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A Modest Proposal

a modest proposalIn 1729, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame anonymously published a short work entitled A Modest Proposal, one of the great works of satire in the Western literary tradition. The complete title of Swift’s essay is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick; in it, Swift in apparent seriousness proposes that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. He goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion, all in a matter-of-fact style that can easily convince the reader, for a while at least, that he is perfectly serious. It takes some time for the unsuspecting reader to realize that Swift’s essay is a clever and devastating satire and commentary on the abuse of Irish peasants by their English landlords.

I love satire and frequently use it in class to great effect, an effect heightened by the fact that the average college undergraduate can’t tell the difference between satire, irony, and a spreadsheet. I am currently team-teaching a colloquium called Markets and Morals—our text for lecture and seminar a couple of weeks ago was Michael Sandel’s recent book SandelWhat Money Can’t Buy, a fascinating investigation of how in our contemporary world market economies are inexorably turning into market societies. A market society is one in which values, ideas and practices that have traditionally been outside the realm of the dollar sign and commodification have begun to be treated as just another thing to be bought and sold. From marriage arrangements to human life, everything has become a commodity for sale.

Tucked among tons of real-life case studies, Sandel provides some useful tools for identifying “market creep.” Trust your intuitions, he says—if your gut tells you, for instance, that there is something wrong with employers like Walmart buying life insurance policies on their unsuspecting employees then cashing in big when the employees die, or if you think there’s something morally amiss with high-powered special interest groups such as congressional hearing queuebig oil hiring people to stand for hours in line to secure coveted seats in congressional or Supreme Court hearings (and thus doing an end run on the democratic, “first come, first served” process), chances are that there is either a problem of fairness or a problem of corruption in play. Either something that has traditionally been thought of in egalitarian terms has suddenly become for sale to the highest bidder (fairness problem), or a value that we cherish is being eroded and cheapened as it gets sucked into the market vortex (corruption problem).

Rather than use Sandel’s own examples (the majority of which you can watch him discuss with various audiences on YouTube—the guy’s a rock star phenomenon in the world of academia), I decided to develop my own case study situated directly within the context I share with my students twice per week: classroom and course dynamics. I introduced my “modest proposal” as follows:

It has been my practice for many years when assigning students a paper in a class to offer my time and expertise for reviewing up to two pages worth of double-spaced rough draft material up to five days before the paper is due. I will read and comment on the rough draft material and send it back within 24 hours of receiving it. My experience is that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft commenting services earn on the average a grade that is five points higher than those who do not.

Since in any given semester I have anywhere from 60 to 75 students for whom I am the sole grader and there are times (such as around midterm) when a written assignment is due in all of my classes, it is often difficult to keep up with the rough draft demands, particularly when many students send their rough draft material to me just before the deadline. I always read this material on a “first come, first served” basis; it is undoubtedly the case that I am not able to pay as much attention to each student’s rough draft material as I would like because of the pressure to return the material with comments in time for it to be helpful in writing the final draft. office hoursThose students who are unable or unwilling to start their papers early are at a disadvantage in terms of getting my full attention and expertise when I am swamped close to the deadline.

A similar problem arises during my scheduled office hours during the days leading up to the due date for a major assignment or exam. A line of a dozen or more students is a frequent occurrence outside my door. Often I am not able to see everyone because my office hours end and I have to go to class or a meeting; often students who have waited for a long time have to leave before seeing me because of a class or another appointment (or because they get sick of waiting). So I wish to make a modest proposal for your consideration:

QUEUE THE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION

At the beginning of each semester, my students will have the opportunity to purchase a Morgan Preferred-Access Pass for $250, a purchase that will provide a student with the following semester-long benefits:Preferred access

  • Your rough-draft material will be read, commented on, and returned within six hours of receipt (unless it was submitted between midnight and 6:00 AM), even when there are several rough draft submissions ahead of yours that have not yet been read. Your Preferred-Access Pass, in other words, entitles you to the privilege of jumping to the front of the e-line.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass also entitles you to jump to the head of the line outside my door during office hours for one-on-one conversation with me.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass is transferable. For instance, if you believe that you are in good shape on a particular assignment and do not need my help or expertise, you may rent your Preferred-Access Pass to a fellow student lacking such a pass to use for that assignment only.
  • Please Note: Your Pass gains you preferred access to me by jumping the queue—it does not guarantee any particular grade on any given assignment.

I have said on occasion over the years that teaching is often like acting—a convincing performance is everything. On this particular morning, I was good; the students were unaware that a good deal of the “data” I used in the setup for my proposal was made up on the fly. For instance, I have no evidence that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft-reading services earn five points higher in their final grade than those who don’t. That’s an educated guess, primarily based on my observation over the years that the students who do send me rough draft material are the A-/B+ students who probably are the only ones in class who don’t need my input and suggestions. office hoursFurthermore, I don’t know if I have ever had more than two students waiting outside my door during office hours, even when a paper is due. In my proposal I am channeling people like my colleague across the hall in the philosophy department who often has more than a dozen students sitting on the floor waiting to see him. I would say I’m envious, but I’m not—I’m an introvert.

But I sold my modest proposal to my students with sincerity and a straight face, then asked them to discuss my proposal in small groups for ten minutes, both constructing an argument in favor and imagining what a critic might say. When we got back together, the conversation soon revealed that they had taken me seriously, and they were not amused. My proposal didn’t strike them as being quite as problematic as selling one’s children to rich people as snack food, but close. Stay tuned next week for A Modest Proposal—Part Two; or why my time should not be for sale. Until then, what do you think of my modest proposal?

LIBBS

Come In, and Come In

As I considered with my students this past week one of the most beautiful, challenging, and disturbing true stories I have ever encountered, I was reminded of what I wrote about that story a year ago.

Once many years ago, a couple I was close friends with was having marital problems. For the first (and only) time in my life, I found myself frequently playing the role of telephone confessor and therapist for each of them—I’m quite sure that neither was aware that I was doing this with the other. imagesThe phone calls became so frequent that one evening as I talked to the male in the relationship, the woman beeped in on call waiting. Toward the end of their relationship, she complained to me one evening that “There is no problem so great that he can’t ignore it!” These informal therapy sessions were unsuccessful; the couple soon divorced, one of them remarried, and both seem to have spent the past twenty years far happier than they were when together. Maybe that means my input was successful after all.

My friend’s complaint about her husband was, unfortunately, all too recognizable as a typical human reaction to information or truths that we don’t want to hear. il_570xn_240184042In the Gospel of John, Jesus is reported as having said “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I don’t think so. I think the real situation is more like what one of my students wrote in a recent intellectual notebook entry: “The truth doesn’t set a person free, but it does complicate their life.” So what is one to do when the truth about something is so obvious that it cannot be ignored—and you don’t want to deal with it?

  Along with a colleague from the history department, this semester I am in the middle of a colloquium entitled mein kampf“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom, and Truth during the Nazi Era.” After several weeks of immersion in the world of the Nazis, including Mein Kampf and Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, I could tell that everyone was feeling the same way I was—worn out by exposure to human pain, suffering, and evil and how these are facilitated by deliberate ignorance and evasion created through the choices we make. LIBBSWe returned from Spring Break to Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The subtitle of Hallie’s remarkable book is “The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.” It is, in many ways, more challenging and disturbing than being immersed in the depths of human depravity.

Hallie’s book is the little-known story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small and insignificant Protestant village in south-central France that, during the later years of World War II, “became the safest place for Jews in Europe.” Le ChambonBetween 1940 and 1943, the villagers of Le Chambon, with full knowledge of the Vichy police and the Gestapo, and at great risk to their own safety and lives, organized a complex network of protection through which they hid and saved the lives of at least five thousand Jewish refugees—most of them women and children. As a woman whose three children’s lives were saved by these villagers told Philip Hallie decades later, “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain—and Le Chambon was the rainbow.” Hallie comments that Rainbow“The rainbow reminds God and man that life is precious to God, that God offers not only sentimental hope, but a promise that living will have the last word, not killing. The rainbow means realistic hope,” a hope that was incarnated in Le Chambon.

It is a beautiful story, one that is virtually unknown in comparison to more familiar and dramatic narratives. Everyone who cares about the human spirit should read it—I dare you to make it through with dry eyes. My first question to the thirty-some students in the colloquium at our first class on this text was simply “How did this happen?” There is nothing special about Le Chambon—there are hundreds of similar rural villages throughout Europe. There were dozens of them within a short train ride of Le Chambon. Yet none of them did anything like what the Chambonnais did; indeed, many of them collaborated with the Vichy police and turned their Jewish neighbors and Jewish refugees in to the authorities as the occupying Nazis demanded. What made Le Chambon different? Andre and MagdaHow did goodness happen here?

According to the Chambonnais in virtually every interview Hallie conducted, there was nothing special about what they did at all. After being described as a “hero” or simply as “good,” Magda Trocmé, wife of the village’s dynamic pastor André Trocmé, asked in annoyance

How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Who else could help them? And what has all this to do with goodness? Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people. Who else would have taken care of them if we didn’t? They needed our help and they needed it then. Anyone else would have done the same thing.

“Is she right?” I asked my students? “How many think anyone else would have done the same?” Not a hand was raised—certainly not mine. So the question remains. How did this happen? How did goodness happen here?

As with a giant jigsaw puzzle, a possible answer can be assembled from various facts throughout Hallie’s book. 130528-004-C0524E59The Chambonnais, for instance, are Huguenots, descendants of French Protestants who were a persecuted minority from the sixteenth century forward in predominantly Catholic France. What it means to be in danger and what it means to resist, to stubbornly stand for something in the face of persecution and death, is embedded in the DNA of these villagers. Le Chambon was also blessed during the war years and the decade before with the daring and lived leadership of men and women who by example showed them what it means to be a true community. But the most important reason that goodness happened in Le Chambon is so simple and basic that it cannot be overlooked. The Chambonnais believed one fundamental thing concerning human beings—that all human life, whether French, Jewish, or Nazi, is fundamentally precious and must not be harmed. Period. Many people, then and now, profess to believe this; the Chambonnais not only believed it—they acted on it. Consistently and regularly. Without questioning or equivocation. For such people, Hallie describes, “The good of others becomes a thing naturally and necessarily attended to, like any of the physical conditions of our existence. For certain people, helping the distressed is as natural and necessary as feeding themselves.” TrocmeThe villagers of Le Chambon were such people.

The source of this simple but powerful lived commitment depended on the person. For Pastor André Trocmé, on the one hand, his commitment to nonviolence and active goodness was rooted in his commitment to emulate Jesus and to take seriously, in a remarkably straightforward way, the message of the gospel. During his theological training, for instance, he was taught by his professors that the 6a00d8341bffb053ef0134818071ae970c-500wiSermon on the Mount is intended to be read as an allegory or as a standard set impossibly high so we can understand our sins and failures more clearly. André had no patience for such evasions. In a book written shortly after the end of the war, he asks

If Jesus really walked upon this earth, why do we keep treating him as if he were a disembodied, impossibly idealistic ethical theory? If he was a real man, then the Sermon on the Mount was made for people on this earth; and if he existed, God has shown us in flesh and blood what goodness is for flesh-and-blood people.

André’s wife Magda, on the other hand, had no patience for doctrine, religion, or any esoteric debate that might take her attention away from what was right in front of her. MagdaShe did not believe that something was evil because it violated God’s commands. She believed that something is evil simply because it hurts people. A person’s need was the basis of her moral vision, not any sentimental love she might or might not feel for the person in need, and certainly not any calling to moral or religious excellence. There is a need and I will address it was her motivating energy. Simple as that.

I have taught this book a number of times in ethics classes, but not for seven or eight years. As I worked through the story with my students last week, I realized with a new depth just how disturbing and shocking the story of Le Chambon is. “I think I know why I haven’t taught this book in a while,” I told them. “These people make me uncomfortable. They let me know just how wide a gap there is between what I say I believe and what I actually do.” When the truth of what I profess is laid out in front of me in a way that I cannot ignore, I want to look away. I shift into philosopher mode—“This is idealistic, this won’t work in real life, real human beings won’t treat each other this way,” and so on. And my students would have been very happy to be told all of this, because they were just as uncomfortable with the Chambonnais as I was and am. 14992918595385727520But goodness did happen there in the midst of some of the worst evil humans have ever manufactured. Real people created goodness in the midst of evil by actually taking what they believed seriously enough to do it. I have a two-hour seminar with eighteen students this afternoon that will continue our exploration of this book. The best I can do, which is perhaps a lot better than I could have done not long ago, is to make Hallie’s closing words in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed my own and invite my students to come along.

I, who share Trocme’s and the Chambonnais’ beliefs in the  preciousness of human life, may never have the moral strength to be much like the Chambonnais or like Trocmé; but I know I want to have the power to be. I know that I want to have a door in the depths of my being, a door that is not locked against the faces of all other human beings. I know that I want to be able to say, from the depths, “Naturally, come in, and come in.”

imagesCAERWR96

Celebrating St. Bridget’s Day

My brother and I seldom see each other. He is a medical doctor in rural Wyoming, and I am a real doctor in Rhode Island. But we frequently have brief Facebook conversations of the same high quality exhibited by most Facebook communication. In the midst of one of these, he made the pontifical pronouncement that “no one should ever wear corduroy clothing. Ever.”1377446_10201713065962154_1658107951_n “That shows how much you know,” I replied. “I have four pairs of corduroy pants and five corduroy jackets (navy blue, black, gray, tan, and some nondescript color Jeanne calls “taupe”). Two of the jackets have elbow patches, the sine qua non of academic sartorial splendor. Just because you dress like Doctor Grizzly Adams and haven’t worn anything other than jeans, a belt with a buckle the size of a dinner plate and a cowboy hat in twenty years doesn’t qualify you to diss corduroy.”

            How to dress as an academic is something I picked up early on in my teaching career. . I remember my first few classes as a Master’s student teaching a summer course at the UWUniversity of Wyoming. As an introverted fish out of water, one of my greatest fears was being laughed at, either overtly or covertly, of being the butt of everyone’s jokes outside of class—a continuation of grade school and high school, in other words. So you can imagine my horror when, in one of my very first classes, I discovered while sitting on the edge of the desk that I was wearing one black and one navy blue sock. Immediate panic set in. But on the spur of the moment, I made a decision that has served me well in the classroom for the subsequent twenty-five years of teaching. I took control of the situation by choosing to give them something to laugh at from the start.imagesCAR7RNX6

Perhaps you’ve noticed I’m wearing socks of two different colors. You think that’s a mistake?—that shows how much you know! There is actually an art to dressing like an academic—it takes a lot of work to look like we do. There is, in fact, a special store (AcademicsRUs) where you can go to purchase academic clothes. untitledYou know, unmatched socks, shirts with sleeves that are too short and with ink stains on the pocket, pants that go up to here on your leg when you sit down, ratty cardigan sweaters, ties that went out of style decades ago.

            Which brings me to today. On this Saint Patrick’s Day, I am not wearing anything green. I never do. This is always a bit awkward in the classroom on a campus where the majority of my students are of largely Irish, Italian, or Irish-Italian hybrid descent. There is a very good explanation for my failure to wear green—I’m somewhat colorblind (especially with the green family). Jeanne, who is the family color-meister and my fashion coordinator/critic, has frequently been on the road over the past decade or more, so rather than run the risk of wearing something brown or blue or teal thinking it was green, I generally choose to wear clothes foruntitled.1 St. Patrick’s Day so far outside the green family that I couldn’t possibly be confronted by the Irish clothing police.

            Several years ago, Saint Patrick’s Day fell on the same class day that a member of the Teaching Award Committee was observing—I was a finalist for the award and the committee members were showing up in my classrooms like stalkers. As I prepared to start class, filled with students with names like Sean Fonzarelli, Meghan Incantalupo, Angelica O’Brien and Antonio O’Rourke, I thought it necessary to explain my greenless state to my Irish/Italian students. Since the true story was somewhat boring (they already knew that I’m colorblind), I decided to make up a better story on the fly. So, I said something like this:

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m not wearing green on this very special day. The reason goes back to my childhood. I’ve always been proud of my Swedish heritage through my mother’s side of the family; growing up, I always wanted to know why Irish people got their own holiday and Swedish people didn’t. In protest, I’ve always refused to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. imagesCAEGDOP2

This morning I was thinking about what the non-existent holiday for Swedes would be like. It would be on July 23rd; that’s St. Bridget’s Day. She’s the patron saint of Sweden. Instead of wearing green, everyone would have to wear brilliant blue and bright yellow, the colors of the Swedish flag. Instead of drinking green beer and eating Irish food, everyone would have to drink Absolut vodkauntitled.2 and St. Bridget’s Porter, eat rye bread, pickled herring and Swedish meatballs, and tell jokes that aren’t funny (What’s the shortest book in the world? 500 years of Swedish humor). As I constructed this hypothetical holiday, I realized clearly why there is no special Swedish holiday after all. Let’s get to work.

            I’m not particularly big on saints—undoubtedly a feature of my Protestant upbringing. But I am big on my Swedish heritage. On my father’s side, I am a mongrel with Welsh, English, Scottish, French, and (according to my father, at least) a tiny bit of Native American blood. On my mother’s side, though, I’m pure Swedish. imagesCAERWR96Can’t get much more Swedish than my mother’s maiden name—Thorsen (“son of Thor”). I have cousins who are 100% Swedish and was much closer to my mother’s family than my father’s growing up, so I’ve always pretended that being half Swedish is the same as being a thoroughbred. It has annoyed me greatly over many years of teaching in the Development of Western Civilization program that I now direct that Sweden is never mentioned. In response to one of my many queries as to why the native land of my ancestors never gets any face time, a historian I was teaching with once replied “because nothing ever happened there.” But remember the Vikings, the baddest and meanest of the barbarians who helped bring down the Roman Empire and throw civilization into the Dark Ages? Those are my ancestors. Don’t piss me off.image001

            So as you spend today celebrating your Irish heritage, or at least pretending that you have an Irish heritage, mark July 23 on your calendar for a blow-out St. Bridget’s Day celebration. Saint Bridget was not your typical Catholic saint. According to “Catholic Online” (a place where Protestants go for entertainment), Bridget was married at age thirteen and had eight children. In her early forties, after nursing her husband through an almost-fatal illness, Bridget and Ulf felt called to split and take holy orders. Bridget was a visionary in both senses of the word—she was very forward thinking and had a whole bunch of visions as well. Her visions instructed her in excruciating detail on everything from how to stop the war between France and England and get the Pope back from Avignon to Rome to the habits that the sisters in her new order would wear. She spent decades writing letters to rulers and important persons who ignored her, went to Rome in 1349 and waited for the Pope to return per her instructions (he never did during her lifetime), and never saw her new order founded. As the website says, “she never returned to Sweden but died, worn out old lady far from home in July 1373. She can be called the Patroness of Failures.” Nice. But for some reason, she was canonized in 1391. Probably because she made outstanding meatballs.untitled.3

violet

The Wisdom of Violet

All this thinking is highly overrated. Violet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

season fiveThe American showing of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey’s fifth season just ended, to the dismay of its millions of fans who now must wait until next January to get their next Downton fix. It’s a bit worse for Jeanne and me. Late last year Jeanne signed up to throw a few monthly dollars in the direction of our local PBS station; in return, we were shipped the full fifth season of the series in DVD at the end of January. The fifth season had just started its Sunday evening run a couple of weeks earlier, and now we had in our hands the rest of the season with no need to parcel the episodes out one week at a time. The DVDs showed up a couple of days before we got smacked with Juno, the first and worst of a series of winter storms that came in unrelenting succession over the next month. With Tuesday and then Wednesday classes cancelled, we binge-watched Lord Grantham along his relatives and homies cavort and angst through eight straight episodes—about eleven or twelve hours of viewing. And we wanted more.

All Downton fans have their favorite characters—I’ve noted in a previous post from a few weeks back that mine is Mister Carson, the erstwhile butler of the establishment.

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

violetBut everyone loves Lord Grantham’s mother Violet, the dowager countess and source of endless entertainment from meaningful glances to pithy retorts, a lovably manipulative force behind virtually everything going on in each episode with a wit as dry as a martini. Violet is played so memorably by Dame Maggie Smith that I cannot imagine anyone else being Violet (although I suspect Dame Judi Dench could do it, just differently). In this most recent season any number of Violet one-liners made me laugh, then think. Here are a few of them.

All this thinking is highly overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914 nobody ever thought.

Downton Abbey begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and in five seasons has proceeded through the Great War to the disturbing, iconoclastic years in the war’s wake, concluding the fifth season at Christmas 1923. In my twenty-plus years of teaching in an interdisciplinary humanities program, the most important thing I have learned about history is that no event ever changed the world so fully and irrevocably as World War One. yeatsWilliam Butler Yeats captured these dark transformations perfectly in his 1919 poem “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the

Worst are full of passionate intensity.

That these lines are directly applicable to our world a century later is testimony to just how complete the changes were.

Violet finds herself in a world she does not understand in which none of the fixed and reliable rules that have given her life and society stability apply. There was a time when people knew their place, when one knew what to expect, when things made sense. That world is gone, and she blames it on too much thinking. She might have a point. Not long ago some philosophical wag wrote that “Socrates may have been right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either.”

A lack of compassion is as vulgar as an excess of tears.

maryThis is Violet’s comment to her granddaughter Mary when Mary shows a remarkable lack of concern for her sister Edith’s sadness and mourning over the death of her lover and father of her child. It is a remarkable comment from a woman whose whole life has been defined by the sort of British aristocratic reserve that looks, at least on the surface, like lack of compassion on steroids. But an excess of any sort on the spectrum of emotion is “vulgar,” perhaps the worst thing that could possibly be said about a British aristocrat in the post-Edwardian era.

In my team-taught colloquium entitled “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom and Truth in the Nazi Era,” my students (and I) regularly struggle to find the appropriate emotional response to the horrors we are studying. At the end of our final class last week before spring break, my historian teammate Ray ended the two hours with a few minutes video from the liberation of Auschwitz. Emaciated, skeletal bodies piled fifteen feet or more high. auschwitzThese bodies being thrown one by one into a mass grave. Ray wisely ended the class with no comment, switching the computer off as students quietly gathered their things and filed out.

As I’ve been reading my students’ intellectual notebook entries this week, several have written “I don’t know how to respond to what I was seeing.” And neither do I. But our response cannot be academic and clinical, nor can it be a paralyzing wave of emotion. The worst that we humans can do to each other must be responded with all of the resources available to us. Our response must be human, in other words. This reminds me yet again of why I resonate with a religion whose central truth is that God became human.

Hope is a tease to prevent us from accepting reality.

To which the idealist responds that realism or pragmatism is a device to help us avoid dreaming of and hoping for what could be rather than settling for what is. I have written occasionally about the dynamic of hope in this blog,

Hopeful Thinking

and like to think of myself as a “pragmatic idealsimpragmatic idealist” or perhaps an “optimistic realist.” These things really are not contradictory, although many (including Violet) assume that they are. The philosopher in me tends toward realism, with Aristotle, David Hume, William James as three of my most important philosophical influences. Yet that realism is tempered by my faith which in my understanding both applies directly to the real world I struggle with every day yet offers transcendent hope that there is more to reality than what I struggle with every day. I resonate with Hamlet’s conviction that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy”—this is how I manage to be both a philosopher and a Christian, something that a good friend worried that I would not be able to pull off many years ago.

Thanks, Violet, for your thought-provoking insights and asides—keep them coming!violet 2

When It’s Over

Although I regularly find myself immersed in things medieval with a bunch of freshmen around this time every year, I am not a medievalist. I must confess that I often find medieval literature, philosophy, theology, and just about everything else medieval largely boring, inscrutable, or both. hellStill, it’s hard to go wrong in the classroom studying Dante’s Inferno with eighteen-year-olds. Sin, violence, torture—what could be better? Is suicide worse than lying? Is adultery less problematic than treason? How do gluttony and simony compare? Does sloth trump cowardice? Great discussion material.

Every time I descend into Hell with the Pilgrim and Virgil, my attention is drawn to something different. This time I took special notice of the first bunch of folks Dante encounters. Squeezed into Canto III, Dante - La Divina Comedia - Canto VI - Doré - Descontexto-2between a trio of threatening beasts and the virtuous pagans, we find “those sad souls who lived a life but lived it with no blame and with no praise,” lives so non-descript that neither Paradise nor Hell wants them. These are “wretches who had never truly lived” whose sins or faults don’t even rise to the level of getting a name. Call them the hello-my-name-is-whatever“Whatevers” who never committed themselves to anything. Their actions were neither good enough to earn praise nor bad enough to require mercy or justice. These are “wretches who never truly lived; the world will not record their having been there.” The Whatevers remind me of the Laodicean church in the Book of Revelation, about which God says “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spit you out of my mouth.”thoreau1a

It was the fear of spending eternity in the land of the Whatevers that motivated Henry David Thoreau to shake things up in his life. He begins Walden with “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreaus_Walden_BandB_Lincoln_Massachusetts_1120A couple of summers ago Jeanne and I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast—furnished with a wonderful hostess, hundreds of feeding birds and at least a half-dozen Chihuahuas—literally across the road from Walden Pond. On the other side of the lake, about a half-mile from where we were staying, Jeanne and I got to see the foundation and stone chimney of the tiny hovel Thoreau built for himself when he went to the woods. But Thoreau had the luxury to go to the woods in the first place, hardly a wilderness, since Walden Pond is only three or four miles from Concord, where Henry David could get a free meal at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house any time he chose. 400000000000000220639_s4These are luxuries that most of us do not have. Is it possible to learn to live deliberately without removing oneself from real life?

In his very interesting novel Putting Away Childish Things, theologian Marcus Borg frequently drops favorite book titles, excerpts and poems into the lives of his various characters. One of the poems is Mary Gordon’spsu11_gord_9780307377425_aup-528f73a7869d8ffa19e2691985af84ff573f6a23-s6-c30 “When Death Comes,” portions of which resonate with me more strongly than Thoreau’s more famous lines on the same theme.

When death comes

Like the hungry bear in autumn;

When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

To buy me, and snaps the purse shut . . . 

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness . . . 

When it’s over, I want to say; all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

Or full of argument. 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

            I have yet another birthday coming this week, a good reason to wonder how I’m doing with this business of “making my life extraordinary,” as deadpoetsaltMr. Keating challenges his young students to do in my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society. On the first page of Walden, Thoreau writes that he wants to “suck the marrow out of life,” something that never sounded particularly attractive to me. “Suck the marrow out of life” sounds a lot like “Be all that you can be,” or “Go for the gusto”—a call to fill my life with as many various and diverse experiences as possible, never stopping for a breath until I don’t have any breaths left. I guess I’m not the “marrow-sucking” kind of person. An extraordinary life need not be bursting at the seams with things purchased, places visited, or frequent flyer miles—although there is nothing wrong with any of these. be where you areMy mantras for an extraordinary life have become “Be where you are” and “Do what you are doing.” Pay attention. Be aware. In the busyness of the day don’t forget that each moment in class might be the moment that transforms someone’s life. Take notice that every “like” clicked on my blog means that someone, somewhere, read what I wrote and liked something in it. Be thankful every day for the gift of spending so many years of my life married to an extraordinary human being. Don’t ignore the multiple signs that my sons have become wonderful men.

Those who profess the Christian faith, of course, have all sorts of stories concerning what happens “when its over.” But as I’ve noted on a number of occasions on this blog, I have never found the promise of eternal life to be particularly compelling when compared to the question of how to live this life. The older I get the more I find myself drawn, when thinking about my mortality, to Psalm 90. I first consciously encountered this Psalm five years ago during noon prayer with a bunch of Benedictine monks; the time must have been right, because it has wormed its way deeper into me ever since. grass_dark_wallpaper-hdAfter spending the first several verses reminding us that humans are “like the grass; in the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered,” the Psalmist drops the hammer. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” imagesThanks for bumming me out with the truth. But the suggested response in verse twelve makes all the difference. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” I’ve come to realize that numbering my days is not about trying to guess how many I have left. Rather, it is about treating each day as the unique gift that it is—that opens the door toward wisdom. Be where you are. Do what you are doing.

When it’s over, I will have been more than a visitor to this world if I have taken attentive ownership of the small piece of it given me during my lifetime. I only ask what the Psalmist asks at the end of Psalm 90: “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.” And please deliver me from the land of the “Whatevers.”

how convenient

Sorry for the Inconvenience

Dear Dr. Morgan: I’m writing to let you know that I won’t be in class today at 11:30. Our lacrosse match on campus that was scheduled for yesterday was rescheduled for today at 3:30. Our pre-game prep starts at 12:00, so I won’t be able to make class. I know that I have already missed a couple of classes this semester [four, as a matter of fact], but I’m hoping this won’t be a big problem. snoopyMy academic advisor’s email address is xxxxxxxxx@providence.edu if you have any questions. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Dear Dr. Morgan: I’m very sorry, but I won’t be able to make Friday morning seminar. I’m in a wedding on Sunday back home; I had a Friday afternoon flight home, but my mother changed it to Thursday afternoon because she was able to find a better fare on that day. I’ll contact you next week to see if there’s anything I need to make up. Sorry for the inconvenience.

My response to each of the above student emails that I received last week was something along the lines of “Dear Student: It is your responsibility to do whatever is necessary to account for missed classes (check the syllabus for the course policy on attendance)—you are also responsible for whatever we work on in the class that you miss. Your missing class is not an inconvenience to me at all—the inconvenience is entirely yours. Dr. Morgan.”

In student/teacher communication, “Sorry for the inconvenience” has become the “go to” email comment with which to close a communication containing information that you don’t want to take responsibility for. inconvenienceThe sender is saying “I hope that maybe a half-hearted apology for making your life difficult will cause you to be merciful, even though I know that you don’t have to and that I should have handled the situation differently.” On the level of effectiveness, the “sorry for the inconvenience” strategy ranks just slightly above the ostrich strategy which requires pretending that the situation never even happened. Used more broadly, “sorry for the inconvenience” could mean “I know what I just did or failed to do messed your day (week, month, year, life) up. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do anything about it or try to set things right—but I wanted you to know that I am aware of the inconvenience I just caused you.” Sort of like “I just wrecked your car—sorry for the inconvenience,” or “I am sleeping with your significant other—sorry for the inconvenience.”

convenience storeHuman beings do not like being inconvenienced. Although we might not admit it, we love “convenience stores” and have made them a ubiquitous part of the American landscape, simply because they are “convenient.” Early in the 2000s, shortly after the Supreme Court decided to appoint George W. Bush as the 43rd President of the United States, Al Gore wrote a book as well as both starring in and producing a documentary about the dangers of global warming with the wonderful title “An Inconvenient Truth.” I have often wondered why millions of people worldwide, but particularly in this country, are so vehement in either their denial that global warming is real or in their insistence that if it is real, human beings are not responsible, given the mountains of evidence and data that prove its reality and our complicity. an inconvenient truthThe title of Gore’s documentary and book directly answers such questions—people often go to extremes in their efforts to avoid anything that, if accepted as true, would force them to adjust their attitudes and actions in uncomfortable ways. I’m reminded of what Vera Brittain once said that teachers should never forget—learning is an uncomfortable process and “above all, human beings desire to be comfortable.” In addition, above all they desire not to be inconvenienced.

Which is what makes yesterday’s gospel reading from Mark so problematic. In response to Peter’s insistence that he is not going to go to Jerusalem to die, Jesus first puts Peter in his place in Jesus’ inimitable style, then issues this attractive invitation to his would-be disciples:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

To which Jesus might have added, Sorry for the inconvenience. Because what Jesus is describing is more than an inconvenient truth. He’s warning his would-be followers then and now that, as bonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s an inconvenient faith.

There is another story in Mark’s gospel that caught my attention in one of my first posts on this blog almost two and half years ago. A young man (called a “certain ruler” in the Luke version of the story) approaches Jesus and asks “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that the young man knows very well what to do—he should keep the commandments, listing a few for the guy just in case he had forgotten them. But the young man replies “Teacher, all these I have done from my youth.” He’s not looking for a “good boy” pat on the head from Jesus; he’s already past the point of thinking that simply following the rules is good enough, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place. The young man is looking for more.

We all know Jesus’ response—he tells him the inconvenient truth. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” rich young rulerWe also all know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” Jesus had inconvenienced the rich young man beyond his toleration level. But what precedes Jesus’ sharing this inconvenient truth is very  interesting. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is a man who wants more, Jesus knows it, and Jesus loves him for it. But this is an inconvenient faith—the thing that you cannot do, that’s the thing that is required. And it will be something different for each of us. This story isn’t about the incompatibility of wealth and following Jesus at all. It’s a story about being called to come and die. The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of dispensers of inconvenience. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and this is a sword that cuts deepest in those who are the most obsessed with knowing God.

These gospels are “hard sayings” because they run roughshod over our desire that our dealings with what is greater than us be similar to a convenience store transaction. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z to get a break?” are the sorts of questions we so often want answered, but they are always wrong sort of question when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical several years ago I heard the poet browneMichael Dennis Browne speak of an insight that unexpectedly came to him as he mourned the tragic death of his younger sister, a woman for whom family and friends had gone hoarse with their prayers and petitions for healing. And she died anyways. What the hell is going on? Browne said “It came to me that this is not a God who intervenes, but one who indwells.” That changes everything. The inconvenience of trying to believe in a God who never calls, writes, or tweets is transformed into the challenge of being God in the world.

ring of gyges

Someone Would Know

mall bookstoreHey Justin! What if you had a ring that made you invisible when you put it on? Would you use the ring to take the books you’ve been wanting from the kid’s section at the bookstore the next time we go to the mall?

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

In the summer of 1989, as I prepared for my first PhD-candidate solo flight in the classroom scheduled for the coming fall semester, I solicited advice from anyone and everyone in the philosophy department, from fellow grad students to those breathing the rarefied air of full professor, about what to include in my introductory level ethics class. There were as many “must do” suggestions as there were colleagues. But they unanimously agreed on one suggestion—I had to put Plato’s Ring of Gyges story from Book II of the Republic on the syllabus. A guy who finds a ring of invisibility and uses it to seduce the queen, kill the king, and become top dog in the kingdom of Lydia. Using my seven-year-old son as a guinea pig, I asked him what I would be asking my students in a few months—What would you do with the ring?

floating booksWho would know?

How are they going to explain the books floating out of the store?

Well, what if anything you touch or hold when you’re wearing the ring becomes invisible? Now would you take the books?

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

I wrote last Friday about my belief that this little story tucked into the early pages of the Republic was the inspiration for the Ring of Power at the center of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, an epic tale that teases out the moral issues and implications of such a scenario.Ring of power

A Trip to Middle Earth

The ring put immediate pressure on each person’s most sensitive areas—what do you really want? In what ways are you hindered from getting what you want by obedience to moral norms? What would you do if the pressure to abide by moral norms were lifted? Justin, living in a house with an academic father and step-mother, was a great lover of books and regularly received a “no” answer to his requests to buy more books when visiting the local bookstore (we were living on a tight graduate student budget, after all). The ring of invisibility would give him direct access to the world he really wanted—one filled with every book his heart desired.

empty bookshelvesJustin, who would know?

There would be spaces on the bookstore shelves where I took the books from.

So you fill those holes up with books from some other part of the store that no one’s looking at. Now would you take the books?

No.

WHY NOT?

Because someone would know.

More than twenty-five years later, I would guess that I have taught the ring of gygesa class focusing on the Ring of Gyges at least fifty times. The story teaches itself. It is an extraordinarily flexible tool to get people of all ages and various life experiences to start immediately thinking about why they follow moral guidelines and principles at all. As the director of a large interdisciplinary humanities program, I am frequently asked to give “mock lectures” to weekend groups ranging from alumni and board members to prospective students and their parents. One of my two “go to” lecturse for such events is “The Ethics of Invisibility: Plato’s Republic and Gyges’ Ring.” After a few minutes of set-up, I ask my audience what I asked my son all those years ago—suppose you had the ring of invisibility. Do you think you would find yourself doing things when wearing the ring that you don’t normally do?

Who is going to know??!!

I’ll set off the alarm at the front of the store when I walk out.

So let’s say that when you’re invisible the machine can’t detect you or anything you are holding! NOW are you going to take the books?

No.

WHY NOT??

Because someone would know.

Except the occasional goody-two-shoes who claims she would use the ring for good (no guy has ever claimed this), virtually every one of my classroom companions admits that they would behave differently when wearing the ring than they normally do, pressing and eventually breaking through the envelope of basic moral expectations. When asked for specific examples, people usually start small.

  • Listen in on conversations you have not been invited to be part of.
  • Play tricks on your friends.
  • Steal something small and insignificant, just to verify that the ring actually works.

first classTo raise the bar a bit, I ask “how many of you would use the ring to give yourself a free upgrade to first class instead of sitting in the cheap seats in the back the next time you are on a plane?” Almost everyone always admits that they would.  When asked why they don’t give themselves such an upgrade without the ring, the answer is never “Because it’s wrong.” Rather, we don’t give ourselves free upgrades because we are afraid we’ll get kicked off the plane if our theft is discovered. Which is exactly the point of the Ring of Gyges scenario—we behave morally because we fear the consequences of not doing so. As soon as we are convinced that “no one will know” if we do something immoral, a world that the ring of invisibility places within our grasp, our commitment to moral behavior vanishes just as we do when we wear the ring.

As time allows me to push the envelope even further with my audience, I generally find that there is a moral glass ceiling through which very few people are willing to crash wearing the ring, even when it is guaranteed that they will never be held accountable for what they do. Other than the random person (always a guy) who says he would use it to kill people he doesn’t like, everyone stops short of murder. Many would stop long before travelling that far along the path. But only rarely is there someone like my seven-year-old son who says he would not use the ring at all. What is wrong with people like that?

YOU’RE FREAKING INVISIBLE!! NO ONE’S GOING TO KNOW!!

I would know.

frodo and samOut of the mouths of babes, as the saying goes. Where did my seven-year-old get a moral compass so true that it could (might) override even one use of the ring of power? Perhaps Jeanne and I had already brainwashed him sufficiently in the rules of proper human conduct. I doubt it. Tolkien was right when he suggested that the seemingly simple hobbits Frodo and Sam were the most appropriate persons in Middle Earth to deal with the ring—moral strength disguised as simplicity. Perhaps it really is as basic as what it says in Deuteronomy: “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Worth remembering the next time I am tempted to see what I can get away with. Someone would know.

puppet[1]

The Designer God Project

Jean-Antoine Houdon ~ Voltaire[1]Voltaire once said that if God did not exist, we would have to invent him. In truth, we invent God all the time, often with seeming disregard as to whether the God we have invented actually exists or not. Anne Lamott suggests that we can be pretty sure that we have created God in our own image if it turns out that God likes all the people and things that we like and dislikes all the people and things that we dislike. So how am I, or how is any God-believer, supposed to tell whether the God I believe in exists in reality, or exists simply as a figment of my self-obsessed imagination? I’m having the opportunity to explore these issues with my students early this semester, and the process has been both dynamic and illuminating.

The texts for an early seminar last semester in the interdisciplinary program I both teach in and direct was the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis and the first twenty-four of Exodus.gen-ex[1] It is often a challenge to get freshmen to discuss anything in seminar in the early weeks of their first semester; getting a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, most of whom are products of twelve years of parochial education, to talk about the Bible is even more difficult. But I’ve been doing this for a while and have a lot of tricks. After assuring them that no one has ever been struck dead in any of my classes for speaking honestly about their reactions to what they’ve read in a “sacred text,” a few brave souls began to admit that the God of these Old Testament stories is quite different from the God they had been taught to believe in. This God frequently seems insecure, petty, unfair, and arbitrary—what’s up with that??

After a few minutes, it occurred to me that a thought experiment was in order. I said “Okay, if you don’t like the God of Genesis and Exodus, let’s work for a while on what we do want God to be and to act like. Let’s create a ‘Designer God’—you get to create God from scratch. Write in your notebooks for ten minutes on the following topic: Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics. Come up with three characteristics and explain why any God worth believing in would have to have them. Go.”

After the writing portion of the thought experiment, the students compared notes and found that the God they had just designed individually was pretty similar from person to person. As they offered their favored divine characteristics, I wrote the list on the board:

Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics:

Forgiving

Trustworthy

Understanding

Fair/Just

Loving (at least to those who deserve to be loved)

Powerful

Dependable

All-Knowing

Not a micromanager

As we discussed selected characteristics on the list, a number of issues were revealed.

Fairness and justice: The biggest problem the students had with the Old Testament God is that this is a God who plays favorites. 172663381_640[1]Any God worth believing in should treat everyone the same. “Why?” I asked. Do all of you treat everyone the same? Do you like the seven billion plus people in the world the same? Do you even like the few dozen people who you know really well the same? They had to admit that they didn’t. “Then why do you expect God to do something that you make no attempt to do?” I wondered. The students struggled for an answer other than that God is God and we’re not—the divine should be held to a higher standard than we are, although where that standard would come from other than God they weren’t sure.

images[6]Love and forgiveness: At first, the idea was that any God worth believing in should be loving. Period. “Even mass murderers, drug dealers and child abusers?” I asked. Well, several thought, we need to qualify this love thing a bit. God should love those who deserve it, or those who believe in God, but not everyone indiscriminately. Love that is equally spread everywhere without qualification is cheapened somehow. God’s love is transactional, in other words. I do this, God responds with love.

Power: Omnipotence turned out to be a big one—no God worth believing in is wimpy or weak. “But God in Genesis and Exodus is powerful and has no problem exhibiting that power on a regular basis. And you didn’t like thatomnipotent[1],” I reminded them. As it turned out, Designer God should be powerful but should not be all about using that power all the time. “When is it appropriate for God to use that divine power?” “Whenever I or my group is in trouble or needs something” was the most common response. So you want God to be like a 9-1-1 operator or a lifeline on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” That didn’t sound right, but maybe so. That led to another Designer God must-have trait.

Dependability: God needs to “be there” was the way that many students put it. “Dependable” and “trustworthy” were synonyms in this discussion. “Being there” means on call, though—the students clearly were not interested in a proactive God that demanded much of them. When things are going badly, listen up and answer my prayers. When things are going well, leave me the hell alone. No-Micromanage-150x150[1]The students were largely in agreement when I reframed this trait as a requirement that God not be a micro-manager. An overall plan for my life is fine, but I want to have a great deal of choice in terms of how I choose to find out about and pursue that plan (even freedom not to follow that plan if I so choose).

As we entered the last half hour of seminar, I asked everyone to take a mental step back and look at the list of Designer God characteristics that we had been discussing. 1834269-a-macro-of-santa-claus-face[1]Truth be told, they looked like the characteristics of a combination of a non-interfering Santa Claus and my students’ parents on a good day. Or the personality traits of the pleasant, vanilla God they had been taught to believe in. The question to ask, I suggested “What evidence is there that the God you have just designed actually exists?” Is there any evidence that these are the character traits of the divine, or are these simply a projection of what we want to believe in? A careful and clear consideration of the world we actually live in reveals that for every piece of evidence supporting the existence of the Designer God, an equally obvious piece of evidence suggests either the Designer God’s non-existence, or—perhaps more challenging—that whatever God is, God is something quite mysterious, exhibiting characteristics not on our list, and well outside our comfort zones. puppet[1]The Designer God Project was a two-hour exercise in creating God in our own image. And maybe that’s where most of us would like to stay. We’re like the Israelites in Exodus who get the shit scared out of them when God actually talks to them directly. They are very uncomfortable with the noise, the lightening, the fire, and the obvious power. Their response? “Moses, you go talk to God and tell us what God wants. We can deal with you, but don’t want to deal with that.”

The writer of Hebrews suggests that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of a living God. Something created in my own image is far more comfortable, predictable, and manageable. Forrest-Gump1[1]The uncomfortable thing about adventuring with a real God rather than hanging out with a projection of myself is that it opens the door to continual growth and surprise and blows the doors off my comfort zone. Walking with God is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

A Trip to Middle Earth

Everyone has an unforgettable teacher or two in his or her history; I aspire to be that teacher for a person or two in every class I teach. When thinking about those teachers in my own history, I usually go no farther back than my mentors in graduate school, about whom I have written occasionally on this blog.

Resembling the Picture

But as I stood in line for a movie ticket for hobbit movie“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a few weeks ago, I remembered Mrs. Lord, the wonderfully monikered teacher of my college-prep English class as a freshman in high school. We spent a lot of time with grammar (something that I think fell by the wayside in high school English classes long ago), but I remember the literature. Great Expectations, A Separate Peace, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Edgar Allen Poe short stories, “Romeo and Juliet,” just to name a few. I was well read for a ninth-grader, but had heard of neither the title nor the author of the book from that year that had the greatest influence on me. The Hobbit? I thought? What the hell is a hobbit? And why does tolkienJ. R. R. Tolkien find it necessary to have three initials rather than one first name? I don’t exactly remember the details of my original reaction to this book, but it was strong enough that after finishing it in two days, I went to Mrs. Lord after class and said “I really like this book. Has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact, yes he has,” she replied. And I was hooked for good.

This was decades pre-Amazon, and there were not a whole lot of bookstores in northeastern Vermont, so I don’t exactly recall how I got my hands on paperback copies of the three-volume The Lord of the Rings. But I did (probably my mother pulled it off—it’s the sort of thing she did behind the scenes all the time), and I feel headlong into Middle Earth. In many ways I have never fully returned. lotrStarting that year (1970), for the next three decades I read the trilogy through from cover to cover on the average of every three years. When I heard over a decade ago that a Peter Jackson was planning a trilogy film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, I was fully prepared to be a critic with the same intensity that the fundamentalists of my youth were critical of Biblical epics (“That’s not scriptural!” “That’s not in the Bible!”). But I loved the trilogy on the big screen (more than I enjoyed the unnecessary trilogy of The Hobbit), and plan to watch the fifteen-hour extended version of the trilogy I have at home straight through at least once before I die (when Jeanne’s out of town—she’s not into this hobbit/elf/dwarf/wizard/orc/ent/ringwraith stuff).

There has always been a great deal of speculation about where Tolkien got his ideas and inspiration from, beginning with the Ring of Power itself, the possession or destruction of which is the driving energy of the thousand plus pages of the epic.

Ring of powerOne Ring to rule them all

One Ring to find them

One Ring to bring them all

and in the Darkness bind them

I can’t say for sure (although I’m sure that dozens of websites would be happy to school me on this), but I know where I hope Tolkien got the idea for the Ring of Power from. As a classically trained scholar, Tolkien knew his Plato—and so he also knew that at the beginning of Book Two of his masterpiece The Republic, Plato tucked a memorable story of another insignificant nobody who found a ring with remarkable powers and corrosive effects—the Ring of Gyges.

republicThe topic of conversation in The Republic is justice broadly conceived—something more like what we would call “morality” or “right living” rather than the narrower sense of justice as equality or fairness that we contemporary folks are familiar with. The overarching question in the early pages of The Republic is “Why be moral at all?” Socrates intends to argue that being moral is natural to human beings, but before he can get started one of his conversants, Plato’s older brother Glaucon, begs to differ. Normal people, Glaucon claims, believe that human beings are not moral by nature—we are self-interested, aggressive and competitive creatures who want what we want when we want it and are willing to pursue it at any expense, including the welfare of someone else, as long as we think we can get away with it. We impose morality and law on ourselves and each other because we are afraid of each other, but being moral is an artificial state for a human being, something contrary to our basic nature.

To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the story of a lowly shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia named Gyges. One day while he is bored out of his mind tending the sheep and goats, ring of gygesGyges does a bit of exploring and finds a pretty gold ring. He has never owned anything so sparkly and shiny, so he keeps it. A few days later, as he is sitting in the middle of the weekly shepherds committee meeting with several of his colleagues, he is fiddling with his new toy and discovers that when he turns it a certain way on his finger, he turns invisible! Gyges uses his ring of invisibility as an instrument of empowerment—in short order his seduces the queen, kills the king, and becomes the ruler of Lydia. Furthermore, Glaucon argues, any person, from moral giants to lowly degenerates, would do the same thing with the ring of invisibility that Gyges did—whatever they wanted to do. And they would be fools if they did not.

The purpose of Glaucon’s story is to emphasize his point that being moral is artificial, not natural. We restrict our pursuit of self-interest because we fear what will happen if we are discovered breaking the rules of society, rules intended to keep aggressive and self-centered creatures from killing each other. We bind ourselves with the restrictions of the social contract while secretly wishing for a world in which we could do whatever we desire. gollumThe ring of invisibility opens for its wearer that very world, a world of power and opportunity—a world in which everything can be accomplished without fear of retribution or responsibility. That Tolkien’s Ring of Power turns its wearer invisible, just as Gyges’ ring does, is a telling connection to Plato’s ancient tale. But Tolkien introduces a new element—empowerment comes at a cost. Every character sucked into the vortex of the ring’s influence—wizard, elf, dwarf, hobbit or human—experiences the corrosive effect of power without responsibility. Sméagol the lowly hobbit devolves into the tortured Gollum; SarumanSaruman the White turns from a powerful force for good into an even more powerful force of destruction; kings become bodiless wraiths; once used, unlimited power is both seductive and deadly.

On the surface, the cosmic conflict that dominates The Lord of the Rings seems reducible simplistically to Good vs. Evil, a simplistic reading that makes Tolkien’s fantasy an endless source of ideas for violent video games. But lying just below the surface are the timeless questions that should obsess all of us. What are we? What is morality? Are good and evil mutually exclusive? How should we live our lives in the middle of a reality largely outside our control? Next Friday, I’ll return to the ring of power tales with the story of how I learned something twenty-five years ago from my seven-year-old son that I’ll never forget, something that forever influenced how I think about what is good and what is not.

I am not special, and neither are you

the dunkA regular occurrence at home Providence Friars basketball games is when, during one of the first media timeouts in the first half, the crowd is introduced to an armed forces veteran with local roots. As the veteran’s accomplishments in the military are read over the public address system, he or she is brought onto the court along with family to the increasing cheers of the thousands of fans in the crowd. By the time it’s over virtually everyone is on their feet, many in the student section are chanting U-S-A! U-S-A!, and a little more American exceptionalism steam has been released. usaEvery time this happens, I am reminded of a recent NPR interview with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the interviewee expressed an unexpected opinion concerning such patriotic displays. “Ever since 9/11 it has become not only typical but expected for every person in uniform to be called a hero,” the general said. “This is not a good thing. Just putting a uniform on doesn’t make anyone a hero.” His point was that indiscriminately calling every soldier a hero is not patriotic—it’s actually a dangerous mistake. If every soldier is a hero, then the military gets a free pass on everything it does. But, he went on, the military should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior than any other group of citizens. “Every soldier is a hero” is a subset of “America—Love It or Leave It” and “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

In the six-plus years of his Presidency, President Obama has often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He doesn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounds more like a request or prayer when he says it than a command or expectations. prayer breakfastSpeaking of prayers, last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, at a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, the President managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. city on a hillAlmost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And they don’t enjoy having it pointed out that they seldom, if ever, live up to the hype.

The reaction to the President’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. exceptionalismThis goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the President’s remarks. Just saying.

Exceptionalism is an example of a basic human way of understanding the world, particularly those parts of the world that directly challenge one’s own comfort zone. In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium seminar last week, our texts were two late 19th/early 20th century Christian voices responding to the social upheaval that had arisen world-wide from the Industrial Revolution that had imprinted itself in a range of ways on human society. leo xiiiPope Leo XIII and Walter Rauschenbusch agreed that the class divisions and devastating impoverishment arising from unfettered capitalism must be addressed, but disagreed sharply in their proposed prescriptions to their shared diagnosis. Leo begins his influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a clear and thorough rejection of the socialist alternative to capitalism, claiming that socialism’s proposed elimination of private property is contrary to the right of every human being to own the fruit of her or his labor, a right established by God-designed natural law. After disposing of socialism, Leo proposes a retooling of various features of capitalism while preserving its most foundational features.

In the final chapter of his 1913 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch takes a sharply different approach. rauschenbuschAlthough he does not advocate a Communist revolution as Marx and Engels had over a half century earlier, he does believe that socialism is the only possible solution to the ravages of capitalism. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch argues that both Christianity and patriotism lead directly to this conclusion.

Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it puts man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that. . . . If such a solution is even approximately feasible, it should be hailed with joy by every patriot and Christian, for it would put a stop to our industrial war, drain off the miasmatic swamp of undeserved poverty, save our political democracy, and lift the great working class to an altogether different footing of comfort, intelligence, security and moral strength.

To say that my students had a problem with Rauschenbusch here is a serious understatement. I had asked each of my eighteen sophomores to submit a 500-word reflection on the sharp disagreement between the Pope and Rauschenbusch prior to seminar. It came as no surprise that my students—seventy-five percent of whom are business or economics majors—unanimously favored Leo’s position.

But this led to a fascinating seminar discussion, in which several students incrementally realized that their real problem with Rauschenbusch was not so much his insights and arguments (which they frequently resonated with) but rather simply that his conclusion presented a Christianity and patriotism radically different from what they were accustomed to. Upon reminding them that “I disagree with X, therefore X is wrong” is a very poor argument, american sniperwe had the opportunity to evaluate both men’s arguments on their merits and for a short time see just how different the world looks from perspectives other than those we are accustomed to and comfortable with.

As I listened to a packed movie theater erupt into applause at the end of American Sniper a few days ago, I wondered why. Was the applause similar to that at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center whenever a veteran is introduced, applause that swells simply because a person in uniform is a hero who needs to be thanked for her/his service and who represents the greatest country in the world? Or did the movie viewers applaud because they resonated with the less-discussed but very clear anti-war message of the movie? It reminded me of something else from Rauschenbusch, written just before the world erupted into a war that kicked off the bloodiest century in human history:

If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake off its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat—then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.squid