that a Muslim would be interested in or be qualified to write a book about Jesus. Despite Aslan’s excellent academic credentials as a comparative religions scholar, the Fox interviewer continually revealed her total inability to grasp what a comparative religion scholar does, as well as her regular confusion of facts with a severely limited world view and her general ignorance disguised as investigative journalism.

Reza Aslan Fox.com interview

The interview went viral, and Dr. Aslan’s book shot to the top of the NY Times best-seller list, which it still sits. I, of course, am one of the reasons why his book shot to the top of the list, since I ordered it on Amazon as soon as I listened to his cringe-worthy interview on Fox. I even mentioned briefly on Facebook that I wish someone from Fox would interview me concerning “freelance Christianity,” so my blog could go through the stratosphere. ku-medium[1]One person commented that liberals might start standing in line to get interviewed by Fox, just to help their current project gain momentum among reasonable people.

Zealot is a thoroughly researched academic investigation of what current scholarship can tell us about Jesus, not as the Redeemer of the world, as Christians believe, nor as one of the greatest prophets of God, as Muslims believe, but as the first-century CE Jewish peasant who lived in Palestine. Aslan is an engaging and clear writer—something many academics are incapable of beingimagesCAEYQIP4—and has written a fascinating book that provides, even for those of us who think we know something about it, an illuminating perspective on not just Jesus the man, but on the turbulent political and religious times in which he lived and died. Not once in the entire book would I have been able to detect whether Aslan was Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or something else. He makes his own personal religious pedigree clear in the five-page “Author’s Note” with which the book begins, pages that the Fox.com interviewer obviously never bothered to read.

It has been a very long time since the historical details of what the man Jesus was and was not have had any direct impact on my own faith commitments. I have evolved into believing that the truth of a story is far more important than the facts of a story, a manner of belief that has a far longer pedigree in human experience than the relatively recent idea, a product of the Scientific Revolution, that only verifiable facts can be considered as true. Accordingly, Aslan’s book is neither a confirmation of nor a challenge to my Christian faith. Actually, of far more interest to me than the book is the author’s interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” a couple of weeks before the Fox.com debacle.

Reza Aslan NPR interview

The book tells me that Aslan is a fellow academic, and the interview tells me that he is a brother in faith. that begin Zealot. Born in Iran into a nominally Muslim family, Aslan came to the United States at the age of twelve when his family fled Iran during the overthrow of the Shah. Three years later, he “found Jesus.” Following his sophomore year in high school, Aslan spent the summer at an evangelical imagesCAO1SD62Christian youth camp and heard “a remarkable story that would change my life forever . . . the greatest story ever told.” Not surprisingly, Aslan returned home from that summer with the same proselytizing energy that I remember also having when returning from such summer camps in my youth. His mother converted to Christianity, as did many of his friends. Problems arose in college, however, when as a religious studies major Aslan began to find that there is a huge gap between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history, between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, he discovered that in his estimation Jesus of Nazareth was a lot more interesting than the Jesus his religion had told him about. In the midst of cognitive dissonance, drifting away from the religious framework that had changed his life just a few years earlier, imagesCA25BMC1Aslan found himself full of doubt and anger.

Interestingly, it was two of his Jesuit professors at Santa Clara University, recognizing both Aslan’s scholarly promise and his deepening crisis of faith, who suggested that he reconsider Islam, the religion of his forefathers that he had never been seriously taught in his formative years. Aslan converted back to Islam, finding that it spoke to many of his deepest spiritual needs while avoiding a number of the conflicts with reason so central to Christianity. In response to the interviewer’s asking for examples of just what it was about Christianity he found so problematic, Aslan answered that

imagesCAU0LBPVThe problem with Christianity, what would ultimately push me away from it, is the notion of the Trinity, the notion of the Incarnation, the idea of Jesus as the literally begotten Son of God . . . It never made sense to me.

“Well no kidding!” I thought as I listened to the interview. If the Trinity and the Incarnation are the only parts of Christianity that didn’t make sense to you, you weren’t trying! What about the Virgin birth and Resurrection (just for starters)? One of my favorite exercises in class is at an appropriate point in the semester to ask students to brainstorm and create a list of those aspects of Christian belief that make no rational sense. It doesn’t take very long—the Incarnation, Trinity, Virgin birth and Resurrection are just the beginning. I’ve heard and read all of this before, particularly from academics; some version of “I was a Christian (or fill in the blank) in my youth, but when I became an adult and realized that it didn’t make reasonable sense, I stopped believing.” In a case such as Aslan’s, it would have been perfectly reasonable to become an atheist or an agnostic. Neither one of those choices would present the slightest obstacle to being a fine scholar of religious studies.

Instead, Aslan became a Muslim, finding that

imagesCAO2E9CLThe God that I intimately and deeply desired in my heart was a being of divine unity, a being that encompassed all of creation. And that’s how Islam talked about God . . . in the Sufi tradition, God is all of creation, His very substance is existence . . . everything that exists exists only insofar as it shares in the existence of God . . .  without separation between Creator and creation.

Of course, it could be argued that many Christians and Jews also believe exactly this. But in my estimation it doesn’t matter. Aslan is my brother in faith despite having rejected Christianity for Islam, because deep down he continues to share with me a foundational desire and belief, one that is far more important than which religion one espouses. Toward the end of the NPR interview, Aslan expresses this desire.

TitleHeader[1]If you believe our experience of the world goes beyond just the material realm, that there is something beyond, that there is a transcendent presence that one can commune with, then it is only natural to want to reach out to this transcendent presence, to want to experience it in some way. This is the ineffable experience of faith.

Each of has to make a decision concerning what to do about the big questions when reason and objective facts run out. And this decision always involves a leap of faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Some choose to deny the existence of anything transcendent, but even this requires faith. imagesCA139MTRAs a character in a novel I read earlier this summer says “atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap.” For others, religions provide an arena within which to develop languages and practices that speak of the human encounter with the divine. Happy leaping!

gentle drizzle

Gentle Drizzle

IOresteian the interdisciplinary program I teach in and 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 this fall my teammate and I have opted for the first of the trio, Aeschylus. In a couple of months, we will be spending 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 will seep in as well.

RFKOn April 4 a little over twenty-four 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.

Venn Mysticism

To what extent can clear thinking and logical analysis help untangle the complexities of trying to live a life of faith? Let’s try a test case. In his later years, as he continued to discard the grave-clothes from his religious past, my father17251_297220732720_3663220_n[1] was fond of saying that “Not every mystic is a Christian, but every good Christian is a mystic.” The philosopher in me immediately wants to analyze this truth claim logically. Actually, there are two truth claims in this sentence. The first claim, “Not all mystics are Christians,” relates the category “mystic” and the category “Christian.” If we imagine circle A containing all mystics, and circle B containing all Christians, how should these circles be drawn in relation to each other? For those of you who took Logic 101 in college or maybe in a really good high school, you might remember that these are called “Venn diagrams.” So let’s have logic class for a few minutes.

There are four possible ways in which circles A and B can be drawn in relation to each other:

1. Circle A is entirely contained within circle B (“All A’s are B’s, not all B’s are A’s”)003

2. Circle B is entirely contained within circle A (“All B’s are A’s, not all A’s are B’s”)002

3. Circles A and B have no relation to each other. (“No A’s are B’s, no B’s are A’s”)001

4. Circles A and B intersect. (“Some A’s are B’s, some B’s are A’s”)004

Remember my father’s first claim: “Not every mystic (A) is a Christian (B).” Looking at the diagrams above, we can immediately rule out possibility 1, since it claims that all A’s are B’s, while Dad’s claim says they aren’t. Unfortunately, options 2-4 are all compatible with Dad’s claim that “Not every mystic is a Christian”—do not continue until you can see for yourself why this is the case! So which of the remaining three possible relationships of circles A and B is the right one?

images[8]Fortunately, my father helps us out with his second claim, “All good Christians are mystics.” But wait a minute. What’s the deal with this “good” thing? Where did that come from? I thought we were only talking about mystics and Christians! What we have here is a classic case of a “suppressed premise”—not surprising, since we all suppress premises all the time, especially premises we want to slip unnoticed under the radar screen. A suppressed premise in a discussion is something important to your argument that you consider to be true, but aren’t bothering to tell the listener or reader about, for any number of reasons. In this case, Dad’s suppressed premise is that “Some Christians are good and some aren’t.” He’s slipped in a qualifier (“good”) into his second claim via a suppressed premise.

Once we realize this, we can choose between options 2-4 above. Option 2 doesn’t work, because that places the entire Christian circle (B) within the mystic circle (A), and doesn’t provide any guidance for making the further distinction between good and non-good Christians. Same problem with option 3—if circles A and B have no relation to each other, then we once again have no way to distinguish between good and non-good Christians. That leaves us with option 4, and indeed it provides the help we need. Look again at the intersecting circles in diagram 4. If we shade in the area where A and B intersect, we have a diagram representing the truth of both of Dad’s claims. “Not every mystic is a Christian” is right in front of us, because there is an area of circle A that does not intersect with B—in this non-intersecting area are those mystics who are not Christians.QED_BW_logo[1]All good Christians are mystics” is also in front of us, if we write “good Christians” in the shaded area where A and B intersect. That shaded area contains the Christians who are also mystics (“good” Christians), while the area of circle B not intersecting with A contains all other Christians, who are non-mystics (and apparently non-good).

Wasn’t that fun? Haven’t you learned a lot? At this point, intelligent students should be asking: “But what have we learned about mystics and Christians from this logical analysis”? And the answer is: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. What we have discovered in this exercise is the logical structure of my father’s claim, but nothing about the content. banana doxie[1]The logical structure of “Not all dachshunds are bananas, but all good bananas are dachshunds” is the same as the structure of my Dad’s claim. More often than not, logical analyses of truth claims turn out to be what Muriel Barbery calls “a conceptual fuss in the service of nothing.” So what if we know what the logical structure of Dad’s claim about mystics and Christians is—what we really want to know is whether it is true.

That all depends on what one means by “Christian” and “mystic.” Just how elastic is the category and concept “Christian”? How far can I stretch its meaning before it stops meaning anything at all? As for “mystic,” I have at least a dozen definitions of “mysticism” and related terms in my hard drive, taken over the past few years from authors that I respect and love. None of the definitions is the same; some are radically different from others. ee24810ae7a068542122d110.L._V260843872_SX200_[1]My current favorite definition of “mystic” comes from a talk by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner that I read recently. He prefaces his definition by saying “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not what you’d call a big-time mystic.” Well, neither am I. Kushner goes on to define “mystic” as “someone who has the gnawing suspicion that just beneath the apparent contradictions, brokenness, and discord of this everyday world lies a hidden unity.” If so, I’m a mystic after all (although not a “big-time” one).

Twenty-five years ago, I regularly sang in an Episcopal church choir. Since the church was the cathedral of the diocese, the music was slightly better than garden-variety church stuff, but the choir was still pretty much a mixed bag. choir.fe[1]There were five or six sopranos and an equal number of altos, including one close-to-professional quality ringer in each section. We had only two tenors, one a fellow over seventy years old who probably once had a good voice when he was younger and a much younger fellow who sang with gusto but was tone-deaf. The baritones (my section) were more numerous, usually at least four or five. I don’t have a good solo voice, but I am a good choir singer because I read music well and have good pitch. I was the guy all of the other baritones crowded around with a new piece in order to get things right.

One Easter season, our primary Easter Sunday piece was going to be Randall Thomson’s Alleluia. The words are easy—all you sing is “Alleluia” all the way through with one “Amen” on the end. The notes are moderately challenging, but this was by no means the most technically difficult piece the choir had ever sung. The piece is sung a capella; for it to work, the singers need the same sort of “oneness” that Gregorian chant requires—they have to become one voice, rather than fifteen or so individual ones. Furthermore, they have to stay in tune for five minutes without accompaniment. 200606The_Vision_of_Isaiah57x72in_canvas[1]And it wasn’t happening. After several mediocre attempts in rehearsal Charles, our organist and choirmaster, yelled “STOP!” After regaining his composure, he said “the Bible says that around the throne of God, the cherubim and seraphim continually sing ‘Alleluia’ in never-ending praise. For the next five minutes let’s plug into that eternal song, joining ‘with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven,’ just as the Sanctus from mass every Sunday says. Begin.” And for the next five  minutes, that’s where we were. We left our individual, fragmented and discordant existences and joined “all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name.” I get chills as I remember and write about it, more than twenty-five years later. As we ended Alleluia with a hushed “Amen,” our tone-deaf tenor said it all: “Whoa! Where did that come from?”

To my ears, there was nothing mystical or magical about our Easter morning performance a few days later. We were in tune, we didn’t embarrass ourselves, but we were not inspired. Afterwards, though, I overheard an old parishioner say to two of my fellow choristers that “you sang like angels today.” Maybe so, I thought. I know that we did at least once—maybe on Easter morning, she was the one who had “ears to hear.” As Rabbi Kushner, I have the gnawing suspicion that this transcendence is there all the time. I’m grateful when, every once in a while, I can say “surely God was in this place” and mean it.Alleluia-5[1]

Mr Ed

Master of the Horse

Unlike many academics, I greatly enjoy commencement exercises. After experiencing three of my own (BA, MA, and PhD) spread over thirteen years, I have participated in twenty-one such ceremonies at various ranks of professorship, every year since 1992 with the exception of two missed during sabbatical semesters. Generally at least two-and-a-half hours in length, adding extra half hours depending on how many honorary degrees are conferred and the length of the keynote address, facultymost academics place commencement on the same level of enjoyment and interest as sticking a fork in one’s eye. I look at it differently.

First of all, very few people get to participate in them regularly, so my access marks me as somewhat special. Second, I enjoy seeing if I can pick out the two or three dozen of my students from as long as three years past from the hundreds of diploma receivers as they maneuver in assembly line fashion across the stage. But most of all, I like the liturgical elements—funny clothes, unusual conferral sentences said “just so,” processing, recessing, music only heard at commencements, rituals performed only once per year—it’s just like being in church, but it isn’t. I make no secret of my attraction to liturgy, the primary reason I felt at home when first attending Episcopal services thirty years ago, and it doesn’t matter much to me whether the liturgy is secular or sacred. Liturgy is liturgy—it’s an opportunity for grown up human beings to behave strangely and ritualistically on a regular basis. For the most part commencement ceremonies blend into each other very quickly; untitledtemple grandinonly those with the rare interesting keynote addresses stand out. In the past decade or so at my college these include Tim Russert, Richard Daley Jr., and (this year) Temple Grandin. But last Friday I attended a commencement ceremony that I will never forget, one that will perhaps be more memorable going forward than even those at which I received my own degrees. Last Friday was the day that Pooker received his Master’s degree.

Justin baby“POOKER???” you ask—yes. Pooker. My youngest son Justin is one of those unfortunate persons whose childhood nickname has stuck into adulthood, at least with his immediate family. As a baby, Justin’s face was as round as Charlie Brown’s, but his nickname comes from another cartoon character with a round head—Garfield’s teddy bear “Pooky.” This quickly morphed into “Pooker,” and there it is. He’s very good-natured about it—to a point. He’ll probably slap me upside the head when he finds out that I have outed his nickname on my blog.pooky 2

Justin was the cutest kid in any crowd when young, every teacher’s pet and every adult’s favorite. I treated him and talked to him as if he was a very short adult, as I did his older brother (I called them “the midgets”), so Justin was always more comfortable with adults than with his peers. He was the sort of kid that one could imagine living a charmed life with all sorts of waters parting before him and unicorns farting rainbows in his wake.unicorn farting rainbow But I remember clearly the day that this perception ended for me. During his yearly physical when in eighth grade his pediatrician called me into the examination room and asked Justin to bend over and touch his toes. “See that?” the doctor asked as he pointed at my son’s back. Rather than a straight line, his spine was tracing an odd backwards “S”—the clear signs of rapidly developing scoliosis. After several months of unsuccessful exercises and therapies, two titanium rods were inserted in his back during a twelve-hour surgery, guaranteeing that he would set off security alarms at every airport after 9/11 several years later. Justin’s natural patience, resilience, stubbornness, humor and good will were sorely tested and sharply honed during these months, preparing him for Pooker's graduation 004challenges and obstacles even more daunting to come.

As Justin moved through adolescence and into early adulthood, he evolved into a unique human being (don’t we all?). We have always been very close (he has accused me of being his soul mate). He has my sarcastic and irreverent sense of humor and left political leanings, but an empathy and sensitivity for the needs of others that I largely lack. Pooker's graduation 014He has a quirky but deep spirituality, hardly a surprise after more than two decades of hanging around a stepmother and father whose spiritual journeys have been just as quirky and meaningful. School was more challenging as he progressed into high school, yet he can quote lengthy dialogs verbatim from movies, television shows and conversations without breaking a sweat. After graduating high school he went to college in northwestern Ohio at a school with a well-regarded pre-veterinary program; Justin had been aiming for a career in veterinary medicine for years. But as he proceeded to veterinary studies after earning his Bachelor of Science, the wheels began to slowly fall off in various sorts of ways. In no particular order, a series of girlfriends ranging from “nice enough girl, but not right for Justin” to “total lunatic, not right for anyone.” A succession of professors who refused to round a grade up the half point necessary to keep Justin academically viable. Taking a crucial early semester off from veterinary school in the Caribbean to be with and take care of his girlfriend in Ohio who had been diagnosed with cancer (she is now cancer free), then never being able to catch up and failing out. Being diagnosed as ADHD in his middle twenties (something it would have been great to know many years earlier—it would have helped explain a lot). Many series of tests and many sessions of therapy. murphys-law-2aBeing diagnosed with cancer himself a couple of years later and enduring surgery then many months of radiation and treatment (he is now cancer free). More academic attempts and failures, all the time living back with his parents at a time in life when most young men are developing lives of independence and working in slightly more than minimum wage jobs. Nothing came easy anymore; Murphy’s Law seemed to have found a home in Justin.

There were times when I wondered whether Justin was not meant to be in higher education, thinking he might do better or be happier simply settling into a job somewhere, dropping his professional hopes and dreams, and climbing the career ladder, even though I am Mr. Higher Education personified. But here I turned out to be my own worst enemy. Justin was six years old when I entered my PhD program and grew up watching me grow into a teaching career that has been so fulfilling and such a perfect fit that I call it a vocation or calling rather than a job. Pooker's graduation 012That became his own life goal—to find his passion, his calling just as I had found mine. His stubbornness and tenacity guaranteed that he would endure multiple roadblocks, hurdles and failures in his pursuit of his passion, even if he didn’t know what it was, and would refuse to settle for anything less.

His passion was slowly revealed through several exploratory online courses, eventually focused on a Master’s in Psychology. I confess that I had my private doubts, given my old-school educator’s suspicions about online classes and a few unsuccessful similar attempts in Justin’s past. But as he passed course after course, negotiating the sorts of hurdles that would have derailed him in previous years, the light at the end of the tunnel became brighter. His innate sensitivity to the needs of others, along with his longstanding love of horses, directed him toward an ultimate goal of Equine Assisted Therapy in which horses are used as facilitators of change and healing. Mr ed 2He didn’t get his equine attraction from me, by the way—they scare the shit out of me. But although one can lie to a therapist, one apparently cannot lie to a horse. Who knew that Wilbur’s regular conversations with Mister Ed were actually therapy? And what person in need of equine therapy will be able to resist the spectacular tattoo of Secretariat on the back of Justin’s left calf, courtesy of his tattoo artist brother Caleb?7691_10202631908378365_1261596618_n[1] When the Dean of Students conferred collective degrees on several hundred MA and PhD graduates last Sunday, I finally believed it—a leg of Justin’s journey that many times had seemed impossible and impractical had been completed. With flying colors.

It is difficult to step back from the day-to-day struggles that Jeanne and I have lived over the last several years with Justin to truly put his accomplishments in perspective, mark antonybut I know that I have never encountered a student in twenty-five plus years of teaching who deserves their degree more than Justin does. Tenacity, faith, commitment, stubbornness, humor and love in equal parts—these form the foundation of Pooker the man. In Ancient Rome, the dictator’s right-hand man was called the Master of the Horse. Mark Antony was Julius Caesar’s Master of the Horse—his confidant, critic, conscience, problem solver, hit man and most dependable friend. These are all qualities that the newest Horse Master possesses in excess. Any smart dictator would be as proud to bring him into the inner circle as I am proud that he is my son. But he would look awful in a toga.Pooker's graduation 015

Making the Truth Laugh

One of the many enjoyable occurrences at the end of each semester is occasionally receiving thank-you notes from students. Often they come from quiet students who said little in class but eloquently mention a moment or a text from the semester that made a difference or that will stick with them. The bookshelves in my philosophy department office are lined with such cards and notes, welcome reminders that once in a while something works better than expected.

A year ago I received such a note from a student in the Honors interdisciplinary class that I teach with two colleagues. The student wrote that our class was “the best college course I’ve ever taken,” a judgment tempered slightly by the fact that she was a freshman and at the time had only taken six college courses so. Later in her note, however, she thanked the three of us for our senses of humor, writing that “I have never laughed so hard or as often in any class I have ever taken.”simone weil[1] That one I’ll cherish for a long time, because my teaching philosophy for years has been shaped by Simone Weil’s observation that “The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.” For this student, at least, mission accomplished.

chickenthoreau[1]When it comes to learning, laughter is serious business. Although they often do not occupy front row seats in the pantheon of philosophical greats, many of my favorite philosophers—Epictetus, Montaigne, Hume, Nietzsche and others—depend on various forms of humor to shape their thought. Irreverence is a particularly effective philosophical tool. A logical argument demonstrating that human capacities do not match human pretensions is not as effective as Montaigne’s126763672545178[1] “even on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our own ass.” Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest master of irreverence who ever lived, undermines commitment to logical precision with ““It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!” and scoffs at piety with “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” As I told a junior faculty member after observing a skilled but humorless performance in his logic class, “philosophy is serious, but it isn’t deadly serious.”

nameoftherose[1]In Umberto Eco’s masterful The Name of the Rose, laughter plays an unexpectedly central role. Set in a fourteenth-century Benedictine monastery, Eco weaves murder, heresy, liturgy, medieval medicine, sexual deviance, the Inquisition, opulence in the face of abject poverty, and political intrigues between the Emperor and two competing popes into a memorable fictional tapestry. A central thread in that tapestry is a question that sparks frequent and passionate debate: Did Christ ever laugh?protectedimage[1] This seemingly random question becomes the center of an intense debate that ultimately involves far more than academic curiosity. Jorge, the venerable and blind former librarian insists that Christ never laughed. Not only is there no record of such a thing happening, but there are also solid theological reasons for denying laughter to Jesus. “Laughter foments doubt,” Jorge argues, and doubt undermines those things about which we must be certain. Those in doubt must turn to the relevant authority—a priest, abbot, text—to remove uncertainty. 4349348690_947b4e3701[1]Laughter makes light of what is most serious and most indubitable.

William of Baskerville, the visiting Franciscan monk who becomes the medieval Sherlock Holmes seeking to solve the mystery of several murders at the abbey, counters that there is nothing in the sacred texts indicating that Jesus did not laugh, and also points out that laughter is part of human nature (and Jesus was human, after all). Furthermore, William claims, “sometimes it is right to doubt,” given that doubt and uncertainty are part of the natural human rational thought process. “Our reason was created by God, and whatever pleases our reason must also please divine reason.” William is not given to hilarity, but has a keen eye for the ironic and incongruous throughout the novel, frequently showing that the true pursuit of truth often takes one down paths of uncertainty and irreverence. The adventure and openness of the process is far more instructive than any certainty that hypothetically lies at the end of the path.

As the novel progresses to its dramatic conclusion and the body count of dead monks increases, the depth of Jorge’s commitment to certainty and rejection of the twin demons of laughter and doubt is revealed. For decades, Jorge has been the self-appointed concealer of the only existing copy of Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy, in which Aristotle show that the value of comedy is to cause us to laugh at power, at pretension to greatness, and at human aspirations. Laughter allows us, at least temporarily, to abandon fear. In Jorge’s estimation, laughter is the enemy of authority, both temporal and spiritual, and must be snuffed out at all costs. Accordingly, he has murdered those in the abbey whom heJorge_&_William[1] suspected of knowing about and lusting after this dangerous text.

In the climactic confrontation  between Jorge and William at the novel’s denouement, as the depths of Jorge’s insane commitment to protecting certainty and truth  becomes apparent, William exposes the true nature of Jorge’s obsession. “You are the Devil. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” Jorge has shaped his life and actions according to his conviction that truth is to be protected, that it must be defended against all threats—there is a strong element of fear in his conviction that he owns the truth. He is absolutely right about one thing, though—laughter and doubt are direct threats to everything he considers holy. Laughter can bring pretensions to certainty and truth to their knees far more effectively than argumentation.imagesCAEB25EV Rather than face such a world, Jorge destroys the book, himself, and ultimately the library and entire monastery.

In the final pages of The Name of the Rose, in the midst of smoking ruins and ashes, William reflects with his young apprentice Adso on what they have seen and experienced. William refers to the dead Jorge as the “Antichrist,” an appellation that Adso does not understand.images[5]  “The Antichrist,” William explains, “can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear those who are willing to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them.” What is to be learned from the tragic and apocalyptic events at the abbey? William’s speculation is one that all seekers of truth and lovers of human beings should take to heart. “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

Anne LamottAnne Lamott, whose work causes me to laugh more than any author I can think of, defines laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Laughter is not only uniquely human, it is one of the many signs of divine love that each of us carries into the world daily. Did Jesus laugh? That depends on whether he was a human being or not. Since incarnation, humanity infused by divinity, is at the heart of the Christian faith, laughter is a fundamental expression of God in us. “Lighten up!” is a call to holiness.

diy-quote-wall-art_856-1[1]

Can a Philosopher be a Christian?

  • cunningham[1]The Dominican priest who, as the president of the college, interviewed me for the faculty teaching position I currently hold, died several years ago.  I admired and respected him for many reasons, including that his signing off on my hiring was one of his last actions as president. In addition to being an ordained priest, he was a philosopher by academic trade and a respected scholar. After he stepped down from the presidency, he returned to the philosophy department and taught for a few years before his death. He used to scandalize his Dominican brethren publicly in department meetings—I like to imagine that he took great delight in doing so—imagesCA9T7S9Xby regularly proclaiming that “There is no such thing as Christian ethics. It’s an oxymoron. ‘Ethics’ is philosophy and ‘Christian’ is theology.” Had this comment not come from one of the most respected Dominicans and scholars on campus, a number of my colleagues who believe that the purpose of philosophy is, as Thomas Aquinas suggested, to be the handmaiden to Queen Theology would have jumped on him. Instead they rolled their eyes and tried to act as if nothing offensive had been said. Since I believe that the sharp distinction between TheologyVsPhilosophy[1]philosophy and theology is the first line that must be drawn in every course I teach, I embraced my colleague’s insight.

I’ve spent my entire professional career as a philosophy professor teaching in Catholic institutions of higher education. Since I’ve always been straightforward with those interviewing me, my colleagues, and my students that I am not Catholic, I’ve never been accused of being a “Catholic philosopher” (although many of my colleagues wear that description as a badge of honor). I continually struggle, however, with whether I am a “Christian philosopher.” Somewhere along the line I became defensive when talking with others about this. I regularly say that “I’m not a Christian philosopher. I’m a philosopher who happens to be a Christian,” as if I freely chose to become a philosopher but was saddled with being a Christian in the same way I was saddled with curly hair, blue eyes, and bad teeth. On a professional level, my resistance to the “Christian philosopher” tag is similar to my Dominican colleague’s rejection of the possibility of “Christian ethics.” imagesCA4P0VAYScotch%20Buy[1]Mixing philosophy with theology is like mixing fine scotch with root beer. There’s a place for root beer, and there’s a (better) place for scotch, and never the twain should meet. But there’s definitely something much deeper going on that has nothing to do with respecting the boundaries between distinct academic disciplines.

A number of years ago Jeanne and I went to visit Forrest and Nancy, a couple who had been very important in my life before Jeanne and I met. In the seven or eight years since I had last seen this couple a number of big things had happened in my life, including a divorce, a bitter custody battle, a remarriage, and completing my PhD in philosophy. The weekend visit was lovely, with good food and conversation, a boat trip on an Alabama lake, and church on Sunday. I had been in pretty bad shape the last time Forrest and Nancy had seen me, so they were thrilled to meet my beautiful new wife, to hear about my sons, and to see that I was doing well. In the middle of one conversation, Nancy asked me a question that has stayed with me ever since: “How can you be a Christian and a philosopher?” The question was sincere, without a hint of challenge or judgment. She simply wanted to know. Nancy admittedly knew little about philosophy, but she’d at least heard that mahler12[1]philosophy is the art of questioning, of asking better and better questions about the biggest possible issues. The problem, as she saw it, was that for a Christian, most if not all of these questions are already answered. Why, if as a Christian I know all of the answers to these questions, would I spend my professional life continuing to ask them and inspiring others to do the same? Why not just introduce everyone to the truth? s question returned me to my youth, to bumper stickers on cars in the church parking lot that read God-Said-It[1]“God said it, I believe it, That settles it,” to sensing from those around me that I thought too much, that I asked too many questions, that I was too smart for my own good and too big for my britches. What I needed to do was simply believe and shut up. It would make my life, and that of those around me, a lot easier.

As I’ve processed Nancy’s question over time, I’ve come to realize that the joy and fulfillment I find in life of the mind, of academia, and of open-ended questioning is partially, at least a teeny bit, the working out of a rebellious “up yours” to everyone who sought to fit me for their straitjacket.Straitjacket-rear[1] Philosophy on the one hand, as a life-defining activity, is who I am, and I even get paid for doing it. Being a Christian, on the other hand, is something I was born into. It was part of the atmosphere I breathed from birth. My family and community were Christian, the first words I learned were Christian, the first songs I sang were Christian. One doesn’t just walk away from that or shed it as a snake sheds its skin. I’ve never really believed someone who smugly with an air of superiority says something like “I was raised in (fill in the blank religion), but now I know better and I’m an atheist.” If you were really raised in a religious tradition that seeped into your bones and psyche before you even became fully conscious and self-aware, then that influence does not end by flipping an intellectual switch. So I’m a philosopher who happens to be a Christian.

51xdfdHIzzL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1]As I was discussing this with a wise new friend not long ago, he reminded me of a distinction that Kierkegaard makes between “Christendom” and “Christianity.” Christendom, on the one hand, is an institution, a top-down hierarchy, the various rules, prescribed actions, and rituals that human beings have constructed to limit and control human behavior and various dangerous elements of Christ’s message. This is what 1003[1]Simone Weil called “the Great Beast,” the powerful collective which attempts to control human freedom and choice in the name of God. For better or for worse, I was born into one specific, very powerful version of Christendom. Christianity for Kierkegaard220px-Kierkegaard[1], on the other hand, is a radical, individual commitment to following Christ at all costs, a commitment to the law of freedom and love so challenging and frightening that it shows Christendom to be a timid and safe mockery of faith.

When it’s put that way, I realize that I can be a Christian philosopher—the two could very well go perfectly hand in hand. Working this possibility out in real time is a continuing challenge. This requires commitment and courage beyond anything I’m familiar with, a truly open-ended exploration of what it might really mean that God loves me and what that might lead me to become. But at least it’s a choice.

The Powers of Words

The building looked like the love child of a logic problem and a crossword puzzle. Richard Powers, Orfeo

            During the summer I tend to plow through a book per week, making up for all of the months during the academic year when I do not have the time to read anything other than what I have assigned the students or have been assigned by my colleagues and superiors. Powers orfeoLast week’s book was Richard Powers’ Orfeo. Powers is one of my favorite novelists, but I don’t recall ever having a conversation with anyone about his books. He’s the sort of author whose books win awards, whose novels reviewers rave about as “brilliant,” a “tour de force,” and “his generation’s Herman Melville,” but few people read. Orfeo is his eleventh novel—I’ve read them all, but could not tell you off the top of my head the plot of any one of them. Powers is incredibly smart, knows a ton about classical music, science, philosophy, politics and a bunch of other things—and he enjoys showing off his intelligence. His books often strike me as clumps of genius loosely connected by characters and a plot. What makes me keep track of when the next Richard Powers novel is coming out and purchasing it as soon as it is released is his mastery of the English language. I can think of no author—and I’ve read many—who astounds me more often, page after page, with a phrase or descriptive sentence that makes me put the book down and simply say “Wow. That’s beautiful” (or brilliant or a tour de force). Orfeo is no exception.

And so she sat pushing her pen across the page like a pilgrim slogging to Compostela.

compostelaReplace “pushing her pen” with “clacking his laptop keys” and I know exactly what Powers is describing. I’ve never made the pilgrimage to Compostela, but have talked to a few persons who have. It takes daily preparation beforehand, but above all requires a daily commitment. Some days will be bright and beautiful, filled with great conversation and a general joie de vivre. Other days will be drizzly, cold, gloomy, and invite one to stay in bed. But getting to Compostela requires putting in the miles every day, regardless of weather and/or emotional contingencies. Writing is like that. Waiting until the stars are aligned and you have something important to say means that you will wait forever. It’s like police work—days on end of boredom punctuated by unpredictable moments of sheer terror (or inspiration or insight if one is writing—hopefully writing doesn’t always inspire terror). The immediacy of regular blog writing is helpful—committing myself to two new posts every week guarantees that I won’t wait on elusive inspiration.

Dissonance is a beauty that familiarity hasn’t yet destroyed.

one of these thingsI try to introduce my students to the important concept of cognitive dissonance all the time, usually starting with a reminder of the Sesame Street game: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong.” Our natural tendency is to resolve dissonance into similarity, even if it requires forcing the issue. But part of a liberal education is a growing awareness that sometimes contradictions not only cannot be but should not be resolved. Familiarity breeds contempt, but dissonance keep us on our toes—and that’s a beautiful thing.

“Isn’t the point of music to move listeners?”

“No. The point of music is to wake listeners up. To break all our ready-made habits.”

TNelsonhe same is true of the learning process. Important thinkers from Aristotle to Simone Weil tell us that the struggle and process involved in grappling with unfamiliar ideas is often far more important than getting “the right answer.” In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Christopher Nelson (President of my alma mater St. John’s College) nails it: “A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match.”

We are brought back to ourselves by solitude, and from ourselves to God is only a step.

With this I return, as I frequently do, to a phrase from an obscure medieval nun that captures the essence of what I learned on sabbatical five years ago: My deepest me is God. Using the vocabulary of Christianity, Powers is identifying the truest meaning of incarnation, the divine embedded in human form. The point is just as powerful when taken outside of a religious context. Usually what I most need and desire cannot be found by turning outward to things, persons, jobs or events. The source of everything I need is internal. EttyI spent all of last semester with a bunch of sophomores studying how various people in the worst possible circumstances time and again came to this realization. Etty Hillesum was a case in point.

Etty Hillesum has been described as “the adult counterpart to Anne Frank”; her diary and letters, published as An Interrupted Life, reveal a remarkable awareness and compassion in the midst of some of humanity’s darkest days. She died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. Knowing that I taught a colloquium on various issues related to the Holocaust last semester, the President of my college recommended it to me at lunch the other day. I knew that the recommendation was a fortuitous one as soon as I read the introduction by Jan Gaarlandt. Gaarlandt writes of Hillesum’s “totally unconventional” spirituality and rejects the attempts by both Jews and Christians to claim her as typically Jewish or typically Christian as “unprofitable.” As I suspect is the case with most persons described as “religious,” Etty’s spirituality was uniquely her own; she regularly addresses God in her diary and letters as she would address herself.

I hold a silly, naïve, or deadly serious conversation with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God . . . I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call “God.”

This may not be “typical” in any sense, but it captures the incarnational heart of Christianity beautifully. As the medieval sister said, My deepest me is God.

The Joyful Owl

SagataganJust about five years ago, on a beautiful summer morning very similar to the ones we are experiencing in Providence these days, I was just finishing a post-morning prayer walk around beautiful Lake Sagatagan behind St. John’s Abbey on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. I had been in Collegeville for the first four-and-a-half months of 2009 on sabbatical and was now back for a week of writing and relaxation while Jeanne participated in a workshop at the Episcopal House of Prayer nearby. ThMary at stella marise point of destination when walking the perimeter of the lake is Stella Maris Chapel on the opposite shore from the Abbey, a lovely little chapel which contains an exquisitely unique statue of a pregnant Mary. St. John’s is situated on a national wildlife preserve; I learned during my months in residence never to walk the trails without a camera. On this particular morning, I noticed a dark shape in one of the massive trees just off the trail to the right. I stared at it for what seemed like several minutes. After concluding that it must be a large abandoned nest or simply the remains of a long-ago fallen branch, the top third of the shape turned slowly 180 degrees and looked directly at me. It was an owl.100_0767

I have noted occasionally in this blog that I am obsessed with penguins, to the extent that I dedicated a post exclusively to penguins several months ago.

Well-Dressed Birds

But I also love owls. They’re not quite as cool as penguins, but come in a very close second. If penguins did not exist (a world I do not care to consider possible), my office would be full of owl paraphernalia instead of penguin stuff. And I could make a better case for an owl obsession than I can for penguins. Owls are iconic symbols of wisdom, something everyone wants (I think).the owl of minerva Accordingly, philosophers should like owls. As a matter of fact, The Owl of Minerva is generally considered to be the best philosophy journal in the English-speaking world dedicated to the philosophy of the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, just in case you’re interested. The title of the journal is a reference to the owl being the favored bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom (Minerva is her Roman name)—who just happens to be my favorite resident of Mount Olympus. Stuttgart_Athene_ZeusYou have to take notice of someone who sprang fully grown and clothed in battle armor directly from her father’s skull and started giving him advice. So I immediately chalked up my owl sighting as yet another gratuitous favor sent to me from the divine as confirmation that this place in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is indeed a spiritual home. It only could have been topped by some penguins waddling down the path in my direction.

I don’t recall that owls were a favorite of mine as a child. My attraction to owls was most likely triggered during my first couple of years of teaching after graduate school. I was on the faculty at a small Catholic college in Memphis where they basically needed someone to teach business ethics to their business and engineering students. spotted owlSo I did—five sections per semester for three years. I always included a unit on environmental issues, and during the early 90s this invariably meant spotted owls. Native to the Pacific Northwest, the endangered spotted owls were very picky about where they nested and lived—which just happened to be in the middle of prime timber forest. Every time well-meaning people would relocate the owls, they immediately moved back to their original section of the forest that various constituencies wanted to cut down and turn into useful items that people will pay money for. So the debate raged—tree_huggertree huggers arguing that this forest must remain untouched so the spotted owls could live where they chose, and good capitalists screaming foul over the idea that a stupid, useless bird that no one ever saw because they only came out at night when everyone was asleep could actually hold up progress and money-making. My students had many fine, spirited debates—so many that at the end of one semester they presented me with a stuffed spotted owl toy that perches twenty years later proudly on top of one of my office bookcases.

Imagine my delight when taking the “What Animal Were You in a Past Life” quiz on Facebook a couple of months ago to find out that

What Animal Were You in a Past Life?

You were the Owl. Graceful, quiet, and majestic, you glide silently through the night. You are self-sufficient, independent, and make the most of everything around you. You are not very picky about what you like, and when you love something, it will be forever. You would make a wonderful parent, but in no way would you spoil your children; they would be taught how to look after themselves. You are a symbol of guidance.

flying owlIt’s very interesting how these descriptions put a positive spin on features that aren’t that attractive. For instance, “You are not very picky about what you like” is a reference to the fact that owls are birds of prey and will basically eat anything they find. The positive qualities listed are ones that I certainly aspire to and I can almost remember “glid[ing] silently through the night” in my past life as an owl. There’s nothing about wisdom here, though—maybe the quiz maker learned from a recent Geico ad that despite their reputation, not all owls are wise.

This ad notwithstanding, owls are not funny. Here’ a typical example of owl humor:

An owl and a field mouse walk into a bar. The owl turns to the field mouse, but doesn’t say anything because owls can’t talk. Then the owl eats the field mouse, because owls are predatory birds.

Owls are serious predators of the night, wise and stealthy as they swoop about taking care of their nocturnal business. Nothing humorous there.

So I was confused a few days later when I took the “What is Your Spiritual Power?” quiz (I really do need to get a life) and was told that

What is Your Spirit Power?

You got Joy. You are the most joyful spirit around. The happiness within you never stops flowing. You’ve never kept it all for yourself either, you’ve always made others happy when they needed it most.

Joy? Really? This will come a surprise to Jeanne. She’s the one who has Pharell Williams’ song “Happy” as the ringtone on her phone.

I would be more likely to have the tune to “Leave me the fuck alone” on my phone. What would a happy, joyful owl be like? In the world of Photoshopping, all sorts of possibilities are available.untitled But in the real world, owl joy is hard to detect. Take my word for it—it’s in there. As soon as I find it, I’ll let it out.Caleb owl

I AM smiling.

I AM smiling.