Tag Archives: Albert Camus

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.

Two Plus Two Makes Four

In J. M. Coetzee’s strange and fascinating novel The Childhood of Jesus, the precocious child David has a difficult time understanding numbers. Oh, he knows their names but is not inclined to put them in the order that the rules of mathematics specify. Nor is he inclined to accept the rules guiding any accepted human behavior—he wants to live in a world in which things are valuable and right to the extent that he likes them, and he is not willing to arrange numbers in the proper sequence that everyone agrees upon. After one too many patient attempts to steer David toward conformity, his guardian Símon sputters coetzee“The answer to all your Why? questions, past, present and future is: Because that is the way the world is. The world was not made for our convenience, my young friend. It is up to us to fit in.”

This business of knowing when to fit in and when to creatively resist expectations is a lifelong challenge that all of us grapple with on a daily basis. At the heart of that challenge lie questions so fundamental that they literally shape our reality. Is the search for truth more like a treasure hunt or a creative, artistic process? Is meaning something to be found or to be made? Tentative answers to these questions frame one’s encounter with both oneself and the outside world. As Plato famously suggested, it is difficult to imagine meaning as the target of an open search, since I won’t know if I’ve discovered the goal of the search unless I already have a sense of what I’m looking for. But if meaning is something that each of us creates throughout the process of our lives, what hope is there for shared meaning, for truths that are not just mine but everyone’s in common?

Although both by nature and philosophical preference I am more of a “creative process” than “treasure hunt” sort of person when it comes to engagement with meaning and truth, I spent a recent semester exploring a seminal text in philosophy written by one of the most eloquent advocates of the “treasure hunt” model in the Western tradition. Plato’s Republic is, among many other things, an extended development of the idea that Truth is objective, that meaning is something to be found, not created, and that enlightenment is a life-long process of being freed from the clutches of our ego-driven subjective “truths” in order to slowly discover what “Truth” really is. plato geometryPlato’s paradigm for Truth is mathematics, a discipline that with its objective principles and rules exposes the truth-seeker to a world in which what is true is not up to me but is available to those who are willing to commit themselves to “the sight of the Truth.” Plato makes an extended argument that moral values and virtues properly understood exhibit the precision, certainty and objectivity of mathematics. Indeed, mathematics is Plato’s exemplar of the nature of truth; he insisted that only those who love geometry could enter his Academy, because it is through study of mathematics that one becomes accustomed to the nature of all truth.

If my students in this class—actually, over the past twenty-five years—are an accurate sampling, Plato’s commitment to the objectivity of truth is strongly opposed to our contemporary intuitions. As I often do, I introduced the problem early in the semester with a simple question about a couple of basic truth claims. I wrote two sentences on the board,Mona_Lisa

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

then asked for observations about what makes these truth claims different. Within short order the students point out that A is objectively true (as are all mathematical truths), while B is subjectively true (as are all aesthetic claims). If someone denies the truth of A, we assume that either that person doesn’t know the basic rules of arithmetic, is deliberately being a contrarian, or simply is nuts. If someone denies the truth of B, however, no problem—there’s a reason why we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” after all.

Then I move to the point of the exercise by writing a third truth claim on the board.values

C. X is right (good) and Y is wrong (bad).

X and Y can be anything that people are inclined to make value judgments about. I simply ask “Is C more like A or like B?’ When we venture into the realm of moral truth claims, in other words, have we entered a realm more like mathematics or art? Objective or subjective? Finding or creating? In twenty-five years of teaching, students have overwhelmingly given the same answer—moral truth claims and judgments are more like B than A. Morality is subjective rather than objective, in other words. In my Plato’s Republic class last semester, only two students out of twenty-five present claimed that moral claims are objectively true—and they were both Catholic seminarians.

moral-disagreementWhen I asked the other twenty-three students—many of whom were the products of Catholic primary and secondary education—why they bundled moral and value truth claims together with aesthetic claims as subjective, most zeroed in on the problem of moral disagreement. Essentially their argument was that since people disagree significantly across the board about every moral issue imaginable, and given the apparent absence of any authoritative perspective from which it could be judged who is right and who is wrong, moral disagreement looks a lot more like the Mona Lisa squabble than whether two plus two equals four or five. The real problem is that, unlike mathematics, there is no working and accepted objective standard to which one can appeal when trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong in a moral disagreement. Rather than do the difficult and challenging work of seeking objective standards, it is much easier to assume there are no such standards in morality (except perhaps extreme tolerance) and place moral truth claims in the subjective category. We get to create them ourselves without being answerable to an objective standard—because there isn’t any such standard. Let the discussion begin.

the plagueIn The Plague, a central and early text in another one of my recent classes, Albert Camus raises the possibility that despite the apparent subjectivity of moral claims, there comes a time when one must hang on to moral commitments with the tenacity of two plus two equals four.

Again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.

Here the narrator of The Plague is commenting on the “sanitation squads” in the novel who, rather than hiding from an apparently random and incurable plague that is sweeping across their city, taking the lives of hundreds of their fellow citizens per day, choose to embrace the basic moral task of facing the danger head on, putting their own lives at risk in the service of making the suffering of others slightly less intense and their environment slightly less dangerous. When asked why they have taken on such a thankless task, the members of the sanitation squad always answer with mathematical simplicity. Some things just need to be done. And sometimes what needs to be done is as obvious as the truth of two plus two equals four. the white rose“But what you are doing may very well lead to your death,” someone might object. “So be it.”

Camus’ point is strengthened significantly when considering that The Plague is not just a powerful work of fiction but is also a multi-layered allegory. Published in 1947, the bulk of the novel was written during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, with the various characters in the novel representing the different reactions of French citizens to totalitarianism, the loss of their freedoms, and the extermination of undesirables. kolbeThose who, as did the sanitation squads, chose to address the Nazi plague in the face of overwhelming odds of failure are those who recognized that even in a moral world turned upside down, sometimes the truth and what is right are as obvious as a simple sum in arithmetic. We studied a number of such people during my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium; many of them—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the members of the White Rose, Maximillian Kolbe, and others—lost their lives for daring to insist that two plus two makes four, just as Camus described. But that doesn’t change the fact that even in the world of morals and values, some things are as clear as mathematical truths. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Fear Itself

Long security lines at O’Hare airport. A plane falls out of the sky flying from Paris to Cairo, possibly the result of a terrorist attack. What do we want–freedom or security? I wrote about this last December . . .

Last Monday a segment of one of the NPR shows I listen to frequently was dedicated to the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, particularly focused on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “day that will live in infamy” speech to Congress and the nation that followed the attack on December 7th, 1941. FDR first inauguralDuring the segment, the person being interviewed mentioned a well-known passage from another of FDR’s speeches, his First Inaugural Address in 1933.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

In this speech, Roosevelt was drawing his listeners’ attention particularly to the economic fear that paralyzed the nation during the Great Depression. But his words have direct application to our country at the end of 2015—the greatest thing we have to fear is not ISIS, Muslims, immigrants, liberals, conservatives, global warming, Donald Trump, or any of the other people or things that we obsess endlessly about. It is fear itself.

fear notThere is a reason why the first thing angels say when showing up in various places in scripture invariably is “Fear Not.” Because when forced to choose between freedom and safety, human beings invariably prefer the latter. What do people want more, freedom or security? There is an exercise I do with my students frequently when this question comes up in class that never fails to be illuminating, an exercise that begins with my telling them a story. Just four short weeks after 9/11, I was scheduled to give a conference paper in Fort Lauderdale; as it turned out, almost half of the thirty or more scheduled speakers cancelled because they did not feel safe getting on a plane. Security was very tight at the airport in Providence, but I particularly remember the airport in Fort Lauderdale for our return flight. We arrived three hours earlier than we would have normally and needed every bit of those three hours to get through beefed-up security. There were soldiers in uniform with automatic weapons everywhere in the terminal, the security line was moving at a snail’s pace—and no one was complaining. security linesIndeed, many people went out of their way to thank the soldiers and security personnel for their service and for “keeping us safe.”

“Suppose,” I ask my students, “you wanted to fly home today and it took you more than three hours to get through security at the Providence Airport. What would your reaction be?” “I’d be pissed!” most of them say. What’s the difference between my experience in October 2001 and now? “People didn’t feel safe then, and they do now.” The takeaway from the exercise, without fail, is that freedom and all of that is great, wonderful, and at the center of our core values—until we don’t feel safe. When we think we are threatened or “under attack,” all bets are off—we are willing to set our core values aside in exchange for guarantees of security. And we will flock to the support of any person or persons who claim to have a strategy for keeping us safe. I am not in the classroom this semester because I am on sabbatical, but if I ran this exercise now, my guess is that students might be more tolerant of beefed-up security before a plane ride home. In the wake of an uninterrupted series of mass killings both abroad and in this country over the past several weeks, we are approaching that tipping point from freedom to security.fear and ignorance Iris Murdoch once said that one of the best questions a person can ask is “What are you afraid of?” These days the answer apparently is “everything.” You can smell the fear.

Albert Camus wrote in The Plague that the greatest source of evil in the world is ignorance; that case can be made, but I’m convinced that an even greater source of the worst that human beings can be is fear. Despite the best efforts of many, our current political cycle is being driven by a candidate for President who is extraordinarily skillful at building support out of any number of fears both hidden and public. This week Donald Trump proposed that until our leadership “knows what’s going on,” all Muslims should be prohibited from entering the United States. This was just another example of the sort of xenophobic and racist statements that he utters every other day. My concern is not so much Trump himself—I still am hopeful that his candidacy will fall by the wayside—but rather with why he has been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination unbroken for the past several months with no change in sight. trumpThis says a great deal more about the American electorate than about Donald Trump, who makes no secret about who he is. Why is such a person who regularly says things that eat at the heart of our most cherished values attracting noticeable voter support and endless media play?

Fear. Even FDR was not immune from its tentacles; his internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII for no reason other than their race is almost universally considered to be one of the darkest blemishes on American history in the 20th century. The day after Donald Trump’s call for banning Muslims from entering the United States, the Anti-Defamation League released the following statement:

In the Jewish community, we know all too well what can happen when a particular religious group is singled out for stereotyping and scapegoating. We also know that this country must not give in to fear by turning its back on its fundamental values, even at a time of great crisis. adlAs we have said so many times, to do otherwise signals to the terrorists that they are winning the battle against democracy and freedom.

Amen to that. When faced with evidence of having failed to live up to our hopes and claims, people often say “We’re better than that.” In our current climate, we have to be better than that.

I am not a big fan of the National Anthem. The tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is too difficult for anyone but a trained singer to perform well and many of its lyrics are violent and war-mongering. Give me “America the Beautiful” or “My Country ‘tis of Thee” any day. But the final line of the National Anthem is one that all Americans would do well to pay close attention to these days.land of the free If we are truly “the land of the free and the home of the brave” as the song claims, then we need to act like it. If freedom for all is our primary value, then we need to embrace courage and reject guarantees of security built on a foundation of fear and denial of freedom for some. We must resist the siren call of those who would play on our fears and the worst angels of our nature. The future of the American experiment is at stake.

The Asshole Saint

One of my favorite courses is one that I am scheduled to team-teach for the third time with a colleague from the history department next spring. “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era,” taught as a capstone colloquium for second-semester sophomores in Providence College’s signature Development of Western Civilization (“Civ”) program, has been wildly popular—the students refer to it as “Nazi Civ.” I would like to think that it’s popularity is due to my colleague’s and my spectacular teaching abilities, but I suspect it is more because everyone is fascinated by the Nazis. Put “Nazi” in front of any academic course—“Nazi Accounting 101, “Nazi Intro to Biology,” “Nazi Marketing”—and the course would sell out. magdaMy colleague and I simply have the good sense to catch this lightening in a bottle every year or so.

Topics covered range far and wide; one of the most interesting, strangely enough, is the notion of sainthood. We study heroes and villains, persons who both exceed and fail to meet moral norms and standards (often the same person). And every once in a while, someone is described as a saint—usually a description immediately rejected by the possible saint. Magda Trocme, for instance, regularly dismissed claims that her actions, along those of her tiny French town of Le Chambon, which saved thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazis were “saintly.” She insisted rather that helping people in need and danger is simply what normal people do—nothing remarkable about it. Others had different attitudes about sainthood. Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who sacrificed his life for another man about to die at Auschwitz, let it be known from his youth that his goal in life was to be a saint. Yet when the main character in camusAlbert Camus’ The Plague is described as a “saint” by another character, he responds that “sanctity doesn’t really appeal to me . . . What interests me is being a man.” Our mostly parochial school educated students have heard about saints their whole lives, but now have the opportunity to think about what makes a person a saint, or even if there is any such thing. Is there a difference between sainthood and moral excellence? Is sainthood a proper goal for a human life, or is it something one stumbles into?

A recurring character in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series of mysteries that Jeanne and I are currently binge-reading raises the saint issue in an interesting way. Dr. Vincent Gilbert abandoned a lucrative medical career to live in and care for a community of people with Down syndrome. Based on that experience he wrote a book called Being, by all accounts a memoir of staggering honesty and humility. Staggering particularly because Dr. Gilbert abandoned his family to enter this community, walking back into their lives years later to find that his alienated son and wife want nothing to do with him. He’s temperamental, a contrarian by nature, very full of and in love with himself, and is generally disliked by everyone in town. bury your deadThese contradictions have earned him the title “The Asshole Saint” among his family and acquaintances who know and don’t love him.

In Bury Your Dead, the sixth installment in Penny’s series, Vincent is living in a cabin deep in the Québec woods because his family refuses to let him live with them at their hotel and spa in town. Inspector Beauvoir, another recurring character in the series who is recovering from serious gunshot wounds received a few weeks earlier, finds himself in the cabin when Vincent rescues him from a snowmobile mishap. As Vincent tenderly cares for the feverish Beauvoir, the Inspector compares his current situation to his previous medical care over the past weeks.

He’d been touched by any number of medical men and women. All skilled personnel, all well intentioned, some kind, some rough. All made it clear they wanted him to live, but none had made him feel that his life was precious, was worth saving, was worth something . . . [Vincent’s] healing went beyond the flesh, beyond the blood. Beyond the bones.

I wrote a year ago on this blog about the difference between “fixers” and “healers,” a difference that Inspector Beauvoir is taking notice of.

Fixing and Healing

The ability to recognize the value and dignity in another person, regardless of their status or situation, is one of the hallmarks of a healer—and perhaps a saint.

Less than a page after Inspector Beauvoir’s observations about Vincent’s healing abilities, the men enjoy a meal together while listening to a hockey game on the radio. asshole book clubBefore long Vincent says something judgmental and nasty about Beauvoir’s culinary preferences, as much in character as Vincent’s tender care a page earlier. “The asshole was back,” Beauvoir notes. “Or, more likely, had been there all along in deceptively easy company with the saint.” I have not yet finished Bury Your Dead, but a bit over half way through I have a sneaking suspicion that Vincent might have committed the unsolved murder that the Inspector and everyone else in town is seeking to solve. I won’t reveal down the line if my suspicions are correct—if I did, Louise Penny would have to kill me. But a killer saint might be a stretch—it’s challenging enough to come to grips with a saint being an asshole.

Or is it? When Camus’ character in The Plague says that he is more interested in being a man than being a saint, I suspect he is drawing a false distinction. Saintliness need not require rising above one’s humanity or leaving it behind. Instead, I prefer to think of saintliness as entirely compatible with being human—warts and all. The Protestant in me has always bristled a bit at Catholic veneration of the saints, primarily because raising them to veneration status removes them from the daily human grind and places them beyond the reach of reasonable human aspiration. AquinasI enjoy finding out that Thomas Aquinas had an eating disorder and that Sister Teresa could be a bitch and was hard to get along with. Why? Because it tells me the excellence that sainthood represents is a matter of being fully human. Each of us can learn to see another person as more than a problem to be avoided or solved, to be attentive to the other in the manner that their humanity deserves. Each of us can learn to be healers, in other words—even if we still occasionally are assholes. That’s what incarnation is all about.

A Practicing Atheist

A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook acquaintance posted the following:

When I say I’m an atheist, what I’m saying is that my personal journey of education and introspection has brought me to that conclusion. It’s about me and my choices. If you take that as an insult, please realize that, although Christians in this country get preferential treatment, not everything is actually about you. I am not bothered by belief. I do not consider the existence of every church a personal insult. Please enjoy your privilege and stop making atheism about you.

My response: “From a progressive Christian, thank you.” Her post reminded me of something Simone Weil once wrote about atheism. I reflected on it in one of my earliest posts on this blog.

Simone Weil writes that “Atheism is a purification.” Not where I come from. No word or phrase was more mysterious or terror producing for a young Baptist boy than “atheist.” I certainly didn’t know any, nor did my parents, nor did anyone in my extended family, nor did anyone who attended our church. But none of us knew any serial killers, either. Apparently atheists were out there somewhere, running Hollywood, teaching in secular universities, and generally sticking their thumbs in the eye of what they denied the existence of. It wasn’t clear to me how an atheist could even stay alive. If God snuffed out Uzzah just for putting his hand on the Ark in the Old Testament, how did people who had the nerve to say “God doesn’t exist” manage to last? I came to suspect that atheists were mythical creatures like unicorns and Big Foot, until one day I heard my aunt Gloria, who had a very loud voice, whispering to my mother in the next room about the new high school science teacher. “He spends a lot of time teaching evolution; I’ll bet he’s a practicing atheist.”

Now that’s a very interesting concept—a “practicing atheist.” What exactly does that mean? Is that someone who is very serious about atheism, who has gone beyond the lazy “God doesn’t exist” verbal stage and is actually putting this stuff into action? Does one practice atheism as I practiced the piano as a child, in hopes of becoming a concert atheist? Is the “practicing atheist” an atheist in training, sort of a double- or triple-AAA newbie practicing and honing his atheist skills until he gets to the atheist big leagues? Does the “practicing atheist” try it out for a while to see how she likes it? I mean, I could be a “practicing” any number of things, like a practicing vegetarian. I could do it for a while, and even realize that it was good for me, but before long I’d just have to eat some meat. Given my general obsession with the “God question,” maybe practicing atheism for a while would be good for the health of my soul, just as vegetarianism would be good for my bodily well-being.

Practicing atheism would put an end to creating God in my own image. I have known many gods in my lifetime, and every one of them is either a projection of myself or of the person(s) who introduced me.

  • A now silent God who stopped communicating directly with human beings several centuries ago, once the dictation of the divine word in print was finished.
  • A God who invites into the inner sanctum only those who have a special “prayer language.”
  • A God who “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” but who at the same time is so judgmental and exclusive that the vast majority of the billions of human beings who have ever lived will end up in hell.
  • An arbitrary God whose ire will be raised by the consumption of meat on Fridays during Lent, but who does not particularly care about pre-marital sex.
  • An exclusively masculine God.
  • A God who is more concerned with the length of male hair and female skirts than with the breadth and depth of one’s spiritual hunger and desire.
  • A God whose paramount concerns are one’s positions on sexual orientation, abortion, or universal health care.
  •  A God who micromanages every detail of reality at every moment, including tsunamis, birth defects, and oil spills.
  •  A God who is more honored by self-reliance than by compassion for those in need.

 And many more. As a practicing atheist I might still have anthropomorphic issues, but an anthropomorphic God would not be one of them.

Practicing atheism would be an effective antidote to any remaining obsession from my youth with what happens after physical death. We all sang songs about what a day of rejoicing it will be when we all get heaven. I don’t know any atheist hymns, so perhaps I should write one which draws my attention to now. As a child I thought that the only reason to become a Christian was to get an ironclad fire insurance policy from hell. We used to sing “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” Maybe I should love this world that is my home, one that I only get to live in for a short while. This is the world I’ve been given.

Atheism would provide me with new tools to apply to the problem of suffering and evil. Once I stop wondering why God allows the innocent to suffer, the guilty not to suffer, earthquakes to obliterate thousands, and the world generally to operate contrary to my wishes, the landscape looks quite different. Suffering exists—so does evil. The practicing atheist cannot ask “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” and asks instead “What does this require of me?” A fresh look at my world without God-tinted lenses reveals that suffering and violence are inextricably tangled with beauty. The waves on the ocean are no less beautiful because we know that sometimes people are drowned in them. A practicing atheist recommends a certain Stoic embrace of reality, rather than a childish affirmation of the parts I like and an impotent resistance to those I don’t.

Atheism would make it much more difficult for me to seek false consolations for disappointments, difficulties, and perceived injustices. I am reminded, year after year, that a significant majority of my students, most of whom are parochial school educated, believe that consolation is the only real reason to believe in God. But consolation, although emotionally attractive, is almost always an attractive lie. If my only response to human pain, mine or someone else’s, is that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us,” then pretty soon I become incapable of even seeing much of the suffering around me. There are times when Albert Camus’ project in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “to see if I can live without appeal,” has to be my project. What if this is all there is? What if the only responses available to suffering and pain are ours? What if I don’t get to pass the buck on to the divine?

“Atheism is a purification” is not a call to become an atheist. Rather, for me a serious season of practicing atheism would serve as a purgative, a process of spiritual cleansing, eliminating loose vocabulary, sloppy habits, and lazy certainties which dull my spiritual sensibilities. If my Christian faith means anything, it means God in the flesh, incarnated in all features of this difficult, troublesome, exhilarating and precious world that is a divine gift. Christianity will not be fully incarnated until it is joined with a respect and reverence for this world. Practicing atheism can help. As Simone Weil writes, “Let us love this country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love. It is this country that God has given us to love. He has willed that it should be difficult yet possible to love it.”

Haunted by Humans

9780770437855_custom-0fec8d6bec6f0261063ff3be14ce66895270b9a5-s6-c30A bit over a year ago I read Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner during Christmas break. I picked it up at the college bookstore, where it was sitting amongst a bunch of other books I had never heard of. The review blurb on the front shouted “Chilling, nasty, smart, shocking and unputdownable.” I love it that reviewers can get away with inventing words; at least it didn’t say that the book is a “tour de force” or “electrifying.” “Chilling” and “nasty” convinced me that this would be great holiday reading.

The story is built around the conversation between two couples at a pretentious, overpriced dinner with several courses at a pretentious, over-priced restaurant. The Dinner is well written and entertaining, but I recommend it only to those who don’t mind being reminded pointedly of just how petty, mean, self-centered, manipulative and just downright bad we human beings can be. I don’t want to ruin the story for those with the nerve to read it; one example will suffice. We find out through flashbacks that Paul, the narrator and one of the four main characters, is a retired high school history teacher who seems to miss the classroom. It turns out that several years before the dinner he found himself in the midst of a midlife crisis. While trying to help his students grasp the holocaust-montagenumber of victims of the Holocaust, he goes off on a rant that sounds like an angry stand-up comedy routine, as he explains to his boss, the principal.

I let them do some simple arithmetic. In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there? How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it? How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the nonexistent injustices they’ve had to suffer? Look around you. How many of your classmates would you be pleased not to see return to their desks tomorrow morning? Think about the one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless horseshit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreated his cat. Think about how relieved you would be—and not only you, but virtually the entire family—if that uncle or cousin would step on a land mine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude. If that member of the family were to be wiped off the face of the earth. And now think about all those trillions of victims of all the wars there have been in the past, and think about the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of victims who we need to have around like we need a hole in the head. Memorial530Even from a purely statistical standpoint, it’s impossible that all those victims were good people, whatever kind of people that may be. The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims. That their names are also chiseled into the war memorials.

Well now. That wasn’t very nice. Not surprisingly, the principal invites Paul to take a non-optional leave of absence to rest up—a leave from which he never returns. But admit it—Paul does have a point. His rant reminds me of when Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alyosha in brothers_karamazovThe Brothers Karamazov that he has no trouble loving humanity. It’s individual people that he can’t stand. The Dinner was indeed unputdownable, because it tapped into the misanthropic vein that lies just beneath the surface of even those of us who consider ourselves to be most loving toward and accepting of everyone

Shortly after finishing The Dinner, I read Markus Zusek’s The Book Thief. Narrated by Death and set during World War Twobook thief, there is no shortage of humans at their worst in this book either. Even those characters with glimmers of goodness in them are frequently petty, spiteful and hurtful. Yet it is these bits of goodness in midst of a very dark and seemingly hopeless world that drive the plot and regularly cause Death to be confused about the nature of the creatures he spends his time with. “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both,” Death observes. “The contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.” I agree. This is why I frequently tell my students that by far the most interesting topic in philosophy is us. Human beings, in all of our glory, tragedy and destruction. In a final soliloquy at the end of The Book Thief, Liesel&DeathDeath ruminates about the main character, Liesel, both about what has happened to her and what her future might hold.

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race—that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant. . . . I am haunted by humans.

APhitler_speer3[1]For my colloquium on the Nazi era, I am currently reviewing Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, Speer’s memoir written during his twenty-one years of imprisonment in Spandau prison as a Nazi war criminal. Speer was Adolf Hitler’s official architect, ultimately the wartime Minister of Armaments for the Third Reich, and one of the few people who might have been considered as Hitler’s “friend.” The back cover of Speer’s memoir includes a picture of Speer and Hitler looking intently over a set of blueprints. The caption is a brief quotation from the memoir: “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.” But the actual text of Speer’s memoir belies the caption. The Hitler who Speer knew as well as anyone from the early 1930s, described in great detail in the memoir, is not a “devil.” He is intuitive, insecure, eloquent, childish, visionary, petty, surprisingly insightful at times, unbelievably ignorant at others, capable of both great eloquence and of mind-numbing banality. the_book_thief_by_snowydrifter-d371qnbThis same description also loosely fits Speer himself. Speer and Hitler are, in other words, just two typical examples of what haunts Death in The Book Thief—human beings.

In the syllabus for our Nazi colloquium, the beginning of our course description reads as follows: “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. What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximillian 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.” So much good. So much evil. Just add water.

God’s Worst Idea

I spent the Spring 2009 semester on sabbatical as a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, MN. Father Kilian McDonnell is a living legend there. He is the founder and President Institute; a nice oil painting hangs in tribute in the Institute’s Butler Center. Although the Institute has a director and staff, Kilian’s influence and presence looms large. He is treated like Merrill Lynch once was treated. When he speaks, people listen. Kilian started writing poetry fifteen years ago, when he was 75. Now at age 90, his fourth book of poetry is about to be published.

There are Kilian stories in every corner of the Institute and St. John’s University in Collegeville where the Institute is located; my favorite is about Kilian and the helicopter. Some years ago, Kilian arrived at evening prayer with a packed suitcase. Shortly after prayers began, the monks were interrupted by the deafening sound of a helicopter landing right in front of the Abbey in order to whisk Kilian off to yet another important event requiring his presence. He hopped on board and the helicopter lifted. Prayers then resumed, only to be interrupted yet again by a descending helicopter. Kilian had forgotten his suitcase; once again united with his luggage, the helicopter lifted carrying him to distant parts, while evening prayer picked up once again.

Kilian has a wonderful, Irish sense of humor. I once sent him an email in which I incorrectly spelled his name “Killian.” In a return email, Kilian corrected me writing that “they only gave me one ‘L’. Maybe when I get to heaven I’ll get to have another one.” Kilian and a fellow monk, Wilfred, attend almost all Institute scholar lunches and evening get-togethers—as Kilian says, “I may miss evening prayer, but I never miss a party.” Kilian and Wilfred needle each other constantly, with Wilfred poking fun at the “fame” and “special importance” of a humble Benedictine monk, and Kilian responding that those who are famous and out of the ordinary obviously deserve special treatment. One Sunday after mass Kilian and Wilfred invited the Institute scholars to brunch in the monk’s dining room (a rare treat for non-monks). Kilian met us at the pre-arranged spot in order to lead us into the labyrinthine depths of the monastery, but Wilfred was nowhere to be found. Someone asked if we should wait for Wilfred; Kilian retorted “I’m willing to wait for scholars, but I’m not waiting for Wilfred!”

Once during my sabbatical, St. John’s was visited by Cardinal Kasper, the Vatican’s bigwig on ecumenical dialogue, coming to receive the University’s Pax Christi award. Given Kilian’s stature as the founder and President of the Institute, as well as his lifelong contributions to liturgical reform in the Catholic Church, he was part of almost every lunch, tour, and discussion during the Cardinal’s whirlwind visit. A couple of days later, Kilian and I were walking together from our Institute offices in the bowels of the library across to the Abbey for noon prayer. I noticed that Kilian was low on energy and walking more slowly than usual, but didn’t say anything. Kilian did. “Vance, don’t ever get old. Getting old is God’s worst idea.”

Indeed it is. Kilian would undoubtedly agree with Jeanne, who simply says that “getting old sucks.” Jeanne and I are only in our later fifties, mere youngsters in many people’s estimation, I’m sure. But the swift passage of time is hard to ignore when my sons, 8 and 5 when we first met Jeanne, are now 34 and 31, when the Stairmaster tells me that my maximum heart rate when working out is 25 beats less per minute than it was when I started exercising regularly years ago, and when the face looking back at me from the mirror always looks a lot older than I expect (even when I’ve looked at the reflection several times that day). Talk about planned obsolescence. When teaching the existentialists, my students often ask why Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, et al are so morbid and obsessed with death. My response is that the existentialists are trying to counter our human conviction that we are immortal. Oh, we don’t say that, but we live our lives as if we have all the time in the world, as if we will never die. We “know” that we are short-term creatures, but we don’t want to hear about it. As Tolstoy reminds us in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, it’s one thing to intellectually affirm the familiar syllogism that

All men will die.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates will die                                            

 It’s another thing entirely to realize what this means.

All men will die.

Vance is a man.

Therefore, Vance will die. 

Sometimes it takes a life-threatening illness (as for Ivan Ilyich) to get the idea. I’m gradually getting it just by looking in the mirror.

Psalm 90, one of the psalms at evening prayer yesterday, is all about this. God is eternal, and you’re not. And as usual, the Psalmist doesn’t pull any punches. Verses 5 and 6: “You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered.” Verse 10: “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” True, but certainly not comforting. Sartre or Camus could have written verse 12: “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” In a bad mood, this doesn’t sound much better than “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” In a better mood, I can skip the “life’s a bitch” part, but my days are still numbered.

There’s no promise of eternal life, of bliss in heaven. That’s a New Testament concept. And to be honest, I’m not attracted to the idea that this life is just practice for eternity, even though that often seemed to be the only reason to be a Christian in my youth. Perhaps I’m too influenced by the existentialists—I want to live my life at least trying to stay conscious of being a short-term creature. And the Psalmist provides the proper daily attitude focus, with just a hint of wishful thinking thrown in.

In the morning, fill us with your love.

We shall exult and rejoice all our days.

Give us joy to balance our affliction,

for the years when we knew misfortune.

Show forth your work in your servants,

let your glory shine on their children.

May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us;

prosper the work of our hands;

prosper our handiwork. 

There’s no guarantee that joy and affliction will balance out at the end of my life. But rejoicing is a verb and a choice, even for a short-term creature.