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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.

I Speak for the Trees

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psa 1:3)

Those who have been following this blog for it’s almost four years of existence know that I have an attraction to online personality tests that borders on the obsessive. I’ve learned many interesting things about myself from these tests, including that among the pantheon of Shakespeare’s immortal characters I am most like Lady Macbeth, my aura is yellow, and I would be Bach as a classical composer, Mr. Carson as a Downton Abbey character, and a Guinness if I were a beer.

If I Were a Beer, or What I have learned about myself from Facebook

I haven’t taken one of these in a while—fewer of them seem to come across my Facebook feed these days than in the past—so I was pleased when a Dr. Seuss quiz came along the other day. I was even more pleased with the result.

Which Dr. Seuss character are you?

the loraxYou are The Lorax. You are wise and intelligent. You have strong beliefs but are also able to see both sides of every issue and you understand that not everything is black and white. You are contemplative, kind, and reflective. You never rush into something but first consider it thoughtfully from every angle.

I know, these quizzes are intended to tell the quiz taker nothing but what she or he wants to hear (except my Lady Macbeth result), but I don’t care. I’m happy if any of this description fits me even ten percent of the time. But most importantly, I am happy to be the speak for the treesLorax because according to the text of Dr. Seuss’ classic tale, the Lorax “speaks for the trees.”

The Lorax was Dr. Seuss’ favorite of his multitude of books; he reportedly said that the book “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” The evil things Dr. Seuss was angry about included corporate greed and the threat of such greed to nature and the environment. The Lorax is full of the outrageous characters one expects from Dr. Seuss. thneedThe Once-Ler tells the story of how he made a fortune crafting an impossibly useful garment, the Thneed, out of the wooly foliage of the Truffula tree—a type of tree that no longer exists. The day the Once-Ler cuts down his first Truffula tree, a creature called the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees” because they have no tongues, emerges from the tree stump and criticizes the Once-Ler for having sacrificed a tree for such a mercenary purpose. truffulaBut the Once-Ler soon finds that there is great consumer demand for Thneeds, a large factory is built, and he becomes fabulously rich. But animals who live in the Truffula forest and eat its nourishing fruit have to leave, and eventually the last Truffula tree is cut down. The Lorax says nothing but with one sad backward glance lifts himself into the air and disappears behind the smoggy clouds. Where he last stood is a small monument engraved with a single word: “UNLESS.”

I like trees. Of the dozens of creatures in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Ents are my favorites. Trees adopt the general plant survival strategy of choosing a location that will provide sufficient food, water, and sunlight, then hunkering down in a permanent installation designed to stand up to all dangers for as long as possible—a very different plan from the animal strategy of being nimble, mobile, and capable of running away from danger. 100_0379A massive red oak outside the front door of my Minnesota sabbatical apartment several years ago became an iconic symbol of internal changes that I was experiencing; the introduction to my book that will be published early next year is focused on that oak, as was a blog post from a few years ago.

Oaks of Righteousness

So it is not surprising that I had a strongly negative reaction to the news earlier this summer from the administration that a beautiful old red oak on the lower part of my college’s campus—as large and spectacular as my Minnesota oak—had been marked as diseased during the annual evaluation of the hundreds of trees on campus and, sadly, would have to come down.

The oak in question is one of two massive oaks located directly in front of the building in which my philosophy department office was located for my first dozen or so years at the college. They stand at the top of a grassy and gradually sloping quad (that was a huge parking lot when I came to the college in the middle nineties)—our impressive performing arts building is at the other end of the quad. Shortly after I arrived on campus, several colleagues told me a story about these oaks. Howley OakThe story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates just how attached people on campus are to these two trees. Several decades ago one or both of the trees was scheduled for removal in order to make room for a parking lot. Faculty, staff, administrators, and students formed a human chain around the threatened trees and successfully forced the decision makers to change their minds about the future of the oaks and design the parking lot around them.human chain If true, I’ll bet it happened in the sixties—people did that sort of thing back then. The trees, which have been estimated to be 150-200 years old, would have been roughly the same size then as they are now.

Not surprisingly, the email announcing that one of the trees was coming down set off a collective WHAT THE FUCK??? reaction across campus. Facebook and Twitter lit up like Christmas trees. Why was this happening in the summer when the campus is relatively empty? What is the real reason this tree is coming down? What are the authorities trying to pull/? Shouldn’t the whole college community be involved in the decision? Push back from various persons (led by a colleague from political science who is our faculty Lorax) and a welcome willingness from the administration to delay the tree’s removal while second and third opinions were sought and discussion was opened up has preserved the tree to date—but what will eventually happen remains to be seen. die is castTwo arborist firms hired by the college recommend the tree’s removal, while the city forester thinks the tree can be saved but won’t insist on it, leaving the choice in the hands of the administrators responsible for making such decisions. An open forum was held earlier this week to allow various constituencies to chime in, but it is clear that, as Julius Caesar said, the die has been cast. Before long there will be a gaping hole where this glorious tree has stood for more than a century. And current efforts to save it will become campus lore.

I am very concerned about the preservation of our environment, but in truth my love of trees is more personal than general. We have two trees in our front yard—Blue and Chuck—who have been part of our family for most of the two decades we have lived in our house.

Blue and Chuck

Blue and Chuck

I love telling the story of how Blue started his life with us as a four-foot living Christmas tree in our living room during the 1996 holiday season. We were warned that there was only a 50% chance that Blue would survive the months he spent in our garage where he moved from the house after the New Year, biding his time until we planted him the next April; twenty years later, he is now a perfectly shaped 30-to-35-foot tree whose bottom branches I have to cut off every other year, lest he overwhelm the sidewalk. ChuckThank goodness I planted him far from any power lines—within a few years some of his upper branches will be touching the upper branches of the oak across the street.

Chuck joined us a year or so after Blue, a flowering miniature weeping cherry whose name comes from his similarity, as a one-branched twig when I planted him, to Charlie Brown’s iconic and sad-looking Christmas tree. I have to give Chuck, who sports lovely pink flowers in the spring, a significant haircut at least twice per summer—he rejects the “miniature” part of his description and would like to be as tall as Blue. I talk to these trees, as I do to all of my outdoor and indoor plants. As with the Ents, Chuck and Blue seldom say anything. But when they do, it is worth remembering.treebeard

Lost in the Amazon

imagesG5211NOUBookstores! For bibliophilic folks such as I, there is no more fascinating or attractive idea. The very notion of a place where I can spend the day surrounded by books, wandering here and there with no particular goal other than the hope that I might stumble across the book I’ve never seen by an author I’ve never heard of that will provide hours of entertainment, provoke new thoughts, and that might even, as Richard Rorty suggests, be the basis for “an encounter which rearranges my priorities and purposes” is exhilarating and stimulating. Such discoveries happen regularly enough to raise hopes to expectations, but even if no magical connections are made, there are few ways to spend a few hours more attractive than in an establishment specifically dedicated to the sale of my favorite thing: books. I have been told that everything I have just described is also available in a library, but I strangely have never been a big fan of libraries. The whole idea of borrowing a book and having to give it back is foreign to me. A book is something that imagesX2TI9OA9I want to own, to devour, to add to my collection of specimens—definitely not something to give back. Furthermore, libraries don’t usually have coffee shops.

So I should be in the front lines of those publicly bemoaning the demise of the bookstore. Borders is gone—I’m still pissed every time I pass the corner of Providence Place Mall where my favorite Borders used to be located, now occupied by a mega-shoe store, for God’s sake. Barnes and Noble is still around (although I always liked Borders more), but the two in our area are at least ten miles away, which in Rhode Island is an overnight trip. There are a number of independent booksellers and used book stores in our area; I suspect they are struggling to keep their noses above water. These should be my new hangouts, places where you might find me with Jeanne in tow on any given weekend afternoon. But no. IimagesEM6PUZGKnstead of doing what any true bibliophile should be doing as bookstores close down—finding another one—I’ve gone to the dark side. I’ve entered the Amazon.

In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Jeff Bezos said that he wants Amazon to become the place where anyone in the world can buy absolutely anything. Its goal is “to sell everything to everyone.” I don’t know about that, although I have indeed purchased an advent wreath, a Betty Boop Christmas ornament and a plastic bag dispenser to hold the bags needed to pick up dog shit from the back yard from Amazon in the past few months. Amazon’s primary purpose in my life, though, is to be my several-million-titles-and-growing bookstore. And mean real books. high_resolution[1]I do not own a Kindle and don’t intend to. I have explained in previous posts that only when they make an e-reader that feels and smells like a real book will I consider taking that plunge.

My Best Friends

But with my Amazon Prime membership which includes two-day free shipping, I can order books on Monday and have them reliably sitting at my back door when I return from campus on Wednesday. Until recently, that is.

My Christmas shopping for the past several holiday seasons has been primarily an Amazon extravaganza. Books always are a significant portion of gifts for Jeanne, and I of course always add a title or two for me. Orders were made during the first week of December.

imagesSECKJ37CTuesday, December 3: Ordered two books for Jeanne, one for me, and all six seasons of “Breaking Bad” in DVD (my son’s Christmas present).

Wednesday, December 4: Ordered two more books for Jeanne that I forgot about on Tuesday (God bless free delivery) plus one more for me.

Thursday, December 5: Was crushed to return home after work to no Amazon box at my back door. Blamed it (grudgingly) on the Christmas rush.

Friday, December 6: The Amazon box at my back door contained Wednesday’s order delivered within the two-day free shipping parameters. Fine, but where the hell is my Tuesday order? As I have done many times over the past few years, I went online, signed in to my Amazon account, and clicked on “Track Package” for the appropriate order. Inside-Amazon-Warehouse-08[1]I was accordingly informed that the package was “in transit,” having left the seller facility (Amazon warehouse) in New Castle, Delaware on its way to the carrier (UPS) at 17:56 on Wednesday 12/4 with an estimated delivery of Thursday 12/5 by 8:00 PM. The package in question had not reported in since leaving the warehouse and it was now twenty-four hours late in arriving.  I sprang into action.

Clicking on “Contact us,” I sent an email to Amazon customer service. Impressively, within two hours I received an email from either a woman or a very smart computer named Natalie expressing abject regret at the inconvenience, asking for my patience during the holiday season, and requesting that I wait one more day before further steps were taken. Natalie contacted me around noon the next day (Saturday), wondering whether the package had shown up. In response to my one word reply—“no”—Natalie sent the following:153687910_640[1] “Since there is no further tracking information, we will treat this order as a lost package. A new order will be placed for these items and sent to you by overnight delivery at no charge to you. Because of the obvious inconvenience, I have extended your Amazon Prime membership [which was due to expire in January] for three months.” In other words, let’s pretend the first order never happened. We’ll just do a “do over” and throw you a three-month membership extension bone for the obvious, nerve-wracking and blood-pressure raising inconvenience of a package being two days late. The replacement package arrived on Monday. Customer satisfied, end of story.

But I got to thinking (always a dangerous thing) about that “lost package.” Where is it? What happened to it? Is it laying in the weeds by the side of the road? Is the person to whose house it was incorrectly delivered now enjoying season three of “Breaking Bad”?  There are deep existential issues here. Really—bear with me. If an Amazon order is made online, but the package never arrives, does the package really exist? Natalie essentially said “let’s pretend this never happened. Let’s pretend that the order was actually made on Saturday, not the previous Tuesday.” And really, the only evidence I have that the Tuesday-ordered package ever existed is a cryptic report that it left the Amazon facility in Delaware on Wednesday. Is that really sufficient evidence to support something’s existence?georgeberkeley[1] As the Irish philosopher and Anglican clergyman George Berkeley once wrote, “to exist is to be perceived.” Lacking the perception of holding the package in my hands, opening it up and examining its contents, for all intents and purposes said package never existed.

I know, I know. Leave it to a philosopher to turn a story about a lost Christmas package into a contemporary version of the lame old philosophical puzzle images22PKHBFQ“If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there, is there a sound?” But think about it. How do we, really, establish the existence of something? By sensory experience. To illustrate, I sometimes ask my students “How many of you believe that Japan exists?” Everyone does. Then I want to know “How many of you have ever been there?” Usually no one has. So the obvious question is “Then how do you know that Japan exists?” Answers range from “my uncle visited there and told me about it” to having seen pictures of it in a book or a movie about it. In other words, we are more than willing to accept indirect sensory evidence to establish the existence of things. But when there is no sensory evidence, direct or indirect, of something’s existence—such as in the case of my package—there is no relevant difference between saying that something is “lost” and saying that it does not exist.

This is worth considering when issues concerning God’s existence arise. How is a person to prove God’s existence? If Berkeley is right that “to exist is to be perceived,” then the existence of God is not something ultimately dependent upon logical arguments, no matter how sound and valid they might be. Belief in the existence of God is entirely rooted in experience, in a certainty that can only arise from direct contact. For those who have fallen into the hands of a living God, logical arguments add nothing but “of course.” For those who have not had such an encounter, logical arguments are never enough. This is why God chooses to enter the world in tangible, human form rather than theological and philosophical arguments. Rumors of a package on the way, divine or otherwise, are never enough—we need to hold the thing in our hands.images7EXCIDWY