Tag Archives: Jesus

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I Was a Stranger

A few days ago in a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. If the raccoons are undocumented immigrants, it is not difficult to imagine what lessons we are to draw from the exterminator.

This made me think about an essay about strangers I wrote a bit over a year ago . . .

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea-nymph and Acis, the son of a sea-nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well-known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen last Friday. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, various suggestions ranged from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. Furthermore, yesterday’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, those who we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

In Matthew 25 can be found the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

In his prime time speech on immigration reform not long ago, President Obama closed with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in these passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats

Schrödinger’s God

Fifteen or more years ago my professional writing and research interests were largely focused on the philosophical implications of various interesting and important issues in the sciences, particularly the theory of natural selection in biology and philosophy’s contributions to cognitive sciencecognitive science (an interdisciplinary investigation of consciousness and the brain involving biology, neuroscience, physics, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and several other disciplines). For a number of reasons my professional research and writing energies have shifted over the years, but I still have a fond place in my heart for the intersection of philosophy and science. So when I read an essayist the other day compare the Christian claim that Jesus was both human and divine to the famous “uncertainty principle” in physics, my virtual ears perked up. With apologies in advance for oversimplification to my colleagues and friends in various physics departments, let’s take a look.

The uncertainty principle was introduced by Werner Heisenberg in 1927 as a statement of one of the most fascinating and mind-bending features of the world of quantum physics. The principle states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. In other words, you cannot know both the position and the speed of a particle at the same time. uncertainty_principle-The notion that two directly measurable quantities of the same physical particle cannot be nailed down simultaneously sounds odd, to say the least, but philosophers have long grappled with the problem of how to handle two truths that are both obviously and logically true yet are incompatible with each other.

Dualistic philosophers, for example, claim that a human being consists of two fundamentally incompatible things, a physical body and a non-physical mind. Yet we know experientially that our bodies and minds interact with each other all the time—something mind and body should not be able to do if they are substantially different. So are they really different sorts of things or not? descartee of bohemiaPrincess Elizabeth of Bohemia once pressed the great René Descartes so vigorously on this in their letter correspondence–How can mind and body be different substances and still interact in the human person?—that he finally wrote, in essence, “I don’t know. They just do.” Not a great philosophical argument, but at least he tried.

Which brings me back to the Ian Frazier essay I mentioned in the first paragraph that got me to thinking about all of this. Frazier writes that

Whatever Jesus actually looked like, trying to adjust him to any physical image is misleading, because he was both God and man. This concept is so powerful, yet so challenging, to hold in the mind that whole huge heresies have thrown in the towel and simply picked one side or the other. I try to think of Jesus as being a sort of oscillation between the two. science is realA similar idea in physics is the uncertainty principle, which says you cannot know both the position and the speed of a particle at the same time. Jesus was God and man oscillating back and forth—either and both, both or either, simultaneously.

That’s a peculiar notion, to say the least—I’m kind of picturing Jesus in an endless dance between two incompatible states at such speed as to make mere mortals unable to tell that he’s moving at all. I’m not sure it’s very helpful theologically. But this got me to thinking about another possible application of quantum craziness to Christianity: “Uncertainty Principle Jesus” is nothing when compared to another hybrid of Christianity and physics: “Schrödinger’s God.”

One of the strangest features of quantum physics is that atom or photon can exist as a combination of multiple states corresponding to different possible outcomes—a situation called a “quantum superposition.”Quantum_Supe We know that superposition actually occurs at the subatomic level, because there are observable instances in which a single particle is demonstrated to be in multiple locations at the same time. One of the leading quantum theory interpretations says that an atom or photon remains in this indeterminate superposition until it is observed, before which only probabilities can be predicted. We cannot know with certainty ahead of time which of the various states the atom or photon will settle into. The act of measurement affects the system, causing the set of probabilities to reduce to only one of the possible values immediately after the measurement. Yet another demonstration of the apparent conflict between what quantum theory tells us is true about the nature and behavior of matter on the microscopic level and what we observe to be true about the nature and behavior of matter on the macroscopic level — everything visible to the unaided human eye.

In 1935 Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger came up with a thought experiment that drives the point home directly, a thought experiment that has come to be known as Schrödinger’s Cat. Place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid, a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat.schroedinger experiment

But given quantum superposition, we cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, according to the quantum superposition of states, the cat is both dead and alive. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive). to be and not to beThis situation is sometimes called quantum indeterminacy or the observer’s paradox: the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that the outcome as such does not exist unless the measurement is made.

Scientists, philosophers, and fiction writers have had a field day with Schrödinger’s poor cat for the past eighty years; Schrödinger himself is rumored to have said, later in life, that he wished he had never met that cat. Further discussion of the scientific implications of a world in which things at a foundational level are radically uncertain until we interact with them is well above my knowledge and pay grade. Does God ExistBut transfer Schrödinger’s thought experiment to a classic question from an entirely different field of human inquiry: Does God exist? The traditional and common sense assumption is that there is a solid “yes” or “no” answer to this question—something either exists or it doesn’t, right? The issue then becomes “what do you mean by ‘God’?’ and “what evidence do you consider to be relevant to the question?” The fact that things immediately spin out of control in terms of complication and confusion does not obviate the fact that the original question—Does God exist?—sounds for all the world like a simple “yes” or “no” sort of question.

But in a Schrödinger world, even that isn’t clear. Just as in a world of physical indeterminacy Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead until someone looks, so in a world of theological indeterminacy God both exists and does not exist—until someone looks. As long as the discussion is abstract and verbal, no progress can be made and no conclusions can be drawn. But as soon as one commits to action rather than abstractions, something happens. Just as one finds the cat either dead or alive when the box is opened, so one finds a living or dead deity when one engages actively. What one finds is not simply a function of what’s going on “out there.”blind to sight It is equally a function of what one brings to the activity of looking. We tend to find what we are looking for. At the very least, the God question is answered experientially, not intellectually. For the blind man who said after Jesus had left town that “I was blind, and now I see,” his new faith was based on an experience, not argumentation. Before the experience, no argument would have convinced him. After the experience, no argument was necessary.

Donald Trump and Evangelicals

But understand this, that in the last days terrible times will come. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, wolf in sheep's clothinglovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. II Timothy 3:1-5

The other day as I listened to NPR as is my custom when in the car, someone mentioned that although Ted Cruz seems to have the approval of most evangelicals in Iowa, Donald Trump does well nationally among conservative evangelical Christians. It’s probably not right for someone who claims to be a Christian to have a “What The Fuck!!” moment, but I did. I’ve expressed my confusion before over how someone professing to be a Christian can sign on to the political platform of the Republican Party,

The Return of Republican Jesus

but that confusion pales in comparison to my complete failure to understand how evangelical Christians can support Donald Trump. Rather than ask my numerous liberal friends and social media acquaintances, who would be as clueless as I am about this phenomenon, evangelicals-cartoonI decided to go to the source. I gave some evangelical Christians the opportunity to explain this to me.

This was a bit trickier to do than it might sound—where is a liberal Episcopalian, freelance Christian who is off the charts liberal on social issues and most everything else going to find some evangelical Christians willing to talk with a reprobate such as I? Although I do not call myself an evangelical Christian, I understand the mindset and commitments of evangelicals very well—it is the faith atmosphere into which I was born and in which I was raised. My father, a Baptist minister, was the founder and President of a small evangelical Bible school in northern New England during my growing up years; I spent a year there between graduating from high school and going across the country to begin my college education.

My dad’s Bible school closed its doors a half-dozen or so years after my year there; I was interested to discover a Facebook page a year or so ago for former students to reconnect and reminisce. Several of the people who were fellow students with me over forty years ago are members of this site—it has become clear to me as I drop in on occasion that although I have evolved away from conservative evangelical Christianity over the past few decades, many of my former fellow students have not. donald and evangelicalsSo when I wanted to run my Donald Trump question past some evangelicals, I knew where to go. I went to the Facebook site and posted this question:

Could someone explain to me why so many evangelical Christians like Donald Trump?

Here are a few of the exchanges that ensued, lightly edited for space purposes:

Conversation One was not very fruitful:

  • Him: There is no one more unqualified for the presidency of this great nation than the person currently occupying that office.
  • Me: Which, of course, does not answer the question I asked.
  • Him: The answer is, any of the candidates on the Republican side, though not perfect, would be orders of magnitude better than any on the other side, current or running.
  • Me: keep calm and answer the questionYou’re certainly free to answer whatever question you want, even if it’s not the one I asked, but I’m not the least bit interested in a useless political debate. You and I disagree sharply, let’s leave it at that. If you’re interested in actually responding to the question I asked, it was: Could someone explain to me why so many evangelical Christians like Donald Trump? I fail to see how “I don’t like the President” or “anyone but Hilary or Bernie” addresses that question. I posted it because I thought in this group there might be an evangelical Christian or two who could provide some illumination, since I fail to detect any glimmer of Christian anything in Trump. X provided a reasonable explanation above–if you care to try as well, I’d be happy to respond.

He didn’t. Conversation Two at least appeared to engage with my question:

  • Him: Vance, I think it’s simply and only because there has been such a climate of PC that has developed over the years, it’s refreshing to hear a person simply saying what they think with really no thought that what he says (may…might…possibly…to some unknown and unnamed person…) be offensive sometime. That would be my guess.
  • Me: You’re probably right–which worries me greatly. To think that a person who is entirely unqualified to be President is attracting followers because he has no filter is scary. And it is anything but “refreshing,” unless one finds racism, misogyny and egomania “refreshing.” Also, the above does not explain why evangelical Christians would be attracted to him–what you describe is hardly a trait affirmed in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance.

Conversation Three was the most fruitful and most worrisome:

  • Her: Vance, I am not sure that I am the person to answer the big question, but I find it refreshing for someone in the spotlight to speak up and say what many Americans are thinking. In my circle of friends, who consider themselves evangelical, I am hard pressed to find quote unquote any evangelical Christians who would vote for him. Even though they like what he says. They believe he is too quick and they don’t like how he talks about the other people and lacks experience. anyone but hillaryLet’s imagine that he is the nominee…would evangelical Christians vote for him? I believe that they would. They would not stay home and not vote, like those who did in the last election. They don’t want another Clinton in the White House. I hope that I have shed some light on your question and that I was somewhat coherent.
  • Me: I would not be surprised if conservative folks, Christian or not, might vote for anyone to avoid a liberal as President–often votes are cast against someone rather than for. But with a number of Republican candidates with credentials that line up better with evangelical concerns, I’m just wondering why so many like Trump.
  • Her: I think that many, myself included, will get the same old “Beltway” Republican, who easily caves into the Democrats on the “Hill”. I want someone who will stand up for something, fight the good fight and if he goes down, let him go down swinging. The candidates that are running aren’t that way. They are tied to big money donations. Seriously, do we want Jeb Bush as the next president. conservativesTalk about someone who appears wimpy and whiny. Ben Carson is not going to make it, he knows less than Trump. Chris Christie, no way, Rubio, no way, Ted Cruz…maybe. There is so much discord between liberals and conservatives that I believe that Trump may not be so bad. Who knows what he will be like in the White House if elected. I believe that this election will be one of the scariest and not knowing who the real person is that is being voted for. Does Trump have a hidden agenda? Don’t know. Does he really believe what he is saying? Don’t know. I do believe the election will come down to who has the most votes. I must say I am looking forward to watching both conventions. Yes, they will vote the person and not what they say to avoid a liberal democrat. I brought my bibleThey see liberal democrats as big on spending and taxes. But the bottom line is, many people who are unemployed, have had cuts in pay, struggling with meeting their budgets, feel helpless about the immigration, and the feeling that their Constitutional rights are slowly being taking away… YES, they will vote for Trump.
  • Me: I appreciate your thoughts. As you might imagine, we’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But I am glad to have a discussion with more depth than the usual sound bites from both sides.
  • Her: I have enjoyed the discussion, also. I believe that is probably the biggest problem in America. People don’t talk to others who have different opinions. They shout, call each other names and don’t try to understand another’s point of view. Just because I understand another point of view does not mean that I agree. But I will still talk to that individual. I read your blog, food for thought and gives me another perspective of another person’s world view. Though I don’t feel insulated, I know that I am compared to others. It always surprises me when others don’t have my view. LOL!

In addition to agreeing with my Conversation Three partner that it always surprises me when others don’t share my views, my main takeaway is to note that my conversants said virtually nothing about Christianity, evangelical or otherwise. The reasoning provided could have been given by a conservative agnostic.kim davis

Which means that I remain confused. One of the fundamental commitments of evangelical Christianity is to bring one’s Christian faith “into all the world”—a Kim Davis-like insertion of one’s religious beliefs into secular society. Those who responded to my Facebook question instead relied on their conservative political leanings with nary a mention of how any of this squares with their being an evangelical Christian. I just don’t get it—my own social and political commitments are largely shaped by my faith commitments. As I frequently say, I am a liberal because I am a Christian. And I am still waiting for a Christian to show me how their faith meshes with their conservative agenda. Or with supporting Donald Trump, who sounds a lot like the sort of person Paul tells us to avoid in Second Timothy.

There was one person, though—my Conversation Four partner—who was clearly interested in voting for the best Christian among those running for President.

  • Her: I would like to know which of the nominees is truly the one that has a relationship with Jesus? Does anyone know?
  • Me: Ultimately that is not for us to judge. But we do have what they say and do as evidence. As the book says, by their fruits you will know them.
  • Her: Thanks Vance, but I was hoping for some names.kicking ass and taking names

Holy Family Values

Each week, Garrison Keillor tells “Prairie Home Companion” listeners the news from Lake WobeLake-Wobegon[1]gon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” I’ll bet the Holy Family was like that.

Lots of people think their children are well “above average”—hence, the bumper stickers in which parents boast that they are the “Proud Parents of an Honor Student at _________.”115711-20[1] Everyone thinks their child is precocious and the smartest/best looking/most creative human being ever. Every parent expects their infant to earn either a full academic or full athletic scholarship (probably both) to the college of their choice when the time comes. I doubt there is a place for a bumper sticker on a donkey, but if there is, what would Mary and Joseph’s donkey sticker have said?b24ede2f59b807e062898eb6a63bb5de[2] “Proud Parents of the Savior of the World”? “Our Kid is God in the Flesh”? Because there’s precocity, and then there’s precocity.

In “The Nativity Story,” a significant amount of time is spent on Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. The filmmaker creatively lets us spend some time with these two young people, almost strangers to each other, who have been named as players in a divine plan that they have been told very little about. At one point, Mary asks Joseph what the angel had said to him.

Joseph: He said to not be afraid. (pause) Are you afraid?

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

Mary: Do you ever wonder when we’ll know? That he is not just a child? Something he says, a look in his eyes?

Joseph: Sometimes I wonder will I be able to even teach him anything.

No kidding. When it is predicted by the angels that the soon-to-be-born baby will “save his people from their sins,” one’s possible parental and step-parental contributions certainly seem to pale in comparison.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the mass quantities of commentary and artwork that have been produced over the last two thousand years, the canonical Gospels tell us remarkably little about holy family life. The non-canonical gospels, however, contain some stories that entirely corroborate Mary and Joseph’s pre-birth concerns. 4069-6820Jesus makes clay birds, which then come to life and fly away. Jesus strikes an annoying playmate dead. Jesus brings a less annoying playmate back to life after a fatal accident. School is a disaster, since every time a teacher tries to teach Jesus something, Jesus starts doing the teaching instead. Joseph and Mary’s worst fears come true.

The canonical gospels essentially leave us in the dark about Jesus between birth and thirty years old. We get the circumcision, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and a central text from Luke 2, twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. The various artist’s renditions I’ve seen of this story are pretty much the same—The-Jesus-2[1]Jesus, looking particularly Aryan in the center of a holy glow, pontificates and astounds while his learned elders in the shadows lean away in disbelief and awe and some scribe takes notes. It’s kind of how I remember myself as a fifth or sixth grader, astounding (annoying?) my teacher and fellow students with yet another piece of fascinating (to me), but useless (to anyone else) information. Lovely scene, except that it has a lot more to do with what we think Jesus at twelve would have been like than anything from the story in Luke.

The actual story gives us a glimpse into a real family, holy or not. After going to the feast in Jerusalem with friends and family, as is their annual custom, Mary and Joseph are returning north to Nazareth. Although they’re not sure where Jesus is, they assume that he’s running around with his friends somewhere in the traveling group, so they don’t worry about it. Good for them—he’s almost a teenager, and they’ve loosened the parental leash a little bit. Let the boy have some freedom. But when he doesn’t show up at the end of the day, they’re worried. After failing to find him in the caravan, they return in panic to Jerusalem, where after three days they find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers.” In response to his mother’s exasperated and relieved “What the hell is your problem?? We’ve been looking all over for you!!! We thought you’d 262jesus12[1]been kidnapped!!!!”, Jesus gives a predictable, smart-alecky twelve-year-old response: “Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Oh really?? “Guess what? You’re grounded! Once we get back to Nazareth you can ‘be about your Father’s business’ in your room!!” Luke chooses not to tell us if Jesus then received a well-deserved slap upside the head and lived under house arrest for the next year.

This is a real family, struggling with the challenges of love, faith, boundaries, and growing up. Despite the usual interpretations of this story, I think that Jesus had not gone to the Temple to school the experts—something he presumably could have done, given his pedigree and all. He was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.”Jerus-n4i[1]

I don’t know whether twelve-year-old Jesus thought he was the Son of God—my bet is that he didn’t. But he did know where he wanted to be—he wanted to be where he could learn. Certainly the mystery and splendor of the Temple would have been an attraction for any young Jewish boy. But the real attraction was that this is where learning happened. This is where the most intelligent and educated people of Jesus’ society gathered to debate, to investigate, to discuss, and to discover. And that’s where Jesus wanted to be—listening and asking questions. Even the Son of God had a lot to learn and knew how to get started. Put yourself in the right place and open yourself up.

Even though I am on sabbatical, reflecting on this will be a wonderful preparation for the upcoming semester. The life of learning is so much more about quietness, attentive listening, and perceptive questions than conveying facts and information.ListenLearn-lg[1] This is where the divine in each of our human vessels gets awakened and fanned into flame. It’s a privilege to participate. When, as always happens, I find myself buried under and frustrated by piles of grading and endless department and committee meetings in a few weeks, I’ll try to remember twelve-year-old Jesus, who knew where he belonged. He was about his Father’s business. Go and do likewise.

Reading and Writing

My twenty-plus years teaching at Providence College have afforded me an opportunity every semester for team-teaching in the large interdisciplinary program that is the heart of our core curriculum (a program I directed for four years ending last July). downloadTeam-teaching is fun, exhilarating, and demanding; this begins with the planning of the next semester’s syllabus. Faculty from different departments having different experiences with and notions about pedagogy bring all sorts of ideas to the table and do not always agree, particularly about the amount of daily and weekly work to schedule for our future students. My contribution to the discussion is always the same: “They should read until they drop, then write until they drop again.” In that order—there’s nothing that feeds intelligent writing more effectively than reading.

It is strange that I temporarily forgot this important connection between reading and writing during the past few months. The working highlight of the first half of my sabbatical was an intense spurt of writing from September to Thanksgiving, surely energized by a bicycle mishap in early October; I all of a sudden had to find something to do with the four to five hours per day during which I had been riding my bicycle and getting into the best shape of my life prior to the mishap. In addition to completing a second draft of my current book project, I was able to maintain my established blog routine of two new 1200-1500 posts per week—something that my most famous writing friend, kathleen Kathleen Norris, suggested last May that I would probably not be able to do while writing a book. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the book is closely related to my past three-and-a-half years of blog work.

But since Thanksgiving, the writing energies have begun to dry up. I still have been able to produce new blog posts, but a couple of them seemed forced and I was often writing under self-imposed deadline pressure. The proposal that needs to be written for my book draft wasn’t getting written. Just a few days before Christmas I realized one of the main reasons for my current writing malaise—reading and writingI haven’t been reading much for the past few months. There are a number of excuses I might offer, but none of them fully explain why, when I actually have more unstructured time than any grown-up should have, I have been neglecting my first love—reading. I’ve even gotten out of the habit of reading the daily psalms every morning. Very bad idea.

A quick review of my blog posts from a year ago was illuminating. Many of my late December and early January posts either mention or focus directly on either Barbara Taylor Brown or Christopher Wiman. Why? Because just before Christmas break last year the work of these two authors was recommended to me by two different friends, so I spent Christmas break reading several of Brown’s books and a memoir by Wiman. The point? I write about what I am reading—the ideas, images, and insights of a good book never fail to be evocative. my life in middlemarchSince I think best when I am writing, that’s where these ideas, images and insights become my own.

Awareness frequently produces change, and this time was no exception. Awareness of my reading slump caused me to pick up Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a biography/memoir centered on George Eliot’s masterpiece (and my favorite novel). Sure enough, several passages inspired by Mead’s book are central to my New Year’s Eve blog post, and others will form the core of my forthcoming Valentine’s Day post for Jeanne. Then for Christmas Jeanne gave me The Good Book, a collection of essays, edited by Andrew Blaumer, in which thirty-two writers from all sorts of angles write about their favorite passages and characters from the Bible. Although the older I get the less I believe in mere coincidence, good bookI “coincidentally” opened first to “The Womb and the Cistern Cell,” an essay by Brooks Hansen about John the Baptist.

John “just happens” to be one of my favorite characters from the New Testament; twice in the past four years I have had the privilege of giving an Advent sermon on John the Baptist Sunday in early December. On one end of his life is a miraculous birth narrative that in my estimation rivals that of his younger cousin Jesus, and at the end of his life he finds himself in a dungeon (a cistern well) and a state of despairing doubt. He sends a question via his disciples to Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? These are the last words we hear from this man, the first person recorded to recognize adult Jesus for who he was. Hansen finds this remarkable, and so do I; he concludes his essay by reflecting on the intimate connection between belief and doubt.

Light is born of darkness. Darkness is the necessary precondition of light. Belief, likewise, is born of doubt, the baptistwhich is its necessary precondition. Doubt is the soil from which faith grows. Therefore, if one is determined to imagine John the Baptist as the first and most authoritative voice to recognize Jesus as savior—the first, in other words, to believe—then John must, by that token have been the first to doubt. That, too, is Law. And if we ever encounter any teaching, or feel ourselves succumbing to any creed or system of belief, that does not admit this, and does not struggle intimately and often—in the cistern of its soul—with the fear that it is mistaken, misdirected, falsely premised, or corrupt at its heart—we should take heed:

That is not faith. That, in fact, is a fairy tale.

I wish I had read this before my most recent sermon three weeks ago—it would have made the cut. I frequently say and write that in just about all aspects of belief, certainty is vastly overrated—Hansen makes the same point much more eloquently. This is why reading feeds writing. Reading enlarges one’s vocabulary, broadens one’s perspective, and provides examples of the richness of language and experience. And it is fun—what’s not to love?

one thing

One Thing

In the 1991 movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays New York executive Mitch Robbins, whose hassled life is wearing negatively on his work, his marriage, and his friendships. At thirty-nine years old he finds himself deep in a midlife crisis. three amigosFor his birthday, his two best buddies purchase a two-week vacation for the three of them at a dude ranch in New Mexico to participate in a dude cattle drive. As is usually the case with Billy Crystal, hilarity and poignancy ensue simultaneously. The tough-as-nails trail boss Curly, played to great effect by Jack Palance, is an enigma to Mitch from day one—Curly is silent, curmudgeonly, skilled at his job, self-assured, and clearly in possession of information that Mitch badly needs. One day while rounding up strays, Mitch asks, “Curly, what is the secret of life?” As a good philosopher should, Curly answers with another question.

You know what the secret of life is?

No, what?

(Holding one finger up) This. one thing

Your finger?

One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.

That’s great, but what’s the one thing?

That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.

One thing. Finding out what that one thing is might be the point of anyone’s life, but that’s a pretty big task. At the beginning of a new year, a more manageable question might be “What is the one thing that I resolve to do this coming year?” And I don’t mean something like drinking less coffee or going to the gym more. I mean “What is the one thing that I resolve to do in this coming year that will be good for the inner me, for my soul?”one more thing I gave this assignment to the Living Stones seminar group that meets once a month after church when we met in December, and they’ll be bringing their “one thing” resolution when we meet next. As for me, I resolve that in 2016 I will be a more reverent person.

Reverence is not a concept that is particularly in favor in Western culture—it probably hasn’t been for decades. The term is almost always used in religious contexts, especially during the holiday season just ended. The shepherds and wise men gaze reverently upon the Christ child, Mary listens reverently as the angel tells her that her world is about to be turned upside down, the stable animals chew their hay reverently as they observe Mary reverently giving birth to Jesus while Joseph reverently boils water and finds some swaddling clothes. I suppose that sort of faux holiness has its place (maybe), but that’s not what I have in mind.

The sort of reverence I am resolving to develop this year is more like Moses’ reaction to the burning bush in Exodus. As he is taking care of his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks one day, he notices something weird out of the corner of his eye—a bush that is on fire but is not being burnt up. He could have thought “that’s weird” and kept on going. burning bushHe could have made a mental note to check back later when he wasn’t so busy. He could have Googled “burning bush” on his tablet after dinner with Zipporah and the kids when he had a few minutes of down time. But he didn’t. Instead, he said “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” Loose translation—“Holy Shit! What the hell is that?” Moses was willing to interrupt his busy day to take a look at something outside his usual frame of reference. Reverence begins with the ability to see in a different way, to notice what’s going on outside the boundaries of my agenda, to be attentive to even the most mundane items and events that cross my path. Most importantly, reverence is cultivated by an increasing awareness that everything is important in its own right. simoneThe Greek philosopher Protagoras famously claimed that “man is the measure of all things.” Reverence says that I am not the measure of anything—what is most important and interesting is almost never about me.

The work of the French, Jewish mystic, activist and philosopher Simone Weil has been important to me both personally and professionally for many years, but one of her many cryptic phrases has been a mystery to me until just recently. In Gravity and Grace, she writes that “Here below, 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.” This truly made no sense to me for a long time. But as I’ve learned something about peace, silence and attentiveness over the past few years, I’ve begun to see Simone’s point. Human beings are naturally acquisitive and devouring creatures—we are seldom willing to let things be as they are. If X is attractive, I want to buy it. If Y looks useful, I want to consume it. If Z is important, I want to make it mine. We turn these manic energies on the world around us and on each other on a regular basis. Simone’s point is that not everything is here for my use and pleasure. it isThe importance of what I encounter during a given day is not to be judged according to how important it is to me. And as I learn that everything is important in its own right, I can begin to see it differently. To “let it be,” as the Beatles sang, and to remember that “it is what it is,” as Jeanne frequently says.

So in practical terms, what does reverence amount to? At the very least, it means giving each task, person, and event in my life my undivided attention. A colleague of mine defines “multitasking” as “doing several things poorly at the same time.” If multitasking is the enemy of reverence, which I’m quite sure it is, then I’m in trouble. I find it very difficult to do one thing at a time—the very writing of this essay has been interrupted, sometimes in mid-sentence, by going to a second screen to check on my blog numbers, multitaskingthen a third screen to see if my latest important email has been responded to yet. During a typical evening it is not unusual for me to be watching a television show with Jeanne, farting around on my tablet, and grading a paper or two all at the same time.

So I resolve to ask myself the following question frequently in the following weeks and months: Is what you are doing worthy of your undivided attention? And if the answer is “yes,” then the follow-up question is Then why are you not giving it your undivided attention? Learning to give my undivided attention to each thing as I encounter it is the first step in recognizing the value inherent in even the tiniest and most insignificant part of reality. Moses took the time to check out something unusual and found out that he was standing on holy ground. And so are we. All the time.tutu

The Strong, Silent Type

imagesCAXNTWCGIn my religious tradition, we didn’t do saints. We did do Christmas pageants—big time. I remember in various pageants being an angel, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles. My most triumphant pageant appearance, though, was the year I got to be Joseph. Wearing a white dish towel on my head secured with a bathrobe belt, I gazed with a holy aspect at the plastic headed Jesus in the make-shift manger while the narrator read the Christmas story. Actually, I was gazing at Mary, played by Bonnie, whom I was planning to marry in 15-20 years. It was my usual pattern when I was in single digits of age. If I thought a girl was cute, I’d think “you’re cute—I wonder what our children will look like.” Of course I always thought these things—I never said them.

My affinity for Joseph has stayed with me, so I have an affinity for the birth of Jesus narrative in Matthew’s gospel. Scholars tell us that Matthew’s primary focus is to look back to events more than a half century past and sell to a matthew117[1]Jewish audience that this Jewish man, crucified as a common criminal, was actually the promised Messiah. The author’s intentions are clear from the start when the gospel begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back from his father, Joseph, through King David to Abraham. The author even points out some interesting details in this genealogy that the well-versed Jewish reader or listener would not miss.

There are some questionable females in Joseph’s family tree. Salmon, David’s great-grandfather, for instance, marries Rahab whose story is told in the book of Joshua.Rahab-saves-spies-1[1] The invading children of Israel send spies into the Promised Land to scout out the area; they end up in Jericho, a walled fortress that is the most important and powerful city in Canaan. They end up in the house of a prostitute named Rahab (what were they doing there?), who hides them from the King of Jericho and helps them escape from the city by dropping a rope from her window so they can climb down the wall to safety in the middle of the night. For her efforts, this non-Israelite prostitute and her family are the only inhabitants of Jericho spared when Joshua and his army, using information from the spies Rahab saved, conquers and destroys Jericho a few chapters later.

Salmon and Rahab’s son is Boaz. Perhaps it is because he is a half-breed that he is willing to marry the foreign widow Ruth. The story of Ruth and Boaz is beautifully told in the Book of Ruth, a hidden and seldom-read gem in the Hebrew Scriptures. I wrote about this beautiful story a few weeks ago–here’s a brief summary. During a famine, Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave Judah with their two sons in search of sustenance, which they find in the neighboring land of Moab. The sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, something which the Mosaic Law prohibited (just as it prohibited Salmon from marrying a foreigner, let alone a prostitute). But all of the men in the story die. Devastated by loss and with no means of support, Naomi sets out to return to Bethlehem after saying goodbye to her former daughters-in-law. Orpah sadly heads back to her family home, but Ruth will not leave Naomi, touchingly saying “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

boaz_and_ruth[1]It’s the beginning of an unexpected love story—foreign woman meets wealthy Jewish guy (Boaz). Ruth and Boaz’s grandson, Jesse (who is no more than half Jewish), has eight sons. The eighth son and runt of the litter, consigned to writing poems and killing lions while tending sheep, is David who Samuel anoints as the second king of Israel. The line continues through Solomon, who is the product of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.DSC_0130[1] Even the Messiah’s line has its questionable elements and characters—which should tell us something about the divine plan and priorities.

So it is no surprise that the birth of Jesus is set up by Matthew not with the women of the story, Elizabeth and Mary, in central roles but rather with Joseph, the descendant of David. He is the central character both in next Sunday’s gospel reading as well as the text in two weeks when he runs to Egypt in the middle of the night with his young family to escape King Herod’s murderous plans. What do we learn from Matthew and from Luke, the only other gospel in which Joseph appears, about Joseph?

First, Joseph is the strong, silent type. While other major players in the stories of Jesus’ birth and formative years get major speaking parts, we have no record of Joseph ever saying anything. Mary gets the Magnificat, angels are singing and messaging at the drop of a hat, John the Baptist gets to yell “Repent,” Zachariah has the “Song of Zachariah,” the wise men have a brief speaking role, and even the minor character Simeon gets to contribute a song before he dies. But Joseph is silent. In reality, I suspect, he was capable of speech when necessary—84836-No Room Inn Logo“What the hell do you mean there’s no room at the inn? I made these reservations last month! I’ve got a pregnant wife sitting out there on a donkey in the parking lot! Sleep in a stable?? What the fuck?? I want to see your manager!”—but he gets no gospel speaking role.

Second, Joseph is in touch with his inner self in a way that would make modern therapists proud. He pays attention to his dreams and acts on them. Mary briefly argues with the angel at the annunciation in Luke, but Joseph hears an angel in a dream, wakes up, and acts on what he’s heard, both in this week’s gospel and two weeks from now. No questions asked. In fact, he’s perhaps the greatest dreamer in the Bible other than his namesake and distant ancestor Joseph from Genesis. scan0019[1]The difference between them is that Joseph in Genesis is not the strong, silent type, can’t stop blabbing about his dreams to everyone, and ends up in a well. Jesus’ stepdad knows that some things are meant to be acted on and not talked about.

Third, Joseph clearly is flexible and able to roll with the punches. One would think that the angel Gabriel might have made the annunciation to Mary and Joseph together, but no. Only Mary gets the message. We aren’t told if Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant because she tells him her story or because he happens to notice that she’s putting on weight, but because he is a “just man” he chooses to break their betrothal privately rather than making a public display of it as the law would have allowed. Finally an angel, either Gabriel or a part-timer, gets around to telling Joseph in a dream and the betrothal is back on—but no sex until Jesus is born. Bummer. But the New Testament and tradition indicate that Mary and Joseph did have several children in the years after Jesus was born, so at least that worked out.

220px-Loretto_Chapel_Ext[1] (2)In Santa Fe, there is a little church called the Loretto Chapel, which contains a “miraculous staircase,” built by a stranger with a donkey and a toolbox who showed up in answer to the prayers of the Sisters of Loretto. The newly built chapel needed a staircase to the choir loft; those who knew about such things said it would have to be a ladder, since a regular stairway would be too invasive of the chapel space. The stranger built an architectural marvel, a spiral staircaseimagesCAPEEH5G containing two 360 degree turns with no visible means of support and held together with wooden pegs rather than nails. The stranger disappeared without being paid after completing the staircase; not surprisingly, legend has it that the donkey-riding stranger was none other than St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

I tend to consider such stories to be apocryphal legend; we don’t even find out that Joseph is a carpenter until much later in Matthew when the people of Nazareth reject Jesus because this “carpenter’s son” claims to have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messiah. But this does sound like something that Joseph would do. There’s something spectacularly ordinary and efficient about Joseph. Something needs to be done, and he does it. After dealing with a pregnant fiancée he’s never had sex with, sleep-talking angels, a murderous king, lost reservations at the inn and delivering a baby in a barn, building a staircase that defies gravity for a bunch of nuns is nothing. Bring it on.images[10]

We Are Not Alone

This Christmas season seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe and in our country jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.

Jesus on a dinosaur

Jesus is Riding a Dinosaur, and other observations

The next time someone says something like “These are $130 headphones that I bought for $30,” I’ll respond “I guess that makes them $30 headphones.”untitled

Phrases and words that should never again be used in movie or book reviews: “Tour de force.” “Electrifying.” “Astounding.” “Spectacular.” “Jaw-dropping.”1345499734169

matt-and-kim-4untitled (2)To the professional photographer taking family pictures for the church photo album: Posing people in their 50s, 60s and 70s in contortions appropriate only for younger folks could lead to problems. We’ll send you the chiropractor bill.

Another word that is vastly overused: “Outraged.” It is okay to be outraged by the abuse of children, the fact that people go to sleep hungry every night in this country, or anything Donald Trump or Ben Carson says, or people who think that only Christians from Syria should be allowed to enter the U.S. as refugees. It is not okay to be outraged by a longer line than usual at the grocery store, two people of the same sex holding hands, or having to push an extra button on the ATM to indicate which language you would prefer the machine to use when communicating with you.images18HF1BON

Taking one point off a student’s final course grade every time he or she asks a question that is answered in the syllabus might cause a few more students to read the syllabus. Maybe.

wmim

I usually make fun of New Englanders and their tendency to overreact and over-obsess about weather, but I’m hoping for a year off on tough winters. The last two have been murder.
Ode to New England

The next person who posts a picture of food on Facebook should be required to buy dinner for all of his or her Facebook acquaintances.food on facebook

dachshund banana003How is possible that my dachshund, sound asleep in bed with Jeanne in the middle of the night, can hear me eating an insomniac banana at the other end of the house?

Sixty is the new forty. Or at least I hope it is—I’m getting perilously close.60-is-the-new-40

I am a proud, card-carrying introvert, but if it was as easy to make real friends as it is to build a significant contact list on LinkedIn, I would be willing to give the extrovert thing a try for a while.Linkedin

Jeanne’s and my latest television-watching obsession is The Americans. Who knew the 80s were so exciting and entertaining? It’s giving me a whole new outlet for my dislike of Ronald Reagan.untitled (2)

From The Onion: Sonny Corleone would still be alive today if he had EZ Pass.300_100317

This will be helpful for creationists:Jesus on a dinosaur

Religionless Christianity

One of the few benefits, perhaps the only benefit, of breaking my ankle in a bicycle mishap four weeks ago is that my sabbatical writing activities have been accelerated. I have two book projects; my unofficial goal for the first project was to have a proposal in hand to start shopping around to possible publishers by Christmas. I am well ahead of the pace I was projecting since I’ve been writing during the three or four hours per day that I had been biking until my unfortunate mishap. WIN_20151006_13_03_05_ProI now have in hand a full second draft complete with references and bibliography and can start working on a proposal this week. Yay me—but I would rather have been riding my bike.

Working on this book project has 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 last sabbatical, IrisI 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 the other day 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.