Category Archives: writing

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.

Your Heart’s Desire

I received the welcome news this past week that my forthcoming book, which has been at the publisher for a few months patiently waiting in the editorial queue, has passed editorial muster and has been passed on to the typesetters. As my editor told me in the email, “things are rolling now,” rolling quickly enough that I might be holding a hard copy of the book by the end of May, early June at the latest. This will be my fourth book; when compared with other great events in a life–the birth of one’s children, great sex, eighteen-year-old Balvenie neat, the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, the Patriots winning yet another Super Bowl, getting your first tattoo–nothing beats seeing your book in print for the first time.

The forthcoming book is what I have to show for my 2015-16 sabbatical, along with a still occasionally sore ankle that I broke while on a sabbatical bike ride. The email from my editor reminded me of a dinner that I had with Jeanne at P. F. Chang’s in March 2015, just a few months before the beginning of my sabbatical. “This thing better have good news in it,” I said as I unwrapped my P. Ffortune cookie. Chang’s fortune cookie at the end of dinner. And it did.

You will receive your heart’s desire

“Great,” I thought. “I wonder what the hell that is.

It had not been a good day. That morning I had received a rejection letter from the ##### Foundation to whom I had applied for sabbatical funding the previous fall. In typical rejection letter style, I was informed that “We received 76 applications and awarded 10 grants. The quality of the grant proposals made the work of the selection committee challenging indeed. I regret to inform you . . . blah, blah, blah and so on.” Tsabbatical proposalhis sucked big time because of the two funding proposals I had sent out, this was the one I thought I had the much better shot at. Two weeks later, the other funding place rejected me as well.

I do not handle rejection well—not that I’ve had a lot of it in my career. I have never been an adjunct professor. Both of my teaching positions have been tenure track. Both times that I actually got an on-campus interview, I got the job. My ascent of the tenure and promotion ladder had only one easily correctable glitch. I have spent the past twenty-two years teaching at the same college, loving every minute of those years (or at least 95% of the minutes). Three books, a number of articles, a teaching award, two significant administrative posts—I'm OkayI’m not writing this to impress anyone, but rather to illustrate my inner dialogue every time I do get rejected. I immediately start trying to convince myself that I’m really okay, despite the fact that the ##### Foundation did not deem my sabbatical project worth spending a dime on.

These are the times when I am grateful both for my training in classical music and for being forced to memorize lots of verses from the Bible in my growing up years. As soon as I read the cookie’s promise that I will receive my heart’s desire, my memory tapes started playing a song I don’t believe I had thought of in years, perhaps decades. It is a solo from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with the seemingly appropriate (but very difficult to actually do) title “O Rest in the Lord.” I hate it when this happens, because the last thing I felt like doing that day was waiting or resting. My heart’s desire was to have funding for my sabbatical project, and what felixI considered to be my most likely source of that funding just said “thanks for playing, but no.” So “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires”? Whatever—I don’t think so.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a dramatic musical treatment of various episodes from Elijah’s life as described in the Jewish scriptures, including his getting to ride in a flaming chariot to heaven once his prophesying work was over. In Part One of the oratorio Elijah has one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God ever has or will experience. In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it.elijah All this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their god after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed.

But then King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” elijah and angelBy the beginning of Part Two, Elijah is fleeing for his life into the wilderness. Exhausted, he eventually collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and has a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And for once, God does something practical. While Elijah sleeps, an angel makes him breakfast; when Elijah stirs, the angel serves him the meal, then entertains him by singing a lovely setting of Psalm 37—which three thousand years or so later makes it into Mendelssohn’s Elijah as “O Rest in the Lord.”

Mendelssohn’s text rearranges a few of the verses from Psalm 37, but captures the point perfectly. For those who are fretting and stressed about what the future holds, the Psalmist provides a set of simple promises.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;

Do not fret over those who prosper in their way,

Over those who carry out evil devices.

Although this text is steeped in a religious perspective that I became familiar with before I learned to walk, the Psalmist’s advice sounds remarkably like what the ancient Stoics tell us—be clear about what is in your control and what is not. Don’t waste energy trying to control the latter and create your moral and spiritual home out of the former. What I can control is how I will respond to what the largely uncontrollable world hands me—disappointment, dashed hopes, unexpected opportunities, and a hell of a lot of the mundane, daily grind. The verbs in Psalm 37 are telling: trust, commit, be still, be patient, don’t worry, and take delight. These are the core of a life of centeredness and peace—something available even when things don’t go my way.Psalm 37

As I venture into the last third of my years on earth, I realize that I have often received my heart’s desire, and it almost never has been what I would have predicted. That day two years ago at P. F. Chang’s,  I did not even know what my heart’s desire was–I just knew that what I thought it was had just been shot down. As it turned out, I stayed home for my sabbatical year, spent more time with Jeanne (who happened to be unemployed and therefore home as well) than I have in years, cultivated my new bicycling obsession, got a tattoo, planned several new courses, recovered from a decade of intense administrative work, and wrote a book. You can’t make this stuff up, nor can you predict it–so “rest in the Lord” might be pretty good advice after all.

Sixty-One Years On

I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on   Elton John

Tomorrow is my birthday! Sixty-one is nothing special, except that it’s a prime number–so there’s that. I’m reminded of what I wrote for my milestone sixtieth last year; it all still seems appropriate! 

Several years ago Jeanne surprised me with the ultimate in birthday presents—a ticket to an Elton John concert. I have been a devoted Eltonophile for years, even before everyone found out about him with the release of his blockbuster yellow brick road“Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” album in 1973, the album that made him famous. I graduated from high school in 1973, so I’ve been a fan for more than forty years. According to Wikipedia, Sir Elton currently is in fifth place all-time in record sales, just behind Madonna and just ahead of Led Zeppelin (The Beatles, Elvis, and Michael Jackson earned the first three spots). Elton had celebrated his 60th birthday the day before and started the concert with “Sixty Years On” from his second album “Elton John” released in 1970.

The new sexagenarian went without a break for more than two hours, the first hour filled with tunes from his pre-Yellow Brick Road years, tunes that the youngsters in the crowd had probably never heard. But the real Elton fans in attendance loved it—we knew Elton’s stuff before he became Elton John.

The lyrics of “Sixty Years On” are generally incomprehensible, as Bernie Taupin’s lyrics often are, but there is one line that is particularly haunting: I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on. The album including “Sixty Years On” was released when Elton was 23 years old, so he can be forgiven for not wanting to live for an ungodly six decades (We are both of the generation that used to say no one over thirty should be trusted). sixty happensBut I turn sixty in two days, so indulge me as I reflect a bit on why sixty years on ain’t so bad after all.

My age has never been a negative issue for me—I passed 50 without a hitch a decade ago and don’t see 60 as any more problematic. I’m very healthy (my doctor says I’m his most boring patient), was in the best shape of my life before I broke my leg in October (and intend to get back there in short order once spring arrives and I’m back on my bike), and have always thought of myself as at least a decade younger than the calendar says. Still . . . 60 is a lot of years. In many periods of history, and in many parts of the world now, I would have been dead for a long time by this age. Even in my most optimistic moments I have to admit that I have probably already lived more than two-thirds of my allotted years on earth. Although I have regularly said that I will never retire and will die in the classroom at age 100 or so, I have heard myself say more and more frequently over the past few months in various contexts that I’ll be teaching for at least another ten years (what will I do after 70—RETIRE??). I’m already older than my mother was when she died. The older I get, the more the ancient Stoics’ advice to never forget one’s mortality makes sense, since it is much easier to pretend that one is immortal when one is twenty or thirty than when one is facing sixty. senecaThe Stoics had a great deal of good advice concerning how to be with the comparatively short human shelf life.

For instance, Seneca writes that Life is long if you know how to use it and that We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. We all know that the passage of time is subjective—a fifty-minute class can feel like fifteen or one hundred fifty minutes depending on any number of factors. Seneca’s point is that even though the objective length of my life is not within my control, how my life passes is within my control. Within the parameters of my existence, my life will be as long or as short, as meaningful or as meaningless, as I choose it to be. Stoic-EpiticusAnother great Stoic, Epictetus, describes it this way:

Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright chooses: short, if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, play even this part well; and so also for the parts of a disabled person, an administrator, or a private individual. For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

On the cusp of sixty, I’ve learned a few things about how to play the part I’ve been given and about what makes my life meaningful. None of these are profound or groundbreaking, but it has taken me six decades to realize that sometimes the most obvious things are the best.

  • Enjoy the little things. I’ve always been a quirky person, no different in that regard than anyone else. But I spent a lot of my life hiding my quirks or at least pretending that they aren’t as important to me as they always have been and still are. I don’t hide them anymore. Reading with my dachshund stuffed into the chair next to me. go friarsFriars basketball. Friars hockey. Messing around with the plants in our postage-stamp-sized yard once spring comes. The newest local micro-brew porter or stout on tap at my favorite watering hole. A beer (or two or three) with the regulars on Friday afternoons. Binge-watching British police and detective television shows with Jeanne. The change of seasons in New England. Believing before every new season that the Red Sox can win the world championship—and actually have them do it once in a while.
  • Don’t sweat the stupid stuff. This is a tough one, but I’m trying to get better at not letting things outside of my control consume my day. Things like the latest idiocy from the presidential campaign trail, the most recent offensive email from a department colleague, an ignorant person on Twitter talking trash about my Friars basketball team—as the Stoics say, life is too short to insist on trying to control what other people say and do. Except for that jerk on Twitter.
  • Be grateful. I have a Facebook acquaintance who starts her day out by listing on Facebook five things that she is grateful for. t and fThat’s a wonderful habit to cultivate. I don’t do it on Facebook, but I have gotten better at remembering and occasionally writing about the things I am grateful for. Jeanne. Faith that is alive and kicking. My oldest son’s finding the life partner and profession that fit him perfectly. My youngest son finally landing the job that is worthy of his years of hard work and stubborn persistence; it is a joy to see him truly starting the life he has been seeking. My teaching vocation—as I tell my students frequently, I am inordinately blessed to be able to make a living doing what I was born to do. Living Stones—a collection of fellow spiritual travelers who never fail to surprise and delight me with their insights and stories.
  • Set appropriate goals. I have reached the point in my career where the most obvious professional goals—tenure and promotion to full professor—have been behind me for a decade and a half. What goals are appropriate going forward? I ended the chapter on “Courage” in my recently completed draft of a book that is currently under contract at a publisher–out in three months or so–with the following: I would love to write a bestseller. I would love to have my likeness be the first one carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. I would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. penguinsBut I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

As it turns out, I am perfectly happy to be living sixty years on and will be content to keep on going as long as my body and soul stay healthy and appropriately connected to each other. I have a very clear “do not resuscitate” agreement with Jeanne—as soon as I show the first signs of noticeable deterioration, pull the plug. If there is no plug, hit me over the head with a hammer. But only Jeanne knows what “signs of noticeable deterioration” means in my case, so don’t get any crazy ideas. Happy birthday to me!never underestimate

Taking a Moral Holiday

It has been a bit over three months since the Presidential election, just over three weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration. It seems like an eternity—time apparently only flies when you are having fun. There has been no end of unsolicited advice from all parts of the political and religious spectrum for those who, as I, are having a bit of a hard time figuring out both how to process what has happened and, more importantly, how to approach the days, weeks, and months ahead. I have, for instance, been told “You lost, so stop whining and deal with it!” (as if principled resistance and whining are indistinguishable), as well as “Why don’t you give him a chance? It may not be as bad as you think” (You’re right—it’s worse). But the response that disturbs me most is one that I’ve read frequently on Facebook from fellow Christians, both those who voted for the new President last November and those who did not. “I just fall back on believing that God is in control and that things will work out according to His plan.” I used to hear that sort of thing a lot when I was kid as a response to or explanation of any number of disturbing developments. I didn’t buy it then, and I still don’t.

As much as I would like to take a hiatus from the insanity that seems to accompany the new administration’s efforts on a daily basis, I am finding that the courses I am teaching this semester won’t allow it. As I reread a talk by William James in preparation for an upcoming class in my American Philosophy course, for instance, I found James discussing an issue that has arisen frequently over the years in my classrooms with students: for many persons of faith, the whole purpose of religious belief is the apparently attractive, but elusively vague, state of “comfort.” “It comforts me to believe in God,” someone will say, without specifying whether this comfort is a fuzzy hope about an afterlife, a sense of solidarity created by hanging out occasionally with people with similar beliefs, or a warm emotional attachment to believing that “it will all work out right in the end.” William James calls this theistic attitude “trust in the Absolute,” and faces it head on.

What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying that their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is “overruled” already, we may . . . without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag in its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

There have been a number of times during the past several weeks when I have been tempted to take such a moral holiday. But if there ever was a time when persons of all faiths should not take a break from being on the moral front lines, this is it.

Pragmatist philosophers like William James often talk about the “cash value” of an idea, suggesting that the “truth” of an idea or belief is to be judged not by whether it matches up correctly to some objective fact of the matter, but rather by considering to what extent the idea or belief “works” or actually makes a difference in one’s life.

Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much.

The radical nature of this reinterpretation of what it means for something to be true becomes obvious when applied to faith and religion. In what does the truth of the theist’s “I believe in the existence of a good God” reside? Not in the comfort provided by believing that such a being actually exists in a heaven beyond the reach of human investigation, but rather in the difference this belief makes in the theist’s day-to-day life. Where the rubber of faith hits the road of real life, comfort is a scarce commodity. What matters is what my faith causes me to think and do in what William James calls “this real world of sweat and dirt,” noting that the services of the divine are needed not in a heaven “out there” somewhere, but “in the dust of our human trials.”

The fundamental problem with the attitude that “God is in control” or “We may not recognize it, but God has a plan” is that, for those of us who profess the Christian faith, we are God’s plan. Taking a moral holiday by wrapping ourselves in the platitude that God knows what God is doing is to deliberately ignore what the gospels tell us over and over again. We are the salt of the earth, we are tasked with caring for those who fall through the cracks, we are the way that God gets into the world. When those in power enact policies that harm the very persons for whom God cares the most, it is our responsibility to speak truth to that power in words and actions.

One of the ways that persons of faith often engage with the surrounding world is through prayer, which makes Colbert I. King’s opinion piece “Should we pray for Trump?” in Saturday’s Washington Post of particular interest.

Washington Post: Should we pray for Trump?

King reports that Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention advises us “to pray that Trump’s presidency is a ‘great and good one’ and that he flourishes in the civil arena,” while the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have concluded that Trump’s policies are “clearly demonic acts.” Quoting the Apostle Paul, the bishops advise their congregations to wrestle against “the rulers of the darkness . . . [and] spiritual wickedness in high places.” King himself says that his “humble prayer is that the President of the United States gets help,” similar to my wife’s prayer that “the damaged four-year-old inside the President’s adult body will be healed.”

My own experience with persons who pray (now sixty years and counting) reveals that prayer often becomes a way for persons of faith to take a moral holiday. Throwing a few words, formulaic or improvised, heavenward might seem to satisfy the person of faith’s obligation to engage with a world in which it often seems beyond our capacities to make a difference. But we are instructed by the Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing,” indicating an engagement and activity that goes far beyond a few set pieces offered at specified times. My relationship with prayer was tense and fraught my whole life until I realized that prayer is not an activity—it’s a state of being. It’s an attitude that, for me, means asking How do I bring the best of me, the divine that I know is my deepest me, into this day, this class, this essay, this conversation? What does the divine in me have to say about policies and decisions at the highest level of government that are an affront to what I believe God wants for all human beings?

“I trust that God knows what God is doing” is simply a platitude and an escape until I realize that when it comes to God’s engagement with the world, I’m it. We’re it. This is how God does it. Jesus loved the unlovable, healed the sick, challenged the powerful, and eventually paid the ultimate price for not taking a moral holiday. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew something about putting his life on the line, wrote: “Living confession does not mean the putting of one dogmatic thesis up against another, but it means a confession in which it is really a matter of life or death.” Lives are at risk—don’t go on holiday.

God Might Actually Enjoy Us

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

In the academic world, teaching schedules are usually planned and assigned more than a year in advance; accordingly, I found out over a month ago what I will be teaching during the Spring 2018 semester. One of my assigned classes is “Contemporary Women Philosophers,” a course  I team-taught once a number of years ago and specifically requested when our preferences for the next academic year were solicited, so I’m pumped. I mentioned this to a colleague as we waited for our monthly department meeting a couple of weeks ago; my colleague asked “which philosophers are you going to use?” Off the top of my head I mentioned Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and Hannah Arendt . . . “What about Marilynne Robinson?” he asked. Great idea–Robinson’s essays and fiction are brilliant, and she happens to be the author of the book that is closest to perfect of any I have read.

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,

Amen.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?

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.

Clouds of Glory

kant1[1]The great but incredibly difficult German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in a rare moment of clarity, wrote that all important human questions can be boiled down to these three: WHAT CAN I KNOW? WHAT OUGHT I TO DO?  and WHAT MAY I HOPE FOR? The Advent and Christmas seasons focus on the last of these three questions. A major figure in the seasons’ stories is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative who once sent his disciples to ask his cousin a “What may I hope for?” question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is one of the many imagesCAS1UEG4poignant and excruciatingly human scenes in the gospels—John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and his head will be on a plate soon. He is by no means the only prophet in the land—they came a dime a dozen in those days. Nor is Jesus the only Messiah candidate around—Israel is full of them. So John’s question is not an academic one. What he really wants to know is “has my whole life been a waste?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question relies on John’s knowledge of the prophet Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hopefully the message got back to John before he was executed by Herod. The man whom you baptized is the real deal–the Messiah has truly come. That’s what John foretold and waited for.

And that’s what we wait for every Advent and Christmas season. As Christians we anticipate and celebrate what we believe to be the single most important event in human history—the Incarnation. But there’s a secret, perhaps perverse part of me that asks, “so what?” What exactly are we celebrating at Christmas? imagesCAK1O2WOWhat difference do the circumstances of Jesus’ birth make, a story told differently by Matthew and Luke and considered to be so insignificant by Mark and John that they don’t even include it? As the 13th century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart provocatively asked, “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem?”

Collegeville lecture 3During the first five months of 2009, I spent a sabbatical semester as a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute on the campus of St. John’s University, run by the Benedictine Catholic order, in Collegeville, Minnesota. My academic plans were set; a well-defined book project was ready to be written. But upon arrival, it gradually became clear to me that something else was going on. For most of my then fifty-plus years, I had struggled with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity in which I was raised. What became clear to me in Minnesota was that what I thought was a long-term, low-grade spiritual dissatisfaction had become, without my being aware of it, a full-blown spiritual crisis. Beneath my introverted, overly cerebral surface my soul was asking John’s question—“Are you the one, or is it time to look for another?”

100_0331The answer developed quietly, subtly, unheralded, over the weeks and months. As I tested the waters of daily prayer with the monks at St. John’s Abbey, I noticed a space of silence and peace slowly opening inside of me that I had never known. No voices, no visions, no miracles—but I was writing differently. The low-grade anger that had accompanied me for most of my life began to dissipate. I felt more and more like a whole person instead of a cardboard cutout of one. The world looked different. I felt different. Eventually a few of my colleagues said “you’re not the same person you were when you first got here.” And they were right–I wasn’t. I began spending more time with the monks at prayer, often three times daily. Essays began to flow from a place I didn’t recognize, but really liked. Little had changed outwardly, but everything was changing.

As the day of returning home after four months drew near, I was worried. Would these changes be transferable to my real life? Would this space of centeredness and peace be available during a typical 80-90 hour work week in the middle of a semester? Or would these changes soon be a fond memory, to be stored in an already overfull internal regret file? 443px-Santa_Caterina_Fieschi_Adorno-dipinto_Giovanni_Agostino_Ratti[1]Two days before leaving, one of the Benedictines preached at daily mass (which I did not normally attend). In the middle of an otherwise forgettable homily, he quoted the obscure St. Catherine of Genoa, who said “My deepest me is God.” This was the answer. The space of quietness, silence and peace inside of me, the one I’d never known and had just discovered—is God. I was stunned. Tears filled my eyes. I tingled all over. I’m tingling all over right now as I write this. Because what I had been looking for is here. And it is transferable. Trust me.

I used to think that the evidence Jesus sent to John in prison—the blind see, the lame walk, and all of that—was all well and good, but I’ve never seen a blind person healed, I’ve never seen a cripple stand and walk. Faith 05[1]But I was looking in the wrong place. Because although I don’t see perfectly, I’m a little less blind than I was. My frequent tone-deafness to the needs of others is getting a little better. My inner cripple is now walking with a limp. Some days I even think I know what Lazarus must have felt like as his sisters started to unwrap his grave-clothes. A few paragraphs ago I quoted Meister Eckhart—but only half of the quote. The full quote is “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time?” The answer to that pressing question? He is born today. In us.

Let’s make this Christmas season a coming home, an embracing of the true, continuingwilliam_wordsworth[1] mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became flesh. And God continues to be incarnated in you, in me. This is our heritage and the promise to us. Our deepest me is God. William Wordsworth expressed this truth beautifully: “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.

I’m hoping that in the darkness of his dungeon cell, John remembered his father Zechariah’s words spoken at John’s naming ceremony, words that I’m sure were part of the family stories in John’s childhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth[1]The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,”  is the canticle that closes every morning prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. After a beautiful meditation on his new son’s role in the divine economy, Zechariah closes with a stunning promise.

In the tender compassion of our GodC-002-r%20Advent%202[1]

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Let’s walk in that dawn together.

What Goes Down Must Come Up

Sunday’s Psalm invited us to go to the mountain of the Lord–which reminded me of a hill-climbing event that I wrote about not long ago . . .

PREPARATION

“Who shall ascend the mountain of the Loascent[1]rd,” asked Psalm 24 at Vigils this morning. Psalm 24 is a “Psalm of Ascent,” one of a group of songs scattered throughout the Psalms that scholars tell us were sung by pilgrims as they ascended the hill to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. “Who shall stand in God’s holy place?” “Those with clean hands and pure heart,” continues the Psalmist, answering his own questions as usual. “Those who desire not worthless things.” Clean hands, pure heart, and not desiring worthless things are pretty demanding qualifications for ascending the mountain of the Lord, I thought, except that I’m already on the mountain of the Lord.005 I ascended an eighteen-hundred foot steep incline from US 1 to the New Camoldoli Hermitage in my rented Toyota Yaris thirty-six hours ago, cautiously climbing the two-mile long, one lane switchback drive, hoping that no one was descending the mountain of the Lord at the same time. So I’m up here already, with relatively clean hands, probably not a completely pure heart and wishing occasionally for something worthless like wireless service so I could check my blog 005or cell phone coverage so I could call Jeanne.

A few hours later at ten o’clock, having just finished a new essay and feeling very centered, focused, productive, and smug, I was poking around the hermitage bookstore thinking that I should get some exercise if the fog lifts, since I am missing a week of regular torture at the gym. Good idea. At the front of the bookstore, chatting with the register-tending monk, was a woman named Aelish (a retreat going name, if I ever heard one). “I think I’ll walk to the bottom and back later,” said Aelish. “That’s an excellent suggestion,” thought I. “I think I’ll do that this afternoon as well. Who shall descend the mountain of the Lord? Me!” Bad idea.

“Well duhhh!” I hear you saying. “Didn’t you just say that the road to the top of the mountain is two miles of switchback road climbing eighteen-hundred feet up a very steep incline? Don’t you know that what goes up must come down?” 024Yes, despite my college degrees I do know that, but I’m in reasonably good aerobic shape for a fifty-seven year old, am just about at target weight, thanks to losing a few pounds due to an eating regimen my wife put me on, and if Aelish, who is undoubtedly older than I am, can do it so can I. (Note to self: stop assuming that people with white hair are older than you are. You have white hair and undoubtedly have more wrinkles on your face than Aelish).

By early afternoon the fog had lifted, but it was still cloudy and cool—perfect weather for descending the mountain. What to wear? It had been so cool in the morning that I had put my one sweater over the one other long-sleeved garment that made it into my suitcase. 002This was my long-sleeved t-shirt, a Christmas present from my son. On the front and back it says “Sons of Belicheck” and “Foxboro,” these texts framing a picture of the Grim Reaper on the back with his sickle dripping blood held in one skeletal hand and a football in the other. Down the left sleeve it says “Men of Mayhem.” Really. You have to be both a New England Patriots fan and a follower of “Sons of Anarchy” on FX to get it. These items, along with black denim pants and my “Woof” baseball cap, and I was set. I stuffed my digital camera into my pocket and off I went.

DESCENT044

 The trip down was beautiful, the mountain rising steeply on one side with strange trees and flowering plants hanging on for dear life and the vast Pacific on the other, with spectacular rocky coast stretching in both directions. I stopped every fifty steps or so to take a picture; during one of these stops Aelish went rolling on by, throwing a nod in my direction. As I walked I wrote the last paragraph in my head of the deep and profound essay I had started last evening after Vespers, hummed the catchy tune of the 039“Te Deum” that concluded this morning’s Vigils, and was generally thankful for and pleased with my place in the universe. The muscles in the back of my calves tightened up a bit as I neared the bottom of the decline and Route 1; “I’ve heard that going downhill is harder on the legs than going up,” I thought, “so if that’s all the pain I feel, I’m in good shape.” About one hundred yards from the end of the road, I met Aelish beginning her walk back up, breathing slightly harder than when she passed me earlier. “I’ll bet I pass her on the way back up,” I thought as we nodded once again.

ASCENT050

After a brief breather at the bottom of the hill, I turned to ascend the mountain of the Lord, first taking a picture of the hermitage greeting sign on US 1 and the cross behind it (I’ve seen larger crosses on the front lawns of some of the Baptists I grew up with), as well as the sign twenty feet up the drive pleasantly 051announcing “Chapel . . . Gifts . . . 2 Scenic Miles,” with an arrow pointing straight up between “Chapel” and “Gifts.” In retrospect, it would have been more accurate to copy the saying over the gates to Hell in Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

055Have you ever noticed that the return half of a round trip to an unfamiliar destination and back always seems shorter than the first half? Not this time. Five minutes into the ascent, the bratty little kid who lives in my brain was asking “Are we there yet?” After the first switchback curve, I tried to convince myself that there were only two more of them, although I knew for sure there were four. My shins started wondering what the hell is going on, while several thousand black flies and gnats in the area got the word that copious human sweat was available and decided to check it out. The ocean vista on one side might as well have been a landfill,060 as my awareness of scenery narrowed to the apparently endless incline in front of me.

The sun, which had been taking the day off, decided that now was a good time to make its triumphant return. “Jesus Christ,” I muttered with anything but reverent intent, as I tied my sweater around my waist and rolled my “Men of Mayhem” sleeve up along with its mate on my right arm. Is that a blister forming on the end of my fourth toe on my right foot? Shit! “I can’t even call anyone if I have a heart attack,” I thought, “since I didn’t bring my phone along.” Oh wait—it wouldn’t matter, since there’s no freaking cell phone service around here065. Four very large birds starting circling high overhead—probably vultures waiting for the inevitable. “I don’t even have my wallet with me. I can see it now. They’ll find me dead in the middle of the road without identification. Someone will say ‘I think I saw him at noonday mass,’ and they’ll wonder if I left a contact number with the hermitage office for my father Belicheck, since he will probably want to know that his son croaked ascending the mountain of the Lord.”

As I rounded the last switchback and the hermitage was finally in sight, I heard a car poking up behind me, the first vehicle ascending the mountain since I began my return trip. “Want a lift?” the habit-less jeans-wearing monk driving the car asked.066 “No thanks—I can use the exercise,” I said pleasantly with a holy retreatant smile. “Go to hell,” I thought. “Where were you forty minutes ago?” Within one hundred yards of the finish line, I passed a roadside bench on which the guy who was in back of me at noon mass was sitting. “Turned out to be a beautiful day, didn’t it?” he asked. “Sure did!” I responded cheerily. “Go fuck yourself,” I thought. “You wouldn’t be so pleasant if you had just ascended the mountain of the Lord.”

031As I passed the chapel on the way to my room, Aelish emerged and smiled at me. I’m sure she had received spiritual direction, said special intentions for someone, written five letters, an essay, and done fifty pushups in the time between her return and mine. I smiled back, and thought “Go . . .” Well, you know what I was thinking. I understand now why so many of the Psalms are crabby and negative—it’s tough work ascending the mountain of the Lord. But at least I got an essay out of it.

To Whom Do You Belong?

pc-centennialDuring this academic year, my college is celebrating its centennial. For Jeanne and me, the highlight so far of a series of events scheduled to mark the anniversary has been a lecture by Doris Kearns Goodwin in October. We arrived early enough to sit in the second row, twenty feet or so from the podium, and along with a packed house were held spellbound for over an hour as our favorite historian used examples from the lives of Presidents about whom she has written best sellers—LBJ, FDR, Kennedy, and Lincoln—as the anchors of her discussion of leadership qualities. In the midst of her talk she mentioned her newest book,bully-pulpit The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Although the book was published three years ago and apparently spent several weeks at the top of the NY Times bestseller list, Jeanne and I were unaware of its existence. I ordered it from Amazon the next day, expecting that I would have to wait until Christmas break to dive into its 750 pages. But I’ve managed to sneak in the first chapter already—and it doesn’t disappoint.

I’m looking forward to reading this book because it touches on a part of American history with which I am not particularly familiar, the turn from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries described on the back cover as “the first decade of the Progressive era, that tumultuous time when the nation was coming unseamed and reform was in the air.” As I learned about the childhood and adolescence of William Howard Taft, I also learned about his father, Alphonso, a judge on the Cincinnati Superior Court bench who, from a life filled with accomplishments, picked his dissenting opinion in a case concerning prayer and the reading of the Bible in public schools as the achievement of which he was most proud. alphonsoThe court ruled that such prayer and reading could not be prohibited; in his dissent, Judge Taft wrote that “the Constitution of the State did not recognize the Christian religion any more than it recognized the religions of any other citizens of the state . . . the school board had an obligation as well as a right to keep religious partisanship out of the public schools.” Several decades later, of course, this position became the law of the land.

Judge Taft’s position reminded me of a reader’s comment posted on my blog in response to what I wrote the day before the election three weeks ago.

Life After Tuesday

The commenter wrote that

I am unclear to how a liberal Christian votes . . . if you vote according to your faith that would be voting against abortion and those things that take God out of our government, am I correct?

To which I responded:

This liberal Christian votes according to policies that seek to facilitate assistance to the poor, the homeless, the needy, the disenfranchised–exactly the persons Jesus told us that we must be most concerned about. Given the nature of separation of church and state, God does not belong in our government, but in the lives of those who profess the Christian faith. As to abortion, I describe myself as intelligently pro-life or conservatively pro-choice. Take your pick.

Never missing an opportunity to generate further blog activity, I concluded:
I must admit that I am equally unclear about how a conservative Christian votes. I’ve written about this on occasion–take a look:

The Return of Republican Jesus

There is an important difference between Christian political advocacy and Political advocacy by persons of Christian faith. I highly recommend the latter and advise strongly against the former. But this is a very difficult tightrope to walk, especially these days.

I received by far more views, shares, and comments on my post a week ago—“Who Is Their God?—than any of the several hundred I’ve written over the past four-and-a-half years.

Who Is Their God?

In response to my wondering why 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, the vast majority of the hundreds of comments on Facebook and my blog itself shared my own consternation and confusion. Many of these comments were eloquent and sobering. But there was some welcome push back, including a comment from a woman who said she believes that “being a Christian is compatible with just about any political position.”christians-and-politics I briefly expressed my complete disagreement with her claim, but she got me to thinking—always a good thing. Why exactly do I believe that my Christian faith draws me to embrace some social/political positions and reject others out of hand?

The text that I most often consider when wondering about what is required in real-time of a person seeking to live a life of faith is the prophet Micah’s directive: “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” This is from the Jewish scriptures, and Jesus may have had it in mind frequently during his years of ministry, if the gospel accounts are the least bit accurate. He regularly made it clear to those who wanted to follow him that doing so would be a life changer. rich-young-ruler“Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me,” he said to the rich young ruler (who couldn’t do it). “Go, and sin no more,” he told the woman caught in adultery. His disciples walked away from their lives as they knew them—and except for a few brief lapses, never returned to those lives. universal-acidThe life of faith is not something that can be layered on top of what one already has in place, making no significant changes to what lies beneath. Instead, such a life is like what Daniel Dennett once called “universal acid”—eating through everything one believes and transforming the ways one looks at the world.

Uncertainty, doubt, and faith are constant companions—no person of faith is ever “all set” with any collection of beliefs and commitments. But the requirements of justice, mercy, and humility are a constant litmus test for the beliefs and actions of any person who claims to be a follower of Christ. All Christians—from self-described conservative evangelicals to the most dedicated liberal progressives—should regularly apply this litmus test to their political and social commitments. A commenter on “Who Is Their God?” put it succinctly:

The upcoming events will be the opportunity for Christians to think carefully about what has happened. They will surely be confronted daily with decisions and statements that fly in the face of the gospel . . . Let’s see how long it takes for people to decide where they are on the most important question they will ever have to answer.  This is an opportunity for people to answer the question, “To whom do you belong?”  As Robert Jones in “The End of Christian America” has suggested, this may be the time for church members to understand whether they love their baggage more than they love Jesus.

What Do You Want From Your Religion?

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

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

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

Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.

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

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

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

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

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

There are also many groups of Christians for whom the Christian faith is about how to live a good and flourishing human life now; the texts and traditions of Christianity undoubtedly provide a great deal of guidance concerning how to do just that. And, as the atheist quoted at the beginning of Gary Gutting’s article provocatively points out, what one believes or does not believe concerning God need not be important for such people. sermon-on-the-mountI can (sort of) imagine, for instance, an atheist finding a great deal of direct guidance for how to live a good human life from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel without feeling obligated to sign on the dotted line concerning anything about God’s existence and nature. Such guidance, of course, can be found in all sorts of place, both religious and non-religious; one’s choice of which framework to adopt will depend largely on one’s history, personality, commitments both social and political, and simply where one finds oneself most at home.

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

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

I have noted frequently on this blog my observation over the years that, for the majority of my students, the primary benefits of being a religious believer are “comfort” and “security about what happens after I die.” That’s certainly the religious world I was raised in. are-you-savedThe people I grew up with were obsessed with “being saved,” a salvation that had a lot more to do with what happens after I die than anything that might be applicable to how to live my life today and tomorrow. As I look back five decades and more on that world, I realize that even then I was far more interested in how the religion imposed on me applied to my daily life rather than what sort of mansion I would occupy when in heaven and what sort of harp I would be playing. Truth be told, heaven sounded pretty boring to me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend eternity there. I was much more interested in whether being a Christian could help me avoid bullies, find a girlfriend, and grow up to be at least a marginally well-adjusted adult.

These days I find myself thinking about atheism a lot, not because I’m thinking of becoming one (I tried that once—it didn’t take), but because the more I realize why my faith is important to me, the more I realize that these matters of importance don’t primarily rely on my believing anything particular about God, God’s nature, or what happens after I die. I don’t know what will happen after I die, and I spend a remarkably small amount of my time thinking about it, even though the amount of days I have left on earth are far fewer than the ones I’ve already lived.  Don’t get me wrong—I believe that God exists, that God is intimately interested in relationship with human beings, and that this requires something important of me. different-faithsBut I also believe that the values and moral commitments that are closely related to my belief in God are available to persons who are of a different faith than mine or of no faith at all. If what people of faith want out of their religion is only available to people who sign on to the very specific beliefs concerning God and more that define their religion, there is little hope for dialogue with those who do not share those specific beliefs. But if, first and foremost, what I want out of my religion is guidance for how to live a good human life now, then I am looking for the very same sort of guidance that billions of other human beings seek. That gives us a lot to talk about—regardless of what we believe concerning God.

Evangelical Atheism

A couple of weeks from now I’ll be starting a new unit in my General Ethics classes with fifty juniors and seniors: Does ethics have anything to do with God? pc-catholicOn a Catholic college campus, where a significant portion of the students are products of many years of parochial school education, this is a big issue. Religious folks have been known to argue that the only possible reliable foundation for moral absolutes is belief in God, implying either implicitly or explicitly that atheistic non-believers lack any reason to be moral. Yet my students know either intuitively or through personal experience that it is entirely possible for a dedicated atheist to be a highly moral person. How does that work?

I have been a person of faith, sometimes reluctantly, for my whole life—the very existence of this blog is due to my continuing commitment to grappling with issues of faith in writing. Yet I have always been fascinated by atheism. Four years ago, my second blog post ever used Simone Weil’s comment that “Atheism is a purification” as a jumping off point, imagining how a season of atheism might be a healthy exercise for a person of faith.

A Practicing Atheist

dennett

Daniel Dennett

Several years ago when I was chair of our philosophy department I was responsible for the two-semester capstone seminar required of all our senior majors. Each year during the summer I would send the rising senior majors a list of three or four possible topics to spend the fall semester working on—one year they chose “Philosophy of Religion,” not surprising since half of the eighteen seniors were Catholic seminarians (required by the diocese to major in philosophy in their undergraduate years). Some of the seniors, particularly the seminarians, were probably surprised to see texts from avowed atheists such as Sigmund Freud, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins on the semester syllabus, but as a new professor in the theology department commented at the time, such works are “good for them” (the seminarians) to grapple with. Atheists, after all, struggle with the same issues as theists—they just do it a bit differently.

Last Sunday’s early morning episode of “On Being” with Krista Tippett on our local NPR station was an hour-long discussion of these very issues. The show was a repeat of a 2012 interview with Alain de Botton. De Botton is trained as a philosopher, but is best known as a sort of Renaissance man whose popular books include The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and Religion for Atheists. I knew I was going to enjoy the interview when it began with the following from de Botton: The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether it is true.

Alain de Botton and the School of Life

De Botton was raised in “a devoutly atheist family,” a Jewish family fully aware of the enormous suffering Jews had suffered historically and particularly in tdevout-atheisthe twentieth century, often in the name of religion. De Botton experienced in early adulthood what he described a “crisis of faithlessness,” during which he learned that there were a number of things tangentially associated with religion, including music, art, architecture, and moral guidance, that he found “incredibly interesting, fascinating, beautiful, [and] inspiring.” What’s an atheist to do?

De Botton’s story is a familiar one, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning God. While stories of people who were raised in a religious household and became atheists as adults, as well as of people raised as atheists who became religious believers as adults, are out there, the more common story is of those who are so shaped by their early years that they find it impossible, in spite of good reasons to do so, to radically change that framework as adults. De Botton occasionally implies that he wishes he could become a theist—but if there is something like a “religious gene,” he is lacking it. Knowing that the foundation of religious belief for many people is a feeling or experience, he notes that

I’ve not had this feeling . . . all I can report is that many of these bits of religion do impact me greatly. If I was different, I would be a believer, is all I can say. I can only speak from a non-believing position . . . I really don’t feel a belief in a divine being is something that rings bells with me. I’m happy to be in the atheist box, but it’s a much broader box than we might have allowed for.

The power of how one is raised cannot be overestimated. De Botton has no more natural access to what it is like to be a person of faith than I, raised in an all-encompassing religious atmosphere, can pretend to know what it would be like to frame important issues as an atheist would.

And yet, de Botton continues, atheists and persons of faith have much in common. Neither atheists nor theists are necessarily happy to hear this—each side is taught that the other is the enemy, a phenomenon encouraged by popular writers from the atheist camp such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.new-atheists De Botton reports that he is occasionally accused in emails or print of having “betrayed atheism,” professing that “I didn’t know that’s what atheism was supposed to be about, being mean to religion . . . I think there’s an image of the fierce atheist who has faith in science and ridicules all religious moments and religious impulses. I couldn’t be further from that point of view.” Instead, he argues, religion has offered and continues to offer too much of importance to be rejected out of hand even if one is an atheist.reality-and-religion

An awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them . . . I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment . . . And suddenly, that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

Even if one sets arguments awrestlingbout the existence and nature of God as well as speculation about what happens after we die aside, religion has much to offer even to the most secular person. “Religion is this long tradition of deep thinking and wrestling with the complexity of the human condition as much as about the nature of God.” How then should we live? is a human question, not a religious question. We do not come into the world knowing how to navigate the minefield of human existence—de Botton is more than happy to poach on the ideas offered by religion, just as religions have “hoovered up” the best that the secular world has to offer since the beginning. De Botton’s “School of Life,” now situated in many cities across the globe, “picks up on the idea that we need guidance, that learning how to live is not something we just do spontaneously.” At this thoroughly secular school one will hear sermons, experience what feels all the world like liturgy, and even perhaps sing some hymns, all intended to be in service to human needs that are far deeper than what religion  one belongs to (if any).  As Krista Tippett says in the interview, “What I see you doing is carving out what has been traditionally, religiously called ‘sacred space’ in secular culture.”evangelical-atheism

Toward the end of the interview, Tippett also comments that “I do feel that another religious and particularly Christian impulse that you are taking up as an atheist is that of being evangelical, which is about spreading the good news that you’ve discovered.” The good news is that “there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars we may differ about what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.” Just as many other supposedly incompatible binaries—Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, and more—atheists and religious folks need not be at permanent odds with each other. Each of us is human, sharing the same needs, hopes, and dreams that all human beings possess, no matter how we package them.