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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.

Does God Love Diversity?

A number of years ago, during a public forum on my campus focused on steps we might take toward addressing the fact that we had a blindingly white student body, faculty, and administration, one of my senior faculty colleagues raised his hand and asked the question that a number of people in the room were probably wondering, but didn’t have the guts to ask: Why do we want to have a diverse campus? Despite its serious violation of all standards of political correctness, it was a good question, one that bears asking regularly. With this past week’s spectacle of the President and a bunch of older white guys from Congress publicly spiking the ball in the end zone after setting in motion the process of taking health insurance away from millions of Americans, it was easy to forget another of this President’s most vocal promises and commitments—building a wall, tightening the borders, and keeping those “others” from swarming into our country, taking our jobs, and making us unsafe. So the question needs to be asked and answered: Is diversity an important value?

I had the opportunity to tell the story of my colleague who wondered why we would want a diverse student body to two or three of my students during the oral exams that I conducted during the past week. The theme of our just completed colloquium was “Beauty and Violence: The Problem of Natural Evil.” Our continual focus was the following question: What might we be able to speculate about the nature of what is greater than us on the basis of what we observe in and know of the natural world around us? After spending a couple of weeks with large portions of Darwin’s Origin of Species, we spent three weeks of the second half of the semester with GADJohn Haught’s God After Darwin. Haught is a Catholic theologian who argues that Darwin’s theory of natural selection, far from being a challenge to Christian thought and commitment, is rather a great gift that provides an opportunity to reimagine God’s relation to our world.

On the assumption that Darwin’s theory is largely true, what might we might speculate concerning a creating Deity who chose, in Teilhard de Chardin’s words, “to make things that make themselves”? Although the evolutionary process is, in Darwin’s description, infused with randomness and is not pointed toward any particular goal, its overall effect among living things is increased complexity and diversification. It is this tendency toward complexity that, Haught argues, provides us with some clues both to possible divine purposes and our human role in the continuing process of creation.

There can be no serious doubt that the natural world has journeyed directionally from simplicity to complexity, from triviality to more intense harmonies of contrast—that is, toward increasing beauty.

Using a phrase from Alfred North Whitehead, Haught defines beauty as “ordered novelty,” aruging that the evolutionary process suggests that God values change more than stability, and novelty more than the familiar. In keeping with any number of contemporary theologians, Haught also argues that we live in an unfinished creation, whose continuing development is one that we are called to assist in. As co-creators of our world, what should our priorities be?

The good life is not only one of refining our own moral mettle, of improving the lot of humanity, or even of pleasing God. Without eliminating these motivations, our reasons for doing good would also arise from a sense that the practice of virtue contributes to the creative enterprise of intensifying cosmic beauty.

If beauty is the product of new arrangements and diverse interactions at all levels of our developing world,

The prospect of bringing about such a harmony of contrasts in the precincts of human relations proves inevitably to be too disruptive for the congenial cult of triviality characteristic of the established. And yet nothing could be more consistent with the aesthetic creativity of the universe itself than the attempt by humans to build inclusive community out of a wide base of diversity.

As I talked with students about these features of Haught’s argument during any number of oral exams last week, I told the story of my colleague who wanted to know why we would want to have a more diverse campus populationpc. “Diversity” is a catch word for any number of things nowadays; the assumption is often that my colleague’s question was the height of ignorance and everyone “knows” that diversity is a good thing. But in a world in which fear of the “other” grows every day, in which people are retreating into old patterns of “us vs. them” in all sorts of contexts, and in which difference often is an immediate source of suspicion, deliberately asking why diversity is a value is a worthwhile exercise. If Haught’s argument is correct, our efforts to make our communities and workplaces more diverse and inclusive are not just a grudging nod in the direction of political correctness or a product of a liberal agendas promoted by academics in their ivory towers. The fact of that matter is that to the extent that we seek to expand inclusiveness across all sorts of differences, we are creatively participating in the ongoing process of cosmic beautification. We are, in other words, doing God’s work.

The process of seeking to develop ordered novelty in our communities is fraught with difficulties. The story of my college’s attempts to diversify its student body is a case in point. When I first started teaching at the college more than two decades ago, two percent of our student body was non-white. Deliberate changes in admissions procedures and financial aid policies, over time, have incrementally made a difference—the percentage of students of color on our campus is now close to twenty percent. office of diversityThese numbers reflect a continuing commitment to ongoing campus beautification that has nothing to do with landscaping or new buildings.

But our strategies to attract a more diverse student body over the past two decades were not accompanied by an equally, if not more, important conversation. What if our plans for diversification are successful? If more diverse students actually show up here, what changes do we need to make to our campus infrastructure and culture—a culture built over the years to accommodate a non-diverse community—to ensure that our increasingly diverse student body will feel recognized, valued, and wanted beyond simply being a contributor to better looking numbers in the college’s promotional materials? Since we did not have that conversation then, we find ourselves in the middle of it now. Over the past couple of years in particular, we have found that true diversity is not established by better numbers. The real work of creating “ordered novelty” on our campus is just beginning, as we struggle—often publicly and messily—to “build inclusive community out of a widening base of diversity.”

No better model can be found of divine commitment to the beauty of diversity than the motley group of people who flocked to Jesus. According to the gospels, persons from every rung of the social ladder were attracted to this man who saw people, not gender, race, social status, wealth, or religious commitment. His stories emphasized that God both welcomes everyone and calls us to create communities that reflect the beauty, complexity, diversity, and unpredictable novelty of the natural world. Beauty always walks a fine  line between order and chaos, stability and unpredictability, comfort and disorientation. We should fully expect all the above to be fully present as we seek to create inclusive communities out of broadly based diversity. But when we do so, we are doing God’s work.

100 Days In

So we have arrived at Day 100 of the presidency of Donald Trump. It feels like it has been at least 100 weeks. I have to be very selective about how and when I get my news these days. I get headlines from The New York Times and the Washington Post in my in-box every morning that I quickly peruse; my television exposure is usually limited to Chuck Todd’s ‘MTP Daily” on MSNBC which is usually coming on just about when I get home from work. Yesterday I tuned in just in time to see a clip of Sean Spicer’s morning news conference in which he blamed the Trump administration’s failure to vet General Michael Flynn on the Obama administration. YOU F**KING A$$HOLE! I grumbled as I went to pour a scotch. And this was a good day.

On this day that the president has named as a “ridiculous and arbitrary” touchstone while acting as if it is extraordinarily important as he and his run about like headless chickens trying to find something that might count as an accomplishment, I find myself asking the same questions I was asking myself all through 2016. The most troubling question for me was always rooted in my continuing attempts to bring my faith, my political commitments, and my life as an ordinary human being into some sort of agreement. Since I frequently say, and have frequently written in this blog over the years, that I am a liberal because I am a Christian, the most confusing phenomenon of all for me was the extraordinary support Trump received from evangelical Christians. This particularly bugged me, because that’s the world I come from. Finding out that the president would be delivering the commencement address at Liberty University–which prides itself in and promotes itself as being the largest evangelical university in the world–reminded me of a visit by then-candidate Trump to that same university when he delivered their convocation address in January 2016.

Donald Trump at Liberty Universitytrump at liberty

Interviews with students afterwards revealed strong support for Trump because of his perceived honesty, directness, outside-Washington status, business experience, and the perception that he had the best chance among the Republican candidates to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump’s inability to identify the location of his favorite Bible verse or to even quote it accurately, his apparent lack of any commitment to traditional Christian values beyond lip service, and the fact that a conservative Christian leader the day before had described Trump as “the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States” seemed to matter little, if at all. One student said “I know a lot of people speak of his ego and how that’s not a Christian value — but I honestly think his ego is what gets things done. I’m okay with an egotistical president. He wants to be the best, and I think for that reason, he gets things done.” When faced with the opportunity to judge a candidate according to the values he and his chosen university profess, this student chose to punt. And here we are.givenness

I recently read an essay from Marilynne Robinson’s recent collection The Givenness of Things that shone some new light on these matters. In “Awakening,” Robinson reflects on a contemporary phenomenon that runs rampant through our current public and political discourse—a professed “Christianity” that looks and sounds like anything but Christianity.

No doubt as a consequence of a recent vogue for feeling culturally embattled, the word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic. On the one hand I do not wish to overstate the degree to which these two uses of the word “Christian” are mutually exclusive, and on the other hand I think it would be a very difficult thing to overstate how deeply incompatible they can be.

For many people, in other words, “Christianity” has become a tribal label, a marker of “us” vs. “them,” the very sort of tribalism that currently infects and threatens to permanently damage our political and social structures. Robinson notes that when the hallmarks of being a Christian are reduced to “are you in or out?” very un-Christian consequences are inevitable.saved and unsaved

The simple, central, urgent pressure to step over the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, and after this the right, even the obligation, to turn and judge that great sinful world the redeemed have left behind—this is what I see as the essential nature of the emerging Christianity. Those who have crossed this line can be outrageously forgiving of one another and themselves, and very cruel in their denunciations of anyone else.

How is it that professed Christians can support candidates and policies that are, by any stretch of the imagination, anything but embodiments of traditional Christian values? If Marilynne Robinson is right, it is because contemporary Christianity often is not a way of life or a commitment to the principles of a historic and beautiful religion—it is rather a way to facilitate what are often the worst tendencies in human nature and behavior.

People of good faith get caught up in these things in all times and all places. In the excitement of the moment who really knows he or she might not also shout, “Give us Barabbas!”

muslims are terroristsAll of this sounds rather harsh and judgmental—also not congruent with Christian values I profess. So be it. I grow weary of hearing the name of my faith used in the service of un-Christian and inhumane policies and actions, in much the same way that sincere and serious Muslims must tire of hearing their ancient religion’s name used as a placeholder and justification for terrorism and murder. The truth of the matter is that Christianity as a lived faith runs contrary to much of our deepest, natural human wiring. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not. Tribal Christianity, on the other hand, appeals to the worst in our nature. As Robinson points out,

It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear . . . If the claims to Christian identity we hear now are rooted in an instinctive tribalism, they are entirely inappropriate, certainly uninformed, because in its nature the religion they claim has no boundaries, no shibboleths, no genealogies or hereditary claimants.

As Robinson writes, fear and the desire for identity and a place to belong can cause people of good will and intentions to choose and accept things that are in truth the very opposite of what they claim to believe in, even with the real thing right in front of them. But fear need not rule the day. Even when millions of professed Christians helped put Barabbas in the White House.