Category Archives: truth

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

Exactly three 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–three years, visits from 150+ countries, and 60,000+ visits 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. As I have done each of the past two years, to celebrate the three-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

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.”

Disturbing the Peace

SpinozaI do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace Baruch Spinoza 

            One of the lead articles in the most recent edition of The Atlantic magazine is “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Lukianoff and Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind

Co-authored by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the teaser blurb for the article in the Table of Contents says “How a new strain of political correctness on campus is damaging higher education—and may be threatening students’ mental health.” It is an interesting read. Given Donald Trump’s current more-than-fifteen-minutes of fame, concerns about political correctness are in the news, safe spacebut in this article Lukianoff and Haidt are drawing our attention to what might be called “political correctness with a twist”:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. . . . It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.

The authors’ argument is largely anecdotal, relying either on their own experiences or on recent anecdotal stories and essays from various campuses across the country. seismic shiftThere is a great deal of speculation about the causes of this perceived seismic psychological shift among students over the past couple of decades, although virtually no data is provided to substantiate many of the authors’ claims.

In the first column of the article readers are introduced to two important terms that “have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance: Microaggression and Trigger warnings. Microaggressions “are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” Examples provided include asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that she or he is not a real American. Mrs. DallowayTrigger warnings are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response”; examples of texts deemed as needing trigger warnings on various campuses include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault). The many examples of these and related problems in the article are chosen and presented with the clear intention of “triggering” the reader into concluding “well that’s just stupid—political correctness, like a hydra, rears a new ugly head.” One of the authors’ primary concerns, repeated frequently throughout the article is that such attention to words and actions that might possibly somewhere, somehow offend someone will leave students unprepared to live and work in a world that doesn’t give a crap about what makes them feel uncomfortable.

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of a doubt?

Even though I have twenty-five years of college teaching under my belt,pc my experience on college campuses is deep but narrow, given that I have taught at my current college home for twenty-one years and have shaped my teaching and professional life within the confines of its “105 acre, park-like campus.” Serious conversations about the negative power of language on students in various groups defined racially, economically, by gender or by sexual preference have been ongoing on my campus for some time now. In my own philosophy department regular, continuing, and often heated debates occur about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate language in the classroom, in job candidate interviews, and in basic conversation with each other. What strikes some as obviously benign, scholarly, and insightful strikes others as ill-advised, insensitive, and downright offensive. That said, the tsunami described by Lukianoff and Haidt as drowning campuses nationwide has escaped my notice where I teach—at least in my classrooms. Perhaps this is because I have included this general “trigger warning” in every syllabus for every one of my courses for at least the past fifteen years:

In this course we will be considering some of the most important questions a human being can ask. Perhaps the most important feature of our considerations is learning to ask these questions clearly and precisely. Only then can possible answers be considered fairly. Although I have definite positions on the questions we will be addressing, my role as professor is not to tell you what to think. My role is rather to get you to think. Expect your assumptions to be challenged and comfortable ways of thinking to be disturbed. As the great 17th century philosopher Spinoza once said, I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.

During an oral final exam a couple of semesters ago a student told me that “This class really messed me up—but in a good way!” Mission accomplished.mission accomplished

The fall semester starts in a week or so—even though I am on sabbatical, I am thinking about the incoming students, particularly the new freshmen. If I had the opportunity, here are a few pieces of advice I would give them:

  • Free speech dictates that everyone has the right to their opinion, but not all opinions are equal. right to an opinionOne of the purposes of a liberal education is to help you become skillful at using the tools of lifetime learning; some of these tools, used properly, will help you learn how to distinguish a good argument from bullshit—even when it is your own argument. I often say that a liberally educated person earns the right to have an opinion. The process of earning that right begins with realizing that your opinion is not special just because it is yours, and without challenge and analysis it means nothing with regard to whether it is true (or even a defensible position).
  • In the life of learning, comfort is vastly overrated. comfort zoneExpect to encounter people, ideas, situations and expectations that are both unfamiliar and well outside your comfort zone. You should be looking for these rather than trying to avoid them. If you manage to make it through your undergraduate college career without changing any opinion, belief, perspective or attitude, then your tuition dollars have been wasted.
  • The world of adulthood into which you are making your first, tentative forays can be a tough, nasty place. The world out there is full of people, ideas, things, and events that couldn’t care less if they lie within your current comfort is what it is As my wife would say, the world is what it is. Your years in college are not so much about your landing a well-paying job after you graduate as they are about the construction of a powerful and flexible moral and psychological framework of belief and commitment, from within which you will engage with what’s “out there” on a daily basis. It is not the world’s responsibility to provide you with comfort and security. It is your task to create and maintain a moral and psychological home for yourself in that world using all of the resources available to you, resources to sustain you on a life-long journey. By the way, you’ll be making significant renovations and additions to this home your whole life. Your professors are here to assist you in the construction of that home—good luck!

A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match. Christopher Nelson

The Poorest Deserve the Best

Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82)

article_d62546f9c91b7ef2_1356881538_9j-4aaqsk[1]In his 2006 Christmas sermon at Canterbury Cathedral, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams tells the story of a visit he made the previous week to Holy Family Hospital in the Palestinian West Bank as part of an ecumenical pilgrimage with the heads of several other Christian denominations in Great Britain. Holy Family Hospital has the best-resourced maternity unit in the whole of the West Bank, equal to the best in Israel. But because of the current storms of political conflict within Palestine, as well as the local Israeli and international economic sanctions against the Palestinian government, no one on the hospital staff is sure from day-to-day where funding for next month’s salary is coming from. neo1[1]Foreign donations pay for the state-of-the-art equipment, but making ends meet requires a daily seeming miracle.

As Rowan Williams held a new-born baby in his arms, an infant who had been abandoned by the side of the road by his mother and brought by a stranger to the hospital, he asked Dr. Robert Tabash, the medical director of the neo-natal unit, what keeps him and his staff going in the face of challenges that often must seem insurmountable. “What we are doing here is important,” Dr. Tabash replied, “because the poorest deserve the best.” Period. Simple as that. Continuing with his sermon after telling this story, the Archbishop asks those congregated in Canterbury Cathedral “When you hear that, I wonder if you can take in just how revolutionary it is . . . this is probably the most radically unique thing Christmas and Christians bring into the world.”

a-comic[1]As we begin yet another of the seemingly endless elecion cycles, as our elected officials threaten to allow the government to close down yet again–this time over the funding of Planned Parenthood, hamstringing or eliminating important social programs, it is more pressing than ever to ask what is to be done about our fellow citizens who are poor and disenfranchised, the ones upon whom the worst falls once again as we posture in favor of our preferred political and social agendas. As Rowan Williams points out, for those of us who claim to be guided by Christian principles, the Gospel message is clear. From the Beatitudes to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never wavers from the message that in the divine economy and social structure, the poor, the widows, and the orphans—the disenfranchised and those who continually fall through the cracks, in other words—are to be considered first. If there is one thing that guarantees divine judgment, imagesCAMKE8VSit is the failure to show paramount concern for “the least of these.”

And yet even Jesus, who himself was born into abject poverty and remained there his whole life, was fully aware of just how intractable these problems are. In the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus dining at the house of Simon the Leper, the very definition in that culture of an outcast. A woman arrives with an alabaster jar containing nard, a rare and expensive ointment. She breaks the jar and anoints Jesus’s head with the ointment, inviting well-aimed criticism from the disciples and others. “Why this waste of perfume?  It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And these critics were absolutely right—in their understanding of Jesus’s teaching, this was a violation of what has come be known as the “preferential option for the poor.”

Which makes Jesus’s response all the more shocking and confusing. “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.thepoor-1024x576[1]The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.” Not exactly what the group at dinner expected, I imagine. What is he talking about? How to explain this apparent moment of self-centeredness? I have heard many theological explanations for Jesus’s dismissive comment about the poor; I have even heard this very scene twisted into a justification for not funding social programs intended to help those in need. And I don’t have a good explanation for why Jesus is throwing the very persons he raises to blessedness in the Beatitudes under the bus.

But there is a strange and powerful connection between Jesus’s “the poor you will always have with you” and the Palestinian physician’s “the poorest deserve the best.” Why do the poor deserve the best? welfare_two[1]In our world we so often connect help for those in need with a prior explanation of why they are in need. If you are in trouble through no fault of your own, then perhaps I’ll help. But if you are in need because of your own bad choices or laziness, then you’re on your own. Still, the call to raise the disenfranchised to primary attention does not ask why—it simply says “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” What makes the poor so special? Why do they deserve the best?

The very existence of the poor, and the stubborn resistance of poverty even in the face of our best efforts to make their situation better, is a continuing reminder that every time we attempt to address the intractable problems of the human condition with yet another economic/social program or redistribution, we run straight into our own poverty. ist2_1126926_building_walls_01[1]Every line we draw is partially drawn out of fear. Every wall we build to defend ourselves and keep out what we are afraid may destroy us is also a wall that keeps us in, a wall that will change us in ways we did not choose or want. Every human solution to fears and threats generates a new set of fears and threats. As soon as we try to sort out who we will empower and give the advantage to, we also identify who we are against; and that will undoubtedly create another round of poverty and anger and bitterness. Perhaps it is time to realize that the message of the gospel cannot be legislated or brought into existence through political action. What is required is far more personal.

Why do “the poorest deserve the best”? Not because they are in some strange way better than those who are not poor. The poorest deserve the best because, bottom line, all of us are incurably impoverished. Humanity itself suffers from poverty, the moral and imaginative poverty that time and again reproduces the same patterns of fear and violence. Despite our delusions of independence and self-made success, not one of us, not even the most financially secure and successful or confident law keeping and godly person, can in truth look after ourselves. The genius of the Christian narrative is that this is not only okay, it actually is the reason that God became human. In Deuteronomy, God tells the children of Israel that they have been chosen precisely because they are slaves and exiles, the most helpless community on the face of the earth. And this is why the poor are to be preferred—they are a constant reminder of the basic condition we all share.

This is also why we will always have the poor with us, why they will always stubbornly resist our best efforts to solve their problems. The poor will always be with us because we cannot escape our collective human impoverishment with exclusively human tools and strategies. Our giant goes with us wherever we go. The divine response? God does not let us have what’s left over from the grace given to holy and honorable people. God doesn’t look around for some small bonus that might come from the end-of-year surplus in the budget.118915129__368529c[1] God instead becomes one of us, an energizing force for change and reform that we cannot even imagine. As Archbishop Williams reminds us in his Christmas sermon,

The truth doesn’t change, “the truth sent from above,” about our own universal ruin and restoration and about what that lays upon us when we look at the various specific poverties we confront in our human family. We revert so readily to the idea that love must go where merit lies, that help must follow merit and achievement. But God apparently thinks otherwise.


The Wicked

debateThe morning after the recent Fox News-hosted debate amongst candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the appointed morning psalm in the Anglican monthly cycle of “read through the Psalms in a month” was Psalm 37. Usually there are three or four psalms each morning and each evening, but this is a long one. Subtitled “Reflections on Good and Evil” in the Grail translation that I use, the psalmist is focusing on the good guys and the bad guys, the “upright” and the “wicked.” The wicked are mentioned fourteen times in forty verses—clearly the psalmist is living in a world in which the wicked are prospering and upright folks (like the psalmist) are waiting for the day when the scales of justice will realign and the wicked will get what they deserve. There is little of the impatience with the divine’s apparent lack of action in this psalm that one finds in others with similar themes; here, patience, commitment, amalekitesand trust are the prescriptions for the upright as they wait for the wicked’s fifteen minutes of fame and power to end.

As she occasionally does, Jeanne joined me for my morning psalm, so I read it aloud. When finished, I asked “who do you think the ‘wicked’ are in this psalm?” “Probably the Amalekites, the Amorites, the Jebusites—one of those ‘-ites’ that the children of Israel were always worried about.” The people living in Palestine when the wandering Israelites showed up, claimed that Yahweh had given them the land that the “-ites” had lived in for generations, then proceeded upon divine authority to try to wipe the “-ites” out, in other words. I’m sure she’s probably right, but strangely the psalm got me to thinking about the debates I had seen the previous evening (I watched both the happy hour and main event debates). Just replace “upright” and “just” with “Republican” or “conservative,” then replace “wicked” with “Democrat” or “liberal,” and it all sounds very familiar.

It was clear that everyone on stage, for instance, was convinced of the truth of the following verses toward the end of Psalm 37:

I have seen the [liberals] triumphant, towering like the cedars of Lebanon. I passed by again; they were gone. I searched; they could not be found.vanish like smoke

In just a bit over a year, candidates promised in various ways, the accomplishments of the liberals will be no more. The Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, the proposed treaty with Iran—“they shall vanish, they shall vanish like smoke.” There was no doubt that many on stage suspected the bad guys of not only poor judgment but also of deliberate treachery.

The [liberals] make plots against the [conservatives] and gnash their teeth against them; but the Lord laughs at the [liberals], knowing that their day is at hand. . . . The [liberals] are watching for the [conservatives] and seeking occasion to destroy them. wicked and justThe Lord will not leave the [conservatives] undefended, nor let them be condemned when they are judged.

Although there was significant disagreement amongst the candidates about exactly how it will happen, all on stage agreed that before long, our long national nightmare will be over and conservative values will be restored.

See the [conservatives], and mark the [Republicans], a future lies in store for the righteous, but [liberals] shall all be destroyed. No future lies in store for the [Democrats].

Lest you think I am picking on Republicans and conservatives (and I am), Psalm 37 can work for liberals too.

The few things owned by the [liberals] are better than the wealth of the [conservatives]; borrowingfor the power of the [Republicans] shall be broken and the Lord will support the [Democrats].

Liberals don’t tend to describe the perceived truth of their beliefs as sanctioned by the divine, or at least not as often as conservatives do, but they could. Look around a little bit in your favorite sacred text and you can find something God says or does that will support your favorite thing. In addition, liberals suspect that in the reality many conservatives desire in their heart of hearts, there is no room for those who disagree.

wicked violenceThe sword of the [Republicans] is drawn, the bow bent to slaughter the [Democrats]. Their sword shall pierce their own hearts and their bows shall be broken to pieces.

My point is psychological rather than political. The discourse of Psalm 37 is of the same sort as the discourse in our current political climate, even our culture at large. It is one thing to disagree strongly with someone—that’s what discourse and debate are all about. But when the disagreement takes on a moral tone so that the person you disagree with is not only mistaken in your estimation, but also wrong in a moral sense (wicked or evil in biblical terms), then discussion and (God forbid) compromise become impossible. Simple listening becomes impossible. Positions become entrenched, opponents become vilified, and soon the stakes have become cosmic. The triumph of truth, justice, and the American way becomes dependent on my being right and those who disagree with me being dismissed as wicked and ungodly.

rubioThe problem, of course, is that it is very difficult to engage and discuss for very long in conversation with people whose beliefs and opinions are radically different from your own. As I listened to yesterday’s debates kasichI frequently managed for several minutes at a time to listen objectively and make some informed judgments about the various players. Rubio and Kasich seemed better prepared than Walker or Cruz, Paul chose to be combative while Bush did not, carsonCarson had a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look to him, and so on. But then someone would state their position on some issue that matters to me and I would immediately fall into “You fucking moron! How the hell can any human being with a half-dozen working neurons actually believe that?” mode, from where it is but a short journey to the just vs. the wicked all over again. The offending person has morphed from someone I strongly disagree with into someone who the world would be better off without. It’s going to be a very long fifteen months.


Prey of the Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriotism and Achieving Disagreement

I think it’s time for us to get a little bit more uncompromising in our defense of compromise. Jonathan Rauch

One of the many benefits of getting up early on Sunday morning in order to make the 8:00 service at church is that I can catch the last fifteen minutes of onbeingKrista Tippett’s radio program “On Being” as I drive. I first became aware of Krista several years ago when I was on sabbatical at the ecumenical institute in Minnesota where she first got the idea for her program a few years before my semester there. Her show—called “Speaking of Faith” at the time—aired on Sunday afternoons in Minnesota—I listened every week and was pleased when our local NPR station picked it up a couple of years ago. Not every week is a classic, but every once in a while there is an “On Being” broadcast that I just can’t stop thinking about.

A couple of months ago I tuned in just in time to hear one of her guests say the following:

I don’t know why it is, but I think we’re just at this moment in time where the public conversation is at a particularly low level of quality—the coarseness, the ugliness, the assumption of bad faith, the triviality, the sensationalism. I really think that so many people are aware of this . . . I can’t diagnose it, really, I don’t have a diagnosis. All I really know is it’s terrible, it’s bad for the country, it’s bad for our souls.

“Tell me about it,” I thought—the guest’s description nailed my perception of what public discourse has devolved into for the past several years. As it turned out, his comments and the larger topic of the conversation that day were not only timely, but are even more timely as we approach Independence Day this year, given the events of last weeBlankenhorn and Rauchk.

The title of that “On Being” conversation a couple of months ago was “The Future of Marriage”; the speaker I just quoted is David Blankenhorn, who argued against same sex marriage as a social good both in California’s tumultuous Proposition 8 debate as well as in his 2007 book The Future of Marriage. He is also founder and director of the Institute of American Values. Blankenhorn’s conversation companion that day, along with Tippett, was Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a lifelong journalist and the author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. Rauch is a gay man and has publically debated the gay marriage issue with Blankenhorn so often over the years in various forums that they ultimately became good friends. In the midst of the intellectual arguments for and against, both men realized that they shared something important in common. As Blankenhorn put it in a New York Times op-ed in 2012,

My intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.

It was a costly decision for Blankenhorn financially. Half of his institute’s board members resigned and half of his funding dried up. marriage opportunity councilTogether in 2015 Rauch and Blankenhorn launched a joint initiative called The Marriage Opportunity Council, crossing liberal and conservative, gay and straight boundaries.

The hour-long conversation is fascinating and informative—I encourage you to take a listen.

But on the cusp of Independence Day, I am particularly interested and intrigued by the final ten or so minutes of the show. Neither Blankenhorn’s nor Rauch’s intellectual arguments convinced his friend to change his mind on the issue. But the evolution of their friendship and dialogue is an illustration of what they call “Achieving Disagreement.” Blankenhorn’s description sketches a possible approach to raising the low achieving disagreementlevel of public discourse in this country:

It’s easy to have a false disagreement. I can just say, “Oh, you’re a bad person and you’re stupid.” I can just have a belief. But to actually know where we disagree requires effort from you and from me. We have to have a relationship to do that. And part of achieving disagreement means identifying areas of common ground. It means finding out where we agree. . . . In today’s world of hyperpolarization and the sheer idiocy that is our public debate on most days, ninety-eight percent of the time, the heart just cries out for this kind of serious effort to achieve disagreement.

This very difficult but necessary strategy transcends any particular issue. Human beings are capable of falling into polarized and ossified positions on every issue imaginable—what would it be like to start difficult discussions with an extended search for what those disagreeing share in common? In the case of Blankenship and Rauch, discovering that they both were equally committed to strengthening marriage as a social institution changed everything—it got them past the divisive issue of who should be allowed to be married.

Jonathan Rauch argues that “achieving disagreement” is not only a good strategy for engaging with controversial issues, but also is our patriotic duty.

I believe there’s an element of patriotism about this. I believe that there are higher values, ultimately, than what each of us wants as individuals. I discovered in you [Blankenhorn], I thought, someone who understood that you’re a multivalue person and that as strongly as you felt about marriage, that you felt even more strongly that we have to share the country. And it is our duty as citizens to find ways to live together. And that’s a higher value still. federal conventionI equate that with a form of patriotism. When I see someone who won’t compromise, I see someone betraying the core purposes of our Constitution, which is to force compromise.

In a culture in which compromise has come to mean weakness and lack of principle, it is refreshing to be reminded that our country was constructed by its Founders to run on the fuel of compromise. To read James Madison’s Notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention that produced our Constitution is to be immersed in a several month long exercise in compromise. It’s time to return to that positive energy. As Rauch continues,

I think of it as a duty. I think there are higher things than being right. By compromisers, by the way, I don’t mean people who give up on their core values and roll over and get rolled by the bitter partisans on the other side. I just mean people who at the end of the day say, “You know what? I’m not going to walk out of here with everything I wanted.” I think it’s time for us to get a little bit more uncompromising in our defense of compromise. constitutionI think we should understand and say this is a matter of patriotic duty to our country. . . . If your idea of compromise is the other guy’s going to agree with me . . . You are not being a patriotic American and you are betraying the founding premise of this country.

On this day before Independence Day, I commit myself to being a better compromiser. I am as willing and as capable of demeaning and belittling those who disagree with me on issues that are important to me as the next person—but I can do better. In Monday’s post I will tell the story of how someone who believes very differently than I do and I unexpectedly achieved disagreement the other day—on Facebook, no less! For now, enjoy Independence Day—and don’t forget to compromise!yin yang


Face to Face with the Universe

lightman[1]A recent edition of Harper’s Magazine includes a fascinating essay by physicist and novelist Alan Lightman entitled “Our Place in the Universe.” The point of the essay is to put us in our place, so to speak. Lightman tells us, for instance, of an astronomer whose specialty is exploring the greatest distances in space. The most distant galaxy this scientist has yet seen is about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from earth—“give or take. Contemporary scientists, Lightman writes, “have revealed a world as far removed from us as colors are from the blind.”

earth[1]It might make sense, then, to focus our attention on “this island home” where we seem to have a certain amount of central importance. Not so fast, says Lightman, who informs us that “the totality of living matter on Earth—humans and animals, plants, bacteria, and pond scum—makes up 0.00000001 percent of the mass of the planet.” Combine that figure with the current estimate that only three percent of all the stars in the universe are accompanied by a potentially life-sustaining planet, then in the unlikely event that all of those planets actually do have life, then “we can estimate that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that exists in living form is something like 0.000000000000001 percent, or one millionth of one billionth of 1 percent.” Lightman concludes the article by observing that

If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought. And if life emerges by random processes, vast amounts of lifeless material are needed for each particle of life. Such numbers cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe.

Such sobering numbers and observations, of course, are nothing new. The great seventeenth-century French mathematician, scientist, and religious philosopher pascal[1]Blaise Pascal has a memorable meditation on apparent human insignificance in his Pensees.

Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in its lofty and full majesty . . . This whole visible world is only an imperceptible trace in the amplitude of nature. . . . Let man consider what he is . . . as lost in this remote corner of nature, and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to estimate the just value of the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself.

After several paragraphs of his own version of putting us in our place, Pascal concludes with this haunting one-liner: The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.imagesCASSRX85

Reminders that we are not special, more importantly that I am not special, are always needed regardless of whether they are welcomed. Yet what most struck me in the “Our Place in the Universe” piece occurs right at the beginning when Lightman introduces us to the astronomer who is investigating the galaxy that is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from earth.

The prize for exploring the greatest distance in space goes to a man named Garth Illingworth,garth-illingworth-3501[1] who works in a ten-by-fifteen-foot office at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Illingworth studies galaxies so distant that their light has traveled through space for more than 13 billion years to get here. His office is packed with tables and chairs, bookshelves, computers, scattered papers, issues of Nature, and a small refrigerator and a microwave to fuel research that can extend into the wee hours of the morning.

Within the confines of an office not much larger than a medieval monk’s cell, a human being is analyzing an image created by light that has been travelling for three times as long as the best estimated age of the Earth. Pascal reminds us to “consider our condition: we are something, and we are not everything.”

39798_1519136010640_548040_n[1]Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The whole universe does not need to take up arms to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him, because he knows he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought . . . Let us labor to think well.

The subtitle of Lightman’s essay is “Face to face with the infinite.” While this specifically refers to the infinite physical spaces that Pascal is frightened of, for those of us who are God-obsessed this leads directly to the divine. For we do not seek to establish a toe-hold on infinity just when we turn our attention away from ourselves toward the vast physical universe. We are also participating in the same sort of activity as Garth Illingworth when we seek to “think clearly” about what is greater than us—the divine, God, the infinite, the One, whatever you choose to call it.

220px-Kierkegaard[1]Often this is best done by analogy and by telling stories. In Philosophical Fragments, Soren Kierkegaard tells a lovely story about a powerful king who falls in love with a lowly maiden. The maiden is unaware of the king’s love, and the king is worried. Knowing that love is built on equality, how is the gap between his royal greatness and her humble maidenhood to be crossed? 11043_182106464599_4873655_a[1]He does not want to coerce her into loving him by revealing his love in all his splendor, nor would elevating her to royal status work, since then she would simply be the same lowly maiden with a better wardrobe and job description.

The only possible solution to the king’s problem is remarkably simple. “Since union could not be brought about by an elevation it must be attempted by a descent.” The king must step down from his royal throne and enter the maiden’s hut as an equal. Not as a king in a peasant’s costume, but as a peasant. Only then can he be sure that she might return his love because of the person he is rather than the because of the role he inhabits. The king’s advisors and courtiers are astounded—how to explain the choice to leave royalty behind for a simple girl? And this, Kierkegaard reminds us, is precisely the mystery and madness of love, not only of the king for the maiden, but also of God for human beings. “This is the unfathomable nature of love, that it desires equality with the beloved, not in jest merely, but in earnest and truth.”

Across the infinite gap separating the human and the divine, God comes to us by becoming one of us. What a remarkable response to our fear of “the eternal silence of the infinite spaces.” God is not silent—God’s love turns infinity into intimacy. If I embrace this story, if it forms the foundation of my belief, what must my response be? As Kierkegaard reminds us, this requires nothing less than my willingness for everything to change.

When the seed of the oak is planted in earthen vessels, they break asunder; when new wine is poured in old leathern bottles, they burst; what must happen when God implants himself in human weakness unless man becomes a new vessel and a new creature!wineskins-old-new[1][1]

My Best Friends

I sat down in my usual aisle seat on one of my infrequent airplane flights not long ago, and immediately dug out one of the half-dozen books in the backpack containing my current reading obsessions. This is my custom when flying, because I want to let my neighbors know that I am busy, I am deep in thought, Introvert[1]and I am not the least bit interested in striking up a conversation with a stranger, just one of the many effective tricks of the introvert trade. This behavior, along with the fact that the book I am reading is by some obscure author and the fact that I have a gray ponytail, usually provide sufficient clues that one tries to engage me in conversation at their peril.

On this particular day, however, the window seat to my left was occupied by a guy my age who apparently never got past the class clown stage. At the conclusion of the stewardess’s usual spiel about what to do if we have to land in water or lose cabin pressuresafety-demo[1], we were asked to turn off all electronic devices for takeoff. I, of course, read all of the way through the stewardess’s instructions and continued to read as people all around me turned off their phones, I-pods, and other electronic paraphernalia. “Hey!” my neighbor shouted down the aisle at the retreating stewardess while pointing at me. “Make him turn his book off too!” He repeated the exact same routine at the end of the flight when we were instructed to turn our electronic devices off for landing. Very funny—but he had a point. Of the two dozen or so fellow passengers within my field of vision throughout the flight, I was the only one reading a book.

9780312429980[2]Which reminds me of another flight several months earlier. This time in the middle of the flight I was deeply engrossed in reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. As the woman seated in the seat across the aisle one row in front of me returned from a journey to the facilities, she noticed what I was reading. “Do you like it?” she asked. “I love it,” I replied. “So do I!” she exclaimed as she pulled her KindleKT-slate-02-lg._V399156101_[1] out of her purse.” “I’m reading it too! Isn’t that weird?” I thought something that an extrovert or a rude person might have said out loud: “It would be a weird coincidence if you were actually reading, but looking at words on a screen is not the same thing as reading.” As I’ve said many times to many people over the past several years, when they invent a Kindle (or whatever) that feels and smells like a real book, I’ll buy one.

On occasion in our early years of being together, Jeanne would observe how few close friends I had (and have). This, coming from a person who is in the 1% most extroverted beings in the universe, was not an entirely fair comment. But one time she added “it doesn’t matter, though, because your books are your friends.” That not only is a fair comment, but it is entirely true. It’s too bad you can’t be friends with a book on Facebook, because that would increase my Facebook friend count from its current 568 well into the thousands. Several years ago I assisted my carpenter/general contractor uncle (actually I was more like his indentured servant)301189_269422219756617_1084268382_n[1] at my house as he tore out a wall in a corner-bedroom-soon-to-hopefully-be-a-library for the purposes of building a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcase in its place. “That’s a hell of a lot of books!” he laughed as he looked at the stacks of dozens and dozens of books on the floor for whom the bookcase would be a new home. “Have you actually read all of them?” (haw, haw, haw). “Actually I have,” I truthfully answered. “And these are less than a quarter of the books we have, plus an equal number or more in my office at school.” End of that conversation.

I suppose there is something to be said for the inevitable move from the printed word to the e-word, but whatever that something is, I’m not going to say it. There are few activities I enjoy more than organizing books on a bookshelf, roughly categorizing them according to an intuitive scheme that I am only partially conscious of. But when Jeanne is looking for a book that she read several months ago, prior to the last two book reorganizations, I can zero in at least on which two shelves of our multiple bookcases at home the book lives. When our basement, after two and a half years of sucking money out of our checking account, was finally finished the first furniture event was deciding which books should go on the bookcase in the new reading corner. I decided on the category “During- and post-sabbatical books roughly in the spirituality range that have been  meaningful to me (and occasionally to Jeanne) over the past six years.”

Moving those books downstairs opened up various possibilities for new groupings upstairs, more or less like planning the seating arrangement at a sit-down party with well over a thousand attendees. Who would like to talk with whom? Will charlesdickens[1]jodi-picoult[1]Charles Dickens mind sitting next to Jodi Picoult? (Charles probably would mind. He can sit next to George Eliot and Jodi can hang out with Pat Conroy). Would Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong get1216[1] along with Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister?df66925abac20a7d9362c6.L._V192220566_SX200_[1] (Yes). Who might the Pope like to sit next to?—I haven’t decided yet, but I’m thinking perhaps either Marcus Borg or Rowan Williams. Would it make more sense to seat Doris Kearns Goodwin next to David McCullough, or would the party benefit more by having the historians on different shelves? (Separate them).There is a distinct visual attractiveness and interest to a well-arranged bookcase. Tall and short, thick and thin—the appearance of books is as varied as their contents.

plato-2[1]aristotle3[1]My planning of the party in my philosophy department office has always been less creative, with chronology the order of the day across the shelves of my four large bookcases. But as I move in four years worth of accumulated books from my former director’s office, I’m rearranging the shelves to make room and am thinking that it’s time to mix things up. Plato must be sick of talking only to Aristotle by now (they’ve been disagreeing for over two thousand years) and would probably enjoy conversing with William James220px-Daniel_Dennett_in_Venice_2006[1] or Richard Rorty.Thomas-Aquinas[1] I’m pretty sure Aristotle would have a great time sitting down with Friedrich Nietzsche. And if Aquinas or Augustine sits down with Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, all bets are off!

Many years ago, shortly after we met, Jeanne bought me a paperweight that occupies a prominent place on the desk in my philosophy department office. It contains the following attributed to Descartes: “Reading books is like having a conversation with the great minds of the past.” Indeed it is. Which brings me back to where I started. I cannot enter the world of electronic books because real friendship—with books and with people—is a multi-sense experience. Visual, olfactory, tactile. I can be friends with a book, but I cannot be friends with a digital screen. I could, presumably, load every book I own into a Kindle and carry my friends with me wherever I go. But my Kindle-books would no more be my friends than the 10,328 “friends” that an acquaintance of mine has on Facebook are really his friends. I don’t know what will happen to my books when I die; amazingly my sons are not competing to get them. But in my version of heaven my friends will be with me. No friend left behind.

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

Two Plus Two Makes Four

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

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

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

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

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unvisited Tombs

I saw a bumper sticker once that said “So many books, so little time.” I agree. Even though I sometimes feel as if I read for a living, the fear that I might live my allotted fourscore years and never get to read the greatest novel I’ve not yet read or the most profound play that has not yet crossed my path is palpable. At age 59, for instance, I’ve not yet read all of Dickens’ novels. That worries me. I’ve read most of them, but what if Little Dorrit or Martin Chuzzlewitt is better than Bleak House, my favorite? What if one of the handful of Flannery O’Connor short stories I’ve yet to read is more profound than “A View of the Woods”? What if I die without ever having read The Fairie Queen? Very disturbing.

I’ve chosen to address this fear systematically, by dedicating a central part of my summer reading list to one great author (by reputation) whose work I have never read. One summer it was Zola, another summer it was Trollope; I even slogged through the first half of Swann’s Way and joined the legion of readers who started and never finished Proust. Three summers ago, it was George Eliot. I had read Silas Marner,but never Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda. I was pushed in the Eliot direction because a colleague of mine had told me that his wife, who is also a voracious reader, has proclaimed Middlemarch as the greatest novel ever written. I finished it a few days before a visit to The Coop with my son. My colleague’s wife has a point.

Cambridge, Massachusetts is a book lover’s paradise. There are more bookstores per square inch in Cambridge than any other town I’ve visited, so many that I once even found a copy of my first book, a reworking of my dissertation, on an out-of-the-way shelf in the corner of an out-of-the-way little shop there. The only other place I’ve ever seen that book, other than collecting dust on my own bookshelf, is collecting dust in various libraries on college campuses I’ve worked at or visited. As David Hume said about his first publication, “it fell stillborn from the press.”

The central, largest bookstore in Cambridge is The Coop, an impressive establishment with several stories, balconies, nooks and crannies in which to sit and read—the sort of place I could easily spend a week’s vacation. Probably alone, though–I don’t think Jeanne could survive for more than a morning. Once while visiting the Coop with my youngest son, we walked past a table with a seemingly random collection of books on display. I picked up a copy of Middlemarch. Handing it to my son, I said “read the last paragraph.”

“Holy Shit!” my son exclaimed.

“I’d give my left testicle to be able to write like that,” I replied.

The paragraph he read was Eliot’s closing meditation on the remaining life of the main character, Dorothea Brooke.

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and  me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Through Dorothea Brooke, Eliot inspires reverence for the sacredness of ordinary acts and feelings, bringing to mind the prophet Micah’s injunction to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Dorothea, to the great consternation of her wealthy uncle and guardian, regularly looks for ways to improve the living conditions of the impoverished tenant farmers working the hundreds of family acres, treats everyone as her equal even though societal norms claim otherwise, and improves the lives of those she touches with her natural generosity and truthfulness. Her gracious humanness is not religiously motivated; indeed, the only cleric in the novel is Dorothea’s ill-chosen and unfortunate first husband Mr. Casaubon, an academic so cerebral and lacking in affect that he regularly fails to recognize the real existence of anyone other than himself. The wellspring of Dorothea’s goodness is simply her own, expansive heart.

But the normal human constitution is not well tuned to the importance of ordinary deeds—all of us want to accomplish something magnificent, to perform historic acts, to live lives that are recognized, and to establish a great name on the earth. What is the value of attempting to live the life of virtue if no one notices? At the time I read Middlemarch I had not yet started this blog. I had written several dozen essays over the previous three years, both the vehicle and record of a spiritual awakening that was transformational. Family and friends had let me know, at various times and in various ways, that they were been touched deeply by them. But I wanted them to be published, and no publishing house had the good sense or spiritual acumen to take on the project. After the latest “thanks for sharing, but no” from a publisher, I said in exasperation to Jeanne “If these aren’t meant to be in print, what are they for?” As has happened so often over the past twenty-five years, she responded with the truth—“You may never know, and that’s alright.” In my thinking, the value of something is established by its being recognized. But perhaps in a different economy, value is measured in secret, even unknown ways.

In Matthew’s gospel, those who are invited to enter into the joy of their Lord are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave the homeless shelter, and visited those in prison, all the time unaware that by doing so, they were advancing the Kingdom of God. It’s almost as if they are surprised that simply acting out of human kindness and solidarity was enough to satisfy the divine requirements. But in a sacramental and incarnational world, it makes sense. What does the Lord require of us? Justice. Mercy. Humility. Perhaps I simply need to keep WWDD? in mind. What Would Dorothea Do?