Category Archives: theology

Ordinary Miracles

Every year, between Pentecost and the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the lectionary takes us through week after week of “Ordinary Time,” a seemingly endless stretch of Sundays in green during which there are few special celebrations, no Advent or Lenten introspection and expectation, no thrilling Christmas, Easter or Pentecost celebratory remembrances, just a bunch of green week after week after week. A friend of mine once claimed that Ordinary Time is her favorite part of the liturgical year. I told her she was nuts.

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But I’ve learned over time to appreciate Ordinary Time. Each year, for instance, the gospel readings during Ordinary Time take us through one gospel writer’s version of Jesus’ adult ministry–this year it has been John, but my favorite is Mark. I like Mark’s style–he’s brief, direct, and to the point. One week, Jesus calms a stormy sea with a simple “Peace, be still.” Another week he raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. Another Sunday, he not only heals people and casts out demons, but he also empowers his disciples to do so.

As Simone Weil wrote, “the stories of miracles complicate everything.” And they do. Ever since my youth I have asked “What are we supposed to do with such stories, especially since we don’t see people raised from the dead or storms dispersed by a voice command today? Did these things really happen? If so, why don’t they happen now?”

The religion I was raised in explained some of this by dispensational theology, meaning that the dispensation of miracles, for some unexplained reason, ended with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Now that we have the Holy Spirit and the Bible, apparently miracles are old hat. I don’t buy it. But a stroll through the gospels raises the complications of miracles for me in a new way.

While riding in the car not long ago, Jeanne and I talked briefly about what it must have been like to be with Jesus and witness the miracles. How could anyone who observed such events have been as confused and often unbelieving as the disciples apparently were? Were the miracles daily events? Or does it just seem that way because the gospel writers are only hitting the high points, Jesus in miracle-working mode?

Maybe the gospel versions of Jesus’ ministry are like a ninety-second trailer for a movie. The trailer makes the movie seem like a “mus see,” but when you see it you find out that the only funny, dramatic, or poignant parts are the moments you saw in the trailer. Maybe life with Jesus during his ministry involved lots of down time with a few high points.

Just when you think you’ve got this guy figured out and have rationalized an explanation for what must have happened when he calmed the sea several weeks ago, just when you’ve decided that he’s a very interesting and charismatic guy but nothing more, then he randomly raises someone from the dead and the confusion starts all over again.

The real confusion for me, I think, if I had been a disciple comes into sharp focus as Mark’s gospel proceeds and he tells the story of the capture and beheading of John the Baptist. If there’s anyone who deserves a miracle from Jesus, it’s his relative John. John’s whole ministry was to “prepare the way” for Jesus, to connect Jesus to Old Testament prophecies, to baptize Jesus, to identify him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” then to step back.

But John has a big mouth; he runs afoul of paranoid and crazy Herod Antipas and finds himself in prison. How hard would it be for Jesus to open the prison and set John free? Jesus wouldn’t even have to be there—he could have done it from a remote site, sort of like a first century wireless connection. But Jesus doesn’t work that miracle or any other, and John’s head is soon presented to Salome on a platter.

The randomness of the miracles must have struck Jesus’s followers then as powerfully as their apparent absence strikes us now. Miracles were no more predictable or formulaic in Jesus’s day than they are now. I suspect this is one of the reasons Jesus frequently used to tell those who received or observed miracles not to tell anyone (a directive that was usually disobeyed immediately). Following Jesus in the flesh would not have clarified the miracles confusion any more than following Jesus now. So the question remains—what to do about the miracles (or absence of them)?

A recent rereading of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead reminded me of a much healtheir and less stressful space concerning miracles, a space that I’ve begun learning to occasionally occupy over the past few years. In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Rev. Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy.

Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.” Toward the end of the novel, Ames writes:

It has seemed to me sometimes as thought the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance–for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than we think. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

Good question. It takes a lot more courage to embrace this world with all of its imperfections and disappointments as a spectacular and continuing divine miracle than to step back and bemoan the fact that it seldom is the miracle we would have performed if it were up to us. It isn’t up to us—the power and glory of our created, sacred world is far above our pay scale.

Every week at my Episcopal church during the prayers of the people, the leader says “We thank you for all the blessings of this life. This week we are especially grateful for (individuals share personal thanksgivings).” It is always striking how few of us share our personal thanksgivings. Often at that point of the prayers, I often flash back over the week just past and conclude quickly that “nothing special happened.” That’s the attitude of someone who is unaware or chooses to be ignorant of the fact that everything is a blessing, that it’s all a miracle.

If I started expressing my thanks for everything that is truly miraculous—Jeanne, my sons, my dachshund Frieda, my love of my work, the beauty of autumn weather, and so on—I’d be filling in the blanks for several minutes. Some Sunday I’d like to be surprised at that point in the prayers as the congregation fills in the blanks for at least a full minute with our personal thanksgivings. As Rev. Ames writes, “Confusing as this world is, it is remarkable to consider what does abide in it.”

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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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.”

To Die For

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

A couple of years ago, after a week at work that completely wore me out, I was strongly tempted to skip church on Sunday morning for the first time in months. But it was Palm Sunday, Jeanne was scheduled to be chalice bearer at the altar, so my Protestant guilt kicked in and off to church I went. At least it was going to be the first Sunday service in weeks in which I had nothing to do but sit in the pew—no seminar to lead, no scripture to read, and no organ to play. h19_18559141I would try to enjoy the dramatic reading of the Passion narrative that is always part of the Palm Sunday service before returning home to finish our taxes. What fun.

As I entered the back of the church, our rector and my good friend Marsue was looking dramatic in her chasuble, appropriately red for Palm Sunday, as she waited to process with the servers, readers, and choir. Motioning me over, she whispered “do you want to read?” “Not really,” I thought as I looked to see what roles for the upcoming Passion reading were still available. Just about all of them, as it turned out, including the role of Jesus. “I’ll be Jesus,” I sighed. “I’ve never gotten to read his part.”

“I’ll be Jesus.” That’s really what it boils down to for those of us who have signed on to the project of trying to live out a serious Christian faith commitment. Holy Week is a time that many try to virtually “walk in the steps of Jesus” liturgically in the various special services during the week. But to actually be God in the world, to be the vehicle through which the divine makes contact with our human reality—that’s nuts. No wonder we are so creative in finding ways to make the demands of the life of faith more manageable. But my own attempts to avoid the challenges of what I claim to take seriously have been most recently exposed by the prison letters of twentieth-century Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

imagesCAK5RWXSIn the months between his imprisonment and his execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer wrote dozens of letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, letters in which he explored and pressed the boundaries of his Christian faith, a faith for which he would eventually die, in ways that have challenged and shocked readers ever since. Facing imminent death has a tendency to focus one’s attention and to clearly reveal what is important and what isn’t. As Bonhoeffer asks, “What do we really believe? I mean, believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it?” These letters are causing me to think about and look at the Holy Week narrative very differently.

Underlying the liturgies and activities between Palm Sunday and Easter is a shocking story in which “God lets the divine self be pushed out of the world onto the cross.” God is apparently either unwilling or unable to engage with the suffering and pain of the world other than to become part of it. If the dramatic events of Jesus’ final days are models for our lives in a suffering and distressed world, it is clear that “Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” I remember a rather dramatic solo that my aunt used to sing in the church of my youth almost every year at some point leading up to Good Friday that includes the line “he could have called ten thousand angels, but he died alone for you and me.” If we take all of the accretions of dogma and doctrine out of the picture, the story of Jesus’ last days is a disaster—as I read that Palm Sunday morning during the Passion narrative as Matthew presents it, the final words Jesus gasps from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Precisely the question Bonhoeffer must have been asking from his prison cell.

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“Jesus the Homeless” statue, Davidson N.C.

I’ll be wrestling with some of this here this week; at the moment, I’m focused on the following from one of Bonhoeffer’s last letters:

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself . . . but to be a person—not a type of person, but the person that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

How to do that? That is the question. See you in a couple days when Jesus kills a fig tree.

Quiet Ignorance

thinkingOver the past several years, I have frequently returned to a question that a friend asked me many years ago, the question that in many ways is the central question I have been considering in this blog over the past four-and-a-half years: How can you be a Christian and a philosopher at the same time? There are all sorts of answers available to this question, the simplest of which is “I can’t.” This would open the door to choosing one or the other. I know myself well enough to realize that if “choose you this day whom you will serve” was truly the only option, I would choose philosophy and try to find ways to walk away from my faith tradition. The spirit of critical thinking and skepticism is too strong in me to accept a framework of belief without constant challenge and questioning. I spent many years—most of my life, in fact—attempting to compartmentalize philosophy and faith. For me, at least, it did not work. critical thinkingThe time came to either walk away from faith, as many philosophers have done over the centuries, or to find a new way.

That “new way,” for me at least, involves allowing the energies of critical thinking and faith to interact with each other regularly and vigorously without pre-conception. It requires re-imagining basic concepts such as “evidence” and “fact,” as well as learning to create a large foundational space for subjective experience in my edifice of belief. This new way demands that I both allow that there are limitations to our natural human powers of reason and logical thinking, while at the same time never assuming that I know where those boundaries lie nor when I have reached them. Perhaps most importantly, this new way embraces both the reality of what is greater than us and the expectation that the lines of communication between that transcendent place and our human reality are open and available for exploration. My most recent engagement with these issues is focusing on the relationship between critical thinking and hope, the tension between cynicism (too much critical thinking) and naïveté (too much hope). As is often the case, I have found the work of Marilynne Robinson useful here.givenness

In “Metaphysics,” one of the later chapters in her recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, Robinson engages with the dynamic interplay of faith and critical thinking. Her baseline commitments are similar to my own—she is committed to excellence in reasoning and critical thinking, but is equally committed to her faith. Her faith commitments are to Calvinism; her essays frequently include advocacy for a faith framework which in the minds of many is rigidly conservative and suffocatingly restrictive. The faith I was raised in has many Calvinist features, most of which I no longer accept. Robinson’s effective use of reason in defending her faith is always impressive and occasionally convincing; in “Metaphysics,” however, she bumps directly into a boundary from the reason and critical thinking side.

Some issues are just beyond the reach of our natural abilities, Robinson thinks—predestination and the problem of evil are her two examples—in such cases she suggests that we take the advice of the great philosopher and occasional theologian John Locke. Locke-JohnNoting that Locke seeks to “free thinking of artificial constraints by acknowledging real and insuperable limits to the kinds of things we can think about fruitfully,” Robinson writes that

When there is no way to understand without compromising the nature of what is to be understood, I heed Locke’s advice. I am content to “sit down in a quiet ignorance” of those things I take to be beyond the reach of my capacities.

This is a loaded suggestion, to say the least. As much as I admire Robinson’s work, I find at least two troubling matters here.

First is “the nature of what is to be understood.” It is one thing to believe that beyond the reach of our natural capacities there is something we should seek to understand—with that I fully agree. It is quite another thing to assume that the nature of what is to be understood is known clearly enough that we can sort between which proposed ideas compromise that nature and those that do not. Their is an inherent contradiction in saying that “there is something important beyond the reach of our natural capacities, and the nature of that something is as follows . . .” Such parameters are far too close to dogma and doctrine for my taste. Robinson’s own example of the problem of evil is a case in point. For centuries thinkers have approached this problem armed with various assumptions concerning the nature of God—calvin and hobbesGod is omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and so on. And with these assumptions, the problem cannot be solved or even addressed fruitfully.

Robinson chooses at this point to adopt “a quiet ignorance”—we cannot figure this out. I choose, instead, to test the assumptions—what if one or more of our “givens” concerning God are wrong? How might taking that possibility seriously open new avenues of thought and exploration? Perhaps my favorite of all the courses I have taught in the past twenty-five years, a course that I am currently teaching, is built on just that possibility. Maybe rather than giving up in reverential ignorance, we should step into the tension between what we think we know and what lies beyond. Citing Locke, Robinson writes that “thinking that we know more than we do . . . blinds us to our ignorance, which is the deep darkness where truth abides.” I suggest that to assume that we know much about the nature of the divine is a prime example of “thinking that we know more than we do.”

My second concern has to do with “the reach of my capacities.” A number of months ago I read an interview with a philosopher who is also an atheist. She said that the issue of God’s existence “is settled to my satisfaction”—God doesn’t exist. atheist-theistThe larger issue is “when do I stop asking? When is enough enough?” This is a highly subjective matter, one that will be settled by many things in addition to logic and reason. In this Marilynne Robinson is not different from the atheist philosopher. Each of them has established the extent of “the reach of my capacities” to her satisfaction, something that all of us do but that no one should pretend to be an objective boundary that applies to all human beings. Each of us has a self-imposed limit beyond which we choose a “quiet ignorance.” I find more and more that wherever my boundary is, I have yet to reach it. Accordingly, “quiet ignorance” is not an attractive alternative.

Channeling John Locke one more time, Marilynne Robinson writes that “assumptions and certitudes imposed on matters that should in fact be conceded to ignorance warp and obstruct legitimate thought.” Point taken. Let’s also be aware that these very assumptions and certitudes frequently are clothed in the garb of unquestioned preconceptions. One person’s ignorance is another person’s legitimate thought.

It Must Be A Miracle

582184_10102003755170495_50935280_n[1]My youngest son was always the inquisitive sort, the kind of kid who, from the moment he began to speak, fashioned most of his communication into questions starting with the word “Why?” The setting for one of his favorite stories is the beat up car I was driving when he was little; I was running errands and his three-or-four-year-old self was strapped into the car seat next to me on the passenger’s side facing the front. This was, as my good friend Marsue says, “before safety was invented.”

On this particular day, apparently, I had only sufficient tolerance for one thousand “Whys” before noon. As soon as he asked his one thousand and first “Why?” I yelled “STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!” To which, I’m sure, he replied “Why?” I have no recollection of this event, since it makes me look bad.

Here’s what I remember as my usual response when his litany of questions exceeded tolerable levels. After several consecutive “Dad, why . . . . .?” events, I would reply “I don’t know, Justin—it must be a miracle.”6012827422_f194ba4e9c[1]

And for a long time, that was an effective show stopper, because as Simone Weil wrote, “the reports of miracles confuse everything.” We want answers and explanations, and a miracle says “Oh, yeah? Explain THIS!” We can’t, because a miracle by definition lies outside the confines of human explanation. Or at least my explanation, as my son figured out before very long. One day in response to “It must be a miracle,” he shot back “Just because you don’t know the answer, Dad, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one!” True enough.

Consider what was perhaps Jesus’s most famous reported miracle—feeding 5000the feeding of the five thousand men (plus women and children). This miracle is reported in all four of the canonical gospels and, for once, they pretty much agree on the details. As is the case with all miracles, we are presented with a straightforward story of something happening that simply cannot have happened. What are we supposed to do with such a story, when we all know that thousands of people cannot be fed with five loaves of bread and two fish? How are we to think about, to be with, miracles?

I suggest that we begin with humility. Once a number of years ago, while a still untenured member of the philosophy department at my college, I participated in a symposium on the late fides et ratioJohn Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) which had been released the previous year. The symposium was a shared event between the philosophy and theology departments. One member from each department would present a 20 minute paper, and a panel of four philosophers and theologians would present brief comments. Sounds like a lot of fun, huh? The original presenters would have a chance for response, then the whole thing would be turned over to audience questions and interaction.

I was asked to present the longer paper for the philosophy department. In it I did what philosophers do—I raised what I considered to be some critical problems with the encyclical, suggesting that the Pope might even have gotten some important things wrong—for instance his conclusion that reason must always submit to the authority of faith when they are in conflict. I knew from the start, of course, that this might be a bit controversial at a Catholic college—I was right. The audience that evening was impressive in size, exceeding what I’ve seen for any academic event in subsequent years at the college.Pius The larger community, particularly the parishioners of St. Pius V church across the street, had been invited and came in droves, expecting I’m sure to hear a cheerleading love-fest for their beloved Pope. Instead they got me raining on their parade. A colleague reported afterwards that one woman complained during the paper to her neighbor in a stage whisper: “I can’t believe they let people like him teach here!”

Rumblings during my paper exploded into direct challenge during the Q and A. After defending and clarifying my position—pretty well, I thought—for a few minutes, an exasperated older gentlemen in the front row asked “Dr. Morgan, is there no place in philosophy for humility?” I responded, honestly but perhaps a bit uncharitably, with a guffaw of laughter (if introverts ever guffaw). “The longer I do philosophy, the more I realize how much I don’t know!” Now I understood where the man was coming from—a place where honest challenges to pronouncements from authority, especially authority supposedly representing God, are viewed as prideful or worse. Furthermore, philosophy has the reputation for trying to logically explain everything and dismissively rejecting anything that resists such treatment. This reputation, unfortunately, has a good deal of evidence to support it.hamlet_yorick[1]

From its ancient roots, though, real philosophy begins with humility. Hamlet had it right when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, I would add, your theology, your science, and anything else we use in our attempts to jam our vast, wonderful, and often terrifying reality into manageable boundaries and straitjackets.

Along with humility, the other ancient starting point for philosophy is identified by Aristotle, perhaps the greatest philosopher of all, when he wrote that “philosophy begins with wonder.” Wonder is what a baby shows with her frank and forthright way of gazing about in bewilderment, trying to balance her oversized head on her undersized neck as she wonders “What’s this thing? And what’s that over there? And holy crap what’s THAT??” Wonder and humility. Woven together, they turn philosophy, as well as theology, science, and everything else into foundational, intimately connected human activities. bubble_croman[1]Psalm 8 gets this connection exactly right. “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you arranged—What are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?” Wonder turns our minds and imaginations with expectation toward what is greater than us (“When I see the heavens . . .”), while humility continually reminds us of the vast gulf between us and what is greater than us (“What are we . . .?).

I once heard a homily on a different gospel’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. The homilist, a Benedictine priest, struggled mightily with the very notion that so many people could be fed with five loaves and two fishes from a kid’s picnic basket. The homilist set things up eloquently, paid proper attention to Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of hungry people, then hit a wall with the miracle itself. miracles“We modern persons have a difficult time with the stories of Jesus’ miracles,” he said, “since what they describe violates the laws of nature.” Accordingly, he did what most of us do when faced with such an apparent violation—he provided alternative interpretations of the story in which such a violation did not occur.

It’s possible, for instance, unless Jesus was dealing with a crowd of fools that day, that the little boy was not the only person among the thousands in attendance smart enough to have brought along something to eat. The “miracle” is not that a tiny amount of food was increased to feed thousands, but rather that the boy’s innocent generosity sparked similar generosity in others. Those who had intended to hoard their carefully packed lunches for themselves were suddenly motivated, either through inspiration or shame, to share with others around them.

And then perhaps a further “miracle” occurred, in that many realized that they didn’t really need all the food they had brought—five loaves and two fishes are more than one person can eat, right? So as a spirit of generosity spreads through the crowd, gluttony takes a big hit. If each person eats only what they need and shares the remainder, everyone has enough. An impromptu community is built on the spot, everyone learns to share with others as well as to stop eating too much, angenerosityd no laws of nature are violated. Thanks be to God.

Why was the homilist, and why are we, inclined to explain a miracle away, to bring it within the confines of what we believe we know and can explain? This is partly a failure of humility, an insistence that we are the center of the universe and that, as Protagoras infamously claimed, we humans are “the measure of all things.” But we’re not. We are subject to the laws of nature, but they are neither defined by nor limited to our experience and understanding. Remember Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”

But our dogged attempts to explain (or explain away) everything smells more like fear than lack of humility to me. What better way to carve a home out of a reality far beyond our control than to define it in terms of what we can control? And while humility is the antidote for hubris, the cure for fear is wonder. Fear turns us inward; wonder turns us outward, toward the infinitely fascinating reality in which we find ourselves. And ultimately, wonder turns us toward God, who crosses the vast distance between divine and human by infusing everything, including us, with transcendence. This is the miracle of the incarnation, that God inhabits everything, that we are living sacraments, testimony to divine love.imagesCASHIO2A

Thomas Jefferson once published an edition of the Gospels with all the miracles taken out, resulting in a very short book. A daily existence from which miracles have been removed is similarly impoverished. A good friend of mine who recently passed away defined a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” And that covers just about everything, from individual acts of generosity, through impromptu human solidarity, to feeding thousands with a kid’s lunch. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need only learn to see it with the eyes of wonder and humility.

Getting Ready for the Apocalypse

A colleague and friend from the English department contacted me a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in developing a team-taught course with him to be taught for the first time in the Spring 2018 semester. This is one of the things I love about teaching at my college. Because the core program at the center of our extensive core curriculum–a program that I directed for the four years that ended just before my sabbatical last year–is taught by teams of colleagues from all over campus, the opportunities for collaboration across disciplines are abundant, as are the chances to create new courses from scratch. My colleague, with whom I taught for a semester several years ago during his first semester at the college, suggested to me that we create a course called “Apocalypse,” which we eventually described in our official proposal as follows:

This colloquium asks students to think about how civilization – and even humanity itself – might end.  With a bang? A whimper? A rapture? A zombie apocalypse? Visions of the destruction of civilization are currently experiencing a renaissance, from literature to television, film, and video games.  The “Apocalypse” colloquium is designed to connect this contemporary moment with the long tradition of apocalyptic writing and thinking.  Since their appearance, human beings have expressed their fears and hopes about the end of the world.  By asking students to think about the end of civilization and its aftermaths, we invite them to reconsider some of the fundamental questions their earlier core classes:  what is civilization? what responsibilities do human beings have to each other? what role does the divine play in promoting moral behavior? what is virtue, and does it apply in all circumstances? what things are essential in life? At a time when a poor internet connection or missed flight or speeding ticket can seem like a minor catastrophe, it can be instructive to imagine life in a world without electricity, planes, cars, police, or laws.

Truth be told, this topic is well outside my areas of expertise–I agreed to develop the course with my colleague because I thought it would be fun to teach with him again. In addition, I do have some experience with apocalyptic thinking–I was raised in it.

A new HBO miniseries called “The Leftovers” began a few years ago. TLindelof-The-Leftovers-HBOhis is the sort of series that I usually have no interest in—something weird has happened (like a huge invisible dome randomly dropping on top of a town) and the entertainment of the series is to see how people deal with the new situation. As my father would have said, it’s fun to observe a cow’s reaction to a new barn door. Shows with such premises are generally too Stephen King-ish for my taste. But the idea kernel behind “The Leftovers” is different.video-the-leftovers-trailer-shows-us-what-the-rapture-looks-like On a seemingly unimportant day, October 14th to be exact, millions of people worldwide inexplicably disappear into thin air. Here one moment, gone the next. The first episode of “The Leftovers” drops us three years later into a small Pennsylvania community as they prepare for a third year anniversary celebration (wake? remembrance?) of the dozens of friends and family members who evaporated on October 14. So what makes this bizarre premise any more interesting than a giant dome falling out of the sky? This one hits close to home, because in the parlance of the people I grew up with, the October 14 event that is at the heart of this show is the Rapture.

rapture_1_I don’t know if “Rapture Obsession” is an official medical diagnosis, but whether it is or not my family, my church, and just about everyone I knew growing up had it. In spades. The basic idea is simple—Jesus is coming back. And when he does, he’s going to take those who believe in him, who have “accepted Christ as their personal savior,” with him back to heaven (the Rapture) and leave the billions of unraptured losers here on earth for a seven-year period known as the Tribulation during which, literally, all hell will break loose. Armageddon. The Antichrist. The Apocalypse. All of these are triggered by the massive in-gathering of the faithful. At least in my youthful understanding, the primary reason to put up with all of the restrictions, limitations, and general annoyance of being a Christian was to guarantee that one is going and not staying when the Rapture occurs. Not that there was any solid guarantee that I was “in” rather than “out.” I spent many panicked moments as a youngster when my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be thinking that the Rapture had occurred and I was screwed.

Where did people get such a ridiculous idea from? The textual evidence in the Bible, surprisingly, is relatively thin and mixed at best. There are a few cryptic comments in the Gospels, a few more hints in Paul’s letters, but the bulk of the relevant material is in the Bible-closing Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel from the Hebrew scriptures (as read through Christian filters), material containing predictions so cryptic and visions so strange as to suggest that the authors were on hallucinogenics. 375px-Tribulation_views_svgThere’s enough there to draw one’s attention if one is so inclined, but not enough for anyone to be sure about what the texts actually mean.

But that didn’t stop my church community from being sure as hell (!) that we were in and just about everyone else (including Catholics, Universalists, and tons of other people who claimed to be Christians) was out. There was plenty of debate about the details. We believed that the Rapture would be the official kick-off of the Tribulation (we were “Pre-Trib” people), but some Rapture believers thought it would happen half-way through the Tribulation (“Mid-Trib”) and some even thought it would happen at the end, just before the Final Judgment (“Post-Trib”—I never saw the point of a Post-Trib Rapture). Pastors preached on it, Bible scholars and experts gave week-long conferences piggy-backed on revivals (my Dad was one of these experts), The_Late,_Great_Planet_Earth_coverand we all went into a tizzy when in 1970 evangelical minister Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, called “the number one non-fiction bestseller of the decade” by the New York Times, exploded on the scene. And this is not a dated phenomenon. Hal Lindsey’1972 bestselling sequel had the eye-catching title Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth; a brief Internet search or a Sunday road trip to the closest megachurch will confirm that Rapture mania is also alive and well on planet Earth. “The Leftovers” is likely to be a big hit.

perrotta__120628065425-275x411I first became aware of the series when Tom Perotta, whose novel the series is based on, made the rounds of my favorite NPR shows the week before its debut. In one of the interviews, Perotta said that part of his research for the book was living as an embedded person in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian community and church for a certain amount of time, sort of like how the Soviet spies in “The Americans” live embedded in Maryland as a typical middle-class 1980s American couple. Assuming that, as always, the book would be better than the television series (it is), I ordered The Leftovers, published in 2011, from Amazon. It is clear from the outset that Perotta had done his homework well; on page 3 of the novel’s Prologue, the narrator describes that, as one might expect, there is a great deal of confusion and debate about “what just happened” in the weeks following October 14th—was it the Rapture or not? Many argued that it couldn’t have been.

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared on October 14th—Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were—hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. left-behind-people-on-rapture-dayAs far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.

My church would have been at the forefront of those who denied that this was the Rapture on theological grounds. It would be understandable if not everyone in our congregation was raptured—not everyone was a good enough Christian. Those in the inner circle would have even been happy to predict who was not sufficiently up to snuff. But non-Christians? Atheists? Catholics, for God’s sake? Underlying Rapture obsession and mania is the very familiar human attempt to put God in a box, to figure out ahead of time what God is up to, what God is like, and what God likes best—then to act accordingly. A rapture such as fictionalized in The Leftovers is such an affront to our best efforts at putting the divine in a straitjacket that it has to be rejected as something other than the real thing. young_earthMaybe God threw this pseudo-rapture into the mix early just to test our faith, I can hear someone suggesting, sort of like God planted dinosaur fossils and made the earth appear to be several billion years old rather than the few thousand that the Bible says, just to fuck us up (for a good reason, of course).

Truth be told, though, the random harvest described in The Leftovers sounds exactly like something God might do, once as many human boxes and straitjackets for the divine as possible are left behind. God’s apparent randomness and lack of respect for our human obsession with fairness and justice is on display everywhere. It is entirely understandable that Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? has been a record-breaking bestseller. The very process of natural selection that has and continues to produce the vast diversity of living things is energized by randomness and chance. For those who insist on going to their favorite sacred text to get a handle on the divine, you need go no further than Jesus’ observations that “it rains on the just and the unjust” and “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Every time we believe we have God figured out, it is good to remember that if you want to give God a good laugh, just tell her your plans.when-will-the-rapture-happen-flowchart

Taking a Moral Holiday

It has been a bit over three months since the Presidential election, just over three weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration. It seems like an eternity—time apparently only flies when you are having fun. There has been no end of unsolicited advice from all parts of the political and religious spectrum for those who, as I, are having a bit of a hard time figuring out both how to process what has happened and, more importantly, how to approach the days, weeks, and months ahead. I have, for instance, been told “You lost, so stop whining and deal with it!” (as if principled resistance and whining are indistinguishable), as well as “Why don’t you give him a chance? It may not be as bad as you think” (You’re right—it’s worse). But the response that disturbs me most is one that I’ve read frequently on Facebook from fellow Christians, both those who voted for the new President last November and those who did not. “I just fall back on believing that God is in control and that things will work out according to His plan.” I used to hear that sort of thing a lot when I was kid as a response to or explanation of any number of disturbing developments. I didn’t buy it then, and I still don’t.

As much as I would like to take a hiatus from the insanity that seems to accompany the new administration’s efforts on a daily basis, I am finding that the courses I am teaching this semester won’t allow it. As I reread a talk by William James in preparation for an upcoming class in my American Philosophy course, for instance, I found James discussing an issue that has arisen frequently over the years in my classrooms with students: for many persons of faith, the whole purpose of religious belief is the apparently attractive, but elusively vague, state of “comfort.” “It comforts me to believe in God,” someone will say, without specifying whether this comfort is a fuzzy hope about an afterlife, a sense of solidarity created by hanging out occasionally with people with similar beliefs, or a warm emotional attachment to believing that “it will all work out right in the end.” William James calls this theistic attitude “trust in the Absolute,” and faces it head on.

What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying that their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is “overruled” already, we may . . . without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag in its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

There have been a number of times during the past several weeks when I have been tempted to take such a moral holiday. But if there ever was a time when persons of all faiths should not take a break from being on the moral front lines, this is it.

Pragmatist philosophers like William James often talk about the “cash value” of an idea, suggesting that the “truth” of an idea or belief is to be judged not by whether it matches up correctly to some objective fact of the matter, but rather by considering to what extent the idea or belief “works” or actually makes a difference in one’s life.

Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much.

The radical nature of this reinterpretation of what it means for something to be true becomes obvious when applied to faith and religion. In what does the truth of the theist’s “I believe in the existence of a good God” reside? Not in the comfort provided by believing that such a being actually exists in a heaven beyond the reach of human investigation, but rather in the difference this belief makes in the theist’s day-to-day life. Where the rubber of faith hits the road of real life, comfort is a scarce commodity. What matters is what my faith causes me to think and do in what William James calls “this real world of sweat and dirt,” noting that the services of the divine are needed not in a heaven “out there” somewhere, but “in the dust of our human trials.”

The fundamental problem with the attitude that “God is in control” or “We may not recognize it, but God has a plan” is that, for those of us who profess the Christian faith, we are God’s plan. Taking a moral holiday by wrapping ourselves in the platitude that God knows what God is doing is to deliberately ignore what the gospels tell us over and over again. We are the salt of the earth, we are tasked with caring for those who fall through the cracks, we are the way that God gets into the world. When those in power enact policies that harm the very persons for whom God cares the most, it is our responsibility to speak truth to that power in words and actions.

One of the ways that persons of faith often engage with the surrounding world is through prayer, which makes Colbert I. King’s opinion piece “Should we pray for Trump?” in Saturday’s Washington Post of particular interest.

Washington Post: Should we pray for Trump?

King reports that Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention advises us “to pray that Trump’s presidency is a ‘great and good one’ and that he flourishes in the civil arena,” while the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have concluded that Trump’s policies are “clearly demonic acts.” Quoting the Apostle Paul, the bishops advise their congregations to wrestle against “the rulers of the darkness . . . [and] spiritual wickedness in high places.” King himself says that his “humble prayer is that the President of the United States gets help,” similar to my wife’s prayer that “the damaged four-year-old inside the President’s adult body will be healed.”

My own experience with persons who pray (now sixty years and counting) reveals that prayer often becomes a way for persons of faith to take a moral holiday. Throwing a few words, formulaic or improvised, heavenward might seem to satisfy the person of faith’s obligation to engage with a world in which it often seems beyond our capacities to make a difference. But we are instructed by the Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing,” indicating an engagement and activity that goes far beyond a few set pieces offered at specified times. My relationship with prayer was tense and fraught my whole life until I realized that prayer is not an activity—it’s a state of being. It’s an attitude that, for me, means asking How do I bring the best of me, the divine that I know is my deepest me, into this day, this class, this essay, this conversation? What does the divine in me have to say about policies and decisions at the highest level of government that are an affront to what I believe God wants for all human beings?

“I trust that God knows what God is doing” is simply a platitude and an escape until I realize that when it comes to God’s engagement with the world, I’m it. We’re it. This is how God does it. Jesus loved the unlovable, healed the sick, challenged the powerful, and eventually paid the ultimate price for not taking a moral holiday. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew something about putting his life on the line, wrote: “Living confession does not mean the putting of one dogmatic thesis up against another, but it means a confession in which it is really a matter of life or death.” Lives are at risk—don’t go on holiday.

The Time of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

 

I just finished reading Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove, a novel I stumbled across in my college’s bookstore while looking for something else. I haven’t decided yet whether I give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, but one brief passage has stuck with me. As a sixteen-year old whose beloved father has just died (his mother died when he was much younger), Ove tells his parish vicar “that there was no need to reserve a place for him in the pews at Sunday service for the foreseeable future. Not because Ove did not believe in God . . . but because in his view this God seemed to be a bit of a bloody swine.” Those who are obsessed, as I am, with questions about what is greater than us often assume that the most important question is “Does God exist?” I submit that an even more problematic question is “What if God does exist, but has character traits entirely different from those we project heavenward?”

In her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made testament of youthinto a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Iris Murdoch grapples directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

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.