Tag Archives: religion

Joy in a Minor Key

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At some point early in their musical training, all serious musicians are introduced to the “circle of fifths,” a handy chart that maps out the complicated but fascinating relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, as well as the associations between the major and minor keys.I was fortunate to have Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard, as my piano teacher from age four to eleven—she was a stickler for theory and precision and had a large poster of the circle of fifths on the wall of her studio. I was immediately fascinated—it looked like a labyrinth or something out of The Lord of the Rings, and as I was gradually introduced to the twelve major keys, the twelve related minors, and their harmonic relationships I was able to trace geometrically on the chart the harmonies I had been hearing in my head for as long as I could remember.

Recently the following from Richard Powers’ Orfeo got me to thinking about the major and minor keys in a new way.

There’s joy in a minor key, a deep pleasure to be had from hearing the darkest tune and discovering you’re equal to it.

MajorMinor1A lot can be learned from the major and minor keys that is applicable to everyday life. Traditionally the major keys have been described as “bright, extroverted, upbeat” and so on, while the minor keys are “introspective, complex, sad” or even “depressing.” Yet the circle of fifths shows that each major has its relative minor that is only one note different—a note that makes all the difference. Powers, who is a classically trained musician, is noting something important about the minor keys—they are rich and evocative in ways with which the brighter and more popular majors cannot compete. Yet the dividing line between major and minor is razor thin—if we are to pay proper attention to the music of our lives, understanding how major and minor interweave is crucial.

I had the opportunity to explore this with “Living Stones,” the adult Christian education group that I lead after church once a month, one Sunday last summer after the morning service. I was doing double duty, as I was also organist that morning,003 alternating with the organist emeritus every other week through the summer as the church was searching for a new full-time music minister. The fifteen or so regulars have a wide range of experience with music (or lack of same), so I presumed no prior knowledge. Gathering in the choir stalls by the organ rather than in our usual location, I oriented them to the major/minor distinction by suggesting that in the cycle of liturgical seasons, Easter and Christmas are major key seasons while Advent and Lent are minor key seasons. We moved then to a listening exercise, as I played first My country“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” our closing hymn for the morning because of it being July 4th Sunday, in F minor rather than its original F major, then a representative minor key hymn, “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee,” in G major rather than its original G minor. As the Living Stoners compared the new keys to the hymn texts, they agreed that major is appropriate for the first hymn than minor and minor more appropriate to the second than major. Different texts require different tunes—and so it goes with the chapters and texts of our lives.

The Book of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures is a case in point. The story is familiar. Job, “a man blameless and upright . . . who feared God and shunned evil,” is the topic of conversation between God and Satan, “the accuser.” In response to God’s “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth,” Satan replies “Well duh! You give him everything he wants and you have built a protective hedge around him.” After God agrees to remove the hedge at Satan’s suggestion just to see what happens, Job’s flocks, crops, Job-wife1servants and children are swept away within six short verses and one of the greatest texts on the dynamic of suffering is underway.

The drama of Job is relentless, with his suffering unaddressed by his apparently well-meaning friends and his less than supportive wife. Underlying it all is Job’s insistence that his suffering and pain is not justified in any sense that he (or any other human being) can understand. It is clear that he will not “curse God and die,” as his wife advises him to do—his commitment to his God is unshakeable. “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him.” Job’s commitment, however, is neither passive nor facile. He wants answers and challenges a silent God to provide them. With very few exceptions, the Book of Job is entirely written in a minor key; the message of Job is that sometimes minor keys do not get resolved into major keys. Sometimes the text of one’s life demands a minor key; simply “waiting it out” or longing for it to be something it is not is to rob oneself of the richness and depth that only minor harmonies can provide.

0_21_0706_stockdaleWhen God finally does respond to Job’s questions and challenges, it is in a way that on the surface, at least, is entirely unsatisfactory to our contemporary sense of fairness and justice. God does not provide any reasons for Job’s misfortunes, nor does God explain himself. Rather, God makes clear in a lengthy soliloquy that he does not have to explain himself at all. As Admiral James Stockdale once described God’s response to Job, “I’m God and you’re not. This is my world—either deal with it or get out.”

It’s a tough message for our modern sensibilities, but is far closer to the reality of the world we find ourselves in than the stories we tell ourselves about “things working out in the end” or “justice will prevail.” Whatever value there is in suffering cannot lie in hopes for its removal or resolution. Yet we continue to try. jobs-restorationThere is nothing hokier or more forced than to resolve a composition from a minor key to its accompanying major in the last measure of the piece. But this is precisely what we find at the end of Job. In the final verses of the last chapter, after Job has been subdued by the divine display of power and superiority, Job magically gets everything back—children, flocks, servants, lands—and even his useless “comforters” and unhelpful wife get told off by God. “And they lived happily ever after,” in other words. I learned from one of my theology colleagues a number of years ago that these closing verses are not in the oldest texts of Job, but were apparently added in several decades or even centuries later.

Why? I asked my group. Why would someone want to change the original minor key story of Job, resolving it to a major key in the last measure? “Because the original ending is too tough,” someone suggested. “Because people want to believe that the suffering has a point, that it is all for something,” another thought. Which makes the better story? The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something Living Stoner said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. If there is meaning in the minor key movements of my life’s symphony, it has to be in the movement, not because the final movement will return to a joyful major key. The major keys ride the waves, but the minor keys plumb the depths, depths that give a life its richness and texture.lean forward As Richard Powers suggests, there is joy and satisfaction to be found in the midst of the suffering, a joy that is largely unavailable in any other context.

A couple of years ago, MSNBC (the only 24-7 news channel I can stomach, and even that not for very long) had a new ad campaign: Lean Forward. Out of context, it made little sense. Lean forward to what? But in the minor keys of our lives, “lean forward” or “lean in” is far better advice than “hold your breath and wait it out.” The purpose of the minor keys is not to provide a temporary alternative to majors. Rather, as another ad campaign many years ago suggested, sometimes minor harmonies are the most important threads in “the fabric of our lives.”

When Are You Going To Grow Up?

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

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

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

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

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

We discover in the Gospel of John that the Jews of Jesus’ day still took great pride in the fact that God loved their ancestors so much that they were fed for forty years with heavenly miracle food. The problem is, God is no longer in the manna business—according to the reading from Joshua, he went out of that business as soon as the Israelites crossed the Jordan River.

dillardFurthermore, as Jesus reminds his Jewish brethren, eating manna apparently wasn’t that special. “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” Annie Dillard once called this the cruelest thing that Jesus ever said, but not really. Manna was a temporary stopgap to address an immediate need, it ended as soon as a better solution to daily hunger could be found, and it’s nothing to memorialize or interpret as proof that you are special.

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

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

Wolf Hall

ICromwell am a great lover of historical fiction; it doesn’t come any better than from Hilary Mantel. Mantel fans are eagerly awaiting the third installment of her honored trilogy that immerses us into the world of Henry VIII as seen through the eyes of his consigliere Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, the first two parts of the proposed trilogy each won the Man Booker Prize (the British version of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction). Mantel is only the third author to win the prize twice, and the first to win with a sequel, Bring up the Bodies in 2012 following Wolf Hall’s victory in 2009.wolf hall I recently reread Wolf Hall  and, as often happens, found both that I had forgotten how good it is and that there are many great passages I missed the first time around. Early in the novel, Cromwell provides us with a flashback to when he was a young star in Cardinal Wolsey’s orbit, a firmament containing another, brighter star—Thomas More—who in Mantel’s treatment becomes one of Cromwell’s opponents and competitors for the attention of the great and powerful. But more importantly, Cromwell reveals a fundamental difference between him and More that raises issues transcending this particular story:

He [Cromwell] never sees More . . . without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? cromwell and moreWhy does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Or, someone might add, show me where it says “liturgy” or “dogma” or any number of other things that are staples of Christian tradition even outside Catholicism. I have no idea whether Mantel’s characterization of Cromwell and More is accurate (neither does she, for that matter), but I am so strongly aligned by nature with fictional Cromwell in this passage that I share his utter astonishment with the fictional Mores among us. Wolf Hall is set during the early decades of the sixteenth century when the revolutionary impact of the Protestant Reformation is already making itself known in England. Thomas More is the epitome of religious certainty, imagined by Mantel as a vigorous, devout, hair-shirt-wearing and frequently inflexible defender of Catholic orthodoxy.

wolseyAlthough Cromwell rises to influence as the right-hand man of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, he is far more comfortable with situational flexibility than with pre-established beliefs and principles. When Wolsey falls from grace because of his failure to facilitate the king’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell’s ability to quickly adjust to changing circumstances and maneuver creatively brings him into the king’s inner circle. But he always keeps the Mores of his world in view, simultaneously envious and wary of anyone’s unflinching commitment to principle.

I hedgehog and foxfrequently find myself inadvertently dividing my fellow human beings into various categories (introvert/extrovert, high-maintenance/low-maintenance, Platonic/Aristotelian, hedgehog/fox, and more); Cromwell/More is another important distinction, especially when religious belief is under discussion. The older I get, the more Cromwellian I become, finding that even my most fixed beliefs not only are regularly under scrutiny, but that constant adjustment and change is a symptom of a healthy faith. Christian Wiman puts this insight better than anyone I’ve read:

WimanIt is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.

I am frequently reminded in a number of ways by various Mores that a Cromwellian embrace of change is dangerous in that it leads to the brink of the worst of all abysses, a relativistic world with no absolutes and no fixed points. I admit that it can be disconcerting to find that one’s most reliable cornerstones have crumbled or shifted, but I have learned to find stability in commitment rather than in content. Within the well-defined banks of commitment to what is greater than us, the river of faith sometimes flows swiftly, sometimes pools stagnantly, and always offers the opportunity to explore uncharted waters. The terrain of commitment looks very different from various vantage points, and in my experience spongseldom provides confirmation of what I have believed in the past without change and without remainder.

I remember several years ago that I came across one of John Shelby Spong’s books in Borders with the provocative title Why Christianity Must Change or Die. I read the book and found that the changes that Spong, the liberal retired Episcopal bishop of New Jersey was calling for were not changes I was willing to make then—or now. But I fully resonate with the energy of his book’s title. The Christian faith that I profess has not only changed greatly over the past few years (and promises to change even more going forward), but the Christianity I was taught in my youth would have died long ago if it had not changed. And this is as it should be. As James Carse writes,

carseThis is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

One of the things I’ve learned over the past few years is to stop criticizing or belittling those who build their belief systems in the manner of More, shaping all new experiences and information in the image of their most fixed and unchanging commitments. There are a number of Mores among my friends and family, and I’ve learned not only to appreciate them (usually), but find myself occasionally envying them. But at heart I’m happy being Cromwell as I watch the corners get knocked off my certainties.

We Had Hoped

imagesCAGSCZK4“Now abide faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.” These concluding words from chapter thirteen of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians are heard at many, perhaps most, weddings. Everyone wants to believe that love is the greatest, especially on their wedding day. Faith seems to be part of my DNA—challenging it, trying to get rid of it, redefining it, being confused by it, and generally struggling with the “f-word” (as I call it in the classroom) has shaped me for as long as I can remember. I’m not so sure about hope. A few years ago I asked Jeanne what she thought the opposite of faith is. She first answered “despair,” then immediately took it back saying “I guess despair’s the opposite of hope.” After a quick check on Google, I found that she was right (again). imagesCAY3WHMWThe immediate etymological root of  “despair” is the Old French despoir: hopelessness. So what is hope?

Although Easter is certainly about love and faith, I think it is mostly about hope. There is no shortage of material to consider on Easter—the empty tomb, Peter and John racing to take a look, the authorities scrambling to explain what happened, the poignant exchange between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Perhaps my favorite Easter-related story is Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.On-the-road-to-Emmaus[1] It’s such a human story—the bitter sadness and devastation of Cleopas and his unnamed companion (call him George) is palpable. The usual spin on the story is, of course, that Jesus is risen and walking with them, and Cleopas and George are either too dense or blinded by tears to know it’s him. Jesus gives them a free theology lesson, and as soon as they recognize him after he breaks the bread at lunch he vanishes. What a guy—the amazing, vanishing Jesus! It says something (I’m not sure what) about me that I always thought the ending of the story was funny when I was young. Young Baptist boys have to get their laughs where they can find them. But three words are particularly resonant: despair[1]We had hoped that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. And our hope was in vain.

Hope is a tough nut to crack—of the big three at the end of the passage in I Corinthians,  love and faith strike me as easier to get a handle on. Every human life is marked by “we had hoped” moments that we never quite get over. I hoped that I would be concert pianist. Jeanne hoped she would marry someone who knows how to dance. But the dashed hopes of Cleopas and George are far more crushing. It’s easy to criticize Cleopas and George for failing to recognize that what they had hoped for was walking with them for seven miles, but that’s actually not true. True, Jesus does turn out to “redeem Israel,” and everybody else for that matter, but that’s not the redemption Cleopas, George and others were hoping for, a political redemptionThe_Road_To_Emmaus[1] and establishment of an earthly kingdom by the Messiah. And it’s very telling that the Jesus-guided tour through the Old Testament touching on prophetic texts indicating that the Messiah would suffer and die doesn’t do anything for Cleopas and George. It’s not until the three of them have a meal, a human experience rather than a classroom experience, that they see it’s been Jesus all the time.

That is where the story usually ends, but it gets even more interesting. Cleopas and George run back to Jerusalem and report to the disciples what happened; in the middle of their story, the amazing, vanishing Jesus reappears! risen[1]And another human, all too human moment—Cleopas, George, the eleven disciples, and everyone else are scared shitless. They think he’s a ghost. It’s not until Jesus lets them check out his body with its scars and eats a piece of fish in front of them that they realize it’s really him. The whole story is fraught with humor, fallibility, and humanity. Entertaining, yes; but what is God up to?

Amazing-Grace-Norris-Kathleen-9781573227216[1]In her wonderful book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris asks “Does it ever surprise you that God chooses to be revealed in so fallible a fashion?” Well as a matter of fact, Kathleen, yes it does. All the time. Even when our greatest hopes are satisfied, it’s always in some sideways, back door, behind the scenes, fuzzy and oblique sort of way. And that can be frustrating. As I participated in the various Holy Week services this past week, it continually struck me that Jesus’ resurrection, the most spectacular and crucial event in human history, is surrounded by so many instances of mistaken identity, fumbling around, uncertainty, and missteps that it is truly comical.

But it makes perfect sense, and brings the central pillars of the Christian faith—the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection—together. The whole idea of incarnation, of God becoming human through and through, is outrageous and ludicrous at its core. What self-respecting creator of the universe would do it this way? Only one that loves what was created so much that becoming part of it, miraculously, is not only not a step down but is actually the only way to accomplish what has to be accomplished. We know that we are flawed, incomplete, jumbled and messed up creatures, so why should we be surprised that our hopes get addressed in that way? 100_0373The divinely infused cycle of death and resurrection is around us everywhere, in nature coming alive after a long winter, in church services populated by octogenarians and toddlers, in the annual arrival of new late teens ready to be taught on campus, just to name a few examples from my own daily life. It is not at all surprising that the resurrected Jesus, the hope of the world,  was revealed in the midst of the daily and mundane rather than in power and glory. Kathleen once again: “In a religion based on a human incarnation of the divine, when ideology battles experience, it is fallible, ordinary experience that must win.”

Flowering Trees

Several years ago, I spent spent the early months of the year on sabbatical on the campus of a Benedictine college in Minnesota. Lining the road on the fifteen minute uphill walk from my Ecumenical Institute apartment to St. John’s Abbey in the depths of winter were any number of small, leafless trees. Judging from their shapes and sizes, I guessed that many of them were the flowering sorts of trees that are always the harbingers of spring at home in Rhode Island. But as winter slowly faded and spring emerged with the pace of a turtle, I was disappointed to see that the buds on the trees were 78461814[1]clearly just plain old leaf buds. No flowering trees after all. I complained to Jeanne on the phone, as well as to my friend from Washington DC who commiserated—“back home, the cherry trees would have been in blossom a long time ago.”

On a walk to the Abbey several days later, as young leaves were emerging, I noticed some tiny flower buds hiding behind the new growth. This is bizarre—flowers after leaves? Sure enough, the trees I had been complaining about were flowering trees after all—they were just doing it ass-backwards. “Listen,” I said to a group of these trees, “you need to get your branches out of your roots and do this right. You’ve got this backwards—it’s flowers first, then leaves. What’s the matter with you??” cdurand[1]My annoyance level raised when I asked various Minnesota natives about what was wrong with their trees—there was no consensus. “The leaves always come before the flowers,” said one acquaintance, implying that the flowers-first trees I have known were mutants of some sort. Elisa[1]Another Minnesotan offered that flowers usually come first, but the winter this year was so unusual (too warm, too cold, too long, too short, too wet, too dry—take your pick) that everything got screwed up. Worst of all was the person who said “Oh really? I never really noticed which comes first.” What do you mean, you never really noticed?? This is important!

One morning early in what has come to be known as “Holy Week,” after spending the night with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, Jesus and his posse are talking a morning walk to Jerusalem. Jesus is hungry, sees a fig tree, and plans to have a breakfast snack. But, Matthew tells us, “He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves.” So Jesus curses the tree, “and immediately the fig tree withered away.” My goodness. I can imagine the disciples as the events unfold—several are trying to point out that this isn’t fig season, Andrew offers Jesus a bite of his bagel, Judas is looking in the community purse to see if there’s enough to buy Jesus some breakfast at the restaurant down the road, and Peter is going into immediate damage control. “What happens at the fig tree stays at the fig tree, right? Right??”, but Matthew is already making mental notes to put into his memoirs later.

cable[1]Imagine the stir if this happened today with 24-7 media coverage. “Jewish Holy Man Kills Innocent Tree in a Display of Temper.” Environmentalists would be outraged, talking heads from anger management therapists to tree-friendly carpenters to Pharisees to a cult of fig-worshippers would debate the topic on FOX, CNN, and MSNBC. Everyone would be trying to get an interview with Jesus, but no one’s gotten an interview with him ever, not even Rachel Maddow or Lester Holt. Peter, the spokesman for the group, tells some convoluted story about Jesus doing it as an illustration of what any of us can do with just a tiny bit of faith, but that sounds like a lot of spin.

In such situations, there’s always someone who’s looking for fifteen minutes of fame, claiming to have seen exactly what happened. “We’re talking with Fred bar-William, a local Jerusalem tanner. Fred, you were an eyewitness to what happened at the fig tree, right?” “Yeah, man, I was just sort of hangin’ around to see what was goin’ on, him being famous and all. He stopped with a bunch of guys by the treeFig-Tree-cursing-Tissot-300x225[1]—I couldn’t hear everything, but he was obviously pissed and dropped an F-bomb or two on the tree, then went on and stopped at the restaurant a ways down the road. I thought that was kinda harsh, and now look at it—it’s all, like, withered up and disgusting. I mean, we knew the guy had a temper with what happened in the temple market and all, but this is ridiculous. Like, you’d think a guy from the sticks would know when it’s fig time and when it ain’t.”

220px-TheByrdsTurnTurnTurnAlternate[1]The writer of Ecclesiastes and The Byrds remind us that “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven.” But seasons work differently in different places and times are unique to each person. Eventually, of course, the flowering trees along the walk to the Abbey flowered into glorious bloomflowering-tree-on-april-4-2011-bike-ride[1], and a less observant person than I would not even know that they became beautiful in an entirely unconventional and non-traditional fashion. To the casual observer, they’re just pretty trees, but I know their history. It’s a sort of organic, arboreal Goldilocks story, where each tree, and each one of us, survives through seasons of winter; we bloom in our own way only when things are “just right.” Those who are “happy indeed,” claims Psalm 1,

are like a tree that is planted

beside the flowing water

that yields its fruit in due season

and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all they do shall prosper.

Saying What Cannot Be Said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Might Actually Enjoy Us

A candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning . . . It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

In the academic world, teaching schedules are usually planned and assigned more than a year in advance; accordingly, I found out over a month ago what I will be teaching during the Spring 2018 semester. One of my assigned classes is “Contemporary Women Philosophers,” a course  I team-taught once a number of years ago and specifically requested when our preferences for the next academic year were solicited, so I’m pumped. I mentioned this to a colleague as we waited for our monthly department meeting a couple of weeks ago; my colleague asked “which philosophers are you going to use?” Off the top of my head I mentioned Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and Hannah Arendt . . . “What about Marilynne Robinson?” he asked. Great idea–Robinson’s essays and fiction are brilliant, and she happens to be the author of the book that is closest to perfect of any I have read.

GileadThe front and back covers, as well as the opening pages, of best-selling and award-winning books are often filled with excerpted and edited reviews from various publications, reviews so similar from book to book and so over the top that I often wonder if there is a central-clearing house where authors and editors can order canned reviews to their liking. But sometimes the reviewers capture a book’s essence perfectly—such is the case with Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Described as “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it,” and as

A book that deserves to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly . . . I would like to see copies of it dropped onto pews across our country, where it could sit among the Bibles and hymnals and collection envelopes. It would be a good reminder of what it means to lead a noble and moral life—and, for that matter, what it means to write a truly great novel,

Amen.midwest-church

In Gilead, a rural Congregational minister in his late seventies is writing a memoir for his young son, an only child unexpectedly born to Reverend Ames and his much-younger wife when Ames is seventy. Ames expects to die long before the child is grown, and Gilead is his love letter to his son containing as much guidance and wisdom as Ames can muster. The prose is measured and profound. Ames writes that for him “writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.” On my best writing days I have this in mind as a standard.Grammie and Grandpa (2)

I have often thought that if my maternal grandfather, a potato farmer with an eighth-grade education who was the wisest and best man I ever met, had been a character in a novel, he would be Reverend Ames. One of Ames’ greatest continuing insights concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.”

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. dillardYou don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

For Reverend Ames, everything is a sacrament with intimations of holiness. And for this Calvinist preacher, the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

I don’t remember how Gilead came to me, or even when I read it for the first time (at least a half-dozen reads ago), but the Reverend’s struggles with the austere doctrine of his Calvinist faith are familiar. His is the religious world of my youth, a world that I have struggled mightily at different times to understand, to incorporate, or to leave.Calvin One passage in particular shook me to my core:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? . . . We all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little.

The simple image of God as the audience for the artistic performance of the human drama and comedy, rather than the authoritative judge who is taking note of every single one of our failures, was transformative for me. I recall a similar moment early during my 2009 sabbatical when, d100_0230uring a noonday reading of daily psalms with a couple dozen Benedictine monks, we read in Psalm 149 that “the LORD takes delight in his people.” Who knew? Reverend Ames is right—we do think about this far too little.

Reverend Ames also provided me with a new angle on rational proofs for the existence of God, something I have grappled with both as a philosophy professor and as a human being for as long as I can remember. His advice is that belief in God isn’t about proofs at all. As a matter of fact, making rational proofs the basis for either defending or challenging one’s faith will eventually erode whatever faith one has.

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. . . . ladder to moonCreating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

If someone asked me to identify and summarize the attitudes underlying my ruminations about the interplay of philosophy and faith in this blog, I would point to this passage. Thanks, Rev.

In the final pages of Gilead, Reverend Ames bumps into Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’ best friend who is leaving town on the bus. Jack asks Ames to say goodbye to his father for him. Ames agrees to do so, but then says “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” Aaronic-blessingHe uses his favorite text from the Jewish Scriptures, Aaron’s blessing from the Book of Numbers:

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Gilead has been that sort of blessing to me, more than any book I have ever read. I am most grateful.

What Christians Get Wrong About Jesus

On July 5, 1838, in the middle of what he called “this refulgent summer,” during which “it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life,” thirty-five-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered what has come to be known as his “Divinity School Address” to the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School. At this time, the Divinity School was the acknowledged center of Unitarian thought; even though Unitarianism was close to the fringes of liberal Christianity, Emerson’s words were so stunning and radical that he wasn’t invited back to campus for 30 years (some sources say 40). As I reread the address for the first time in several years, in preparation for a class in the American Philosophy course I am teaching this semester, two things occurred to me almost simultaneously:

  • I completely understand why even the most liberal Christian scholars and professors at Harvard didn’t want this guy on campus.
  • I can’t believe how strongly I have come to agree with even the most “out there” parts of his address.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never been invited to give a talk at Harvard.

Emerson’s theme is what he calls “the religious sentiment,” a recognition that the moral law is present equally in each individual and that I am, as are all human beings, a part of something greater and sublime.

 This sentiment . . . is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish. The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force; and in the game of human life, love, fear, justice, appetite, man, and God, interact . . . this sentiment is the essence of all religion.

Emerson seeks to convince us that “This sentiment is divine and deifying. showing the fountain of all good to be within.” In case one might think he is speaking hyperbolically, Emerson drives his point home: If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God. And, Emerson insists, almost without exception our human attempts to codify and systematize this sentiment—attempts that we usually call “organized religion”—have screwed things up.

Without fail, organized religions teach their adherents that the divine nature that is in all of us actually is only to be found in a limited number of human beings; the natural divinity in all human beings accordingly is “denied to all the rest, and denied with fury.” In the case of Christianity, the problem arises from a complete misunderstanding of and overemphasis on the person of Jesus.

Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion . . . an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.

The Harvard Divinity School faculty and graduates in the audience undoubtedly thought, with justification, that a Christianity that does not focus centrally on the person of Jesus hardly deserves the name.

But Emerson is just beginning. By raising the person of Jesus to exalted status, Christianity has managed to convince its adherents that God no longer speaks. Anticipating Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous proclamation fifty years later, Emerson tell his audience that

The Moral Nature, that Law of laws whose revelations introduce greatness—yea, God himself—into the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in society. Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.

The person of Jesus, the activities of the divine in the world, the miracles that accompanied God’s presence in human form, have been shut up between the leather covers of a book and ossified into doctrines and rituals. No wonder Emerson speaks favorably of the man who once told him privately that he felt as if he was doing something immoral when he attended Sunday services at his church.

So who was Jesus? Is Emerson one of those heretics who wants to sell Jesus to us as just another excellent teacher, a fine moral exemplar, an admirable human being but not divine? Hardly. Jesus’ greatness and uniqueness lie in recognizing who he truly was—and through this recognition each subsequent individual can find empowerment and inspiration.

Alone in history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think’ . . . He was the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of man.

Emerson does not deny the truth of the Incarnation, the seminal and central truth of Christianity. Jesus was truly both human and divine. But his greatness lies in his awareness that this was not unique to him. Humanity and divinity belong together, and are fused in every human being. Jesus’ empowering gospel directive to his disciples was that they would do even greater works than his; his message to us is “Dare to love God without mediator or veil . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint man with Deity.” We would do well to remember Catherine of Genoa’s insight: “My deepest me is God.”

I smile as I imagine the faces of the faculty and graduates as they listened to Emerson’s message of radical incarnation. One can hardly build a functioning, hierarchical religion around the shockingly democratic idea that all human beings share the spark and the mark of the divine. Yet Emerson suggests that there remains an important place for teaching and preaching: “It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that God speaks, not spoke . . . the true Christianity is a faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man.” Several years ago, my long dormant and atrophying faith awakened when I embraced the Incarnation story in a new way. God not only became human, but we human beings remain the only way in which God gets into the world. Jesus told his critics that “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Emerson’s radical but empowering insight is that each of us, once we embrace who we truly are, can say the same thing.

Playing with Fire

Somewhere I heard or read that one of the top television programs in Finland (or Sweden or Norway) is a few hours of watching a fire burn in a fireplace. I don’t know whether or not this is true—I would hope that my Scandinavian cousins might go for a real fire in a fireplace rather than one on a screen. But Google “fireplace youtube video” and you will find several dozen to choose from.

During the two-hour final exam in one of my classes a couple of years ago, I put a fireplace video on the big screen up front while the students worked on their exams. Nobody commented on what I thought was a stroke of genius. I didn’t notice a significant increase in the quality of the exams, but I’d like to believe that it might have reduced the stress a bit. There is something mesmerizing and comforting about such videos; the one I chose is complete with the crackling of the logs (and no elevator music in the background). It’s low maintenance, too. No heat, but no kindling, no mess to clean up, no chance of the fire jumping out of the fireplace and causing damage, and no burns. There’s a lot to be said for domesticated fire—except that it isn’t fire. That’s what usually happens when we try to domesticate something wild and dangerous. It becomes something else entirely.

Domesticating the wild and dangerous is a favorite and necessary human activity, beginning with the domestication of the small human barbarians we call “children.” As a child, my favorite character in the pantheon of classic Bugs Bunny characters was the Tasmanian Devil.Taz I lived vicariously through his uncontrolled and destructive energy. Who doesn’t occasionally wish for the opportunity to make a god-awful mess with impunity and without repercussions, just because you can? Mom doesn’t like the way I picked up my room? I’ll show you “picked up”! I whirl into a tornado of destructive frenzy, clothes and bedding flying everywhere, leaving a child-sized hole in the wall as I exit the scene. Dad doesn’t like my attitude?  I’ll show you an attitude, as I leave flying paper and debris in the wake of my Tasmanian exit through your floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Just as the Tasmanian Devil was an infrequent visitor to the Bugs Bunny Show (maybe once every third Saturday), tasmanian_devil_and_bugs_bunny_by_erickenji1so I wasn’t looking to be destructive on a regular basis. Infrequent and arbitrary scenes of total chaos would have been enough to keep everyone on edge and suitably respectful.

I thought of the Tasmanian devil not long ago when Psalm 29 was one of my morning psalms:

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare . . .

dillardBroken cedars, whirling oaks, naked forests—sounds like the Tasmanian devil has been here. But for the most part, this is not the God we encounter in church (or anywhere else for that matter). As Annie Dillard writes, we tend to “come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though [we] knew what [we] were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.” We want contact with the divine, but not with the Tasmanian Devil deity or with the consuming fireGod that Deuteronomy and Hebrews describe as “a consuming fire.” We want a domesticated God that we can predict and perhaps control. Why is that?

In When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we opt for a domesticated God because we suspect that the alternative is too disturbing to consider. Religious history is littered with stories of those who asked to meet God face to face and barely survived to tell about it. “Many pray for an encounter with the living God. Those whose prayers are answered rarely ask for the same thing twice.” Persons of faith complain (frequently, endlessly) that God is silent, that no direct communication from the divine is ever forthcoming, at least not in a language anyone can understand. Just ask Job. But it just might be that God is silent because this is what, in our heart of hearts, we have asked for. As the children of Israel quaking in their boots at Mount Sinai after God’s direct communication, we would rather dabble around the edges, and we would much rather hire someone to represent God to us (and us to God) than take the face to face risk.

god is silentWe are not up to direct encounter with God. We want it but we don’t want it. We want to be warmed, not burned, except where God is concerned there is no such thing as a safe fire. Safe fire is our own invention. It is what we preach to people who, like us, would rather be bored than scared.

The next time I am in church I’ll have a hard time forgetting the YouTube video of a fireplace burning. A pleasant enough experience, I suppose, but offering nothing of the warmth and danger of the original. As we proceed through the various portions of the liturgy—Gloria, Sanctus, sermon, creed, confession, collection, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and so on—Annie Dillard will be poking me in the side.

I often think of set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed . . . If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.

Indeed we would be—and attendance the following Sunday would be affected. Much better to pretend that we know what we are doing and that God somehow is entertained. Because the alternative—that God might actually show up and do something, including making us responsible for what we so blithely parrot every week—makes us uncomfortable. And above all else, human beings want to be comfortable.

holy the firmWhy do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? . . . On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. Annie Dillard

Playing the Nazi Card

We ought not to hide from ourselves that Nazi Germany is a mirror for all of us. What looks to us so hideous is our own features, but magnified. Simone Weil in 1937

            One of my favorite weekly activities is to gather every Friday afternoon at MacPhail’s, our on-campus watering hole, with any number of faculty colleagues to down a beer or two (or three) as we mark the end of the week and the beginning of the weekend. Last Friday was no exception. It was inauguration day, which—as I described that day on this blog—I was not watching.

Why I will not be watching: Inauguration Day Reflections

As is often the case, I was the first person to arrive. I sat in our usual area with my back to the three television screens over the bar, on which the new President’s poorly attended inaugural events were being covered. Having established the habit many years ago of never being without something to read if there was any chance I might have to wait for anything for more than thirty seconds, I reached into my book bag, pulled out the central text that I would be working with in one of my classes the following week, and settled in to knock off a few pages. When a colleague and friend from the chemistry department showed up a few minutes later, it occurred to me that there was a strange synchronicity between what was on the television screens behind me and what I was reading. “Look at what I’m reading, Seann!” I said, passing the book to him. He broke into laughter as he saw Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. You can’t make this stuff up.

I am in the early stages of teaching an interdisciplinary colloquium with a colleague from the history department: “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era.” This is the third time in the past four years we have offered this colloquium; it is the most wildly popular course I have ever taught, filling up immediately on registration day with a list of dozens of students on a waiting list hoping to get in. I would love to think that the colloquium’s popularity is due to my colleague’s and my teaching excellence, but the real reason everyone wants to take this course is simple: Nazis sell. Put the adjective “Nazi” together with any course content—Nazi Accounting, Nazi Calculus, Nazi Basket Weaving—and the class will fill up immediately. Like the worst train wreck ever, people can’t look away from the Nazis. Just about everyone agrees that they represent the worst that human beings can be, but still—or perhaps because of this—no one can look away.

This is not just the case in the educational world. Mention the Nazis in any public conversation and people’s ears prick up. Describing someone’s activities or attitudes as Nazi-like is the third rail of public discourse, a bridge too far even in the most vigorous debate. And yet it happens on a remarkably regular basis. The Nazi card was played frequently during the just completed Presidential campaign season, most recently a bit over two weeks ago when the then President-elect criticized the intelligence community for not prohibiting an unsubstantiated document containing damaging allegations from being published. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” the President-elect tweeted, a question that immediately met with outrage from many quarters, while at the same time attracting prurient interest because the Nazis had been invoked. Playing the Nazi card has been a popular activity on all sides of political arguments for the past fifty years. I recently finished reading Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections); in his final chapter on culture wars in this country from the 1970s to the present, he mentions at least a half-dozen different times when one side of a given squabble has accused the other side of Nazi-like behavior or beliefs.

Why do we do this? I’m sure that many articles, books, and dissertations have been written on the psychology and politics of Nazi-shaming, but on one level the attraction is obvious. If X accuses Y of Nazi-like behavior, X is intending to either derail the conversation entirely or deflect it in an entirely new direction. Except for skinheads, no one takes Nazi attributions lying down. To accuse someone of being or acting like a Nazi is to accuse her or him of being on the very outer fringes of humanity, perhaps having even crossed the line into non-humanity. But my impression is that no one really means it when they play the Nazi card—it’s just the worst thing the person can think of to say in the moment. Accusing someone of Nazi-like behavior is like accusing them of being an evil alien—and that’s a problem. Because the Nazis were people, no different at their core than the rest of us. We forget this at our peril.

One of the most important tasks my teaching colleague and I seek to accomplish early in the semester when we teach our Nazi era colloquium is to convince the students that the Nazis were not aliens, monsters, or mutants. To consider them as such is to remove the possibility, at least theoretically, that we share anything in common with them. My colleague and I assign significant portions of Mein Kampf, study the NSDAP’s “Twenty-Five Point Program” (the Nazis’ socio-political “platform”), and consider the lengthy chapter on Hitler’s tortured childhood from Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good, all with a view to realizing that understanding the Nazis requires first understanding that they were human beings just as we are. Human beings with histories, experiences, commitments, worries, fears, desires, hopes and dreams. Human beings who hoped for a better world than the one they believed had been unjustly imposed on them by outside forces. The policies and actions of the Nazis flowed logically from clearly stated premises and assumptions; the fact that these premises and assumptions differ sharply from those that most of us profess to be committed to does not prove them to be wrong. We urge our students to realize that dismissing the Nazis simply because they believed so differently than we do spares us from doing the difficult and important work of identifying exactly why we are committed to our beliefs and assumptions. Only if we recognize that the Nazis were human beings with whom we share a vast amount of things in common can we truly begin to consider carefully what went so monstrously wrong. As Alice Miller writes, “all that it took was a committed Fuhrer and several million well-raised Germans to extinguish the lives of countless innocent human beings in a few short years.”

For those who believe that their religious faith provides them with a firewall against the elements of human nature regularly on display during the Nazi era, the story of the Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, in Germany during the time of the Nazis is both sobering and disturbing. People like Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franciscan priest Maximillian Kolbe are examples in our colloquium of persons who exhibited grace and truth during the Nazi era, but they were voices and persons of resistance. Large numbers of Christian pastors and priests, ministers and bishops, as well as their German Christian congregations, not only supported the policies of Hitler and the Nazis but also truly believed that this support was sanctioned and supported by their commitment to their Christian faith. It did not turn out to be that difficult for millions of good Germans to find a way to be both believers in Christianity and supporters of Nazism.

I spent a great deal of time on this blog over the past many months wondering how evangelical Christians, millions of Catholics, and many others with whom I share my Christian faith could square their faith with their political commitments and how they voted in the recent Presidential election. I’m still wondering, but returning to the Nazis has reminded me that human beings can convince themselves that absolutely anything is true, as well as believing that incompatible beliefs are actually compatible, if they are sufficiently motivated by their experiences, circumstances, fears, and anger to do so. That includes me. The next time the Nazi card get played publicly, we would do well to not treat it as twisted entertainment or the tweetings of uninformed people with too much time on their hands. As offensive as it may sound, each of us has a Nazi inside of us—only regular vigilance and a constant refusal to be duped or complacent can silence it. As Pogo told us many years ago, we have met the enemy—and he is us.