Behind the Scenes

In his lovely little book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner suggests that what we often dismiss as “coincidence” might instead, for those inclined to pause for a moment, provide evidence of something going on behind the scenes. The friend you have been out of touch with unexpectedly calls or emails just as you were thinking about her for the first time in weeks. One of your favorite authors references a text from the Jewish scriptures on page two of her new book that just arrived in the mail from Amazon, the very same text you noted as your favorite verse from the Bible in an after-church seminar the day before. “Weird,” you think—then dismiss it as a coincidence. Don’t do that, Buechner advises. Better, at least on occasion, “to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know.”

In my family, we call such unexplained coincidences “Big Bird moments,” in honor of my wife Jeanne’s brilliant decision to refer to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird” when trying to talk about things sacred with the seven- and five-year-old stepsons she inherited when she decided that I was worth taking a chance on three decades ago. I had one of these “coincidences” a couple of weeks ago, one that reminded me that, to use another favorite passage of mine from literature, “there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”big bird Although most Big Bird moments are tinged with positive and affirming energy, my most recent such “coincidence” was a sobering reminder that I should always be careful of what I am saying. Someone is listening.

After twenty-five years of teaching, my internal memory file titled “Memorable Students” is getting rather full. I have pictures of some of these students in my office, I am reminded of others when I write a reference letter for a current student and see the names of memorable students from the past as I save the Word document in a master folder full of subfolders labelled with the last names of students for whom I’ve written such letters over the years. “I wonder what she’s doing now?” I wonder. “He’s probably running his own company by now.” But there are some students who stick in my memory for no good reason other than that, like an annoying tune you hear in a television ad or an unwanted guest, they refuse to leave once they’ve gained access. Walter was one of those students (his name has been changed to protect the completely innocent).

I regularly teach in a large, interdisciplinary and team-taught course required of all freshmen and sophomores at my college; Walter was in my seminar group for both semesters of his freshman year five years ago. He was at or close to the bottom of the seminar group by every measurable standard—he didn’t participate much, wrote poorly, and bombed the midterm and final exams, skin of your teethmanaging to scrape out a passing grade both semesters by the skin of his teeth. I wanted Walter to do well, because he clearly (at least in my “expert” opinion) was out of place at our college. I also resonated with him because he was the sort of kid who undoubtedly was picked on unmercifully in primary and secondary school—skinny, painfully introverted, socially inept, a loner. I knew whereof I spoke, since I was this kid in school myself.

Walter showed up in one of my classes the next year as a sophomore, this time in a colloquium that I was teaching for the first time with a colleague from the history department (we just finished teaching this colloquium together for the third time this past semester). I was, admittedly, relieved when I saw that Walter was in my colleague’s seminar group rather than mine. “I dealt with him for two semesters last year,” I thought. “Now it’s someone else’s turn.” The capstone evaluation in this course is a half-hour oral exam with my colleague and me. We provide students prior to the exam with four questions to help them prepare, letting them choose which question to begin the conversation with on the understanding that we may touch base with some of the others as well. Students are allowed to bring notes and texts with them to the oral exam, and they always do—evidence of hours of rereading and study. oral examToward the end of the week, it was time for Wesley’s oral. He entered the room with no books and no notes; when we asked him which question he wanted to begin the conversation with, he admitted that he hadn’t really looked at any of the questions. And that was the high point of the oral—it went downhill from there. Walter whiffed at every softball my colleague and I tossed him; every answer he did attempt was built around a mumbled “I don’t know,” or “I don’t really remember that.” It was the most awkward half-hour I’ve ever spent with a student. “At least it’s not a Walter” became a code phrase between my colleague and me for “it could be a lot worse.” And except for an occasional glimpse from across the arena at a hockey game, that was the last I ever saw of Walter.

Fast forward three years to our colloquium oral exams that ended just a week ago. The room in which we were holding the orals was across from the faculty break room; my colleague and I would frequently refill our coffee cups and stretch our legs there in the ten minutes between each exam. During one break, a colleague from the English department was in the break room and asked how the orals were going. We both agreed that, overall, this set of orals was the best of the three iterations of the course over the past four years. Even those students who struggled a bit with nerves and introversion were prepared and did well. “And none of them have been a Walter,” my colleague said. In response to our English colleague’s quizzical look, I took the opportunity to describe in some animated detail over the next couple of minutes the disaster that had been Walter’s oral. It was the Platonic form of academic awfulness. If you looked up “bad oral exams” in the dictionary, the definition would be a description of Walter’s oral. NOOOWe all had a good laugh—what professor doesn’t have their “worst ever” examples of every kind of assignment?—and my colleague and I headed across the hall for the next oral exam.

Just as Walter came walking around the corner. I kid you not. It was a WTF, spit-your-coffee-out-all-over-the-wall sort of moment. I had not seen Walter in three years, and there he was seconds after I completed an over-the-top exercise in throwing him under the bus. You can’t make this shit up. My colleague and I, pretending that nothing unusual had happened, invited our next student in for her exam and proceeded in a “nothing to see here” manner. It wasn’t until the next day, in the privacy of his office, that my colleague said “Vance, what are the chances that . . .”—and we both collapsed into embarrassed laughter before he finished his question. I’m certain that Walter did not hear any of our conversation in the break room the day before—I’m not sure he even recognized me, and I have no idea of why the hell he was walking down the hall at just that moment.

But I actually think I do know why he was walking down the hall at just that moment. AYou're a losers I’ve thought about this event over the past several days, I’ve realized that Walter had become a placeholder in my imagination for the category “Loser” that I regularly criticize Donald Trump for using. Without knowing a single thing about Walter other than that he struggled academically in my classes, I had turned him into my internal definition of failure. In his discussion of “coincidence,” Frederick Buechner writes

Who can say what it is that’s going on, but I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.”

I agree. But the whisper from the wings that I heard a bit over a week ago was more like “Morgan, stop being a jackass. Never forget the most important part of the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t be a jerk.”dont be a jerk

How to know the will of God

On the recommendation of one of my colleagues, I recently read Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein. It’s hard to resist for a philosophy professor, since Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most important, yet enigmatic and difficult, philosophers of the 20th century. The Wittgensteins were fabulously wealthy, one of the most successful families in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ludwigludwig_wittgenstein[1] was the youngest of nine children; one died in her youth, and the three oldest sons committed suicide. The other remaining son, older brother Paul, was a concert pianist who lost his right arm during World War I, after which he crafted a highly successful concert career playing pieces written by the great composers of the day for the left hand only. Ludwig, Pautumblr_m35rh09mU21qb8ogko1_500[1]l, and their three remaining sisters all suffered from various psychological ailments and considered suicide at various times in their lives. The Wittgensteins were both outrageously successful and spectacularly dysfunctional.

Although considered by almost everyone other than his family who knew him to be a genius, Ludwig had a very difficult time deciding what to do with his life. Talented in engineering and mathematics, he showed great promise in the burgeoning field of aeronautics while at Cambridge University in 1911 at the age of 22. Yet his heart wasn’t in it, and Ludwig attached himself to Bertrand Russell, the most famous philosopher of his day in the English-speaking world, wondering whether philosophy might turn out to be his true passion. Despite Ludwig’s abrasive and neurotic personality, Russell humored him to the point that one day Wittgenstein asked Russell: tumblr_lyzv9vekTr1qcu0j0o1_500[1]“Will you please tell me if I am a complete idiot or not?” Russell replied, “My dear fellow, I don’t know, why are you asking me?” “Because,” Wittgenstein said, “if I am a complete idiot I shall become an aeronaut; but if not I shall become a philosopher.”

Ludwig finds himself in a predicament that all of us face at times. A choice, often an important one, must be made and we need help making it. Do I play it safe or take a risk? Do I continue on a familiar path or take “the road less traveled”? Do I end a relationship or hang in there for a while longer? In such cases we often look to someone other than ourselves for direction. Ludwig was lucky—he actually got some help. Russell told him to write something on a philosophical topic over vacation; based on what he wrote, Russell would provide his advice. Russell reports in his memoirs that after reading what Ludwig produced for one minute, “I said to him, ‘No you must not become an aeronaut.’” And he didn’t. Instead, Wittgenstein became a philosopher whose originality and influence vastly surpassed Russell’s and who set a standard in philosophy that has influenced the discipline ever since.

Given that Bertrand Russell was a dedicated and virulent atheist, it seems odd to ask Why can’t God be more like Russell? But think about it—Ludwig asked Bertrand for assistance, Russell gave it, Wittgenstein followed it—problem solved. But God doesn’t operate that way.sviatui-apostol-matii[1] A case point shows up early in the book of Acts with the case of Matthias. Who, you say? It’s a fascinating and illuminating story. Jesus chose twelve disciples, of course, but one of them turned out to be a disastrously bad choice. So early in the book of Acts, between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, the problem of replacing Judas arises—it’s apparently not cool to just have eleven disciples, although I’m not sure why, it being a prime number and all. The qualifications necessary to be the new disciple number twelve are clear. Peter says that it needs to be someone “who has accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” starting with the baptism of John all the way through seeing the risen Christ. Apparently there were dozens of good candidates; the two finalists are Justus and Matthias. Then the disciples do what might be expected—they pray for the Lord to reveal which of these two equally qualified candidates is to be the new disciple twelve.

Now if I were God, I’d honor this hard work and proper request with an appropriate answer. Justus or Matthias would get a halo, or start glowing and levitating, or a dove would descend from heaven while a voice would say “This is my beloved new disciple.” But what do the disciples do?election of Matthias icon[1] “And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias.” “Casting lots” is the biblical equivalent of rolling a pair of dice or flipping a coin. So this is like the beginning of a football game. “Call heads or tails in the air, Justus.” “Heads!” “It’s tails—Justus, thanks for playing; Matthias, you’re the new disciple. Here’s your ‘I’m A Disciple and You’re Not’ T-shirt and bumper sticker—Andrew and Bartholomew will teach you the secret handshake.” The new disciple is chosen by a flip of a coin, and everyone accepts it as the will of God. Neither Justus nor Matthias is mentioned again in Acts or anywhere else in the Bible. Weird.

But maybe not. It’s typically human to want “signs and wonders,” to look for unmistakable answers to the most important questions. But such answers are not generally available in the normal, human run of things. There are many occasions in scripture where big time miraculous answers and solutions are given in difficult predicaments—crazy Gideon with his fleeces, for instance—but the preponderance of relevant texts say something like what Moses tells the children of Israel in Deuteronomy.word is near[1] The will of God “is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven . . . nor is it beyond the sea . . . but the word is very near you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.” God has given us everything we need to address the problems in front of us. Trust what you have been given, do your homework, look at the options, then choose. And flip a coin if you have to. What’s the worst that could happen? 220px-William_James_b1842c[1]One of my favorite philosophers, William James, recommends a certain lightheartedness when making even the most important choices, a lightheartedness that I also detect in the Matthias story. “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than excessive nervousness on their behalf.” Jesus was human too, and according to Matthew his last words to us were “I am with you always.” Finding God’s will is a matter of believing that these words are true.lo_i_am_with_you_always_postcard-r315abba365ce42479f6e62065309ebf0_vgbaq_8byvr_512[1]

Trump at Liberty University

But understand this, that in the last days terrible times will come. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. II Timothy 3:1-5

Hardly the description of a person one would expect to be giving the commencement address at the largest evangelical Christian university in the world. football stadiumAnd yet there was Donald Trump—who could arguably use the Apostle Paul’s words on his resume as a self-description—a bit over a week ago on  Mother’ Day eve, speaking to the graduates at Liberty University, the Lynchburg, VA creation of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, who established the school as Liberty Baptist College almost fifty years ago. The university now has over 15,000 residential undergraduate and more than 100,000 online students. The reaction of the more than 50,000 people in attendance at the commencement held in the university’s football stadium when the President walked on stage sounded like the Beatles had just arrived. They cheered when, in his summary of Trump’s accomplishments in his first four months as President, Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. praised Trump for bombing “those in the Middle East who were persecuting Christians” (even though the expressed reason for the bombing was Syrian president Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own citizens). trump and falwell 2If anyone in the crowd disagreed with Falwell when he said that “I do not believe that any President in our lifetimes has done so much that has benefitted the Christian community in such a short time span than Donald Trump,” they kept their mouths shut.

In some ways, the President’s address was boilerplate Trump—he seldom went more than three sentences without mentioning himself, remained committed to a sixth-grade vocabulary (using his favorite adjectives “amazing” seven times and “great” twenty-seven times), spent the middle third of his talk praising Liberty’s beefed up football program, and more than once mispronounced the name of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh (calling him “Hesper”), who was the President of the University of Notre Dame for thirty-five years. His usual obsession with size was on display as he marveled at the size of the crowd, the number of graduating seniors seated on the field, that Liberty is bigger than Notre Dame, and the size of his upset victory last November. It was also a boilerplate commencement speech, complete with invitations for the graduates to applaud their thanks to their parents, appeals to patriotism, the perfunctory thanks to those in the military for their sacrifice and service, conanphrases such as “the greatest adventure of your life” and “demand the best from yourself,” stories of people overcoming obstacles to achieve success, and no warnings about the fact that the lives the graduates were undoubtedly imagining for themselves going forward almost certainly will not turn out as they expect. In many ways, the President’s address was exactly like ninety-nine percent of all commencement addresses—completely forgettable.

But woven into Trump’s rambling remarks were regular references to something that has been a conservative Christian theme for some time—the perception that Christians are under attack. This was not Trump’s first visit to Liberty University. When speaking at the university’s convocation in January 2016, then candidate Trump was clearly still searching for his sea legs trying to speak the language of the conservative Christian. He referred to his favorite Bible verse in “Two Corinthians,” for instance; critics suggested that someone might have wanted to tell him that the proper reference is two corinthians“Second Corinthians” in preparation for speaking before a crowd of Bible-toting evangelicals. Trump’s commencement address showed that the President can learn a few new tricks—his speech was filled with the code words and phrases that evangelical Christians recognize as marking one of their own. Predicting that the graduates would be “warriors for truth . . . for our country, and for your family,” Trump frequently challenged the graduates to be “true champions,” suggesting that Liberty University’s creed is “to be, really, champions for Christ” (the banner behind the podium said “Liberty University: Training Champions for Christ since 1971”). Over and over the President challenged the graduates to embrace the role of “Outsider,” an odd role to assign to evangelical Christians, since the latest Pew Research data reveals that 25.4% of Americans are evangelical Protestant Christian, the single largest religious group in the nation. Trump promised the graduates that as long as he is president, “no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart.religious freedom We will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to God and to follow his teachings”—as if the thousands of evangelical Christians in the audience were regularly being denied any of those things.

Evangelical Christians voted for Trump in November in massive numbers, as responsible for his electoral college victory as any other single demographic. There were undoubtedly many reasons why they voted for a man who has regularly and publicly said and done things that are a disgrace and affront to even the most basic Christian principles throughout his adult life; one of these reasons is that Trump’s packaging of reality in an aggressively “Us vs. Them,” “Winners and Losers” framework fits the evangelical’s natural disposition to imagine faith as something to be defended and protected against all manner of perceived threats. I am very familiar with this version of Christianity—it is the one in which I was raised. I learned at a very early age that Christians are involved in a cosmic war between the forces of good and those of darkness—we talked a lot about “spiritual warfare.”christian warrior

How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

Fast and Slow

My college’s commencement is this coming Sunday; Pentecost is two weeks after that. How might they tie together?

When my sons were young, one of the most important distinctions in their estimation, when food was the issue, was “is it fast or slow food?” In other words, how much of my important schedule is this eating event going to take up? Fast food—McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Burger King if going out; fish sticks, hot dogs, sandwiches if staying in—was obviously preferred. Slow food—any place where you have to sit down and wait if going out; anything involving more than five minutes of preparation time and that you would not be consuming in front of the television if eating in—was acceptable only if given sufficient warning. Going out to a slow food restaurant required preparation, including which coloring books to bring, psychological calming techniques, a consideration of the expected guest list, and so on.

The first slow food event that Jeanne and the boys ever attended together—Thanksgiving dinner 1987 with my parents and me at the Wort Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming—was such a slow food event that Jeanne finally walked into the kitchen to find out why the hell the food was taking so long. My sons were impressed that any human being would have the nerve to do such a thing. They were not the only persons impressed that night, though. Jeanne still speaks on occasion about how remarkable it was that these two kids, eight and six, managed to keep themselves occupied without fidgeting or complaint for a much longer period of time than any human being should be required to wait for food. That’s only because they knew how to prepare.

A few years ago, in his greeting to the thousands of people gathered for Providence College commencement at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, the President of the college gave one last reading assignment to the graduating seniors. “You must read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman,” Father Shanley said. In this book,  Kahneman distinguishes between two types of thinking that all of us come equipped with as human beings. Fast thinking, on the one hand, is the intuitive, almost unconscious way that we tend to make quick, snap judgments about events, people, choices, and even our life paths. Relying on emotion, memory, and hard-wired rules of thumb, much of our daily existence runs on fast thinking autopilot. Slow thinking, on the other hand, is much more deliberate, conscious, attentive, self-aware, and, well, slower. One of the book reviewers on’s site for this book writes that “The human mind is a hilariously muddled compromise between these incompatible modes of thought.”

Most of us rely on fast thinking most of the time, even though we know that such thinking is often inaccurate and shot through with bias and prejudice. The question is, Why do we do it? At least on the surface, the answer clearly is “It’s easier.” Slow thinking laboriously checks the facts against the appearances, critically evaluates information, but is extraordinarily lazy and easily distracted. Our slow thinking self is more than happy to turn things over to fast thinking simply because it conserves time and effort. Why take the time to consider the relevant details and nuances of a political candidate’s positions when it is so much quicker and easier to label her as a “conservative,” a “liberal,” a “socialist,” or a “tea-partier” and move on? Why expend the effort to actually get to know this new colleague or neighbor when it is much simpler to label him as “one of them” and go to lunch?

When the stakes are higher, when one’s spiritual health and growth are the issue, the fast and slow distinction becomes far more than an interesting topic of conversation. Is the Christian life more like fast or slow food? Is it more like McDonald’s or the Capital Grille? The Christian narrative is full of fast food events–Pentecost, Christmas, Easter–instant gratification events at the heart of belief that are so filling and satisfying that one could imagine that this is the exclusive food that fuels the life of faith. Each of us has had our own fast food, Big Bird moments, times when the veil between the mundane human and glorious divine is pierced, even for a moment, in some unforgettable way. What more does one need?

Plenty. Will Pentecost be enough to sustain those who experienced it when, weeks or months later, they are alone in chains waiting for torture or execution? Will your most spectacular Big Bird moment from the past be enough to get you through the stress of parenting, the tragedy of loss, a divorce, a lost job, an illness, or simply the daily grind? If slow food is analogous to delayed gratification, then much—probably most—of the life of faith is slow food. Waiting, attending, struggling, just being, all the time wondering if you are ever going to get food again. That conversion experience, that healing, that moment that you vibrated with the presence of God are all distant memories. And one cannot eat memories.

Our fast thinking selves, applied to the spiritual life, decide that an occasional trip to the McDonald’s of faith is good enough. A few milestones, both doctrinal and personal, become the sole sustenance of faith, bolstered by some quick and easy rules of thumb and prescribed ways of behaving. Go to church, say your prayers, maybe read your Bible on occasion. Our slow thinking selves are willing to concede that this has to be enough, because what else is there?

The answer lies in some of the food analogies that Jesus uses in the Gospels. “I am the bread of life,” he said. “He who believes in me shall never hunger.”  “Whoever drinks the water I will give them will never be thirsty again,” he tells the Samaritan woman at the well. The message of Pentecost completes the Incarnation story—God, in the form of the Holy Spirit is in us. The source of life, the food we need, is not in the fast food of events, of churches, nor is it in the slow food of waiting interminably for something to happen. It is in the regular, daily supply of nourishment that is in us “a well of water, springing up into everlasting life.”

Many of the hymns related to the Holy Spirit—“Spirit Divine, Attend Our Prayers,” “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove,” “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”–all appear to be petitions for God to show up, to pay attention. But Big Bird hasn’t gone anywhere—she is in us all the time. These texts call us to attentiveness, to remembrance, to awareness that we have been provided with all the food we need. It’s just a matter of consuming it, because it is never used up.

Several years ago, during my first visit to Paris for a conference, I walked the city as much as time would allow. And for once I saw first-hand that a common stereotype is true. Parisians really do walk down the street holding a cell phone to one ear while carrying a baguette under their arm. Tearing off and eating a piece while walking down the sidewalk is as habitual to them as breathing. Maybe that’s how the life of faith should be. We don’t have to go shopping for the bread of life at either a fast or slow food establishment. It’s with us all the time. Take a bite. It’s really good.

This is what you are afraid of

In an early, first-season episode of The West Wing (the best television show ever), presidential speech writer Sam Seaborn is attracted to Mallory, a fifth-grade teacher who happens to be the daughter of White House chief of staff Leo McGarry. Sam_and_MallorySam has managed to offend Mallory unintentionally, and wants to let her know what he really thinks about teachers.

Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

From your words to God’s ears, Sam. If teachers ruled the world . . .

I have taught for close to a quarter-century as a non-Catholic at a college run by the Dominican Catholic order. I’ve raised eyebrows on occasion with my students by telling them that I consider teaching to be a vocation, a calling, in much the same way that the Dominicans walking around campus in their white robes believe themselves “called” to be priests. I did not know that I was born to be a teacher until I became one—I’m one of those immensely fortunate people who, if independently wealthy, would do what they do for a living for nothing (don’t tell payroll at my college). Of vocatiBuechneron, Frederick Buechner writes that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The classroom is where the divine is most likely, against all odds, to occasionally enter the world through the very flawed and cracked vehicle called “me.” Sometimes it actually happens.

I spent the last two weeks running half-hour oral final exams with sixty-four of my students from three of my classes. These oral exams are time consuming, exhausting, and a complete joy. Many of my colleagues, as well as most of my non-academic friends and acquaintances, think I’m insane to inflict such torture on myself when I could do the more traditional thing and have my students write their final an a two-hour blue book event. But I learn more about what each student has learned, what they don’t know, and what they will take from the class from a thirty minute conversation than I ever could in any amount of writing under pressure. The orals this past week were for the students in a colloquium that I taught this semester for the third time with a close friend and colleague from the history department. The colloquium was “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era.” The conversations were revealing, sometimes touching, and often wandered in unexpected and interesting directions.

One of the last oral exams of the week was with a student whose performance throughout the semester had been solid—steady seminar participation (despite obvious introversion), regular commitment to weekly intellectual notebook entries, a strong formal paper, and perfect attendance. otherThis student is part of a demographic that is viewed by many people with mistrust, suspicion, often even with fear. This demographic is, for some, the very definition of the scary “Other.” At the end of the half hour, the student handed my colleague and me each a small envelope with our name on it. Both of us have been teaching for many years and are used to occasionally receiving thank you notes from students at the end of the semester. The envelope was kind of thick—“Maybe there’s money in it!” I said. I read the folded note inside the card at lunch. With only a few edits to remove identifying characteristics, here’s what I read.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you so much for teaching this course. I am very grateful that I was able to be a part of your class because it truly changed my outlook on life, and my life in general. Before enrolling in this course, I wanted to take a class that would be meaningful especially in a changing political climate filled with hate. I told myself that I wanted to learn how it was possible to still have hope in such a horrible time. That’s what I told myself, but really I wanted to know why people were filled with so much hate, hate for me. . . . I want you to know the impact that you each had on my life. Thank you for teaching the rest of my peers how I am often excluded from people’s moral communities, bringing me into your moral community, and acknowledging that I am human too.

This course, although it showed what length hate can go to, taught us how much more powerful love is. That love conquers all, that there will always be people willing to help, people who love, and people who care. People like yourselves, who advocate for people like myself. Before this class, I was faithless because I always struggled to believe in a God and Christianity. But I must admit, you taught me to have faith, something that I had never known before. A unique faith, but one which has made the most sense to me. A faith rooted in love and justice and one that is rooted in the message of Jesus Christ. You taught me that suffering is a part of life, but that suffering has an end. There is no suffering which I cannot bear. You taught me that an afflicted person will always have a part of their personhood that can never be taken away from them. You taught me not to hate those who hate me. You taught me to see beyond good and evil. In all this I realized that hate is inevitable and even the people with the best intentions can be blinded by it. However, in reality people are good at heart. You most importantly taught me tools to resist hate and help others who fall victim. I will always remember this class. Thank you for being more than professors, you were truly healers.

And that, my friends, is why I am a teacher.

Our Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough


The last two weeks of my General Ethics class were spent on issues of gun violence, perhaps the most frustrating contemporary issue on the syllabus. As we discussed the issue from various angles, I was reminded that on the day after the San Bernardino massacre a year an a half ago, I posted the following in frustration on my Facebook page:

I’m tired–really tired–of hearing people say and seeing them write that “my thoughts and prayers are with” the victims of the latest mass shooting. God isn’t going to fix this, and the victims don’t need our prayers. They need us to f__king do something about the gun insanity in this country. just another dayUntil then, as a BBC headline said today, massacres such as today’s will be “Just Another Day in the United States.”

My post was prompted by an avalanche of “my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families” sentiments in social media and from every corner of politics, as candidates for President fell over each other in the race to express the sincerity of their thoughts and prayers before those of their opponents. Given the cheapness of thoughts and prayers disconnected from actual action, I was not impressed.

Not surprisingly, my post generated more activity than perhaps any Facebook message I have ever written, comments ranging from mere “likes” and brief sentences of agreement to pushback of various sorts. One person suggested that we should pay more attention to the fact that gun violence is significantly lower in this country than it was twenty years ago; instead of wringing our hands over the violence that remains, we should study carefully what we have done right in the last twenty years and continue to do likewise (this comment set off a different, very volatile discussion that I did not participate in). 2nd amendmentSomeone else wanted to know if I believe in the Second Amendment (I do, but not interpreted as unlimited license to bear arms in whatever amount and of whatever kind one chooses). But given that the main concern energizing my post was the cavalier attitude behind offering impotent and ineffective prayers in response to random bloodshed and not a debate about gun control, what caught my attention most came from a friend whose faith perspective is of the sort in which I was raised.

  • Friend: How about this. Instead of each of us approaching this problem with our own fix, we all as Christian people pray that the light of Christ shine on this country and the world so all can see the truth for what it is. Most people don’t want this. To see the truth is painful. The light of Christ exposes all things hiding in dark places including ourselves.
  • Me: With millions of people praying for this every day and the problem getting worse, what would you suggest? I’m a Christian and I’m also a pragmatist—too many people are hiding behind the defense of “we’re praying for change” while never spending an ounce of effort actually trying to make it happen.
  • Friend: You missed it. I’m not talking about praying for change. I’m talking about praying that the light of Christ will shine! If Jesus is truly the light of the world, then no dark thing can be hidden from it. Everything would be seen for what it really is.
  • Me: True—but my question still stands. The Bible says God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That’s a lot more than just praying for the light of Christ to shine.

This was the sort of conversation that could have gone on indefinitely with each of us talking past each other and making no connection. Fortunately, another Facebook acquaintance jumped in and said clearly what I should have said.

  • Facebook acquaintance: God works through us, not instead of us. We are the physical manifestation of God and, while prayers do help us see and hear what must be done, we are the ones who must do it. The God you are praying to is waiting for you to be the light you are praying to shine. How does your Jesus shine light into the world if not by you?

This brought to mind a favorite passage from Joan Chittister, one that I arrive at frequently when I take the time to wonder what being a person of faith might actually require of us rather than mere facile verbiage.joan chittister

Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

As long as persons of faith believe that “my thoughts and prayers are with you” is an appropriate response to anything, let alone the tragedy of mass violence, we wait in vain for the coming of the kingdom of God for which many of us robotically pray in the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. I have often wondered how it is that faith commitment so frequently over time becomes nothing more than rote phrases and habitual practices; the most obvious answer is that it happens in the same way that intelligent commitment platitudeis reduced to bumper sticker platitudes in any human endeavor. It happens because real commitment is difficult and cuts far deeper than the simplified ways we construct to make it through our days, weeks, months and years intact.

It is worthwhile to pay close attention to the ways in which the divine, according to the Christian narrative, reportedly chose to insert itself into our human reality. It never happens in easily be the changeidentifiable ways or in events so spectacular that even the densest person would have to admit that “yes, that’s God at work.” Instead God enters the world through the pregnancies of a woman past child-bearing years and of a virgin, in private communications that only one person is privy to, and ultimately through a helpless baby in a manger surrounded by animals. This is good news, because it says that each of us—no matter how insignificant and powerless—can be the vehicle of divine change. But as it was in the stories, so it is now. We have to decide to be that change. We have to say “be it unto me according to your word.” This requires a lot more than thoughts and prayers.

Does God Love Diversity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy in a Minor Key


At some point early in their musical training, all serious musicians are introduced to the “circle of fifths,” a handy chart that maps out the complicated but fascinating relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, as well as the associations between the major and minor keys.I was fortunate to have Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard, as my piano teacher from age four to eleven—she was a stickler for theory and precision and had a large poster of the circle of fifths on the wall of her studio. I was immediately fascinated—it looked like a labyrinth or something out of The Lord of the Rings, and as I was gradually introduced to the twelve major keys, the twelve related minors, and their harmonic relationships I was able to trace geometrically on the chart the harmonies I had been hearing in my head for as long as I could remember.

Recently the following from Richard Powers’ Orfeo got me to thinking about the major and minor keys in a new way.

There’s joy in a minor key, a deep pleasure to be had from hearing the darkest tune and discovering you’re equal to it.

MajorMinor1A lot can be learned from the major and minor keys that is applicable to everyday life. Traditionally the major keys have been described as “bright, extroverted, upbeat” and so on, while the minor keys are “introspective, complex, sad” or even “depressing.” Yet the circle of fifths shows that each major has its relative minor that is only one note different—a note that makes all the difference. Powers, who is a classically trained musician, is noting something important about the minor keys—they are rich and evocative in ways with which the brighter and more popular majors cannot compete. Yet the dividing line between major and minor is razor thin—if we are to pay proper attention to the music of our lives, understanding how major and minor interweave is crucial.

I had the opportunity to explore this with “Living Stones,” the adult Christian education group that I lead after church once a month, one Sunday last summer after the morning service. I was doing double duty, as I was also organist that morning,003 alternating with the organist emeritus every other week through the summer as the church was searching for a new full-time music minister. The fifteen or so regulars have a wide range of experience with music (or lack of same), so I presumed no prior knowledge. Gathering in the choir stalls by the organ rather than in our usual location, I oriented them to the major/minor distinction by suggesting that in the cycle of liturgical seasons, Easter and Christmas are major key seasons while Advent and Lent are minor key seasons. We moved then to a listening exercise, as I played first My country“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” our closing hymn for the morning because of it being July 4th Sunday, in F minor rather than its original F major, then a representative minor key hymn, “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee,” in G major rather than its original G minor. As the Living Stoners compared the new keys to the hymn texts, they agreed that major is appropriate for the first hymn than minor and minor more appropriate to the second than major. Different texts require different tunes—and so it goes with the chapters and texts of our lives.

The Book of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures is a case in point. The story is familiar. Job, “a man blameless and upright . . . who feared God and shunned evil,” is the topic of conversation between God and Satan, “the accuser.” In response to God’s “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth,” Satan replies “Well duh! You give him everything he wants and you have built a protective hedge around him.” After God agrees to remove the hedge at Satan’s suggestion just to see what happens, Job’s flocks, crops, Job-wife1servants and children are swept away within six short verses and one of the greatest texts on the dynamic of suffering is underway.

The drama of Job is relentless, with his suffering unaddressed by his apparently well-meaning friends and his less than supportive wife. Underlying it all is Job’s insistence that his suffering and pain is not justified in any sense that he (or any other human being) can understand. It is clear that he will not “curse God and die,” as his wife advises him to do—his commitment to his God is unshakeable. “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him.” Job’s commitment, however, is neither passive nor facile. He wants answers and challenges a silent God to provide them. With very few exceptions, the Book of Job is entirely written in a minor key; the message of Job is that sometimes minor keys do not get resolved into major keys. Sometimes the text of one’s life demands a minor key; simply “waiting it out” or longing for it to be something it is not is to rob oneself of the richness and depth that only minor harmonies can provide.

0_21_0706_stockdaleWhen God finally does respond to Job’s questions and challenges, it is in a way that on the surface, at least, is entirely unsatisfactory to our contemporary sense of fairness and justice. God does not provide any reasons for Job’s misfortunes, nor does God explain himself. Rather, God makes clear in a lengthy soliloquy that he does not have to explain himself at all. As Admiral James Stockdale once described God’s response to Job, “I’m God and you’re not. This is my world—either deal with it or get out.”

It’s a tough message for our modern sensibilities, but is far closer to the reality of the world we find ourselves in than the stories we tell ourselves about “things working out in the end” or “justice will prevail.” Whatever value there is in suffering cannot lie in hopes for its removal or resolution. Yet we continue to try. jobs-restorationThere is nothing hokier or more forced than to resolve a composition from a minor key to its accompanying major in the last measure of the piece. But this is precisely what we find at the end of Job. In the final verses of the last chapter, after Job has been subdued by the divine display of power and superiority, Job magically gets everything back—children, flocks, servants, lands—and even his useless “comforters” and unhelpful wife get told off by God. “And they lived happily ever after,” in other words. I learned from one of my theology colleagues a number of years ago that these closing verses are not in the oldest texts of Job, but were apparently added in several decades or even centuries later.

Why? I asked my group. Why would someone want to change the original minor key story of Job, resolving it to a major key in the last measure? “Because the original ending is too tough,” someone suggested. “Because people want to believe that the suffering has a point, that it is all for something,” another thought. Which makes the better story? The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something Living Stoner said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. If there is meaning in the minor key movements of my life’s symphony, it has to be in the movement, not because the final movement will return to a joyful major key. The major keys ride the waves, but the minor keys plumb the depths, depths that give a life its richness and texture.lean forward As Richard Powers suggests, there is joy and satisfaction to be found in the midst of the suffering, a joy that is largely unavailable in any other context.

A couple of years ago, MSNBC (the only 24-7 news channel I can stomach, and even that not for very long) had a new ad campaign: Lean Forward. Out of context, it made little sense. Lean forward to what? But in the minor keys of our lives, “lean forward” or “lean in” is far better advice than “hold your breath and wait it out.” The purpose of the minor keys is not to provide a temporary alternative to majors. Rather, as another ad campaign many years ago suggested, sometimes minor harmonies are the most important threads in “the fabric of our lives.”

A Compassionate Capitalist

Anne Lamott is one of my favorite authors; perhaps the best compliment I have ever received is when a friend and colleague told me that my writing on my blog reminds him of Lamott’s writing. So when her latest book, Hallelujah Anyway, arrived from Amazon a few days ago, I immediately started reading. I was pleased to read on page two that one of her go to people in times of confusion and uncertainty is a touchstone that she shares with me–the Old Testament prophet Micah. michaIn Anne’s imagination, Micah “must have looked like a complete stoner or a Game of Thrones extra and smelled like a goat,” but he asks a simple a profound question that I have never been able to shake since I heard it in Sunday school decades ago. What does the Lord require of you?  Sometimes it helps to make the question even more specific, especially in times of economic inequality and injustice: What are the responsibilities of those who have to those who do not have?

This simple question drives much of the debate between competing economic systems—it becomes even more pressing when placed in the of faith. Comparatively speaking, most of us fall into the category of “haves,” fair marketyet we know that in our very communities there are those who are “have nots,” those who do not have regular shelter and do not know where their next meal is coming from. My students and I frequently talk  about the strange and peculiar strategy God has chosen to spread divinity throughout our troubled world, a strategy that hands the responsibility for bringing God into the world completely to us. In a continuing incarnational plan, God chooses to engage with the world in human form.

So the question “What does the Lord require of us?” takes on even greater importance since for all intents and purposes, we are it. I have the opportunity to use one of my favorite New Testament texts in seminar every fall with largely parochial-school educated freshmen who are under the false impression that they pretty much know everything that they need to know about the Bible. In this text, one of Jesus’ parables, you have this crazy vineyard owner who pays everyone the same daily wage no matter how long they have worked, from a full day’s labor to just an hour or so. The workers aren’t unionized, it is clearly a “supply and demand” and “hire and fire at will” situation, so what is going on? What is this vineyard owner up to? My students bristle at his apparently cavalProt work ethicier attitude toward the rule that people should be paid in proportion to the amount of work that they do, a rule so ingrained in our Western, Protestant-work-ethic assumptions that any apparent violation is not only a mistake, it’s an economic crime. “This guy sounds like a socialist!” several of my students complained, as if that in itself was a devastating argument against how the vineyard owner is choosing to distribute wages. And on the surface, at least, these students had a point.

The situation described has a very contemporary feel to it. People out of work gather at an agreed location in the hope that they will be one of the few picked when bosses with work available arrive at the crack of dawn. Those looking for work might not have proper documentation, might be illegal immigrants—whatever their situation, they are not blessed with the security of regular employment. The vineyard owner or his representatives arrive at dawn, agree with the handful selected to work on the wages that will be paid for a day’s labor, and those who are not selected are left unemployed for yet another day. But the harvest is ready to be gathered, and the owner returns every three hours, at 9:00, at noon, and at 3:00, hiring more workers each day Even at 5:00, a few more are grabbed from the marketplace to help make a final push in grape-harvesting for the final hour of the work day.

Only when wages are paid do things get really interesting. We know what the vineyard owner does—he pays all of the workers the same amount of money, no matter how long they worked. Why does he do this? Is it because, as my students suspected, he has bought into a social and economic experiment that forces him to pay everyone the same, no matter how hard or long they have worked? No—when he responds to the complaining laborers who have worked all day and have just been paid the same amount of money paid to the one hour people, it is clear that this is no economic innovator or radical:

my own propertyFriend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?

In the vineyard owner’s world, contracts mean something. This is what we agreed to—this is what is going to happen. And in the vineyard owner’s world, the profits from his vineyard are not common property—they are his property. He’s a first century capitalist through and through.

So why does he distribute wages in such a non-capitalistic way? In the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the kingdom that it is the responsibility of all of us who profess to follow Jesus to establish on earth now, familiar rules are not eliminated. kingdomRather, they are transformed. With Kingdom of Heaven eyes, he sees something more important than profit—he sees that at the most basic level, all human beings share the same needs. A daily wage is meant to meet daily needs—and each person has these needs regardless of how long they work. The vineyard owner never asks why his workers were unemployed, nor does he ask why some of them never were available for work until late in the day. These details simply do not matter. What does matter is that each of the workers at the end of the day needs the same things, and the vineyard owner chooses to satisfy those needs out of his own money. In the opinion of those who worked all day, they deserved more than those who came late. In the eyes of the landowner, all deserve a daily wage because all have the same needs. It turns our expectations upside down and violates our comfort zone. But that’s how things work in the Kingdom of God. The more you own, the more opportunity you are provided to give it away.

After asking his powerful question—What does the Lord require of us?—the prophet Micah provides an answer so direct, so seemingly simple, that it always jerks me up short. He has showed you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6 8The genius of the vineyard owner in the parable is that he is an embodiment of Micah’s directive. The vineyard owner embodies humility because although technically the profits from the vineyard belong to him, he understands that everything we have is a gift, and that the only possible response to such generosity is to channel the generosity outward. He understands that justice is never spread evenly in terms of talents, wealth, abilities or anything else—it is our responsibility to create, just as he does at the end of the work day, a world in which all human needs are responded to equally, regardless of which humans have the needs. And he is merciful because he sees his laborers not as necessary cogs in the money-making machinery, but fellow human beings with whom, at least for this day, he can share his abundance willingly and liberally. Justice. Mercy. Humility. That’s what the Lord requires of us. Let’s give it a shot.