Category Archives: truth

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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How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

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

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

Thunderous applause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

 

The last two weeks of my General Ethics class were spent on issues of gun violence, perhaps the most frustrating contemporary issue on the syllabus. As we discussed the issue from various angles, I was reminded that on the day after the San Bernardino massacre a year an a half ago, I posted the following in frustration on my Facebook page:

I’m tired–really tired–of hearing people say and seeing them write that “my thoughts and prayers are with” the victims of the latest mass shooting. God isn’t going to fix this, and the victims don’t need our prayers. They need us to f__king do something about the gun insanity in this country. just another dayUntil then, as a BBC headline said today, massacres such as today’s will be “Just Another Day in the United States.”

My post was prompted by an avalanche of “my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families” sentiments in social media and from every corner of politics, as candidates for President fell over each other in the race to express the sincerity of their thoughts and prayers before those of their opponents. Given the cheapness of thoughts and prayers disconnected from actual action, I was not impressed.

Not surprisingly, my post generated more activity than perhaps any Facebook message I have ever written, comments ranging from mere “likes” and brief sentences of agreement to pushback of various sorts. One person suggested that we should pay more attention to the fact that gun violence is significantly lower in this country than it was twenty years ago; instead of wringing our hands over the violence that remains, we should study carefully what we have done right in the last twenty years and continue to do likewise (this comment set off a different, very volatile discussion that I did not participate in). 2nd amendmentSomeone else wanted to know if I believe in the Second Amendment (I do, but not interpreted as unlimited license to bear arms in whatever amount and of whatever kind one chooses). But given that the main concern energizing my post was the cavalier attitude behind offering impotent and ineffective prayers in response to random bloodshed and not a debate about gun control, what caught my attention most came from a friend whose faith perspective is of the sort in which I was raised.

  • Friend: How about this. Instead of each of us approaching this problem with our own fix, we all as Christian people pray that the light of Christ shine on this country and the world so all can see the truth for what it is. Most people don’t want this. To see the truth is painful. The light of Christ exposes all things hiding in dark places including ourselves.
  • Me: With millions of people praying for this every day and the problem getting worse, what would you suggest? I’m a Christian and I’m also a pragmatist—too many people are hiding behind the defense of “we’re praying for change” while never spending an ounce of effort actually trying to make it happen.
  • Friend: You missed it. I’m not talking about praying for change. I’m talking about praying that the light of Christ will shine! If Jesus is truly the light of the world, then no dark thing can be hidden from it. Everything would be seen for what it really is.
  • Me: True—but my question still stands. The Bible says God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That’s a lot more than just praying for the light of Christ to shine.

This was the sort of conversation that could have gone on indefinitely with each of us talking past each other and making no connection. Fortunately, another Facebook acquaintance jumped in and said clearly what I should have said.

  • Facebook acquaintance: God works through us, not instead of us. We are the physical manifestation of God and, while prayers do help us see and hear what must be done, we are the ones who must do it. The God you are praying to is waiting for you to be the light you are praying to shine. How does your Jesus shine light into the world if not by you?

This brought to mind a favorite passage from Joan Chittister, one that I arrive at frequently when I take the time to wonder what being a person of faith might actually require of us rather than mere facile verbiage.joan chittister

Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

As long as persons of faith believe that “my thoughts and prayers are with you” is an appropriate response to anything, let alone the tragedy of mass violence, we wait in vain for the coming of the kingdom of God for which many of us robotically pray in the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. I have often wondered how it is that faith commitment so frequently over time becomes nothing more than rote phrases and habitual practices; the most obvious answer is that it happens in the same way that intelligent commitment platitudeis reduced to bumper sticker platitudes in any human endeavor. It happens because real commitment is difficult and cuts far deeper than the simplified ways we construct to make it through our days, weeks, months and years intact.

It is worthwhile to pay close attention to the ways in which the divine, according to the Christian narrative, reportedly chose to insert itself into our human reality. It never happens in easily be the changeidentifiable ways or in events so spectacular that even the densest person would have to admit that “yes, that’s God at work.” Instead God enters the world through the pregnancies of a woman past child-bearing years and of a virgin, in private communications that only one person is privy to, and ultimately through a helpless baby in a manger surrounded by animals. This is good news, because it says that each of us—no matter how insignificant and powerless—can be the vehicle of divine change. But as it was in the stories, so it is now. We have to decide to be that change. We have to say “be it unto me according to your word.” This requires a lot more than thoughts and prayers.

Joy in a Minor Key

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At 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 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, one Sunday last summer 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 was searching 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.” After God agrees 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 couple of years 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.”

One Heart and Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

I Don’t Know

Let me tell you here first, “trust in God” has never floated my boat as a viable answer to religious questions. From a student notebook

On the day after Christmas 2004, the third strongest earthquake ever measured, deep under the Indian Ocean, caused a tsunami that resulted in the deaths of close to 250,000 people. The vast majority of those who lost their lives were among the poorest people on the planet, the very people who are often most vulnerable to natural disasters. Two months later, Ted Honey, a vicar in the Church of England with twenty years of experience as a priest, gave a Ted Talk that he introduced as follows:

On December 26th last year, just two months ago, that underwater earthquake triggered the tsunami. And two weeks later, Sunday morning, 9th of January, I found myself standing in front of my congregation — intelligent, well-meaning, mostly thoughtful Christian people — and I needed to express, on their behalf, our feelings and our questions. I had my own personal responses, but I also have a public role, and something needed to be said. And this is what I said.

Honey’s talk is one of the most honest—hence disturbing—attempts to grapple from a faith perspective with the problem of natural evil I’ve ever encountered. Among other things, he concludes that he can no longer believe in the sort of traditional God that he has been implicitly supporting and selling to others for most of his adult life. Belief in a good God who oversees the universe with power and love, the one that traditional Christian liturgies and hymns worship and praise, no longer seems possible in the face of disasters such as the tsunami. There are phrases we should no longer say and songs we should no longer sing. Honey favorably quotes Ivan from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who tells his brother that in the face of human and natural evil his inclination is not to deny God’s existence. His inclination instead is to “respectfully return the ticket” of membership in this world of violence and suffering to the God who oversees such a world. Such a God is not worth believing in.

Toward the end of his talk, Honey speculates about alternative divine models, possibilities concerning God that both are compatible with suffering and violence and well outside the confines of conventional theism.

But what if God doesn’t act? What if God doesn’t do things at all? What if God is in things? The loving soul of the universe. An in-dwelling compassionate presence, underpinning and sustaining all things. What if God is in things? In the infinitely complex network of relationships and connections that make up life. In the natural cycle of life and death, the creation and destruction that must happen continuously. In the process of evolution.

How exactly would that work, one might ask. Honey provides the only possible, and perhaps the best, answer.

Is God just another name for the universe, with no independent existence at all? I don’t know. To what extent can we ascribe personality to God? I don’t know. In the end, we have to say, “I don’t know.” If we knew, God would not be God . . . When I stood up to speak to my people about God and the tsunami, I had no answers to offer them. No neat packages of faith, with Bible references to prove them. Only doubts and questioning and uncertainty. I had some suggestions to make — possible new ways of thinking about God. Ways that might allow us to go on, down a new and uncharted road. But in the end, the only thing I could say for sure was, “I don’t know,” and that just might be the most profoundly religious statement of all.

I showed Honey’s talk to the students in my “Beauty and Violence” honors colloquium, a semester-long interdisciplinary exploration of precisely the questions Honey is raising, a week ago. With half of the semester behind us, my students are used to grappling with these problems. Many (most) of them are from religious backgrounds, and have found the colloquium both fascinating and disturbing. In a reflection on last week’s class in her intellectual notebook, one of my students—a biology major on her way to med school in the fall—described the impact Honey’s Ted Talk had on her own continuing questions and struggles. Without edit, here’s what she wrote:

The breath of fresh air this week was to finally hear a member of the church say “I don’t know” like Rev. Tom Honey did in his Ted Talk from this week.  For my entire life, I have faced members of various religious institutions try to stifle my questions, to give me answers that left me unsatisfied, and instructed me to simply “trust in God.” Lemme tell you here first, “trust in God” has never floated my boat as a viable answer to religious questions. And to have a religious figure finally come forward and address the grievances of natural and human disasters, and not dismiss them or wrap an “everything happens for a reason” bow around them is unbelievably refreshing. But also, it’s kind of concerning. If a man of the church doesn’t have confidence in his own teachings, how on earth am I supposed to ever get to that point? Suddenly, my hope to come out of this class with some slim part of my religious beliefs still firmly in tact seems to be withering away. Although I don’t think that is what Reverend Honey was going for, the feeling in my gut that religion is not my thing is only growing stronger. 

I distinctly remember my confirmation into my church when I was younger. We had to write a series of essays which covered a series of topics from reciting various facts about the Lutheran church to affirming our undeniable devotion to the church. I remember my one essay, about my “all in attitude” I had about faith. I wrote it as this metaphor about how I was getting into a taxi cab, and I had no idea where I was going, but I had total faith in the driver that wherever the final destination was, it would be better than where I was now as long as I had total faith. And the pair of moms who were my church leaders thought it was just wonderful, I was saying all the right things, I was “ready” to devote my life to my church. And there I was, fifteen years old, thinking to myself “this is a total lie.” I had my fingers mentally crossed the entire time.  I wanted to just get the hell out of that “taxi” and run back to my house because the whole thing just felt so ridiculous. I had so much doubt, so many parts of my faith that I would think to myself “hm this doesn’t quite make sense”. But I squashed that down because it seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to go to heaven, right? 

I have always doubted so much about my religious background, especially as a science major, but resisted the urge to question because it “wasn’t okay” and, honestly, I wanted to keep my back covered in case the whole heaven thing panned out after all. But Honey called me out, just as our texts and conversations already have many times this semester. And this entire class has made me feel more comfortable than I have ever before in voicing these concerns and being able to say “no I don’t think that’s right.” That was something I never felt like I could do in that Lutheran church.

Will this young lady be able to keep any part of the faith she was handed as a child in tact as she continues to give herself permission to challenge and question? I don’t know. But this I do know—the best foundation for a real and vibrant faith is questioning, doubt, revision, and the courage to keep doing all three. Simone Weil once wrote in a letter to a priest friend that has come to be known as her “Spiritual Autobiography,”

One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.

Come In, and Come In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are You Looking At?

Almost every Sunday during the months I spent on sabbatical a few years ago in Minnesota, I saw a canine in church—I didn’t know the dog’s  name, but it looked like a Ralph220px-Suzisnow[1]. I learned several months later that the dog is a female named Caritas, but in my imagination she still is Ralph. Ralph was in church because she was a service dog—now enjoying retirement—for a regular parishioner who is profoundly deaf. The woman sat at the end of the front row so she could read the lips of the celebrant, while Ralph laid next to her, usually with her back half hanging out into the aisle. Ralph is a mutt, with a good deal of some sort of terrier, weighing probably no more than twenty-five or thirty pounds. I’m not surprised that Ralph is now retired, given how she sighed and creaked a bit when she got up or laid down; the white hair around her eyes and mouth looked more like signs of age than normal markings.

A lifelong cat lover, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for dogs over the past many years after marrying a dog fanatic and, more recently, being unexpectedly adopted by a dachshund as her pet human. $(KGrHqN,!i8E4r(HqlcsBORy0nku+w~~0_35[1]Ralph looked as if she would love to have a pat on the head or a belly rub, but I know better—don’t mess with a service dog while she’s on the clock. But just in case I, or anyone else within range, happened to have a hard time resisting the dog-lover’s urge to touch every dog, Ralph was more in-your-face than most service dogs. She wore a vest that, on its back, said “Service dog on duty. Do not pet.”

“Look—don’t touch.”Look_But_Don__t_Touch_PSD_by_archnophobia-1[1] This used to be my mother’s automatic command every time we walked into a store of any sort, from grocery to hardware to department. Every parent worth the job description has this directive in her or his repertoire, knowing that pre-civilized human beings are inveterate grabbers. hannaarendtsudomenica16ye8[1]Hannah Arendt once wrote: “Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians—they’re called children.” Absolutely true, and “Look, don’t touch” is one of the earliest and best tools to use for domestication purposes. In truth, though, the temptation to look and grab, rather than simply to look, is one that none of us ever truly overcomes. As soon as we see something, we want to possess it, to make it ours, to wrap it up in what Iris Murdoch calls “the avaricious tentacles of the self.”

Exhibit A is yesterday morning’s Sunday gospel, a strange story recorded in all three synoptic gospels . Yesterday was Matthew’s version. Jesus is worn out by the crowds and takes his best buddies, Peter, James, and John, with him to the top of a mountain for a break. While there, he is transfigured with Elijah and MosesRaphael Transfiguration[1], looking like a great laundry detergent ad. According to Mark’s version of this story, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Peter blurts out, “Let us put up three dwellings—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Why does he make such a random suggestion? Luke tells us—“He did not know what he was saying.” Far be it from Peter to say nothing when he doesn’t know what to say, to look and attend to what’s going on in silence and awe, or simply to say “Whoa!” or “Holy shit!” or “Who does your laundry?” No, he has to nail it down, organize it, put walls around it, and either sell tickets or write up a doctrinal statement and confession of faith. The voice from heaven makes it clear what Peter should be doing. “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him.

Scripture makes it clear that there is a time to look and a time to touch—and don’t confuse the two. In II Samuel, tuzzah-01[1]he newly crowned King David leads the army of Israel against the Philistines and recaptures the Ark of the Covenant. They place the Ark on an oxen-drawn cart and head back to Jerusalem in a parade complete with singing and musical instruments, led by David dancing in his underwear. The oxen step in a pothole and stumble, the Ark starts tipping off of the cart, and some poor guy namedfbade8d75c[1] Uzzah makes the horrible mistake of assuming that he should put his hand on the Ark to steady it, because maybe God would just as soon not see the Ark lying on its side in the mud. God strikes Uzzah dead on the spot for his efforts. “Look, don’t touch.” As a kid I thought God’s treatment of Uzzah to be a disproportionate response and grossly unfair, and I still do, but as Jeanne would say, “it is what it is.” And in John 20, the resurrected Jesus says to Mary Magdalene “Touch me not,” exactly what Ralph’s vest would have said if she spoke in King James English.

nh_old_man01[1]As a native New Englander, one of my all-time favorite stories is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face.” It’s the story of a boy named Ernest who lives in a New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hang some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_overlay_2[1]” The valley is Franconia Notch in the middle of the White Mountains, only forty miles or so from where I grew up, and was a regular point of destination for my family. I was crushed when I heard ten years ago that despite the best human preserving efforts, it finally fell off the mountain.

800890-M[1]According to Hawthorne’s story, there is a legend in the valley that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.” Ernest, who gazes daily with love and awe at the Great Stone Face, spends his whole life as a simple laborer in the valley. Occasionally a rumor would arise that the man resembling the Great Stone Face had appeared in town, but each candidate—a wealthy miser, a vain general, a pompous politician—turned out to be a fraud. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime.Stone-Face-by-visulogik-3001[1] Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to all of them, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that “man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture.” And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. imagesCASOE7U6In the book of Numbers, in response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. weil[1]“And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” Simone Weil comments: “To look and to eat are two different things. The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating. Looking is what saves us.” What are you looking at?

A Crooked Faith

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. Immanuel Kant

I love many kinds of music, but classical music is my first love. I was classically trained on the piano from age four through high school; my first piano teacher, a Julliard graduate who somehow ended up in northern Vermont teaching piano, was also the organist for the North Country Chorus, a volunteer choral group that was, in the estimation of Vermonters at the time, our version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Every year the North Country Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah, which became—and still is—my favorite classical composition. Its music is inspired, of course, but in addition its settings of texts from the King James translation of both the Old and New Testaments were an artistic gift to a kid who was forced to study and memorize significant portions of the Bible from an early age. Even today, decades later, I hear Handel’s glorious music every time I encounter a passage from Scripture that is included in the libretto of Messiah.

After an instrumental introduction, Messiah begins with a tenor recitative and aria set to prophetic texts from the first verses of Isaiah 40:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

This is followed by the first chorus:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

Handel’s music is so beautiful that it is possible to miss the power and promise of the text: When God arrives on the scene, messes get cleaned up, crooked things get straightened out, imperfections are made perfect, and problems get solved. A wonderful promise—but not one that squares with my experience.

I was reminded of these texts and this music as I read and responded to the Facebook comments on a recent blog post that a friend shared on a progressive Christian Facebook page that she administers. The back-and-forth started innocently enough:

  • Him: From the last couple of posts you have made it seems as if you are questioning your faith that’s my thought.
  • Me: I’m ALWAYS questioning my faith! In my understanding, that’s perhaps the key factor that keeps faith alive and prevents it from becoming rigid and inflexible. A favorite writer of mine says that the opposite of faith is certainty–doubt is an indispensable part of a vibrant faith.

In a quick succession of posts, the commenter then sought to set my crooked ideas straight:

  • Him: The word of God stands firm it is not flexible in no way form or fashion And to quote anything from a man’s corruptible heart against it is sin there’s no two ways about it . . . If you always question your faith you are lost and I feel for you you can’t ride the fence or change his word to suit your will . It is what it is period.

Well, now. Before I had the opportunity to say something snarky and self-righteous in response to this clearly misguided, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist person, another commenter posted that she appreciates my posts because they help her “grow and learn,” suggesting to the first commenter that he should “find something more conservative.”

  • Him: I’m a progressive liberal in politics thank you but first and foremost I’m a true Christian to the best of my ability.
  • Me: I also am a progressive liberal in my politics and seek to be a true Christian to the best of my ability. The difference perhaps lies in our understanding of what “true Christian” means. I completely reject the idea that it requires inflexibility, rigidity, or being in service to a specific interpretation of texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
  • Him (after some further pushback from others in the conversation thread): I’m not a conservative in no way but yes I am seeing this page for what it truly is I will see myself out. I will pray for you and those like you who can’t accept the truth of the Bible for what it is and maybe one day you will see your personal opinion on what you want the Bible to mean is in fact wrong. Good day.

I’ve been involved in this sort of conversation many times over the years, and they just about always end this way, with the conservative Christian promising to pray for the liberal “Christian” to see the truth and thereby escape hellfire and damnation, as the liberal immediately rehearses how he will judgmentally and condescendingly share this story with his fellow progressive friends at the first opportunity. But a half hour or so later, the commenter posted one more time, offering some well-intentioned and much appreciated scriptural advice.

  • Him: I leave you with one verse and I promise I will not persist here any further. Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
  • Me: Thanks–this is a favorite of mine as well. Except that I prefer the more accurate translation of the final clause: “And he will direct your paths.” Faith is not a straight line–it’s an adventure that takes a person in many unexpected directions.

When Immanuel Kant wrote that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” he was observing, at the beginning of a discussion of his moral theory, just how great the challenge of getting human beings to morally straighten themselves out actually is. Perhaps it is reflective of my natural perversity when I say that I sort of like the crooked timber of humanity. The best moral theories take human beings as we are rather than as the theorist idealistically wants us to be. The same can be said for faith. My own faith is rooted in my embrace of the central, incarnational idea of Christianity: God became human—and still does. The Christian story is not about God straightening human beings out, but rather is about God using our natural human bends, twists, and turns.

Reading the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did using this lens reveals the crooked timber that we all know to be definitive of being human. Christians love to focus on the loving, generous, eloquent, patient, courageous Son of God that we find on every page and tend to overlook other things we discover about Jesus. He got tired, could be curt and dismissive (even to his mother), and was occasionally sarcastic, impatient, and judgmental. He was a real human being, in other words, with all the lack-of-straightness that involves. And that’s good news, since it means that I don’t have to “straighten up” or “sit up straight,” as various authorities used to demand from me, in order to be a bearer of the divine in the world. God is often just around the next corner of our crooked paths.