Category Archives: teaching

Gun Speak

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philosophers love words and language. We love to dissect them, analyze them, write insufferably boring and inscrutable articles and books about them, and talk amongst ourselves in a code that only the most inside of the insiders understand. But beneath their PhDs and pretension, philosophers are on to something. Words matter. A lot. WittgensteinAs Ludwig Wittgenstein—arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century—pointed out, our words shape our world. And if we want to change our world, we might want to consider paying close attention to our words—and changing them.

I first encountered both the difficult and liberating aspects of changing my words and language when writing my Master’s thesis thirty years ago. I grew up in a world where language was entirely skewed in the direction of maleness—pronouns, examples, collective nouns for all human beings, God—everything I thought and talked about came packaged in gender-exclusive language, as if one half of the human race wasn’t worth mentioning. The Bible that I grew up reading and memorizing was soaked through and through with patriarchal language. During the 60s many voices began pointing out both how pervasive and offensive sexist language was; I also noted that many people, including most of the people I knew, were not inclined to change their speech habits. gender inclusive 1Not because they didn’t think that feminists and others had a point, but because they were used to using sexist language and they perceived that it would be difficult to change their language default setting.

During my early adulthood I worked on changing my own speech patterns away from sexist toward inclusive; in the late eighties, as I tackled the task of writing a Master’s thesis, I decided that I would make a conscious and concerted effort to write the 100+ page document using entirely gender inclusive language. And it was very difficult to pull off. Not only did it require my becoming entirely conscious of my own sexist language habits, but the primary texts from ancient philosophy that were at the heart of my thesis were written by males who used exclusively male-oriented discourse. My new writing vocabulary and style seemed forced and stilted at times, but I attributed that to the difficulty of breaking bad habits and establishing better new ones. Over the subsequent three decades using gender-inclusive language has become so natural and habitual to me that hearing or reading sexist, male-oriented language screeches like nails on a chalkboard. gender neutral 2One of my regular classroom missions is to make students aware of how important it is to use gender-inclusive language. When some students—male and female—don’t see the moral reasons behind my mission and resist it, I sell it to them practically by assuring them that gender-inclusive language is a standard expectation in business communication. Try getting a good job without gender-inclusive language in your skill set.

Now I find myself faced with a new language challenge. The one-year anniversary of the horrific shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, as well as the shooting of Rep. Scalise and others, has placed the issue of gun violence and control back into public conversation, something that happens for a brief period every time such an incident occurs until various forces push the conversation off the table. I am a strong advocate of significant gun control (extending far beyond prohibiting private ownership of assault rifles), do not own a gun, do not intend to ever own one, and am both incredulous and frustrated when, time after time, no real changes ever happen—even in the wake of Newtown. ammosexualI’ll leave it to my colleagues in history and sociology to explain this country’s general obsession with guns. Prompted by a brief interview that I heard on the radio a few days ago, I started paying attention to my speech, looking for ways in which words and idioms involving guns appear in my everyday communication. I was more than disturbed to find that I, a gun hater if there ever was one, say things like the following on a regular basis:

  • He was so nervous that he was sweating bullets.
  • I wish the people on that committee would stop deliberating and just pull the trigger on a decision.
  • I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, so I just took a shot in the dark.
  • Sometimes it is really important to just stick to your guns.
  • Wow, did that plan ever misfire.
  • He just needs to bite the bullet and get on with things.
  • She really jumped the gun that time.
  • It may not work, but we need to give it our best shot.

I’m not alone in this, of course. Such words and phrases are so common in ordinary conversation that many of us—including myself—are entirely unaware of how pervasive they are. “Blown away,” “Bullet points,” “Locked and loaded”—our language reflects the pervasive presence of guns in our culture and our collective psyche. And I, for one, think that this is more than just a harmless habit.words matter

How we speak matters. The words and phrases that we regularly use matter. If we’re uncomfortable with the fact that so many people get killed by guns in our culture, then it would be a good thing for us to slow down and listen to how many different expressions that we use have to do with firearms, shooting, and guns. And just as I made a deliberate project of becoming gender-inclusive in my writing and speaking several decades ago, I am beginning a new personal project—eliminating words and expressions having to do with guns, shooting, and firearms from my communication. My newest book is currently in the midst of the editing process at my publisher; I was pleased to find when I checked that in the roughly 62000-word text I do not use the word “gun” at all, and use the word “bullet” only once when I refer to the assassin’s bullet that took the life of Bobby Kennedy. I’ll need to look more carefully for some of the phrases and idioms listed above. minute manApparently my project is close to complete when it comes to my writing. But in speech I have a lot of work to do. One way to do this is to make Jeanne aware of the project and to point out every time I inadvertently use a gun-violence-related phrase. I’ll be including a section on guns and the second amendment in my upcoming General Ethics classes in the fall—that will be a good place to practice (I might start the section with consideration of this post).

I frequently wonder what I can do to turn the tide against our culture’s collective obsession with guns and the violence that invariably accompanies it. My project is something I can actually do—not easily, but with awareness and fortitude. And significant change sometimes begins with simply being aware. If enough people worked at dropping gun-related words and phrases from their vocabulary, perhaps our conversation about the Second Amendment would begin to change in fruitful ways. It’s worth a shot. Whoops! I have a lot of work to do.end gun violence

Making the Truth Laugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 tomorrow 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 church or 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.

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How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

There is no one but us

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

There are many aspects of the academic life that I love, but attending academic conferences is not one of them. Yet last weekend I found myself on an Amtrak Acela headed for a conference on Simone Weil, colloquywhere I would be reconnecting with some friends and colleagues as well as presenting a paper (the last one of the conference, usually the third rail of such events). After a four and a half hour train trip to Philadelphia, then another half hour on the regional train to the conference hotel, I was ready for dinner. My normal procedure would have been to take my tablet along and do a bit of paper grading, but both tablet and phone were in need of charging, so I headed to the onsite restaurant on the main hotel floor with Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, the reading assignment for the final meeting of my “Beauty and Violence” colloquium early the next week. At seventy-five pages, Dillard’s book was the perfect companion for dinner. With no electronic distractions and fortified by three fine craft beers and two appetizers, I read Dillard’s striking text from cover to cover, once again blown away by her unique ability to push me to places where I would just as soon not go.

Not much happens in Holy the Firm, a meditation on the beauty of the natural world as well as the many ways, both affirmative and devastating, in which it impresses and imprints itself on human beings. htfThe central event of the book is a private plane crash in which the face of Julie Norwich, a seven-year-old girl, is horribly burned. It is a classic WTF??? event, as Dillard expresses brilliantly.

We’re tossed broadcast into time like so much grass, some ravening god’s sweet hay. You wake up and a plane falls out of the sky . . . What in the Sam Hill is going on here? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we’re all victims?

I have spent almost a full semester not with my “Beauty and Violence” students asking the “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” question of whatever or whoever is greater than us and presumably responsible for some of the random violence and tragedy that surrounds us. A little kid with her face burned off? WTF??? indeed.

Dillard’s struggle with how to even shape a meaningful and appropriate question is eloquent, disturbing, and relentless. How are faithful people supposed to seek relationship with a God who is apparently oblivious to such events? “Where was God?” is frequently asked, a question that Dillard answers with truth rather than faith or hope. “We need reminding, not of what god can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel’s worth of sense into our days.” lawnThe truth of the matter, which the existence of  “flamefaced children” force us to confront, is that God does not appear to care.

We reel out love’s long line alone toward a god less lovable than a grasshead, who treats us less well than we treat our lawns. . . . Of faith I have nothing, only of truth; that this one god is a brute and traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged. This is no leap; this is evidence of things seen.

I expect my “Beauty and Violence” students to have a lot to say about this text in class this afternoon. We have worked hard all semester to challenge the traditional notions concerning God that are absolutely impotent when applied to Julie Norwich situations. Several authors have suggested that, for any number of reasons that are worthy of consideration and discussion, God is not omnipotent in relation to our world. Dillard nods toward such ideas throughout her work, including in Holy the Firm:

Faith would be that God is self-limited utterly by his creation—a contraction of the scope of his will; that he bound himself to time and its hazards and haps as a man would lash himself to a tree for love. That God’s works are as good as we make them. mangerThat God is helpless, our baby to bear, self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen.

A God who creates out of love rather than power is limited in all of the ways that love places limitations on our actions concerning what we love. An intriguing possibility arising from alternative traditions in both Christianity and Judaism. But as my students and I have concluded regularly this semester, “We don’t know” is the most honest thing we can say when seeking to know the mind and intentions of the divine. And the follow-up, for persons of faith, is usually “Now what?”

As Dillard notes in the above passage, it appears that we clumsy, partially ignorant, well-intentioned but frequently failing human beings are how the divine gets into the world. And that, in many ways, is both empowering and worrisome.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us. There has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.

This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his prison cell awaiting execution by the Nazis,  writes to his best friend that “that we must live as people who manage our lives without God.” Because no cosmic source of answers and solutions is going to sweep in and set things straight. We’re it. “There is no one but us.”

The next morning as a couple dozen folks partook of standard conference breakfast fare waiting for the paper-presenting festivities to begin, I chatted briefly with Tomeu, the president of the academic group hosting the conference. Noting the absence of two annual regulars, I asked “Where is Jane? Where is Larry?” Both were on the list of papers to be presented over the next couple of days, and neither had been missing from any of the dozen or more of these conferences I’ve attended over the years. “Oh, you didn’t hear what happened?” Tomeu replied—“Jane fell last week and broke several bones.” “That’s awful!” I said—Jane is in her late seventies/early eighties and is rather frail. “And what happened to Larry is just terrible,” Tomeu continued.  sad angelLarry, one of the nicest people I have ever met, told me a year earlier about his beloved first grandson, showing me several photos of his pride and joy. Just last week, Tomeu said, Larry’s three-year-old grandson had choked on a marshmallow and could not breathe. By the time the marshmallow was dislodged, the child had been without oxygen for several minutes; in the hospital it became clear that he had suffered significant brain damage. The next day, Larry’s grandson died.

There’s nothing to say, other than oh my God. You want to scream A FUCKING MARSHMALLOW????, but in the end, no words are appropriate. I’ll tell this story to my students this afternoon, and Larry’s grandson will be the most recent example, joining Julie Norwich, of a “what the Sam Hill is going on?” complaint. It’s enough sometimes to turn one into an atheist. And yet here I, as I so often do, resonate with Annie Dillard—also from Holy the Firm.

I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand. There is an anomalous specificity to all our experience in space, a scandal of particularity, by which Gpitino celticsod burgeons up or showers down into the shabbiest of occasions, and leaves his creation’s dealings with him in the hands of purblind and clumsy amateurs. This is all we are and all we ever were.

Many years ago when Rick Pitino was coach of the Boston Celtics, he was often asked how long it would be before the Celtics returned to the glory to which spoiled New England basketball fans had become accustomed over the years. Pitino counselled patience, because “Larry Bird isn’t going to come walking through that door any time soon.” And neither is God. There is no one but us.

One Heart and Soul

In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium no long ago, our text was a co-authored volume in which two economists, who happened to also be persons of Christian faith, alternated essays and responses on a number of important issues. markets and moralsAs their weekly writing assignment in preparation for seminar, I asked students to select a point of disagreement between the authors (the disagreements were legion), describe briefly the position of each author on the selected issue, then take a side supported by argumentation. Two-thirds of the way through the semester, my sophomores should be able to do this—identify issues, fairly and accurately describe various arguments, and take a position that is both fair to other relevant positions and supported by evidence and argument. So I was disappointed when more than one student ended their essay with something like “I prefer X’s position because Y sounds a lot like socialism.”

Sigh. In my comments on such papers, I always include something like “That’s a description, not an argument. It’s related to another sort of description masquerading as an argument: ‘I disagree with Z, therefore Z is wrong.’” Divided linePart of my job as a professor is to convince my students that a liberally educated human being earns the right to have her opinions. Unearned opinions are like body parts—everybody has them. Plato lists “opinion” low on his ladder representing the climb from ignorance to wisdom. Moving up this ladder one or two rungs from “opinion” to something closer to knowledge involves learning that just believing something does not make it true, realizing that disagreement is the beginning of justifying one’s beliefs, not the end. It’s always discouraging to realize that someone can make it to almost half way through their undergraduate college career and not have learned this.

But I digress. What got me to thinking about this most recently was a story from The Acts of the Apostles that will be one of the Sunday texts in a couple of weeks :Acts 4

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

It’s one of my favorite passages from the New Testament—as I heard it, I thought of my student. “Dude!” I thought, “It’s a good thing you didn’t hear this—because this really sounds like socialism!” In the past I have used this text in class to poke at the unquestioned assumptions carried by students who, often coming from a faith-based upbringing in an upper middle class or wealthy household, believe communismthat somehow their capitalist free-market attachments and their background framework of religious values will fit seamlessly together as if by magic. “They sound like a bunch of communists!” more than student has remarked in shock, and indeed they (anachronistically) do. Welcome to the lifelong task of trying to live a life of coherent belief and commitment!

This passage from Acts is sometimes linked to the familiar story of “doubting Thomas” that was yesterday’s gospel reading from John. In spite of the bad rap Thomas has gotten over the centuries for being the one disciple loser who refused to believe that Jesus had risen until he had seen him and touched him first person (of course, none of the other disciples believed until they had first-hand contact either, but let’s not go there), he is one of my all-time heroes. By both personality and profession I am naturally skeptical–Imontaigne think that doubt is closer to godliness than cleanliness. Just as I take the great skeptic Michel de Montaigne as a model for how to do philosophy, I consider Thomas as one of my models for how to approach the spiritual life, something I share with many of my spiritual guides ranging from Kathleen Norris, Christian Wiman and Joan Chittister to Anne Lamott, roawn williamsRowan Williams and Barbara Brown Taylor. Most homilies about this gospel draw the moral of the story from Jesus’ gentle criticism of Thomas’ attitude: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But there is seeing and then there is seeing. Except for a select few, those who have committed themselves to Jesus in any way have never seen him physically. But without a direct encounter—without truly seeing something worth committing to—faith commitment can easily become sterile religion.

Why, I have often wondered (and have often asked my students), did the early Christian communities choose to organize themselves economically in the manner described in Acts? They are close enough in time to Jesus’ physical presence that undoubtedly some of their members actually knew him in the flesh, or at least knew some people who did. But if the vision is not going to fade, such communities cannot rely on first-hand remembrance of the source. Practices and attitudes reflective of the values the community is committed to must be embedded in the very fiber and structure of the common life of the group. the wayAt some point, given that a new community of followers of the Way was seeking both stability and faithfulness to the message, someone must have asked “How would Jesus have organized this community if he were here?” Somebody remembers the parables, another person recalls the Beatitudes, and pretty soon they become a small, primitive laboratory for the Gospel.  How to truly become Jesus in community form? By putting into action what the man supposedly said and lived. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Love each other as God loves us. This wasn’t church for them—this was life. Most likely their very survival depended on it.

Two thousand years later, persons who profess a Christian faith share a lot in common with these early followers of Jesus. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, just as most—and pretty soon all—of the members of these early communities had not. micahWe are bound together by having seen Jesus in ways far deeper and more profound than physical vision. And our challenge is the same as theirs, to figure out what it means to actually live it rather than just say it. As I often do, I fall back here on the prophetic words of Micah who asked, just as these early communities did, just as we do today, “What does the Lord require of us?” Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. And, I might add, doubt is an appropriate seasoning for each of these.

God and Darwin Walk into a Bar . . .

Several years ago I spent a sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute on the campus of a Benedictine university in the Midwest. Several of the Benedictines at the abbey on site were liaisons between the abbey and the institute, and were part of our regular lunches and discussions. Wilfred, one of the Benedictines, was recently retired from several decades of teaching physics at the university as well as the prep school nearby. During one lunch conversation Wilfred noted that “Darwin taught us more about God than all of the theologians put together.” I am in the final weeks of leading an Honors colloquium this semester; my students and I have discovered just how insightful Wilfred’s comment was.

The colloquium—“Beauty and Violence: The Problem of Natural Evil”—is an exploration of what we might be able to say about what is greater than us through close observation and study of the natural world. My students, the majority of whom are products of parochial school education, have found on an weekly basis that the God they were taught to believe in simply does not square very well with what we find in front of our faces. oasA central part of the course was two weeks with Darwin’s The Origin of Species, one of the most important books ever written. None of my students, even the two bio majors, had ever read the book—they just had heard a lot about it. I often challenge my students to put persons who supposedly disagree sharply about important matters in conversation with each other. So suppose God and Darwin walk into a bar. The Almighty orders his usual 21-year-old Balvenie neat (it’s an upscale bar), and Charles orders a rum and orange juice (really—he drank that). What might they talk about?

Darwin: I read the other day that between one-third and one-half of the people in the U.S. don’t believe in the theory of evolution. Why do people hate me so much?

God: That’s because they haven’t taken the time to have a drink with you! You have the same public relations problems that I have—people assume things and make judgments about us without ever taking the time to get to know us.

Darwin: I am aware, though, that a lot of good Christians believe that the theory of natural selection, if true, undermines many of the features that Christians traditionally have attributed to you.

God: Like what? I always find it sort of amusing when people get into fights over the details of my personality on the basis of third-hand and partial information.

Darwin: Oh, for instance that you are omnipotent and created the world with a specific plan in mind. Since chance and randomness are central features of evolution, an all-powerful God who plans all of the details of creation out ahead of time doesn’t fit evolution very well.I invented it

God: No kidding! But who ever said that I’m into control and planning in the first place?

Darwin: Uh . . . just about everyone? Put that together with your being all good, as well as omniscient, and the traditional portrait of God Almighty is pretty well filled out.

God: You tell me, Charles. Does that portrait strike you as anything like what you know me to be?

Darwin: Not everyone gets to have an occasional drink with you like I do. For the most part, the ideas that people have about you are guesswork and projections based on what they have direct access to. Your followers, for instance, have thought for ages that observing the world around us can help us intelligently speculate about what you are like. And the theory of evolution didn’t help.

God: Why not?

Darwin: All I can do is tell you how the theory of natural selection affected my own belief in you over the decades that I was developing the theory. The more I studied the natural world, the more appalled I was by the violence embedded in every part of it, along with the extraordinary beauty and diversity of living things. Then Annie, my eldest and favorite daughter died after a long illness, despite my wthank god for darwinife’s and my prayers and the continuing efforts of the best medical people. I tried for many years to square my own experiences and knowledge with what I was supposed to believe about God. An omniscient and omnipotent God who allows pain and suffering to run amok throughout creation? I just could not believe in a God like that anymore.

God: Good, because I don’t believe in that God either. But you’re no atheist. An atheist could not have written your final lines in The Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . having been breathed into a few forms or into one; and whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Darwin: That was inspired, wasn’t it? I think I’m an agnostic—I just don’t know what to think about God—you, I mean. Having a drink with you makes you seem so normal, but as soon as you’re gone I have far more questions than answers.

God: But that’s a good thing. A rabbi I know says that he would rather be on earth with the questions than in heaven with the answers.

Darwin: Really? But what are we supposed to do when what we thought we knew about you just doesn’t fit with what we are learning about ourselves and the world around us?

God: I always say that if you don’t like the answers you are getting to your questions, change the questions! Forget for a minute everything you’ve ever been told about what I’m like and start over. Let’s suppose that your theory of evolution by natural selection is largely correct (it is, by the way). On the basis of what that theory tells you about the world, what might you speculate about me?

Darwin: My first guess is that you like change more than stability, and novelty more than the familiar. Annie Dillard, who is almost as astute an observer of the natural world as I am, wrote that “not only did the creator create everything, but he is apt to create anything. God and evolutionHe’ll stop at nothing. There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say: ‘Now, that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.’” I’d guess you also favor process over finality and imperfection over perfection.

God: And why would I value imperfection over perfection?

Darwin: Because as every artist knows, imperfections are fundamentally necessary to beauty. Charles Baudelaire wrote that “That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity–that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty.”

God: And Baudelaire was pretty good, wasn’t he? This reminds me of something a physicist-turned-Anglican-priest said recently in an interview: “God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity.” John Polkinghorne is right, because I really am more like Ella Fitzgerald than Beethoven.

Darwin: Most importantly, you apparently are committed to freedom and creativity above everything else—not just in human beings, but in everything. Within very broad parameters, life never stops recreating itself in new forms.teilhard

God: One of my favorite guys, Teilhard de Chardin (how can you not like a Jesuit paleontologist?) hit the nail on the head when he wrote that “Properly speaking, God does not make: He makes things make themselves.” But of course this is risky . . .

Darwin: No kidding! Freedom, open-endedness, radical creativity, a “hands off” attitude—that raises a whole bunch of other questions: the problem of evil, is there a point to all of this, what faith amounts to, can science and religion cooperate . . .

God: Stop! Stop! I’m not sure of the answers to some of those questions myself! (checks his phone)god so loved—Shit! Look what time it is! Can you pick up the tab this time, Charles? I forgot my wallet back home . . .

Darwin: Again? Okay, but now you owe me big time . . .

God: In more ways than you know. Wilfred was right. You’ve taught people more about me than all of the theologians put together!

We Had Hoped

imagesCAGSCZK4“Now abide faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.” These concluding words from chapter thirteen of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians are heard at many, perhaps most, weddings. Everyone wants to believe that love is the greatest, especially on their wedding day. Faith seems to be part of my DNA—challenging it, trying to get rid of it, redefining it, being confused by it, and generally struggling with the “f-word” (as I call it in the classroom) has shaped me for as long as I can remember. I’m not so sure about hope. A few years ago I asked Jeanne what she thought the opposite of faith is. She first answered “despair,” then immediately took it back saying “I guess despair’s the opposite of hope.” After a quick check on Google, I found that she was right (again). imagesCAY3WHMWThe immediate etymological root of  “despair” is the Old French despoir: hopelessness. So what is hope?

Although Easter is certainly about love and faith, I think it is mostly about hope. There is no shortage of material to consider on Easter—the empty tomb, Peter and John racing to take a look, the authorities scrambling to explain what happened, the poignant exchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Perhaps my favorite Easter-related story is Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.On-the-road-to-Emmaus[1] It’s such a human story—the bitter sadness and devastation of Cleopas and his unnamed companion (call him George) is palpable. The usual spin on the story is, of course, that Jesus is risen and walking with them, and Cleopas and George are either too dense or blinded by tears to know it’s him. Jesus gives them a free theology lesson, and as soon as they recognize him after he breaks the bread at lunch he vanishes. What a guy—the amazing, vanishing Jesus! It says something (I’m not sure what) about me that I always thought the ending of the story was funny when I was young. Young Baptist boys have to get their laughs where they can find them. But three words are particularly resonant: despair[1]We had hoped that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. And our hope was in vain.

Hope is a tough nut to crack—of the big three at the end of the passage in I Corinthians,  love and faith strike me as easier to get a handle on. Every human life is marked by “we had hoped” moments that we never quite get over. I hoped that I would be concert pianist. Jeanne hoped she would marry someone who knows how to dance. But the dashed hopes of Cleopas and George are far more crushing. It’s easy to criticize Cleopas and George for failing to recognize that what they had hoped for was walking with them for seven miles, but that’s actually not true. True, Jesus does turn out to “redeem Israel,” and everybody else for that matter, but that’s not the redemption Cleopas, George and others were hoping for, a political redemptionThe_Road_To_Emmaus[1] and establishment of an earthly kingdom by the Messiah. And it’s very telling that the Jesus-guided tour through the Old Testament touching on prophetic texts indicating that the Messiah would suffer and die doesn’t do anything for Cleopas and George. It’s not until the three of them have a meal, a human experience rather than a classroom experience, that they see it’s been Jesus all the time.

That is where the story usually ends, but it gets even more interesting. Cleopas and George run back to Jerusalem and report to the disciples what happened; in the middle of their story, the amazing, vanishing Jesus reappears! risen[1]And another human, all too human moment—Cleopas, George, the eleven disciples, and everyone else are scared shitless. They think he’s a ghost. It’s not until Jesus lets them check out his body with its scars and eats a piece of fish in front of them that they realize it’s really him. The whole story is fraught with humor, fallibility, and humanity. Entertaining, yes; but what is God up to?

Amazing-Grace-Norris-Kathleen-9781573227216[1]In her wonderful book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris asks “Does it ever surprise you that God chooses to be revealed in so fallible a fashion?” Well as a matter of fact, Kathleen, yes it does. All the time. Even when our greatest hopes are satisfied, it’s always in some sideways, back door, behind the scenes, fuzzy and oblique sort of way. And that can be frustrating. As I participated in the various Holy Week services this past week, it continually struck me that Jesus’ resurrection, the most spectacular and crucial event in human history, is surrounded by so many instances of mistaken identity, fumbling around, uncertainty, and missteps that it is truly comical.

But it makes perfect sense, and brings the central pillars of the Christian faith—the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection—together. The whole idea of incarnation, of God becoming human through and through, is outrageous and ludicrous at its core. What self-respecting creator of the universe would do it this way? Only one that loves what was created so much that becoming part of it, miraculously, is not only not a step down but is actually the only way to accomplish what has to be accomplished. We know that we are flawed, incomplete, jumbled and messed up creatures, so why should we be surprised that our hopes get addressed in that way? 100_0373The divinely infused cycle of death and resurrection is around us everywhere, in nature coming alive after a long winter, in church services populated by octogenarians and toddlers, in the annual arrival of new late teens ready to be taught on campus, just to name a few examples from my own daily life. It is not at all surprising that the resurrected Jesus, the hope of the world,  was revealed in the midst of the daily and mundane rather than in power and glory. Kathleen once again: “In a religion based on a human incarnation of the divine, when ideology battles experience, it is fallible, ordinary experience that must win.”

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

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. 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.” 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.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.

Watching for an Hour

Some people can sleep anywhere. One of those people was a student in one of my seminars a few semesters ago. Bob (his name has been changed to protect the innocent) is a bright but apparently less-than-motivated student whose verbal work, such as participation in seminar, vastly exceeds his written or objective work, such as reading quizzes and the midterm exam. imagesCA4P0ANMHe’s one of those students who always has something to say that is relevant and insightful, carefully crafted to disguise the fact that he has probably only skimmed the reading, if he looked at it at all. After twenty-five years I recognize this sort of student more easily than he or she might wish. More important, I recognize this sort of student because on rare occasions I was “that guy” as an undergraduate myself (although not as frequently or as successfully as Bob). And he dozes off in class—frequently. The seminar rooms in our wonderful Ruane Center for the Humanities are equipped with circular tables, so it’s not as if anyone can sleep in the back row. There is no back row. But that doesn’t deter Bob—if he needs a catnap he takes one. More power to him, I say; I often would like to do the same.

themerchantofveniceebookdownloadOne week our seminar text was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Following a setup lecture the previous day by my colleague from the English department, I decided to have students volunteer for the nine speaking roles in the dramatic Act Four trial scene and spend the majority of our two hours reading Shakespeare aloud, with pauses for commentary and general discussion as the spirit moved. Bob volunteered to read the part of Portia, the most important role in Act Four other than Shylock. In this act Portia and her sidekick Nerissa are pretending to be young men, a lawyer and his assistant. Since in Shakespeare’s world all female roles were played by guys, Portia and Nerissa in Act Four would have been played by guys playing women who are pretending to be guys. maxresdefaultRight up Bob’s alley, as it turned out—he was excellent in the role.

Until it came time for Portia’s famous “The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” speech, that is. Instead of the opening lines of Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock’s mercy, there was an uncomfortable silence. Bob had fallen asleep. The girl playing Antonio sitting next to Bob elbowed him in the ribs, Bob’s head jerked up—“Oh! Sorry!”—and he proceeded to read Portia’s twenty-five line speech beautifully and with feeling. Pretty impressive—and he managed to stay awake for the rest of the act. Bob might suffer from narcolepsy, but my suspicion is that he simply doesn’t get enough sleep—a malady shared by most freshmen in college. So he grabs forty winks in class when he needs to. At least he shows up.

Today is Maundy Thursday, a part of Holy Week so full of drama and intrigue that it is very easy to miss some of the most interesting details in the narrative. After dinner, Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane for some one-on-one conversation with his dad, while the disciples tag along. botticelli_sleeping_apostles_2_smallHe wants to be alone and asks them to stay and wait for him as he walks on a bit further. Jesus’ distress and agony as well as his fear of what is to come are palpable and are understandably the focus of most discussions of this part of the Holy Week drama. A less discussed, but equally important, detail is that the disciples fall asleep. They literally cannot keep their eyes open. On three different occasions, Jesus returns to them and finds them catching some Zs. The gospel account is very “high church” sounding, but Jesus is clearly pissed when he finds them asleep. DUDES! Really?? I’m over here literally sweating drops of blood, I’ve never been so scared and worried, and you’re ASLEEP?? WTF?? Wake the hell up! Can’t you at least do that much?

I’m sure their collective reaction was something like Bob’s when he was caught sleeping as he should have been channeling Portia. “Whaa? Oh! Sorry, man! James! Andrew! I can’t believe you guys fell asleep! It won’t happen again, dude!” But it does—three times.

On the few occasions I have heard this scene discussed, the focus is always on the disciples, so human, so weak, or so disinterested that they fall asleep at the switch. I’m more interested in Jesus’ reaction. He hasn’t asked the disciples to do anything for him; he doesn’t even want them around him. So why is he so upset to find them sleeping? What’s the difference between sitting on one’s ass doing nothing and being asleep? In one of his letters to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison, BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer uses this little scene to illustrate a profound insight.

Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” That is a reversal of what the religious person expects from God. We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

We expect God to do stuff, to solve problems, to kick ass and take names, but this God is not any of that. The only way this God can be in the world is to experience everything it has to offer, to suffer the worst it can do. The least that the disciples can do is be there, to pay attention, to be in solidarity with this man whom they love, whom they have followed, and whom they absolutely do not understand. Jesus feels alone and abandoned by everyone and everything; finding the disciples asleep simply confirms that what he is feeling is the truth.

What would it mean to watch and not fall asleep, to share in God’s sufferings? Where exactly is God suffering in our world? Everywhere that a human being has a need of any sort, God is in the middle of it. There is so much suffering that it can be overwhelming. No one of us, not even any one group of us, no matter how well-meaning, can make a significant dent. But Jesus isn’t asking the disciples to do anything other than to be aware, to be attentive, and not to tune out. If the answer to “what can I do to help” is “nothing,” at least the question was asked. Asking someone to bear the weight of the world alone is asking a lot—even of God.photo-1-e524059dbea1cebfe788ab374f45a37680085cdc-s40-c85