Tag Archives: faith

Candle in light

Books that Changed my Life: Gilead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home for Each Other

Twenty-seven years ago my father said a few words over a beautiful redhead and me–to celebrate the day in words, I can’t do better than what I wrote for Valentine’s Day a few months ago. Celebrate with us!

small victoriesIn her recent book Small Victories, Anne Lamott includes a hilarious chapter describing her year as an early sixty-something on Match.com. Four years after her last serious relationship ended, she decided to go high-tech and find some dates on-line. If she had asked me, I would have advised against it. I know a handful of people who have gone the Internet dating route and ultimately wished they hadn’t, matcheither because they failed to find anyone close to acceptable or, even worse, because they actually found someone and are now living to regret it. As she put her Match.com profile together, Anne asked herself what she was really looking for. Fun? Adventure? Sex? As it turned out, she realized that she was really looking for something better than all of the above.

Union with a partner–someone with whom to wake, whom you love, and talk with on and off all day, and sit with at dinner, and watch TV and movies with, and read together in bed with, and do hard tasks with, and are loved by. That sounds really lovely.

“Wow,” I thought as I read her description. “That sounds like Jeanne and me—except that Anne forgot about the three dogs in bed part.” And Anne is right—it really is lovely.

As we both inch closer toward six decades on this planet (Jeanne’s there–I will be in a few months), it is a surprise when I realize that we have now spent almost half of our lives on earth together. A surprise, because in some ways it seems longer than that—I have to concentrate to remember details of my life before we met over twenty-seven years ago. People in their early thirties have a lot of history behind them and are carrying a lot of baggage—mine included a failed marriage and two young sons—Trudy and Bruce June 1982but in many ways I feel as if my life truly began when my parents introduced the two of us the day before Thanksgiving so many years ago. I suspect that  knowledge of everything the ensuing twenty-seven years would hold might have given us pause. But lacking such knowledge, we did what people who have fallen in love frequently do—we decided to give it a shot. As Kierkegaard once said, even though life can only be understood backwards, it has to be lived forwards.

And as they say, life is what happens while you are making other plans; or, I might add, what happens when you are too busy with the details of the daily grind to notice. The best thing anyone has ever said to me about Jeanne’s and my relationship came from a very wise friend in the middle of a particularly challenging time a number of years ago. “You and Jeanne are home for each other,” my friend said. And she was right. Homes need repairs on occasion, need sprucing up at other times, require regular infusions of resources, and should not be taken for granted—it is a terrible thing to be homeless. That applies to the physical structures we live in as well. But the space that Jeanne and I inhabit has truly become what Anne Lamott was looking for (and didn’t find) on Match.com—a place to comfortably live.

I think many of the people who knew us individually before we met wondered how two people who are so different would be able to make a long-term relationship work. We still are very different, but have built our days and nights around the things that we love and appreciate together. 100_0712Our three dogs. Great television. Going to the movies. Going to Friars games (that’s a new one). Texts more often than phone calls. A shared commitment to trying to figure out what faith means and what God is. And the simple but profound joy of having one person in the world who knows me better than I know myself, a person who I don’t need to try to impress or to convince of my value and worth on a daily basis, who knows both the best and the worst I can be and is still there. And the pleasure of returning that favor of love.Jeanne singing

Jeanne and I occasionally argue about who is going to die first—she says that she is and I say that I am. It’s not that I am uninterested in living as many years as possible—I’ll take as many as I can get as long as I’m accompanied by all my faculties. It’s just that I don’t want to be homeless. Happy Anniversary to the person who agreed to build a home with me many years ago when we were too young and in love to know what we were doing—thanks for twenty-seven years of finding out together what love really is!The lovely couple

angels

Prey of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

testament of youthIn her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made into a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

During these first days of sabbatical I have enjoyed getting back in touch with the work of Iris Murdoch, one of the greatest philosophers and novelists of the twentieth-century. In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Murdoch’s characters grapple directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

Someone with Skin On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2006-09-11[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith for me is not about arguments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Without God

God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Perhaps it is a feature of teaching at a Catholic college, but I am frequently surprised by how many of my students are convinced that the only basis for being moral is belief in a God who will hold each of us responsible after we die for what we have done during this life. I am familiar with this attitude—fire insurance policyI was raised with the Protestant version and believed that the primary reason to be a Christian is to gain an eternal fire-insurance policy. But people old enough to be a freshman or sophomore in college have undoubtedly encountered people who do not profess any sort of religious conviction and yet apparently have managed to develop working moral frameworks. When I ask my students whether it would be possible for an atheist to be moral, just about all of them admit that such a thing is possible—they just don’t know how. So I find myself faced with a continuing task each semester—exploring with my students the strange phenomenon of living a life of moral commitment and excellence without God. Or at least without the God they have in mind.

BonhoefferIn my “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester, my students’ expectations and pre-conceptions concerning the connections between moral commitment and religious faith were challenged on a regular basis. These challenges were most pressing during the weeks that we studied Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant pastor and theologian who ultimately found himself in prison awaiting execution because of his involvement in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer described the many ways in which his understanding of Christian commitment and action was changing. Lurking behind his ideas was one big question—where is God in all of this? In a letter a few weeks before his death, he wrote

So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. losing faithThe God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.

My students found this passage challenging, to say the least. In online discussions, several expressed their sadness that this pastor, who had been such a beacon of Christian hope and light during very dark times, lost his faith in his final days of life. I responded, tentatively, that Bonhoeffer had not lost his faith—but this was a very different sort of faith than my students were accustomed to.the bell

Bonhoeffer’s striking statement reminds me of the predicament that Michael Meade, a character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, finds himself in. Michael has an intense desire for God and the transcendent, seeking at various times to become a priest and, when that fails, to create the lay religious community that is at the heart of the novel. Throughout his life, Michael has considered himself “called” to service to God and has sought for patterns and signs that confirm his “calling.” Unfortunately, as with most of us, these signs and patterns turn out to be idolatrous projections of his own self-centered hopes and dreams. When the lay religious community fails and several of the members come to tragic ruin, including a man’s suicide for which Michael considers himself at least partially responsible, Michael is understandably on the brink of despair and suicide himself. As he seeks in the midst of ruin, for the first time in his life, to look at himself and at God cleanly and without preconceptions, he comes to hard conclusions.

The pattern which he had seen in his life had existed only in his own romantic imagination. At the human level there was no pattern. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” belief in godAnd as he felt, bitterly, the grimness of these words, he put it to himself: there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.

Michael has come for the first time in his life to see the need for “dying to self,” for removing himself from the center of the universe and insisting that the world must “make sense.” God’s existence has not been threatened by the deconstruction of Michael’s hopes and dreams, but the “belief system,” the vocabulary, through which he has defined and described God has been destroyed. Michael’s God, in other words, has died.

At the end of the novel, Michael reflects and takes stock. Rather than fill the resulting vacuum with yet another projection of himself onto the transcendent, Michael chooses to let the vast gap between himself and the Other remain, at least for the present, in all its power and rawness. God has not died, but Michael’s conception of God has. And at least for now, this is a good thing. The rituals that were once consoling and uplifting remain as a reminder of his true situation.

No sharp sense of his own needs drove him to make supplication. He looked about him with the calmness of the ruined man. But what did, from his former life, remain to him was the Mass. . . . The Mass remained, not consoling, not uplifting, but in some way factual. It contained for him no assurance that all would be made well that was not well. It simply existed as a kind of pure reality separate from the weaving of his own thoughts. . . . Writualhoever celebrated it, the Mass existed and Michael existed beside it. He made no movement now, reached out no hand. He would have to be found and fetched or else he was beyond help.

Sad? Yes. Regrettable? Undoubtedly. But Michael has chosen to see if, for at least a period of time, he can refrain from creating the transcendent in his own image. Perhaps when he begins again, he’ll be more aware of the contingency of all transcendent language.

When Bonhoeffer writes that The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us, he is recognizing, as Michael Meade recognized, that all of our imaginings about what God must be and will do are human constructs guaranteed to disappoint and fail. Living in the world “without the working hypothesis of God,” embracing God’s existence without confining God to the limits of human belief, may seem to leave commitment to moral principles and behavior without a foundation. le chambonBut this need not be the case. Magda Trocme, one of the leaders of the rescue efforts in the little village of Le Chambon where thousands of refugees, Jewish and otherwise, were successfully hidden from the Gestapo and Vichy police during the dark years of World War Two, is a case in point.

Magda’s husband, Andre, was the dynamic Protestant pastor in Le Chambon whose powerful and eloquent sermons inspired his congregation to live out their faith in real time in the face of prison- and life-threatening dangers. Magda had no patience for theologicalmagda niceties and regularly scoffed at the notion that her astounding generosity and fearless hospitality made her a “saint” or even morally special. She just did what needed to be done and facilitated the efforts of others to do the same, addressing every human need within her power to address no matter who the human in need happened to be. I have studied the Le Chambon phenomenon a great deal and have used the story of this remarkable village in class many times. But it was not until a week ago while reading a new study of the village that I encountered Magda saying anything about God. In her unpublished memoirs, now in the archives at Swarthmore College, Magda provides her definition of God:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

And that, for Magda, was sufficient for her to be one of the most remarkable moral exemplars I have ever encountered. And, I would argue, it is a sufficient foundation for moral goodness. Who knew it could be that simple?

Divine Stalking

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you are awake

big[1]Big Brother? The NSA? CIA? IRS? No—this is about Santa Claus, the most benign stalker ever. According to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the jolly fat elf has even appropriated moral authority over us: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” Who gave him that authority? For that matter, who gave him permission to monitor my sleeping habits? As a kid I was entirely in favor of Santa Claus’ generosity with presents once per year, and was in awe of his amazing ability to almost be omnipresent, visiting every abode on the planet in one short night. But I found his interest in my bedtime routine and my moral behavior to be a bit disconcerting and creepy.

n_melvin_NSA_130616.video-260x195[1]This week some of the top news stories, in the context of renewing the Patriot Act, have focused on to what extent the right to privacy of citizens in this country has been and continues to be regularly invaded by various government agencies in the professed interest of national security. At this point, a disclaimer—I am one of the least paranoid and most trusting persons on the planet. Accordingly, I have found the outrage, the self-righteous indignation, expressed by many in all sorts of ways rather amusing, especially given how each of us cavalierly leaves a trail of identifying information in our wake each day. The indignation often appears to be directly dependent upon who happens to be in charge at the time.945654_10151486576681275_89686085_n[1] I also wonder just how gullible a person has to be to imagine that this is anything new or beyond what has been the case ever since the beginning of the digital age.

A question that never fails to generate interesting classroom conversation is What do human beings want more—security or freedom? Students invariably conclude that, as is the case with many interesting questions, the answer almost entirely depends on context and circumstances. september-9-11-attacks-anniversary-ground-zero-world-trade-center-pentagon-flight-93-second-airplane-wtc_39997_600x450[1]My freshmen this year were four or five years old on September 11, 2001, and each of them could tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing when the Twin Towers fell, just as I remember vividly President Kennedy’s assassination when I was six. Four short weeks after 9/11, Jeanne and I flew from Providence to Fort Lauderdale for a conference where I was giving a paper and chairing a session. All I remember about the conference is that at least a third of the academics scheduled to give papers did not come because they did not want to get on an airplane. But I clearly remember the Fort Lauderdale airport on the day we returned to Providence. It took us almost three hours to get through security, the terminal was filled with armed military personnel, all of which would have been unheard of a month earlier. tsa-lines[1]But most remarkable was the behavior of the hundreds of travelers whose schedules were being disrupted by the inordinate wait. I did not hear a single complaint; indeed, what I did hear was regular “thank you’s” from those in the lines directed toward those whose job it was to keep us safe. If anyone was bemoaning the obvious loss of freedom in exchange for at least the appearance of security, they were not saying it out loud.

After telling this brief story to my students not long ago, I asked What do you think would happen this coming weekend if people at the airport had a similar experience—hours to get through security, lines moving at less than a snail’s pace, armed soldiers at every turn? One student’s quick response summed it up concisely: “People would be pissed!” And so they would. Why? Because the overwhelming sense of insecurity that pervaded everything and everyone in the weeks after 9/11 have been replaced by a general sense of security, simply because nothing on the scale of 9/11 has happened on our turf for a number of years. heathrow-airport-london-security-scannersjpg-79ec3477441a411a_large[1]A line like the one in Fort Lauderdale in October 2011 is okay today in Tel Aviv, London, Riyadh, or some other place, but this is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Don’t mess with our freedom to do what we want when we want in the way that we want—unless we don’t feel safe, then feel free to suspend our freedoms in whatever ways deemed necessary, so long as you guarantee our security. I am sure that if the news of NSA surveillance was leaked shortly after a terrorist attack, the outrage would not be over violations of our right to privacy. The outrage would be over why the surveillance had not been more extensive and more effective. As the ad slogan says, “Appearance is everything.”

Perhaps the reason why worrying about the threat of someone watching me and knowing my deepest secrets, whether Santa Claus or the government, has never been high on my radar screen is because I learned at a very early age about the impossibility of escaping the scrutiny of the most effective and omnipresent stalker imaginable.

Before ever a word is on my tongue, you know it through and through.

Behind and before you besiege me, your hand ever laid upon me.psalm_139_1_by_beesadie-d30ijri[1]

If I climb the heavens, you are there; if I lie in the grave, you are there.

Your eyes saw all my actions, they were all of them written in your book;

Every one of my days was decreed, before even one of them came into being.

Now that is effective surveillance, straight out of Psalm 139. The first time I read Orwell’s 198459-4[1] as a sophomore in high school, I had no difficulty imagining a world in which everything about me is an open book. This is not because I sensed that the government’s intrusion into our lives was becoming more and more pervasive, but rather because I had known about the divine stalker, the God who would show me a Technicolor movie of my life at the Last Judgment, focusing on all of my sins and failings, since I had learned how to walk. Perhaps this is why I have always found the deism[1]Deist idea that God created the world then left us alone to do the best we can or the notion that God created the world partially complete and gives us the task of completing it somewhat attractive. I’ve known many people, my mother, for instance, who are comforted by Psalm 139’s information that God knew everything about me and had every detail about me planned out while I was still in utero, but not me.imagesCANNTSSE I just wanted God to get off my back and leave me the hell alone.

As long as my image of God is as the divine Big Brother—benign or otherwise—who knows everything about me before I think it or do it, the problem of squaring that sort of cosmic surveillance with even a shred of human freedom and choice cannot be solved. But perhaps the intimacy of God’s connection with my life can be understood differently. As is often the case as I ruminate on divine/human relationships, Incarnation provides a new perspective. What if God is not an external monitoring agency, keeping track and keeping score, but mysteriously interwoven with each human being so intricately that divine and human cannot be separated? What if finding God and finding me are the same search? These are open questions, but the very notion of incarnation, of a fusion between divine and humanimages[3], removes the fear factor, the concern that someone somewhere is holding me to a standard that I cannot possibly satisfy.

While on retreat a couple of summers ago, I met Cyprian Consiglio, a Benedictine monk who is a renowned and respected musician, composer, and author. My favorite of his compositions is “Behind and Before Me,” a setting of Psalm 139. In the CD liner notes, he writes the following about this song:1576301_350[1]

Ancient wisdom tells us that the beginning of the spiritual life is when we realize that God is within us—how long it takes us to reach that realization! But the next stage is when we realize that we are in God.

Justifying My Existence

It is unsettling, even scary, to relinquish who we think we are, and scary to stop clinging to what we have and what we do. Henri Nouwen

As I picked up my bag to walk to the gym, then to the office for a few hours of work, I said “I’m off to justify my existence for the day!” The idea of such daily justification comes from my father who, when he was at home rather than on the road travelling, used to ask my brother and me as we stepped into the house after school justify“What did you do today to justify your existence on this planet?” He always had a smile on his face when he said it, but there were serious undertones to the question. The challenge to not just be a piece of furniture in the room, not just to occupy space, but to prove my worth on a daily basis has stuck with me ever since. Jeanne’s response to my announcement was to laugh and say “You don’t have to do anything to justify your existence!” I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not so sure.

I can talk a good talk about why, despite the Protestant work ethic and stereotypical American focus on action and productivity that pervades our culture, who one is does not amount to the same thing as what one does. chittisterAs Joan Chittister writes, humility is “the strength to separate our sense of the meaning of life from what we do.” One should work to live, after all, not live to work. I am not, however, nearly as good at walking the walk. This has become more and more obvious as I move into sabbatical mode. Within a month I will no longer be a program director, something that has consumed me as a second full-time job for the past four years. I will not be a full-time teacher for the next sixteen months, uncharted territory for someone who believes he was born to be a professor. I’ve been telling everyone who would listen for several years that the biggest thing that being an administrator, first four years as department chair, then four more as a program director, has taken away from me is writing. But this is not entirely true. I actually have been writing a lot over the past almost-three-years on this blog—close to 300,000 words worth of writing (enough for three 250-or-so page books). What I have not done for close to a decade is academic writing of the sort that an academic must do in order to get promoted and tenured. Why? Because I don’t have to. Nor do I want to. button_tenurepromotionTenure and the last promotion came a long time ago, well before the last decade of administration piled on top of teaching. I no longer need to write and publish the sort of thing that one needs to write and publish in order to earn tenure and promotion, and this is a good thing since I don’t want to write that sort of thing and haven’t wanted to for some time.

What this means, going into sabbatical, is that for the first time in my professional life—actually for the first time in my adult life—the pressure is off. I’m being paid to be on sabbatical—undoubtedly a rare gift pretty much exclusive to the world of academia. And I’m not sure how to handle that. Over the past few years I have taken baby steps in the direction of trusting the world around me to show me what’s next rather than imposing my own expectations and structures on what’s next. sabbaticalBut they are only baby steps, insufficient to guide my plans for sabbatical. Beginning around this time last year I started planning for sabbatical by doing the usual things—setting up a series of appointments with our very helpful director of sponsored research, sending out proposals both for residential and non-residential sabbatical projects, and so on. For several months in late 2014 I waited to see what I would be doing and where I would be going on sabbatical. The response to all of my proposals? “Thanks, but no thanks.” Other than the lovely form rejection letters in various forms, I received no feedback other than “we don’t want to fund you doing that.” By the time the rejections arrived the spring semester had started, so other than a few “what the fuck??” moments, I didn’t have the time to think much about the implications until the past couple of weeks. I have plenty to work on and write about—three book projects, no less—but the usual routes to where that will happen and when have been dead ends. Now what?

Isaiah 6I was lector yesterday morning at church for the first time in months, and in one of those unexpected moments of synchronicity that I’ve noticed more and more frequently over the past several years my assigned Old Testament reading was one of my favorites from the Jewish scriptures, the call of Isaiah. As I read it from the lectern the story had immediate resonance. Isaiah has a vision of the divine throne room, where six-winged seraphim fly about and cry “Holy, holy, holy!” 24/7. After Isaiah expresses his utter unworthiness at being present for such a glorious spectacle, an angel takes a live coal with tongs from the altar and, laying it on Isaiah’s lips, says “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Now you are ready, in other words. God itself asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me.” A risky thing to do, opening oneself up to whatever might come. Isaiah’s mission starts by saying “I’m ready for whatever.” Scary business, but I’ll give it a shot.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, tells the brief story of a woman’s last hours before death. franklLying on her filthy cot in the barracks, the woman spoke briefly with Frankl.

“I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

I am here—I am life. Maybe that’s enough. At least it’s a start.

Mulch in the Morning

snowmageddon-300x300It is the next-to-last day of April, and I think it is finally safe to say that we have survived a very tough winter. I often make fun of Rhode Islanders and what they consider a “tough winter” to be. But the winter just ended really was a bad one–one of the snowiest on record, all coming in a one-month stretch from the end of January to the end of February. We had plenty of opportunities to talk about “Snowmageddon,” the “Snowpocalypse,” the Polar Vortex, and to wonder what ridiculous name the Weather Channel would come up with for the latest storm as well as how many more days of classes would be cancelled.

A few days ago I walked out the front door of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and was struck by a distinctive scent wafting on the breeze. Somewhere on the olfactory spectrum between a pristine pine forest and an overpowering air freshener hanging on the rear-view mirror of a car,mulch this scent had rotting organic material tones, with the tangy hint of chemicals. “I love the smell of mulch in the morning! Spring has actually arrived!” There are a number of interesting sights as well as smells that accompany the arrival of spring. That same day as I approached the house returning home briefly for lunch to check up on our four-legged daughters, I saw a squirrel hanging upside down by his back feet from the top of the metal shepherd’s-crook pole that holds several bird-suet cages on our side lawn, using his front paws to open the latch on one of the cages for a free lunch. Our blue spruce that the feeder is next to has apparently grown large enough that squirrel at feederan enterprising squirrel can leap to the feeder from the closest branch at risk of falling several feet to the ground. Amazing what some people will do for a taste of bird seed encased in blocks of greasy suet.

This means that it is time to start getting the yard in shape—one of my favorite projects of the year that I intend to attack with fervor this coming weekend. I use the word “yard” loosely, since we live in the city and our available land is postage-stamp size, comparatively speaking. That’s fine with me—we have lived here for nineteen years and I am regularly grateful that it takes no longer than twenty minutes to mow the lawn, back, front, and side. I have little interest in a luxurious, weed-free lawn. 005 (2)Indeed I suspect that in the height of summer at least one-half of our lawn is covered with what those in the know would call weeds. But the lawn is green, and that’s all I care about.

What I do care about is flowers. I had no idea how much pleasure there is to be found in the annual cycle of cleaning flower beds in late March and April, watching lilies, tulips, columbines, and peonies poke their heads through the dirt despite having as much as six-foot snow banks on top of them during the winter. I keep a sharp eye out for the first leaf and flower buds on the flowering cherry tree, roses, and hydrangea bush in front,100_0918 as well as the butterfly, blackberry, and lilac bushes in the back. I inspect each potential bud-producer every day and take it very personally when no progress is evident. The process has been entirely trial-and-error over the years; assorted azaleas and hydrangea bushes have failed to make an appearance in given springs, tulips and daffodils have tended to be a disaster, leading to digging up last year’s remains and replacing them with something that might possibly do better. The perennials and flowering bushes we presently have are survivors of Morgan’s version of natural selection—if you don’t show up when I think you should, you’re out. The plants that have survived both my impatience and incompetence over the years are hardy enough to survive nuclear winter, let alone Winter Storm Juno. 757854410188[1]I’ve learned a few things over the years, of course—loosening the flower beds and working in bags of shit from Lowe’s (really—they contain manure), then covering with a layer of mulch is a stimulant for growth and a deterrent for weeds. The primary purpose of the mulch for me, of course, is to get high on the aroma. I never seem to buy enough bags, though, and always have to make another trip to purchase three or four more.

19cuaresmaC3[1]Luke’s gospel tells the story of a land owner who had as little patience with his plants as I have with ours.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Jesus must have had a bad experience with fig trees as a child; Holy Week Monday a few weeks ago is the day that Jesus killed a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, even though it was not even the season for fig-bearing. Jesus and the Fig Tree[1]He probably was in a bad mood because he knew what was coming in a few days. I completely understand the impatience of the fig tree owner. There is no room for fruitless and flowerless plants in my yard—no slackers allowed. But the fascinating part of the parable is the remedy suggested by the gardener, the resident expert, for the figless tree. He says “Let me disturb it at its roots, throw some crap in there, and I’ll bet it will start producing!” That’s generally the suggested solution for any recalcitrant plant. Cut it back to the ground, lop its branches indiscriminately—in short, do things to the plant that any sensible person fears will kill it, then wait and see what happens.

It seems to be a truism in almost all everything I’ve ever read about spiritual growth that such growth is impossible without conflict, pain, suffering, and violence. 250px-Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831[1]Even the great and extraordinarily difficult philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel wrote that “periods of peace are blank pages in the book of history.” I want to know why. Of course, the classic expression of this problem is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and, more problematically, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But I’m not that concerned about why human beings have to suffer and struggle—this is such an obvious feature of the human landscape that it hardly seems worth asking about. I’m more interested in what to make of a creating being who presumably had infinite options when choosing the guiding principles and template for the world to be created, and chose to do it in the most open-ended and messy fashion imaginable. This is not a world created with efficiency in mind.

1594489270[1]In her fascinating and eclectic memoir Wild Harmonies, classical pianist and dedicated environmentalist Hélène Grimaud writes that “we can be essential only when we are suffering. It encourages us to remain honest.” I think most of us would appreciate being given a shot at living essentially and honestly without suffering, but we don’t get that chance. Instead we get to do it as plants do it, through productive seasons and dormant, through times when even we are astounded by our beauty as well as those times when even the most generous observer would swear that we are dead. In a charismatic church I attended many years ago in a previous lifetime, Olive treewe often would start the morning service with an annoying song based on Psalm 52:8.

Like a tree, like a tree, I’m like a green olive tree
In the house, in the house of the Lord.
I will trust in the mercies of God forever,
I will trust in the mercies of God.

I’ve never heard such a song about being a fig tree.

One Heart and Soul

end of semesterIt’s getting close to the end of the semester (about five weeks to go), which means that final papers will be coming in over the next month. As the due date gets closer, I will have any number of conversations of this sort:

Student: The assignment says that I should “take a position” on the issue I am writing about. Does that mean, like, you want me to give you my opinion?

Me: No, that means, like, I want to take a position on the issue supported by argumentation and relevant information. Remember what I have told the class a number of times: a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion.

In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium recently, our text was a co-authored volume in which two economists, who happened to also be persons of Christian faith, alternated essays and responses on a number of important issues. markets and moralsAs their weekly writing assignment in preparation for seminar, I asked students to select a point of disagreement between the authors (the disagreements were legion), describe briefly the position of each author on the selected issue, then take a side supported by argumentation. Two-thirds of the way through the semester, my sophomores should be able to do this—identify issues, fairly and accurately describe various arguments, and take a position that is both fair to other relevant positions and supported by evidence and argument. So I was disappointed when more than one student ended their essay with something like “I prefer X’s position because Y sounds a lot like socialism.”

Sigh. In my comments on such papers, I always include something like “That’s a description, not an argument. It’s related to another sort of description masquerading as an argument: ‘I disagree with Z, therefore Z is wrong.’” Divided linePart of my job as a professor is to convince my students that a liberally educated human being earns the right to have her opinions. Unearned opinions are like body parts—everybody has them. Plato lists “opinion” low on his ladder representing the climb from ignorance to wisdom. Moving up this ladder one or two rungs from “opinion” to something closer to knowledge involves learning that just believing something does not make it true, realizing that disagreement is the beginning of justifying one’s beliefs, not the end. It’s always discouraging to realize that someone can make it to almost half way through their undergraduate college career and not have learned this.

But I digress. What got me to thinking about this most recently was the reading from The Acts of the Apostles that the lector read to the congregation yesterday:Acts 4

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

It’s one of my favorite passages from the New Testament—as I heard it, I thought of my student. “Dude!” I thought, “It’s a good thing you didn’t hear this—because this really sounds like socialism!” In the past I have used this text in class to poke at the unquestioned assumptions carried by students who, often coming from a faith-based upbringing in an upper middle class or wealthy household, believe communismthat somehow their capitalist free-market attachments and their background framework of religious values will fit seamlessly together as if by magic. “They sound like a bunch of communists!” more than student has remarked in shock, and indeed they (anachronistically) do. Welcome to the lifelong task of trying to live a life of coherent belief and commitment!

This passage from Acts was linked in yesterday’s readings to the familiar story of “doubting Thomas” from John’s gospel. In spite of the bad rap Thomas has gotten over the centuries for being the one disciple loser who refused to believe that Jesus had risen until he had seen him and touched him first person (of course, none of the other disciples believed until they had first-hand contact either, but let’s not go there), he is one of my all-time heroes. By both personality and profession I am naturally skeptical–Imontaigne think that doubt is closer to godliness than cleanliness. Just as I take the great skeptic Michel de Montaigne as a model for how to do philosophy, I consider Thomas as one of my models for how to approach the spiritual life, something I share with many of my spiritual guides ranging from Kathleen Norris, Christopher Wiman and Joan Chittister to Anne Lamott, roawn williamsRowan Williams and Barbara Brown Taylor. Most homilies about this gospel draw the moral of the story from Jesus’ gentle criticism of Thomas’ attitude: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But there is seeing and then there is seeing. Except for a select few, those who have committed themselves to Jesus in any way have never seen him physically. But without a direct encounter—without truly seeing something worth committing to—faith commitment can easily become sterile religion.

Why, I have often wondered (and have often asked my students), did the early Christian communities choose to organize themselves economically in the manner described in Acts? They are close enough in time to Jesus’ physical presence that undoubtedly some of their members actually knew him in the flesh, or at least knew some people who did. But if the vision is not going to fade, such communities cannot rely on first-hand remembrance of the source. Practices and attitudes reflective of the values the community is committed to must be embedded in the very fiber and structure of the common life of the group. the wayAt some point, given that a new community of followers of the Way was seeking both stability and faithfulness to the message, someone must have asked “How would Jesus have organized this community if he were here?” Somebody remembers the parables, another person recalls the Beatitudes, and pretty soon they become a small, primitive laboratory for the Gospel.  How to truly become Jesus in community form? By putting into action what the man supposedly said and lived. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Love each other as God loves us. This wasn’t church for them—this was life. Most likely their very survival depended on it.

Two thousand years later, persons who profess a Christian faith share a lot in common with these early followers of Jesus. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, just as most—and pretty soon all—of the members of these early communities had not. micahWe are bound together by having seen Jesus in ways far deeper and more profound than physical vision. And our challenge is the same as theirs, to figure out what it means to actually live it rather than just say it. As I often do, I fall back here on the prophetic words of Micah who asked, just as these early communities did, just as we do today, “What does the Lord require of us?” Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. And, I might add, doubt is an appropriate seasoning for each of these.

salient salmon[1]

Consider the Salmon

unicorn-iris-murdoch-paperback-cover-art[1]In The Unicorn, one of Iris Murdoch’s characters drops the following into a mundane conversation: “Have you ever seen salmon leaping? Such fantastic bravery, to enter another element like that. Like souls approaching God.” The implications of this simile are striking. Salmon are hard-wired to do what they do, a hard-wiring that drives them to a place in which they are not equipped to survive and, ultimately, to death. This is hardly an attractive picture of the human search for God, but there’s a certain familiarity to it. In the Old Testament God is frequently hiding, in a thick cloudevil-face-captured-in-thick-cloud-of-smoke-500x292[1], in a burning bush, beyond a rock, because if a human actually experienced God directly that would be the end of the human. God’s element is not ours, yet just as the salmon there is something unavoidable in us that draws us toward that divine element and, perhaps, to our destruction. Great news.

Genetically Modified SalmonTwo salmon are discussing their options:

Bob: Are you ready to start heading upstream? It’s about that time.

Sam: I’m not doing it. You remember all those guys who headed upstream to do this last year? You ever seen them since?

Bob: No, but so what? This is what salmon do. This is what we were made for.

Sam: Not me. You go right ahead—been nice knowing you. I’m staying here.

BBrown bear catching salmonob: What are you, a salmon or a flounder? Any salmon worthy of the name swims upstream and leaps the falls!

Sam: I feel the same urge you do! But not every itch needs to be scratched. I prefer to be a wimpy salmon and alive to being a salmonly salmon and dead.

Bob: You’re no salmon at all. You can’t be a salmon and not leap!

Sam: You know what, I think this whole leaping thing is just a bunch of crap our parents and grandparents put on us. I can still be a salmon and stay in this part of the river. You leaping salmon are a bunch of schooling fish who believe you have to do something just because you were told you do.

imagescaf8jdis[1]I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who once wrote that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” More great news. But how well does this salmon simile work? There’s a lot of effort on the part of the salmon to do something that makes no sense, yet is definitive of what it means to be a salmon. Are human souls hard-wired to seek for God? And is that seeking always a matter of extreme effort that leads to at least a virtual death? What choice do we have in the matter? That’s where the salmon simile breaks down, since despite Sam’s resistance, real salmon don’t have a choice. They just do what they’re programmed to do. We have a choice—or do we?

st-augustine-of-hippo7[1]With an idea probably stolen from St. Augustine, I was told in my youth that all human beings have a “God-shaped hole” inside of them that cannot be filled with anything other than God. I understand this and have often described myself as a “God-obsessed” person. This has nothing to do with any particular idea of God but rather with a gnawing hunger deep inside that nothing readily available can satisfy. I have no specific idea as to what might satisfy this hunger, while the salmon (or at least Bob) are convinced that only leaping will do it. But then there’s Sam, who’s at least considering the possibility of a fulfilled salmon existence that doesn’t involve leaping to one’s death. I’ve encountered Sam-like human beings who appear to have no such hunger, or at least claim not to have one, but that strikes me as odd. I’m obsessed with it and I’ll bet they are too—they just don’t call it God.

At the center of every human being is a yearning and desire for something good and divine and pure, a yearning that is never satisfied by anything in this world. Human beings are free only to the extent that they are free to choose either to work with this longing, without knowing exactly what this longing corresponds to, or to redirect this longing and seek to satisfy it with things closer to hand. Although the former choice is attractive, there’s probably also a lot to be said for the latter choice that, if we’re talking about salmon, Sam is making. Since the leaping choice is obviously a risky one, why not try to reinvent himself and search for meaning as a perfectly fine non-leaping salmon?

Sam and Bob agree on one big thing—there’s more to being a salmon than simply swimming around in a river. imagesCA6IDEGOBob believes he knows what that “more” is and will leap into it with all of his fins, despite the likelihood that he won’t come out alive on the other end. Sam, concerned about the lack of information from the other side, prefers to find another way to investigate this “more.” Dorothy Allison writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” I like that, and I think Sam would too (so long as salmon have politics and literature). It increases our options.

imagesCA4E0W95