Category Archives: teaching

Living Without God

God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Perhaps it is a feature of teaching at a Catholic college, but I am frequently surprised by how many of my students are convinced that the only basis for being moral is belief in a God who will hold each of us responsible after we die for what we have done during this life. I am familiar with this attitude—fire insurance policyI was raised with the Protestant version and believed that the primary reason to be a Christian is to gain an eternal fire-insurance policy. But people old enough to be a freshman or sophomore in college have undoubtedly encountered people who do not profess any sort of religious conviction and yet apparently have managed to develop working moral frameworks. When I ask my students whether it would be possible for an atheist to be moral, just about all of them admit that such a thing is possible—they just don’t know how. So I find myself faced with a continuing task each semester—exploring with my students the strange phenomenon of living a life of moral commitment and excellence without God. Or at least without the God they have in mind.

BonhoefferIn my “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester, my students’ expectations and pre-conceptions concerning the connections between moral commitment and religious faith were challenged on a regular basis. These challenges were most pressing during the weeks that we studied Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant pastor and theologian who ultimately found himself in prison awaiting execution because of his involvement in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer described the many ways in which his understanding of Christian commitment and action was changing. Lurking behind his ideas was one big question—where is God in all of this? In a letter a few weeks before his death, he wrote

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

My students found this passage challenging, to say the least. In online discussions, several expressed their sadness that this pastor, who had been such a beacon of Christian hope and light during very dark times, lost his faith in his final days of life. I responded, tentatively, that Bonhoeffer had not lost his faith—but this was a very different sort of faith than my students were accustomed to.the bell

Bonhoeffer’s striking statement reminds me of the predicament that Michael Meade, a character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, finds himself in. Michael has an intense desire for God and the transcendent, seeking at various times to become a priest and, when that fails, to create the lay religious community that is at the heart of the novel. Throughout his life, Michael has considered himself “called” to service to God and has sought for patterns and signs that confirm his “calling.” Unfortunately, as with most of us, these signs and patterns turn out to be idolatrous projections of his own self-centered hopes and dreams. When the lay religious community fails and several of the members come to tragic ruin, including a man’s suicide for which Michael considers himself at least partially responsible, Michael is understandably on the brink of despair and suicide himself. As he seeks in the midst of ruin, for the first time in his life, to look at himself and at God cleanly and without preconceptions, he comes to hard conclusions.

The pattern which he had seen in his life had existed only in his own romantic imagination. At the human level there was no pattern. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” belief in godAnd as he felt, bitterly, the grimness of these words, he put it to himself: there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.

Michael has come for the first time in his life to see the need for “dying to self,” for removing himself from the center of the universe and insisting that the world must “make sense.” God’s existence has not been threatened by the deconstruction of Michael’s hopes and dreams, but the “belief system,” the vocabulary, through which he has defined and described God has been destroyed. Michael’s God, in other words, has died.

At the end of the novel, Michael reflects and takes stock. Rather than fill the resulting vacuum with yet another projection of himself onto the transcendent, Michael chooses to let the vast gap between himself and the Other remain, at least for the present, in all its power and rawness. God has not died, but Michael’s conception of God has. And at least for now, this is a good thing. The rituals that were once consoling and uplifting remain as a reminder of his true situation.

No sharp sense of his own needs drove him to make supplication. He looked about him with the calmness of the ruined man. But what did, from his former life, remain to him was the Mass. . . . The Mass remained, not consoling, not uplifting, but in some way factual. It contained for him no assurance that all would be made well that was not well. It simply existed as a kind of pure reality separate from the weaving of his own thoughts. . . . Writualhoever celebrated it, the Mass existed and Michael existed beside it. He made no movement now, reached out no hand. He would have to be found and fetched or else he was beyond help.

Sad? Yes. Regrettable? Undoubtedly. But Michael has chosen to see if, for at least a period of time, he can refrain from creating the transcendent in his own image. Perhaps when he begins again, he’ll be more aware of the contingency of all transcendent language.

When Bonhoeffer writes that The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us, he is recognizing, as Michael Meade recognized, that all of our imaginings about what God must be and will do are human constructs guaranteed to disappoint and fail. Living in the world “without the working hypothesis of God,” embracing God’s existence without confining God to the limits of human belief, may seem to leave commitment to moral principles and behavior without a foundation. le chambonBut this need not be the case. Magda Trocme, one of the leaders of the rescue efforts in the little village of Le Chambon where thousands of refugees, Jewish and otherwise, were successfully hidden from the Gestapo and Vichy police during the dark years of World War Two, is a case in point.

Magda’s husband, Andre, was the dynamic Protestant pastor in Le Chambon whose powerful and eloquent sermons inspired his congregation to live out their faith in real time in the face of prison- and life-threatening dangers. Magda had no patience for theologicalmagda niceties and regularly scoffed at the notion that her astounding generosity and fearless hospitality made her a “saint” or even morally special. She just did what needed to be done and facilitated the efforts of others to do the same, addressing every human need within her power to address no matter who the human in need happened to be. I have studied the Le Chambon phenomenon a great deal and have used the story of this remarkable village in class many times. But it was not until a week ago while reading a new study of the village that I encountered Magda saying anything about God. In her unpublished memoirs, now in the archives at Swarthmore College, Magda provides her definition of God:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

And that, for Magda, was sufficient for her to be one of the most remarkable moral exemplars I have ever encountered. And, I would argue, it is a sufficient foundation for moral goodness. Who knew it could be that simple?

philosophy gene

When Logic Fails

mind-body problemMy novel of the week is Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem. I first encountered Goldstein over the past few weeks when I plowed through her most recent work, Plato at the Googleplex, a creative and insightful insertion of Plato into various twenty-first century venues in an attempt—successful—to establish that the timeless questions of philosophy remain as relevant today as they were in the days of Socrates. The book came highly recommended from the President of my college who also is a fine philosopher—I’m grateful for the heads up. The Mind-Body Problem is Goldstein’s earliest work of fiction (from thirty years ago); something tells me that there’s a lot of autobiography in it. Renee Feuer is a brilliant graduate student in philosophy at Princeton (where Goldstein earned her PhD in philosophy) who at a party meets, then subsequently marries, Noam Himmel, a world-renowned mathematician who made his name in the field at the age of twelve. Academic high jinx ensue of the sort that can only be fully described by an academic and probably only fully understood and appreciated by other academics. mind-bodyI’m enjoying the story immensely, but wonder to what extent my enjoyment might be that of an insider.

Chapter Five (“Reality”) might be a test case. Packed into thirty-five pages are a spirited debate between Renee’s best friend Ava (a physicist) and Noam about the nature of logic and what is real, a fine overview of the mind-body problem and what’s at stake in its various proposed solutions provided by Renee, a depressingly accurate description of what it is like to try to find a job at the annual apaAmerican Philosophical Association Eastern Division convention, a neat schematic fitting Descartes in relation to his philosophical heirs Spinoza and Leibniz, a brief foray into the mind-numbing world of linguistic analysis and logical positivism, and a quick overview of Noam’s favorite philosophical argument: “Himmel’s Proof for the Nonidentity of a Person with His Body.” “Reality” touched base with areas in philosophy that I used to be smack in the middle of but have strayed away from over the years. But I loved it—it felt like I was back in some of my graduate seminars at Marquette and enjoyed remembering some of the philosophical issues—particularly Descartes and the mind-body problem—that sucked me into the philosophical vortex so many years ago. A great way to spend an hour waiting for my delayed plane to Toronto at Logan Airport.

I suspect, however, that my enjoyment of this novel would not be shared by some, perhaps most, of the literate novel-reading public. Many would find “Reality” mind-numbingly obscure and insufferably boring. I know this because my lovely wife is one of these “many.” As shocking as it may seem, not everyone gets pumped up by philosophical puzzles and arguments about whether idealism, materialism, or dualism provides the most reasonable approach to the mind-body problem. Iphilosophy gene have been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and take great pride in my ability to seduce even the most recalcitrant philosophy-phobes into my world. But not everyone has what I call the “philosophy gene.” Some people just don’t get the point—or they do get the point and find it to be about as interesting and stimulating as watching paint dry. My suspicion is that most people are inclined genetically either toward or against academic philosophy. Chapter Five of The Mind-Body Problem would be a good test for the philosophy gene. If the neophyte makes it through the chapter intrigued and fascinated (even if she doesn’t “get” all of it), she’s a philosophy major in the making. If she doesn’t make it past the first couple of pages before glazing over, she isn’t.

I ran into this sort of thing the other day in the midst of a seemingly benign Facebook discussion. An acquaintance of an acquaintance contributed the following: I have always said that the academic discipline of philosophy is essentially mental masturbation. That makes philosophy majors a bunch of wankers. mental masturbtionWell that was not very nice. What follows is a verbatim transcription of my back-and-forth with this guy (note, please, that I care more about spelling and sentence structure in my Facebook communication than he does).

    • Me: Really, XXXXX? Here’s what philosophy academics do:…/ [Notice how deftly I snuck in a plug for my blog]
    • Him: none of that really has anything to do with the price of potatoes. I have in my experience found philosphy majors and grad students to be insufferable bullshit artists incapable of making a concise point or acknowledging practical realities. philosophers_on_strikeThe products of the discipline stand as proof that otherwise intelligent people can think themselves into stupidity.
  • Me: XXXXX, what do you know about the academic discipline of philosophy?
  • Him: Well lets see I was forced to suffer through a number of courses in the discipline as part of my curriculum at Tulane, along with a number of related courses such as political theory (gag!) and international relations theory (gag! vomit!) literary theory (gagvomit was that a little blood I just puked up?)
  • Me: None of the last three courses you listed are “philosophy” in the academic sense. Sorry that you had a bad experience as a student–it hardly qualifies you, however, to make a blanket statement such as “the academic discipline of philosophy is essentially mental masturbation.” You’ll need to be part of the discipline for twenty-five years teaching and writing as I have before you earn the right to that opinion.
  • Him: no I took some philosophy courses as well. not teaching it for 25 years doesnt make it any less clear that it is mental masturbation. in fact I would wager that I see it far more clearly
  • Me: An impossible wager for you to back up. But I stand corrected under the weight of your vast experience and insight. Except that your point was made on the basis of anecdotal evidence–something that a return to Logic 101 would perhaps cure. [According to the handy “Ten Commandments of Logic,” so far the guy has violated commandments 1, 3, 6 and 9].1483220_718769974810683_97803309_n (2)
  • Him: no, the anecdotal evidence just supports the logical conclusion. But as the great philosopher Spock once said: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” although while we’re talking about logic 101 you might want to look up “Appeal to Authority” fallacies

Please note that even though “Appeal to Authority” is considered to be a logical fallacy, it is not included in the “Ten Commandments of Logic.” Furthermore, when the authority cited is me, it is not a fallacy at all. :-)

But to be honest, my initial and continuing attraction to the strange and wonderful world of philosophy has little to do with logical rigor. Rebecca Goldstein expresses it well. The process of philosophy always reminds me of fireworks. One question is shot up and bursts into a splendorous many. Answers? Forget answers. The spectacle is all in the questions.fireworks

Giotto lamentation

The Weight of this Sad Time

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Shakespeare, King Lear

Last week I spent a couple of mornings and part of an afternoon participating in a faculty end-of-the-year workshop held annually for the honors faculty. It is always held the week after Commencement; with sabbatical just around the corner, I considered not attending this year. Cost of DiscipleshipBut the two morning seminars were on King Lear and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, two worthy texts that should be on everyone’s top whatever list. That, along with a reasonable stipend, was enough for me to sign up.

The King Lear seminar, led by a Shakespeare scholar from the English department, was a welcome return to a text that I find both strikingly dark and strangely compelling every time I read it. I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other author (certainly more insightful than any philosopher I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy for a couple of years. tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]As it always does, the play blew me away, disturbed me, and left me wondering whether my colleagues might find some glimmers of hope and redemption that have always escaped me.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. Furthermore, Shakespeare sets the play in an early England that as yet has not been “Christianized”—typical and familiar moralizing and redemptive language is as out of place here as it would have been in Ancient Greece or Rome. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.”imagesCAOCS0RP Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods;

They kill us for their sport.

Lear 2008My colleagues and I ended two morning hours of seminar and another afternoon hour by viewing the final act of the play on screen with the 2008 version starring Ian MacKellan as Lear. It is a stark production with Beckett-like sparse staging toward the end. As character after character dies—Lear’s three daughters, the evil Edmund, and ultimately Lear himself—and the stage is littered with corpses, the play ends with Edgar’s final lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Fade to black. The seminar leader asked us for our feelings, our impressions of what we had just viewed, and for the first time in thirty years in academia I heard something I’ve never before heard when in the presence of twenty scholars: total silence. In obedience to Edward’s directive, no one felt obligated to say anything that “should” be said; at least for a minute or two, we were not professors ready to discuss the next topic to death, Auschwitzbut human beings stunned into silence by Shakespeare’s brilliant and disabling portrayal of a meaningless and hopeless world.

I was reminded of one of the final classes in my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester. My colleague Ray was up front andeyeglasses ended the two-hour session with footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The students were exposed to a variety of tough material, both in writing and on the screen, throughout the semester, but this particular footage was especially difficult to watch. There was no narration, no voice over, just hundreds of emaciated dead bodies stacked like so much wood, rooms filled to the ceiling with eyeglasses, hair, or shoes. Bulldozers pushing piles of bodies into a pit for burial just as they would push garbage into a pit at a landfill. suvivorsAnd perhaps most horrific of all were the close-ups on the faces of the just-liberated prisoners who were still barely alive. The haunting and empty gazes still float through my memory and probably will never leave. At the end of the several minute montage there was dead silence in the room. Ray wisely made no comment and simply turned off the computer and AV system, then began gathering his books and notes. This was the cue for the rest of us to do the same, and we left the room in silence.

This would have probably been the appropriate conclusion to the King Lear seminar the other day as well. But after what seemed like a very long silence, someone made a comment, then someone else followed up, and pretty soon we were doing what academics do in every context and setting—talking. Several people referenced the silence that preceded the talking and began to analyze what it was about both the play and the film adaptation that caused us not to say anything. speak what we feelBut with Edgar’s final lines in mind, our first reaction was most in keeping with “Speak what we feel”—except that our feelings were, at least for a few moments, deeper than words could express. Once we started putting what we felt into words, it was very easy to shift into “what we ought to say,” and the powerful moment was lost.Greenberg

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. And, as Irving Greenberg writes in Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, if we feel that something must be said, we need to be very careful about what it is.

The Holocaust challenges the claims of all the standards that compete for modern man’s loyalties.  Nor does it give simple, clear answers or definitive solutions.  To claim that it does is not to take the burning children seriously…Giotto lamentationLet us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological, or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

Two Plus Two Makes Four

In J. M. Coetzee’s strange and fascinating novel The Childhood of Jesus, the precocious child David has a difficult time understanding numbers. Oh, he knows their names but is not inclined to put them in the order that the rules of mathematics specify. Nor is he inclined to accept the rules guiding any accepted human behavior—he wants to live in a world in which things are valuable and right to the extent that he likes them, and he is not willing to arrange numbers in the proper sequence that everyone agrees upon. After one too many patient attempts to steer David toward conformity, his guardian Símon sputters coetzee“The answer to all your Why? questions, past, present and future is: Because that is the way the world is. The world was not made for our convenience, my young friend. It is up to us to fit in.”

This business of knowing when to fit in and when to creatively resist expectations is a lifelong challenge that all of us grapple with on a daily basis. At the heart of that challenge lie questions so fundamental that they literally shape our reality. Is the search for truth more like a treasure hunt or a creative, artistic process? Is meaning something to be found or to be made? Tentative answers to these questions frame one’s encounter with both oneself and the outside world. As Plato famously suggested, it is difficult to imagine meaning as the target of an open search, since I won’t know if I’ve discovered the goal of the search unless I already have a sense of what I’m looking for. But if meaning is something that each of us creates throughout the process of our lives, what hope is there for shared meaning, for truths that are not just mine but everyone’s in common?

Although both by nature and philosophical preference I am more of a “creative process” than “treasure hunt” sort of person when it comes to engagement with meaning and truth, I spent this past semester exploring a seminal text in philosophy written by one of the most eloquent advocates of the “treasure hunt” model in the Western tradition. Plato’s Republic is, among many other things, an extended development of the idea that Truth is objective, that meaning is something to be found, not created, and that enlightenment is a life-long process of being freed from the clutches of our ego-driven subjective “truths” in order to slowly discover what “Truth” really is. plato geometryPlato’s paradigm for Truth is mathematics, a discipline that with its objective principles and rules exposes the truth-seeker to a world in which what is true is not up to me but is available to those who are willing to commit themselves to “the sight of the Truth.” Plato makes an extended argument that moral values and virtues properly understood exhibit the precision, certainty and objectivity of mathematics. Indeed, mathematics is Plato’s exemplar of the nature of truth; he insisted that only those who love geometry could enter his Academy, because it is through study of mathematics that one becomes accustomed to the nature of all truth.

If my students this past semester—actually, over the past twenty-five years—are an accurate sampling, Plato’s commitment to the objectivity of truth is strongly opposed to our contemporary intuitions. As I often do, I introduced the problem early in the semester with a simple question about a couple of basic truth claims. I wrote two sentences on the board,Mona_Lisa

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

then asked for observations about what makes these truth claims different. Within short order the students point out that A is objectively true (as are all mathematical truths), while B is subjectively true (as are all aesthetic claims). If someone denies the truth of A, we assume that either that person doesn’t know the basic rules of arithmetic, is deliberately being a contrarian, or simply is nuts. If someone denies the truth of B, however, no problem—there’s a reason why we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” after all.

Then I move to the point of the exercise by writing a third truth claim on the board.values

C. X is right (good) and Y is wrong (bad).

X and Y can be anything that people are inclined to make value judgments about. I simply ask “Is C more like A or like B?’ When we venture into the realm of moral truth claims, in other words, have we entered a realm more like mathematics or art? Objective or subjective? Finding or creating? In twenty-five years of teaching, students have overwhelmingly given the same answer—moral truth claims and judgments are more like B than A. Morality is subjective rather than objective, in other words. In my Plato’s Republic class last semester, only two students out of twenty-five present claimed that moral claims are objectively true—and they were both Catholic seminarians.

When I asked the other twenty-three students—many of whom were the products of Catholic primary and secondary education—why they bundled moral and value truth claims together with aesthetic claims as subjective, most zeroed in on the problem of moral disagreement.moral disagreement Essentially their argument was that since people disagree significantly across the board about every moral issue imaginable, and given the apparent absence of any authoritative perspective from which it could be judged who is right and who is wrong, moral disagreement looks a lot more like the Mona Lisa squabble than whether two plus two equals four or five. The real problem is that, unlike mathematics, there is no working and accepted objective standard to which one can appeal when trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong in a moral disagreement. Rather than do the difficult and challenging work of seeking objective standards, it is much easier to assume there are no such standards in morality (except perhaps extreme tolerance) and place moral truth claims in the subjective category. We get to create them ourselves without being answerable to an objective standard—because there isn’t any such standard. Let the discussion begin.

the plagueIn The Plague, a central and early text in another one of my classes this past semester, Albert Camus raises the possibility that despite the apparent subjectivity of moral claims, there comes a time when one must hang on to moral commitments with the tenacity of two plus two equals four.

Again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.

Here the narrator of The Plague is commenting on the “sanitation squads” in the novel who, rather than hiding from an apparently random and incurable plague that is sweeping across their city, taking the lives of hundreds of their fellow citizens per day, choose to embrace the basic moral task of facing the danger head on, putting their own lives at risk in the service of making the suffering of others slightly less intense and their environment slightly less dangerous. When asked why they have taken on such a thankless task, the members of the sanitation squad always answer with mathematical simplicity. Some things just need to be done. And sometimes what needs to be done is as obvious as the truth of two plus two equals four. the white rose“But what you are doing may very well lead to your death,” someone might object. “So be it.”

Camus’ point is strengthened significantly when considering that The Plague is not just a powerful work of fiction but is also a multi-layered allegory. Published in 1947, the bulk of the novel was written during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, with the various characters in the novel representing the different reactions of French citizens to totalitarianism, the loss of their freedoms, and the extermination of undesirables. kolbeThose who, as did the sanitation squads, chose to address the Nazi plague in the face of overwhelming odds of failure are those who recognized that even in a moral world turned upside down, sometimes the truth and what is right are as obvious as a simple sum in arithmetic. We studied a number of such people during our “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium; many of them—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the members of the White Rose, Maximillian Kolbe, and others—lost their lives for daring to insist that two plus two makes four, just as Camus described. But that doesn’t change the fact that even in the world of morals and values, some things are as clear as mathematical truths. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Justifying My Existence

It is unsettling, even scary, to relinquish who we think we are, and scary to stop clinging to what we have and what we do. Henri Nouwen

As I picked up my bag to walk to the gym, then to the office for a few hours of work, I said “I’m off to justify my existence for the day!” The idea of such daily justification comes from my father who, when he was at home rather than on the road travelling, used to ask my brother and me as we stepped into the house after school justify“What did you do today to justify your existence on this planet?” He always had a smile on his face when he said it, but there were serious undertones to the question. The challenge to not just be a piece of furniture in the room, not just to occupy space, but to prove my worth on a daily basis has stuck with me ever since. Jeanne’s response to my announcement was to laugh and say “You don’t have to do anything to justify your existence!” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not so sure.

I can talk a good talk about why, despite the Protestant work ethic and stereotypical American focus on action and productivity that pervades our culture, who one is does not amount to the same thing as what one does. chittisterAs Joan Chittister writes, humility is “the strength to separate our sense of the meaning of life from what we do.” One should work to live, after all, not live to work. I am not, however, nearly as good at walking the walk. This has become more and more obvious as I move into sabbatical mode. Within a month I will no longer be a program director, something that has consumed me as a second full-time job for the past four years. I will not be a full-time teacher for the next sixteen months, uncharted territory for someone who believes he was born to be a professor. I’ve been telling everyone who would listen for several years that the biggest thing that being an administrator, first four years as department chair, then four more as a program director, has taken away from me is writing. But this is not entirely true. I actually have been writing a lot over the past almost-three-years on this blog—close to 300,000 words worth of writing (enough for three 250-or-so page books). What I have not done for close to a decade is academic writing of the sort that an academic must do in order to get promoted and tenured. Why? Because I don’t have to. Nor do I want to. button_tenurepromotionTenure and the last promotion came a long time ago, well before the last decade of administration piled on top of teaching. I no longer need to write and publish the sort of thing that one needs to write and publish in order to earn tenure and promotion, and this is a good thing since I don’t want to write that sort of thing and haven’t wanted to for some time.

What this means, going into sabbatical, is that for the first time in my professional life—actually for the first time in my adult life—the pressure is off. I’m being paid to be on sabbatical—undoubtedly a rare gift pretty much exclusive to the world of academia. And I’m not sure how to handle that. Over the past few years I have taken baby steps in the direction of trusting the world around me to show me what’s next rather than imposing my own expectations and structures on what’s next. sabbaticalBut they are only baby steps, insufficient to guide my plans for sabbatical. Beginning around this time last year I started planning for sabbatical by doing the usual things—setting up a series of appointments with our very helpful director of sponsored research, sending out proposals both for residential and non-residential sabbatical projects, and so on. For several months in late 2014 I waited to see what I would be doing and where I would be going on sabbatical. The response to all of my proposals? “Thanks, but no thanks.” Other than the lovely form rejection letters in various forms, I received no feedback other than “we don’t want to fund you doing that.” By the time the rejections arrived the spring semester had started, so other than a few “what the fuck??” moments, I didn’t have the time to think much about the implications until the past couple of weeks. I have plenty to work on and write about—three book projects, no less—but the usual routes to where that will happen and when have been dead ends. Now what?

Isaiah 6I was lector yesterday morning at church for the first time in months, and in one of those unexpected moments of synchronicity that I’ve noticed more and more frequently over the past several years my assigned Old Testament reading was one of my favorites from the Jewish scriptures, the call of Isaiah. As I read it from the lectern the story had immediate resonance. Isaiah has a vision of the divine throne room, where six-winged seraphim fly about and cry “Holy, holy, holy!” 24/7. After Isaiah expresses his utter unworthiness at being present for such a glorious spectacle, an angel takes a live coal with tongs from the altar and, laying it on Isaiah’s lips, says “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Now you are ready, in other words. God itself asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me.” A risky thing to do, opening oneself up to whatever might come. Isaiah’s mission starts by saying “I’m ready for whatever.” Scary business, but I’ll give it a shot.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, tells the brief story of a woman’s last hours before death. franklLying on her filthy cot in the barracks, the woman spoke briefly with Frankl.

“I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

I am here—I am life. Maybe that’s enough. At least it’s a start.

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost this Sunday is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.



Are Philosophers Hypocrites? (Or are they just normal human beings?)

atlanticUpon returning home the other day I noticed that this month’s copy of The Atlantic had arrived. One of the headlines on the cover was “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” a title I brought to Jeanne’s attention. “Yeah,” she mentioned, “and there’s also an article in there about you philosophers being immoral.” Thinking that this might be the article about being a jerk, I looked it up in the Table of Contents. But no—“Why It Pays to Be a Jerk” is one of the lead articles, while “Philosophers are Hypocrites (and ethicists are less than totally ethical)” gets its own brief three-column spread under a monthly category entitled “Study of Studies.” As both a professional philosopher and an occasional jerk, I was intrigued. I discovered some interesting survey findings about philosophers and academics at large.

  • red meatSixty percent of a couple hundred ethicists interviewed in one study rated eating red meat as “morally bad,” but only 27 percent said they didn’t regularly eat red meat. Not that I was surveyed, but I stopped eating red meat six or seven years ago. As soon as chickens and turkeys are reclassified as plants, I’ll be all set.
  • Ethicists and political philosophers were no more likely to vote than other kinds of professors, nor were ethicists more likely to donate blood or register as organ donors. And your point is? Plato, one of the greatest political philosophers ever, claims that the more one knows, the less likely one is to willingly participate in the political process. And maybe the reluctant ethicists are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • Compared with other philosophy texts, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were roughly 50 percent more likely to be permanently missing. vice and virtueLots of assumptions here. I presume that some of the “contemporary ethics books” under discussion are the sorts of anthologies that applied ethics professors such as I use in their undergraduate courses, anthologies that undergo unnecessary revisions ever two or three years so that the authors can make more money and thoroughly annoy their colleagues who now have to revise the page numbers in their syllabi. And why, I might add, do such authors always find it necessary to remove the one or two articles or stories I find most useful from the previous edition and replace them with a bunch of crap I’ll never use (usually written by the author of the anthology)?
  • Philosophers are vulnerable to biases. One study found that, compared with introverted peers, extroverted experts in philosophy and psychology were more likely to hold certain beliefs about free will. Here my finely honed skills as a critical reader kick in—doesn’t everyone hold “certain beliefs about free will”? Maybe it would be helpful to specify which certain beliefs extroverted philosophers and psychologists are more likely to hold about free will than my fellow introverts and I hold. introvertWhatever those beliefs are, I’ll be they are both offensive and wrong. I find that extroverts often are.
  • People with advanced philosophy degrees answered a pair of ethical questions differently depending on which was posed first. Which, I suspect, means that contrary to all appearances and to popular opinion, people with advanced philosophy degrees are still normal human beings when they are not on the clock.
  • People with damage to their brain’s prefrontal cortex tended to have an abnormally “utilitarian” pattern of judgments on moral dilemmas. I always wondered what was wrong with John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer.
  • Compared with everyone else, philosophers seem to be worse about calling their mothers. call motherMy mother has been gone for twenty-seven years and never lived to see me earn my PhD and embark on my career as a philosophy professor. So I wouldn’t know. Maybe the mothers of philosophers have asked their children not to call so often because they hear enough about Heraclitus and Foucault at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Anyone who thinks that earning an advanced degree of any sort somehow transforms the degree-earner automatically into a clearer thinking and more consistent human being needs to spend ten minutes in a Faculty Senate or academic department meeting on any college or university campus anywhere. PlatoPlato once famously claimed that “to know the good is to do the good”—in other words, that knowledge and moral behavior are intimately connected. Upon hearing this claim for the first time, my undergraduate students quickly identify it as refined bullshit. Just ask how many people in any given room have ever known what the right thing to do is and chose to do something else just because they felt like it and watch every hand go up. Plato’s claim that all evil is energized by a perceived, but mistaken good leads him to argue for the proper education as a firewall against doing the wrong thing.

But no amount of education of any sort is a guarantee against bad and immoral behavior. The PhD wielding ethicist is no more likely to be a moral exemplar than an ordained minister, priest, rabbi or imam is guaranteed to be a model of virtue, just as being a doctor does not guarantee one is likely to live a healthy lifestyle. Nor is a great deal of education even necessary for moral excellence, let alone sufficient. Just think about the persons in your history who were or are both short on formal education and high on moral integrity. akrasiaThe ancient Greeks knew about akrasia, weakness of the will—the tendency not to do the right thing even when you know what it is. Various Christian groups like to call this original sin. Plato denied the existence of akrasia, claiming that “no one goes willingly toward the bad,” but even the smartest people can be wrong on a regular basis.

So if training in philosophy and ethics does not produce better people, what is philosophy good for? Lots of things; in the present context, for instance, a trained ethicist is not hired by a hospital or corporation to provide a model of how to live so much as to identify moral complexities, uncover moral issues where no one even suspected there were any, and to provide insight and guidance on how to walk through the minefields of conflicting interests and goods that each of us finds ourselves in on a daily basis. ethicistThe ethicist, rather than simplifying and clarifying, often will make choices and actions more difficult by digging below the surface of moral platitudes and revealing that life almost never provides us with neat, “yes or no, good or bad, right or wrong” binaries. It’s a lot more interesting and complicated than that. An ethicist should at least be able to do the above as well as provide her students or clients with some tools that will help. If not, you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

I have spent close to three decades studying, thinking about and teaching ethics and find that while all of it helps me think moral issues through more clearly than I would without my training, none of it makes me a better person—that requires commitments and energies that learning does not provide—or even guarantees sharper moral vision. tough nutFor instance, I have probably worked on the capital punishment issue two dozen times with students in classes over the years. It’s a tough philosophical nut to crack, and I’m convinced that the anti-capital punishment and anti-death penalty arguments are the strongest. And yet if someone murdered Jeanne or another member of my family, I very well might not only want that person dead but would be happy to administer the injection or pull the switch myself. Does that make me a hypocrite? No, it makes me a human being seeking to live with integrity in a challenging world. If nothing else, philosophy lets me know just how difficult that is.

second hand books

Cracked Spines

FacebookAlthough I suppose the whole point of being on Facebook is to be noticed, I always have a brief twinge of angst when someone tags me in a Facebook post. The other day one of my colleagues and friends did just that, providing a web link and commenting “Many will like this list, especially Vance Morgan.”

99 Book Nerd Problems

I’d like to say that I can’t imagine why someone would think that I would be the least bit interested in Barnes & Noble’s list of “99 Book Nerd Problems,” but my colleague was right. At least half of the items on the list were very familiar, some uncomfortably so. cracked spineIn no particular order . . .

Cracked spines. I was recently told in the results of the “What type of book are you?” Buzzfeed quiz that

What Kind of Book Are You?

You are a second-hand book! Sure, you’re a little tattered around the edges, and you might not smell the freshest. But that doesn’t matter: People are so blown away by your wit and wisdom that they want to share your words with everybody they know. Whether you’re handed from one friend to another or discovered on a travel lodge bookshelf, you bring the magic everywhere you go.

This is not true. Oh, I’m down with the wisdom and wit stuff, and I only need to look in the mirror in the morning to be reminded that I’m getting “a little tattered around the edges.” But I am not a second-hand book. Why? Because I do not like second hand booksused books—at least books that look like they are used.

“Cracked spines” sounds like a problem shared by book geeks and chiropractors. One of the early signs, twenty-five years ago, that my attraction to the beautiful redhead whom I eventually would move in with and marry was not going to be all puppies and roses was when I observed her reading a paperback for the first time. She picked it up, opened it in the middle, and bent the pages back so far with both hands that she creased the spine. I know this is hard to believe, but some people actually read books this way. I have spent a lifetime doing everything I can to make sure that my books look just as new on the exterior when I’m done with them as when I started—but not Jeanne. This is why over the past two and a half decades I have, more often than not, spent the extra money on hardback editions of books. A sturdier spine, along with dust jackets that cover a multitude of sins, has largely solved a problem that could have been a deal breaker. And they look impressive on our bookshelves.

PC-magazine-Spring-2014-coverLast summer a colleague in Publications on campus contacted me wanting to borrow some books. The summer edition of the quarterly alumni magazine was to contain various articles about the rejuvenated version of the Development of Western Civilization program that I direct; we are just concluding our first full academic year in the new DWC. Vicki-Ann mentioned several typical texts from the program—The Aeneid, The Bible, Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy and others—wondering “do you have a copy of any of these that we could borrow for a few days? We’d like to take a picture for the magazine of some of the texts used in the program.” “I have at least five versions of each of them,” I replied. “Knock yourself out.” In short order a student assistant materialized at my office to pick the books up. Later in the day Vicki-Ann sent me an email: “Do you have copies of any of these books that look like they have been used?” “No.” I can’t help it if my frequently read texts are indistinguishable on the outside from books sold back at the end of the year by students who never opened them. That’s just the way that I am.

Hand-wringing articles that claim nobody reads anymore. Just the other day a headline shouted from my computer screen that TWENTY-NINE PERCENT OF AMERICANS DID NOT READ A SINGLE BOOK LAST YEAR! Really? I find that about as hard to believe as I would find a headline screaming TWENTY-NINE PERCENT OF AMERICANS DID NOT GO TO THE BATHROOM LAST YEAR! hard to believe. achillesBut then I read comments on various articles and posts on-line, find out about the guy who failed to win thousands of dollars on Wheel of Fortune because he could not correctly pronounce the word “Achilles” when it was fully spelled out in front of him on the ‘big board,” and my disbelief begins to dissipate. Who are these people? Everybody I know not only reads, but most of them are book geeks. Of course that is not surprising, given what I do for a living and who I spend my days with. Nobody I know doesn’t read. But wait . . .nobooks

“I’m really not much of a reader”­—Caleb Morgan, oldest son of book geek Vance Morgan.

This is a shocking development. My youngest son, Justin, has his face in a book almost as often as I do. Jeanne, who was not a book geek when we met twenty-five years ago, became an honorary book geek many years ago just from breathing the same air as I breathe for long enough. But Caleb is not a reader. How did this happen? Lest you think I was a complete and total failure as a parent, Caleb is successful, happily married, has an extraordinarily full life, jets back and forth with his wife Alisha to Germany three or four times per year, sends out dozens of texts and emails per day, runs his own tattoo school, and falls asleep sprawled in front of the TV in the evening on the rare occasions when he’s actually home in the evening. How on earth does he find the time to do all of this? I know, I know—he’s “really not much of a reader” and spends the millions of hours I spend buried in a book doing something else. Books shelfShut up.

I have a number of other book geek problems that will be the focus of future posts. But at least one of the problems identified in the B & N article is not one that I struggle with.

Family members who don’t respect my shelving protocol. There aren’t any. They know better.

Fixing and Healing

My doctor says that I am his most boring patient, because there is never anything wrong with me. I show up for my yearly appointment, my blood pressure is good, my weight fluctuates within a five pound range, my blood work is always fine—my only complaints are spring allergies, for which he says Claritin“take Claritin,” and occasional sciatica problems, for which he suggests that I should stretch more. I have never been in a hospital overnight except when I was born, and I don’t remember that. But Jeanne has had a number of things that have needed attention over the years, including back problems. One time as she suffered with excruciating back pain, a co-worker suggested that she get in touch with his father, Peter, who runs a chiropractic/acupuncture/Eastern medicine establishment within an hour’s drive of Providence. Peter’s business card says “Japanese Body Balance Shoppe and Acupuncture Clinic.” Jeanne has always been far more adventurous when body balanceit comes to medical treatments than I am, so she immediately made an appointment and I went along for the ride.

Peter’s treatment was so successful in just one session that he has become our “go to” guy for just about everything. I even started getting “tune ups” with Peter after which, although I went in feeling fine, I came out feeling a lot better than fine. When I fell walking my dachshunds and jammed my shoulder badly a couple of summers ago, I am convinced that a session with Peter is what saved me from surgery. Jeanne and I revere Peter’s almost-mystical abilities so much after several years we talk about him as if he would have been a great healing partner for jesus healingJesus had he lived two thousand years ago.

Peter is a child of the sixties as Jeanne and I are; over time we have learned a lot of his life story, including how he as a Westerner became a trained practitioner of Eastern healing arts. He told us once of a horrible automobile accident he was in during his twenties that he barely survived, with dozens of broken bones and damaged internal organs. Skilled doctors and surgeons were able to fuse and stitch him back together, but he lived in excruciating pain until on a friend’s advice and with nothing to lose he tried some “alternative” Eastern treatments. And they worked—so well that subsequently he lived with his Japanese wife in Japan for several years training as an apprentice, tSotaihen becoming a master of “Sotai,” a method of treatment I can only describe as a mixture of acupuncture, chiropracty, and aroma therapy. Peter puts his journey this way: “Western medicine saved my life, and Eastern medicine gave me my life back.” Western medicine fixed Peter, in other words, and Eastern medicine healed him.

This business of “healers” has been on my mind a great deal over the past couple of weeks. My teaching partner and I spent all of final exam week running half-hour oral examinations for the thirty-seven sophomores in our “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium—a marathon of conversations that both wore us out and  were well worth the time and energy commitment. oral examI’ve often said that I can learn more in a half-hour oral exam about what a student knows and what that student will take away from the class than from reading a twenty-page final paper or two-hour written final exam. This latest round of oral exams was no exception. We provided the students with four comprehensive questions ranging across topics and texts throughout the semester and told them that we would begin each oral examination conversation with the question of their choice, with the caveat that we might intersect with any or all of the remaining questions by the end of their half hour, depending on how the conversation developed. One of the questions focused on a passage toward the end of The plagueCamus’ The Plague, a conversation between two characters–Rieux and Tarrou–that we had frequently referenced throughout the semester. In this conversation,  Tarrou says that

All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it is up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences . . . We should grant a third category: that of the true healers. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. . . . I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace.

With this passage in mind, one of the four possible questions a student might choose to begin their oral exam was

Throughout this semester we have been witness to the truth of Tarrou’s words that there are only pestilences and victims, and in a few cases, healers.  In your opinion, what exactly constitutes a true healer and in looking back over the materials you have read or viewed, who would you identify as a true healer and why?

Probably a dozen or so students chose this question as the starting point for their exam, and their thinking about it produced a range of fruitful and interesting possibilities. As various persons from our semester’s work—trocmesAndre and Magda Trocme, Sophie and Hans Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximillian Kolbe—were mentioned as examples of healers and an informal list of characteristics shared by healers was generated, several questions were raised. What human problems or maladies are a healer’s energies directed toward? Is a person born a healer, or is “healer” something to which all of might (and should) aspire? If the latter, what might be the beginning steps in the direction of becoming a healer?

In the midst of fascinating and insightful discussions, students often focused on a personal story that my teaching colleague Ray used during one of my February lectures to illustrate the importance concept of “attention” from Simone Weil. Ray and his wife Pat are intimately involved with the SSVPSociety of Saint Vincent de Paul, a Catholic relief society whose members are described on the Society’s website as “men and women who strive to grow spiritually by offering person-to-person service to individuals in need.” Pat and Ray frequently make home visits to such individuals and families in need. Ray described to the students that the typical home visit often consisted of making the client aware of the various services the Society has that could address various needs and problems, including health care, food and clothing assistance, directing people to other agencies with needed services, and so on. With the best of intentions, such services were often offered without knowing in detail the history or story of the client and his or her family.

Then, as Ray described, after becoming aware of Simone Weil’s concept of “attention,” in which Weil says “The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth,” he and Pat tried something different on their next home visit. Instead of immediately describing what they, as representatives of the Society, could do for the person in need, Pat and Ray asked the client “What would you like to tell us? What is your story?” And for the next hour, they listened to the woman tell her story without interruption. And this completely transformed the dynamic both of that conversation and of future home visits. Through listening without interruption and projection, simone attentionRay and Pat had established an atmosphere of healing rather than of one of fixing.

“Attention” for Simone Weil is the skill of seeing, of attending to the reality of something other than oneself without the filters of the self being in the way. It is a task of love that requires constant practice, as illustrated by Pat and Ray in their home visit. Pat and Ray had moved from considering the woman in front of them as a problem to be solved, or something broken in need of fixing, to a healing activity of seeing her, as Weil describes, “not as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled ‘unfortunate,’ but as a person, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.”

And this transforms everything, for, as Weil continues, “those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. Love-Our-Neighbor-Hub1The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” But it is a miracle each of us can learn to perform. Being a healer begins with simply listening, for “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’” It begins not by asking “How can I solve your problem?” but rather by inviting the person in need to answer the question “Who are you?”

The Point of a Professor

Every summer one of my projects is to tackle a novelist of notable reputation whose work I have never read. I think this summer’s novelist is going to be J. M. Coetzee, the multiple-award-winning South African novelist of whom I have heard much but read nothing. Apparently one of the teams in the program I run assigned CoetzeeCoetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year as an example of post-modern fiction; there were a few copies on one of the bookshelves in the main office, so I picked one up and started reading on the bicycle at the gym the other day. I like it. Señor C, an aging but famous writer who is the primary narrator of the novel, has been asked to contribute several short essays on contemporary and controversial topics to a volume entitled “Strong Opinions.” Señor C’s attention span has become too short to sustain longer writing projects, and anyways, what’s not to like about this call for opinionated essays? “An opportunity to grumble in public, an opportunity to take magic revenge on the world for declining to conform to my fantasies: how could I refuse?”

SeñorCM’s prospective grumbling in public immediately reminded me of an Op-Ed in the New York Times last Sunday entitled “What’s the Point of a Professor?” Bauerleinsubmitted by Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein.

What’s the Point of a Professor?

The Facebook tag for this essay is “We used to be mentors and moral authorities. Now we just hand out A’s.” The general thrust of Bauerlein’s argument is to bemoan the loss of the good old days in academe when undergraduates thirsting for meaning and a moral compass sat enthralled at the feet of brilliant professors just waiting to mentor and disciple their young charges into moral and epistemological adulthood. “I revered many of my teachers,” one colleague wistfully remembered from his 60s college education, while Bauerlein compares stumbling over the legs of dozens of English majors sitting in the hall outside the doors of their professors for consultations while a student atuntitled UCLA in the 80s with the vastly reduced number of outstretched student legs in the same halls when he returned to his alma mater in February. Students and professors don’t talk outside of class anymore. The reverence is definitely decreasing. In the good old days, “students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding. Since then, though, finding meaning and making money have traded places.” Bauerlein has the survey numbers to back it up—and they add up to an identity crisis for professors. “When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes.” But to what?

Bauerlein closes his Op-Ed with a call for the professoriate to change its ways, pointing out that “You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.” If we fail to do that, “We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.” I posted the link to this essay on a Facebook page for the faculty where I teach, simply asking “Worthy of discussion?” One colleague in theology immediately asked tongue-in-cheek “Can someone summarize this for me? I’m pretty busy grading . . .” And so was everyone else—the Op-Ed came in the middle of finals, after all. But now my final grades are in and I have a few preliminary points to offer.

  • Although Bauerlein scatters some numbers from uncited surveys and a smattering of data from uncited studies into his essay, most of his argument is rooted in anecdote. bI have no problem with this in principle—as a good friend and colleague once said, “As academics get older we tend to slip farther and farther into our anecdotage.” Where I do have a problem is when anecdote turns into sermonizing. No one likes that, especially from someone who has no particular claim to authority other than having been doing what he does for a long time. In Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, Señor C’s typist and transcriber Anya exhibits this sort of annoyance after reading a little too much pontificating from the old guy. There is a tone—I don’t know the best word to describe it—a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone. Everything is cut and dried: I am the one with all the answers, here is how it is, don’t argue, it won’t get you anywhere. . . . I wish you would cut it out. Amen.
  • A number of years ago the chair of the philosophy department frequently would say in department meetings that, in her estimation, moral authorityone of the primary goals of the philosophy department was to shape and mold our students into moral human beings. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t. Making moral people is well above my skill level and pay grade. I also do not believe that I am anyone’s moral authority or light, a mentor seeking disciples, or a possible object of someone’s reverence. As I posted a few months ago on this blog, I’m not even looking to be my students’ friend.  I Am Not Your Friend  I’m a teacher. More on that later.
  • Bauerlein writes that “In 1960, only 15 percent of grades were in the ‘A’ range, but now the rate is 43 percent, making ‘A’ the most common grade by far.” I’ll ignore his assumption that people who get A’s can’t possibly have also developed a moral compass or found meaning, and simply mention that apparently the memo about grade inflation hasn’t gotten to my corner of the academic world yet. grade inflationI was fully responsible for all of the grading for sixty-two students in my three classes this semester. Final grades are in, and five of those students earned an ‘A’ or ‘A-minus’. That’s 8 percent, in case you are keeping track, and it is typical. Last fall in the large program I direct, a program in which sixty faculty and just short of 1800 students were involved last semester, 13.5 percent of the grades earned were ‘A’ or ‘A-minus’. I don’t know what’s going on at Emory or UCLA—I have heard that there is serious grade inflation at some of the elite institutions of higher learning in this country—but in my anecdotage I am pleased to report that students are still receiving the grades that they earn in my corner of things.
  • I don’t know why students weren’t sitting in the hall at UCLA waiting to converse with their professors on the day that Bauerlein visited his alma mater last February, but on the frequent days when my colleagues’ and my offices are filled with students seeking advice and input I think we wish something similar might infect our students just to give us a break. e-mailAnd by the way, email communication can be a very effective and efficient form of interaction between student and professor (Bauerlein doesn’t think it can be). Students keep strange hours—I frequently spend my first early hours of the day (6:00-8:00 AM) reading and responding to a dozen or more good questions, comments, and observations about course work and life in general that I have received from my night-owl students in the early hours of the morning. They never seem to sleep (except, on occasion, in class).

As a professor, I am a facilitator of lifetime learning, a person who points students in fruitful directions, helping them identify and become skillful in the use of tools that will help them construct their own moral frameworks intelligently. The liberally educated lifetime learner is equipped both to seek and create meaning throughout her life. I take pride in playing a part in this process. I have thought a lot over the past twenty-five years about the day-to-day dynamic between professor and student; I continually return to the difference between an idol and an icon.

Idols and Icons

virgil and danteThe point of a professor is to be Virgil to the student’s Dante, guiding the educational journey, relying on knowledge and experience to point out the pitfalls and attractions of a passage that each person must encounter individually. The professor helps the student learn to identify what is important and what is not in the perpetual sifting process of education. The professor is not the main attraction at any point in this process. The professor is an icon—something to look through or past, in other words—rather than an idol—something to look at. Tlove idolatryhere is a reason, Professor Bauerlein, that the Second Commandment is a prohibition against idolatry. Human beings are inveterate idolaters, more than happy to pattern themselves after someone or something else rather than to take on responsibility for themselves. For those who are interested in creatively addressing the undoubtedly real shift in higher education toward preparation for a good job and financial success that has been going on for a while now, I highly recommend iconography. As for your call for a return to idolatry: I wish you would cut it out.