Tag Archives: faith

A Gnawing Suspicion

A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity. Lawrence Kushner

ebolaA while ago Jeanne and I were in the car listening to the hourly news update on NPR. As usual, they were trying to stuff as much horrible news as possible into a three-minute segment. Ebola, ISIS, Zika, Palestinians, Israel, Istanbul, Russia, illegal immigrants, racial discrimination— one of us said “they’re never going to figure this out.” I forget which of the above items the comment was referring to, but it could have been any of them. I know few people who are more naturally optimistic than I am, fergusonbut what evidence is there that we human beings are up to the challenge of solving our problems long-term in a sustainable way? The history of our species provides ample evidence to the contrary.

So what impact should this depressing and dour news have on a person not inclined toward cynicism or despair? I must admit that I would find it very difficult to avoid cynicism in general, overcome only by dogged attempts to make my little corner of the world a bit better on a daily basis, were it not that I am convinced that the often sad and grubby human story that is trumpeted at us 24/7 through multiple media outlets is not the only story in town. There’s something bigger going on. In other words, I believe in God. So sue me.

borg convictionsFor many the conversation stops right there. How on earth can an educated, relatively intelligent person with working senses possibly believe in the existence of God in the face of the massive evidence to the contrary that threatens to overwhelm us daily? Please note, though, that I said that I believe in God, not that I believe in the existence of God. This is a gradual, seismic internal shift that has been going on for a while, one that I have frequently taken note of in various ways during the almost-four years of this blog’s existence (and for a lot longer than that). KabbalahTwo short books, Marcus Borg’s Convictions and Lawrence Kushner’s Kabbalah: A Love Story, have crystallized this shift in unexpected ways. Let me explain.

The “does God exist?” question never had much philosophical interest for me (I don’t think any of the arguments designed to answer the question positively actually work very well); does god existover time I have lost interest in it just about entirely. The God whose existence is almost always in question is a being separate and distinct from the universe, a supreme being who created the universe a long time ago. This description usually goes on to add personality traits such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence to God’s resume; God thus described is often imagined with authoritarian and parental attributes, with all of the positive and negative baggage accompanying. Marcus Borg calls belief in the existence of this being “Supernatural Theism.” For non-theists who deny the existence of God, it is almost always the God of Supernatural Theism whose existence is being denied; it is this God that is the target of the impassioned attacks of the “New Atheists.” supernatural theismBorg notes that when someone tells him that she or he does not believe in God, he “learned many years ago to respond, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ It was always the God of supernaturalism.” Borg professes that he stopped believing in that God when he was in his twenties (he passed away in his seventies about a year ago). I don’t believe in that God either.

It isn’t that I now believe in the existence of a divine being with a different resume. It’s rather than I think “does God exist?” is the wrong question. Because the issue of God for me is not existential—it’s not about whether there is another being out there in addition to the universe. The issue of God is experiential. Scripture says “taste and see that the Lord is good,” and tasting and seeing are not arguments, rationalizations or proofs. Borg describes the shift I have in mind well:

borgThere is a cloud of witnesses, Christian and non-Christian, for whom God, the sacred, is real, an element of experience, not a hypothetical being who may or may not exist and whom we can only believe in.

Both Borg and Kushner call this orientation “mysticism,” and both refer to experiences that might be described as “mystical” that helped bring them to this experiential conclusion. I’m not crazy about calling myself a “mystic” for a number of reasons, but I do resonate with Kushner’s definition at the beginning of this post, just as I resonate with Borg’s adjustment of what the word “God” refers to:

A theology that takes mystical experience seriously leads to a very different understanding of the referent of the word “God.” The word no longer refers to a being separate from the universe, but to a reality, a “more,” a radiant and luminous presence that permeates everything that is.

KushnerKushner refers to the “gnawing suspicion” that there is a hidden unity underlying all of the mess that we find ourselves in. “Suspicion” is a well-chosen term, because a reorientation from Supernatural Theism to Mystical Theism (as Borg calls it; Kushner calls it “mystical monism”) is difficult to talk about and impossible to provide convincing arguments for. Words fail me, although I keep trying to find them. More often than not I fall back on the evidence of a “changed life” and “come and see,” finding strength in the fact that those who have also experienced the sacred and have not just thought about it resonate with me on a level deeper than words. They just “know” what I am trying to convey.

Working out the implications of where this takes me on all sorts of issues is a continuing effort in these pages. Returning briefly to where I began, what might mystical theism say about the fractured and disjointed world in which we live? problem of evilTrying to square such a world with the God of Supernatural Theism gives rise to the problem of evil, perhaps the most intractable philosophical/ theological problem of all. But as Kushner suggests, there is a different orientation available.

If you are a mystic, saying you believe in God means that you have an abiding suspicion that everything is a manifestation of God, and no matter how horrific it might be, it is still, somehow, filled with holiness.

The only evidence for that is experiential, and even such experience is iffy and enigmatic. I have not had the “road to Damascus” sorts of experiences that have changed the lives of many. My reorientation has been more gradual, which for me means it is likely to have the permanence that a “once for all” experience might lack. 100_0331As I sat for many weeks in daily prayer with Benedictine monks several years ago, the reorientation began as I noticed a slow opening of peaceful spaces inside and a new way of seeing what is around me. This does not conflict with my intellect, my mind or my philosophy—it holds them in place. And when I run out of convincing words, I plan to remember this that I just read from Lawrence Kushner:

Why is it that you cannot simply tell someone a great religious truth without a whole rigmarole of questions and hints, allusions and mysteries? It is because that is the way God made the world.dostoyevsky

Home for Each Other

Twenty-eight years ago today my father said a few words over a beautiful redhead and me. 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.

Both of us inched past six decades on earth recently; 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-eight 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-eight 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. 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-eight years of finding out together what love really is!The lovely couple

Repairing the World

Every once in a while someone posts a comment on my blog that reminds me of why I dedicate so much time, thought, and energy to my writing. A week ago, a person new to following my blog posted just such a comment. He was actually commenting on a post that I wrote several months ago.

Donald Trump and Evangelicals

Here’s what he wrote:

It is very refreshing to hear a Christian of faith actually take a stand against the kind of bigotry and political vitriol that we have heard so much in this presidential campaign this year. I was a convert to Judaism almost 40 years ago mainly for some of the reasons you outlined above. As I’ve explained to some of my evangelical Christian friends who I went to high school with in Alabama, I chose Judaism because it allowed me the freedom to question the tenets of my faith without any repercussions from other Jews because there is such a broad spectrum of beliefs within Judaism from atheism to orthodoxy.Tikkun_Olam What unites Jews as a people of faith is not their theological beliefs or political persuasions but their worldview and values regarding the dignity of all people and their commitment as the Chosen People to honor Abraham’s covenant by serving as partners with God to do their part to make this world a better place for all humankind, what in Hebrew is called “tikkun olam” (תיקון עולם) or “repair of the world”.

Although I hadn’t thought about it for a while, I am very familiar with “tikkun olam” and find it to be one of the most fruitful concepts when thinking about God that I have ever encountered. I also believe that there is a similar concept in Christianity, if one knows where to look for it. I call it “incarnation.”

HeschelRabbi Abraham Heschel once said in an interview that “There is a partnership of God and men. God needs our help.”

That is not an exclusively Jewish sentiment; at the heart of Christianity lies the amazing idea that the way God chooses to be in the world is through human beings. I was taught that the Incarnation—God becoming human—was a one-time historical event, but the truth of the matter is that the divine strategy of God engaging with the world in human form continues. In us. Benedictine sister Joan Chittister expresses it well:

God did not finish creation; God started it. Its ongoing development God leaves to us. What we do in life makes us the hands of God in living flesh and blood.

chittisterElsewhere, she expands on the idea:

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

I have found that this proposed collaboration between divine and human exhilarates some and causes others to check their heresy meter.

Understanding incarnation as a continuing divine strategy rather than a one-time deal requires rethinking some characteristics that Christians have traditionally attributed to God—particularly omnipotence. Claims such as “God needs our help” and “God leaves it to us” require some explanation if God is all-powerful and can do whatever God chooses to do. But perhaps power is not the primary motivating factor for the divine. Simone Weil argues that the very act of divine creation was also an act of diminishment, even abandonment. Out of love, God chooses to withdraw from direct intervention in our world, choosing rather to be in the world through the free choices and actions of human beings. Annie Dillard summarizes Weil’s insight as follows:

Mostly, God is out of the physical loop. Or the loop is a spinning hole in his side. Simone Weil takes a notion from luriaRabbi Isaac Luria to acknowledge that God’s hands are tied. To create, God did not extend himself but withdrew himself; he humbled and obliterated himself, and left outside himself the domain of necessity, in which he does not intervene. Even in the domain of souls, he intervenes “only under certain conditions.”

Weil puts it even more strikingly: The absence of God is the most marvelous testimony of perfect love. I teach this aspect of Weil’s thought frequently to mostly Catholic juniors and seniors in an honors capstone seminar. The students invariably find the idea of a God who out of love chooses diminishment in power to be challenging, to say the least. Yet the evidence for such an interpretation is at the heart of the Christian narrative. God become human and lived a human life in humility and weakness; from within these parameters, parameters that define all of us, the world was changed forever.

The commenter on my blog has been following my essays for only a couple of weeks or so and has apparently been reading any number of posts. He closed by reacting to a different essay from a while ago.

Socratic Faith

As a Jew I have the kind of Socratic faith that you have and which you so eloquently explained in one of your blogs. It may not always feel like it to you, but I believe you are doing God’s work, whether there is a God or not. Your brand of Christianity makes me want to believe that there is.

Thanks, I needed that.

A Free Man of Faith

I wrote this essay last Saturday as a reflection on Muhammad Ali’s memorial service that I had watched the day before and scheduled it to go out on Monday morning. Then the Orlando massacre happened early Sunday morning; I moved this post to this morning and posted something different on Monday.

The day after . . . again

As I reread today’s essay this morning, it strikes me that we can learn a great deal from the life of Muhammad Ali about how to respond as individuals and communities to such horrific events. The life of one of the greatest boxers ever should inspire us to come out of our corners.

Thowewo of the greatest sports stars of their generation—indeed, of any generation—passed away last week. Gordie Howe, known as “Mister Hockey,” died at the ripe old age of eighty-eight; he was a star on the Detroit Red Wings when I was a kid, so long ago that there were only six teams in the National Hockey League. Each team had a large collection of stars, but Howe was the greatest of them all. He played for so long (well into his fifties) that he described his play toward the end of his career as “poetry in slow motion.” He was not only one of the greatest scorers in hockey history, but he was also tough as nails—as players from bench warmers to superstars tended to be in those days. Scoring three goals in one game is called a “hat trick;” howe hat trickHowe patented the “Howe hat trick,” which was awarded to a player (often him) who scored a goal, got an assist, and got into a fight in one game.

Then there was the champ. I spent three hours on Friday afternoon watching the remarkable memorial celebration of Muhammad Ali’s life in Louisville, Kentucky. I wrote last Saturday about my admiration for Ali and the subtle influences that his life had on mine during my formative years. I am not usually inclined to watch an interminably long memorial service, even one for a man who was one of my heroes. I’m not sure that I would have sat through such an event for Jesus had there been one and had I been invited. But the service was riveting—it should be required viewing for any person who believes that our world is beyond hope. Just the visual of representatives of five different faiths on stage and delivering eulogies at a memorial celebrating the life of the world’s most famous Muslim was beautiful to behold. memorialThere was not a false note in any person’s remarks—there was nothing perfunctory going on. I turned coverage on as Ali’s funeral procession was still inching toward the downtown sports arena in Louisville where the memorial took place. Thousands of people lined the nineteen-mile route from Ali’s childhood home to the arena; many ran up to the hearse bearing Ali’s casket just to touch the side of the vehicle or to run alongside while shadow boxing as the champ used to do. Inside the arena there was no decoration other than an American flag hung with an Olympic flag next to it hanging over the stage. No pictures, no video montage of Ali’s life. Simply as many thousands of Louisvillians as could be stuffed into the arena to share in the celebration of a remarkable life.

Eulogies from two presidents were part of the program. President Obama, unable to attend because his oldest daughter was graduating from high school on Friday, sent his senior advisor Loretta Lynch to read his remarks. The program concluded with a beautiful ten-minute remembrance from Bill Clinton. clintonClinton, who is as good at capturing the mood and emotion of a room as any person—president or otherwise—that I have ever seen, did not disappoint. Describing Ali as “a universal soldier for our common humanity,” the former President chose to focus his remarks, not primarily on what made Ali unique and remarkable, but rather on what every one of us shares in common—both with the champion and with each other.

The first half of Muhammad Ali’s life was energized by his many stunning natural gifts, from physical speed and strength to intelligence and eloquence, gifts that set a unique trajectory to his story. He chose to write his own narrative and embraced the consequences of the story he lived. But Clinton’s eulogy focused on the second half of the champ’s life.

The first part of his life was dominated by the triumph of his truly unique gifts. The second part of his life was more important because he refused to be imprisoned . . . ali parkinsonsIn the second half of his life, he perfected gifts that we all have, gifts of mind and heart. It’s just that he found a way to release them in ways large and small.

The second half of Ali’s life, of a course, was lived with Parkinson’s disease, a fate which, from the outside at least, seemed particularly cruel. It was painful to see such brilliant physical and mental abilities slowly and inexorably eroded. But those who knew him, whose lives were touched by the ailing champion, experienced something quite different.

Muhammad was a truly free man of faith. Being a man of faith, he realized that he would never be fully in control of his life. Being free he realized that there would still be opportunity for choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today.

Muhammad Ali was as free as a human being can be, free because he dared to choose and to embrace the responsibility for those choices. But, as President Clinton pointed out, it was his profound and deep faith, the faith for which he was willing to sacrifice his title and place his freedom at risk, that caused him to flourish in the midst of adversity.

ProtagorasClinton’s insight is a powerful one—“Being a man of faith, he realized that he would never be fully in control of his life.” Each human individual’s natural orientation reflects what Ali so often said publicly: “I am the greatest.” As Protagoras reportedly said, each of us believes that we “are the measure of all things,” and few of us ever have as much empirical evidence to support the claim as Ali did. But a person of faith knows that there is a great deal more going on in heaven and earth than meets the eye. There is much that is beyond the control of even the most powerful and charismatic person, much that limits the choices of even the most influential and effective individual. But our choices are never entirely taken away, even when the scope of our freedom is severely limited. With his remarkable physical and intellectual gifts reduced, Ali’s choices were those that are available to even mere mortals—the choice of how to respond freely to what is beyond our control. Ali chose to release the gifts of love, gratitude, joy and peace into the world, rather than bitterness, anger, and regret. And, as Bill Clinton noted, it was those choices that defined his life and made him a beloved figure and icon in a world badly in need of something good to embrace.

The outpouring of love for Muhammad Ali over the past week is an appropriate tribute to a man who was “The Greatest” in many ways. But as several people on the platform at the memorial service reminded us, Ali’s greatness was not primarily because of his special gifts and abilities. His greatness was rather due to his having made extraordinary use, throughout a life marked both by great triumph and crushing adversity, of choices and gifts that are available to all of us on a daily basis.I am ali

We all have an Ali story. It is the gifts we all have that should be honored today. Because he released them to the world. We should honor him by letting our gifts out into the world as he did.

The Burden of LIght

TDWCeaching for close to twenty years in an interdisciplinary program with colleagues from a multitude of disciplines has provided me with the best that academe can offer a professor—a continuing education. In an academic world which so often demands narrower and narrower research focus and specialization from its members, it has been a gift to spend the majority of my career thus far at a place that welcomes breadth and encourages—and sometimes requires—its faculty to regularly wander outside their comfort zone in the classroom. In my early years at the college, a few of the older faculty—some of whom had been part of the creation of this interdisciplinary program in the seventies—used to joke that the course was really for the enjoyment and edification of the faculty. Students were allowed in only to pay the bills. I have learned more about history, theology, music, art, and literature through my participation in this program than I could have in any number of graduate courses.Caravaggio

I learned, for instance, about chiaroscuro from the art lectures offered regularly by a colleague from the history department who was frequently a member of my teaching team during my early years in the program. This colleague, now an emeritus professor, is a specialist in American Presidential history—and also knows a lot about art and music, especially opera. In painting, chiaroscuro is a technique that uses strong contrasts between light and dark, bold contrasts that affect the whole composition. Many Renaissance artists used the technique; my colleague’s preferred examples came from the work of Caravaggio. My colleague’s go-to illustration of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro was “The Calling of Saint Matthew.”

Calling of Saint Matthew

There is some debate concerning who Matthew is in this painting. Is he the guy with the beard pointing at himself (“Who, me?”)? Or is he the young counting money and not paying attention, to whom the guy with the beard is pointing (“Who, him?”)? I prefer the latter interpretation, but there is no debate about the power of light and shadow in this painting. The light shining from a window outside the top right of the canvas illuminates just enough of Jesus’ modest halo to make clear who he is, as well as the expressions on the faces of everyone at the table. But this light also makes the shadows even darker and more pronounced. Light does not dispel the darkness, but it changes everything. This light has transformed the life of the man on whom it is directed—for better and for worse.hast_ox_yoke[1]

According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus once said that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jeanne told me recently of an “aha!” moment she had not long ago related to this “burden is light” business. She (and probably everyone else aware of the passage and its context) always assumed that Jesus meant that the burden of following him is not heavy—it’s light. And I’m sure that’s what the Greek text implies as well. But thanks to the wonders of the English language, this passage can mean something entirely different and much more interesting. What if Jesus means that it is our burden—our duty—to illuminate the darkness, to bring light into a world that badly needs it? What if we read “light” in “my burden is light” as a noun rather than as an adjective? There are all sorts of light-related references attributed to Jesus, including that we are “the light of the world.” And yet Caravaggio and others show us through their skillful use of chiaroscuro that being a light-bearer comes with a built-in price—illuminating the darkness also involves revealing the shadows, both in oneself and in others. Sometimes commitment and faithfulness come with a cost.

freedomwriters[1]Jeanne went on to say that her new reading of “my burden is light” reminded her of an important scene from one of her favorite movies. “Freedom Writers” is the story of Erin Gruwell, played in the movie by Hilary Swank, a young, idealistic teacher in south Los Angeles in the 1990s who finds her enthusiasm and creativity stretched to the breaking point by students divided into gangs along racial lines and an administration who refuses to let Gruwell give the students books to read because the books might be stolen or damaged. Her unorthodox teaching methods incrementally have a positive impact on her students, but there is a price to be paid. patrick-dempsey-hilary-swank-in-freedom-writers[1]Toward the end of the movie Erin is having dinner with her father and breaks into tears. Her husband has left her, due to her 24/7 dedication to her job and a lack of time for him and their marriage. She sits, weeping, asking her father “Has any of this been worth it? Does it even matter? Have I made any difference?” Her father, who up to this point has been less than supportive of Erin’s commitment, looks at her and says, “You have been blessed with a burden, my daughter. I envy and admire that.”

Jesus told his followers that “You are the light of the world.”  Persons of faith are also blessed with a burden—a burden of light. This is not a burden of things to do, actions to perform, positions to take, any more than light considers illumination to be its job. Many centuries ago, Aristotle resonated with this insight when he argued that the moral life is far less about what a person does than it is about that person’s character, about who that person is. Just as light changes everything it comes into contact just by being what it is, so the person of character reveals herself and introduces light into the darkness simply by being, by showing up. And this is the call to persons of faith. 23390200_9895fcc823[1]Be there; show up; remember that we have the divine within us. The light may be dim, flickering, all but invisible, but it is the way in which the divine invades the darkness. It doesn’t simply remove darkness; indeed, it reveals new shadows and dark places that could not be seen before the light arrived. But our burden, shadows and all, is to be what we have chosen to be—divine light bearers.

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

One of my favorite annual teaching activities is immersing freshmen in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.

JC and family values

Family Values?

I was angry with my father for a lot of reasons over the years, some justified and some not. But I don’t recall any time when I was more pissed at him than when I heard him say on one of his cassette-taped “fireside chats”imagesWCLS816W aimed at his followers and groupies that “a person’s real family is almost never his blood family.” Thanks a lot, Dad—signed, “One of your blood family.” I heard this a few short months after my mother died many years too early of cancer and my father had remarried in record-breaking time. “Of course you feel nothing but positive familial vibes from your groupies,” I thought. “They’ve never experienced your self-centeredness, your moods, your superiority complex or had to put up with your annoying quirks as your blood family has.” To call a bunch of people who are nothing but cheerleaders for everything you say and do a “family” distorts the meaning of the word beyond recognition.

I have learned a number of things over the years, including that many of my problems with my father were mirrors of my own unaddressed problems. Strangely enough, I have also discovered that Dad may not have been as wrong about family dynamics as I thought. imagesGKY3V9C7Taking a close look at what the source (Jesus) said in the Gospels about the possibility of following God and being a good family person is enough to give one pause about a lot of things, including the very familiar “family values” that are trumpeted by political and religious folks from all sorts of angles at the drop of a hat.

Stereotypically, “family values” are conservative values, focusing on respect for authority, hard work, independence, patriotism, faith and so on; often they are largely synonymous with traditional values, which tend to include social positions such as anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage and lurking suspicions about homosexuality in general. But during every political cycle liberal and progressive voices are heard crying out that true family values are about concern for others, lifting the downtrodden and speaking truth to power. And the never-ending war over who truly defines and owns family values rages on. JC and family valuesMy own moral compass strongly aligns with the progressive perspective, but in this case it is a mistake for either side (or any in the middle) to stake a Jesus claim on family values. Because it is pretty clear from the Gospel stories that Jesus himself didn’t give a damn about family values or families at all.

WJMIn the Forward to his wonderful short book What Jesus Meant, Garry Wills provides an illuminating reflection on the What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD?) meme that has for many years served a host of Christians as their “go to” touchstone for how to live a Christian life. One can find WWJD? coffee cups, posters, key chains, bumper stickers, tee shirts—the idea has been viral for a while. Wills asks, do we really want to do what Jesus did?WWJD For example:

  • Should a person say to his or her mother “Woman, what have I to do with you?” when she asks for a favor?
  • Should we encourage twelve-year-olds to speak to their parents rudely and dismissively as Jesus did to Mary and Joseph during the Temple episode?
  • Should we tell a person mourning the recent death of his or her father to “Let the dead bury their dead” in order to pursue more lofty goals (such as following us)?
  • Should we tell people that hating their parents, siblings, and children is a prerequisite for seeking after God?

deadJesus’ brothers neither understood nor understood his mission (it’s not always clear that Jesus fully understood it himself); when residents of Nazareth started saying that Jesus had lost his mind, his family pursued the first century equivalent of having him committed. Those who did follow Jesus during his itinerant ministry left their homes, their spouses, their children and their jobs behind as they were sucked into this strange man’s disruptive wake.

In other words, if one is concerned about family values, WWJD? is useful only as a guide for what one should not do. All attempts to root one’s own moral code, regardless its content, in the example of Jesus from the Gospel stories are little more than thinly veiled attempts to create Jesus in one’s own image. For every Gospel text congruent with our understanding of family values (and there are many such texts), there is a text in which Jesus promises that following him and seeking God is guaranteed to turn one’s world upside down and to violate almost every traditional moral expectation and norm.

Everyone is aware of families torn apart and destroyed when one of the family members sets out on a mission to “accomplish God’s work.” LombardiThis is not hard to explain, given the above—the stories of Jesus give ample justification for ignoring one’s family obligations and connections if they conflict with the perceived will of God for one’s life. So what’s the takeaway here? The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi used to tell his Green Bay Packers players that their priorities were to be “God, Family, and the Green Bay Packers”—although his players report that frequently he clearly changed the order. Is God a cosmic Vince Lombardi insisting upon being at the pinnacle of a rigid hierarchy, to the detriment of anything else, no matter how important, that might conflict?

That does indeed appear to be the case, assuming that the game of hierarchical “Who’s on top?’ is what the divine has in mind. But what if that isn’t the point at all? What if Jesus’ consistently violating our values and expectations is a call to consider something more radical than our limited imaginations can accommodate? top of heapIf, rather than residing at “the top of the heap,” God is everything and everything is in God, then the lay of the land is no longer a landscape of “either/or.” The answer to the question “which is more important, God or family?” is “yes.” Jesus’ provocative statements concerning the family are intended to demonstrate that when we include God as just another object of important things that need to be placed in proper order we are misconstruing God entirely.

If everything is in God, then God is not ultimately in conflict with anything. If God and family appear to be in conflict, then faith tells me that somewhere, at some level, God and family are in unity regardless of appearances. If I have to regularly choose between paying attention to God and to my job, then my faith-energized assignment is to learn how to find God in my job (since my job is in God, as is everything else). Attempts to fit the life of faith into familiar categories, even if we are willing to significantly adjust those categories, miss the boat. The energy of the Christian life is captured well by the Apostle Paul: I will show you a more excellent way.MEW

red_blue_states

Red and Blue Bubbles

As Jeanne and I do various things in the house on Saturdays, we often have NPR on. This past Saturday, however, our local NPR station was in the midst of fund-raising,RINPR interrupting the shows we wanted to hear so that two locals in the studio could talk to each other about how fabulous it would be if people would call in or go online and contribute money so that we could avoid having our local public radio station circle down the drain for another few months. About as exciting as watching paint dry. I actually am a monthly contributor (sustaining member, no less), which makes having to listen to fund-raising even more annoying. There should be a special station where people such as I can listen to what they tuned in and paid for while fund-raising is going on—I’m told that a couple of NPR stations  actually do have such an arrangement, but they have a far greater listening audience than our tiny state can muster.

MN_LakeWobegon1aTurning to WGBH, the mega-Boston NPR station, I was glad to hear that they were not fund-raising. “Prairie Home Companion” was on, which I find mildly amusing—fictional Lake Wobegone is actually based on a little town in central Minnesota close to where I spent a few months on sabbatical five years ago—but generally not amusing enough to fully engage my attention. Then guest musician Brad Paisley sang a song with the following lyrics:

Not everybody drives a truck, not everybody drinks sweet tea
Not everybody owns a gun, wears a ball cap boots and jeans
Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race
Not everybody knows the words to “Ring Of Fire” or “Amazing Grace”

southern comfort zoneThe song is “Southern Comfort Zone,” a zone about as far from my comfort as one could possibly get. Paisley is bemoaning how tough it is to be away from his Tennessee home, which I find hilarious. Dude, I lived in Tennessee for three years and was looking to escape within two months of our forced arrival (Memphis was the location of my first teaching job after graduate school). I do go to church and do know the words (lyrics, that is) to “Amazing Grace,” but other than that, the comfort zone Paisley is longing for is as far outside mine as possible. I don’t own a gun, I find sweet tea vomit-worthy, mtajikand I think NASCAR is probably the preferred entertainment in hell. Somehow I think I would be more at home in Tajikistan than in the “Southern Comfort Zone.”

I was reminded of a survey that popped up on my Facebook wall a week or so ago. This one, “Do You Live in a Bubble?” is much more detailed and serious than most quizzes that have popped up in the past months.

Do You Live in a Bubble?

Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist at the AEI.pngAmerican Enterprise Institute, argues that the super wealthy, super educated and super snobby live in so-called super-ZIPs, cloistered together, with little to no exposure to American culture at large. Such people, he says, live in a social and cultural bubble. His 25-question quiz, covering matters of interest from beer and politics to Avon and “The Big Bang Theory,” is intended to help readers determine how thick their own bubble may be. After taking the quiz one is given a score from 1-100; the higher the score, the less thick one’s liberal, pointy-headed, academic blue-state bubble is.

I fully expected to receive a negative score, if that is possible, given that the vast majority of my friends are liberal, Episcopalian, college-educated and/or college professors (often all four). Sure enough, questions such as these clearly skewed me toward the center of a thick-walled blue bubble.

Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreements? I have many acquaintances with whom I would have such disagreements if we talked about politics. But we don’t.

During the last month have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes? Definitely not.

Do you know what military ranks are denoted by these five insignia? (Click each one to show the correct rank). I might have guessed one of them correctly.army-insignia

During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge? We’ve had this conversation before– If I Were a Beer . . . No.

Do you own a gun? During the last five years, have you or your spouse gone fishing? No, and no. We haven’t been hunting, gone to a NASCAR event, or eaten grits or biscuits and gravy either, just in case you are wondering (they were).

Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or a meeting at a union local? Really? No.

But I scored a 53 on this quiz, which essentially means that I’m comfortable in both the elitist blue bubble and the sweet-tea-drinking red(neck) bubble. That’s not true—it’s not even close to true. How the hell did this happen? Undoubtedly because of questions such as these:

Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck? As a matter of fact, yes. A number of years ago, under circumstances too complicated and forgettable to summarize, the only working vehicle Jeanne and I owned was a small Ford pickup that was barely road worthy.DIGITAL CAMERA

Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights? Once. I played the sousaphone in my high school marching band my senior year. And by the way, how often do war protest or global warming parades happen?

Have you ever walked on a factory floor? Yes. My uncle owned a small factory that assembled modular homes and I visited once.

Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day? Are there really people out there who could honestly answer this one “No”? Now that’s really a 1% bubble! I had many such jobs as a teenager and twenty-something—and my brain often hurts at the end of a long day of teaching.

Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community under 50,000 population that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college? Yes, for at least twenty of my sixty years.

Johnson_Jimmynscs_jimmie_johnson_456x362.png.mainThere were also questions about whether I know the difference between Jimmie and Jimmy Johnson (I do), and how often I ate at Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesdays, TGI Fridays or Chili’s in the past year (fortunately, only a few). And then the question that totally skewed my score:

Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian? The survey went on to clarify that The distinguishing characteristics of evangelical Christians are belief in the historical accuracy of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, including especially the divinity and resurrection of Christ, and belief in the necessity of personal conversion — being “born again” — as a condition for salvation.

evangelicalism-300x462Mr. Murray. You really don’t have to explain to me what an evangelical Christian is. Everyone I knew growing up was an evangelical Christian, including me. I’ve spent the last forty years or so not so much trying to get over it as to try to understand how it has shaped me and what is still forming me. I don’t call myself an evangelical Christian any more—“freelance” presses that boundary way too far—but I have drunk the Kool Aid, and lived to write about it.

I was somewhat embarrassed to post my results—I really don’t want to be as well-balanced in this case as the quiz claims I am. Several of my Facebook acquaintances in the blue bubble were offended by the obvious sense in which the quiz was trying to make us feel badly about how thick our bubble walls are. These friends suggested a few questions that could be asked in an alternative “Do You Live in a Red Bubble?” quiz.

Do you know who Mr. Casaubon is?
How many times in the past year have you eaten arugula?
Do you know the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites?sunni-vs-shia
How many of your friends are nonwhite?
Do you know anyone who is married to his or her first- or second-cousin?

Well, I threw that last one in but you get the point. The problem with this sort of exercise is that it tends to thicken the walls of one’s bubble rather than making it more likely that one will go to the other bubble for a couple of weeks on vacation. Unless you live in a blue bubble and your relatives live in a red one. Then you bite the bullet and do your duty, trying to smile as you turn down yet another offer of sweet tea. But I am not watching NASCAR.??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Doubt and Dedication

Last Sunday was “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” As I wrote some while ago, despite the bad rap he has received for two thousand years, Thomas is one of my spiritual heroes. Here’s why.

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty Anne Lamott

            massacre[1]Michel de Montaigne’s world was filled with religious fervor and piety. It was also filled with hatred and violence. Sixteenth-century France was not a pretty place—in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, Christians were killing each other with regularity and abandon, all in the name of Christ. Catholics and Protestants each were certain that they were right; energized by such certainty, each was willing to kill the other in the name of truth and right belief.

michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Michel was an upper class landowner and occasional politician—he was mayor of Bordeaux for two terms as well as a trusted diplomat and liaison. Sensitive and melancholy by nature, Montaigne was appalled by the violence that was tearing his country, his town, his neighborhood, even his own family apart. Accordingly, in his middle years he did what any introverted, sensitive, melancholy guy would have done. He withdrew to his turret libraryimages[11] in the small castle on his family estate and wrote—for the rest of his life. His finely honed powers of perception fueled his creative energies, with thousands of words spilling out onto the page often more quickly than he could think.MONTAIGNE[2] The result, Montaigne’s Essais, consists of fascinating and brilliant bite-sized essays on every topic imaginable, from cannibals and sexual preferences to Michel’s favorite food, his kidney stones, and his cat. And in the midst of this loosely organized jumble of creativity and insight, Michel frequently sounds like Rodney King in the midst of the Los Angeles riots—“Can’t we all get along?”

Montaigne writes that “there is no hostility so extreme as that of the Christian. Our zeal works marvels when it seconds our inclination toward hatred, cruelty, ambition, greed, slander, and rebellion.” This was the world in which he lived. Michel’s antidote?  Let’s stop claiming to be certain about what we believe and try some healthy doubt and skepticism on for size. Certainty is vastly overrated and is frequently dangeroustumblr_m8k1239tDW1rnvzfwo1_500[1], especially when claimed in matters that are far beyond the reach of human capacities. Montaigne is convinced that for the most part, human beings are not designed for the rarified air of certainty. He directly challenges those who “claim to know the frontiers and bounds of the will of God,” observing that “there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities.” Is there anything more ludicrous, he asks, than our propensity to believe most firmly that which we know least about and to be most sure of ourselves when we are farthest from what we can verify? Human beings claiming certainty about the will and nature of God would be humorous, and Michel often presents it that way, were it not that such claims are often the basis for the worse of what human beings are capable of, including prejudice, violence, and killing.hops-pickers-on-stilts[1] Even as we seek preposterously to elevate ourselves to the level of the divine, Montaigne reminds us that we remain rooted in our humanity. “There is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts wedepositphotos_4980424-Fantasy-throne-room[1] must still walk on our own legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own ass.”

Because of his willingness to embrace messiness and uncertainty as part of the human experience, because of his willingness to call chaos what it is and not something else, Montaigne is one of my heroes. So, as a matter of fact, is the star of Sunday’s gospel—Thomas.Doubting Thomas[1] “Doubting Thomas,” as he almost always is described, occupies a unique place in the line-up of disciples. He’s the one who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen, wouldn’t believe second-hand reports from eye witnesses, until he saw Jesus himself, until he saw the wounds in his hands, feet and side. Thomas was always brought to our attention in Sunday School as someone not to be like; indeed, Jesus’ put down of Thomas after Thomas finally believes—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”—provides us two thousand years later with something to be proud of. We, not having seen, are the blessed ones while Thomas (the loser) gets in by the skin of his teeth.

But there is another way to read this, a way in which Thomas turns out not to be a spiritual weakling, but rather to be a model of how to approach the spiritual life. We don’t know much about Thomas apart from this story; he is included in the list of disciples in the first three gospels, but John is the only gospel in which Thomas makes an appearance. He’s not one of the inner circle, but occasionally makes appropriate comments Peter and John hurry to the empty tomband asks good questions. In John 20, John’s account of the resurrection and its aftermath, we find the disciples, minus Thomas, hiding in a room with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.” Peter and John have already seen the empty tomb, but there is an atmosphere of confusion, uncertainty and fear in the room. Jesus appears to them, and all uncertainty vanishes. But Thomas was not there.

Where was he? Perhaps he wasn’t as afraid as the other disciples and was out and about on that first day of the week, as were the women who first saw the empty tomb. Perhaps he was on a food run for the rest of the disciples who were too frightened to emerge from their safe house. But he misses the big event. When the other disciples report that “we have seen the Lord,” Thomas’ response places him forever in the disciples’ hall of shame: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

saint-thomas-the-apostle-00[1]Fair enough, I say. Remember that the other disciples apparently did not believe until Jesus appeared to them. The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize that Jesus was with them until he emerged from the pages of the Old Testament prophecies that he was pontificating about and broke bread with them. Why should Thomas not be cut the same slack? Embedded in the middle of this misunderstood story is a fundamental truth: A true encounter with the divine is never second-hand. Hearing about someone else’s experiences, trying to find God through the haze of various religious and doctrinal filters, is not a replacement for the real thing. Doubt and uncertainty are central threads in the human fabric and play a fundamental role in belief. Unfounded claims of certainty undermine this. Don’t believe on the cheap. imagesCA7OWR7MBetter to remain uncertain and in doubt one’s whole life, doggedly tracking what glimmers of light one sees, than to settle for a cheap knock-off or a counterfeit. As Annie Dillard writes, “Doubt and dedication often go hand in hand.” Thomas’s—and Michel’s—insight is captured well by the remainder of the passage from Anne Lamott with which I began this post:Anne Lamott

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.

Thomas was right. We should save “My Lord and my God” for the real thing.

Dodge City Ethics

Bein’ born is craps. How we live is poker. Doc Holliday

sparrowOf the dozens of novelists whose books I have read over the years, Mary Doria Russell is one of the least likely favorites. I’m not a big science fiction fan (I much prefer mysteries), but her debut novels The Sparrow and Children of God, about a Jesuit missionary expedition in outer space (you can’t beat Catholics in space!) are both beautifully written and thought-provoking. Dreamers of the Day, set in Egypt during the post-World War One partitioning of Palestine, is much better than I expected it would be. And I’ve avoided her most recent novels, Doc and Epitaph, which follow Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers through late nineteenth-century Dodge City and Tombstone, for quite a while since I’ve never been a fan of Wild West fiction. But a recent reread of Dreamers of the Day reminded me of what a wonderful writer Russell is; I was looking for a new novel, so Doc and Epitaph it is. I highly recommend  them.doc

Doc is set in 1878 Dodge City where the genteel and consumptive dentist John Henry “Doc” Holliday finds himself scratching out a living as a card shark by night and a sometimes-dentist for cowboys who have never seen a toothbrush by day. A Northern-educated Southern gentleman who headed west hoping that the dry Plains air might be good for his lungs, Doc finds himself in a violent world where life means little and in which most of his acquaintances can barely read, let alone appreciate his conversational references to Vergil and Dostoevsky. One exception is Morgan Earp, the youngest of three Earp brothers in town, who is a policeman along with his older brother Wyatt. Wyatt can barely read, but Doc happily loans Morgan favorite volumes from the library he brought with him from Georgia, including Crime and Punishment and Oliver Twist.

One morning Morgan is in Doc’s dentist office as Doc extracts several teeth from a chloroformed Wyatt, Doc and Morgan discuss the novels Morgan is reading.holliday

  • Doc: Morgan, how are you and Mr. Dickens getting along?
  • Morgan: I lie him better than Dostoevsky. Oliver Twist reminds me of Wyatt when he was a kid.
  • Doc: You met Mr. Fagin yet?
  • Morgan: Yeah. Ain’t made up my mind about him. He’s good to feed all those boys, but he’s teaching them to be pickpockets too. That don’t seem right.
  • Doc: But that is just what makes Fagin interestin’. Raskolnikoff, too. Fagin does his good deed with a bad purpose in mind, but the boys are still fed. Raskolnikoff kills the old woman, but he wants to use her money to improve society. As Monsieur Balzac asked, May we not do a small evil for the sake of accomplishin’ a great good?
  • Morgan: I don’t know. It’s still an evil.
  • Doc: And yet, that seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.

posterAnd there, in a dentist office in dusty, dirty Dodge City, is the heart of one of the greatest quandaries in ethics. Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it ever morally permissible to act immorally in the attempted achievement of a great moral good?

Philosophers love this stuff. The other day when I tried to get a colleague and friend from the English department to choose whether she would choose to support our Providence Friars basketball team or the University of Virginia Cavaliers (UVA is her beloved alma mater) if they played in the Final Four, she asked “Is this one of those philosophy games where you give someone completely unrealistic hypotheticals and then force them to make a choice?” She undoubtedly had heard philosophy puzzles such as

Suppose an out-of-control train is running down the tracks directly at a bus full of 30 people stalled on the track. You have the opportunity to redirect the train to another track where one person is stalled in a car on the track. trolleyIf you don’t pull the switch to redirect the train, thirty people will die. If you do, one person will die and thirty people’s lives will be saved. Do you pull the switch?

To complicate matters, suppose that the one person on the second track is a brilliant scientist who is on the edge of discovering a cure for cancer. Does that make a difference? What if he or she is a homeless person? You get the point.

Surprisingly, non-philosophers don’t always enjoy playing such hypothetical games (by the way, my colleague said she would cheer for UVA, which almost ended our friendship instantly). But the issues raised by Morgan and Doc’s conversation still hold. c and pWas it morally permissible for Raskolnikov to murder the useless old miserly woman in the interest of distributing the millions of rubles she was hoarding to hungry and needy people? Does Fagin’s feeding of dozens of hungry children lose its positive moral strength when we find out that he is training them to be pickpockets and becoming rich in the process?

Many philosophers and theologians have noted that in an unpredictable world filled with evil, no one’s hands are ever morally pure—regardless of their intentions. Doc and Morgan’s conversation moves in this direction.

  • Doc: We’re none of us born into Eden. World’s plenty evil when we get here. Question is, what’s the best way to play a bad hand?
  • Morgan: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  • Doc: Infinitely sad, but damnably true. Bein’ born is craps, but how we live is poker. The question is how to play a bad hand well.

The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus could not have said it better: “For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

But on this day after Easter, I would be remiss if I did not return for a moment to Doc’s characterization of the events of Good Friday and Easter: “That seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.” hyacinthMaybe, but something tells me that a utilitarian number-crunching calculus is not the motivating factor behind Easter. At the heart of the story is radical love—God responds to our flawed human condition by becoming one of us, taking on everything that defines us including pain, injustice, suffering, and death. The new life of Easter emerges from the worst that our world can offer, just as the hyacinths are poking their heads out of the seemingly dead grass in my front yard. No matter the hand we’re dealt, that’s the way to play it.