Tag Archives: Martin Luther

It’s Not a Holy Relic!

Amadeusmov[1]In Milos Forman’s 1984 Academy Award winning film Amadeus, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, played by Jeffrey Jones of Ferris Buehler’s Day Off fame, is most of the time an enlightened ruler who makes his decisions after considering the advice of his cabinet entourage who accompany him wherever he goes. Yet he is an Emperor, after all, so there is often uncertainty about how to interact with this very powerful “first among equals.” Those who enter the Emperor’s presence often drop to their knees and kiss his hand, to which (after an appropriate few seconds of kissing) the Emperor often responds by withdrawing his hand and saying “Please, please! It’s not a holy relic!” supported by the sycophantic chuckles of his surrounding posse.

The Emperor is right—his hand isn’t a holy relic—but it also isn’t just a hand. When does a normal, everyday object become something more? When does the mundane become something special? Examples and possible answers abound. I have spent my professional life as a non-Catholic teaching at Catholic educational institutions of higher learning, so have had frequent exposure to various aspects of the holy relic racket. I call it that because the whole idea of holy relics messes with my Protestant sensibilities, even though in the church of my youth we treated the Bible, which appears to be a mere book, with a reverence not to be outdone by the most dedicated Catholic holy relic aficionado. gillespie_kathy_-_st._anthony_s_swing_with_xw_roof_by_lake_1_[1]I remember, for instance, one summer  when my cousin got turned in to the Bible camp authorities for moving a Bible from the seat of a glider swing and placing it on the grass nearby so he and I could operate the glider. I still remember the tone of voice with which the owner of the Bible yelled “YOU PUT THE WORD OF GOD ON THE GROUND!!!” before making a beeline for the director’s office.

Other faith traditions cast a much wider net when considering what might be a holy relic. I was reminded of this just a couple of days ago as I was reading the final entries in an intellectual notebook submitted by one of the students in my Honors colloquium entitled Tucson_000000798345[1]“Beauty and Violence” two or three semesters ago (I will be repeating it this spring). One of the continuing themes of this colloquium was how to have a dynamic and mature faith in the face of all sorts of features of the world we live in that threaten to make such a faith impossible. It was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying classes I have ever taught for many reasons, largely because I had the opportunity to facilitate the often uncomfortable but always fruitful process of challenging one’s beliefs with a dozen honors juniors and seniors. One of these students put it best during her oral exam at the end of the semester when she said “This class really messed me up!—in a good way.”My course syllabi have always included that “my job is not to tell you what to think—it’s to get you to think.” In addition to that I will now include “my job is to mess you up—in a good way.”

The author of the intellectual notebook in question revealed herself early on in the semester, both in writing and in class, as a “devout Catholic.” Yet I could detect from the start that she had both the courage and the willingness to press her faith boundaries, which she did regularly in all sorts of ways. Santa_Croce_in_Gerusalemme[1]So I was a bit disappointed when in one of her last entries she described in some detail a visit to a holy relic site while studying abroad in Rome last spring.

I had the chance to visit Santa Croce in Gerusalemme where my class and I saw several Holy relics. Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, was sent to Jerusalem to bring back the holy relics of the passion of the Christ. She found parts of the cross that Jesus was crucified on but she wasn’t exactly sure which cross was His. Saint Helena brought the crosses to an old, sick woman and placed each cross on top of her to see if she could identify the cross of Jesus. The woman was suddenly cured by the third cross. This cross now lies in Santa Croce as the cross of Jesus Christ along with several other holy relics such as PHOTO-Rome-Crx-4[1]the finger of St. Thomas which was placed in the wounds of the risen Christ, two thorns from Jesus’ crown, a nail, and a nameplate which was nailed to the cross stating “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Please, I thought. Are you fucking kidding me? How can anyone take any of this seriously? I was reminded of Martin Luther, an extremely vocal critic of the relic racket, who reportedly said that there were enough pieces of the true cross of Christ in the Europe of his day to have exhausted a German forest.

I was somewhat pleased to read further and discover that my student apparently had not needed to take my colloquium to at least think a little bit critically.

How much of these stories do I believe 100% to be true?  . . . Who wrote this story down and why should they be a credible source?  . . . Maybe someone planted all of these relics. Maybe they knew that as human beings we need concrete proof to believe. Maybe it was God planting these relics for us to find as the ultimate concrete proof that Jesus is the messiah—I don’t know. I don’t know.

Well I know, I thought. This stuff is all bullshit. I grew out of the idea that the Bible is a holy relic and the inerrant Word of God. You’ll grow out of this.

My student concluded her notebook reflection with this:

What I do know is that there was a feeling that came across me that is very hard to describe. There was a silence amongst all of us in the small room of Santa Croce as if the Holy Spirit was present right in front of our eyes. My heart dropped. I knew I was breathing but did not feel like I was in control of my breaths. I was frozen and soon felt a rush come over me like I wanted to cry. I did not ask myself “Is this real?” I knew it was real. This must have been my faith taking control of my body. It was exciting. I cannot say whether the historical facts of what I learned that day are accurate or not. It doesn’t matter, because I took away more than just a history lesson. I believe this is what the Holy Spirit wanted when guiding the writings of the gospel—a personal and unique experience.

In my comments I wrote “This is a very powerful paragraph, describing what my family would call a ‘Big Bird moment.’ This is something to remember and embrace. Don’t ever forget it.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus compares the activity of the Spirit to the wind, which “blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” IMG_4527[1]There is a wonderful, holy randomness to all of this, unpredictable so that it cannot be packaged or formalized, and so powerful that it cannot be mistaken or forgotten. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “the earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” Sacredness infuses everything, and anything can become a direct channel of the divine wind. Even random pieces of wood and bone.

Soul and Body

One of my favorite issues in philosophy is the mind/body problem–how do they relate, are they really a different as they seem, and what are the implications of the possible answers? Last week was Saint Augustine week in one of my classes, giving me the opportunity to examine once again my favorite philosophical issue through the lens of one of my least favorite philosophers. Here’s how I reflected on Augustine week a year ago:

Upon hearing that the high temperature for the next two days would be no more than thirty degrees, feeling with the wind chill like fifteen degrees, I was reminded a couple of weeks ago, first, that late autumn in New England does get cold and, second, that I am very different now than I was as a youth. Forty or fifty years ago in my native Vermont I would have welcomed the inexorable signs of impending snow; now I just think “shit. It’s going to snow soon.” I was reminded during my winter and spring sabbatical in Minnesota a few years ago just how beautiful a snowfall can be. Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHThe dazzling white layer of new fallen snow stayed a sparkling white for weeks on end rather than turning immediately into gray slush as it does in Rhode Island. Still, my preference would be for the one predictable effect of global warming to be that it will not snow anywhere I am for the rest of my life. But thanks to my usual random, six degrees of separation thought processes, thinking of snow gets me to thinking about human depravity. Really.

Many years ago while I was still in my twenties, an elderly theologian friend of my father’s (actually the old guy was probably only about ten or fifteen years older than I am now), upon hearing that images[2]I was preparing to study philosophy in graduate school and had affinity for Descartes, made what I at the time considered to be a completely uninformed comment. “The worst day in the history of Western thought,” he said, “was the day that Descartes shut himself up in his stove-heated room and started to think.” I’ve come to believe over the years that the old guy was right—except he was blaming Descartes for something that had been problematic for centuries before Rene was even born.

The problem my Dad’s friend was referring to is the idea that we human beings are, at the core, fundamentally schizophrenic creatures. In philosophy, this schizophrenia is called dualism, according to which the human being is a tenuous and on-Leaves-Where-Light-Eternal-Forever-Creation-Evolution-Explained-Life-Essense-Destination-Hell-Destroyed-Perish-Hades-Evil-Path-Up-Kingdom-Heaven-God-Path[1]temporary union of two very different things, soul/mind and body. Dualism has a long and powerful philosophical pedigree, including Plato and Descartes, two of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition. It has been highly influential and is also highly problematic. The sharp separation between mind and body is both psychologically disturbing, in that it provides little guidance as to how integration between the various parts of a person is to be accomplished, and philosophically incoherent, in that it divides reality into camps that not only are different in substance but are actually often at crossed purposes. Dualism lays the groundwork for a science that ignores the spiritual, a philosophical materialism that belittles the notion of anything other than what is directly in front of us, and a spirituality that downgrades the physical or even considers it as evil.

Christianity developed in a world in which the dominant philosophical framework, Platonism, was radically dualistic; the structure of a good deal of traditional Christian doctrine continues to carry dualistic scars. The week before Thanksgiving I was responsible for introducing a bunch of freshmen to 528548498_c09abc47c8_z[1]Augustine of Hippo, a lecture followed for the rest of the week by two-hour seminar investigations of his thought. Augustine is second only to the apostle Paul in his influence on the development of early Christian doctrine and belief. Let’s just say I am not a fan. Augustine is one of those influential figures who cannot be ignored, although I would love to. Instead, I usually am able to deflect the “Introduction to Augustine” lecture to a theology or literature colleague on whatever team I am a member of in the interdisciplinary program I teach in and direct. But this year there was no one else to turn to, so for the first time in years it was up to me to provide a imagesCA0Q6L4PFox News-like “fair and balanced” introduction to a guy I really don’t like. Oh well, that’s why we college professors earn the big bucks (or not).

The assignment for the day was Books I-III of Augustine’s Confessions, one of the most influential works in the vast sweep of Western literature. With it Augustine invented a genre of literature as well as a method of theological investigation infused by philosophical acumen. These early books of Confessions are Augustine’s selective memoir of his years from infancy to early adulthood.  As I reviewed the text I was reminded of why I find Augustine so disturbing. The focus of Augustine’s attention is always on the dark side of human nature, on whatever it was inside of him that caused him to always be attracted to what is wrong rather than what is right, evil rather than good. Ranging from his conviction that, as all infants, imagesCAWCU9UWhe showed signs of maladjustment to the good from birth, through his obsession with the simple theft of a bunch of pears during his adolescence, to his withering self-criticism over his attraction to the theater as an early adult, Augustine never moves far from an obsession with what John Calvin, many centuries later, will describe as “utter depravity.” Indeed, I told my freshmen the other day that Augustine was actually the first Protestant, one thousand years early. To seal the deal, I likened Augustine’s attitude concerning human nature to Martin Luther’s likening of God’s grace applied to human nature as similar to a fresh layer of new fallen snow covering a pile of shit. 220px-Luther46c[1]Divine grace covers a multitude of sins, and a sufficient amount of snow can cover an awful lot of shit. And guess who the pile of shit is?

Augustine seriously bothers me because I grew up in a family, community and world infused with Augustine-like energies. Negative, suspicious, self-absorbed and obsessed with even the slightest aroma of sin, particularly of the sort that involved the body. My problem always was that I didn’t feel like a bifurcated being—my mind and body seemed to work together pretty well—and I sort of liked things made of matter. Painting-central[1]I didn’t find out until college that the debate about the relationship between soul and body is at the heart of philosophy from the beginning, with Plato arguing for dualism and his star pupil Aristotle saying “not so much.”

As challenging as these issues are in philosophy, they become even more pressing when considering the relationship between humans and what is greater than us. Dualism not only offers a skewed and problematic map of reality, but also fundamentally contorts and deforms the very heart and soul of Christian belief—the Incarnation. If believing that God became human means anything, it means that the greatest and most cosmic dualistic split of all—the one between human and divine—has been healed. The divine response to human failings is not to cover them up but rather to transform the human by infusing it with the divine. The mystery of transcendence and immanence remains, but the promise of the Nativity to come is all about immanence—God with (and in) us.


What I Have Learned From My Students This Semester

I have often said that the mark of a good class is one in which I learn as much as the students do. At the end of the semester, it is a good time to think back over the many unexpected truths I have learned from my students this semester. Since my colleagues and I frequently compare notes on this topic, I have also included in the selection below various items that I learned second-hand from students not in my classes through their professors. Truth is truth, after all—it doesn’t matter where it comes from. In no particular order, here is a sampling.

Some people are important enough to have followers before they are born. Students have told me for years that ancient persons from Socrates to Julius Caesar, literary characters from Achilles to Clytemnestra (“Clytemnestra did not behave as a good Christian wife should”), Francisand figures from the Hebrew Scriptures from Moses to David managed to be Christians before the birth of Christ, so that’s old hat. But in my latest batch of papers I learned that “Francis believed in living in poverty and taking a lifestyle that the Franciscans before him lived.” I wonder what the Franciscans who lived before Francis called themselves. Proto-Franciscans? Pre-Franciscans? Followers of a Crazy Guy Who Hasn’t Been Born Yet? Really Poor People?

Going to war against oneself is never a good idea: From a student paper submitted to a colleague: Roncevaux pass“[The Battle of Roncevaux Pass] occurred when the Franks intervened in a Muslim conflict between Charles the Great and the great army of Charlemagne,” further explaining that “There is a lot of hate between Charlemagne and King Charles…” Going to war against oneself complicates a number of things. For instance, how are Roland, the hero of this battle at the center of The Song of Roland, and Ganelon, his jealous father-in-law and traitor, supposed to know which side to fight on? Neither? Both? Everyone’s going to need therapy afterwards.

People whose names start with the same letter invariably have similar thoughts: DanteIn response to a question about the differences in world views between Dante and Montaigne, a student wrote that Descartes“Dante was extremely passionate that knowledge has to be 100% certain. And if there is knowledge that is certain it has to have no doubts that it could be corrupt.” I’m going to research this new-found information that Descartes was apparently plagiarizing the work of a fellow D-name who lived several hundred years earlier.

Martin Luther needed to be clearer about what he really meant: serpentFrom one of a colleague’s student papers: “Luther does not say precisely whether or not good works would help one achieve the goal of eternal life, but he does appreciate them.” Then the following from Luther’s “On Christian Liberty,” cited in one of my student papers: “The Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful serpent of all, and subject to everyone.” There obviously is another research project in finding the heretofore hidden influences of Luther’s Christian serpent on Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

Why use just a few words when a whole bunch of them will suffice? Assigned papers are an opportunity for students to flex their word-using muscles in print. Often a student who has never once opened her mouth in seminar will make sure that her quota of allowed words unused in seminar makes it into a paper. For instance, why write that

Works of literature often focus on the customs of people living in the author’s culture,

when you could write instead that

Throughout history, scholars have been displaying the impacts society has on people’s lives through various forms of expression. Of some of the more famous styles, writings and literature from oral teachings along with reflections on certain times provides future generations with important first-hand accounts of how lifestyles and culture influenced the people.

And why describe Dante’s organization of Hell in this manner:

Dante’s descriptions of the punishments in Hell, as well as the individuals one finds there, tell us much about the attitudes of his time.

when the following description will suffice?

During Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell, the descriptions as well as reasons for placement of particular individuals speaks through society’s influence, deeming Dante’s opinion in accordance with many of his time. Without Dante’s harsh portrayal of specific individuals, the backlash on society would be unknown.

You can only commit suicide once: When a student missed a seminar on Dante’s Inferno in the middle of the semester due to illness, I assigned her a makeup 1000-1200 word reflection on Canto 13Canto XIII, in which one finds the suicides—the “violent against themselves.” The seminar discussion focused on this section of Dante’s poem was fascinating, with my largely Catholic students flip-flopping back and forth between the position that they know they are supposed to hold as good Catholics—no suicide is ever justified—and a more nuanced judgment that permits consideration of individual circumstances.

In her makeup assignment, my student opened her reflection with noting that as

An extremely controversial topic, suicide has been a self-inflicting action from the beginning of time.

followed shortly after by the observation that

Suicide is an avoidable form of death.

As one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook when I put these two gems up for display on my wall, “Holy tautology, Batman!” Other friends and colleagues said that this immediately reminded them of the “Suicide is Painless” theme song from “M.A.S.H.”: “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please . . .”

But others saw something I did not immediately recognize—possible profundity. “That’s deep,” a colleague from the chemistry department commented; new philosopher“The first comment strikes me as a particularly profound metaphysical point about the (a)temporal status of analytic truths,” a former philosophy major now in graduate school contributed. Then this from a Facebook acquaintance that I have never met in person, but with whom I share the privilege of having earned a Bachelor’s degree in the Great Books program at St. John’s College:

I think the second [student comment] is, indeed, quite discussable. Is death ever avoidable? Is suicide not now recognized as a possible outcome of untreated depression? Can a severely depressed person always be expected to take the steps required for his or her own treatment?

Is suicide always an avoidable form of death, in other words? From the mind of a stressed and possibly confused freshman emerges an apparent “Well, duh!” sort of statement that, as it turns out, might have surprising depth and complexity. I feel an essay coming on!

From my colleague Robin

From my colleague Robin

Original Sin

Five summers ago, I attended a writers conference for the first time in my life. My workshop was “Literary Essay”; each of the fifteen members wrote daily 500 word essays, which were submitted to colleagues for critique and (hopefully) helpful evaluation. My essays tended to praise the virtues of my dog and the Boston Red Sox, while frequently expressing struggles with faith, God, religion, and my own very human inadequacies. About halfway through the two-week conference, during a critique session when I and my most recent submission were on the hot seat, one of my colleagues said “You write so negatively about yourself in your essays. You seem like a really nice guy—why do you have such a negative self-image?” Other colleagues murmured their agreement.

My immediate reaction was not defensive—despite being supremely (perhaps over-) confident in some aspects of my life, my overall self-image is more negative than positive. My internal reaction instead was a quick realization that I might be the only person in the room who didn’t think he or she was pretty much okay. My fourteen colleagues were a diverse bunch, including a specialist in Chinese history, an archaeologist, a high school student, a vice president of an international banking firm, a local politician, a poet who just published her first collection of poems, several self-described “writers conference rats” (one was at this conference for the seventh straight year), and our workshop leader, a well-known essayist and columnist who had just published his third novel. And they were mildly uncomfortable with my being explicit about my self doubts and honest about my shortcomings and failures.

I was in the midst of some difficult internal stuff that summer, but I’ll bet many of my colleagues were too. I realize now that what really made me different from them is original sin—it has defined me for as long as I can remember, and they had never heard of it. I learned early on that I don’t measure up, that I’m not good enough, that “within me dwells no good thing.” And it’s not an exclusively Christian idea (although it sometimes feels as if it is); the Psalmist says “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” We’re all screwed from the start (thanks, Adam and Eve). Some make a bigger deal of this than others. Martin Luther, the guy responsible for Protestants, likened divine grace to a layer of freshly fallen snow covering a pile of shit. Grace doesn’t transform the pile—shit is still shit—but it covers it so that its smell is not quite as offensive and it doesn’t look quite as disgusting.

This is a wonderful foundation upon which to build a positive self-image, but it’s the engine that drives a lot of religious activity. I remember that several years ago the Catholic Dominican Matthew Fox was excommunicated for teaching, among other things, that the doctrine of original sin is wrong and for writing books with titles like Original Blessing. He became an Episcopal priest after his excommunication, which makes sense—we Episcopalians will take anyone as long as they appreciate good liturgy and have sufficiently liberal social and political commitments. And to be honest, after twenty years as a recovering Protestant involved in Catholic higher education, I’ve discovered that most Catholics I know take original sin far less seriously than the people I grew up with. Catholics pay lip service to the notion that human beings need divine help; my people meant it. They told me I deserved to go to hell and would undoubtedly end up there unless I was “right with Jesus.” And my colleagues wondered why I wrote negatively about myself.

Many groups of people, both religious and otherwise, speak as if they have a corner on feeling guilty and inadequate. I knew no Catholics when I was growing up, but now that I spend a large portion of my time with them professionally and have many Catholic friends, I know all about Catholic guilt, despite the fact that they don’t talk about original sin that much. I was surprised to find out that Catholics think that Catholic guilt is particularly debilitating, just as they were surprised to find out that I know all about it; I just call it Protestant guilt. I’ve even participated in good-natured debates about whose guilt is more paralyzing. Everyone knows about Jewish guilt, Irish guilt, and so on. We apparently don’t need religious doctrine to tell us that we are inadequate and flawed. We just need to be human beings. John Henry Newman wrote that just observing what’s going on around us with the slightest care reveals that humanity is afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” That’s a wonderfully British, urbane, nineteenth century way of saying “we’re really f–ked up.” It’s true. There’s something fundamentally wrong at our core, and we all know it. Many manage to cope with this by ignoring it, by refusing to include it in their vocabulary, by defining themselves in terms according to which they can be acceptable and successful. “I’m okay, you’re okay”—but as Emily Dickinson suggests, there’s still a “tooth that nibbles at the soul”—we’re not okay.

A few years ago, toward the end of a lovely lunch conversation, a new friend and colleague observed that “it’s hard being a person,” in the same factual tone of voice in which he might have said “these waffles are cold.” I said in response that what told me, years ago, that Simone Weil is my kind of woman was when I read in her notebooks that in her estimation, “human life is impossible.” So often, that’s where I begin. I’m not okay and I need help. And the first step forward has to be one of trust, of a hope that this can be better. Iris Murdoch writes that “God is a belief that at our deepest level we are known and loved, even to there the rays can penetrate.” Let it be so.