Category Archives: writing

violet

The Wisdom of Violet

All this thinking is highly overrated. Violet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

season five

As “Downton Abbey” continues through its sixth and final season here in the States, here are some thoughts from a few months ago from everyone’s favorite character . . .

The American showing of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey’s fifth season just ended, to the dismay of its millions of fans who now must wait until next January to get their next Downton fix. It’s a bit worse for Jeanne and me. Late last year Jeanne signed up to throw a few monthly dollars in the direction of our local PBS station; in return, we were shipped the full fifth season of the series in DVD at the end of January. The fifth season had just started its Sunday evening run a couple of weeks earlier, and now we had in our hands the rest of the season with no need to parcel the episodes out one week at a time. The DVDs showed up a couple of days before we got smacked with Juno, the first and worst of a series of winter storms that came in unrelenting succession over the next month. With Tuesday and then Wednesday classes cancelled, we binge-watched Lord Grantham along his relatives and homies cavort and angst through eight straight episodes—about eleven or twelve hours of viewing. And we wanted more.

All Downton fans have their favorite characters—I’ve noted in a previous post from a few weeks back that mine is Mister Carson, the erstwhile butler of the establishment.

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

violetBut everyone loves Lord Grantham’s mother Violet, the dowager countess and source of endless entertainment from meaningful glances to pithy retorts, a lovably manipulative force behind virtually everything going on in each episode with a wit as dry as a martini. Violet is played so memorably by Dame Maggie Smith that I cannot imagine anyone else being Violet (although I suspect Dame Judi Dench could do it, just differently). In this most recent season any number of Violet one-liners made me laugh, then think. Here are a few of them.

All this thinking is highly overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914 nobody ever thought.

Downton Abbey begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and in five seasons has proceeded through the Great War to the disturbing, iconoclastic years in the war’s wake, concluding the fifth season at Christmas 1923. In my twenty-plus years of teaching in an interdisciplinary humanities program, the most important thing I have learned about history is that no event ever changed the world so fully and irrevocably as World War One. yeatsWilliam Butler Yeats captured these dark transformations perfectly in his 1919 poem “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the

Worst are full of passionate intensity.

That these lines are directly applicable to our world a century later is testimony to just how complete the changes were.

Violet finds herself in a world she does not understand in which none of the fixed and reliable rules that have given her life and society stability apply. There was a time when people knew their place, when one knew what to expect, when things made sense. That world is gone, and she blames it on too much thinking. She might have a point. Not long ago some philosophical wag wrote that “Socrates may have been right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either.”

A lack of compassion is as vulgar as an excess of tears.

maryThis is Violet’s comment to her granddaughter Mary when Mary shows a remarkable lack of concern for her sister Edith’s sadness and mourning over the death of her lover and father of her child. It is a remarkable comment from a woman whose whole life has been defined by the sort of British aristocratic reserve that looks, at least on the surface, like lack of compassion on steroids. But an excess of any sort on the spectrum of emotion is “vulgar,” perhaps the worst thing that could possibly be said about a British aristocrat in the post-Edwardian era.

In my team-taught colloquium entitled “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom and Truth in the Nazi Era,” my students (and I) regularly struggle to find the appropriate emotional response to the horrors we are studying. At the end of our final class last week before spring break, my historian teammate Ray ended the two hours with a few minutes video from the liberation of Auschwitz. Emaciated, skeletal bodies piled fifteen feet or more high. auschwitzThese bodies being thrown one by one into a mass grave. Ray wisely ended the class with no comment, switching the computer off as students quietly gathered their things and filed out.

As I’ve been reading my students’ intellectual notebook entries this week, several have written “I don’t know how to respond to what I was seeing.” And neither do I. But our response cannot be academic and clinical, nor can it be a paralyzing wave of emotion. The worst that we humans can do to each other must be responded to with all of the resources available to us. Our response must be human, in other words. This reminds me yet again of why I resonate with a religion whose central truth is that God became human.

Hope is a tease to prevent us from accepting reality.

To which the idealist responds that realism or pragmatism is a device to help us avoid dreaming of and hoping for what could be rather than settling for what is. I have written occasionally about the dynamic of hope in this blog,

Hopeful Thinking

and like to think of myself as a “pragmatic idealsimpragmatic idealist” or perhaps an “optimistic realist.” These things really are not contradictory, although many (including Violet) assume that they are. The philosopher in me tends toward realism, with Aristotle, David Hume, William James as three of my most important philosophical influences. Yet that realism is tempered by my faith which in my understanding both applies directly to the real world I struggle with every day yet offers transcendent hope that there is more to reality than what I struggle with every day. I resonate with Hamlet’s conviction that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy”—this is how I manage to be both a philosopher and a Christian, something that a good friend worried that I would not be able to pull off many years ago.

Thanks, Violet, for your thought-provoking insights and asides—keep them coming!violet 2

Hope in Exile

As is the case with any profession, the life of an academic includes some great and some not-so-great features. After twenty-five years of being a college professor, here’s a brief list:

Great:

• Sabbatical

• Being in the classroomlove teaching

• Team-teaching with colleagues

• Planning courses

• Writing

• Beer with fellow teachers on Friday afternoons

Not So Much:

• Gradingtechnology

• Being in a dysfunctional department

• Trying to get what you have written published

• Technology in the classroom

And academic conferences. Especially academic conferences

I have written in the past about my dislike of academic conferences. Conference papers are the bread-and-butter of the academic life when climbing the tenure and promotion ladder, but I’ve never been a fan. A lot of posturing, name-dropping, networking and having papers read at you. Not to mention overheated and ugly seminar rooms along with stale pastries and lukewarm coffee. 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. colloquy posterOf course I usually forget that when I present a paper, I’m expecting my audience to appreciate mine far more than I enjoy theirs.

Fortunately I have not had to work the academic conference circuit vigorously since I earned promotion to full professor almost fifteen years ago. There is, however, one group of academics that I enjoy gathering with annually for a conference—the American Weil Society. If you read this blog regularly or even occasionally, you know that Simone Weil shows up on a semi-regular basis. I’ve had an intellectual affair with this strange woman from the first half of the twentieth century for at over fifteen years now (Jeanne calls Simone my mistress), a connection that has produced a book, several articles, and a paper at the Weil colloquy almost every year.

I have attended the annual Weil Society colloquy just about every year for the past couple of decades; we have hosted the Weil colloquy twice in the past ten years here at Providence College. There are a solid two dozen or so Weil scholars from North America who attend just about every colloquy. The theme of this year’s colloquy is hope in exile“Hope in Exile,” an evocative topic that prompted me to send in a brief proposal. The proposal was accepted, so now I have to write the paper. That’s one of the great things about a blog—it provides me with an opportunity to run my thoughts past intelligent people before I am responsible for them in person.

As I searched my notes and Simone Weil texts the other day for “hope” references, I was surprised to find that she doesn’t explicitly discuss the topic very often. And yet, the theme of how to avoid despair in the middle of a world that seems determined to drive us toward it on a daily basis is a thread that winds through most of her writing. In her final work, NfrThe Need for Roots, Weil considers why despair is not a necessity.

If pure good were never capable of producing on this earth true greatness in art, science, theoretical speculation, public enterprise, if in all these spheres there were only false greatness, if in all these spheres everything were despicable, and consequently condemnable, there would be no hope at all for the affairs of this world; no possible illumination of this world by the other one. But it is not so. (Emphasis mine)

This reminded me of something I just read the other day from Marilynne Robinson:

Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat.

One encounters this sort of “somber panic” and such proposed “terrible remedies” everywhere one turns these days. When everything is pushing intelligent people toward cynicism and/or despair, what reasons are there, if any, to cultivate hope? The cynic is likely to agree with Violet, dowager countess of downtonDownton Abbey, who says that “hope is a tease to keep us from accepting reality.” The hopeful person might counter with something like what I heard Maria Popova say on NPR’s “On Point” the other day: “Cynicism is the sewage of the soul.” My guess is that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.

Simone Weil’s insight is a good place to start. If it is actually the case that human beings are incapable of producing anything of value, if it is true that even the best of human endeavors are polluted by falsity and worthy of condemnation, then cynicism or despair are the reasonable order of the day. There is no reason other than naïveté to hope for anything other than a continuation of mediocrity, violence, and death until we finally manage to snuff ourselves out. But after setting the stage for such despair, Weil opens the window a crack with just one sentence: But it is not so. RobinsonMarilynne Robinson concludes her comments on the attractiveness of cultural pessimism with a similar sentiment.

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism—exactly the same grounds, in fact—that is, because we are human . . . To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

The stakes could not possibly be higher. As I begin working on this with the upcoming conference in mind, I start with the premise that what really needs to be sorted out is the relationship between critical thinking and hope, since critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Our contemporary challenge is to find a place between the scylla and charybdisScylla of cynicism and the Charybdis of naïveté, seeking to build a life in that space because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom as well as a futile self-protection mechanism. And perhaps it is worth taking note of Simone Weil’s suggestion that the illumination of this world by “the other one” might be a reason to hope. What is that other world? How might a passageway for mutual illumination be opened? Stay tuned—I welcome your ideas and contributions!

Reading and Writing

My twenty-plus years teaching at Providence College have afforded me an opportunity every semester for team-teaching in the large interdisciplinary program that is the heart of our core curriculum (a program I directed for four years ending last July). downloadTeam-teaching is fun, exhilarating, and demanding; this begins with the planning of the next semester’s syllabus. Faculty from different departments having different experiences with and notions about pedagogy bring all sorts of ideas to the table and do not always agree, particularly about the amount of daily and weekly work to schedule for our future students. My contribution to the discussion is always the same: “They should read until they drop, then write until they drop again.” In that order—there’s nothing that feeds intelligent writing more effectively than reading.

It is strange that I temporarily forgot this important connection between reading and writing during the past few months. The working highlight of the first half of my sabbatical was an intense spurt of writing from September to Thanksgiving, surely energized by a bicycle mishap in early October; I all of a sudden had to find something to do with the four to five hours per day during which I had been riding my bicycle and getting into the best shape of my life prior to the mishap. In addition to completing a second draft of my current book project, I was able to maintain my established blog routine of two new 1200-1500 posts per week—something that my most famous writing friend, kathleen Kathleen Norris, suggested last May that I would probably not be able to do while writing a book. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the book is closely related to my past three-and-a-half years of blog work.

But since Thanksgiving, the writing energies have begun to dry up. I still have been able to produce new blog posts, but a couple of them seemed forced and I was often writing under self-imposed deadline pressure. The proposal that needs to be written for my book draft wasn’t getting written. Just a few days before Christmas I realized one of the main reasons for my current writing malaise—reading and writingI haven’t been reading much for the past few months. There are a number of excuses I might offer, but none of them fully explain why, when I actually have more unstructured time than any grown-up should have, I have been neglecting my first love—reading. I’ve even gotten out of the habit of reading the daily psalms every morning. Very bad idea.

A quick review of my blog posts from a year ago was illuminating. Many of my late December and early January posts either mention or focus directly on either Barbara Taylor Brown or Christopher Wiman. Why? Because just before Christmas break last year the work of these two authors was recommended to me by two different friends, so I spent Christmas break reading several of Brown’s books and a memoir by Wiman. The point? I write about what I am reading—the ideas, images, and insights of a good book never fail to be evocative. my life in middlemarchSince I think best when I am writing, that’s where these ideas, images and insights become my own.

Awareness frequently produces change, and this time was no exception. Awareness of my reading slump caused me to pick up Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a biography/memoir centered on George Eliot’s masterpiece (and my favorite novel). Sure enough, several passages inspired by Mead’s book are central to my New Year’s Eve blog post, and others will form the core of my forthcoming Valentine’s Day post for Jeanne. Then for Christmas Jeanne gave me The Good Book, a collection of essays, edited by Andrew Blaumer, in which thirty-two writers from all sorts of angles write about their favorite passages and characters from the Bible. Although the older I get the less I believe in mere coincidence, good bookI “coincidentally” opened first to “The Womb and the Cistern Cell,” an essay by Brooks Hansen about John the Baptist.

John “just happens” to be one of my favorite characters from the New Testament; twice in the past four years I have had the privilege of giving an Advent sermon on John the Baptist Sunday in early December. On one end of his life is a miraculous birth narrative that in my estimation rivals that of his younger cousin Jesus, and at the end of his life he finds himself in a dungeon (a cistern well) and a state of despairing doubt. He sends a question via his disciples to Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? These are the last words we hear from this man, the first person recorded to recognize adult Jesus for who he was. Hansen finds this remarkable, and so do I; he concludes his essay by reflecting on the intimate connection between belief and doubt.

Light is born of darkness. Darkness is the necessary precondition of light. Belief, likewise, is born of doubt, the baptistwhich is its necessary precondition. Doubt is the soil from which faith grows. Therefore, if one is determined to imagine John the Baptist as the first and most authoritative voice to recognize Jesus as savior—the first, in other words, to believe—then John must, by that token have been the first to doubt. That, too, is Law. And if we ever encounter any teaching, or feel ourselves succumbing to any creed or system of belief, that does not admit this, and does not struggle intimately and often—in the cistern of its soul—with the fear that it is mistaken, misdirected, falsely premised, or corrupt at its heart—we should take heed:

That is not faith. That, in fact, is a fairy tale.

I wish I had read this before my most recent sermon three weeks ago—it would have made the cut. I frequently say and write that in just about all aspects of belief, certainty is vastly overrated—Hansen makes the same point much more eloquently. This is why reading feeds writing. Reading enlarges one’s vocabulary, broadens one’s perspective, and provides examples of the richness of language and experience. And it is fun—what’s not to love?

one thing

One Thing

In the 1991 movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays New York executive Mitch Robbins, whose hassled life is wearing negatively on his work, his marriage, and his friendships. At thirty-nine years old he finds himself deep in a midlife crisis. three amigosFor his birthday, his two best buddies purchase a two-week vacation for the three of them at a dude ranch in New Mexico to participate in a dude cattle drive. As is usually the case with Billy Crystal, hilarity and poignancy ensue simultaneously. The tough-as-nails trail boss Curly, played to great effect by Jack Palance, is an enigma to Mitch from day one—Curly is silent, curmudgeonly, skilled at his job, self-assured, and clearly in possession of information that Mitch badly needs. One day while rounding up strays, Mitch asks, “Curly, what is the secret of life?” As a good philosopher should, Curly answers with another question.

You know what the secret of life is?

No, what?

(Holding one finger up) This. one thing

Your finger?

One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.

That’s great, but what’s the one thing?

That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.

One thing. Finding out what that one thing is might be the point of anyone’s life, but that’s a pretty big task. At the beginning of a new year, a more manageable question might be “What is the one thing that I resolve to do this coming year?” And I don’t mean something like drinking less coffee or going to the gym more. I mean “What is the one thing that I resolve to do in this coming year that will be good for the inner me, for my soul?”one more thing I gave this assignment to the Living Stones seminar group that meets once a month after church when we met in December, and they’ll be bringing their “one thing” resolution when we meet next. As for me, I resolve that in 2016 I will be a more reverent person.

Reverence is not a concept that is particularly in favor in Western culture—it probably hasn’t been for decades. The term is almost always used in religious contexts, especially during the holiday season just ended. The shepherds and wise men gaze reverently upon the Christ child, Mary listens reverently as the angel tells her that her world is about to be turned upside down, the stable animals chew their hay reverently as they observe Mary reverently giving birth to Jesus while Joseph reverently boils water and finds some swaddling clothes. I suppose that sort of faux holiness has its place (maybe), but that’s not what I have in mind.

The sort of reverence I am resolving to develop this year is more like Moses’ reaction to the burning bush in Exodus. As he is taking care of his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks one day, he notices something weird out of the corner of his eye—a bush that is on fire but is not being burnt up. He could have thought “that’s weird” and kept on going. burning bushHe could have made a mental note to check back later when he wasn’t so busy. He could have Googled “burning bush” on his tablet after dinner with Zipporah and the kids when he had a few minutes of down time. But he didn’t. Instead, he said “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” Loose translation—“Holy Shit! What the hell is that?” Moses was willing to interrupt his busy day to take a look at something outside his usual frame of reference. Reverence begins with the ability to see in a different way, to notice what’s going on outside the boundaries of my agenda, to be attentive to even the most mundane items and events that cross my path. Most importantly, reverence is cultivated by an increasing awareness that everything is important in its own right. simoneThe Greek philosopher Protagoras famously claimed that “man is the measure of all things.” Reverence says that I am not the measure of anything—what is most important and interesting is almost never about me.

The work of the French, Jewish mystic, activist and philosopher Simone Weil has been important to me both personally and professionally for many years, but one of her many cryptic phrases has been a mystery to me until just recently. In Gravity and Grace, she writes that “Here below, to look and to eat are two different things. . . . The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating.” This truly made no sense to me for a long time. But as I’ve learned something about peace, silence and attentiveness over the past few years, I’ve begun to see Simone’s point. Human beings are naturally acquisitive and devouring creatures—we are seldom willing to let things be as they are. If X is attractive, I want to buy it. If Y looks useful, I want to consume it. If Z is important, I want to make it mine. We turn these manic energies on the world around us and on each other on a regular basis. Simone’s point is that not everything is here for my use and pleasure. it isThe importance of what I encounter during a given day is not to be judged according to how important it is to me. And as I learn that everything is important in its own right, I can begin to see it differently. To “let it be,” as the Beatles sang, and to remember that “it is what it is,” as Jeanne frequently says.

So in practical terms, what does reverence amount to? At the very least, it means giving each task, person, and event in my life my undivided attention. A colleague of mine defines “multitasking” as “doing several things poorly at the same time.” If multitasking is the enemy of reverence, which I’m quite sure it is, then I’m in trouble. I find it very difficult to do one thing at a time—the very writing of this essay has been interrupted, sometimes in mid-sentence, by going to a second screen to check on my blog numbers, multitaskingthen a third screen to see if my latest important email has been responded to yet. During a typical evening it is not unusual for me to be watching a television show with Jeanne, farting around on my tablet, and grading a paper or two all at the same time.

So I resolve to ask myself the following question frequently in the following weeks and months: Is what you are doing worthy of your undivided attention? And if the answer is “yes,” then the follow-up question is Then why are you not giving it your undivided attention? Learning to give my undivided attention to each thing as I encounter it is the first step in recognizing the value inherent in even the tiniest and most insignificant part of reality. Moses took the time to check out something unusual and found out that he was standing on holy ground. And so are we. All the time.tutu

Tapestries or Quilts

I am currently leading a discussion group focused, among other things, on the inadequacy of traditional religious structures to address real spiritual hunger. The foundation that recruited me to form this group provided us with the text to discuss, and the group members are not impressed. Their common complaint is that the book is haphazardly and randomly constructed, with little apparent concern for underlying theme or connecting threads. Reading it is like going through a buffet line, piling several random items on top of each other, and calling it a healthy meal.

I concur with my colleagues’ critique–I’m as interested in well constructed texts as anyone. But are our lives not often cobbled together in similar, seemingly arbitrary ways? My group’s concerns reminded me of an essay I posted three years ago today, one of my first essays on this blog. Are our lives more like woven tapestries or patchwork quilts?

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

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Reading the Fine Print

As predictable as the change of seasons is the point in any given semester when students will approach me for the first time and ask for out of class help. Usually it’s after the first exam or paper has been returned. Students with dreams of an “A” dancing in their heads tend to make an appointment when their first major piece of graded work has a “C” or “D” on the top of it. I’m a user-friendly professor and am more than happy to meet with any student; when first approached, I usually raise the student’s eyebrows when I direct the student to be sure and bring the appropriate texts along for the appointment.

When Jane comes to my office, conversation begins with her saying something along the lines of “I don’t understand why I did so poorly—I’ve done all of the readings and haven’t missed any classes.” I know whether the latter claim is true already, and will be checking on the first claim shortly. First, however, I tell Jane that “whatever I suggest in terms of strategies or help is going to require more time and more work from you. If you’re looking for a way to do better in the class without working harder than you have been already, there is no such way.” This is undoubtedly a disappointment, since the reason Jane made the appointment was to get the “magic bullet” that will slay the dreaded “C” or “D” and make room for the “A” to which she believes she is entitled. Learning that there is no such magic bullet is never good news.

And it gets worse, as I next ask to see her texts. They look as if they had just been taken off the bookstore shelf—no dog-eared pages, no scribbled notes in the margin, no underlined passages, no highlighted texts—and Jane’s name isn’t even in it. Handing my heavily underlined, highlighted and annotated copy of the same text to Jane, I remark that “here’s problem number one. Your text should look like this.” I even go so far as to provide her with the key to my quirky markings, according to which I highlight in yellow the first time through, focusing the second time through primarily on the highlighted areas and underlining with a black pen those part that appear most crucial. Then after class I return a third time to write notes and comments from class discussion in the margins. Not only will following something like this procedure lock the material into the student’s memory by requiring something more than simply looking at words, but it will also condense the material for reviewing purposes when exam time comes.

I lost Jane’s attention as soon as she saw my copy of the text. Even though Jane doesn’t know what the colors and markings mean, she at least knows that they mean a lot of work. You mean I have to read more than once? That I have to read and think critically? That I have to read it again after class? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s going to take a lot of time and effort! And indeed it will. Jane has been introduced for the first time to the fine print in the life of learning—it’s hard. It requires building good reading and study habits. True education isn’t for lazy people and it isn’t for sissies. And it certainly isn’t for anyone who wants to cut corners, to get to a desired outcome without taking all of the necessary steps in between. Every one of them.

Mark’s gospel from last Sunday  includes a classic “fine print” experience. A young man (called a “certain ruler” in the Luke version of the story) approaches Jesus and asks “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that the young man knows very well what to do—he should keep the commandments. Jesus lists a few for the guy, just in case he had forgotten them. But the young man replies “Teacher, all these I have done from my youth.” He’s not looking for a “good boy” pat on the head from Jesus; he’s already past the point of thinking that simply following the rules is good enough, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place. The young man is looking for more. He’s thinks that he’s ready for the fine print.

We all know Jesus’ response—he reads him the fine print. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” We also know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” The fine print demanded the one thing the young man could not do. But what precedes Jesus’ reading of the fine print is even more interesting. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is a man who wants more, Jesus knows it, and Jesus loves him for it. But that damned fine print—the thing that you cannot do, that’s the thing that is required. And it will be something different for each of us. This story isn’t about the incompatibility of wealth and following Jesus at all. It’s about the fact that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “ when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of all disturbers of the peace. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and this is a sword that cuts deepest in those who are the most obsessed with knowing God.

This is a disturbing story because it absolutely runs roughshod over our idea that human dealings with God are transactional. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z not to die?” is the question we so often want answered, and this sort of question is always wrong when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical I heard the poet Michael Dennis Browne speak of an insight that unexpectedly came to him as he mourned the tragic death of his younger sister, a woman for whom family and friends had gone hoarse with their prayers and petitions for healing. And she died anyways. What the hell is going on? Browne said “It came to me that this is not a God who intervenes, but one who indwells.” That changes everything, in ways I’m not sure I’m fully ready to think about yet. But the following from Rainer Maria Rilke gives me hope:

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.

Casual, easy, they move in the world

As though untouched.

 

But you take pleasure in the faces

Of those who know they thirst.

You cherish those

Who grip you for survival.

 

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.

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.

and

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.

and

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!

Happiness

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.