Category Archives: truth

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

Exactly two years ago today, I started “Freelance Christianity.” I intended to write on the blog until it became just another damn thing I had to do–two years, visits from 150+ countries, and 35,000+ views later, I’m still loving it. Thanks to all who regularly read my musings, as well as to those who drop in once in a while. To celebrate the two-year anniversary, here is my very first blog post in which I sing the praises of the second most important woman in my life. Enjoy, and thanks again!

I have unexpectedly fallen in love with a real bitch. She’s cute, with dark brown eyes and medium brown hair. Although I generally prefer long hair on a female, she wears her hair extremely short and it works. She tends to bite me when she gets overexcited while we’re playing, but I still find her pearly white teeth very attractive. Although she’s willing to allow a ménage à trois when my wife is home, she prefers it being just the two of us in bed. Her name is Frieda.

This is a new experience for me. No one has ever looked at me with a gaze that says “you were put on earth just for me.” No female has ever marked me as a love interest and dared me not to love her back. This is the first time I’ve been chosen before I knew I was even being considered. And it’s not as if Frieda doesn’t have lots of options for love interests. Everybody loves Frieda—she’s extroverted and assertive, yet can be warm, demure, and submissive. She can take over a room just by walking into it, yet is happy to spend hours being quiet doing whatever you’re doing. She is fluent in both English and German. Her profile would be a killer on eharmony.com.

I never thought I’d fall in love with a dog. I’ve always been a cat person; there’s been at least one cat in my life consistently ever since I was ten years old. A cat is a perfect pet for an introvert; they clearly would prefer to be left alone most of the time and will only socialize when it is their idea. There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. It takes time and effort to get to know a cat—time and effort on the human’s part, that is. The cat couldn’t care less. Self-reliance, independence, confidence, a sense of mystery and aloofness—I find much to admire in a cat.

Dogs are a different story; not so much to admire. Dogs are so obsequious, as if canine completeness requires human approval.. But Frieda didn’t and doesn’t need me—she chose me, out of the blue. Frieda is part of the four animal menagerie who arrived when my son and daughter-in-law moved in, joining the two geriatric animals already in the house; she decided early on that I was going to be hers. I’ve seen animals attach themselves to a single human before (usually my wife, a dog person). Not to me, though. So the “click click click” of toenails behind me everywhere I go, an enthusiasm when I come home so over the top that I worry about her health, having a canine jammed in next to me everywhere I sit, a 10 ½ pound dachshund trying to spoon with me in bed—these are new and sometimes disconcerting experiences.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am.” Not me—that’s too much pressure. No human being could possibly deserve the rapturous upside-down look Frieda occasionally gives me when she’s laying next to me or on my lap, just making sure that I’m still there. Of course such reverence is easy for Frieda—she doesn’t know about all the ways in which I am unworthy of unconditional love. That’s one of my great fears—what if they (my wife, my sons, my friends, my students—anybody) knew the truth about me? Frieda doesn’t know the truth about me, and that’s why she’s attached to me at the hip. She doesn’t know any better.

I learned as a kid in Sunday School that grace is “unmerited favor.” Divine grace is something I don’t deserve, a gift I cannot earn, bestowed simply “because.” Over the years, grace has evolved for me into “God knows that you’re a shit and a loser, but chooses to forgive you and to love you anyway.” Today I’m thinking that grace is more like Frieda. The miracle of grace is not that “you are unworthy but I choose to treat you as if you are worthy,” but “you are worthy.” Not “I love you in spite of,” or “I love you because of,” but “I love you.” If there is, somewhere in the universe, a transcendent grace and love like that, I am in awe.  That’s something worth believing and having faith in. That’s a thread of possibility that should be followed in order to see where it leads. Of course, Frieda’s just a simple dog and doesn’t realize that her standards are ridiculously low. But as Leonard Bernstein wrote in Mass, “Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.”

The Muslim/Christian Brotherhood

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

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

Reza Aslan Fox.com interview

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

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

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

Reza Aslan NPR interview

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

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

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

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

Instead, Aslan became a Muslim, finding that

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

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

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

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

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Just the Facts

While running errands the other day I drove past a billboard that raised my blood pressure a bit. It’s the sort of billboard that dots the landscape in various parts of the country but that one very seldom sees in blue state, outrageously liberal Rhode Island. billboardTrumpeting the “fact” that God created the heavens and the earth (because the first sentence of that irrefutable science text, the Bible, tells us so), it not-so-subtlely rejects the fact of Darwinian natural selection by putting a big X through the familiar cartoon chart of primates evolving into humans. “Jesus Christ,” I thought. “The barbarians have arrived.” Don’t get me started with the “Darwin is just a theory” crap—it’s a theory in the same sense that gravity is a theory. It’s a testable hypothesis that has stood up to the challenge of subsequent data and observations so well that one has to have a poorly hidden agenda driving one’s attempts to still deny it. More importantly, it is possible to believe in a creating God (as I do) and the truth of natural selection (ass I do)—but only if one is willing to let the facts of science inform one’s divine paradigm. Oh well.

Later that same day (while still running errands) I heard something on the science guyNPR’s “Here and Now” that raised my blood pressure a bit more. At the beginning of a segment on the dangers of global warming with Bill Nye the Science Guy (I wonder if “Nye the Science” is his middle name and “Guy” his last name?), the interviewer played a brief clip from Mr. Guy’s recent appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire,”

http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/07/29/bill-nye-climate-change

crossfirewhere host S. E. Cupp berated him for his close-mindedness.

Isn’t it a problem when “science guys” attempt to bully other people? Really, the science group has tried to shame anyone who dares to question it [global warming] and it’s not working with the public!

When asked by the “Here and Now” interviewer to comment, Bill said

When you have a bullying person calling you a bully, you just have to roll with it. That’s fine. I just wonder what really motivates her. The evidence is overwhelming—other countries aren’t having talk shows like that.

I wonder the same thing—what is the motivation for denying something that the vast majority of qualified scientists confirm the truth of? The interviewer went on to note that every time their show has a segment on global warming, they receive dozens, even hundreds of emails complaining that they did not give equal time to “the other side”—factsrather than having a legitimate debate about the best ways to address global warming, apparently there needs to be a debate about whether it exists. My inner rational person wants to scream THERE IS NO FUCKING OTHER SIDE TO A FACT!!! Fortunately, Bill Nye and others have more patience than I do.

How is it that in the twenty-first century we constantly find ourselves spinning our wheels in belief ruts that advanced hominids should have escaped from centuries ago? In the mystery novel I am currently reading, Tana French’s Faithful Place, the main character and narrator tana_frenchFrank MacKey is discussing with his sister the frustration he faces when trying to teach his nine-year-old the difference between truth and bullshit.

I want Holly to be aware that there is a difference between truth and meaningless gibberish bullshit. She’s completely surrounded, from every angle, by people telling her that reality is one hundred percent subjective: if you really believe something is true, then it doesn’t actually matter whether it is in reality true or not. . . I want my daughter to learn that not everything in this world is determined by how often she hears it or how much she wants to it be true or how many other people are looking. Somewhere in there, for a thing to count as real, there has got to be some actual bloody reality.

This nails the problem on the head. In a world in which everyone is an expert, in which everything posted, texted or tweeted can immediately become truth without verification or testing, images1HFL89CVthe sharp line between truth and fiction becomes blurry and is ultimately erased, especially when the fiction one is spinning is something that one really, really, really wants to be true. Good luck to Frank, and to all of us, when trying to swim against that stream. Shouting “But there are no facts to support what you are claiming” into the maelstrom of “But I really believe and want this to be true” often seems to be an exercise in futility similar to spitting into a hurricane.

Except that everything I’ve been pontificating about so far—the importance of facts as the reliable touchstone and antidote to our penchant for believing things to be true just because we want them to be true—can easily and justifiably turned right back on me when the discussion moves to belief in God’s existence. As a Facebook acquaintance posted in a discussion recently, imagesBCBKIAMJ“Could some person who believes in God’s existence just provide me with ONE PIECE of evidence to support that belief?” The palpable frustration in her question is the same frustration I have with global warming and natural selection deniers. Yet I have regularly written in this blog over the past many months that when it comes to belief in God, the evidence rules change. Why do I think I can get away with that?

I have said and written that the best, perhaps the only, evidence for God’s existence is a changed life—and, of course, the person who claims her or his life has been changed is the primary judge of whether the claim is true. The evidence is subjective, in other words. john-wesley-1-1Many theists identify a powerful, life changing internal event as their primal contact with and evidence for God—I am thinking, for instance, of Pascal’s “Night of Fire,” of John Wesley’s “my heart was strangely warmed” and Simone Weil’s “for the first time in my life something drove me to my knees” as examples. But I have never had such an experience–my divine encounters end to be more like a steady drizzle than a downpour–and even the most powerful encounters of this sort are subjective and first person accounts. The “changed life” that I attribute to the presence of the divine in my life could just as easily be explained as maturation, finally growing up, learning to deal with my history or simply growing weary of wrestling with ghosts from my past.

Ultimately, the evidence for God’s reality in my life counts as evidence only because the belief is already in place. There are stories out there about atheists and agnostics who have been convinced of God’s existence because of convincing rational arguments and effective marshalling of objective evidence, but that has not been my path. I was born into an atmosphere saturated with belief in the divine and although my beliefs concerning what and who that divine is have morphed through many permutations and continue to do so, I still breathe that same God-infused atmosphere. That is undoubtedly not the sort of evidence that my Facebook non-believer acquaintance is looking for, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. This will be good to remember the next time I am sharply critical of people who shape their evidence to fit their beliefs. For better or for worse, with the highest stakes possible, I am doing the same thing.imagesCTV4CPOX

1358330283_humility2[1]

My Neighbor

0[1]Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement. It is a selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues–Iris Murdoch

I recently found myself in the midst of a Facebook discussion, the sort of online discussion that I try to avoid at all costs. The topic was same-sex marriage;s-FACEBOOK-PROFILE-PICTURE-RED-HRC-large[1] in the middle of some testy back and forth between persons of vastly different beliefs and commitments, one of the few students I am friends with on Facebook, a young Muslim woman, posted this:

I honestly wonder – why are some religious folks so quick to condemn and oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage and yet lack a response of even a marginally close degree of intensity to such inequalities of wealth and resource that inevitably lead to world hunger and suffering – inequalities which their respective religious texts and prophets make clear to condemn and resist far more than to gay marriage? I am not seeking to belittle or invalidate anyone’s beliefs but am genuinely seeking to understand the difference in importance given to these issues – I would truly appreciate an answer to this, from anyone here.

For me, at least, that cut through a lot of the bullshit that had been e-flying around in previous comments. I posted the following in response:

Unfortunately, I think it is because what the great religions REALLY require of us is too hard. The prophet Micah wrote that what God requires of us is to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” That’s a lot harder than taking positions on social issues that don’t cost anything. It’s very clear from reading Scripture that the measure of our journey with God is how we treat the poor, the needy, the disenfranchised, the suffering–not the positions we took on same-sex marriage, or abortion, or how often we were in church.Aime-Morot-Le-bon-Samaritain[1]

All of this is placed in sharp focus by a very familiar story. Is there any of Jesus’s parables more familiar than The Good Samaritan? And is there any parable whose message is more impossible to live out? Jesus uses the story to illustrate mercy, the second of Micah’s directives for following God, agreeing with the man who concludes that the true neighbor in the story was “the one who showed mercy.” I’d like to reflect on the Good Samaritan story with the last of Micah’s directives in view: Humility.

On its face, humility is not a popular virtue; indeed, self-effacement, being a doormat, deference to others—all popular synonyms for humility—seem more like vices than a virtue. aristotle-conferance_1[1]Humility is not included in Aristotle’s famous list of virtues, and philosophers for millennia have struggled with humility, often ignoring it or altogether denying that it is a virtue. One contemporary philosopher suggests that humility “seems at best a saving grace of the mediocre and at worst an excuse for passivity towards human wrongs.” It certainly doesn’t fit comfortably with the dominant American notions of independence, individuality, and aggressive achievement. And yet one can scarcely read a page of the Psalms or the New Testament without encountering calls for humility. So what exactly is being called for?

In the Good Samaritan story, the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all see the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead in the ditch. And yet their manner of seeing is very different. The story says that in the case of both the priest and the Levite, “levite[1]when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” I have heard and read many explanations, theories, and accounts of why these religious guys walked on by; the most common is both the priest and Levite assumed that the man was dead and did not want to violate the many prohibitions in the Law against those who handled holy things for a living touching anything dead. In other words, the priest and the Levite saw the injured man through the lenses of their societal roles and commitments. They saw the injured man with the eyes of the self.

“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” If the Samaritan had chosen, as the priest and the Levite did, to see the injured man through self-defining lenses, he also would have walked on by. Travelling on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the Samaritan was in enemy territory—Samaritans and Jews had nothing to do with each otherpara-1[1]. The man in the ditch was almost certainly the sort of person that the Samaritan had been taught to hate. The Samaritan is on a journey, undoubtedly in a hurry, with miles to go before he sleeps—why does he stop and allow his agenda to be seriously disturbed? What does he see that the priest and the Levite did not see?

As simple as it sounds, the Samaritan stopped because he saw the injured man unfiltered. Simone Weil calls this ability to see unfiltered “attention,” and suggests that it is at the heart of true human connection. “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” 1358330283_humility2[1]Another word for this miraculous ability to see unfiltered, to attentively look at what is in front of me unencumbered by my usual filters and agendas, is humility. And it is at the heart of true faith.

And this, I believe, is why defining ourselves morally in terms of positions taken on hot button issues is far more attractive than actually attempting to live a life guided by what the texts simone_coat[1]and principles of one’s faith actually demand. As Simone says, true attentiveness—true humility—is a miracle. Human beings are not naturally wired in this way. Iris Murdoch notes that “we live in a dream, we’re wrapped up in a dark veil, we think we’re omnipotent magicians, we don’t believe anything exists except ourselves. Our attachments tend to be selfish and strong, and the transformation of our lives from selfishness to unselfishness is sometimes hard even to conceive of.” This is what makes the Good Samaritan miraculous—he is able to truly see what is front of him and respond directly without a moment’s concern for anything other than what this man needs.

Iris Murdoch defines love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Love and humility, in other words, go hand in hand. Love and humility energize the apprehension of something else, something particular, as existing outside us. In our daily lives we are continually confronting something other than ourselves. We all, not only can but have to, deal with the resistant otherness of other persons, other things, history, the natural world, and this involves a perpetual effort. Good_Samaritan_Sicard_Tuileries[1]But at the heart of the Christian faith, illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan, is the promise that the possibility of transformative love and humility is in each of us, ready to be introduced into the world if we will only look away from ourselves toward what is directly in front of us.

We are called to cultivate Good Samaritan moments—moments in which the human being in front of us is not dark-skinned, poor, female, gay, disabled, conservative, wealthy, Muslim, male, straight, ugly, liberal, old, Christian, obese, or attractive, but rather is a person whose needs, hopes and dreams are real and independent of us. It is a task to come to see the world as it is, a task that can only be attempted with the miraculous energy of humility. When I believe that I have seen all there is to see, the Christ in me says “let me look again.”

MajorMinor1

Joy in a Minor Key

400px-Circle_of_fifths_deluxe_4_svgAt some point early in their musical training, all serious musicians are introduced to the “circle of fifths,” a handy chart that maps out the complicated but fascinating relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, as well as the associations between the major and minor keys.I was fortunate to have Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard, as my piano teacher from age four to eleven—she was a stickler for theory and precision and had a large poster of the circle of fifths on the wall of her studio. I was immediately fascinated—it looked like a labyrinth or something out of The Lord of the Rings, and as I was gradually introduced to the twelve major keys, the twelve related minors, and their harmonic relationships I was able to trace geometrically on the chart the harmonies I had been hearing in my head for as long as I could remember.

Recently the following from Richard Powers’ Orfeo got me to thinking about the major and minor keys in a new way.

There’s joy in a minor key, a deep pleasure to be had from hearing the darkest tune and discovering you’re equal to it.

MajorMinor1A lot can be learned from the major and minor keys that is applicable to everyday life. Traditionally the major keys have been described as “bright, extroverted, upbeat” and so on, while the minor keys are “introspective, complex, sad” or even “depressing.” Yet the circle of fifths shows that each major has its relative minor that is literally only one note different—a note that makes all the difference. Powers, who is a classically trained musician, is noting something important about the minor keys—they are rich and evocative in ways with which the brighter and more popular majors cannot compete. Yet the dividing line between major and minor is razor thin—if we are to pay proper attention to the music of our lives, understanding how major and minor interweave is crucial.

I had the opportunity to explore this with “Living Stones,” the adult Christian education group that I lead after church once a month (and have written about in this blog)

Living Stones

last Sunday after the morning service. I was doing double duty, as I was also organist that morning,003 alternating with the organist emeritus every other week through the summer as the church searches for a new full-time music minister. The fifteen or so regulars have a wide range of experience with music (or lack of same), so I presumed no prior knowledge. Gathering in the choir stalls by the organ rather than in our usual location, I oriented them to the major/minor distinction by suggesting that in the cycle of liturgical seasons, Easter and Christmas are major key seasons while Advent and Lent are minor key seasons. We moved then to a listening exercise, as I played first My country“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” our closing hymn for the morning because of it being July 4th Sunday, in F minor rather than its original F major, then a representative minor key hymn, “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee,” in G major rather than its original G minor. As the Living Stoners compared the new keys to the hymn texts, they agreed that major is appropriate for the first hymn than minor and minor more appropriate to the second than major. Different texts require different tunes—and so it goes with the chapters and texts of our lives.

The Book of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures is a case in point. The story is familiar. Job, “a man blameless and upright . . . who feared God and shunned evil,” is the topic of conversation between God and Satan, “the accuser.” In response to God’s “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth,” Satan replies “Well duh! You give him everything he wants and you have built a protective hedge around him.” In response to God’s agreeing to remove the hedge at Satan’s suggestion just to see what happens, Job’s flocks, crops, Job-wife1servants and children are swept away within six short verses and one of the greatest texts on the dynamic of suffering is underway.

The drama of Job is relentless, with his suffering unaddressed by his apparently well-meaning friends and his less than supportive wife. Underlying it all is Job’s insistence that his suffering and pain is not justified in any sense that he (or any other human being) can understand. It is clear that he will not “curse God and die,” as his wife advises him to do—his commitment to his God is unshakeable. “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him.” Job’s commitment, however, is neither passive nor facile. He wants answers and challenges a silent God to provide them. With very few exceptions, the Book of Job is entirely written in a minor key; the message of Job is that sometimes minor keys do not get resolved into major keys. Sometimes the text of one’s life demands a minor key; simply “waiting it out” or longing for it to be something it is not is to rob oneself of the richness and depth that only minor harmonies can provide.

0_21_0706_stockdaleWhen God finally does respond to Job’s questions and challenges, it is in a way that on the surface, at least, is entirely unsatisfactory to our contemporary sense of fairness and justice. God does not provide any reasons for Job’s misfortunes, nor does God explain himself. Rather, God makes clear in a lengthy soliloquy that he does not have to explain himself at all. As Admiral James Stockdale once described God’s response to Job, “I’m God and you’re not. This is my world—either deal with it or get out.”

It’s a tough message for our modern sensibilities, but is far closer to the reality of the world we find ourselves in than the stories we tell ourselves about “things working out in the end” or “justice will prevail.” Whatever value there is in suffering cannot lie in hopes for its removal or resolution. Yet we continue to try. jobs-restorationThere is nothing hokier or more forced than to resolve a composition from a minor key to its accompanying major in the last measure of the piece. But this is precisely what we find at the end of Job. In the final verses of the last chapter, after Job has been subdued by the divine display of power and superiority, Job magically gets everything back—children, flocks, servants, lands—and even his useless “comforters” and unhelpful wife get told off by God. “And they lived happily ever after,” in other words. I learned from one of my theology colleagues a number of years ago that these closing verses are not in the oldest texts of Job, but were apparently added in several decades or even centuries later.

Why? I asked my group. Why would someone want to change the original minor key story of Job, resolving it to a major key in the last measure? “Because the original ending is too tough,” someone suggested. “Because people want to believe that the suffering has a point, that it is all for something,” another thought. Which makes the better story? The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something Living Stoner said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. If there is meaning in the minor key movements of my life’s symphony, it has to be in the movement, not because the final movement will return to a joyful major key. The major keys ride the waves, but the minor keys plumb the depths, depths that give a life its richness and texture.lean forward As Richard Powers suggests, there is joy and satisfaction to be found in the midst of the suffering, a joy that is largely unavailable in any other context.

A few months ago, MSNBC (the only 24-7 news channel I can stomach, and even that not for very long) had a new ad campaign: Lean Forward. Out of context, it made little sense. Lean forward to what? But in the minor keys of our lives, “lean forward” or “lean in” is far better advice than “hold your breath and wait it out.” The purpose of the minor keys is not to provide a temporary alternative to majors. Rather, as another ad campaign many years ago suggested, sometimes minor harmonies are the most important threads in “the fabric of our lives.”

Making the Truth Laugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will the Truth Set You Free?

I just don’t trust people who are convinced that they know the truth. Marcus Borg

I wrote in a recent blog post about my love of mystery novels, especially those that come in developing series

“It’s a Mystery”

and have also written about my long-standing habit of taking on an author every summer whose work I have never read and devouring everything she or he has written in three months.

“Unvisited Tombs”

nesboThis summer it appears that I will have the opportunity to combine these obsessions—I have discovered the work of Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbø. He is an internationally bestselling author whose books have only started becoming available in the US over the past few years. I first stumbled across the batThe Bat, the first of ten books in his Harry Hole series, a couple of months ago in the college bookstore. The cover looked interesting, Nesbø’s name was mentioned by a friend and colleague on Facebook a few weeks later as a favorite mystery writer, I recognized the usual random confluence of events that frequently leads me to a new favorite author, I ordered The Bat on Amazon and my summer reading plan was established.

Harry Hole, Nesbø’s main character, is complicated and well outside the boilerplate fictional detective. Toward the end of The Bat he has a conversation with an Australian detective about why police officers and detectives go into such a thankless profession. supermanThe Aussie sounds like the 60s Superman show I grew up with, suggesting that such public servants are motivated by a thirst for “truth and justice.” Harry isn’t buying it.

I’ve been a policeman all my life, but I still look at my colleagues around me and wonder what it is that makes them do it, fight other people’s wars. What drives them? Who wants to go through so much suffering for others to have what they perceive as justice? They’re the stupid ones. We are. We’re blessed with a stupidity so great that we believe we can achieve something.

I love it when my fictional detectives go below the surface of the current case and begin exploratory ruminations about the dark underbelly of human nature and motivation. And Harry’s not finished.

Truth is a relative business, and it’s flexible. We bend and twist it until it has space in our lives. Some of it, anyway. . . . The truth is that no one lives off the truth and that’s why no one cares about the truth. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.

truthTruth is a slippery business, but everyone seems to have something to say about it. For instance, Jesus is memorably reported as having said that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” This is one of the many things I wish Jesus had never said, not because I think it is wrong but rather because it has been subject to all sorts of misinterpretation and coopted by all sorts of agendas. For instance, many suggest that the “truth” Jesus is referring to actually the “Truth.” The capital letter makes all the difference, as it signifies that the person making the proposal believes in such a thing as absolute truth, something that Harry Hole apparently does not believe in the existence of. Absolute Truths are universal, fixed, inflexible, and not subject to the subjective preferences of mere mortals such as ourselves. Sounds attractive—such Truths, if they exist, would provide an indispensable touchstone for adjudicating conflicts between mere truths, which as Harry suggests are often mere projections of our own preferences and interests that we seek to implement to the greatest extent that our power and influence allows.true believer

The problem with the idea of absolute Truths is at least twofold. First, many agree that such Truths exist but few agree on what they actually are. I believe that absolutes do exist, but discovering their content is far more difficult and complicated than many “True believers” want to admit. This leads to the second problem—True believers tend to cut corners on the search process, adopting what very well may be just provisional as if it is an absolute, then beating others over the heads, either virtually or actually, with their Truth pretenders. I’ve just spent a semester with my students in two different courses studying the limitless ways in which human beings have used Truths they claim to be in possession of—religious, political, what have you—to justify violence against and killing of fellow human beings who happen to embrace different and incompatible Truths. The Crusades, various wars of religion, the Nazis—virtually any truth can be dressed up as a Truth and used as a weapon of mass destruction. The best comment on this dynamic I ever read came from the author of a letter to the editor in the local newspaper a number of years ago: Pursue the truth, and run like hell from anyone who claims to have it.

In reality, I think the fact of the matter concerning the truth was clearly expressed by one of my colloquium students who wrote the following in her intellectual notebook this past semester: “The truth will not set you free, but it will definitely mess your life up.” This is because the truth about the truth for human beings is that it is a process rather than a thing. The truth is more like a continuing creative act than a treasure hunt that will hopefully stumble into the pot of gold at the end of an evanescent rainbow. Harry Hole is right about one big thing—the truth is something that we make. This is not a surprise, because as a matter of fact all ways of seeing reality are human constructions. Truth is not an exception. Everything we believe is a product of a complex filtering and organizing process through any number of filters, from genetic to experiential. the wayHarry is also correct in saying that truth is a relative business—relative to each human being since each of our filters are uniquely ours.

This does not mean, however, that just anything goes. It does not mean that we simply get to make truth up as we go along, as those who fear the ogre “relativism” would claim. Jesus said something else about truth that is directly applicable—“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth is not something we find at the end of a search—it is in fact the search itself, a search that in many traditions is connected directly to a way of life, a person. Harry is wrong when he concludes that the only motivations for the process of truth are self-interest and power. The “I am the way” alternative is that truth is a divine process in which we participate; our participation is energized positively by the things for which we hope and the things which we love.

 

What I Have Learned From My Students This Semester

I have often said that the mark of a good class is one in which I learn as much as the students do. At the end of the semester, it is a good time to think back over the many unexpected truths I have learned from my students this semester. Since my colleagues and I frequently compare notes on this topic, I have also included in the selection below various items that I learned second-hand from students not in my classes through their professors. Truth is truth, after all—it doesn’t matter where it comes from. In no particular order, here is a sampling.

Some people are important enough to have followers before they are born. Students have told me for years that ancient persons from Socrates to Julius Caesar, literary characters from Achilles to Clytemnestra (“Clytemnestra did not behave as a good Christian wife should”), Francisand figures from the Hebrew Scriptures from Moses to David managed to be Christians before the birth of Christ, so that’s old hat. But in my latest batch of papers I learned that “Francis believed in living in poverty and taking a lifestyle that the Franciscans before him lived.” I wonder what the Franciscans who lived before Francis called themselves. Proto-Franciscans? Pre-Franciscans? Followers of a Crazy Guy Who Hasn’t Been Born Yet? Really Poor People?

Going to war against oneself is never a good idea: From a student paper submitted to a colleague: Roncevaux pass“[The Battle of Roncevaux Pass] occurred when the Franks intervened in a Muslim conflict between Charles the Great and the great army of Charlemagne,” further explaining that “There is a lot of hate between Charlemagne and King Charles…” Going to war against oneself complicates a number of things. For instance, how are Roland, the hero of this battle at the center of The Song of Roland, and Ganelon, his jealous father-in-law and traitor, supposed to know which side to fight on? Neither? Both? Everyone’s going to need therapy afterwards.

People whose names start with the same letter invariably have similar thoughts: DanteIn response to a question about the differences in world views between Dante and Montaigne, a student wrote that Descartes“Dante was extremely passionate that knowledge has to be 100% certain. And if there is knowledge that is certain it has to have no doubts that it could be corrupt.” I’m going to research this new-found information that Descartes was apparently plagiarizing the work of a fellow D-name who lived several hundred years earlier.

Martin Luther needed to be clearer about what he really meant: serpentFrom one of a colleague’s student papers: “Luther does not say precisely whether or not good works would help one achieve the goal of eternal life, but he does appreciate them.” Then the following from Luther’s “On Christian Liberty,” cited in one of my student papers: “The Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful serpent of all, and subject to everyone.” There obviously is another research project in finding the heretofore hidden influences of Luther’s Christian serpent on Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

Why use just a few words when a whole bunch of them will suffice? Assigned papers are an opportunity for students to flex their word-using muscles in print. Often a student who has never once opened her mouth in seminar will make sure that her quota of allowed words unused in seminar makes it into a paper. For instance, why write that

Works of literature often focus on the customs of people living in the author’s culture,

when you could write instead that

Throughout history, scholars have been displaying the impacts society has on people’s lives through various forms of expression. Of some of the more famous styles, writings and literature from oral teachings along with reflections on certain times provides future generations with important first-hand accounts of how lifestyles and culture influenced the people.

And why describe Dante’s organization of Hell in this manner:

Dante’s descriptions of the punishments in Hell, as well as the individuals one finds there, tell us much about the attitudes of his time.

when the following description will suffice?

During Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell, the descriptions as well as reasons for placement of particular individuals speaks through society’s influence, deeming Dante’s opinion in accordance with many of his time. Without Dante’s harsh portrayal of specific individuals, the backlash on society would be unknown.

You can only commit suicide once: When a student missed a seminar on Dante’s Inferno in the middle of the semester due to illness, I assigned her a makeup 1000-1200 word reflection on Canto 13Canto XIII, in which one finds the suicides—the “violent against themselves.” The seminar discussion focused on this section of Dante’s poem was fascinating, with my largely Catholic students flip-flopping back and forth between the position that they know they are supposed to hold as good Catholics—no suicide is ever justified—and a more nuanced judgment that permits consideration of individual circumstances.

In her makeup assignment, my student opened her reflection with noting that as

An extremely controversial topic, suicide has been a self-inflicting action from the beginning of time.

followed shortly after by the observation that

Suicide is an avoidable form of death.

As one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook when I put these two gems up for display on my wall, “Holy tautology, Batman!” Other friends and colleagues said that this immediately reminded them of the “Suicide is Painless” theme song from “M.A.S.H.”: “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please . . .”

But others saw something I did not immediately recognize—possible profundity. “That’s deep,” a colleague from the chemistry department commented; new philosopher“The first comment strikes me as a particularly profound metaphysical point about the (a)temporal status of analytic truths,” a former philosophy major now in graduate school contributed. Then this from a Facebook acquaintance that I have never met in person, but with whom I share the privilege of having earned a Bachelor’s degree in the Great Books program at St. John’s College:

I think the second [student comment] is, indeed, quite discussable. Is death ever avoidable? Is suicide not now recognized as a possible outcome of untreated depression? Can a severely depressed person always be expected to take the steps required for his or her own treatment?

Is suicide always an avoidable form of death, in other words? From the mind of a stressed and possibly confused freshman emerges an apparent “Well, duh!” sort of statement that, as it turns out, might have surprising depth and complexity. I feel an essay coming on!

From my colleague Robin

From my colleague Robin

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 world entire.”

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 start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skilful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

It’s a Mystery

cunningham1“When you aren’t reading philosophy, what do you like to read?” he asked. This had all the makings of a loaded question. When the president of the college where you are interviewing for a tenure track job asks any question, it’s loaded—but this one had all sorts of implications. He was a Dominican priest—what should I say? The Bible? The Summa Theologica? Three years earlier various folks had informally prepped me for what the president of the tiny college at which I currently worked and desperately wanted to leave would ask me and what answers he would want to hear, but no one had provided me with similar help this time. I was on my own. “Mystery novels,” I said truthfully, fully expecting that this probably sealed my not getting the job. “Me too!” he replied, and over the next half hour we compared notes—as it turned out, he was as big of a fan of Sara Paretsky and Anne Perryanne perry as I was. He never asked me about my response to the college’s mission statement, why I wanted to leave one tenure track position in exchange for another; he didn’t even try to sound me out about what I thought it would be like to teach at a Catholic college as a non-Catholic. But I suspect he found out more about me from our conversation about mystery novels that he would have from my answers to any number of standard queries. Father Cunningham was a smart guy.

The story of how I came to love mystery novels parallels the story of the early months of Jeanne’s and my relationship. I often tell people that I read for a living. Actually I’m a teacher, but a philosophy/humanities professor spends far more time reading than in the classroom. Furthermore, I’ve been an incurable bibliophile since I started reading a couple of years before I started first grade. But even though mystery novels occupy a surprisingly large percentage of space on Jeanne’s and my many bookshelves at home, their entry into my world of that-which-must-be-read was relatively late. The early months of 1988 were more full of adventure, new beginnings, and over-the-top stress than any months Sante-Fe-NMI had previously (or perhaps have since) experienced. Jeanne and I met late in 1987; early in the New Year I went with her to Santa Fe, affording us the opportunity to find out whether actually living under the same roof would put a damper on our new relationship that had, up to this point, largely been one of lengthy, nightly long distance phone calls.

As Jeanne worked and studied through the final semester of her Master’s program at St. John’s College, I navigated the final stages of choosing a PhD program to start in the fall, struggled through the emotional and legal thickets of custody issues with my ex, and tried to find a job. I soon landed a piano-playing gig at a large Methodist church sixty miles south in albuquerqueAlbuquerque, which paid just about enough to cover the gas used for two weekly round trips in “The Bird,” Jeanne’s rather unreliable vehicle. I also found what would have been, under different circumstances and several years earlier, a dream job—working as a jack-of-all-trades in a tiny independent bookstore, called “Books West,” in a shopping plaza just a five-minute walk from Jeanne’s apartment.

Sue, my boss at “Books West,” soon realized that she had a rare find on her hands—someone who had actually read a lot of books. atlasshruggedWhen not working the single cash register up front, my duties included ordering appropriate selections for the one-shelf philosophy section which largely consisted of Ayn Rand junk and various new-agey stuff with the word “Philosophy” in the title, as well as making selections to beef up the “Fiction” section, which when I arrived contained nothing written earlier than around 1950. The store was tiny, so before long I had ordered way more than would fit on the shelves and my book selection activities went on hiatus. The bookstore had little traffic most of the time—there is just so much time that one needs to spend straightening out shelves that very seldom are touched—so fortunately Sue had no problem with employees reading at the front counter—just as long as it did not lead to ignoring a customer, should such a creature actually show up. What a job! Hours of reading time, and getting paid slightly over minimum wage to do it!

I am both an organized and an obsessive reader. Organized in the sense that I generally have a method to my reading schedule, obsessive because once I establish the method, I follow it through without deviation. I had a small bookstore at my disposal containing several genres of paperbacks I had never delved into. What to read? Where to start? Lord-of-the-RingsThe Science Fiction shelves held little interest, and I avoided Fantasy because I was quite sure that with The Lord of the Rings I had already read the best fantasy—several times—ever written. The Mystery section was promising, but I had no idea of who might be worth reading and who was just pulp mystery. I asked my co-worker John, a tall, skinny guy who next to my friend Anthony was the most “outed” I have ever encountered if he had an opinion. “I prefer Young Adult Fiction myself,” he said (he was probably thirty-five or so), “but I hear that P. D. James is pretty good.” “P. D. James it is,” I thought, and I grabbed Cover her faceCover Her Face, James’s first mystery. I loved it. I read her next one, then her next one, and didn’t stop until I had finished every mystery she had written to that point (that’s my obsessive method or methodical obsession in action). Then Sue Grafton. Sarah ParetskyThen Sara Paretsky. We’re talking two or three dozen 200-300 page paperbacks by this time. Jeanne graduated, we hightailed it out of Santa Fe eventually landing with my sons (we won the custody battle) in Milwaukee for the beginning of my PhD studies at Marquette, but I was armed with the names of several dozen more mystery writers to try out. Deborah Crombie. Elizabeth George. Anne Perry. Every one of them writing continuing series with returning characters and plots that develop over several volumes.elizabeth george

Why do I love mysteries? I suppose there are all sorts of reasons. I teach and write on the edge of mystery all the time, exploring the boundaries between the known and unknown in various areas of investigation—human nature, change and permanence, certainty and probability, reason and faith, human and divine. A student once expressed this sort of boundary analysis memorably in an oral exam several years ago. “It’s like being on the inside of a room with walls made of tinfoil,” she said. “You can’t get out of the room, but as you press against the walls from the inside, you can feel and then begin to imagine the shape of what’s on the other side.” I would add that there’s a certain element of moving the walls back a bit as the pressing and pushing continues. The room of the known gets larger, but the suspicion deepens that what’s on the other side of the tinfoil is far more interesting and greater than what is inside the room.

But I suspect that my attraction to mystery novels has a far less mysterious and far more practical explanation. Each of my favorite mystery authors writes in a multiple volume series, developing a handful of main characters throughout as they engage with and solve the latest murder. dalgleishAdam Dalgleish, Tommy Lynley, Barbara Havers, William Monk, Charlotte Pitt, Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Ferguson have become parts of my life not because they brilliantly solve case after case, but because their growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities over the years that they have been my mystery friends remind me of just how complicated and fascinating the human journey is. They remind me of me. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing exactly twenty years ago today, just as I can’t tell you what murder case Tommy and Barbara were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. BJulia S-Fut I can tell you about how their love/hate partnership and friendship has developed and grown over their virtual years, just as I can tell you about my wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in. (By the way, my latest mystery favorite is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series set in upstate New York. Its setting reminds me both of the rural Vermont of my youth and of the people I go to church with every Sunday. If you love the rural Northeast and/or Episcopalians, it’s to die for!).