Category Archives: writing

The Sea of Ignorance

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones. Jamie Holmes

On a slow day a couple of weeks ago I baited my multitude of Facebook acquaintances who are fellow alums of St. John’s College (“The Great Books College”)st johns into an online conversation by listing, in no apparent order, a number of my philosophical preferences honed over several decades of studying and more than twenty-five years of teaching philosophy. I had started a recent blog post with this very same list.

Love That Will Not Let Me Go

but only a few of my fellow Johnnies read my blog regularly, as far as I know, so I thought I’d tweak them directly by putting the list up on a “Johnnies Only” Facebook group page. One of the great features of a shared St. John’s education is that every alum has encountered the same authors, regardless of when they graduated—great booksthe Great Books curriculum changes less often than the worship of a liturgical church. Furthermore, I knew that all of my fellow alums would have at least spent a bit of time with each of the couple of dozen philosophers on my comparative list. I suspected that it would generate discussion, since no St. John’s graduate can resist expressing her or his opinion on just about anything—and I was right. In less than a minute one acquaintance commented “I disagree!” followed by dozens more. A sampling:

  • I could hardly disagree with Mr. Morgan’s preferences, but I don’t share a lot of them.
  • I like Aristotle as a naturalist, although sometimes he didn’t extrapolate the process from what he was observing.p and a
  • Mr. XXX (a previous commenter), I assume that you are joking when you suggest that any reasonable reader would see Plato and Aristotle as anything other than polar figures defining an essential duality in ontologic thought.
  • I’ll say that where Vance speaks of his preferences for isms and concepts (empiricism vs. rationalism, the particular vs. the universal, etc.), he seems to be choosing half a loaf rather than the entire loaf. That is, the best philosophy will find a place for the particular AND the universal, the empirical AND the rationalistic, etc. Indeed, some of the philosophers Vance prefers (e. g., Aristotle, Nietzsche, later Wittgenstein) do precisely that.

You get the point. I did not participate in the discussion at first—it was as good as a classroom seminar taking off so energetically that I no longer needed to direct it.

Eventually the discussion turned toward m and dDescartes (Mr. Certainty) vs. Montaigne (Mr. Skepticism). I have written frequently in this blog about my conviction that certainty is not only vastly overrated but also is not generally available to creatures with knowledge tools such as ours—hence my love for Montaigne and my weariness with Descartes. This did not go over well with some of the Facebook participants.

  • Me: Montaigne would actually agree with the last sentence in Pascal’s first paragraph, and “the common talk of life” is probably the best place to begin philosophy. There’s a reason why I love Epictetus and the Stoics as much as I love Montaigne. And as a final comment–certainty is vastly overrated.
  • Mr. X: I am not sure you are right, Vance.
  • Vance Morgan: That certainly would not be the first time–but about what?
  • XXX: About certainty being overrated!
  • Vance Morgan: I might be wrongI’ll take open endedness and the real possibility that I might be wrong or have a lot to learn on anything whatsoever over conviction of certainty any day!
  •  XXX: Wit, are you saying you are certain that certainty is overrated?
  • Vance Morgan: It is highly probable that certainty is overrated–but I might be wrong.
  • XXX: Ok now I am on board!

Imagine my pleasure just a few days later when the NY Times feed in my morning email announced an Op-Ed with the provocative title “The Case for Teaching Ignorance.”ignorance

The Case for Teaching Ignorance

“I’m going to read this” I announced to Jeanne—“Of course you are,” she replied—and I was not disappointed. Of course who wouldn’t expect a philosophy/humanities professor to resonate with passages such as

The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.


Educators should devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.

This is great stuff for someone (me) who defines his home discipline of philosophy as “the art of asking better and better questions” and tells his students that his job is to disturb their peace.

stemBut what made Jamie Holmes’ essay particularly satisfying and fascinating is that it is a report straight out of STEM world (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for those of you who are tired of being overwhelmed by acronyms). The term is typically used when addressing education policy and curriculum choices in schools to improve competitiveness in science and technology development. Politicians and educators of all stripes and persuasions have been urging the importance of educating students in the STEM disciplines for some time now; these are the disciplines on the cutting edge of the future (and ones that might actually get a college graduate a freaking job). Calls for STEM emphasis in education and curriculum development, either directly or indirectly, are often energized by the assumption that it is time to de-emphasize fuzzy humanities and liberal arts curricula as we train the next generation for what is to come.

So it was a pleasure to read STEM people from neuroscientists to surgeons saying things like

Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.


Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.

Michael Smithson, one of the scholars referenced in the article, provides an interesting metaphor to illustrate the important dynamic between what we know and what we don’t know. Isle of KnowledgeImagine human knowledge as an island in a vast sea of ignorance. The island is dynamic and growing—living in the middle of it one might think it is a continent and be unaware of the surrounding sea. Smithson points out that the larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. Pushing the metaphor further, James Holmes writes that

Mapping the coast of the island of knowledge . . . requires a grasp of the psychology of ambiguity. The ever-expanding shoreline, where questions are born of answers, is terrain characterized by vague and conflicting information. The resulting state of uncertainty, psychologists have shown, intensifies our emotions: not only exhilaration and surprise, but also confusion and frustration.ocean tide

Exactly—this is why the teaching profession and facilitating the life of learning is so exhilarating and fascinating. I like the shoreline analogy, adding only that the shoreline between sea and land is always fluctuating as the tide rolls in and rolls out. The line of demarcation between land and water, between knowledge and ignorance, is shifting sand—that’s the territory of true learning. The pedagogy of uncertainty and ignorance favors questions over answers, uncertainty over certainty, the unknown over the set and established.

Focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge. . . . Giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential.

Happy semester to my colleagues in the teaching profession as they joyfully make their new charges aware of our collective ignorance!


It is the happy life that asks more of us than we realize we have and then surprises us by enabling it in us. Joan Chittister

As I organize various materials in preparation for my big sabbatical writing project, I find myself returning to various themes that I have considered frequently over the three years of this blog’s existence.cropped-penguins11 One quick way to do that is to see how many times I have tagged a post with certain key words, something that WordPress makes it very easy to do. The most used tags are not surprising:

Jeanne: 157; God: 184; Jesus: 102; Faith: 126; Philosophy: 163; Teaching: 131

I’m sure Jesus doesn’t mind losing out to my wife, and she won’t be surprised that philosophy beat her out. Other non-surprising categories include

Writing: 49; Silence: 28; Humility: 41; Introverts: 29; Grace: 43

Perhaps the stat that raised my eyebrows the most was

Happiness: 4

Really? Out of almost three hundred blog posts I have tagged Evil (39) ten times more often and Idolatry (9) twice as often as happiness? That can’t be right. Using another handy WordPress tool I found out that I have actually used the word “happiness” thirteen times in three years of blogging—apparently only four times did I deem my use of the word important enough to consider the post to be partially about happiness. aristotle3[1]Aristotle, my top candidate for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition, famously wrote that every human being above all wants to be happy—they just disagree about the definition of the term. In my case, at least, Aristotle appears to be wrong.

On the whole, happiness as conceived in our present culture is a lousy goal for a human life. It’s a feeling, an emotion, a “feel good” state that certainly does feel good when one is experiencing it, but its ephemeral nature makes it more of a tease than a legitimate life project. But Aristotle’s word usually translated as “happiness” does not mean a feeling, smiling a lot, or anything of the sort. The word is eudaimonia, literally “good spiritedness,” which is best translated as “human flourishing” or “human fulfillment.” imagesCA88EEB4What people want, in other words, is not a life filled with nice feelings and lots of smiles and laughter. What they want is a life that means something. A lifelong process that over time turns one’s best potentials into actuality. A life, to borrow from Thoreau, which at the end will not leave one wishing that one had bothered to actually live rather than just mailing it in. That’s a program I can resonate with.

Of the many spiritual guides whose insights have influenced me over the past several years, none is more capable to reorienting me quickly and connecting me with what I know to be true in my deepest me than Joan Chittister. Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyShe tells the story of a Muslim elder known for his piety and virtue who, when asked how he become so holy, would always reply “I know what is in the Qur’an.” When he died, everyone raced to his hut to see what was in his copy of the holy book. The person who got there first reported to the rest that “What is in his Qur’an are notes on every page, two pressed flowers, and a letter from a friend.” Chittister comments that the sage had learned that “If the question is, what is really important in life?—the answer is only life itself, living it well, immersing it in beauty, love, and reflection.”

The three things found in the elder’s Qur’an are telling. The heavily annotated sacred text shows that he understood the importance of reflection, of hearing, reading, marking, and inwardly digesting what is read as well as what is experienced, as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it. Reflection is part of a well-lived life, something that I have been happy to rediscover in the first few weeks of sabbatical after several years of feeling obligated to squeeze reflection into the momentary cracks of a manic daily schedule. Our contemporary world provides little support for such reflection; indeed, calls for such times of stepping back and considering who we are and why we are doing what we are doing are considered luxuries that only a privileged and pampered few have access to or can afford. imagesCAM825NOBut as Chittister notes, “we are meant to be about more than money and social craftiness. We are called to be more than simply passersby in life.”

The two pressed flowers in the elder’s Qur’an are reminders of beauty, beauty that calls us to remember that there is in life, deep down, an essential basic and beautiful goodness that redeems all the moments we ourselves overlay with greed or hatred or anger or self-centeredness. This morning in the midst of writing this essay on our back yard deck, I heard the distinctive call of a cardinal, my favorite bird (next to penguins). As I paused to listen, the cardinal flew in all of his scarlet glory to perch on the branch of a dead tree in our neighbor’s yard about fifteen feet from where I was sitting. I thought for a moment about quietly switching my tablet to camera mode and trying to get a picture, but chose instead to simply be with my feathered friend. “Hey, dude,” I said—“looking good!” He sang his distinctive tune for me a couple more times, then darted off on his cardinal way. Moments of beauty such as that, even if only a minute or so long, go far toward sustaining my deep belief in the goodness of things, despite what appears to be daily and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. no man is an islandSuch moments, Chittister writes, “are the heartbeat of the universe. They make us glad to be alive.”

The letter from a friend in the elder’s Qur’an is a reminder that we are all interconnected—in John Donne’s overworked phrase, none of us is an island. In my own natural solitude and introversion, this is a greater challenge to incorporate than reflection and beauty. Thank goodness for Jeanne who reminds me to stay in touch with a colleague and friend with whom I had a chance conversation, for my cousin who posted old family pictures on Facebook over the past couple of days, and even the service in Philadelphia remembering the wonderful life of a good friend—these remind me that connectedness to others, even those whom I do not know but are sharing the human journey with me, is the most important part of a well-lived life.

What does any of this have to do with happiness? Most of us are familiar with the saying that “Life is what happens while you are making other plans”—I suggest that happiness is what happens as one seeks to live a flourishing and meaningful life. Herodotus quoteHappiness is best understood not as a life’s goal, but as the by-product of defining a purpose in life and pursuing it with all of your heart and mind. The Greek historian Herodotus once wrote that no person should be considered as happy in the eudaimonia sense until that person is dead. That’s because true happiness, the life of eudaimonia, is a process, not a goal, a process that stretches from birth to death. This involves reflection, beauty, other people, and so much more.

Happiness is what outlasts all the suffering in the world. It is the by-product of learning to live well, to choose well, to become whole, and to be everything we are meant to be—for our sake and for the sake of the rest of the world, as well.

Pope Ivan–Remembering a Mennonite Catholic

Monday morning–early. The 30th Street Amtrak station in Philadelphia is not the sort of place I normally find myself at 5:00 AM on a Monday morning. I 30th streethave not done a lot of train travelling and have never done so overnight, but today is different than any other day. The only way to make it on time to my friend Ivan Kauffman’s funeral this morning was to take the red-eye from Providence. And there’s no way I’m missing Ivan’s funeral—he was special. One of a kind. Unique. All of the things that traditionally get said about people who have just died. Except that in Ivan’s case they all are true.

Ivan lived a long and full life—I met him when he was seventy. It was during my Spring 2009 sabbatical—Ivan and I were both “resident scholars” at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Minnesota. MennoniteCatholicHeaderI knew that Ivan and Lois were a different breed than I had ever encountered when I found out that they were “Mennonite Catholics.” That made about as much sense to me as “Evangelical Unitarian” or “Muslim Jew,” but I soon discovered that Ivan embodied this strange confluence. He was a bridge builder, seeking to connect traditions vastly different in their practices but deeply rooted in shared mysteries of the Christian faith. An academic, scholar, poet, advocate and activist—Ivan was passion and conviction incarnate.

I don’t meet and get to know new people easily, but Ivan “got” me more quickly than just about any person I have ever met. We had amazingly similar backgrounds and youths—his father was a well-known preacher in Mennonite circles while mine was a preaching rock star in his corner of the Baptist world. Ivan understood everything that being a “PK” entails in a way that only card-carrying members of that special club can. 11403124_10207276325457373_5638237897791717417_nIvan and I shared a commitment to ideas and philosophical discussion, a love for writing, a distaste and ineptitude for small talk, and a full appreciation of adult beverages (usually wine for him and scotch for Lois and me).

One brief exchange during lunch at a coffee shop in St. Joseph, MN encapsulates Ivan for me. In the midst of a typically dense and intense conversation, Ivan pronounced in his usual stentorian tone that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—Ivan was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I remember thinking “I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘let me think about it,’ or even ‘which stories are you referring to?’—I’m inclined to say that ‘it doesn’t matter.’” Ivan and I frequently agreed to disagree on important issues, the sorts of issues and disagreements that sometimes end friendships before they begin. But I learned and practiced the skill of “achieving disagreement” over the years with Ivan. He had very strong beliefs and opinions, but was also ready and willing to learn something new and to change. He was a careful and effective debater who gave as well as he took. Ivan did not suffer fools gladly, yet could be extraordinarily patient and generous. 100_0150He could sniff out insincerity like a moral bloodhound. Hours of conversations with Ivan helped me not only to crystallize my own beliefs and commitments but also to learn how to communicate them without fear. Because Ivan was fearless and his courage was contagious.

Lois became my Morning Prayer buddy at Collegeville, trudging up the half-mile hill to the Abbey from our Institute apartments in sub-zero temperatures morning after morning just to read psalms and pray with the monks. Ivan was with us in spirit as he snored in the comfort of their apartment—not an early morning person. But Ivan’s spiritual antennae were attuned to the strange and wonderful behavior of the Holy Spirit—“Big Bird” as Ivan, Lois, Jeanne, and I called her—Big_Bird_-_Library_of_Congress,_Living_Legends,_Award_&_Honors,_2000[1]in deep and profound ways. Ivan defined a “miracle” as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” I consider Ivan’s presence in my life to be one of those miracles. He recognized early on, perhaps before I did, that deep down I was dealing with a full-blown spiritual crisis and was the first to note that, against all odds, things were changing for me. “You’re not the same person you were when you showed up a couple of months ago,” he said one cold March day. And he was right—I wasn’t. Ivan and Lois were both witnesses to and catalysts for these changes—I am forever grateful.

Jeanne met Ivan and Lois when she visited Collegeville over Easter Break, and the connection was immediate. Over the subsequent years we visited them in Washington D.C. a couple of times, they came individually and together to us in Providence and, most often, we hung out with them in Minnesota, including during a Christmas blizzard. Minnesota grabbed them so strongly that they never left until just a couple of months before Ivan’s passing. Jeanne and Ivan often butted heads over the importance of Catholic hierarchy—11028026_10207446951476269_3046618229121473998_n (2)Ivan as a Catholic convert and Jeanne as a cradle Catholic had quite different perspectives on any number of things Catholic. One day Lois and I returned from noon prayer to find Ivan and Jeanne in the midst of a deep and intense conversation. They were role playing—Ivan was playing the role of the Pope, and Jeanne was challenging him to account for any number of things from papal infallibility through an all-male priesthood to the prohibition of contraceptives. Pope Ivan essentially told Lois and I that their conversation was important—we could either leave or be present but silent. Far be it from me to contradict a papal edict.


Abbot JohnA couple of take-aways from this morning’s funeral. After a red-eye train trip, two subways and one twenty- minute bus ride through a very sketchy part of Philadelphia, I was thrilled to see Abbot John Klassen, monk in charge of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville where Lois, Ivan and I spent dozens of hours together, at the front of the church. John is at least six-foot four—in his abbot getup he looks like one of the beautiful cranes who hang out in the various Minnesota lakes. After his usual bear-monk hug, we compared Ivan notes. John had travelled farther than I to be at the funeral, but shared my feelings—“There is no place in the universe that I was going to be this morning other than here,” he said. The Abbot told me a great Ivan story I had never heard. When Ivan and Lois visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the first time many years ago, Ivan looked around at the gaudy, baroque splendor and asked “Is all of this really necessary?” The Mennonite trumped the Catholic on that occasion.

The first reading during the funeral mass was from the prophet Micah. I had no idea that my favorite passage from the Jewish scriptures was also Ivan’s.

He has showed you, O mortal, what is good—and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?

More than anyone I have ever known, Ivan lived that verse to its fullest. Rest in peace, Ivan—and say hi to Big Bird. I’ll be seeing you soon.

Candle in light

Books that Changed my Life: Gilead

A candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

GileadThe front and back covers, as well as the opening pages, of best-selling and award-winning books are often filled with excerpted and edited reviews from various publications, reviews so similar from book to book and so over the top that I often wonder if there is a central-clearing house where authors and editors can order canned reviews to their liking. But sometimes the reviewers capture a book’s essence perfectly—such is the case with Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Described as “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it,” and as

A book that deserves to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly . . . I would like to see copies of it dropped onto pews across our country, where it could sit among the Bibles and hymnals and collection envelopes. It would be a good reminder of what it means to lead a noble and moral life—and, for that matter, what it means to write a truly great novel,

Gilead is as close to perfect as any book I have read.midwest-church

In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Reverend Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy. Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. The prose is measured and profound. Ames writes that for him “writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.” On my best writing days I have this in mind as a standard.Grammie and Grandpa (2)

I have often thought that if my maternal grandfather, a potato farmer with an eighth-grade education who was the wisest and best man I ever met, had been a character in a novel, he would be Reverend Ames. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.”

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. dillardYou don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

There is that “seeing” thing again, the same attentive awareness that was on display in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek last week. For Reverend Ames, everything is a sacrament with intimations of holiness. And for this Calvinist preacher, the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

I don’t remember how Gilead came to me, or even when I read it for the first time (at least a half-dozen reads ago), but the Reverend’s struggles with the austere doctrine of his Calvinist faith are familiar. His is the religious world of my youth, a world that I have struggled mightily at different times to understand, to incorporate, or to leave.Calvin One passage in particular shook me to my core:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? . . . We all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.

The simple image of God as the audience for the artistic performance of the human drama and comedy, rather than the authoritative judge who is taking note of every single one of our failures, was transformative for me. I recall a similar moment early during my 2009 sabbatical when, d100_0230uring a noonday reading of daily psalms with a couple dozen Benedictine monks, we read in Psalm 149 that “the LORD takes delight in his people.” Who knew? Reverend Ames is right—we do think about this far too little.

Reverend Ames also provided me with a new angle on rational proofs for the existence of God, something I have grappled with both as a philosophy professor and as a human being for as long as I can remember. His advice is that belief in God isn’t about proofs at all. As a matter of fact, making rational proofs the basis for either defending or challenging one’s faith will eventually erode whatever faith one has.

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . ladder to moonCreating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

If someone asked me to identify and summarize the attitudes underlying my ruminations about the interplay of philosophy and faith in this blog, I would point to this passage. Thanks, Rev.

In the final pages of Gilead, Reverend Ames bumps into Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend who is leaving town on the bus. Jack asks Ames to say goodbye to his father for him. Ames agrees to do so, but then says “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” Aaronic-blessingHe uses his favorite text from the Jewish Scriptures, Aaron’s blessing from the Book of Numbers:

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Gilead has been that sort of blessing to me, more than any book I have ever read. I am most grateful.

Someone with Skin On

afraid-of-the-dark[1]The story is told of a little girl who was afraid of the dark. After trying any number of strategies to allay her fears, one night the girl’s frustrated mother said “there really isn’t anything to worry about—Jesus is always with you.” “But I can’t see him!” the little girl wailed. “I know you can’t,” the mother replied, “but he’s there all the same.” This did not help the little girl, who said “sometimes I just need someone with skin on.”

I thought of this story in the wake of an interesting round of seminars with two groups of nineteen freshmen in the interdisciplinary course I  teach in. Our seminar text was anselm[1]Anselm’s ontological argument—the very title is sufficient to cause nineteen-year-olds (or perhaps anyone with common sense) to shut down or at least to glaze over. The proof is a highly cerebral, rational attempt to prove the existence of God first made famous by Anselm, an eleventh century Benedictine monk who rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury for the last fifteen years of his life. It is called the “ontological” proof because it focuses on a logical analysis of the concept “to exist” or “to be” (ontos in Greek). Here it is in its simplest form.

1. I can think of a being than which no greater can be thought (a Perfect Being). 

2. Since I have this thought, the Perfect Being exists in my mind. 

3. It is greater to exist both in the mind and in reality than it is to exist just in the mind (ex: a unicorn that existed in reality would be greater than the unicorn that just exists in our imaginations). 

4. The Perfect Being must exist in reality as well as in my mind; if it existed only in my mind, I could imagine a greater being (which is contrary to #1). 

5. Therefore, the Perfect Being (God) exists in reality.

Here’s a cartoon version that gets the gist of the argument. Jesus and Mohammed are having a beer . . .


Confused? So were my students. My literature colleague and teammate, a medievalist, had done a first run through the argument in a lecture early in the week, but when I asked my seminar students how many thought they had a handle on what had happened in that class, not a hand was raised.

So-What[1]I took the opportunity over the next ninety minutes to walk through the steps of the argument with the students as slowly as needed and was convinced, at the end of the exercise, that each student in the room at least understood how the argument worked. But as I frequently tell students, the most important philosophical question one can ask is “So what?” Who cares? This led to the most important part of the seminar, as I asked them to role play:

1. Choose one of the following roles: a person who believes in the existence of God or a person who does not.

2. Once you have chosen your role, ask yourself the following:

a. If you are a believer, would the ontological argument help strengthen your faith, or would it basically have no impact? Why or why not?

b. If you are a non-believer, would the ontological argument convince you to become a believer or not? Why or why not?

dividing-wall[1]Each person wrote from the perspective of their chosen role for ten minutes, then compared what they wrote  in groups of three or four with others who had chosen the same role—believers with believers and non-believers with non-believers.

The students choosing to be believers and those choosing to be unbelievers were roughly equal in number. But the message that emerged from the group discussions—believer or non—was consistent: The argument doesn’t work. Believers agreed that although the argument might be “interesting,” that’s all it is. The argument does nothing to bolster, support or clarify already existing faith. Neither did the argument move any non-believer an inch closer to belief.

Why? Is there a fatal flaw in the logic of the flow from premises to conclusion? Many philosophers and theologians over the past millennium have sought to poke logical holes in different parts of the argument, with varying levels of success. But the ontological argument is still here, dragged out and dusted off in hundreds of philosophy of religion classes across the world every semester, godel ontological[1]stubbornly staking its claim that from the mere existence of an idea about a Perfect Being one can establish with certainty the actual existence of an actual Perfect Being that matches up to the idea. I have a colleague in the philosophy department, a Dominican priest, who not only is convinced that the ontological argument is sound, but who will proceed upon invitation to demonstrate it using symbolic notation and modal logic. Trust me, you don’t want to know.

The argument’s failure to impress my students, however, had nothing to do with its logical triumphs or failures. As different groups of believers and non-believers weighed in after we reconvened, a common theme emerged:

Maybe God exists, but this doesn’t tell me anything about how to relate to God or where God is. 

Faith for me is not about arguments.

This argument doesn’t tell me anything about what God is like or what God wants.

If I already believe that God exists, I don’t need a proof to tell me that.GodPuzzle[1]

I don’t think God is a puzzle or a problem to be solved.

How is this going to help me be a better person?

Bottom line: My students were in almost unanimous agreement that the God of Anselm’s argument is not someone who can be related to on a human level. Anselm’s God is not “somebody with skin on.” And sometimes—perhaps most of the time—that’s what we need God to be.

RUBIKS GOD[1]The good news is that according to the Christian narrative, God knows this. It sometimes shocks my students to hear that “incarnation” literally means “to become meat.” Carnivore, carnivorous, chili con carne, carnal. Or to put it differently, “incarnation” means “to put skin on.’ God’s response to human need, hope, sorrow, desire, pain, joy, and suffering is to wrap the divine up in flesh. On a given day, in a given situation, that incarnated God might be you. It might be me. This is how the divine chooses to be in the world. It’s much more possible to relate to someone with skin on than to a mathematical formula or a logical construct. God is not a Rubik’s Cube. God is a person with skin on. Embrace it.


Sowing the E-Seed

Today’s gospel is about sowing seed–a promising but ultimately inefficient activity, both in the field and on line. I was thinking about that a year ago . . .

I do not consider myself to be a particularly obsessive person (Jeanne might disagree), but my penchant for checking my blog statistics on at least an hourly basis belies my claim. In the middle of the summer when my schedule is less intense it is easier to explain why I frequently check my blog either on my phone or tablet, but I find time to do so regularly even when the semester is in full swing. my-stats-mapI have even stepped out of someone presenting a philosophy paper at a conference on the pretense of visiting the men’s room on a particularly busy blog day to see how many more hits my new post has attracted since the paper began a half hour before.

It did not help when Jeanne bought me a couple of hours’ worth of conversation online with a blog consultant several weeks ago. My blog has been in existence for close to two years now and I am continually surprised pleasantly by how well it is doing, but Jeanne would like to see it go through the stratosphere. I suspect there is an ulterior motive behind her promotional hopes for my writing beyond the fact that she loves me—she wants this blog to be the vehicle for my writing becoming so popular and my turning into a speaker so highly and lucratively in demand that she can retire. imagesRFB367C3During the first Skype-type hour with my very pleasant, very talented and frighteningly young blog consultant Matt, it was clear that he did not know what to make of me. I’m not selling anything on my blog, I’m not promoting anything other than ideas and stories—most of his clients are trying to become rich off their blog activities. It was clear that it would take some time for him to understand me when within the first ten minutes of our first conversation he suggested strongly that I should get rid of the penguins at the top of the entry page to my site. Unaware that messing with my penguins is like messing with my children, he backed off when I told him the penguins weren’t going anywhere (although he tentatively raised the issue again the other day at our most recent session).

On his advice my blog has been moved to a much more powerful platform. For the most part I have no real idea what that means except that it cost some money and forced me to learn a few new habits when preparing posts for publication (sort of the same as moving from word 2010word 2013Word 2010 to Word 2013; a general pain in the ass, but not impossible). The most tangible difference is that I now have access to approximately 1000 times more stats concerning where the people visiting my blog are coming from, how they got there, what they are reading, how long they are staying, what search engines are directing them to me most effectively, etc., etc., etc. Not a good thing for my stat-obsessibounce rateve tendencies, but I’m doing okay so far. That’s probably because I’m finding some things out that I don’t like.

For instance, the “bounce rate” on my blog for the month since it was moved to its new platform is 72.04%. The bounce rate is “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).” Well that’s not good. Matt says “we should try to get that under 70%,” which also doesn’t sound very good. I think he blames it on the penguins. My blog has been visited by folks in 67 different countries in the past month (over 150 since the blog began), but the bounce rate brings those numbers into sobering perspective. untitled 2I can just hear people in forty-five different languages saying “What the fuck is this??” as they zip away from my entrance page. They probably didn’t like the penguins.

Drilling down deeper (a cool, nerdy phrase Matt likes to use) into the location stats, I discover that in the US, not surprisingly, 39.06% of my visitors are from Rhode Island, with a close competition for a distant second between New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. Texas?? That doesn’t make sense. But the bounce rate from Texas visitors is 87.88% and the average duration of their visit is thirty seconds, so even Texans can figure out pretty quickly that my liberal, blue state, non-fundamentalistMt-Rushmore-006 blog is somewhere they don’t want to be. It’s probably the penguins. I am also disturbed to find out that there are three states who have not sent someone to my blog in the last month: cornSouth Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska. I’ll work on saying something nice about Mount Rushmore and corn in the coming weeks. By the way, I can drill down even deeper and find out what cities and towns visitors are coming from as well. I haven’t figured out how to find out my visitors’ mailing addresses yet, but if I do I’ll be writing you individually.

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t—that would require my spending even more time looking at blog stats. But I wondered for several days whether all of the time and energy I put into my blog is worth it when almost three-quarters of the people who arrive on my entrance page and have the opportunity to read my latest bits of wit and wisdom don’t. L07LIM26CHRFortunately the Gospel readings for the past few Sundays have been from Matthew 13, the wonderful chapter in which Jesus shares many of his most memorable parables. Like this one:

Listen! A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

It is difficult to imagine a more wasteful and non-economical activity. If this sower had Google Analytic statistics to gauge the success and effectiveness of his activity, I’ll bet his bounce rate (the sum 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 I keep bumping into—“Let’s just throw a bunch of crap out there indiscriminately and see what happens!” ineffeciencyGod 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.”

I’ll try to keep this in mind whenever my stats aren’t to my liking or Matt tries to get me to ditch my penguins. Every Monday and Friday when I throw new e-seed out there and Wednesdays when I throw out recycled e-seed, I am imitating a divine activity that makes no sense but somehow produces fruit in the most unexpected and unpredictable places. Excellent. And I’m not getting rid of the penguins.untitled 4

Unvisited Tombs

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

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

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

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

“Holy Shit!” my son exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resembling the Picture

Another academic year is in the books, and as I will gladly be shifting into sabbatical mode in six weeks, I’m reminiscing about how I became a teacher. It is a good thing when your conviction that you are perfectly suited for your profession is confirmed by an objective source. That’s not exactly what happened to me the other day, but when I took yet another internet personality test—“What career should you actually have?”

What Profession Should You Have?

I was pleased to be told that

enhanced-buzz-7133-1390948755-1YOU GOT PROFESSOR! You are a thinker, in constant search of knowledge and answers to life’s most illusive [sic] questions. You love to analyze everything, testing out theories and pushing mental boundaries. Basically you’re an Einstein, but then again you probably already knew that.

I probably should not put much stock in a quiz that does not know the difference between “illusive” and “elusive,” and had a student made this error I would have directed them to a thesaurus, but I’ll take affirmation wherever I can get it. Several of my colleagues also got “Professor,” while a couple of others got ‘Writer.” I would have been happy with that as well, as long as I could keep teaching to pay the bills. One of my colleagues in the music department got “Astronaut.” That sucks. It’s going to be annoying for her to have to quit a tenured professor position and start all over again.

Isoros200-438336cae96965c46c594c60bc99df0c15ee161c-s6-c30 have said to anyone who would listen that I was born to do what I do for a living for so long that I think I actually believe it. But I was not always this confident in my classroom abilities. free_angela_buttonI remember clearly the day, over twenty-five years ago, when it occurred to me that I had painted myself into a corner that I was not at all sure I wanted to be in. All of have heard of famous persons in all walks of life with philosophy degrees (George Soros, Angela Davis, Thomas Jefferson, treeeAlex Trebek, Susan Sontag, Steve Martin—just to name a few), but their philosophy degrees were a BA. Once you are deep into the several additional years of earning a PhD in philosophy, available options narrow. The day I learned that my graduate assistantship for my second year at Marquette would be a teaching assistantship rather than the research assistantship I had during my first year, it dawned on me—I’m going to be a teacher. And I had no idea whether I’d be any good at it or if I would even like it.

I had been a TA for a couple of years during my Master’s program at the University of Wyoming, where the job consisted of doing everything the professor of the 150+ student Introduction to Philosophy course didn’t feel like doing. ta_teaching_assistant_chemistry_element_symbol_t_mug-r11846fd890814a1583e540dd34d61964_x7jgr_8byvr_512That included all of the grading and trying to explain every Friday to two groups of twenty students what the hell the professor had been talking about on Monday and Wednesday. My Friday students seemed to like me, but that’s probably because anyone with fifth-grade level communication skills could have been clearer than that particular professor. At Marquette, however, a TA had her or his very own class, designing it from scratch, giving all the lectures, seeing all of the students, and grading everything from beginning to end. Just like a real teacher—except that I had never been in front of a classroom in my life, except to make a few five or ten-minute presentations over the years. So how is this ultra-introverted student, who is far more confident in his writing skills than his people skills, supposed to morph into a teacher?

Although the graduate program in philosophy at Marquette did have a large safety net spread under its TAs, the process was pretty much like throwing a person who wants to learn how to swim into the deep end of the pool and seeing what happens. aristotle-success-largeSince in most PhD programs there are no courses in “How to Teach,” the assumption being that the ton of esoteric and possibly useless information in a grad student’s brain will somehow magically be communicated effectively to a bunch of undergrads who don’t care. I decided to teach by shameless imitation of the best professors I had, a decision that Aristotle—who said that a key to the moral life is to imitate those who are already the person you want to become—would have been proud of. My two mentor/models could not have been more dissimilar.

Father Jack Treloar was a Jesuit who looked like a short Marine drill sergeant, with less than two percent body fat and a grey flat-top. He scared the shit out of undergraduates; we graduate students who got to know him knew that he was a softie at heart. His favorite thing to do when he came to the house for dinner was to sit on the floor and play with my sons (8 and 6). His brilliance in the classroom was built on a foundation of crystal clarity and organization bordering on obsessive. Fr TreloarFr. Treloar’s flow chart “road map” through the labyrinthine thickets of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was so effective that I have shamelessly used it regularly, with only minor changes, over the past two decades with my undergraduates. As I often tell my students, “when you use someone else’s ideas, its plagiarism; when professors steal each other’s ideas, its creative pedagogy.” Fr. Treloar asked me a number years ago to stop calling him “Father Treloar” and call him “Jack”—I couldn’t (and can’t) do it. I’m not comfortable being on a first name basis with an icon.

Dr. Trene-descartes-and-immanuel-kantom Prendergast was undoubtedly the most enthusiastic teacher I have ever encountered. His obvious love of his subject matter of expertise (Early Modern Philosophy—Descartes through Kant) was so infectious that it spread through the classroom like a virus. The virus became so rooted in me that I took three seminars with him and he ended up agreeing to be the director for my dissertation on Descartes’ ethics. His class was energized by passion, not organization or necessarily even logical precision, qualities that he also lacked in his life outside the classroom. Two stories will suffice.

Tom (I had no trouble calling him that at his request) lived in one of the Lake Michigan lakeside suburbs of Milwaukee; we would meet at his favorite restaurant every other week to discuss the latest draft material from my dissertation. It was always Dutch treat—I usually only got a beer because that’s all graduate students can afford. But our final meeting before my dissertation defense happened to fall on my birthday. indexJeanne behind the scenes let Tom know that it was my birthday, and Tom greeted me at the restaurant with a hearty “Happy birthday! It’s my treat—get anything you want!” We celebrated both my birthday and the completion of my dissertation with dinner—very cool, until the bill came and Tom realized he didn’t have his wallet. I didn’t even have a credit card, but through some beneficial grant from the gods of philosophy I happened to have just enough cash to pay the bill and avoid washing dishes. I didn’t have enough for a tip, though—Tom promised he would return and leave a tip after he retrieved his wallet from home. I doubt he remembered.

On the evening after my successful dissertation defense a few weeks later, Tom and his wife Barbara took Jeanne and me out to dinner to celebrate. Yes we made sure he had his wallet. It was beginning to snow, so Tom dropped the three of us off at the restaurant door and went to find parking on the street, joining us within several minutes. Snow in BrusselsWhen we left the restaurant a couple of hours later, three or four inches of new fallen snow had covered everything. Barbara joked “I’ll bet Tom won’t remember where he parked the car!” She was right—he couldn’t remember. We spent the next ten to fifteen minutes brushing snow off all the cars in the surrounding blocks until we discovered theirs. That was Dr. Prendergast.

As I started thinking about teaching my first class, I sort of figured that if I could combine a bit of Fr. Treloar’s organization and clarity with Dr. Prendergast’s passion and enthusiasm, I might become a serviceable teacher. The organization and clarity came much more naturally to this extreme introvert than the passion and enthusiasm—I brought the energy of a performer to the front of the class, playing a role that ultimately became my own. Almost twenty-five years later, with many mistakes, embarrassing failures, increasing joy, and a imagesTeacher of the Year award behind me, I can, if I step back for a moment, see the imprint of both of these master teachers and generous mentors on everything I do for and in the classroom.

Was I born to be a teacher, or did I become the teacher that I am through necessity and the extraordinary blessing of having models of what I wanted to become smack in front of me? Iris Murdoch writes that “Man is the creature who makes pictures of himself, then comes to resemble the pictures.” Just as Ernest in Story of Great Stone FaceNathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face” came to resemble what he had spent his life looking at, so I have come to resemble those teachers who I observed so closely many years ago. Perhaps I observed too closely. I am extraordinarily organized in my planning for a class, a semester, or future blog posts as well as in my administrative duties, but often can’t find my reading glasses or wallet.

work in progress

There It Is

I did something a couple of weeks ago that I have not done in four years—present a paper at an academic conference. Conference papers are the bread-and-butter of the academic life when climbing the tenureconferences and promotion ladder, but I’ve never been a fan. A lot of posturing, name-dropping, networking and having papers read at you. I do not learn much just by listening to someone—I’m more a visual and tactile learner—but traditionally that’s been the way things go at conferences. Of course I usually forget that when I present a paper, I’m expecting my audience to appreciate mine far more than I enjoy theirs.

I have many colleagues and friends who like nothing better than giving papers at conferences. More power to them—I don’t. I have many conference pet peeves. The person who starts out her paper with work in progressThis is a work in progress. Really? How about finishing the work in progress, then presenting it at next year’s conference. Or the guy who says I’m going to just talk instead of reading a paper. Great—such people always ramble on past the allotted time, have no text to ground their blabbing, and generally sound like a Facebook post in person. Or the person who brought a thirty-page paper to be read in thirty minutes (humanly impossible), then with five minutes left summarizes the last seventeen pages with a brief paragraph then says that we can all talk about the full version of her argument over lunch. Fat chance.

A “truism” in the humanities end of academia is that when weighing the importance of various professional activities toward tenure and promotion, the following equation is a good rule of thumb: A published book is worth five blind refereed articles, and a blind refereed article is worth five conference papers. tenure and promotionI like this equation, because it favors those who prefer the introverted activity of writing over the extroverted activity of conference-hopping. When applying for promotion to full professor a number of years ago, I presumed I was in good shape in the research portion of the teaching/research/service trinity because with two books and a dozen or so articles in print, I was well over the standard publication bar for full professors at my college. After I recovered from the shock of a negative promotion decision, I got a member of the super-secret committee who makes such judgments to tell me (someone always will) what the fuck the problem was. My colleague revealed that questions were raised when discussing my promotion case about a surprising paucity of conference presentations. “Really?” I thought. “Don’t these people know how to do the research math?”

westmontI decided that the next year I would overwhelm the committee with conference presentation splendor by participating in as many conferences as my available faculty travel funds would allow. Ranging from Santa Barbara (beautiful) to Rochester (not so beautiful), I gave papers at five conferences during the next academic year, including a paper on a Saturday morning attended by four people—my wife, my father, and two guys who had agreed the night before to come to my paper if I would come to theirs on late Saturday afternoon when half of the conference attendees would be headed for the airport to fly home. But a vita does not specify how many people came to each paper on the presentation list, so how is the promotion committee going to know? Notre DameOne year after rejection, I received a unanimous vote for promotion. And I still remember that year with less fondness than most.

My most memorable academic conference was in the fall of 2008 when I was invited to give one of the keynote papers at a conference in Paris. This was my first ever trip to Europe, let alone Paris, so I took full advantage of the experience. street sceneThe conference was held at a hostel sort of establishment in southeastern Paris, only a couple of blocks from a major Metro station. Big Bird was with me, as my paper was scheduled first on the first morning of the three day affair. Starting with lunch that first day, I tirelessly walked or Louvrerode the Metro for 48 hours straight, stuffing in as many sights, sounds and tastes of the City of Lights as I could. Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the left bank (and the right), the little street where my favorite Zola novel is set, the Pantheon, Montmartre, Sacre Coeur—I saw them all and more. I don’t remember much about the conference, which is no surprise since I did not attend a single paper other than my own. Sacre CoeurBut I saw Paris—at least some of it. Beats the hell out of Rochester.

“So,” you ask, “what was the topic of the conference paper you just presented?” Well, maybe you didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyways. The conference was the annual colloquy of the American Weil Society, the one group of academics I enjoy hanging out with (although I have missed the colloquy two of the last three years). My paper was entitled “‘To Look until One Exists No More’: Iris Murdoch and Simone Weil on the Metaphysic and Ethic of Attention.” The title will undoubtedly have to be shortened when they make the movie version. The paper is a rather detailed look at the influence of Simone Weil on Iris Murdoch’s philosophy and fiction—it’s fine if you wait for the book and the movie. I wrote a good deal of this paper during my last sabbatical six years ago as part of early work on a book that never got written. But as I read the paper to an audience of twenty-five or so the other day, I took note of a vignette from Murdoch that summarizes a shift in perspective that has become central in my life—cezanneone that I barely took note of when I put it in the paper six years ago. Murdoch writes:

Rilke said of Cezanne that he did not paint “I like it,” he painted “There it is.” One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals, or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals. We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need.

How to engage things as they are rather than as I wish them to be. Remembering that I am not, after all, the center of the universe. Not to stifle the beauty and promise of a day by wrapping it in what Murdoch calls “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” These are newly learned lessons that I need to practice as I move into sabbatical in six weeks. I am glad for the reminder—even if it came at an academic conference.

How Do I Get There?

I was at a conference last Friday and Saturday to present a paper for the first time in five years, an opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues while being reminded of why I really don’t like academic conferences (a blog post about that coming soon). The conference was held in a room that clearly had once been a chapel, containing a huge, round stained glass window on the front wall.VANCEPC - WIN_20150424_083221

From a distance I could not figure out the theme of the window–its central figure was a young man in full medieval armor, so I figured it was probably St. George without the dragon. Upon closer inspection, I read the text on the banner underneath the soldier: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” “Oh my God!” I thought as I returned in memory to my childhood–“that’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress!”

As I followed the various scenes around Christian clockwise around the window starting at the bottom, I observed Christian’s struggle against various tempters and opponents on his journey from despair to heaven. PilgrimThis book, with beautiful illustrations, was a staple of my childhood home, ranking in my mind equally with the omnipresent picture Bible. My mother read it with me frequently–I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought of it in forty years. But it came flooding back to me as the conference began–Pilgrim’s Progress introduced my at a very early age, more effectively than anything in scripture, to the most basic human questions that have obsessed me my whole life. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And, most pressingly, how do I get there?

220px-Dead_poets_society[1]In my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating teaches an important lesson about non-conformity to his students with a brief experiment. Bringing his young charges out of the classroom into a nearby courtyard, Keating directs three of the students to start walking around the perimeter. Although they start off at a different pace, soon all three are marching in lock step, with Keating singing an impromptu Marine-style tune and the other students clapping in accompaniment. Keating’s point is about conformity. Given the opportunity to walk uniquely and independently, the boys choose instead to fall into step with each other. Keating then evokes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken ” to introduce the alternative of individual risk and choice.

IMV5BMTc2MzgwNjAzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTUyNjQzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_[1]n another of my favorite movies, Young Frankenstein, director Mel Brooks inserts a hilarious version of a visual joke that’s older than the hills. After entering the Transylvanian castle where he is employed, Igor, played by Marty Feldman, says “walk this way” to Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein, then sets off with a cane-assisted gait, dragging his lame leg and hunchbacked self down the stairs. Frankenstein follows him down the stairs with precisely the same limping and awkward gait, until after a few steps Igor turns around and says, “No, I mean follow me!”

The right way to walk, the best road to take, is on my mind a regularly as a teacher and just a normal human being. I frequently have the opportunity to introduce freshman students to Rene DescartesFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes[1], one of the most—arguably the most—influential philosophers in the Western tradition. I wrote my dissertation on Descartes twenty-five years ago and was told by my director that, at that time at least, more secondary literature had been written on Descartes than any other Western philosopher, including Plato and Aristotle. After his education was finished, Descartes in his early twenties decided to see the world. As many young men of his time, he chose to do this by signing up as a mercenary soldier for a local political power-broker, in Descartes’ case the Duke of Bavaria. One night while on campaign in the winter of 1619, Rene sought refuge and warmth in a small, stove-heated room.220px-Fouday-Poêle[1] That night he had three dreams or visions that changed his life. In the third dream, he opened a book of poetry and read the following line from the Roman poet Ausonias: Quod vitae sectabor iter? What path in life should I follow? Descartes’ self-interpretation of this dream produced his lifelong project—the unification of science and, ultimately, all knowledge on a foundation of unshakeable certainty. What path in life should I follow?

It is a great question, perhaps the best question, to get nineteen-year-old freshmen to consider. Strangely enough, I have found over the past few years that it is an equally important question for a now fifty-nine year old guy to ask.Marquette University Old Postcard[1] In many ways my professional path has been clear from the moment I chose in my early thirties to major in philosophy in graduate school and do my PhD at a Catholic university (to the dismay of my professors and mentors in my Master’s program at a secular state university). Twenty-five years later I have achieved some success as an academic scholar, great satisfaction in the classroom on a daily basis, and have never regretted walking down this particular academic professor path. But I’ve learned more and more over the past few years that there are many paths more important than the professional one. By defining myself for years by what I do, I found it very easy to forget about figuring out who I am.micah_prophet[1] As Christian found out in Pilgrim’s Progress, the path to wholeness and integrity as a human being is fraught with far more pitfalls and dangers than any path to professional success. The prophet Micah tells us that all God wants is for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. But what is the nature of this walk? What paths am I to take? These questions have become more and more pressing.

Yesterday was “Good Shepherd Sunday” with sheep/shepherd readings from both the Gospels and the Psalms. Psalm 23 is all about paths. We are told that the Lord our shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness and even is with us in our darkest hours, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Such a familiar text, however, can breed, if not contempt, at least complacency. Shepherds and sheep evoke a pastoral and peaceful image,sheep1[1] but very few of us have any knowledge of what the daily lives of shepherds and sheep are like. I got a peek into this life once over twenty years ago while we were living in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee is a city of festivals, with every ethnic group imaginable getting its own weekend and festival. During a celebration of all things Scottish, Jeanne and I were with the boys at one of the many large parks that Milwaukee has to offer for Scottish Fest. The weather was appropriate, drizzly and foggy with bone-chilling dampness.

One of the events that day was a demonstration of sheep herding. Upon being let out of the penned enclosure in which they were being held, a flock of forty or fifty sheep immediately scattered to the four winds, running into the surrounding residential neighborhood faster than I ever imagined sheep could move their fat, wool-laden selves. The shepherd remained standing in the now-sheepless park, with two small border collies at his side, as residents of the surrounding streets wondered where the hell the sheep in their back yards came from. Then at a signal from the shepherd, the border collies leaped into action. After they disappeared into the neighborhood like lightning bolts, we could hear the dogs occasionally barking in the distance. Border Collie, 9 months old, rounding sheepWithin a few minutes, sheep started appearing from various directions, with the border collies running manically back and forth behind them, nipping at their heels and talking trash as only a dog can. Before long, all of the sheep were back in the pen and the border collies returned to the shepherd’s side. He bowed in acknowledgement of our applause, even though his four-legged buddies had done all of the work.

As a youngster I always bristled at the frequent Biblical comparison of human beings to sheep, because I knew (or had read at least) that sheep were both smelly and stupid. I appreciated our rector pointing out yesterday that in ancient times, sheep were highly regarded sources of milk, wool and companionship, only becoming mutton once they became too old to provide any of the other stuff. I still resist the analogy, though, and believe that there are many more fruitful paths available to me than to a sheep. 5800660559_37c6d20f29_z[1]But it is comforting to know that there is divine companionship and guidance on whatever path I find myself on, as well as to know that if I listen, all of those paths lead home to God.

Two years ago, a couple of weeks after the end of the semester, I headed for the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California for a week of silence, meditation, centering, writing, and sampling of monk-made fruit cake (their specialty, apparently). I heard about the place from an Episcopanapa_valley[1]l priest I met the year before at a “Wisdom school workshop.” His parish is in the California wine country; someday I hope to have a chance to connect with him. Strange where unexpected paths might show up—“Yea though I walk through the valley of Napa . . .” My week at the hermitage was perhaps the most fruitful week of writing I have ever experienced. I may not be a sheep, but I’m happy to take whatever guidance that happens to come my way.