Tag Archives: religion

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.

The “F” Word

There’s nothing like unexpectedly dropping an f-bomb on a bunch of students. But it’s even better when one of them does it. I teach at a Catholic college, so one would think that the students would be used to talking about the f-word—we Baptists certainly were when I was growing up. But dropping an f-bomb in class, even when the context is entirely appropriate and the word is germane, is like farting in church. Everyone clams up, an uncomfortable atmosphere fills the room, and no one wants to deal with it. And I am presented with, as professors like to say, a “teachable moment.”

Mark Twain once defined “faith” as “believing something you know ain’t true.” Strangely, I find that my largely parochial school educated students think of faith in this way. They think that faith is opposed to reason, to logic, to evidence, yet is the foundation of what they have been told are the most important truths imaginable. bumper stickerThey believe that things believed on the basis of faith are certain and beyond question; I’m reminded of the bumper sticker on a number of vehicles in the church parking lot of my youth: “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But in my estimation just about all of the above “facts” about faith are false. I agree with Anne Lamott when she writes that the opposite of faith is not doubt—the opposite of faith is certainty. But that’s not something I can just drop early into a conversation about the f-word. I have to build up to it.

A good place to start is with another excellent insight from Anne Lamott—faith is a verb, not a noun. It’s an activity, not a thing. So what exactly are we doing when we are “faithing”? I use a good technique that I learned in grammar school—“Somebody use the word “faith” in a sentence that has absolutely nothing to do with religion, church, or God.” That’s a temporary challenge for many of my students, but pretty soon someone says something like “I have faith that the chair I am sitting in will not collapse.” Or “I have faith that the Patriots will win the Super Bowl a week from Sunday.” I contribute that “I have faith that when the time comes, my friend John will make the right decision.” All of these sentences are still treating faith as a noun rather than a verb, as something you have rather than something you do, but progress is being made.red sox

“Do you know that the chair isn’t going to collapse?” I ask. “Are you certain that the Patriots will win the Super Bowl a week from Sunday?”  “Well . . .no.” So you’re just guessing? In both cases, the answer there is “no” as well. Apparently faithing is an activity that occupies the vast territory between certainty and guesswork—the knowledge territory in which we human beings spend a great deal of our time. Although my student can’t prove that her chair won’t collapse in the next minute, she can refer to past experience to support her faith claim—she’s seen human beings in thousands of such chair situations in her life and has never seen a chair-fail yet. Patriots fans can point to the excellence of their regular season, their having won four Super Bowls in the past fifteen years, and so on. faithingMy faith in my friend John is not blind—I’m convinced that the phrase “blind faith” is an oxymoron—it is based on years of observing his careful consideration of important alternatives before making a decision. When removed from the confines of religion, faithing turns out to be a perfectly natural activity—the activity of moving past evidence in hand toward a conclusion for which there is not complete evidence. Faith is the activity of inching past probability toward something stronger (although the goal is never certainty).

With this in hand, we move to my go-to definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. My Catholic students who are largely ignorant of what the Bible contains are often surprised to find out that this is from the Book of Hebrews, the first verse of Hebrews 11 which is sometimes called “the honor roll of faith.” They are even more surprised to find that the definition says nothing about God, religion, heaven, hell, or any of the other accompanying items they are used to seeing in the entourage of a definition of faith. Instead, it is an excellent summary of what we have been discussing about faithing as a normal human activity.  We faith when we want to provide substance to something important that we are hoping for (the chair will hold me up, the Patriots will win the Super Bowl, my friend will make a good decision). All of the items hoped for are “unseen” because they either have not happened yet or cannot be proven true with certainty. rene-descartesFaithing fills in the gaps between evidence and what we hope for, realizing that further evidence over time may force us to adjust our hopes or discard them altogether.

In one of his letters, Rene Descartes tells the story of a king who refused to eat anything unless he could be convinced with certainty that it was not poisoned. And he starved to death. Some things—most things—cannot be established with certainty. Sometimes we just need to faith our way along. Faith in the realm of things divine is a case in point. I cannot know with certainty anything about God or even that God exists. But this does not mean that I am guessing or shutting down my brain when I faith. I can point to any number of past and present experiences that I count as evidence from which to take a faith leap in the direction of the divine. As I wrote in a Facebook discussion not long ago, facebook“Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” Faith in the spiritual realm involves applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. I can’t prove it, but neither am I guessing.

Religionless Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secular Students Turn to Divinity School

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

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

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

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

nadiaTo which Nadia replied:

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

Learning Our Lessons

I’ve often said during my close to three decades of teaching philosophy on the college level that I did not enter academia because it’s one of the few places a philosopher can find to make a living. I entered academia because I wanted to be a college professor—philosophy just happened to be the disciplinary vehicle that got me there. If it hadn’t been philosophy, it would have been history (and if it hadn’t been history it would have been literature . . .). Whatever it took to get me into the academic life. My approach to philosophy has always been contextual and historical; I have taken great delight in teaching regularly in an interdisciplinary course with a historian for over twenty years. As it turns out, my reading for the first ten days or so of Winter Break has reflected my love of history. Moving backwards from the first decade of the twentieth century to Ancient Rome, I have been reminded of just how relevant history is to understanding the present.

Everyone knows a version of the truism that “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” but few know where the original of the truism came from. As it turns out, lots of people have said something along these lines, from Edmund Burke (“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”) and George Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) to Jesse Ventura (“Learn from history or you’re doomed to repeat it”) and Lemony Snickett (“Those unable to catalog the past are doomed to repeat it”). I finished the second half of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit just before Christmas. Goodwin tells the story of the first decade of the twentieth century, focusing on Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, two of the towering political figures of the time. I am a great fan of Goodwin’s work and anxiously awaited reading The Bully Pulpit between semesters after her October lecture on campus as part of my college’s centennial celebration.

The period of American history between the Civil War and the Great Depression has always been somewhat of an empty field for me, so I was fascinated to find that the politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a remarkably contemporary feel. A progressive movement (within the Republican party, no less) favoring the rights and interests of “the little man” is being resisted by big money, huge trusts and corporations run by fabulously wealthy individuals who are loath to release even a molecule of their power. The centers of activity are different from today—the progressive movement is centered in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and the West with conservative resistance centered in the Northeast, but questions about how economics, politics, the common good, and foreign interests should be balanced were the same then as they are today. The Great Depression that followed within a decade after the end of the events in The Bully Pulpit shows that they did not figure things out very well back then—will we do better? The best I can say is that the jury is out on that one.

My favorite takeaway from The Bully Pulpit is entirely personal. Threaded throughout the book are the stories of two remarkable marriages, Teddy and Edith Roosevelt, side by side with William and Nelly Taft. The letters exchanged were intimate and revealing, including the following tribute from William to Nelly which I copied verbatim into Jeanne’s Christmas card:

I cannot tell you what a comfort it is to me to think of you as my wife and helpmeet. I measure every woman I meet with you and they are all found wanting. Your character, your independence, your straight mode of thinking, your quiet planning, your loyalty, your sympathy when I need it (as I do too readily), your affection and love (for I know I have it), all these make me happy just to think about them.

“Wow,” Jeanne said on Christmas morning, “you could have written that!” She also claimed, as did Nellie, that she didn’t deserve such a tribute—but Bill and I know better.

Photo by Chris Boland, www.christopherinessex.co.uk

After The Bully Pulpit, it was on to SPQR (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus–“the Senate and people of Rome”), Mary Beard’s recent history of ancient Rome. One of my teaching partners this past semester in the interdisciplinary course in which I regularly teach is a classicist whose specialty is ancient Rome; when Fred gave the book an enthusiastic thumbs-up, I put it on my between-semesters reading list. I’m currently about half way through the book, and am reminded on almost every page to what extent the ancient Romans shaped our contemporary world. The issues they grappled with are still with us, issues almost too numerous to list. One in particular has caught my attention in SPQR, something about the Romans that I did not know until my colleague stressed it in a couple of lectures this past semester. Unique among ancient civilizations, the Romans were remarkably willing to incorporate outsiders into their world, not just as visitors, marginal members of society, or conquered people, but as citizens. The Romans were notably tolerant of different ways of doing things, an attitude that is, at least theoretically, something that we value in our country. Although the Romans were often suspicious and xenophobic in their initial actions toward others, the inhabitants of conquered territories were gradually given full Roman citizenship, along with the legal rights and protections that went with it. This openness, at least in theory, is something that we have aspired to during our country’s short history—which makes the current swing toward suspicion and concern about “the Other” in our politics and social attitudes so disturbing.

There are reasons, of course, to be careful about openness—like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, one never knows what one might end up with. One interesting example from SPQR illustrates the point. Roman religion was complex, with a pantheon of gods and goddesses and a dizzying array of practices and festivals to honor them, events that also marked celebration of culture and what it meant to be Roman. But the Romans were also remarkably open to incorporating new deities and practices into their religion. In the early part of the second century BCE, the Great Mother goddess, the focus of worship in part of Roman territories in Asia Minor, was brought with great fanfare into Rome, at the advice of an ancient oracle, to be incorporated into the Roman pantheon. She was the patron deity of Troy, the mythical ancestral home of Rome, so in a sense the Great Mother belonged in Rome. Beard reports that the temple built to house her “would be the first building in Rome, so far as we know, constructed using that most Roman of materials . . . concrete.” A deputation was sent to Asia Minor to collect the image of the goddess and transport her back—a deputation that included a highly placed senator and a Vestal Virgin. But, as Beard relates, “not everything was quite as it seemed.”

The image of the goddess was not what the Romans could possibly have been expecting. It was a large black meteorite, not a conventional statue in human form. And the meteorite came accompanied by a retinue of priests. These were self-castrated eunuchs, with long hair, tambourines and a passion for self-flagellation. This was all about as un-Roman as you could imagine. And forever after it raised uncomfortable questions about “the Roman” and “the foreign,” and where the boundary between them lay.

These are exactly the sorts of questions we must struggle with today. We might say that we will be accepting of the “Other” just as long as that Other over time becomes like we are. But what exactly are we? Romans regularly welcomed all sorts of people and practices into their sphere, and then had to grapple with the implications of openness. We must do the same, all the time remembering that were it not for a fundamental openness to strangers and the “Other” in our history, most of us would not be here.

Constellations

I love the stars. Not as in “Dancing with . . .” or in Hollywood or Washington DC. I mean the stars in the heavens. The night sky in rural Vermont where I grew up, far from the glare of urban lights, was a source of endless wonder and entertainment. Part of the attraction of the stars was their sheer beauty and mystery, providing a glimpse of light-years past history; this was heightened by my love of the stories of Greek mythology. map1+[1]So many of the mythological heroes and heroines are up there—Cassiopeia, Gemini, Hercules, Leda the Swan, Pegasus, Andromeda, Orion (my favorite)orion-constellation[1]. I had a National Geographic star map of the Northern Hemisphere on my bedroom wall that showed the constellations in the night sky, traced from star to star as in the beloved dot-to-dot books of my earliest memories. I learned that, because of the tilt of the Earth, some of my favorite Northern Hemisphere constellations (like the Big and Little Dippers) could never be seen in the Southern Hemisphere and that folks “down under” got to see constellations (like the Southern Cross) that I would never see in Vermont. We never had a telescope (My First Telescope), but I spent many nights looking at the stars through my Dad’s hunting binoculars.

Doubt A Parable JP Shanley[1]In the first scene of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Doubt, Father Brendan Flynn begins his Sunday homily by asking “What do you do when you’re not sure?” He then tells the story of the sole survivor of a shipwreck, a sailor who finds himself floating with a few salvaged provisions in the middle of the ocean on a raft he’s lashed together from floating spars. Using his nautical training, he looks toward the night sky and reads the stars, sets a course for home, and falls asleep. But clouds roll in and block the stars for the next twenty nights. Lost_at_Sea_by_relhom[1]As his provisions dwindle, as thirst and starvation threaten, he begins to have doubts. Is he still on course? Did he set his bearings correctly in the first place? Was his reading of the stars accurate enough to get him home? Or is he doomed to a slow and lonely death in the middle of an unfriendly sea?

As a philosopher, I am comfortable with doubt and uncertainty—I actively seek to foster the habits of challenging “givens” and questioning “absolutes” in my all-too-certain students every day. Philosophy, I tell them, is the art of asking better and better questions, but has little to do with getting definitive answers. Once several years ago my oldest son, who was then in his middle twenties, told his stepmother and me at a restaurant lunch “I don’t think I believe in God. I’m an agnosticthank_god_im_agnostic_bumper_sticker-p128680539739240818en8ys_400[1].” To which I responded “Good. You’re too young to be certain about anything yet, let alone about God.” And I meant it. Certainty is vastly overrated. Because with certainty comes closure, and with closure comes a “Get Out of Thinking Free” card that you can play any time someone challenges what you are certain about. This attitude about certainty and closure predates my academic path toward philosophy; in truth, it is probably the most fundamental and hard-wired reason that I became a philosopher. I’ve been suspicious of claims to certainty my whole life, even while growing up in an atmosphere of religious absolutes and conviction.

But there are times in everyone’s life, including mine, when it would be nice to see a few fixed points, to be able to take a reading on the stars. There is a part of me, although seldom allowed to have the floor, that longs for a certainty shared with others, the reassurance of believing that we’ve got it right, that we’ve got a map or a blueprint that’s reliable. My parents and other respected authority figures gave me such a map when I was young. Here’s the map of the spiritual life, and here are the fixed points that you can always rely on when you think you’re lost and need to find your way home. The Church. The inerrant Word of God. The plan of salvation. Original Sin. Heaven and Hell.Heaven-or-Hell-heaven-hell-1600x1200[1] The Easter story. The Ten Commandments. Conservative values. I could have tacked this map on the wall right next to my constellation map; I suspect a lot of Baptist kids did. But it wasn’t very long before clouds covered my spiritual sky. I had no difficulty using the language of the spiritual map I had been given, and could at least talk a good game with others who, using regular sightings of our common spiritual stars and constellations, reported success in navigating their way through the sometimes stormy seas of the soul. But truth be told, I hadn’t gotten a clear reading using that spiritual map in years. Sometimes I wondered if I had ever set a good course using that map. Maybe the map I had been given is gloriously attractive and infinitely interesting in its detail,Middle-Earth-map_UK_800_600_mapa_terra-media[1] but false. Maybe it’s like the wonderful maps in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, fascinating and detailed guides to a world that doesn’t exist. The time comes when the map and accompanying directions have to be tested and either updated or discarded. Otherwise they become a lie.

That’s where I was eight years ago when I went to Minnesota on sabbatical, intending to write about coping with the absence and silence of God. Perhaps the time had come to be honest and throw the map from my youth away, in order to find another one unencumbered. But I’ve slowly discovered something curious and hopeful since then, looking once again with older, more experienced eyes, at my spiritual map. For the first time my spiritual night sky has become less cloudy, and I’ve been able to see a few stars. And although I’m in a very different part of the ocean than before, maybe even a different hemisphere, some of the familiar constellations are in view. Easter is still there. Scripture is there, but looking a lot different, bigger and more colorful, than I remembered. m13[1]And my favorite constellation—the Incarnation. It’s never looked so bright and beautiful. There are some new ones that I’d never seen before—Community, Daily Prayer, Silence, Listening—and some of the constellations on my old map are entirely missing. There are still plenty of clouds in my night sky, and I’m looking forward to maybe finding out what stars these clouds are hiding. But I’ve seen enough to know that I’m not lost, that my old map was more reliable than I thought, and that a spiritual sky map should never be laminated and hung on a wall. One should never laminate something that’s alive and growing.

What Cuba Taught Me About My Faith

For many reasons, I have been interested in Cuba for the past dozen years or so. With Fidel Castro’s death a few days ago, all sorts of memories and thoughts have flooded back. The standard news coverage has been of the “Miami Cubans” dancing in the streets and celebrating, various political figures noting the passage of a repressive dictator, and speculation about how soon capitalist markets will start influencing Cuba’s socialist economy. My own experiences with Cuba brought me to very different attitudes about our neighbor 90 miles to the south, as I described in my article entitled “Shattering the Myths About Cuba,” included in one of my college’s publications in the Spring of 2004 . . .

The story is told that Augustine used to get annoyed at his students when, as he pointed toward something that he wished them to consider, they focused their attention on his finger instead. Anyone who is–or ever has been–a teacher will understand Augustine’s frustration. As a philosophy professor, I know that the most crucial, yet most difficult lesson to teach is the lesson of learning to “see beyond seeing,” of discovering what russellBertrand Russell called “the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.” In its most practical applications, this lesson shows us that often what we believe we “know,” what seems most self-evident and obvious, is an opaque barrier that prevents us from being open to the possibility of better knowledge.

I traveled to Cuba last summer for a week-long visit as a member of a 12-person delegation of professionals, nine of them from Rhode Island. There were a number of interrelated goals for our visit, including visiting the Latin American Medical School in Havana (where a number of American students are studying at the invitation of President Fidel Castro, free of charge), learning firsthand about Latin American School Of Medical SciencesCuba’s admirable universal health care system, visiting a number of multicultural centers to learn about Cuba’s commitment to education and cultural development, and laying preliminary foundations for educational exchanges between Cuban and Rhode Island institutes of higher education.

The greatest impact of this trip on me, however, was that it shattered everything I “knew” about Cuba. This shattering has made it possible for me to reflect ever since my return on what the undermining of these “truths” might reveal concerning deeper human issues.

I was born in the 1950s, in the middle of the Cold War. One of my earliest memories from the nightly television news was the failed bay-of-pigsBay of Pigs invasion; I was 6 years old during the perilous days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My attitudes concerning Cuba were fashioned during those early years and remained largely the same ever since. I did not claim to know much about Cuba, but there were several things that were clear and beyond question. Cuba is an enemy, aligned with everything our country despises–a likely terrorist state, a repressor of religious and secular freedoms, a violator of human rights, an embarrassing challenge to what is most near and dear to us, a mere 90 miles off our coast. Not that I, as an educated, independent thinking adult would ever consciously allow that I carried these largely unchallenged assumptions around with me; I’m not sure that I knew of my preconceptions until I visited Cuba. elian-gonzalezI never even thought about Cuba except when some event deemed newsworthy, such as the Elian Gonzalez case, brought the island to my attention.

When, before the delegation’s trip to Cuba, I was asked what my expectations of the visit were, I continually said that I had no expectations–I was going with an open mind, the classic case of the tabula rasa, the “blank slate” that John Locke claimed all human beings are born with. Little did I know just how much would have to be erased from my slate before I could truly see. I, for instance, thought that I “knew” there was very little, if any, religious freedom in Cuba. After all, Cuba is a Communist country whose official stance on religion, in the style of the former Soviet Union, is atheism, right? Imagine our surprise when we discovered that religious faith is not only alive in Cuba, it is flourishing.

On a bright and sunny Father’s Day morning, our delegation’s first full day in Cuba, we attended services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Marianao, ebenezer-baptistone of the many economically impoverished neighborhoods in Havana. In a hot and stuffy auditorium packed with persons of all ages and colors, we observed the most active and vibrant church service that I, a lifelong churchgoer, have experienced in years. The worship was filled with contemporary liturgical dance, congregational singing and participation, and testimonials (including a touching tribute to fathers from a young girl around 12 years of age, read in Spanish and English, that brought tears to the eyes of many of the fathers present). After this, the pastor and one of his guest ministers from Colombia delivered brief talks about the need for men to overcome “machismo” and open their minds and hearts to the voices of women.

Uncovering false “truths”

Two days later, more “truths” about Cuba were proven false when our delegation had the opportunity to return to Ebenezer Baptist and its accompanying Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in order to meet withpastor-suarez Rev. Raul Suarez, the pastor of the church. When the Cuban Revolution succeeded in 1959, 90% of the pastors in Cuba fled for other countries, believing that religion and belief in God would no longer be tolerated. Rev. Suarez and a few others stayed, however, He explained, in his own words, “If Communism is the big bad wolf, we need to protect our sheep.” By staying, he realized immediately that the lives of the people in Cuba were being improved by the Castro government’s commitment to 100% literacy, to universal health care and education, to true socialist principles, and to equal access to and excellence in sports and the arts.

Rev. Suarez described for us how the Cuban Revolution caused him to rethink his faith and evolve from a conventional Southern Baptist minister to a proponent of liberation-theology“liberation theology,” from advocacy of spiritual wealth in the next world to a vision of radical social change in this world, and from silence to active leadership in the struggles against racism, poverty, and other societal ills. He described that he had been taught what Christians supposedly could not have (they could not smoke, dance, drink, etc.), but “no one taught us that poverty is a sin. That ignorance is a sin. That racism is a sin. That economic inequality is a sin. The Revolution taught us that.”

His church, once a largely white church in a predominantly black neighborhood, is now a powerful instrument for social change and improvement, dedicated to the betterment of human lives as they are lived in this world as well as to the tending of spiritual needs.

Church and State dialogue

So how do things stand between church and state in Cuba? Very differently than U.S. citizens are led to believe. Over the past 20 years, there has been a continuing dialogue between Cuban ministers of all faiths and the Cuban government. At the first of these meetings, the ministers told Fidel Castro that the official position of atheism was hurting the Cuban people and that Christianity is a religion meant to help the people, not to be enclosed within church walls. Castro said to the ministers: “You work in your churches and help them to understand us better, and I’ll work with my people and help them to understand you better. And my work will be more difficult than yours.”castro-and-pope

Incrementally, things changed so that by 1991, atheism was eliminated as a requirement for membership in the Communist party, all reference to Marxism/Leninism as the official philosophy of the Cuban government was eliminated from the constitution, Christians were allowed access to all professions, were granted full access to all means of communication to spread the good news of the Gospel, and were allowed to establish new congregations across the country. The congregations of all denominations in Cuba are continuing to grow rapidly to this day.

This is but one example of how the truth about Cuba turned out to be quite different than what I believed it to be. I could have written a similar article about the political process in Cuba, human rights violations in Cuba compared to such violations in this country, or how our “free” press in the United States regularly distorts the truth about what is occurring in Cuba.

As a philosopher, I find an important lesson beneath these different factual issues. As human beings, our frequent natural tendency is to assume that we know the truth about a given thing, then to selectively interpret the “facts” to fit our preconceived piece of knowledge. Whether in religion, politics, social structures, interpersonal relationships, or simply regular day-to-day existence, this is a tendency that must be actively and consciously resisted. bonhoefferThe truth, for human beings at least, does not come in bumper sticker-sized, “sound bite” form. To believe that it does leads to rigidity, absoluteness, and blindness to the evolving nature of our interaction with what is true. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th-century German Protestant theologian murdered by the Nazis in the final days of World War II, wrote, “The responsible man has no principle at his disposal which possesses absolute validity and which ha has to put into effect fanatically, overcoming all the resistance which is offered to it.”

In a world of ideology presented as self-evident certainty, the following warning from Albert Camus is worth taking seriously: “On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything . . .”

Life After Tuesday

facebook-friendA Facebook friend, who has helped the traffic on this blog increase exponentially over the past few weeks by sharing my posts on various Facebook pages that she administers, challenged me in a Facebook message the other day:

If you don’t already have your topics set for the next week, I’d love to see something that addresses the effect that this election time is having on relationships—family and friends—and, maybe how to move through and past it . . . to “healing.”

I responded that my posts for the coming week were written and scheduled, but I would take a shot at something shortly after the election. It has turned out to be one of the most challenging posts to write of the hundreds I’ve posted here over the past four-plus years, for reasons I’ll describe below. t-v-hBut it strikes me that it is worthwhile for all of us to think today—the day before the election that will (hopefully) put an end to one of the nastiest and most divisive Presidential campaigns in American history (certainly in my lifetime)—about how we will move forward after tomorrow. Regardless of the result in tomorrow’s presidential vote, more than forty percent of those who voted will believe that voters have made a horrible mistake, our country is swirling its way down the drain, and life as we have known it will not continue. But believe it or not, no matter who is elected President tomorrow, the apocalypse will not be triggered, Wednesday will dawn, and we will have to figure out what to do next. Good luck to us.

The philosophy department on my campus, of which I have been a member for twenty-two years (and which I chaired from 2004-08), has over the past two or three years earned a college-wide reputation for being one of the most dysfunctional departments on campus (only one or two other departments are serious competitors with my department for the title). Three weeks ago our dysfunction was on full display in an important meeting—without revealing confidential matters, I have told various people since then that the fault lines at the meeting were so deep that something like the following was regularly on display, at least by some colleagues:idiot “If you don’t agree with me, then you either didn’t take the time to become aware of the facts, you are stupid, or you are immoral.” No fourth option, such as “we have all done our homework, are familiar with the facts, have made a principled decision, and we just happen to disagree,” seemed to be available. I am always dismayed by such “discussions,” believing that the prohibited fourth option often happens to be the truth. But in thinking about that meeting, I’ve come to realize that when it comes to the almost-completed Presidential campaign, I have often found myself thinking of those persons likely to vote for the major candidate other than the one I will vote for tomorrow in precisely the same ways as were on display at the recent department meeting: If you vote for that “other person,” you must either be ignorant, a moron, or dangerously lacking in moral principles.

I doubt that I am alone in having effectively constructed a political echo chamber over the past several months in which I hear only voices that I want to hear. I only listen to radio and television stations likely to lean toward my own political and social beliefs and commitments. When such stations, in the interest of “balance,” include voices from the other side of things, I mute the machine or turn it off. When my candidate is having a good week or the opponent is not, I’ve been known to watch or listen to 2-3 straight hours of talking heads on my preferred stations. But when my candidate has a bad week or stumbles in some way, game-showsI would rather watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” than news analysis. My 650+ Facebook acquaintances have been carefully culled on several occasions to weed out persons who might have the audacity to post materials and arguments supporting the other side. It’s not just that I don’t want to hear arguments intended to challenge my own—I know that such arguments are out there and I reject them out of hand. It’s also that listening to more than a minute or so of representatives of that other candidate’s perspectives literally starts making me ill. I am one of those people who has said that if my candidate’s opponent wins, we’re moving to Canada. Enough of this shit.

I should know better than this. The other day in my General Ethics class, I reminded my students of a passage from an interview that was part of the day’s assignment. Toward the end of the interview, the interviewee said that “A sense of responsibility about one’s beliefs, a willingness to defend them if challenged, and a willingness to listen to the reasons given by others is one of the guiding ideals of a civil society.” The interview focused on the often fraught dynamic between atheism and theism, but the interviewee’s comments have direct application to our lives as citizens of a democracy. As we discussed the interview and accompanying article, I reminded my students that when someone presents an argument whose conclusion is something you disagree with strongly, the proper response is not “that person is an idiot,” or, slightly more charitably but just as illogically, disagree“I disagree, therefore that person is wrong.” In philosophy, you have to earn the right to have an opinion, I often tell my students—and earning the right to an opinion involves careful reasoning, argumentation, and above all cultivating the ability to listen, even to those with whom you disagree most strongly. But I, along with just about everyone else during our current political cycle, have been doing none of this. Consequently, we no longer have a civil society.

No matter how things turn out tomorrow, the apocalypse will not happen, the sun will rise on Wednesday morning entirely oblivious to what happened on Tuesday, and we will all be faced with a huge question: Now what? Forget the ruptures in our national fabric; for many Americans, the problems are personal. This election has divided friends and families in ways that might seem impossible to repair. civil-war-brothersI heard someone the other day liken the problem to members of the same family fighting on opposite sides during the Civil War a century and a half ago. That’s an extreme comparison, but it is difficult to imagine these divisions healing with the simple passage of time. Truth be told, I’m not sure that I’m ready to do my part in helping with that healing. I don’t even want to imagine the feeling in my house if our candidate does not win tomorrow. If our candidate does win, self-satisfaction and relief may well overwhelm concerns about healing for a while. But there will be life after Tuesday–and I do have a recent personal example of how people with very different convictions can coexist in peace and love.

Earlier this year, Jeanne and I had the opportunity to spend some time with my cousins and their families for the first time in many years. They know us to be dedicated liberals and we know them to be committed conservatives—the-cousinsthese differences spread across social policies, politics, and religion. Yet a wonderful time was had by all, and nary a discouraging or inflammatory word was heard.When we left to head for home, as he helped me put our luggage in the car my cousin said, “This is amazing—you’re a liberal, I’m a conservative, and yet we haven’t argued once.” We gave each other virtual high-fives over that amazing development. How did we manage to spend several evenings together without spouting incompatible talking points? Not simply by avoiding minefield conversations by talking about the weather and sports (although we did talk about both of those on occasion). We had a wonderful time because we continually sought out what we share in common—histories, faith, pets, kids, and more. We shared decades of stories, many of which were new to some of those present, talked about common interests, and were reminded that what truly connects human beings together is far more important, with the long-term in view, than what divides us.

I need—we all need—to remember this as we look forward to our shared lives past Tuesday. Don’t define people by what they post on social media. important-issuesDon’t assume you know anything about someone simply because you discover that they do not share all of your most important beliefs. Don’t get me wrong—this is going to be very difficult for all of us. It’s not as if the issues that have divided our country so sharply are unimportant; they are crucially important. But even more crucially important is our shared humanity and the fact that we all must find ways to share our nation, our communities, our circle of friends, and our families while believing very differently on issues that matter. Perhaps a good place to start is to replace the time spent on social media and listening to radio or television analysis with spending time in the company of real human beings. We might be amazed to discover how much we share in common.

To My Satisfaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insufficient Evidence

russellBertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate. He was one of the most important and recognizable public figures in the English-speaking world during the first half of the twentieth century. He was also an avowed atheist. The story is told that at the end of one of his public lectures in which his atheism was on full display, a furious woman stood up during the question and answer period and asked, “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied, “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’”

I was reminded of this story when the author of an article I assigned in my ethics classes the other day included it at the beginning of his discussion of how people use evidence to support the different sorts of things we claim to be true. For instance, the author claimed, verifiable and objective evidence serves as the foundation for truth claims in the sciences, but in religious belief—no so much. Indeed, the author continued, religious belief is easy and available to everyone because evidence is not required—just faith (whatever that means). atheismThe author identifies himself as an atheist who is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious belief—his conclusions make me wonder if he has ever actually met a person of faith.

As I am working with fifty students in two sections of General Ethics through our current unit entitled “Does God have anything to do with ethics?’ I have found regularly that my junior and senior students—the majority of whom are products of Catholic primary and secondary education—are often no more informed about the relationship of evidence to faith than the atheist author of the article for this given day. A few weeks ago I provided them with my “go to” definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the hebrewsevidence of things not seen. Some were surprised to learn that this definition, which does not refer to either God or religion, is from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. Whatever else faith is, the author of Hebrews is claiming that evidence has something to do with it.

I decided, as I often do, to get at this tricky issue obliquely and through the back door. “How many of you have ever been to Japan?” I asked. No hands went up in either class section, including mine. “How many of you believe in the existence of Japan?” I asked next—all hands went up. “How does that work?” How do we come to believe in the existence and/or truth of something when we lack direct supporting evidence? Because clearly the preponderance of things that each of us believes to be true—thousands upon thousands of items of all sorts—are beliefs that lack direct empirical evidence to support them.“How many of you believe that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in 1865?” I aslincolnked next. All hands went up. “How many of you were there when it happened?” No hands went up—I assured them that even I was not old enough to have been an eye-witness. So once again we have an example of a claim that everyone believes to be true even though we lack “concrete evidence” (as my students like to call it) to support our belief. Or do we?

Upon being asked to list what sorts of evidence we do have to support our beliefs concerning the existence of Japan and what happened in Ford’s Theater in April of 1865, my students came up with several suggestions:

  • Testimony—The word of others, eyewitnesses when possible, counts as particularly strong indirect evidence. Even though I have not been to Japan, I know people who have visited there and have even met people from Japan. It is, of course, possible that all of these people are lying to me, but the more that the testimonies I gather are consistent with each other, the more likely it is that they are pointing toward something true. This doesn’t work, of course, when considering events where no eyewitnesses are available, such as what happened at Ford’s Theater, but fortunately the spoken word is not the only way in which we are able to gather relevant testimony.
  • Texts—Those who have not been to Japan have seen pictures of it and have read descriptions of it. These are indirect and second-hand, but become part of accumulating indirect evidence. Textual evidence for historical events for whom there are no longer any eyewitnesses is the bread-and-butter of the historian’s trade. goodwinThe great Doris Kearns Goodwin gave a talk on campus a couple of evenings ago—when she spoke of Abraham Lincoln, it never occurred to me to wonder if what she was saying was true. As she described the meticulous ways in which she gathered evidence for her book Team of Rivals from letters, diaries, newspapers, and other first-hand accounts from over a century-and-a-half ago, I was reminded of how the only evidence we have of the truth of anything occurring more than a hundred years ago requires both investigative strategies and an inherent trust in the results of such investigations.
  • Traditions—Often all we have to rely on to bolster various beliefs is what has been passed down from generation to generation as stories and traditions intended to capture the essence of an individual, a family, or a culture. We use such stories and traditions as evidence to support our best guesses concerning what might have happened; they form an important part of the foundation of belief that gets passed from generation to generation.

It was clear as the discussion proceeded that in some of the most important parts of our daily lives, both as we engage with the present and as we consider the past, our “certainties” are built on a foundation of uncertainty, a foundation that we eventually depend upon as if it were certain as our collection of indirect evidence reaches an imaginary tipping point.

We are now half-way through the semester and my students are familiar with my teaching strategies, so no one was surprised when I stepped back from the board where I had listed their examples of indirect evidence and asked, “How might these types of evidence work in another area of belief where we have a difficult time accessing direct evidence—belief in God?” As it turns out, the same sorts of indirect evidence that we use on a daily basis to bolster our belief in all kinds of things are available when we enter the arena of faith. sacred-textsSacred texts are used as sources of evidence of all sorts; regardless of whether a person considers such texts to be divinely inspired or not, they contain evidence of how people have engaged with issues of God and faith over the centuries. Such texts purportedly contain testimonial evidence to the existence and nature of God as the divine reportedly interacts with human beings, and interpretations of these testimonies become centerpieces of traditions that develop into religions.

We also have the same sort of indirect testimony concerning faith-related issues that my students used when identifying the sources of their belief in the existence of Japan even though none had ever been there. For instance, I know many people who report personal experiences that they believe can only be explained by an invasion of or intervention into their life by something greater than themselves. Often such reports can also be accounted for by explanations other than a direct encounter with God, but in such cases one must always consider both the reliability of the person giving the testimony and whether other similar reports have been given by other reliable sources. testimonyAnd as always, whether or not a person believes such reports is going to be a direct function of her or his predisposition to believe anything. How much evidence is enough? What sorts of testimony will I never believe, no matter who it comes from? To claim that evidence is ever free of all sorts of psychological and personality-driven biases is to ignore how we actually gather and use evidence in real time.

My answer to Bertrand Russell’s complaint that “you didn’t us give enough evidence” is that perhaps Lord Russell needed to consider what sort of evidence would have counted as “enough,” as well as what even counted as evidence for him at all. If his claim is that there is not enough “concrete evidence” to establish the existence of God, I might agree. But I would remind Russell that the vast majority of the many things that we believe to be true are not supported by such evidence either. When considering issues as important as faith, there is no need to change the rules of the evidence game—faith is, after all, “the evidence of things not seen.”