Tag Archives: Iris Murdoch

What Are You Looking At?

Almost every Sunday during the months I spent on sabbatical a few years ago in Minnesota, I saw a canine in church—I didn’t know the dog’s  name, but it looked like a Ralph220px-Suzisnow[1]. I learned several months later that the dog is a female named Caritas, but in my imagination she still is Ralph. Ralph was in church because she was a service dog—now enjoying retirement—for a regular parishioner who is profoundly deaf. The woman sat at the end of the front row so she could read the lips of the celebrant, while Ralph laid next to her, usually with her back half hanging out into the aisle. Ralph is a mutt, with a good deal of some sort of terrier, weighing probably no more than twenty-five or thirty pounds. I’m not surprised that Ralph is now retired, given how she sighed and creaked a bit when she got up or laid down; the white hair around her eyes and mouth looked more like signs of age than normal markings.

A lifelong cat lover, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for dogs over the past many years after marrying a dog fanatic and, more recently, being unexpectedly adopted by a dachshund as her pet human. $(KGrHqN,!i8E4r(HqlcsBORy0nku+w~~0_35[1]Ralph looked as if she would love to have a pat on the head or a belly rub, but I know better—don’t mess with a service dog while she’s on the clock. But just in case I, or anyone else within range, happened to have a hard time resisting the dog-lover’s urge to touch every dog, Ralph was more in-your-face than most service dogs. She wore a vest that, on its back, said “Service dog on duty. Do not pet.”

“Look—don’t touch.”Look_But_Don__t_Touch_PSD_by_archnophobia-1[1] This used to be my mother’s automatic command every time we walked into a store of any sort, from grocery to hardware to department. Every parent worth the job description has this directive in her or his repertoire, knowing that pre-civilized human beings are inveterate grabbers. hannaarendtsudomenica16ye8[1]Hannah Arendt once wrote: “Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians—they’re called children.” Absolutely true, and “Look, don’t touch” is one of the earliest and best tools to use for domestication purposes. In truth, though, the temptation to look and grab, rather than simply to look, is one that none of us ever truly overcomes. As soon as we see something, we want to possess it, to make it ours, to wrap it up in what Iris Murdoch calls “the avaricious tentacles of the self.”

Exhibit A is yesterday morning’s Sunday gospel, a strange story recorded in all three synoptic gospels . Yesterday was Matthew’s version. Jesus is worn out by the crowds and takes his best buddies, Peter, James, and John, with him to the top of a mountain for a break. While there, he is transfigured with Elijah and MosesRaphael Transfiguration[1], looking like a great laundry detergent ad. According to Mark’s version of this story, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Peter blurts out, “Let us put up three dwellings—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Why does he make such a random suggestion? Luke tells us—“He did not know what he was saying.” Far be it from Peter to say nothing when he doesn’t know what to say, to look and attend to what’s going on in silence and awe, or simply to say “Whoa!” or “Holy shit!” or “Who does your laundry?” No, he has to nail it down, organize it, put walls around it, and either sell tickets or write up a doctrinal statement and confession of faith. The voice from heaven makes it clear what Peter should be doing. “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him.

Scripture makes it clear that there is a time to look and a time to touch—and don’t confuse the two. In II Samuel, tuzzah-01[1]he newly crowned King David leads the army of Israel against the Philistines and recaptures the Ark of the Covenant. They place the Ark on an oxen-drawn cart and head back to Jerusalem in a parade complete with singing and musical instruments, led by David dancing in his underwear. The oxen step in a pothole and stumble, the Ark starts tipping off of the cart, and some poor guy namedfbade8d75c[1] Uzzah makes the horrible mistake of assuming that he should put his hand on the Ark to steady it, because maybe God would just as soon not see the Ark lying on its side in the mud. God strikes Uzzah dead on the spot for his efforts. “Look, don’t touch.” As a kid I thought God’s treatment of Uzzah to be a disproportionate response and grossly unfair, and I still do, but as Jeanne would say, “it is what it is.” And in John 20, the resurrected Jesus says to Mary Magdalene “Touch me not,” exactly what Ralph’s vest would have said if she spoke in King James English.

nh_old_man01[1]As a native New Englander, one of my all-time favorite stories is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face.” It’s the story of a boy named Ernest who lives in a New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hang some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_overlay_2[1]” The valley is Franconia Notch in the middle of the White Mountains, only forty miles or so from where I grew up, and was a regular point of destination for my family. I was crushed when I heard ten years ago that despite the best human preserving efforts, it finally fell off the mountain.

800890-M[1]According to Hawthorne’s story, there is a legend in the valley that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.” Ernest, who gazes daily with love and awe at the Great Stone Face, spends his whole life as a simple laborer in the valley. Occasionally a rumor would arise that the man resembling the Great Stone Face had appeared in town, but each candidate—a wealthy miser, a vain general, a pompous politician—turned out to be a fraud. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime.Stone-Face-by-visulogik-3001[1] Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to all of them, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that “man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture.” And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. imagesCASOE7U6In the book of Numbers, in response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. weil[1]“And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” Simone Weil comments: “To look and to eat are two different things. The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating. Looking is what saves us.” What are you looking at?

Saying What Cannot Be Said

I recently led a discussion group focused, among other things, on the inadequacy of traditional religious structures to address real spiritual hunger. Job1A one of our weekly meetings, we were talking about Job’s reaction to what God has to say about the unfairness of Job’s suffering after many chapters of silence from the Divine end of things. I have heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you. Job, described by God to Satan in chapter one as the most righteous man on earth, has heard all about God. He knows the stories, the texts, the rules, how to worship, how to sacrifice—in short, Job has heard everything there is to hear about how to make God happy and stay on a good relationship with what is greater than us. None of that seems to matter as load after load of shit is dumped on Job, everything falls apart, and his complaints and demands for explanation meet with stony silence from on high.

When God finally does respond, the divine answer to Job’s questions boils down to “who the hell are you to ask for explanations from me?” god in whirlwindI’m God and you’re not, in other words. But the content of God’s response to Job’s complaints is not what has a lasting impact on Job. What changes his life is that for the first time, God is not something Job has just heard about second-hand. He now has had a first-hand, face to face encounter with God—and everything he has heard throughout his life pales in comparison. As members of the group engaged with Job’s description of this encounter, one person noted both that such experiences are indeed life-changing and that they are extraordinarily difficult to put into words. How is it possible to describe or explain such a powerfully personal experience, especially to those whose knowledge of the divine is entirely in the “I have heard of you” category? the unicornOne likely answer—it isn’t possible.

The discussion reminded me of a character in one of Iris Murdoch’s novels who unexpectedly has a Job-like encounter that shatters his world. In The Unicorn, we are introduced to Effingham Cooper, a stuffy, well-intentioned but ultimately annoyingly foolish busybody. He sees himself as a man of action, striving for everyone to be happy, but actually through his actions is simply attempting to manipulate others and create the world around him in his own image. By literally immobilizing him in a quicksand-like bog, into which he has stumbled while on a twilight walk, Murdoch sets the scene for Cooper to have a revelation that is one of the most central passages in all of her twenty-four novels.

He could still feel himself slowly sinking. . . . He began to feel dazed and light-headed. . . . Max [a dying philosopher whose pupil Cooper once had been] had always known about death, had always sat there like a judge in his chair facing toward death, like a judge or like a victim. Why had Effingham never realized that this was the only fact that mattered, perhaps the only fact there was? If one realized this one could have lived all one’s life in the light. . . . Irish bogSomething had been withdrawn, had slipped away from him in the moment of his attention and that something was himself.

Effingham has lived his life to this point as most human beings do, under the impression that he is the center of the universe. Preparing for what appears to be his imminent demise, he’s faced with the possibility that perhaps his existence is not as important as he thought.

Perhaps he was dead already, the darkening image of the self forever removed. Yet what was left, for something was surely left, something existed still? It came to him with the simplicity of a simple sum. What was left was everything else, all that was not himself, that object which he had never before seen and upon which he now gazed with the passion of a lover. And indeed he could always have known this for the fact of death stretches the length of life. Since he was mortal he was nothing and since he was nothing all that was not himself was filled to the brim with being and it was from this that the light streamed. This then was love, to look and look until one exists no more, this was the love which was the same as death. Hman and donkeye looked, and knew with a clarity which was one with the increasing light, that with the death of the self the world becomes quite automatically the object of a perfect love.

Cooper is unexpectedly rescued (by a stranger leading a donkey, no less!), but his experience of near physical death provides a framework for spiritual insight. His physical entrapment has been the catalyst for recognizing that he has been psychologically and spiritually unfree. Sinking physically in the bog causes him to experience a sublime release from the burden of his own self-consciousness and self-centeredness. His moral rescue precedes his physical rescue. In an epiphany, the beauty of the universe is revealed to him through the momentary extinction of his own self-presence.

Cooper’s experience is a secular companion to the sort of encounter that Job has with a God who cannot be engaged second-hand. job and godBoth men have been brought by unexpected and unexplained circumstances to an experience and realization that shows what they previously thought they knew to be, at best, woefully inadequate. As the person in my discussion group suggested, the most important issue now is “What do I do with this?” How does one capture lightning in a bottle and channel this new energy going forward? We are not told much about Job’s life after his divine encounter other than that he gets everything back that he had lost.

In the case of Effingham Cooper, we find out a bit more—and it isn’t encouraging news. After his rescue, in the afterglow of the experience, he tries to explain his vision to three others, all of whom fail to understand. Sadly, but believably, the impact of his experience wholly fades. As much as we would like to believe that a transformative encounter with what is greater than us will be the catalyst for permanent and positive change, we still have to live out the rest of our mundane and normal days, weeks, months and years. There is no “once and for all” salvation from the self and ego—it is a piecemeal, imperfect and continuing process.

So how does one communicate the content of intensely personal and private transformative encounters? How does one say what cannot be said? One doesn’t. mustard seedInstead, a face to face encounter with the divine, with the infinite, must work itself out in the far less spectacular and far less dynamic grind of daily life. And this is as it should be. Even though most of us would prefer living from one energizing mountain top experience to the next, that’s not the way it works. There is a reason why the Kingdom of God is likened in Jesus’ parables to leaven, to a mustard seed, to salt, to things that work powerfully over time in unnoticeable ways. There is a reason why Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity publically. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, the divine works slowly and secretly in the world, embedded in human lives.

The Time of the Angels

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

 

I just finished reading Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove, a novel I stumbled across in my college’s bookstore while looking for something else. I haven’t decided yet whether I give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, but one brief passage has stuck with me. As a sixteen-year old whose beloved father has just died (his mother died when he was much younger), Ove tells his parish vicar “that there was no need to reserve a place for him in the pews at Sunday service for the foreseeable future. Not because Ove did not believe in God . . . but because in his view this God seemed to be a bit of a bloody swine.” Those who are obsessed, as I am, with questions about what is greater than us often assume that the most important question is “Does God exist?” I submit that an even more problematic question is “What if God does exist, but has character traits entirely different from those we project heavenward?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religionless Christianity

Now that the New Year is upon us, I’m anxiously awaiting word that my latest book, written during my 2015-16 sabbatical and under contract since last May, has successfully made it through the editing process at my publisher (it’s supposed to be coming my way for final revisions this month or next). It’s like waiting for a kid to be born.

WIrisorking on this book project during sabbatical put me back into direct conversation with a writer who over the past fifteen or so years has been as influential on my thinking and overall development as any other—Iris Murdoch.In preparation for the book I thought I was going to write during my previous sabbatical in spring 2009, I read all of her twenty-plus novels and her most important philosophical essays; over the past three months I have been reviewing well over a hundred pages of single-spaced notes I took as I wandered through her extensive body of work. Iris came into my life when I discovered that Simone Weil—a thinker so influential on my intellectual and spiritual development that Jeanne calls her my “mistress”—was similarly influential for Iris Murdoch. In her last completed work (she died in 1999 after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s), Murdoch asks a question that is arguably the central issue explored in both her fiction and her philosophical work—“What can we do now that there is no God?”

Writing in the decades after the Second World War, Murdoch assumes that human beings are required to grapple with a difficult world lacking the tools provided by traditional Christianity (or any other traditional religious framework). Yet she is by no means a happy atheist along the lines of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett.ddh Murdoch believes that the traditional conception of the divine, along with the various frameworks that have traditionally surrounded that conception, is meaningless, yet points out that while it is easy to say that there is no God, it is not so easy to believe it and to draw the consequences. Human beings are not the sorts of creatures that can simply fill the vacuum created by the absence of God with the closest thing available. We are incapable, by sheer force of will, of addressing the spiritual hunger and need that now-defunct frameworks and vocabularies were intended to address. There is something in the human heart that needs to believe in something greater than ourselves.

The search for the transcendent, for what is greater than ourselves, in Murdoch’s hands becomes a high-wire act with no safety net. She sets for herself the task of finding out what can be preserved of belief in the transcendent and in moral goodness without the trappings of religion that have supported such beliefs—a “Religionless Christianity” if you will. She preserves the notion of faith, but without guarantees—persons with such faith intuit something greater than themselves but refuse to embrace traditional descriptions of this something. Murdoch calls such a person a “mystical hero”:e and m

The man who has given up traditional religion but is still haunted by a sense of the reality and unity of some sort of spiritual world. . . . This hero is the new version of the man of faith, believing in goodness without religious guarantees, guilty, muddled, yet not without hope. This image consoles by showing us man as frail, godless, and yet possessed of genuine intuitions of an authoritative good.

Such a person, Murdoch believes, will exhibit many of the characteristics that traditionally religious people might aspire to.

Our life is an interconnected whole and a religious man would feel responsible for the quality of all his thoughts and experiences . . . This sort of–perpetual work–seems to me what religion is . . . It’s humility, and unselfishness–and setting yourself aside to make room for other things, and people.nones

I thought of Murdoch’s mystical hero not long ago when reading an article describing how more and more of the students enrolled at various divinity schools across the country are unaffiliated with any religious denomination. Such students are called “nones” (pronounced “nuns”), since they are the sorts of people who check “None” when asked about their religious affiliation on a survey.

Secular Students Turn to Divinity School

I think this is very cool, but something tells me that many people would stop reading after finding out early in the article that nones are predominantly found at places inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism like Harvard Divinity School and Chicago Theological Seminary. “Well of course,” the complaint might go. “Such places are bastions of secular humanism with words like ‘Divinity’ or ‘Theological’ on their letterhead for show.” Such concerns are not unique to the Protestant flavor of Christianity; cinoI have taught for the past twenty-one years at a Catholic college that, at least according to its current President, seeks to thread the needle between extreme conservative Catholic campuses and larger Catholic Universities (usually Jesuit) that many judge as CINO (Catholic in name only).

The game of “who is more faithful to the message” is usually zero sum, though, and leaves little room for phenomena such as the nones. What might an agnostic or even an atheist find attractive about divinity school? Several of the nones interviewed in the article provide clear answers. “I am attracted to the search for social justice and for spiritual meaning. And I recognize those things as the fruits of religious tradition,” one none said. “So it makes sense to go to a place where you can study religious tradition.” Another could have been channeling Iris Murdoch: “If you were simply looking for the skills, you might go to the Kennedy School of Government . . . and philosophy and liberal-arts fields have given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values. That language isn’t found in many places. And when you find it, it’s not easy to abstract it. You have to connect it to a tradition.” I am currently leading a discussion group at church using a text about knowing God written with millennials in mind; current research shows that one-third of millennials are nones. Where are such persons to find a spiritual home or community? If Iris Murdoch is right, the answer to that question will require great creativity and courage across the board, even in traditional places where such creative and courageous challenges to the status quo seem to strike at the very heart of what the place stands for.eckhart

I am not a none, but only because I believe that the Christian tradition is broad and resilient enough to accommodate outliers with the nerve to call themselves freelance Christians. And a “heads up” to the nones who are deliberately placing themselves in the atmosphere of divinity school—you never can tell what might happen. Meister Eckhart, a medieval Dominican monk who almost lost his life due to his out of the box theology, wrote that “God begets his Son in you whether you like it or not, whether you sleep or wake—still God is at work.” And more recently, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reported that a person wrote her a worried email:

I think I’m having a crisis of faith . . . I think I believe in Jesus.

nadiaTo which Nadia replied:

I’m so sorry. But sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there’s nothing you can do about it.

To My Satisfaction

One morning in response to a recent blog post, a friend and colleague sent me the following email:

One thing I’ve been struggling with . . . is the (im)possibility of certainty in the realm of religious belief/faith. How does one lead a religious / faithful life without ‘certainty’ that God exists, for example? Does one’s faith in God amount to a kind of certainty? If it doesn’t, how can it stand on a firm foundation?

GuttingIt is no surprise that one of my blog posts raises such questions, since I have grappled with related issues for as long as I can remember. Over the past several months the New York Times has published a series of interviews on its “Opinionator” blog in which Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, explores the topic of whether belief in something greater than ourselves is rational with several contemporary academics whose work intersects with such questions. These interviews have caused me to return yet again to a well-worn theme: how can I profess to be both a person of faith and a philosopher at the same time?  

Antony bookOne of these interviews was with Louise Antony, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the editor of Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life and represents the hardcore atheist position among Gutting’s six interviewees. In response to Gutting’s query as to why she is an atheist, going beyond the agnostic position that we cannot know whether God exists or not to the more definitive position that one can know that God does not exist, Anthony explains:

When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. athiest theistI don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I am agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt. . . . The main issue is supernaturalism—I deny that there are beings or phenomena outside the scope of natural law.

I must confess that I found much of the succeeding conversation to be tiresome and spinning its wheels in bottomless intellectual ruts. Antony will only accept a specific type of evidence—that which can be verified within the parameters of the laws of nature. The theist makes a serious mistake when she or he agrees to play the “does God exist?” game by these rules. In truth, Antony’s belief that “everything is the product of mindless natural laws acting on mindless matter” operating according to the inexorable laws of nature is as much an act of faith as the theist’s belief that there is at least one being—God—that transcends those laws.

sastisfactionOf greater interest is her claim that “the question is settled to my satisfaction,” because this raises the threshold of conviction question. Just how convinced does someone have to be of the truth of something before further investigation is stopped? Is the threshold of conviction different from person to person? And if so, how can a person with a low threshold of conviction fruitfully converse with the doubter or skeptic whose threshold is significantly higher? Gutting and Antony’s conversation shifts in this direction when it moves its focus from scientific to experiential evidence. Gutting asks What do you make of the claim from many theists that the best evidence for the existence of something greater than us is direct religious experience? imagesCAN6WX2YAfter denying that she has had such experiences, Antony offers a connective bridge that many atheists refuse to consider.

O.K., if you hold my feet to the fire, I’ll admit that I believe I know what sort of experiences the theists are talking about, that I’ve had such experiences, but I don’t think they have the content the theists assign to them. I’ve certainly had experiences I would call “profound.” . . . I’ve been tremendously moved by demonstrations of personal courage (not mine!), generosity, sympathy. I’ve had profound experiences of solidarity, when I feel I’m really together with other people working for some common goal. These are very exhilarating and inspiring experiences, but they are very clearly about human beings—human beings at their best.

Shifting the conversation from the ways in which we describe our experiences to the content of those experiences offers an opportunity for new understanding.

Antony’s comments remind me of a long-standing problem that I had with my father well into my adulthood. From my earliest memories, he peppered his conversations with phrases like “God told me that . . .,” “the Lord directed me to . . .,” and “I was going to do ___, but God told me not to,” bush and godgiving the impression that he and the Divine had a direct line of communication others did not have access to. Knowing that I had no such direct line, I had no idea what the experience of talking directly to God was like. After many years of first thinking I was my father’s spiritual inferior, then thinking that he was simply nuts, one day in my early thirties in response to yet another “God told me that” pronouncement I confronted him. “You say that all the time—what exactly does it feel or sound like when God says something to you?” Taken aback by what he perceived as an attack from his passive, introverted son he grew a bit defensive. “Well, you know, it’s a strong feeling, an intuition, a sense that I should do this rather than that.” “It’s not a voice?” I asked. “No—it hasn’t been yet, at least,” he replied. “I know what those sorts of experiences are like,” I sputtered—“I just don’t call them God talking to me!” And for the first time we had come to at least a partial truce. imagesCACEO8TNOur failure to communicate was the result of vastly different language, not vastly different experiences.

In a moment of the sort that is all too rare in conversations between atheists and theists, Antony suggests that we focus our attention on the experiences that all human beings share, not on the various sorts of descriptions and explanations that divide them. Because after all, just how important is it, in the larger scheme of things, to be absolutely right about something that is ultimately beyond the reach of our usual sorts of evidence?

AntonyWhy do theists care so much about belief in God? [And, I might add, why do atheists care so much about not believing in God?] Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology—about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter—the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc.—and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?nuns and soldiers

This strikes me as wise advice. As Anne Cavidge says in Iris Murdoch’s Nuns and Soldiers,

What do my thoughts matter, what do their details matter, what does it matter whether Jesus Christ redeemed the world or not, it doesn’t matter, our minds can’t grasp such things, it’s all too obscure, too vague, the whole matrix shifts and we shift with it. What does anything matter except helping one or two people who are nearby, doing what’s obvious? We can see so little of the great game.

At the very least, Louise Antony suggests, theists and atheists should practice basic charity when involved in their seemingly interminable debates.

I believe I have reasons for my position, and I expect that theists believe they have reasons for theirs. Let’s agree to pay each other the courtesy of attending to the particulars.

Living Without God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Working On It

Any caring human being asks the question What is the right thing to do? on a regular basis. As a philosophy professor who teaches ethics regularly, IrisI am aware that in the minds of many, the whole purpose of thinking systematically and rigorously about the moral life is to provide reliable and confident answers to that very question. Moral philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Iris Murdoch, from Aristotle to MacIntyreAlasdair MacIntyre, have provided frameworks within which to answer the question. But each framework is different, they are often incompatible with each other, and philosophers do not agree on which aspects of the moral life are most important in a moral analysis. Some focus on the consequences of an action, others stress the reasons behind one’s actions, still others argue that the character of the person making the choices and doing the actions is most important of all. In short, philosophy’s answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is, at least partially, “Which philosopher are you currently studying?”

Such disagreement among those who are supposed to be the experts often leads to the conclusion that moral certainty must be sought elsewhere—in religion, for instance. If one is convinced that God not only exists but has bothered to let human beings know the divine preferences for human behavior, then faith promises to provide a far more reliable foundation for knowing the right thing to do than anything pointy-headed philosophers might come up with.is god real But scratch the surface of the religious option and a whole bunch of additional questions pop up. Which God? Which sacred text? What about conflicting claims within the same tradition or the same text? Those from outside the camp of religious faith consider these awkward and essentially unanswerable questions to provide strong evidence that atheism, or at least agnosticism, is the way to go, while those who cling to their faith tend to get defensive and judgmental toward those who disagree.

I have spent the past several weeks preparing my syllabus, assignments, and lesson plans for the two sections of introductory ethics that I’ll be teaching this fall. In my twenty-five years of professorhood, I have taught at least fifty sections of introductory or upper division ethics courses, and there is nothing that I enjoy more than throwing students headfirst into the deep end of the “What is the right thing to do?” pool. By the time they are eighteen years old, just about every human being has been exposed just enough to a possible set or two of answers to this question to assume that they’re all set and have the moral life generally figured out. disturbing the peaceMy job as a philosophy professor is to disturb the peace starting on the first day of the semester. There is nothing more gratifying than to hear at the end of the semester, as I did from a student at her final oral exam two or three years ago, that “this course really messed me up—but that’s a good thing!” Mission accomplished.

But I’m not just a philosophy professor—I’m a regular human being as well. My professional training and natural disposition makes me generally skeptical of any claims to moral certainty—I frequently tell anyone who will listen, from the classroom to the blogosphere, that certainty is vastly overrated. (A quick search just revealed that I have used that very phrase eight times in blog essays). But I am also a person of faith, raised in a religious tradition that supposedly equipped me with the tools (scripture, prayer, authority, guilty conscience, and more) to provide definitive guidance when wondering about what the right thing to do is. working on itHow do I make being a philosopher and a person of faith work together, or at least not be in perpetual tension? As my youngest son Justin likes to say when challenged concerning important things: I’m working on it. This very issue is the central theme of this blog—after four years of hanging my struggles out for public display, I’m working on it. My sabbatical book that is under contract and will be out early next year is all about this. I’m working on it. When pressed for a summary of where my working on it stands in real time, two passages come to mind.

The first is from Simone Weil, the strange and beautiful woman who, for the past two decades has been a model for me of intellectual rigor as well as integrity to one’s faith commitments. In one of her dozens of notebooks, she writes:

The will of God. How to know it? If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think “Thy will be done,”Simone the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.

There is enough in this passage to justify many essays—what currently strikes me most strongly is Weil’s conviction that the knowledge each of us seeks is within us. Philosophers and theologians err when they tell us, implicitly or explicitly, that seeking the answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is like a treasure hunt, a search that, if successful, will once and for all provide us with proper guidance in all circumstances. Rather, as both the Pentateuch and the Apostle Paul tell us, the word is within you. It is within me. Believing this requires an act of faith that, at least at first look, is astoundingly optimistic. What reasons are there to believe that the universe, God, reality, or anything, is so attuned to what Catherine of Genoa called “my deepest me” that I can trust that this deepest me holds the answers to my most pressing questions? No reasons that can fully stand up to logical scrutiny, but in matters this important perhaps logic is as overrated as certainty. I choose not to believe that my desire for bread will inevitably produce rocks, that my deepest cries will go unheard. So sue me.tutu

Then there is a similar sentiment from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When asked for his own insights concerning the will of God and how to know one is doing the right thing, he replied that

There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you “Okay, my son or my daughter, you are right.” You have to hold on to it by the skin of your teeth and hope that there’s going to be vindication on the other side.

Morality by the skin of your teeth. Tenacity and hope, along with faith, love, goodness, and as many other desirables that you care to list, are essential for even rudimentary answers to “What is the right thing to do?” This is a lot more challenging, but also a lot more fulfilling, than looking it up in a book or memorizing answers. I’m working on it.

Fear Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Freedom of a Tree

I read once that there are two kinds of living things—they are distinguished by the strategies they have developed in response to perceived threat and danger. survival strategiesOne kind responds to danger by running away from it, developing strategies and evolving tools to sidestep threats in more and more complex and sophisticated ways. We call this kind of living thing Animals. The other kind’s strategy is to hunker down, grow roots along with protective armor, and face danger by refusing to be moved. We call this kind of living thing Plants. We human beings tend to consider our animal capacities to choose between various strategies as one of our most important and wonderful abilities, going so far as defining “freedom” in terms of how many options we have to choose from. three pinesBut the older I get, the more I think that the nature of true freedom is a lot more like the strategy of plants.

In The Cruelest Month, the third of Louise Penney’s Inspector Gamache series that I just finished reading, the good Inspector has a conversation with Gilles Sandon, one of more than a half-dozen suspects in the most recent murder in Three Pines, Quebec. Sandon is a former lumberjack, a hulking brute of a guy with an unexpected sensitive side. Gilles tells Gamache of a day a number of years ago when he walked with his tree-cutting colleagues into the woods for a day of work and heard a whimpering that sounded like a baby animal. LumberjackAs the whimpering became louder and turned into a cry, then a scream, Gilles realized that this wasn’t an animal sound at all. Furthermore, none of his companions could hear it.

Something had changed overnight. I’d changed. I could hear the trees. I think I could always hear their happiness. I think that’s why I felt so happy myself in the forest. But now I could hear their terror too . . . Mostly trees are quiet. Just want to be left alone. Funny how I learned about freedom from creatures that are rooted in place.

Gilles’ life was changed, beginning with his understandably being fired from his lumberjacking job (if a lumberjack won’t cut trees, what’s the point?). Over time he became a woodworking artist, specializing in making chairs out of dead trees that he carefully selects after they have fallen; as Gamache says, Gilles makes his living giving dead trees new life.

“Funny how I learned about freedom from creatures that are rooted in place.”treebeard In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the middle book in his classic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits Merry and Pippin learn a similar lesson from Treebeard and the Ents, the oldest creatures in Middle Earth who are, for all intents and purposes, talking trees who have the ability to walk, think, and talk—very, VERY slowly and deliberately. Merry and Pippin, running for their lives from a band of murderous orcs from whom they have just escaped, find themselves in middle of Fangorn Forest where the Ents live. After hearing about the forces gathering for a classic battle between good and evil on the borders of their forest, entmootTreebeard calls for an “Entmoot,” a council of Ents to decide what, if anything, they should do about these disturbing events. It takes days for the Ents to gather, and many more days for the debate to take place at a one-sentence-per-hour pace. Merry and Pippin are driven close to madness with impatience over the snail-like deliberateness of the Ents—but when they finally choose to take a side in the battle, their participation sways the conflict, at least for a while, in the direction of the good guys.

In our American culture, freedom is often thought of as the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it, free from the interference of anyone other than me. Any perceived limitation on what I want to do, even if clearly in my own interest and that of others, is a violation of my “freedom.” But philosophers have argued for centuries that this uninhibited throwing around of my deliberative weight is anything but true freedom. Aristotle conceived of the life of freedom and moral excellence as a life constructed out of the virtues, sovereignty of goodgood habits that, when cultivated, incline a person to do the right thing as a matter of developed character rather than conscious choice. More than two millennia later, Iris Murdoch provides a contemporary spin on Aristotle’s insight in The Sovereignty of Good by suggesting that it is in the small choices concerning what we pay attention to and adopt as centrally important that true freedom is to be found.

But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.

True freedom, under this description, is acting in attunement with one’s character and conscience—items that are constructed slowly, deliberately, and in accord with one’s best nature. A lot like a tree, in other words.here i stand

A human being can never entirely trade its animal survival strategy for the rootedness of a plant. But we can, as Gilles, Merry, and Pippin did, learn a lot about freedom and how to be in the world from a tree. I used to wonder what Martin Luther meant when, at the Diet of Worms, he concluded his refusal to recant his heretical writings by saying “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Of course he could have done otherwise! I would complain. No one is forcing him not to recant. But Luther’s point was that at this moment in his life, recanting his writings would be the same as ceasing to be Martin Luther. He can do no other because his character has rooted him in place. As Murdoch suggests, if one has paid attention to the incremental tiny choices that shape one’s character and life over time, what to do at “crucial moments of choice” will not only be clear—it will be unavoidable. Be like a tree.

Slightly Improved

I have no idea why or how Miss Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard School of Music2139064083_fa0e5dd401[1] with a degree in organ performance, came to spend most of her adult life teaching piano to kids in central, rural Vermont. She was my first piano teacher, from age five (or was it four?) until age eleven. I spent forty-five minutes per week with her in the piano studio attached to her small apartment. While many of her students found her intimidating, she reminded me a bit of my imperious but loving paternal grandmother. But she could have been the Wicked Witch of the West and I would have put up with it, because piano was my life.

Music is in my genes from both sides of the family. I don’t remember when my older brother started piano lessons, but some of my earliest memories involved my mother forcing him to practice his lessons as well as my jealousy that he was getting to do something I wasn’t old enough for yet. He was an indifferent musician—he could play the notes but had no love of it. I was a different matter. I recognized the piano as a soul mate as soon as I started lessons. As I got old enough for school, I would rush to our old uprightimagesCAQOJENP as soon as I got home and play until my mother forced me to leave the bench for supper. The piano was my best friend.

Miss Munn recognized immediately that she had a “true believer” on her hands and allowed me to progress through the standard lesson books at a much faster pace than most. She was a member of a national organization of certified piano instructors, meaning that once per year representatives of this group would visit, listen to her students play assigned pieces and sight-read new ones, grading the students (and presumably Miss Munn) in any number of categories. I remember the two judges as Kafkaesque,Kafkaesque[1] austere, unsmiling, unmoving, seated primly next to each other about five feet away on the left side of the piano, silently making checks occasionally on a sheet in front of them. Come to think of it, they looked and acted pretty much as I figured God looked and acted all of the time.

Miss Munn shared the judges’ scores with her students once she received them from the central authorities in the mail. I recall as if it were yesterday when she reported to me the results of my first judging: Twelve positive checks and zero negative checks. I was thrilled—I had set a goal of being perfect, and I had been. Miss Munn’s comments on my perfect score, however, were unexpected. She said, I’m very pleased with the number of positives, but I’m concerned that you had no negatives. What? What could be better than perfection? She continued by pointing out that my zero negative score was reflective, not of perfection, but of a strong sense of perfectionismPerfectionism[1] that is not desirable in an aspiring pianist (or anywhere else, I suspect). By being so concerned with not making any mistakes, I had closed off the possibility of additional positive checks only available if one is willing to take risks. I don’t remember exactly how I processed Miss Munn’s unexpected reaction to my perfect score, but I must have taken it to heart. My score on next year’s judging was twenty-seven positive checks, three negative checks. At least at the piano, I’d begun to learn that growth and excellence begin with embracing imperfection.

As Jeanne said when I told her this story, that’s a pretty difficult lesson for a five-year-old to learn. Indeed—it’s a lesson that I still struggle with. Miss Munn may have convinced me that perfection is not to be sought at the piano, but Jesus said “Be Ye PERFECT![1]Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father in heaven is perfect” (when he was speaking in King James English). That’s an even tougher lesson for a five-year-old, but it stuck. Not as something to strive for, but as an eternal impossible guilt-producing standard whose roots went deeper every year. As I grew older, I knew that this was an impossible standard. I even have said in class, to the nervous discomfort of my students, “What the hell kind of a moral standard is that”?

imagesCA6KS6YVIn  The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch asks “What of the command ‘Be ye therefore perfect?’ Would it not be more sensible to say ‘Be ye therefore slightly improved?’” Three decades earlier, she built this tension into one of her novels. The central structural pillars of The Belln43712[1] are the dueling Sunday sermons of James and Michael, rivals for the leadership of a lay religious community. James, on the one hand, is convinced that moral perfection is well within any human being’s reach—we know what is required of us and just need to stop thinking and do it. Perfection is measured by the external standard given to us by God through Scripture and tradition. We fail to be perfect through weakness of will. Throughout the novel James is also revealed as judgmental and self-righteous, rigidly insensitive to the nuances and realities of other people.

Michael, on the other hand, preaches that moral behavior begins with an honest assessment of one’s limitations and imperfections—“one must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles.” Although Michael’s position is far more humane and embraceable than James’, his life is a series of continual missteps for which he seeks and expects immediate forgiveness from himself and others. When, due to his moral blundering, a member of the community commits suicide, Michael himself becomes suicidal as he realizes that his lazy acceptance of his own limitations has poisoned his relationships and caused him to blindly miss the importance of continually striving for perfection. Contentment with “slight improvement” has become identical with self-absorption and stagnation.

So there’s the problem. How am I to embrace imperfection while at the same time avoiding complacency? My best clue, which I borrow from Jeanne who is far wiser than I on these matters, has to do with “the law of love.”imagesCAH78QB6 Perfection is a deadly burden as long as it is a standard of judgment. But through the lens of love, it becomes something different. As long as my image of perfection is avoiding judgment by making no mistakes, I live in fear and am doomed to failure. Miss Munn, however, wanted to show me that the growth inspired by taking risks and making mistakes without fear is directed toward a perfection of a very different sort. The wise Abbess in The Bell tells Michael toward the end of the book that “The idea of perfection moves, and possibly changes, us because it inspires love in the part of us that is most worthy.” As First John tells us (once again in King James English), “perfect love casteth out fear.”mural perfect love with cars[1]