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I’m a Christian, But I Won’t Be Saying “Merry Christmas”

A few days ago, reports that Roy Moore, Alabama Republican candidate for the United States Senate, initiated several sexual encounters with teenage girls, including one who was fourteen, when he was in his thirties were published in the Washington Post. Political sides were taken immediately, of course—we’ve unfortunately come to accept and expect it in our fraught and fractured political times. But one defense of Moore’s alleged behavior particularly caught the attention of many, including me. Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler said “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

No, I’d say that what’s just a little bit unusual is for someone to use the relationship between Mary and Joseph as a justification for alleged child molestation. On the list of “Things Christians Should Get Upset About,” Mr. Ziegler’s comments should be at the top of the list. To be sure, Christians of all sorts, types, shapes, and sizes filled the airwaves and social media with such outrage, while other Christians found nothing particularly wrong with either Brown’s alleged actions or Ziegler’s justification.

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But this will pass, as all things seem to do within a couple of days. Still, there are some things that certain Christians seem to get upset about regularly, an annual outrage that’s just about to fire up for the next six weeks or so. It’s the outrage concerning the War on Christmas allegedly being waged by all sorts of non-Christians in this country, a war whose continuing battlefields include the apparent prohibition against saying “Merry Christmas” during the holiday season. This prohibition is incited by politically correct liberals, the mainstream media, atheists, persons of faith who are not Christians, and anyone who enjoys persecuting American Christians, apparently the most oppressed majority in human history.

So even though it’s only the middle of November and I, as much as anyone, hate discussing Christmas when my favorite holiday—Thanksgiving—is still almost two weeks away, let me put my cards on the table as clearly as possible. I am a Christian, and I will not be saying “Merry Christmas” this holiday season. On principle.

When President Trump was a mere candidate for the highest office in the land, he promised that if he were elected President, everyone would be saying “Merry Christmas” once again, in stores, on streets, in dens of liberal iniquity where only “Happy Holidays” has been allowed for years . . . and he’s still promising it. A bit over a month ago, he gave a speech at the “Values Voter Summit,” a conservative Christian political action group whose support he enjoyed during the 2016 Presidential campaign and apparently still enjoys. In his typical rambling, stream-of-consciousness style, he threw out chunks of red meat to those assembled—sort of like the rolls of paper towels that he pitched into the crowd when he visited hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The American Founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence — four times . . .

I pledged that, in a Trump administration, our nation’s religious heritage would be cherished, protected, and defended like you have never seen before.  That’s what’s happening.  That’s what’s happening.  You see it every day.  You’re reading it . . .

We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  [An aside: I think he learned this from Elvis]

And above all else, we know this:  In America, we don’t worship government — we worship God.  (Applause.)  Inspired by that conviction, we are returning moral clarity to our view of the world and the many grave challenges we face.

And something I’ve said so much during the last two years, but I’ll say it again as we approach the end of the year.  You know, we’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore.  (Laughter.)  They don’t use the word “Christmas” because it’s not politically correct.  You go to department stores, and they’ll say, “Happy New Year” and they’ll say other things.  And it will be red, they’ll have it painted, but they don’t say it.  Well, guess what?  We’re saying “Merry Christmas” again.  

This last promise was met with a standing ovation worthy of a 60s Beatles performance, complete with sign-waving, screaming, and probably some swooning. I have to give the President credit—he knows how to choose his red meat.

I’ve lived for more than sixty years and unless my memory is failing more than I think it is, this “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” business was not a “thing” in my early years. I would remember if it had been. I was raised in the most Christian of all possible atmospheres, taught about the evils of godless secularism and its insidious ways of infecting our culture from my earliest days in Sunday School, and learned to be vigilantly on guard against even the slightest affront to Jesus (since he apparently has very thin skin). But no one ever taught me that saying “Happy Holidays” is a direct attack on all that is good, Christian, and American. That’s probably a good thing, because over the past few years I’ve paid attention to which phrase seems most natural to me when greeting or saying farewell to people this time of year—and “Happy Holidays” wins by a large margin. Let me count the reasons why.

The most obvious reason to say “Happy Holidays,” of course, is simply that there are many more holidays going on during the holiday season than Christmas; several of these holidays are either secular or central to religious traditions other than Christianity. Saying “Happy Holidays” is simply inclusive and polite.

But as a Christian, I have better reasons not to say “Merry Christmas,” reasons that reflect my refusal to align myself with a surface level Christianity that is light-years distant from my own faith. As noted earlier, the “Merry Christmas” debate is part of the false narrative that Christians are under attack in this country—despite no supporting evidence. If your faith is threatened or undermined by the failure of others to say “Merry Christmas,” may I respectfully submit that your faith is extraordinarily fragile.

Note that in his comments, Trump places the offending failure to say “Merry Christmas” in a department store—capitalism and buying frenzies are Americans’ favorite holiday liturgies. And Christians happily buy into the narrative, as if hearing your favorite phrase is the sum total of what Christmas means to a person of Christian faith. Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly, Jesus didn’t come up very often at the Values Voter Summit, except tangentially, in Trump’s pledge that everyone will once again say “Merry Christmas” at our shopping centers—where we revere the one born in a manger by lining up for holiday sales.

In addition to blasphemies like Jim Ziegler’s defense of Roy Moord, what sorts of things should Christians really be upset by at Christmas? We might start by remembering that the Holy Family was a refugee family, impoverished, homeless, in need of help. Sort of like the families that this “Christian” country’s President—the thrice-married and multiply-accused sexual predator embraced enthusiastically by many “Christians”—is seeking to bar from emigrating to our great land unless they can prove their worthiness with an appropriate achievement score. Mary, Joseph, and their newborn infant child would have flunked that test. That upsets me—failing to hear enough “Merry Christmases” does not.

Christianity is difficult and challenging, because it supposed to be. It is contrary to our crudest instincts and runs counter to our basest inclinations. Marilynne Robinson points out that “Christian ethics go steadfastly against the grain of what we consider human nature. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not.” In response to the current tendency of many American Christians to go tribal in their litmus tests for who is Christian enough, she continues “However sound our credentials seem, we have it on good authority that the prostitutes and sinners might well enter heaven before us.” That’s fine, because such folks will probably be a great deal more fun to hang out with for eternity than people whose Christian faith is strengthened by how many times they hear “Merry Christmas” at the mall as they worship the divine infant while running up their credit card bills. Happy holidays to all!

Do I Really Hate Donald Trump?

Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “the human being is always something under construction.” I am frequently reminded of just how true this is, even for someone who has been under construction for more than six decades. My most recent reminder happened two days ago.

As I watched the fifth episode of Ken Burns’ documentary “The Vietnam War” on PBS, I was also scrolling down my Facebook wall to see if there was anything interesting there (I don’t mind multitasking on occasion). A friend had posted a picture of a highway billboard that was just too good not to share on my own page:

Hate Trump

I limited my commentary on the picture to three words: “Got that right.” And the likes, emoticons, and comments started pouring in.

Some welcomed the opportunity to pile on:

  • We’re all allowed to hate privileged, moronic bigots.
  • I rarely hate, but I hate Donald Trump. If he was just pathetic that would be one thing, but he’s exploiting everything and everybody, destroying every characteristic of sound government and humanity. I refuse to believe he’s just being manipulated.

Others gently chided me for being judgmental and unkind, as in the following exchange with a former colleague at the college:

  • Him: “Hate” is an interesting word. One may be odious without being hated. The hater reveals more of her/himself than of the hated. There are many “pathetic” people though one wonders why they might be “hated” as opposed to being sympathized with.
  • Me: I’m not proud of being a hater when it comes to Trump. But I am one. I bothers me because he is perhaps the first person I’ve said that about since Ronald Reagan when I was much younger and stupider.
  • Him: My greatest culture hero, Jonathan Swift, an Anglican Dean, was a great hater, but he hardly picked on the pathetic.
  • Me: Saying I hate Trump is hardly picking on him. Nor is his being pathetic a reason to pity him when he occupies the most powerful position in the world.

Don’t get me wrong—I aware that it is politically incorrect for liberal, progressive, peace-loving, tree-hugging folks such as I to admit to hating anyone—as another friend lightheartedly reminded me:

  • Him: You should not hate anyone! I am appalled!!
  • Me: I’m a human being—so sue me!
  • Him: No need to sue you, I have plenty of money, and besides I still love you and your family!

Then, of course, there’s always the killjoy who just has to play the Christian card (I hate it when someone does that).

  • Her: Frankly, that’s just plain wrong. As Christians, we’re not supposed to hate anyone, but to love and pray for everyone, even our worst enemies. Seriously, people have forgiven people personally murdering their family or torturing them; Christ forgive his own killers on the cross. I do think as Christians we can learn to see Christ in the likes of Donald Trump. Otherwise, we’re failing miserably. And no, it doesn’t have to do with politics. I did not vote for the man, but I do pray for him and recognize our shared humanity.
  • Me: Congratulations on being a better Christian than I am.

My snarky response aside, I knew this one was coming. I take my faith seriously and am fully aware that coming out as a “hater”—even of someone like Donald Trump—“outs” me as a hypocrite, a weak Christian, or both. Guilty as charged.

  • Her: I don’t think it’s a matter of being “better”; it’s just a process we all should be striving towards in our imitation of Christ. I know people who alternately act the same way about Hillary Clinton and those on her side of the political fence . . . Our faith is supposed to be stronger than our politics in such matters. We are supposed to love unconditionally, especially those who we naturally find repugnant or distasteful. If we can’t do it with politicians (and mind, I personally don’t like either Trump or Clinton), how will we ever handle people who seriously hurt us or those we love on a personal level? Even if we don’t feel it, it can be a movement of the will to embrace something higher than ourselves.
  • Me: I do strive for it and am very aware of the challenges of living out my faith rather than just talking or writing about it. My faith is “supposed to be stronger” in such matters–I agree. I’m also willing to be honest about my regular failure to live up to that, as well as about the times I think I’ve lived it out well for a day.
  • Her: That’s well and good, but the sign above can come off as something of a “positive” statement, to make Trump seem like the sole “unlovable” dehumanized being, and getting people to sympathize with that. In that way, it’s toxic.
  • Me: Give me a break. I’m really not particularly interested in twisting something that is pretty clear in its meaning–whether or not you happen to agree with it–into its complete opposite. Have a good one.

Mercifully, she didn’t respond, my suggestion that she is a better Christian than I am having been completely confirmed.

My primary reason for sharing the picture of the billboard was that I thought it was funny (and still do). But the subsequent exchanges do raise an important question—why am I a hater when it comes to Donald Trump? Why am I willing to admit it in public and double-down on it when someone points out that being a hater is incompatible with many of the most important things I believe? A couple of strategies come to mind.

I could take the sanctimonious route that I learned as a kid and say “what I really mean is that I hate the sin but love the sinner.” It’s not so much Donald that I hate, in other words, as the things he does and stands for. But that strategy is a cop-out. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and any number of others have stood for and do stand for things that I hate, but I don’t hate the person. In Donald’s case, it seems personal. Even when he accidentally does something I agree with—like siding with the Democrats once or twice—I still hate him. In his case, I hate both the sin and the sinner.

Or I could take a different sanctimonious route and say that this isn’t “hate”—it’s “righteous indignation.” That’s how we used to get Jesus off the hook for losing it in the temple and throwing the moneychangers out. Certainly Jesus didn’t “hate” them—or did he? Actually, Jesus is reported to have said some pretty hateful things about a number of people, many of whom I’m sure were just doing their jobs and what they were convinced was the right thing. Anyways, what I feel concerning Donald Trump doesn’t strike me as “righteous indignation.” It strikes me as hate. And to make it even worse, I don’t feel a shred of guilt about it.

Those who know me well and/or read this blog regularly know that I am not a hater by nature. That’s how I know that this is truly hatred—I experience the feeling so seldom that there is no mistaking it when it shows up. There’s no other way to explain my rising blood pressure and the pain deep in my gut every time I hear or see him on television or radio. I don’t like carrying hatred around. Hating someone is exhausting—it wastes psychological and emotional resources that are better used elsewhere.

So I could try to be a better Christian, as my Facebook conversation partner suggests. I should love and forgive everybody—that’s what Jesus did. “Christ forgive his own killers on the cross,” I was reminded in that conversation.

The problem is, I’m not Jesus. I’m me. I’m a flawed, imperfect human being who is committed to trying to live according to principles that are impossible to live by. As I talked about this and more with Jeanne (who also hates Donald Trump) at lunch today, she reminded me of something that I occasionally almost forget in my forays into more and more progressive and liberal Christianity—no one can live according to the principles and requirements of the Gospels. No one can live the Christian life. It’s impossible.

The good news is that the whole point of the Christian faith, of following Jesus, is that it can’t be done by simply trying hard, even with the best of intentions. Call it what you will—human nature, original sin, natural weakness—but we all need help. And help is available—that’s the good news, the gospel, that Jesus delivered on a regular basis and that is still operative now. I am indeed something under construction, and sometimes what needs fixing or improvement has to be handed over to someone with both intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be human and the tools to keep working on daily imperfections. My hatred of Donald Trump happens to be a particularly stubborn example—and until someone does something about it, I’m okay with that.

Ten Years On

Ten years ago this summer, I attended a writers conference for the first time in my life–I signed up at Jeanne’s urging (and against my better judgment). My workshop was “Literary Essay”; each of the fifteen members wrote daily 500 word essays, which were submitted to colleagues for critique and (hopefully) helpful evaluation. My essays tended to praise the virtues of my dog and the Boston Red Sox, while frequently expressing struggles with faith, God, religion, and my own very human inadequacies. Little did I know that this first foray into short essay writing was the beginning of a multi-faceted process that would change my life.

Southampton poster 2

On the final day of the ten-day workshop, each participant capped her or his experience with a two-minute public reading of something they had written during the workshop. It was a bit intimidating–I was used to speaking in front of large groups of people (200+ in this instance), but had never brought such a personal, intimate piece of writing to the attention of so many without lots of editing. Here’s what I shared with the group:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The editor of a small magazine heard my essay and approached me later that day, asking if I would be willing to let her publish it–it became my first non-academic publication ever. Two years after the workshop I experienced a life-transforming sabbatical where I began writing exploratory essays in the mode of my first forays at the workshop. Five years later, exactly five years ago today, “Hail Frieda, Full of Grace” was the first of now more than 800 posts as I ventured into the strange and wonderful world of blogging.

I have written about a number of interconnected themes on “Freelance Christianity” over the past half-decade, none of them more important than the one I first shared ten years ago with my fellow workshop participants. Is there somewhere in the universe a transcendent grace and love that welcomes me with open arms and asks only for my response? My continuing answer is “Yes”–but the details are still something I’m working on.

Frieda and I are both ten years older–she carries her now thirteen-year-old self with the same extroversion, personality, and grace that I celebrated in my original essay. She’s 13 rather than 10.5 pounds. She has almost as much white hair as I do. She’s still my muse, my constant companion, and I still hope that she outlives me (since I don’t want to deal with what I’ll be like if she doesn’t).

old frieda

Ten years on, I realize that I am a very different person than I was at that workshop, different in ways I could never have predicted. I’m grateful for the essays, for Frieda, for Jeanne, for change, and especially for my increasingly stronger conviction that there’s a lot more going on in me and around me than I could ever imagine. I thank those who have shared this journey with me in many different ways, and invite you to join me going forward.

What People of Faith Have in Common with Atheists

The more I realize why my faith is important to me, the more I realize that these matters of importance don’t primarily rely on my believing anything particular about God, God’s nature, or what happens after I die. For many, coming to this conclusion would require a significant shift in what faith even means.

different faiths 2

About half way through the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) are in the bowels of my beloved Fenway Park. Ray has brought Terry there in an attempt to involve him in a ludicrous scheme that Mann is trying to resist getting sucked into. Mann was a major player in the 60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam protests who now, twenty years later, is tired of being everyone’s unofficial guru and voice of the flower power generation. He just wants to be left alone. “So what do you want?” Ray asks Terry.

Terry: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.ray-and-terry

Ray: (gesturing to the concession stand they are in front of) No, I mean, what do you WANT?

Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.

Sometimes what we claim to want and what we really want are two entirely different things. Often our expressed desires for lofty sounding goals and achievements are, in reality, a cry for at least some sort of guidance on how to make it through our days and weeks with a modicum of our integrity and character intact. None of us comes into the world knowing how to live a good human life—all of us need as much help as possible. Last semester I worked with my General Ethics students on an article with the attention-getting title “Does It Matter Whether God Exists?” that begins with a provocative quote from John Gray, an atheist philosopher:

In many religions—polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions—belief is of little or no importance. Rather, practice—ritual, meditation, a way of life—is what counts . . . It’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths . . . what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.

Careful there, dude—the “religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths” who you are stereotyping are the people I grew up with. But Gary Gutting, the author of the article who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, observes that a religious person need not respond to someone like Gray defensively or with outrage.

It all depends on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a fulfilling life here on earth, then a “way of living” without firm beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need.

Gutting’s comment reminds me of something I once heard a Jewish colleague say: “Judaism is the only monotheistic religion that one can be part of and also be an atheist.” What, I asked my predominantly Catholic juniors and seniors, could my colleague have meant by that? Although such a comment was outside the normal frame of reference for many of them, they realized that, despite typical preconceptions and assumptions, there might be reasons for placing oneself in a religious tradition that have nothing to do with God. Judaism, for instance, is a way of life for my colleague, providing the traditions, practices, moral guidance, and community support that every human being seeks, at least occasionally, as we construct frameworks of meaning and purpose around our lives.

There are also many groups of Christians for whom the Christian faith is about how to live a good and flourishing human life now; the texts and traditions of Christianity undoubtedly provide a great deal of guidance concerning how to do just that. And, as the atheist quoted at the beginning of Gary Gutting’s article provocatively points out, what one believes or does not believe concerning God need not be important for such people.

I can imagine, for instance, an atheist finding a great deal of direct guidance for how to live a good human life from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel without feeling obligated to sign on the dotted line concerning anything about God’s existence and nature. Such guidance, of course, can be found in all sorts of place, both religious and non-religious; one’s choice of which framework to adopt will depend largely on one’s history, personality, commitments both social and political, and simply where one finds oneself most at home.

But many persons of faith want a lot more from their religion than just daily guidance for how to live a life. Gutting continues:

But many religions, including mainline versions of Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in our life after death. If our hope is for salvation in this sense—and for many that is the main point of religion—then this hope depends on certain religious beliefs being true. In particular, for the main theistic religions, if depends on there being a God who is good enough to desire our salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.

I have noted frequently on this blog my observation over the years that, for the majority of my students, the primary benefits of being a religious believer are “comfort” and “security about what happens after I die.” That’s certainly the religious world I was raised in. The people I grew up with were obsessed with “being saved,” a salvation that had a lot more to do with what happens after I die than anything that might be applicable to how to live my life today and tomorrow.

As I look back five decades and more on that world, I realize that even then I was far more interested in how the religion imposed on me applied to my daily life rather than what sort of mansion I would occupy when in heaven and what sort of harp I would be playing. Truth be told, heaven sounded pretty boring to me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend eternity there. I was much more interested in whether being a Christian could help me avoid bullies, find a girlfriend, and grow up to be at least a marginally well-adjusted adult.

These days I find myself thinking about atheism a lot, not because I’m thinking of becoming one (I tried that once—it didn’t take), but because the more I realize why my faith is important to me, the more I realize that these matters of importance don’t primarily rely on my believing anything particular about God, God’s nature, or what happens after I die. I don’t know what will happen after I die, and I spend a remarkably small amount of my time thinking about it, even though the amount of days I have left on earth are far fewer than the ones I’ve already lived.

Don’t get me wrong—I believe that God exists, that God is intimately interested in relationship with human beings, and that this requires something important of me. But I also believe that the values and moral commitments that are closely related to my belief in God are available to persons who are of a different faith than mine or of no faith at all. If what people of faith want out of their religion is only available to people who sign on to the very specific beliefs concerning God and more that define their religion, there is little hope for dialogue with those who do not share those specific beliefs. But if, first and foremost, what I want out of my religion is guidance for how to live a good human life now, then I am looking for the very same sort of guidance that billions of other human beings seek. That gives us a lot to talk about—regardless of what we believe concerning God.

Step to the Right: Practicing Right Brain Faith in a Left Brain World

At age thirty-seven, Harvard trained brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor woke up one morning with a splitting headache. As she tried to get ready for work, her mind began to deteriorate over the course of four hours to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Jill Bolte TaylorTaylor later learned that she had suffered a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Her story of her eight-year-long recovery, described in her book My Stroke of Insight, provides a fascinating glimpse into how our brain creates our consciousness, our self-awareness, and our moral sensibilities. Her story also opens the door to possibilities and options for persons of faith, possibilities that we might be blind to unless we, as Taylor puts it, “step to the right” and learn to embrace the inclusive and expansive energies of our right brain. I wrote about these possibilities recently for Bearings Online, the online publication of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota. Enjoy!

 

Step to the Right

A Sower Went Forth to Sow . . .

I have been an active blogger for almost five years; as I suspect is true of many bloggers, I am obsessed with my blog statistics. One of the most important numbers provided by Google Analytics is my blog’s “bounce rate,” defined as “the percentage of single-page visits (i.e. visits in which the person left your site from the entrance page without interacting with the page).” My bounce rate tends to hang around 75-80%–I don’t know if that’s good or not, since I don’t have the nerve to ask other bloggers and risk finding out that the norm is around 25%.

Such numbers confirm something that any writer knows—writing is an inefficient and non-economical process, if efficiency and economy are measured numerically. One never knows when or if something one throws out for public consumption will hit pay dirt and actually have an impact. I was comforted to be reminded by last Sunday’s gospel that I’m not the only person who spends a lot of time in an inefficient enterprise.

sower 2

The gospel reading was Jesus’ parable of the sower from Matthew. It is one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables, so familiar that it is easy to miss some of the most striking details. The sower is apparently just throwing seeds out there roughly in the direction of where fertile ground might be, but his activity is remarkably inefficient, based on the yield Jesus goes on to describe. If this sower had Google Analytic statistics to measure the success and effectiveness of his activity, I’ll bet his bounce rate (the total percentage of seeds that fell on the path, rocky ground, and among thorns) is at least as high as mine. But if, as Jesus’ interpretation later in the chapter suggests, the seed is the word of God, then this is just the typical divine strategy that we keep bumping into—“Let’s just throw a bunch of stuff out there indiscriminately and see what happens!”

God is no respecter of persons, statistics, focus groups, yield projections, bounce rates, or any other thing humans might devise as the best measures of effectiveness and efficiency. All you have to do is consider the extraordinary wastefulness of the way God chose to crank out endless varieties of living things—natural selection—to realize that Isaiah wasn’t kidding when he reports God as saying that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Not only is seed scattering hit-and-miss, it is by no means certain that those who read a text will interpret it in a manner that matches up to the author’s intention. Indeed, post-modern literary theory points out that the meaning of a text is always a function of the text and what the reader brings to it—the original intention of the author may play little to no role in the text’s meaning for the reader. Furthermore, the author’s intent should not be looked to as a standard for correct interpretation, even if we know what the original intent was. I’m actually very comfortable with this, but found out over the past week that a lot of people aren’t.

Last week I posted an essay that explored the new territory opened up if one reads “light” as a noun (as in “source of illumination”) rather than as an adjective (as in “not heavy”) in Jesus’ claim that “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The Burden of Light

Several Facebook commenters warned against wandering from the literal meaning of a text, even if that wandering leads to interesting ideas and applications. For example:

  • Him: I like it, but I would be very cautious about advocating for collateral interpretations, when it’s clearly not the intended meaning.
  • Me: Maybe it’s the effect of post-modernism on me, but I’m far less concerned with the “original meaning” than with how it can speak to contemporary persons. The meaning of a text is as much the function of the reader as of what is being read.

A couple of commenters went to the trouble of providing the actual Greek text in their comments (ο γαρ ζυγος μου χρηστος και το φορτιον μου ελαφρον εστιν), noting that the word ελαφρον is an adjective and means “not heavy”; the Greek word for “light,” φῶς, is not in the passage at all. The word play I was having fun with, in other words, is available only in English translation. The commenter was not pleased when I said, in essence, “I don’t care.”

  • Me: I know the Greek [I get to use it on a semi-regular basis in my professional life]. Locking oneself into the literal meaning of the original locks one into never allowing a text to become alive to new possibilities and interpretations. Remember, btw, that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, not Greek, so what is in the original written text is already a translation and an interpretation.

Someone else picked up on the “only in English” issue:

  • Him: It’s a nice word play, but what about Christians who don’t speak English?
  • Me: Then they will find new interpretations and meanings available uniquely in their own languages. I’ve encountered many of them in French translations of the Bible, for instance, that don’t play in English; there are also many word plays in the original Greek that don’t translate into English. Overall, the meaning of a text is as much about the reader as it is about the text.

And so it went. I really am not as cavalier about an author’s intention as it might sound, but I realize—as the parable of the sower points out—that once the seed is out there, what will happen is pretty much out of the sower’s control. And, despite the protestations of any number of Facebook commenters, I’m really okay with that (and so, apparently, is God). One particular person wouldn’t stop pushing back, eventually suggesting that I wouldn’t like it if it turned out that something I wrote had been as badly misinterpreted as I was misinterpreting “My burden is light.” Before I had a chance to respond, someone responded much more eloquently than I ever could have.

  • As one who writes quite a bit, I’d just say this. If anyone is moved to a new understanding by anything I’ve written, even if it wasn’t the point I was trying to bring out when I wrote it, I’m grateful. The Bible is like that. I can read a passage one day, then read the same thing a week later and have a totally different experience with the text. Words are magic.

Every day when I throw new e-seed out there, as well as on days when I throw out recycled e-seed, I am imitating a divine activity that makes no sense but somehow occasionally produces fruit in the most unexpected and unpredictable places.

When a Coincidence is More than a Coincidence

In his lovely little book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner suggests that what we often dismiss as “coincidence” might instead, for those inclined to pause for a moment, provide evidence of something going on behind the scenes. The friend you have been out of touch with unexpectedly calls or emails just as you were thinking about her for the first time in weeks. One of your favorite authors references a text from the Jewish scriptures on page two of her new book that just arrived in the mail from Amazon, the very same text you noted as your favorite verse from the Bible in an after-church seminar the day before. “Weird,” you think—then dismiss it as a coincidence. Don’t do that, Buechner advises. Better, at least on occasion, “to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know.”

In my family, we call such unexplained coincidences “Big Bird moments,” in honor of my wife Jeanne’s brilliant decision to refer to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird” when trying to talk about things sacred with the seven- and five-year-old stepsons she inherited when she decided that I was worth taking a chance on three decades ago. I had one of these “coincidences” a couple of weeks ago, one that reminded me that, to use another favorite passage of mine from literature, “there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”big bird Although most Big Bird moments are tinged with positive and affirming energy, my most recent such “coincidence” was a sobering reminder that I should always be careful of what I am saying. Someone is listening.

After twenty-five years of teaching, my internal memory file titled “Memorable Students” is getting rather full. I have pictures of some of these students in my office, I am reminded of others when I write a reference letter for a current student and see the names of memorable students from the past as I save the Word document in a master folder full of subfolders labelled with the last names of students for whom I’ve written such letters over the years. “I wonder what she’s doing now?” I wonder. “He’s probably running his own company by now.” But there are some students who stick in my memory for no good reason other than that, like an annoying tune you hear in a television ad or an unwanted guest, they refuse to leave once they’ve gained access. Walter was one of those students (his name has been changed to protect the completely innocent).

I regularly teach in a large, interdisciplinary and team-taught course required of all freshmen and sophomores at my college; Walter was in my seminar group for both semesters of his freshman year five years ago. He was at or close to the bottom of the seminar group by every measurable standard—he didn’t participate much, wrote poorly, and bombed the midterm and final exams, skin of your teethmanaging to scrape out a passing grade both semesters by the skin of his teeth. I wanted Walter to do well, because he clearly (at least in my “expert” opinion) was out of place at our college. I also resonated with him because he was the sort of kid who undoubtedly was picked on unmercifully in primary and secondary school—skinny, painfully introverted, socially inept, a loner. I knew whereof I spoke, since I was this kid in school myself.

Walter showed up in one of my classes the next year as a sophomore, this time in a colloquium that I was teaching for the first time with a colleague from the history department (we just finished teaching this colloquium together for the third time this past semester). I was, admittedly, relieved when I saw that Walter was in my colleague’s seminar group rather than mine. “I dealt with him for two semesters last year,” I thought. “Now it’s someone else’s turn.” The capstone evaluation in this course is a half-hour oral exam with my colleague and me. We provide students prior to the exam with four questions to help them prepare, letting them choose which question to begin the conversation with on the understanding that we may touch base with some of the others as well. Students are allowed to bring notes and texts with them to the oral exam, and they always do—evidence of hours of rereading and study. oral examToward the end of the week, it was time for Walter’s oral. He entered the room with no books and no notes; when we asked him which question he wanted to begin the conversation with, he admitted that he hadn’t really looked at any of the questions. And that was the high point of the oral—it went downhill from there. Walter whiffed at every softball my colleague and I tossed him; every answer he did attempt was built around a mumbled “I don’t know,” or “I don’t really remember that.” It was the most awkward half-hour I’ve ever spent with a student. “At least it wasn’t a Walter” became a code phrase between my colleague and me for “it could have been a lot worse.” And except for an occasional glimpse from across the arena at a hockey game, that was the last I ever saw of Walter.

Fast forward three years to our colloquium oral exams that ended just a week ago. The room in which we were holding the orals was across from the faculty break room; my colleague and I would frequently refill our coffee cups and stretch our legs there in the ten minutes between each exam. During one break, a colleague from the English department was in the break room and asked how the orals were going. We both agreed that, overall, this set of orals was the best of the three iterations of the course over the past four years. Even those students who struggled a bit with nerves and introversion were prepared and did well. “And none of them have been a Walter,” my colleague said. In response to our English colleague’s quizzical look, I took the opportunity to describe in some animated detail over the next couple of minutes the disaster that had been Walter’s oral. It was the Platonic form of academic awfulness. If you looked up “bad oral exams” in the dictionary, the definition would be a description of Walter’s oral. NOOOWe all had a good laugh—what professor doesn’t have their “worst ever” examples of every kind of assignment?—and my colleague and I headed across the hall for the next oral exam.

Just as Walter came walking around the corner. I kid you not. It was a WTF, spit-your-coffee-out-all-over-the-wall sort of moment. I had not seen Walter in three years, and there he was seconds after I completed an over-the-top exercise in throwing him under the bus. You can’t make this shit up. My colleague and I, pretending that nothing unusual had happened, invited our next student in for her exam and proceeded in a “nothing to see here” manner. It wasn’t until the next day, in the privacy of his office, that my colleague said “Vance, what are the chances that . . .”—and we both collapsed into embarrassed laughter before he finished his question. I’m certain that Walter did not hear any of our conversation in the break room the day before—I’m not sure he even recognized me, and I have no idea of why the hell he was walking down the hall at just that moment.

But I actually think I do know why he was walking down the hall at just that moment. AYou're a losers I’ve thought about this event over the past several days, I’ve realized that Walter had become a placeholder in my imagination for the category “Loser” that I regularly criticize Donald Trump for using. Without knowing a single thing about Walter other than that he struggled academically in my classes, I had turned him into my internal definition of failure. In his discussion of “coincidence,” Frederick Buechner writes

Who can say what it is that’s going on, but I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.”

I agree. But the whisper from the wings that I heard a bit over a week ago was more like “Morgan, stop being a jackass. Never forget the most important part of the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t be a jerk.”dont be a jerk

Behind the Scenes

In his lovely little book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner suggests that what we often dismiss as “coincidence” might instead, for those inclined to pause for a moment, provide evidence of something going on behind the scenes. The friend you have been out of touch with unexpectedly calls or emails just as you were thinking about her for the first time in weeks. One of your favorite authors references a text from the Jewish scriptures on page two of her new book that just arrived in the mail from Amazon, the very same text you noted as your favorite verse from the Bible in an after-church seminar the day before. “Weird,” you think—then dismiss it as a coincidence. Don’t do that, Buechner advises. Better, at least on occasion, “to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know.”

In my family, we call such unexplained coincidences “Big Bird moments,” in honor of my wife Jeanne’s brilliant decision to refer to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird” when trying to talk about things sacred with the seven- and five-year-old stepsons she inherited when she decided that I was worth taking a chance on three decades ago. I had one of these “coincidences” a couple of weeks ago, one that reminded me that, to use another favorite passage of mine from literature, “there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”big bird Although most Big Bird moments are tinged with positive and affirming energy, my most recent such “coincidence” was a sobering reminder that I should always be careful of what I am saying. Someone is listening.

After twenty-five years of teaching, my internal memory file titled “Memorable Students” is getting rather full. I have pictures of some of these students in my office, I am reminded of others when I write a reference letter for a current student and see the names of memorable students from the past as I save the Word document in a master folder full of subfolders labelled with the last names of students for whom I’ve written such letters over the years. “I wonder what she’s doing now?” I wonder. “He’s probably running his own company by now.” But there are some students who stick in my memory for no good reason other than that, like an annoying tune you hear in a television ad or an unwanted guest, they refuse to leave once they’ve gained access. Walter was one of those students (his name has been changed to protect the completely innocent).

I regularly teach in a large, interdisciplinary and team-taught course required of all freshmen and sophomores at my college; Walter was in my seminar group for both semesters of his freshman year five years ago. He was at or close to the bottom of the seminar group by every measurable standard—he didn’t participate much, wrote poorly, and bombed the midterm and final exams, skin of your teethmanaging to scrape out a passing grade both semesters by the skin of his teeth. I wanted Walter to do well, because he clearly (at least in my “expert” opinion) was out of place at our college. I also resonated with him because he was the sort of kid who undoubtedly was picked on unmercifully in primary and secondary school—skinny, painfully introverted, socially inept, a loner. I knew whereof I spoke, since I was this kid in school myself.

Walter showed up in one of my classes the next year as a sophomore, this time in a colloquium that I was teaching for the first time with a colleague from the history department (we just finished teaching this colloquium together for the third time this past semester). I was, admittedly, relieved when I saw that Walter was in my colleague’s seminar group rather than mine. “I dealt with him for two semesters last year,” I thought. “Now it’s someone else’s turn.” The capstone evaluation in this course is a half-hour oral exam with my colleague and me. We provide students prior to the exam with four questions to help them prepare, letting them choose which question to begin the conversation with on the understanding that we may touch base with some of the others as well. Students are allowed to bring notes and texts with them to the oral exam, and they always do—evidence of hours of rereading and study. oral examToward the end of the week, it was time for Wesley’s oral. He entered the room with no books and no notes; when we asked him which question he wanted to begin the conversation with, he admitted that he hadn’t really looked at any of the questions. And that was the high point of the oral—it went downhill from there. Walter whiffed at every softball my colleague and I tossed him; every answer he did attempt was built around a mumbled “I don’t know,” or “I don’t really remember that.” It was the most awkward half-hour I’ve ever spent with a student. “At least it’s not a Walter” became a code phrase between my colleague and me for “it could be a lot worse.” And except for an occasional glimpse from across the arena at a hockey game, that was the last I ever saw of Walter.

Fast forward three years to our colloquium oral exams that ended just a week ago. The room in which we were holding the orals was across from the faculty break room; my colleague and I would frequently refill our coffee cups and stretch our legs there in the ten minutes between each exam. During one break, a colleague from the English department was in the break room and asked how the orals were going. We both agreed that, overall, this set of orals was the best of the three iterations of the course over the past four years. Even those students who struggled a bit with nerves and introversion were prepared and did well. “And none of them have been a Walter,” my colleague said. In response to our English colleague’s quizzical look, I took the opportunity to describe in some animated detail over the next couple of minutes the disaster that had been Walter’s oral. It was the Platonic form of academic awfulness. If you looked up “bad oral exams” in the dictionary, the definition would be a description of Walter’s oral. NOOOWe all had a good laugh—what professor doesn’t have their “worst ever” examples of every kind of assignment?—and my colleague and I headed across the hall for the next oral exam.

Just as Walter came walking around the corner. I kid you not. It was a WTF, spit-your-coffee-out-all-over-the-wall sort of moment. I had not seen Walter in three years, and there he was seconds after I completed an over-the-top exercise in throwing him under the bus. You can’t make this shit up. My colleague and I, pretending that nothing unusual had happened, invited our next student in for her exam and proceeded in a “nothing to see here” manner. It wasn’t until the next day, in the privacy of his office, that my colleague said “Vance, what are the chances that . . .”—and we both collapsed into embarrassed laughter before he finished his question. I’m certain that Walter did not hear any of our conversation in the break room the day before—I’m not sure he even recognized me, and I have no idea of why the hell he was walking down the hall at just that moment.

But I actually think I do know why he was walking down the hall at just that moment. AYou're a losers I’ve thought about this event over the past several days, I’ve realized that Walter had become a placeholder in my imagination for the category “Loser” that I regularly criticize Donald Trump for using. Without knowing a single thing about Walter other than that he struggled academically in my classes, I had turned him into my internal definition of failure. In his discussion of “coincidence,” Frederick Buechner writes

Who can say what it is that’s going on, but I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.”

I agree. But the whisper from the wings that I heard a bit over a week ago was more like “Morgan, stop being a jackass. Never forget the most important part of the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t be a jerk.”dont be a jerk

How to know the will of God

On the recommendation of one of my colleagues, I recently read Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein. It’s hard to resist for a philosophy professor, since Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most important, yet enigmatic and difficult, philosophers of the 20th century. The Wittgensteins were fabulously wealthy, one of the most successful families in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ludwigludwig_wittgenstein[1] was the youngest of nine children; one died in her youth, and the three oldest sons committed suicide. The other remaining son, older brother Paul, was a concert pianist who lost his right arm during World War I, after which he crafted a highly successful concert career playing pieces written by the great composers of the day for the left hand only. Ludwig, Pautumblr_m35rh09mU21qb8ogko1_500[1]l, and their three remaining sisters all suffered from various psychological ailments and considered suicide at various times in their lives. The Wittgensteins were both outrageously successful and spectacularly dysfunctional.

Although considered by almost everyone other than his family who knew him to be a genius, Ludwig had a very difficult time deciding what to do with his life. Talented in engineering and mathematics, he showed great promise in the burgeoning field of aeronautics while at Cambridge University in 1911 at the age of 22. Yet his heart wasn’t in it, and Ludwig attached himself to Bertrand Russell, the most famous philosopher of his day in the English-speaking world, wondering whether philosophy might turn out to be his true passion. Despite Ludwig’s abrasive and neurotic personality, Russell humored him to the point that one day Wittgenstein asked Russell: tumblr_lyzv9vekTr1qcu0j0o1_500[1]“Will you please tell me if I am a complete idiot or not?” Russell replied, “My dear fellow, I don’t know, why are you asking me?” “Because,” Wittgenstein said, “if I am a complete idiot I shall become an aeronaut; but if not I shall become a philosopher.”

Ludwig finds himself in a predicament that all of us face at times. A choice, often an important one, must be made and we need help making it. Do I play it safe or take a risk? Do I continue on a familiar path or take “the road less traveled”? Do I end a relationship or hang in there for a while longer? In such cases we often look to someone other than ourselves for direction. Ludwig was lucky—he actually got some help. Russell told him to write something on a philosophical topic over vacation; based on what he wrote, Russell would provide his advice. Russell reports in his memoirs that after reading what Ludwig produced for one minute, “I said to him, ‘No you must not become an aeronaut.’” And he didn’t. Instead, Wittgenstein became a philosopher whose originality and influence vastly surpassed Russell’s and who set a standard in philosophy that has influenced the discipline ever since.

Given that Bertrand Russell was a dedicated and virulent atheist, it seems odd to ask Why can’t God be more like Russell? But think about it—Ludwig asked Bertrand for assistance, Russell gave it, Wittgenstein followed it—problem solved. But God doesn’t operate that way.sviatui-apostol-matii[1] A case point shows up early in the book of Acts with the case of Matthias. Who, you say? It’s a fascinating and illuminating story. Jesus chose twelve disciples, of course, but one of them turned out to be a disastrously bad choice. So early in the book of Acts, between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, the problem of replacing Judas arises—it’s apparently not cool to just have eleven disciples, although I’m not sure why, it being a prime number and all. The qualifications necessary to be the new disciple number twelve are clear. Peter says that it needs to be someone “who has accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” starting with the baptism of John all the way through seeing the risen Christ. Apparently there were dozens of good candidates; the two finalists are Justus and Matthias. Then the disciples do what might be expected—they pray for the Lord to reveal which of these two equally qualified candidates is to be the new disciple twelve.

Now if I were God, I’d honor this hard work and proper request with an appropriate answer. Justus or Matthias would get a halo, or start glowing and levitating, or a dove would descend from heaven while a voice would say “This is my beloved new disciple.” But what do the disciples do?election of Matthias icon[1] “And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias.” “Casting lots” is the biblical equivalent of rolling a pair of dice or flipping a coin. So this is like the beginning of a football game. “Call heads or tails in the air, Justus.” “Heads!” “It’s tails—Justus, thanks for playing; Matthias, you’re the new disciple. Here’s your ‘I’m A Disciple and You’re Not’ T-shirt and bumper sticker—Andrew and Bartholomew will teach you the secret handshake.” The new disciple is chosen by a flip of a coin, and everyone accepts it as the will of God. Neither Justus nor Matthias is mentioned again in Acts or anywhere else in the Bible. Weird.

But maybe not. It’s typically human to want “signs and wonders,” to look for unmistakable answers to the most important questions. But such answers are not generally available in the normal, human run of things. There are many occasions in scripture where big time miraculous answers and solutions are given in difficult predicaments—crazy Gideon with his fleeces, for instance—but the preponderance of relevant texts say something like what Moses tells the children of Israel in Deuteronomy.word is near[1] The will of God “is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven . . . nor is it beyond the sea . . . but the word is very near you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.” God has given us everything we need to address the problems in front of us. Trust what you have been given, do your homework, look at the options, then choose. And flip a coin if you have to. What’s the worst that could happen? 220px-William_James_b1842c[1]One of my favorite philosophers, William James, recommends a certain lightheartedness when making even the most important choices, a lightheartedness that I also detect in the Matthias story. “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than excessive nervousness on their behalf.” Jesus was human too, and according to Matthew his last words to us were “I am with you always.” Finding God’s will is a matter of believing that these words are true.lo_i_am_with_you_always_postcard-r315abba365ce42479f6e62065309ebf0_vgbaq_8byvr_512[1]

This is what you are afraid of

In an early, first-season episode of The West Wing (the best television show ever), presidential speech writer Sam Seaborn is attracted to Mallory, a fifth-grade teacher who happens to be the daughter of White House chief of staff Leo McGarry. Sam_and_MallorySam has managed to offend Mallory unintentionally, and wants to let her know what he really thinks about teachers.

Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

From your words to God’s ears, Sam. If teachers ruled the world . . .

I have taught for close to a quarter-century as a non-Catholic at a college run by the Dominican Catholic order. I’ve raised eyebrows on occasion with my students by telling them that I consider teaching to be a vocation, a calling, in much the same way that the Dominicans walking around campus in their white robes believe themselves “called” to be priests. I did not know that I was born to be a teacher until I became one—I’m one of those immensely fortunate people who, if independently wealthy, would do what they do for a living for nothing (don’t tell payroll at my college). Of vocatiBuechneron, Frederick Buechner writes that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The classroom is where the divine is most likely, against all odds, to occasionally enter the world through the very flawed and cracked vehicle called “me.” Sometimes it actually happens.

I spent the last two weeks running half-hour oral final exams with sixty-four of my students from three of my classes. These oral exams are time consuming, exhausting, and a complete joy. Many of my colleagues, as well as most of my non-academic friends and acquaintances, think I’m insane to inflict such torture on myself when I could do the more traditional thing and have my students write their final an a two-hour blue book event. But I learn more about what each student has learned, what they don’t know, and what they will take from the class from a thirty minute conversation than I ever could in any amount of writing under pressure. The orals this past week were for the students in a colloquium that I taught this semester for the third time with a close friend and colleague from the history department. The colloquium was “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era.” The conversations were revealing, sometimes touching, and often wandered in unexpected and interesting directions.

One of the last oral exams of the week was with a student whose performance throughout the semester had been solid—steady seminar participation (despite obvious introversion), regular commitment to weekly intellectual notebook entries, a strong formal paper, and perfect attendance. otherThis student is part of a demographic that is viewed by many people with mistrust, suspicion, often even with fear. This demographic is, for some, the very definition of the scary “Other.” At the end of the half hour, the student handed my colleague and me each a small envelope with our name on it. Both of us have been teaching for many years and are used to occasionally receiving thank you notes from students at the end of the semester. The envelope was kind of thick—“Maybe there’s money in it!” I said. I read the folded note inside the card at lunch. With only a few edits to remove identifying characteristics, here’s what I read.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you so much for teaching this course. I am very grateful that I was able to be a part of your class because it truly changed my outlook on life, and my life in general. Before enrolling in this course, I wanted to take a class that would be meaningful especially in a changing political climate filled with hate. I told myself that I wanted to learn how it was possible to still have hope in such a horrible time. That’s what I told myself, but really I wanted to know why people were filled with so much hate, hate for me. . . . I want you to know the impact that you each had on my life. Thank you for teaching the rest of my peers how I am often excluded from people’s moral communities, bringing me into your moral community, and acknowledging that I am human too.

This course, although it showed what length hate can go to, taught us how much more powerful love is. That love conquers all, that there will always be people willing to help, people who love, and people who care. People like yourselves, who advocate for people like myself. Before this class, I was faithless because I always struggled to believe in a God and Christianity. But I must admit, you taught me to have faith, something that I had never known before. A unique faith, but one which has made the most sense to me. A faith rooted in love and justice and one that is rooted in the message of Jesus Christ. You taught me that suffering is a part of life, but that suffering has an end. There is no suffering which I cannot bear. You taught me that an afflicted person will always have a part of their personhood that can never be taken away from them. You taught me not to hate those who hate me. You taught me to see beyond good and evil. In all this I realized that hate is inevitable and even the people with the best intentions can be blinded by it. However, in reality people are good at heart. You most importantly taught me tools to resist hate and help others who fall victim. I will always remember this class. Thank you for being more than professors, you were truly healers.

And that, my friends, is why I am a teacher.