Tag Archives: Fyodor Dostoevsky

I Don’t Know

Let me tell you here first, “trust in God” has never floated my boat as a viable answer to religious questions. From a student notebook

On the day after Christmas 2004, the third strongest earthquake ever measured, deep under the Indian Ocean, caused a tsunami that resulted in the deaths of close to 250,000 people. The vast majority of those who lost their lives were among the poorest people on the planet, the very people who are often most vulnerable to natural disasters. Two months later, Ted Honey, a vicar in the Church of England with twenty years of experience as a priest, gave a Ted Talk that he introduced as follows:

On December 26th last year, just two months ago, that underwater earthquake triggered the tsunami. And two weeks later, Sunday morning, 9th of January, I found myself standing in front of my congregation — intelligent, well-meaning, mostly thoughtful Christian people — and I needed to express, on their behalf, our feelings and our questions. I had my own personal responses, but I also have a public role, and something needed to be said. And this is what I said.

Honey’s talk is one of the most honest—hence disturbing—attempts to grapple from a faith perspective with the problem of natural evil I’ve ever encountered. Among other things, he concludes that he can no longer believe in the sort of traditional God that he has been implicitly supporting and selling to others for most of his adult life. Belief in a good God who oversees the universe with power and love, the one that traditional Christian liturgies and hymns worship and praise, no longer seems possible in the face of disasters such as the tsunami. There are phrases we should no longer say and songs we should no longer sing. Honey favorably quotes Ivan from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who tells his brother that in the face of human and natural evil his inclination is not to deny God’s existence. His inclination instead is to “respectfully return the ticket” of membership in this world of violence and suffering to the God who oversees such a world. Such a God is not worth believing in.

Toward the end of his talk, Honey speculates about alternative divine models, possibilities concerning God that both are compatible with suffering and violence and well outside the confines of conventional theism.

But what if God doesn’t act? What if God doesn’t do things at all? What if God is in things? The loving soul of the universe. An in-dwelling compassionate presence, underpinning and sustaining all things. What if God is in things? In the infinitely complex network of relationships and connections that make up life. In the natural cycle of life and death, the creation and destruction that must happen continuously. In the process of evolution.

How exactly would that work, one might ask. Honey provides the only possible, and perhaps the best, answer.

Is God just another name for the universe, with no independent existence at all? I don’t know. To what extent can we ascribe personality to God? I don’t know. In the end, we have to say, “I don’t know.” If we knew, God would not be God . . . When I stood up to speak to my people about God and the tsunami, I had no answers to offer them. No neat packages of faith, with Bible references to prove them. Only doubts and questioning and uncertainty. I had some suggestions to make — possible new ways of thinking about God. Ways that might allow us to go on, down a new and uncharted road. But in the end, the only thing I could say for sure was, “I don’t know,” and that just might be the most profoundly religious statement of all.

I showed Honey’s talk to the students in my “Beauty and Violence” honors colloquium, a semester-long interdisciplinary exploration of precisely the questions Honey is raising, a week ago. With half of the semester behind us, my students are used to grappling with these problems. Many (most) of them are from religious backgrounds, and have found the colloquium both fascinating and disturbing. In a reflection on last week’s class in her intellectual notebook, one of my students—a biology major on her way to med school in the fall—described the impact Honey’s Ted Talk had on her own continuing questions and struggles. Without edit, here’s what she wrote:

The breath of fresh air this week was to finally hear a member of the church say “I don’t know” like Rev. Tom Honey did in his Ted Talk from this week.  For my entire life, I have faced members of various religious institutions try to stifle my questions, to give me answers that left me unsatisfied, and instructed me to simply “trust in God.” Lemme tell you here first, “trust in God” has never floated my boat as a viable answer to religious questions. And to have a religious figure finally come forward and address the grievances of natural and human disasters, and not dismiss them or wrap an “everything happens for a reason” bow around them is unbelievably refreshing. But also, it’s kind of concerning. If a man of the church doesn’t have confidence in his own teachings, how on earth am I supposed to ever get to that point? Suddenly, my hope to come out of this class with some slim part of my religious beliefs still firmly in tact seems to be withering away. Although I don’t think that is what Reverend Honey was going for, the feeling in my gut that religion is not my thing is only growing stronger. 

I distinctly remember my confirmation into my church when I was younger. We had to write a series of essays which covered a series of topics from reciting various facts about the Lutheran church to affirming our undeniable devotion to the church. I remember my one essay, about my “all in attitude” I had about faith. I wrote it as this metaphor about how I was getting into a taxi cab, and I had no idea where I was going, but I had total faith in the driver that wherever the final destination was, it would be better than where I was now as long as I had total faith. And the pair of moms who were my church leaders thought it was just wonderful, I was saying all the right things, I was “ready” to devote my life to my church. And there I was, fifteen years old, thinking to myself “this is a total lie.” I had my fingers mentally crossed the entire time.  I wanted to just get the hell out of that “taxi” and run back to my house because the whole thing just felt so ridiculous. I had so much doubt, so many parts of my faith that I would think to myself “hm this doesn’t quite make sense”. But I squashed that down because it seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to go to heaven, right? 

I have always doubted so much about my religious background, especially as a science major, but resisted the urge to question because it “wasn’t okay” and, honestly, I wanted to keep my back covered in case the whole heaven thing panned out after all. But Honey called me out, just as our texts and conversations already have many times this semester. And this entire class has made me feel more comfortable than I have ever before in voicing these concerns and being able to say “no I don’t think that’s right.” That was something I never felt like I could do in that Lutheran church.

Will this young lady be able to keep any part of the faith she was handed as a child in tact as she continues to give herself permission to challenge and question? I don’t know. But this I do know—the best foundation for a real and vibrant faith is questioning, doubt, revision, and the courage to keep doing all three. Simone Weil once wrote in a letter to a priest friend that has come to be known as her “Spiritual Autobiography,”

One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.

A Lonely Pawn

Have you never felt like one of those pawns forgotten in a corner of the board, with the sounds of battle fading behind them? They try to stand straight but wonder if they still have a king to serve. Arturo Pérez-Reverteperez reverte

As is my usual custom, I am trying to read as many non-academic, non-work-related books this month as I can before I return to the classroom in three weeks. My current author is Arturo Pérez-Reverte, an internationally acclaimed Spanish author of mysteries and thrillers notable for their intricate and labyrinthine plots. He’s good—not at the top of my list of mystery authors with Elizabeth George, Louise Penny, or P. D. James, but no more than one rung lower on the ladder of excellence. I just finished The Flanders Panel, a complicated and multi-layered story with a sixteenth-century painting by a Flemish master at the center. flanders panelThe painting depicts two men playing a game of chess, with an aristocratic woman reading a book by the window in the background—a game within a game within a game, as it turns out. I’m glad I know a little bit about chess, because its intricacies and strategies take center stage as various characters seek to decipher hidden clues in the painting that promise to reveal the story of a murder that inspired the work of art, as well as to shed light on more recent suspicious deaths.

Let me be clear—I am a horrible chess player. I learned the rules of the game and the movements of each piece from my Dad (also a horrible player), but I know nothing about strategy. The chess matches I have participated in over the years have been bloodbaths, similar to the Battle of the Bastards toward the end of the most recent season of “Game of Thrones.” battle of the bastardsI recall many games where the losing side had only a naked and solitary king left when things finally ended. You don’t need to know anything about chess to realize that when one piece is being chased around sixty-four squares by several hostile enemy pieces, checkmate will soon occur. I taught my youngest son Justin the basics of chess as my father had taught me—my older son Caleb lacked the patience. Justin took the game far more seriously than I ever have, joining the chess club in high school and practicing at home when he could get me to play. “I’ll play you until you beat me,” I said—and I was true to my word. He beat me for the first time during his freshman or sophomore year, and I never played him again. My willingness to be humiliated is limited.

The Flanders Panel is good, but the Pérez-Reverte quotation at the beginning of this essay is from a different mystery—The Seville Communion. Because it involves ideas and issues that I am perpetually fascinated by, this story is my favorite of the four Pérez-Reverte mysteries I have read so far. seville communionThe main character in The Seville Communion is Lorenzo Quart, a Jesuit priest sent from the Vatican to Seville charged with sorting out a complicated and tangled situation involving Our Lady of Tears, a historic but crumbling Catholic church built on land for which various constituencies have plans that do not include a church in which only a few dozen people worship per week. Father Quart considers himself to be a soldier in the Roman Catholic army rather than a priest; he is intelligent, effective, agnostic, and cynical. But he meets his match in Father Priamo Ferro, the aging priest in charge of the church in question. Quart expects Ferro to be an embodiment of everything Quart hates—old-style Catholicism with Latin masses for the benefit of a handful of elderly female parishioners. What he finds instead generates conversations reminiscent of another famous literary conversation set in Seville—Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tale from The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor converses with Jesus, who has unexpectedly and inexplicably shown up in sixteenth-century Seville. grand inquisitorTheir wide-ranging conversation focuses on the impossibility of Jesus’ message of individual freedom, choice, and responsibility—the Inquisitor points out that the Catholic church has spent centuries repackaging Christianity into something that human beings want and can handle. The freedom proclaimed by Jesus is too demanding and makes people unhappy. Human beings prefer security and consolation to an unendurable freedom. All that human beings want is to be saved from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making free decisions for themselves. In The Seville Communion, the conversations between Fathers Quart and Ferro focus on precisely why human beings need consolation and security in the first place.

Quart is surprised to find that Ferro, who appears to be an embodiment of traditional, faithful Catholicism, has not believed in the existence of God for some time; Ferro is convinced that not even the Pope believes in God any more. But this doesn’t matter. As Ferro tells Quart, the purpose of faith is

To reassure man confronted with the horror of his own solitude, death, and the void . . . Faith doesn’t even need the existence of God. It’s a blind leap into a pair of welcoming arms. It’s solace in the face of senseless fear and suffering. The child’s trust in the hand that leads out of darkness.lifes a bitch

The greatest human fear? That nothing means anything. That life’s a bitch and then we die. As the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, the purpose of faith is to convince ourselves, in the face of contrary evidence, that somewhere, somehow, there is a purpose to it all. The church’s role is to facilitate this illusion. As Ferro explains, the challenge is

How to preserve, then, the message of life in a world that bears the seal of death? Man dies, he knows he will die, and also knows that, unlike kings, popes, and generals, he’ll leave no trace. He tells himself there must be something more. Otherwise, the universe is simply a joke in very poor taste; senseless chaos. So faith becomes a kind of hope, a solace.

In the great game of life, most of us are lonely pawns. Pawns are the most plentiful and least powerful pieces on a chessboard. pawnPawns can move only one square at a time, and only forward. It must often be tempting for a pawn to imagine that there is no point to the game, that other pieces with more options are the only ones that can make a difference, that perhaps the king who the pawn is assigned to defend does not even exist. And yet the pawn endures—until it is taken and removed from the board. No wonder we embrace stories that tell us otherwise, stories intended to convince us that there is something bigger going on in which each of us, often unwittingly and in ignorance, plays a part.

The Grand Inquisitor and Father Ferro have a point—there’s a lot to be said for exchanging the challenge of freedom and responsibility for the security of what Dostoevsky calls “miracle, mystery, and authority.” But to exchange freedom and responsibility for security and comfort, no matter how seductive, is to sacrifice both what makes us human and the heart of true faith. As Simon Critchley, in an essay focusing on the Grand Inquisitor story, writes:

It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance—submission to, even—a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again . . . Faith hopes for grace . . . Such an experience of faith is not certainty . . . On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery, and authority . . . meanking of life[Faith] is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

In the midst of uncertainty and lack of information, each lonely pawn has a continual choice to make. Does my life mean anything? Can I make a difference? When considering these questions, it is worth remembering that even the lowly pawn, once in a while, gets to move one space diagonally and perhaps change the whole landscape of the game. True faith is a leap, but not into the security of collective conformity. Rather, it is a continuing commitment to and embrace of both freedom and responsibility–the choice to pursue that most elusive of goals: the meaning of my life.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about God. That’s a strange thing to spend time doing, given that the very existence of God, and God’s nature if God does exist, has been seriously and vigorously debated since someone first looked into the sky and wondered if anything is out there. What sorts of evidence count for or against?images Is certainty possible? And if God exists, which God are we talking about? I am a skeptic both by nature and profession, but I also believe that God exists. How does that work?

I was recently reminded by the usual random confluence of events of a way proposed close to five hundred years ago to establish belief in God while at the same time doing an end run on all of the questions above. PascalThe proposer was the seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal; the proposition has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager,” one of the most debated and controversial arguments any philosopher has ever offered. Pascal was a world-class thinker who found himself knocked on his ass one night by what he interpreted as a direct message from the divine. It changed his life, moving him strongly in a religious direction and causing him to put his mathematical theories on the shelf.

Pascal lived in a time of skepticism; the medieval worldview had crumbled, Montaignethe Scientific Revolution was in full swing, and religious wars were being fought all over Europe. Michel de Montaigne, one of the most eloquent and brilliant skeptics who ever lived, was the most widely read author of the time. Pascal had no doubts about God’s existence—his “Night of Fire” had burned away any uncertainty—but he was smart enough to know that not everyone has such experiences. Lacking direct experiential evidence, and knowing that every philosophical, logical argument for the existence of God has been disputed by other philosophers using logical arguments, what would a betting person do?

Consider the options, says Pascal. Either you believe that God exists or you don’t, and either God exists or God doesn’t. That means there are four possibilities

1. I believe in God, and God does not exist

2. I do not believe in God, and God does not exist

3. I believe in God, and God exists

4. I do not believe in God, and God exists

Options 1 and 2 are essentially a wash. Believer 1 will probably live her life somewhat differently than Non-believer 2, but at the end of their lives they both are dead. End of story. But if it turns out that God does exist, then everything changes. Believer 3 is set up for an eternity of happiness, while Non-believer 4 is subject to eternal damnation. On the assumption that we cannot know for sure whether God exists but we still have to choose whether to believe or not, it makes betting sense to be a believer than to be a non-believer. As the handy chart below indicates, the believer either lives her life and dies or gets eternal happiness, while the non-believer either lives his life and dies or gets eternal damnation. So be smart and believe. QED.


Many silent assumptions are woven into the argument, assumptions that have driven analysis and critique of Pascal’s Wager ever since. For instance, the argument assumes that there is about a 50-50 chance that God exists. evil and sufferingBut it could be argued that the preponderance of direct evidence from the world we live in (evil, disease, natural disasters, etc.) counts against God’s existence—the likelihood of God’s nonexistence is far greater than 50 percent. Others have pointed out that the difference between 1 and 2 is not negligible at all. Believer 1 might spend her life denying herself all sorts of experiences and pleasures in the mistaken belief that a nonexistent God doesn’t like such experiences and pleasures, while Non-believer 2 will enjoy such experiences and pleasures to the fullest. And what if God exists but is of an entirely different nature and character than we think? What if the things we believe will please God actually piss God off?

I find such critiques to be compelling and do not find Pascal’s Wager to be an attractive argument at all, but I believe in God’s existence so what do I know? I am far more interested in what Pascal says after the options are laid out to the person who buys the argument but is currently a non-believer. If I don’t believe in God’s existence but am convinced that a smart betting person does believe in God’s existence, how do I make that happen? just believeHow does one manufacture belief in something one does not believe in? Pascal’s advice is revealing.

You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. What have you to lose?

Pascal is borrowing a technique from Aristotle, who once said that if you want to become courageous, do the things that courageous people do. In this case, do the things believers do and one day you may find you’ve become one.

Pascal came to mind when I read a reader’s comment on my blog entry “The Imposter” a few days ago.

The Imposter

In response to my discussing imposter syndrome and our general human fears about inadequacy and lack of importance, the reader wrote

“Fake it until you make it” is actually almost a principle in Judaism, although not in those words. The medieval work seferSefer Hahinuch, which goes through the 613 commandments of the Torah according to traditional rabbinic calculation, states that a person is affected by his actions. If you do the right thing, little by little it can make you on the inside more like the act you are playing on the outside. Of course you can’t just do it to fool people. You have to intend to fulfill G-d’s will in the world and do things pleasing to Him according to what He has given us to work with. We do our job and keep refining it, and the work, the very inner struggle is pleasing to G-d because we are getting closer, because we are striving to be true to ourselves and Him, even though we know we aren’t there yet and never will be totally. But that is called doing His work.

Although this principle in Judaism reminded me of Pascal’s wager, it is actually very different. The Jewish principle supposes that one accepts that it would be good to live according to the rules and guidelines in the Torah but is not naturally inclined to do so. By putting these rules into action they become my own, all the time believing that becoming a person who does such things habitually is pleasing to God. But whether they are pleasing to God or not, they are arguably making me a better husband, father, son, Bros Kneighbor and contributing member of society.

Pascal’s suggestion is far less demanding, requiring nothing more than going through the motions of certain rituals on a daily or weekly basis. This is not likely to make me a believer or a better person so much as just a person with a very busy Sunday morning every week. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Father Zossima’s advice to an unbeliever who wants to believe is quite different: he recommends the “active and indefatigable love of your neighbor.” Much like the Sefer Hahinuch, Father Zossima provides no shortcuts to belief in God. Rather he recommends the difficult prescription of transforming one’s heart and mind by one’s actions. This doesn’t establish any metaphysical truths, but it does open the door to the good human beings are capable of. Whether God exists or not.belief

Haunted by Humans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the syllabus for our Nazi colloquium, the beginning of our course description reads as follows: “A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximillian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity.” So much good. So much evil. Just add water.

Hedgehogs and Foxes–A Primer

The hedgehog knows one big thing, but the fox knows many little things—Archilochus

Over twenty-plus years of teaching, I have collected several useful lines, phrases, conceptual frameworks, and gimmicks that serve as centering, organizational references when introducing students to the wonderful and largely unfamiliar territory of philosophy. The unity/plurality debate of the early pre-Socratics, aristotle3[1]Aristotle’s form/matter distinction, Descartes’ mind/body dualism, the simple basics ofdarwinism-theme[1] Darwin’s theory of natural selection—each of these can be used as sorting devices, kind of like the change-sorting machines of my youth, into which a conglomeration of confusing items can be poured, with a useful, preliminary organization emerging on the other end. None of these devices is intended to produce irrefutable truth; rather, they serve as rudimentary roadmaps to new terrain, each highlighting different aspects of what is to be explored.

In my experience the most effective of these devices, a tool that semester after semester turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving, is the simple hedgehog/fox distinction from Archilochus’ observation that “the hedgehog knows one big thing, but the fox knows many little things.”fox-n-hedgehog[1] I am unaware of the context of this phrase in Archilochus or what he intends by it; I first came across the line in a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin, entitled (amazingly enough) “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”8596208507_b2c0ef96f3_o[1] It is a lengthy essay primarily about Tolstoy’s theory of history as developed in War and Peace; Berlin argues that while the other competitor for the title of “greatest Russian novelist,” Dostoyevsky, was a hedgehog, Tolstoy was something like a fox trying to be a hedgehog or a hedgehog trying to be a fox (I forget which). But my interest in Archilochus’ observation was raised by the first two pages of Berlin’s essay, in which he suggests that the hedgehog/fox distinction actually identifies two very different ways of thinking about and investigating texts and the world at large. I have come to believe that the hedgehog/fox distinction is primal, hard-wired in each of us, and shapes each of our natural ways of addressing reality as fundamentally as the more familiar extrovert/introvert distinction.

Pascal, 18 days oldHedgehogs, on the one hand, are big picture, top-down thinkers who approach everything with an organizational scheme already in hand. Hedgehogs are attracted to permanence rather than change, to certainty rather than doubt, to clarity rather than fuzziness, to answers rather than questions. The hedgehog prefers conclusions to the process of getting to them, a clear map of the territory rather than wandering without specific direction or goals. The hedgehog brings the organizational scheme to the details, sifting through and sorting those details into categories that are largely already fixed. Hedgehogs generally organize everything they believe, indeed their whole world, around a small handful of basic, big ideas, and strive to keep these big ideas logically consistent with each other. Hedgehogs tend to be “either/or” in their attitudes toward everything.

foxFoxes, on the other hand, are small picture, detail-oriented, bottom-up thinkers. Foxes are attracted to open-endedness rather than closure, questions rather than answers, process rather than conclusion, skepticism and doubt rather than certainty and dogmatism. The fox tends not to have a well-developed organizational framework at the beginning of an investigation, letting organization and structure percolate from the bottom up rather than imposing structure from the top down. Foxes are far more willing to discard previous convictions and beliefs than hedgehogs are, and are endlessly fascinated by variety rather than similarity. In keeping with “knowing many little things,” foxes are not concerned when their various interests and beliefs do not fit seamlessly or consistently into a “big picture,” preferring a “both/and” attitude to the hedgehog’s “either/or.” Foxes are comfortable with inconsistency and disorder, both of which can be the bane of a hedgehog’s existence.

A quick example is instructive, taking us no farther than our current President and his predecessor. President George W. Bushgeorge-w-bush-picture-2[1] was predominantly a hedgehog surrounded by fellow hedgehogs. Armed with big picture frameworks considered as self-evidently true, his hedgehog presidency proceeded with conviction and certainty, even occasionally in the face of details and facts that resisted categorization and even contradicted the pre-set categories of President Bush’s hedgehog agenda. Note that hedgehogery and conservatism are not synonymous, although they can and often do go together. Being a hedgehog is not about the content of what you believe—it is about how you frame and organize that content and, more basically, about how you see the world and process new information. To find a liberal hedgehog, one needs look only as far back as FDR.

gty_barack_obama_dnc_2_ll_120906_wg[1]President Barack Obama is a fox extraordinaire, so much so that he has the capacity to offend hedgehogs both conservative and liberal. From a hedgehog’s perspective, President Obama’s willingness to compromise, to be a pragmatist, to find common ground rather than draw lines in the sand—all fox traits—are signs of weakness to either be exploited or ignored. A willingness to let the truth show itself or even to create the truth going forward is an offense to those who believe that the truth tends to show itself clearly and then is to be defended uncompromisingly at all costs. Foxes such as President Obama see complications as opportunities to be taken advantage of and learned from rather than threats to be ignored or overcome. A noted journalist recently wrote an essay entitled “It’s Not Easy Being Barack Obama,” just as Kermit the Frog used to sing that “it’s not easy being green.”kermit[1] Indeed it must be difficult being President Obama. He’s trying to lead as a fox in a political world that increasingly is defined by hedgehog stances on both extremes of the political and social spectrum. Even an apparently dedicated conservative hedgehog such as former President Ronald Reagan had fox characteristics that would have served him poorly in today’s political climate. Continue reading

Oaks of Righteousness

9780307266934_custom-121987fc3e24ad1855e5ca5bea349c60d1328a48-s6-c10[1]There are times when I just cannot believe what I get myself into. Latest example: I joined a reading group and committed to reading War and Peace over the summer at a pace of 150 pages or so per week. As if I don’t have enough to read with teaching two brand new courses during the next academic year, as well as the 24-7 demands of running a big academic program that never stop, blah, blah, blah. Actually, I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering Tolstoy through this 1350 page novel that I have not read since my undergraduate days. The philosopher in me prefers Dostoevsky’s depth, darkness, and weirdness, but the reader and novel lover in me resonates with Tolstoy. It’s just that I’m not getting anything else done. I’m reading Tolstoy on the elliptical machine at the gym, Tolstoy on campus when I should be writing important emails and attending important meetings, Tolstoy at home when I should be staying current with “The Voice” and Mad-men-title-card[1]“Mad Men.” On my silent retreat this coming week, during which I’m planning to write at least eighty-three new essays for my blog, I’m sure I’ll be reading Tolstoy instead.

When I read a great work of literature, and they don’t come any greater than War and Peace, I always find myself resonating with a particular character, more or the less the character I would be if I were to jump into the novel. 389px-Bem_postcard_7[1]About five hundred pages into War and Peace (a chapter or so past the Introduction, in other words), that character is Prince Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky. I find Natasha, the main female character, annoying and PierreBezukhov[1]Pierre, the main male character, needs a good kick in the ass, but I get Andrei. This morning on the stationary bicycle at the gym, Andrei went through an experience so familiar to me that it was scary. As a young twenty-something Andrei joined the Russian army as an officer and fought against the forces of Napoleon at Austerlitz. Wounded in battle and presumed dead, Andrei finds his way home to his family just in time for his wife to die in giving birth to their first child. Now, two years later, tve4703-19721028-622[1]Andrei is depressed, cynical, and finding it difficult to find joy or meaning in anything. Travelling in early spring to one of his estates, Pyotr his footman comments on the beauty of the April morning, the flowers, and the new leaves on the birch trees. Andrei’s attention is drawn instead to a stand of stagnant fir trees, then to an apparently dead oak tree. “With its huge ungainly limbs sprawling unsymmetrically, and its gnarled hands and fingers, it stood an aged, stern, and scornful monster among the smiling birch-trees.”

“Spring, love, happiness!” this oak seems to say. “Are you not weary of that stupid, meaningless, constantly repeated fraud? Always the same, and always a fraud! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness! Look at those cramped dead firs, ever the same, and at me too, sticking out my broken and barked fingers just where they have grown, whether from my back or my sides: as they have grown so I stand, and I do not believe in your hopes and your lies.”

And Andrei’s mood and recent experiences are confirmed. “Let others—the young—yield afresh to that fraud, but we know life, our life is finished!”

Andrei’s oak reminds me of another oak, the massive one a hundred feet or so outside the front door of my Collegeville Institute apartment door where I spent four sabbatical months a few years ago. Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHI arrived in the middle of a Minnesota winter; although I am not prone to depression as Andrei was, I realize in retrospect that I carried deep within me a spiritual malaise and ennui that had been festering for years. My Collegeville oak looked as I felt inwardly that January—bare, cold, snow-covered, with few signs of life. Over the succeeding weeks, this oak became an inescapable presence in my life (it was the first thing I saw as I stepped out of my front door) and a metaphor for what was happening to me.

As the snow piled up, then slowly melted over the first couple of months, I found an accompanying inner thaw occurring, facilitated by the warmth of daily forays into the liturgy of the hours with the monks at St. John’s Abbey a half mile or so up the road. Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHOne March morning as I stumbled back from the common area at the Institute with my morning Keurig coffee in tow, I walked up on a dozen or so deer hanging out under the oak. They apparently had also been there right under my nose ten minutes earlier as I emerged from my apartment half-asleep and oblivious to the world on my way to the common area. As they noticed me noticing them, they gave me their unique white-assed salute as they sauntered away. Signs of spring under the oak, which was still naked.

100_0004As April came and other trees budded into their springtime growth, my oak remained apparently lifeless. Then one morning as I walked past it taking my usual shortcut to the road up to the Abbey for 7:00 morning prayer, I noticed that on the ends of its lowest and smallest twigs signs of new growth were first emerging. “So you’re alive after all, huh?” I muttered as I continued on, the same observation I had been making more and more frequently about 100_0238myself as deeper and deeper spaces cracked open after a lifetime of neglect. I regularly took pictures from my front doorstep to track the oak’s emergence into life and wrote essays to track my parallel inner emergence.

As the oak grew into full-blown spring splendor over the succeeding weeks, it more and more became my daily touchstone. 100_0326“Hey there,” I would say as I walked by three or four times a day coming or going, and I imagined that if I were able to live in tree time rather than human time, I would have heard a deep, rumbling, ponderous, Tolkien Ent-like “Hey yourself” in return. The oak’s stability and lack of hurry became my own goal as I practiced slowing down and plugging into the rhythms of the newly discovered energies within me.

Four years later, when I think of Collegeville the first image that invariably comes to mind is my oak. Growth, stability, silence, fortitude, rootedness—it represents all of the things that I hope to have carried at least a bit from my months in Minnesota. 100_0374On the half-dozen or so return visits I have made, a visit to the oak with more pictures has always been a “must-do.” I have never been at Collegeville during the autumn, so I do not know what Minnesota foliage is like nor what colors the oak wears in late September and early October. I was raised in northern Vermont, the fall foliage capital of the universe, and in my imagination I see the oak garbed in brilliant orange, my favorite fall foliage color. Yellow or red would be okay, but I’ll bet it’s orange.

After Andrei encounters his oak tree in War and Peace, he spends several days inspecting his large land holdings, and then heads back toward his home outside of Moscow. 006Looking for the oak where he remembered first seeing it, he is at first confused.

Without recognizing it he looked with admiration at the very oak he sought. The old oak, quite transfigured, spreading out a canopy of sappy dark-green foliage, stood rapt and slightly trembling in the rays of the evening sun. Neither gnarled fingers nor old scars nor old doubts and sorrows were in evidence now. Through the hard century-old bark, even where there were no twigs, leaves had sprouted such as one could hardly believe the old veteran could have produced.

“’Yes, it is the same oak,’ thought Prince Andrei,Oaks-of-Righteousness-Logo[1] and all at once he was seized by an unreasoning spring-time feeling of joy and renewal.” Over the next eight hundred and fifty pages, I’m sure that Andrei will grapple more than once with depression and sorrow. But an encounter with what Isaiah would have called an “oak of righteousness” has changed him for good. I know exactly how you feel, Andrei.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.


God’s Worst Idea

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

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

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

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

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

All men will die.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates will die                                            

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

All men will die.

Vance is a man.

Therefore, Vance will die. 

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

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

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

In the morning, fill us with your love.

We shall exult and rejoice all our days.

Give us joy to balance our affliction,

for the years when we knew misfortune.

Show forth your work in your servants,

let your glory shine on their children.

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

prosper the work of our hands;

prosper our handiwork. 

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