Tag Archives: faith

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.

crucifixion[1]

A Common Criminal

During the Providence Friars’ recent exciting basketball season, Jeanne and I frequently watched a replay of the team’s most recent win the next day online. Every game has its ebbs and flows, including moments when in real time it appears that we are headed for defeat. The virtues of watching a replay the next day when the positive outcome is already known include no stress and the opportunity to savor the best plays in a way that is impossible in real time. Mind you, we have never watched a replay of a Friars loss—why submit ourselves voluntarily to an experience that we know ends badly? Even the worst of times can be weathered and perhaps appreciated when one knows that things work out in the end. Jeanne’s and my habit is entirely harmless when confined to our love of college basketball, theology of glorybut this is also how millions of Christians tend to treat Good Friday, the darkest day in the liturgical year.

In the religious tradition of my youth, Good Friday was a speed bump on the way to Easter. Our theology was what scholars call a “theology of glory,” one that emphasizes the power and glory of God as exemplified through Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world on Good Friday and his triumphant resurrection from the dead three days later. It is difficult to pay more than twenty-four hours of attention to the suffering and agony of the cross when you know that it all ends up in the right place. Although I left many features of my conservative Protestant upbringing in my rear view mirror decades ago, I did not start thinking differently about Good Friday and Easter until I encountered Simone Weil’s work for the first time twenty-five years ago. SimoneWeil writes that “The death on the Cross is something more divine than the Resurrection,” and suggests that the heart of Christianity would be complete with the Crucifixion even without the Resurrection. What happens if the focus of one’s Christian faith is Good Friday rather than Easter?

The Crucifixion without anticipating the Resurrection first moves our attention away from glory, power, and triumph, instead focusing us on suffering, pain, and weakness. This in itself brings home the fundamental fact of Christian belief—God became human, with an emphasis on the human part. This is something that a theology of glory tends to de-emphasize, at the risk of turning away from the most fundamental truths of the human experience. A couple of years ago I had a discussion with my after-church adult education group about the end of the jobs-restorationBook of Job in the Jewish Scriptures, an ending tacked on long after the main story had been written in which after forty some chapters of suffering Job gets back everything that he had lost. I asked the group why someone might have found it necessary to add this “happily ever after” ending to such a dark and human story. “Because the original ending is too tough,” someone suggested. “Because people want to believe that the suffering has a point, that it is all for something,” another contributed. “Which makes the better story?” I asked. The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something regular participant said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. theology of the crossA theology that depends on a triumphant, happy ending is one that runs the risk of failing to address the human condition as we find it.

In contrast to a theology of glory, the God of a theology of the cross addresses the human condition, not by overcoming it, but by becoming part of it. The vast distance between the human and the divine is mediated by the divine becoming incarnated in flesh and thus becoming subject to everything that human beings are subject to—including suffering and death.

Incarnation and crucifixion are expressions of love; resurrection is an expression both of love and power. Simone Weil focuses on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection in order to counter our common tendency to rush ahead to the Resurrection, thus failing to recognize the depth of the agony and suffering required for Christ’s mediation. She does not deny the Resurrection; rather, she asks us not to let our joy at the risen Christ diminish our understanding of the price required for us to be made the friends of God.

After the Resurrection the infamous character of his ordeal was effaced by glory, and today, across twenty centuries of adoration, the degradation which is the very essence of the Passion is hardly felt by us . . . We no longer imagine the dying Christ as a common criminal.all flesh is like the grass

The Incarnation and the Crucifixion focus our attention on unlimited love, something that we often are too quick to move past in our rush to a happy ending. But as Job tells us, “mortals die, and are laid low.” Good Friday reminds us that because of divine love the incarnated God did not seek to avoid this fundamental human experience.

St. Paul argued that the focal point of the Christian faith is the Resurrection: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain.” Simone Weil, however, asks us not to forget that more foundationally the Christian faith is vain if there is no Cross, no suffering and death of the divine mediator between God and humanity. Only when we see, as did the penitent thief, that the criminal hanging on a cross, rejected and despised by all, is the perfectly just God-man paying the ultimate sacrifice to achieve mediation between God and humanity will we begin to truly experience the mystery of the Christian faith. If the story ended with Jesus executed as a criminal and dead in a tomb, we still would have reason to believe in a God of love. Our very existence, as well as the existence of the reality we inhabit, is evidence of God’s choice to create in order to love. The story of a God who becomes fully human, who lives a life in time subject to all things each human being is subject to, including suffering, pain, loss, tragedy, injustice, and death serves to drive the point deeper.god is with us Good Friday reveals just how far the divine chooses to go with us—into the depths of despair and death.

The other day Jeanne and I were talking about what the indispensable heart of Christianity might be. My contribution was that “God is love, and God is with us.” Stripped of millennia of doctrinal and dogmatic accretions, that’s what the Christian faith amounts to. And it is on full display on Good Friday with Jesus dying on the cross. Even if there was no Resurrection, the Crucifixion and Incarnation provide everything one needs to know about the human relationship with the divine. God is love. God is with us.

Why Doctrine and Faith Don’t Mix

Holy Week is before us once again—as good a time as any to step back and reflect a bit on where I find myself as a person of faith two weeks into my 60th year. I come from a religious upbringing in which what we believed was crystal clear from large doctrinal demands to minutiae about when television was okay to watch and why dancing and going to movies never were okay. Needless to say, I’ve evolved (or strayed) far from those days, but regularly find myself engaging with friends and acquaintances who are still at home in the world I left a long time ago. Recently, this engagement most often has focused on the Donald Trump phenomenon—htrump at libertyow can millions of conservative, evangelical Christians (where I come from) square their support for such a person with their faith? In a recent discussion on Facebook, one participant asked me for my opinion of a recently published article that was directly on point.

Trump, Evangelicals, and the Road Ahead

I have provided my thoughts on the Trump/evangelical matter frequently on this blog in the past several weeks, so will not repeat myself here. What particularly got me thinking in this particular article was that the author provided four non-negotiable characteristics of Christian evangelicals.

  1. born againConversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus.
  2. Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
  3. Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.
  4. Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

This litmus test helped clarify for me why I am not an evangelical; it also caused me to wonder (as I have frequently wondered over the past few years) whether I have any business calling myself a Christian at all. I arguably fail to satisfy all four of the “isms” in the evangelical litmus test.

For instance, the “conversionism” business has always been a problem for me since, even though the “born again experience” was the sine qua non of membership in our version of Christianity’s inner circle, I knew I had never experienced such a thing. I said all of the right things, generally behaved in the ways I was expected to, but could not provide the date and time of day when I was “born again.” Still can’t. If that’s a fundamental requirement of being Christian, I’m on the outside. In the religious world of my youth, “Biblicism” was a code word for believing that the Bible is the inerrant, literal Word of God—the Protestant parallel of “constitutionalism” in the interpretation of the U. S. Constitution. bibliolatryI couldn’t buy that as a kid—too many contradictions in the text—but am still at least willing to admit that there is something divinely special about this collection of ancient texts. I am very suspicious of “Biblicism” because of how quickly it can turn into “Bibliolatry.”

“Activism,” on the one hand, sounds right in the sense that those who believe something strongly will be motivated to share their beliefs and will seek to convince others to share them as well. On the other hand, this can be problematic in the case of religious belief. I had the opportunity last fall to reflect on the notion of Christian political and social advocacy in the public square for an online magazine—I concluded that while advocating as the person your faith has made you is appropriate, advocating under the banner of one’s religion is not.

Christians in the Public Square

Which leaves the oddly named “crucicentrism,” a notion that strikes at the heart of what Christianity is all about. Christ crucifiedThe doctrinal statements of many Christian churches includes the phrase “We preach Christ crucified,” the sacrifice for the sins of the world—an event Christians will remember on Good Friday five days from now. But the briefest review of contemporary Christian theology reveals a significant segment of Protestant scholars who are challenging the very notion of sacrificial redemption as well as the doctrine of original sin and human depravity that highlights the need for such redemption. I take no side in this debate, not because I do not think it is important but because in my estimation doctrinal litmus tests are misleading at best, damaging to faith at worst.

To illustrate, I turn to a story related by Benjamin Franklin in his widely read autobiography. Franklin lived during “The Great Awakening,” a remarkable religious revival in eighteenth-century New England. He was particularly intrigued by the Dunkers, a small Baptist sect (who “dunked” the newly baptized) that would become the Church of the Brethren a couple of centuries later.autobiography One of the Dunker leaders complained to Franklin that, as often happens when religion is concerned, other religious groups frequently accused the Dunkers of “abominable practices and principles, to which they were utter strangers.” Franklin sensibly suggested that the Dunkers should publish “the articles of their belief, and the rules of their discipline,” something that the majority of Christian sects and denominations still do, thus reducing the opportunity for misunderstanding and slander. To which the Dunker leader remarkably replied as follows:

When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression . . . we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, apostles' creedand perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.

I like the Dunkers’ attitude. Doctrine bothers me because it so easily turns into its evil and rigid twin, dogma. As I recited the Apostles’ Creed with a dozen or so other 8:00 service attendees a couple of Sundays ago, I made more effort than usual to pay attention to what this close-to-two-thousand-years-old affirmation of faith is actually committing me to. There’s some pretty weird stuff there. Not long ago I heard someone mention that she is comforted by the fact that the words she is saying when reciting the creed are the very same words Christian believers have recited for close to two millennia. I’m not sure why that’s something to be comforted by. On the Sunday in question, I rather was wondering what makes any of us think that what fit the bill two millennia ago is still a perfect fit. I was reminded of something I read from Christopher Wiman’s My Bright Abyss not long ago: “Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance.”

I’ll be reflecting on this throughout the week—stay tuned!

No More Manna For You

joshuaA week ago yesterday the reading from the Jewish scriptures at church was brief and a bit odd. Early in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites cross the Jordan River and enter the land that has been promised to them, even though it is already occupied by nomadic tribes and city dwellers who are under the apparently mistaken impression that since they already have been living there for generations, it belongs to them. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, a whole generation of Israelites has been born and grown to adulthood who are unfamiliar with the foundational traditions underlying their heritage. First, the males of the new generation are all circumcised. After a short recovery period (recently circumcised guys aren’t going to be very good soldiers or anything else), we arrive at Sunday’s reading.

While the Israelites were camped . . . they kept the Passover in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the Passover, on the very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened bread and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Understanding the significance of this requires a bit of context—what was this “here today, gone tomorrow” manna all about?red sea

In Exodus we are introduced to manna in the context of a very familiar scenario: The Israelites (who were miraculously delivered from the pursuing Egyptian armies by the parting of the Red Sea a few chapters earlier), are complaining. And with good reason, because they are hungry in the middle of a desert with no food in sight—and it’s God’s fault. “At least when we were slaves in Israel we had enough food to eat,” they moan—which may be a case of selective memory. In any case, God’s solution to their predicament is direct and, to me at least, somewhat amusing. “You want food?? I’ll drop so much meat on you in the evening and so much bread in the morning that you won’t be able to figure out what to do with it all!” mannaThe white material left on the bushes and ground after the dew evaporates is confusing to the Israelites—“WTF is this??” they ask. “Man hu” in Hebrew, from which we get the word “manna.”

Manna turns out to be an Israelite culinary staple for the four decades of wandering in the wilderness. Not surprisingly, they get sick of eating the same damn thing for every meal—in Numbers, their dissatisfaction with their diet plays an important role in the development of a new leadership structure for the tribes. We find the liberated Israelites complaining—again. Everyone is pining for the wonderful variety of food they remember eating in Egypt. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” slaves in egyptOf course, they have conveniently forgotten that when they were in Egypt they were freaking slaves. God is understandably pissed (this is not the first time these complaints have arisen), and Moses is also annoyed. But Moses’ annoyance isn’t just with this rabble of complainers he is in charge of; he’s had it up to here with the Big Guy as well. He’s feeling overworked, overstressed, and unappreciated. After some negotiation with God and some creative input from Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, a new bureaucratic structure of authority is devised and everyone is happy—until the next time.

We discover in the Gospel of John that the Jews of Jesus’ day still took great pride in the fact that God loved their ancestors so much that they were fed for forty years with heavenly miracle food. The problem is, God is no longer in the manna business—according to the reading from Joshua a week ago, he went out of that business as soon as the Israelites crossed the Jordan River. dillardFurthermore, as Jesus reminds his Jewish brethren, eating manna apparently wasn’t that special. “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” Annie Dillard once called this the cruelest thing that Jesus ever said, but not really. Manna was a temporary stopgap to address an immediate need, it ended as soon as a better solution to daily hunger could be found, and it’s nothing to memorialize or interpret as proof that you are special.

Is there anything here for we contemporary folks, a lesson to be lifted out of the pages of Jewish scripture? The story of manna is both a coming-of-age story and a cautionary tale about not holding on to the old when the new is right in front of us. This could also be required reading for people who for a time are deservedly dependent on various social support systems and might be tempted to stay on the dole indefinitely. But as usual, I go first to the spiritual and psychological implications. My Baptist preacher father used to challenge his conservative listeners to “get out of the nursery” and spiritually grow up, noting that a thirty-five-year-old person still in diapers and sucking on a baby bottle would be a rather sad sight. grow upAnd yet that’s precisely what traditional religion often does for those it welcomes through its doors. It provides a lifetime of packaged answers and canned responses to important questions about what is greater than us when after a certain time individuals should be struggling with these questions without their hands being perpetually held. I remember being told as a kid in Sunday School that if the Israelites had taken the most natural direct route from Egypt to the Promised Land, it would have taken them no more than a few weeks. Instead it took them forty years, at least partially because they got used to living on divine handouts and the equivalent of nourishing baby food. The spiritual and psychological equivalent of manna is spooned out to the congregation in many churches every Sunday.

A final return to the newly circumcised and manna-deprived Israelites in the Book of Joshua is in order. It is worth noting that on the day after they celebrated Passover, the very day the manna dried up, “they ate the produce of the land.” In other words, they raided the fields of the people already living in Canaan—the Israelites had just shown up and had no grain-producing fields of their own yet.jericho When the divine handouts and support systems dry up, one needs to get creative. What’s going to replace the reliable divine infusions that are no longer available? It could be anything, including what might seem to be “out of bounds.” And what happens next? The Israelites engage in their first skirmish among many in the extended occupation-of-Canaan campaign that takes up the rest of Joshua—they lay siege to the walled city of Jericho. With help from a prostitute and by marching around the city until the walls fall down, Jericho is taken. Apparently divine help is still available—it just isn’t going to come in the package that we have become accustomed to.