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A Liberal’s Worst Nightmare

One of my teaching colleagues and mentors used to love to tell the story of what happened one day after he and a colleague teamed up for a particularly impassioned lecture in the interdisciplinary course they were team-teaching. I no longer remember what he said the text or topic of the class was, but after class a usually silent back-row-sitting student came up from and said “Wow! You guys really take this stuff seriously!” Which raises the question: What would happen if we actually took the things we claim to believe and be committed to seriously enough to do something about them? Seriously enough to completely change our lives?nhs

Katie is a “good person”—doctor for the National Health Service, mother, wife, and socially aware—but is desperately unhappy with her life. Her husband David is angry and cynical; he writes a newspaper column called “The Angriest Man in Holloway” in which he pillories everything from old people who walk too slowly getting off the bus to overrated artists like Sting and The Beatles. Katie and David’s marriage is in trouble, their kids are spoiled and ungrateful, they live in an upper middle class neighborhood but know few of their neighbors, they are comfortable but are surrounded by poverty and homelessness, moral demands are flying at them from all sides. Katie is having an affair, which she blames on her overall unhappiness. She wants a divorce, which David refuses to agree to.hornby

This is the setup for Nick Hornby’s hilarious and insightful novel How to Be Good, which will be included on my General Ethics syllabus in the fall. What makes the novel particularly interesting is that within the first fifty pages, under circumstances better read about than described (you really should read the book!), David undergoes a mysterious moral transformation from a cynical and nasty piece of work to a dedicated moral and social activist. David and Katie have paid lip service to all of the appropriate liberal political and social positions ever since they met at university, but now David is sounding as if he intends to actually act on what they have always lazily claimed to believe. How is Katie to respond? How is she to cope with a husband who is suddenly attentive, pleasant, no longer angry, sharing his portion of the parenting burden without complaint . . . and who intends to turn their lives upside down? Katie is nervous, because “I can’t help but feel that all this sounds very ominous indeed.”

About a third of the way through the book, David lays it all out:

We don’t care enough. We look after ourselves and ignore the weak and the poor. We despise our politicians for doing nothing, and think that this is somehow enough to show we care, and meanwhile we live in centrally heated houses that are too big for us . . .homeless We have a spare bedroom, and a study, and meanwhile people are sleeping outside on pavements. We scrape perfectly edible food into our compost maker, and meanwhile people at the end of our road are begging for the price of a cup of tea and a bag of chips . . . We spend thirteen pounds on compact discs which we already own in a different format . . . We buy films for our children that they’ve already seen at the cinema and never watch again . . .

You get the point . . . and so does Katie. At the end of his diatribe, David sums up succinctly.

I’m a liberal’s worst nightmare . . . I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it.

In short order David gives many of his children’s toys and one of the three house computers away, seeks to recruit families on their street to house homeless teenagers in their spare bedrooms, and generally disrupts house and home in an effort to walkwalk the walk. The problem is that David’s logic is unassailable. If this is what we claim to believe, then this is what we should be doing. Which monumentally frustrates Katie who, after all, has considered herself to be the “good person” in this marriage for years. “I want to destroy David’s whole save-the-world-and-love-everyone campaign, but I want to do it using his logic and philosophy and language, not the language of some moaning, spoiled, smug, couldn’t-care-less, survival-of-the-fittest whiner.”

I share many of Katie and David’s beliefs; while theirs seem to have been established primarily through education, peer pressure, and social class, I often trace most of my liberal moral and social commitments back to my professed Christian faith. Which raises disturbing to a different level, because a person of faith who actually put the fundamental tenets of the faith into daily practice would be a Christian’s worst nightmare. beatitudesI smack headlong into this every time I read or hear the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. For the beauty and familiarity of the language can easily disguise what is most remarkable about the Beatitudes—they are a crystal clear call to radically uproot everything we think we know about value, about what is important, about prestige, about power, and even about God. They are a challenge to fundamentally change the world.

The Roman-dominated world into which the Sermon on the Mount came like a lightning-bolt was not that different from our own. One’s status or rank in the social hierarchy depended on power, birth, economic status, education, gender, race—usually some combination of the above. Those who lacked these qualities, whether through their own fault or because of matters entirely outside their control, had little opportunity to rise above their lowly state. And this, it was assumed then as it often is now, is simply the way of the world, the way things work. In a matter of a few brief, poetic lines Jesus turns it all upside down. In God’s economy, none of our assumptions can be relied upon and none of our common sense arrangements work. God’s values are apparently the very opposite of those produced by our natural human wiring. Throughout virtually everything we have that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the point is dwidows and orphansriven home. God is most directly found in the poor, the widows, the orphans, those for whom pretensions of being something or having influence are unavailable. The gospels are clear that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore such persons. The infrequent times that Jesus talks about hell is always in the context of people who spend their life ignoring the unfortunate. Because in truth we all are impoverished, we all are abandoned, we all are incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone anyone else. The poor, widows and orphans simply no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.

Every once in a while we hear on the news or read online about a community, usually somewhere in the South, in which a debate has arisen over whether it is permissible to put a plaque or a statue containing the Ten Commandments in a law court, a state house, or a public school. 10 commandmentsBecause of the commitment to separation of church and state established in the United States Constitution, such attempts are invariably rejected as unconstitutional. And this is a good thing—I’m very grateful for the sharp separation of church and state. But imagine a community or a society with governing practices and policies infused with the energy, not of the Ten Commandments, but of the Beatitudes. Imagine a legislative body whose guiding north star was the mercy and compassion of the Beatitudes rather than the cold and clinical justice of the Ten Commandments. How would such a community’s or society’s attitudes and policies concerning the poor, the disenfranchised, those who are struggling, those who have fallen through the cracks, change as it learned to see such “unfortunates” not as a problem, but rather as the very face of God? Our worst nightmare.

One Heart and Soul

In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium no long ago, our text was a co-authored volume in which two economists, who happened to also be persons of Christian faith, alternated essays and responses on a number of important issues. markets and moralsAs their weekly writing assignment in preparation for seminar, I asked students to select a point of disagreement between the authors (the disagreements were legion), describe briefly the position of each author on the selected issue, then take a side supported by argumentation. Two-thirds of the way through the semester, my sophomores should be able to do this—identify issues, fairly and accurately describe various arguments, and take a position that is both fair to other relevant positions and supported by evidence and argument. So I was disappointed when more than one student ended their essay with something like “I prefer X’s position because Y sounds a lot like socialism.”

Sigh. In my comments on such papers, I always include something like “That’s a description, not an argument. It’s related to another sort of description masquerading as an argument: ‘I disagree with Z, therefore Z is wrong.’” Divided linePart of my job as a professor is to convince my students that a liberally educated human being earns the right to have her opinions. Unearned opinions are like body parts—everybody has them. Plato lists “opinion” low on his ladder representing the climb from ignorance to wisdom. Moving up this ladder one or two rungs from “opinion” to something closer to knowledge involves learning that just believing something does not make it true, realizing that disagreement is the beginning of justifying one’s beliefs, not the end. It’s always discouraging to realize that someone can make it to almost half way through their undergraduate college career and not have learned this.

But I digress. What got me to thinking about this most recently was a story from The Acts of the Apostles that will be one of the Sunday texts in a couple of weeks :Acts 4

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

It’s one of my favorite passages from the New Testament—as I heard it, I thought of my student. “Dude!” I thought, “It’s a good thing you didn’t hear this—because this really sounds like socialism!” In the past I have used this text in class to poke at the unquestioned assumptions carried by students who, often coming from a faith-based upbringing in an upper middle class or wealthy household, believe communismthat somehow their capitalist free-market attachments and their background framework of religious values will fit seamlessly together as if by magic. “They sound like a bunch of communists!” more than student has remarked in shock, and indeed they (anachronistically) do. Welcome to the lifelong task of trying to live a life of coherent belief and commitment!

This passage from Acts is sometimes linked to the familiar story of “doubting Thomas” that was yesterday’s gospel reading from John. In spite of the bad rap Thomas has gotten over the centuries for being the one disciple loser who refused to believe that Jesus had risen until he had seen him and touched him first person (of course, none of the other disciples believed until they had first-hand contact either, but let’s not go there), he is one of my all-time heroes. By both personality and profession I am naturally skeptical–Imontaigne think that doubt is closer to godliness than cleanliness. Just as I take the great skeptic Michel de Montaigne as a model for how to do philosophy, I consider Thomas as one of my models for how to approach the spiritual life, something I share with many of my spiritual guides ranging from Kathleen Norris, Christian Wiman and Joan Chittister to Anne Lamott, roawn williamsRowan Williams and Barbara Brown Taylor. Most homilies about this gospel draw the moral of the story from Jesus’ gentle criticism of Thomas’ attitude: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But there is seeing and then there is seeing. Except for a select few, those who have committed themselves to Jesus in any way have never seen him physically. But without a direct encounter—without truly seeing something worth committing to—faith commitment can easily become sterile religion.

Why, I have often wondered (and have often asked my students), did the early Christian communities choose to organize themselves economically in the manner described in Acts? They are close enough in time to Jesus’ physical presence that undoubtedly some of their members actually knew him in the flesh, or at least knew some people who did. But if the vision is not going to fade, such communities cannot rely on first-hand remembrance of the source. Practices and attitudes reflective of the values the community is committed to must be embedded in the very fiber and structure of the common life of the group. the wayAt some point, given that a new community of followers of the Way was seeking both stability and faithfulness to the message, someone must have asked “How would Jesus have organized this community if he were here?” Somebody remembers the parables, another person recalls the Beatitudes, and pretty soon they become a small, primitive laboratory for the Gospel.  How to truly become Jesus in community form? By putting into action what the man supposedly said and lived. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Love each other as God loves us. This wasn’t church for them—this was life. Most likely their very survival depended on it.

Two thousand years later, persons who profess a Christian faith share a lot in common with these early followers of Jesus. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, just as most—and pretty soon all—of the members of these early communities had not. micahWe are bound together by having seen Jesus in ways far deeper and more profound than physical vision. And our challenge is the same as theirs, to figure out what it means to actually live it rather than just say it. As I often do, I fall back here on the prophetic words of Micah who asked, just as these early communities did, just as we do today, “What does the Lord require of us?” Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. And, I might add, doubt is an appropriate seasoning for each of these.

I Don’t Know

Let me tell you here first, “trust in God” has never floated my boat as a viable answer to religious questions. From a student notebook

On the day after Christmas 2004, the third strongest earthquake ever measured, deep under the Indian Ocean, caused a tsunami that resulted in the deaths of close to 250,000 people. The vast majority of those who lost their lives were among the poorest people on the planet, the very people who are often most vulnerable to natural disasters. Two months later, Ted Honey, a vicar in the Church of England with twenty years of experience as a priest, gave a Ted Talk that he introduced as follows:

On December 26th last year, just two months ago, that underwater earthquake triggered the tsunami. And two weeks later, Sunday morning, 9th of January, I found myself standing in front of my congregation — intelligent, well-meaning, mostly thoughtful Christian people — and I needed to express, on their behalf, our feelings and our questions. I had my own personal responses, but I also have a public role, and something needed to be said. And this is what I said.

Honey’s talk is one of the most honest—hence disturbing—attempts to grapple from a faith perspective with the problem of natural evil I’ve ever encountered. Among other things, he concludes that he can no longer believe in the sort of traditional God that he has been implicitly supporting and selling to others for most of his adult life. Belief in a good God who oversees the universe with power and love, the one that traditional Christian liturgies and hymns worship and praise, no longer seems possible in the face of disasters such as the tsunami. There are phrases we should no longer say and songs we should no longer sing. Honey favorably quotes Ivan from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who tells his brother that in the face of human and natural evil his inclination is not to deny God’s existence. His inclination instead is to “respectfully return the ticket” of membership in this world of violence and suffering to the God who oversees such a world. Such a God is not worth believing in.

Toward the end of his talk, Honey speculates about alternative divine models, possibilities concerning God that both are compatible with suffering and violence and well outside the confines of conventional theism.

But what if God doesn’t act? What if God doesn’t do things at all? What if God is in things? The loving soul of the universe. An in-dwelling compassionate presence, underpinning and sustaining all things. What if God is in things? In the infinitely complex network of relationships and connections that make up life. In the natural cycle of life and death, the creation and destruction that must happen continuously. In the process of evolution.

How exactly would that work, one might ask. Honey provides the only possible, and perhaps the best, answer.

Is God just another name for the universe, with no independent existence at all? I don’t know. To what extent can we ascribe personality to God? I don’t know. In the end, we have to say, “I don’t know.” If we knew, God would not be God . . . When I stood up to speak to my people about God and the tsunami, I had no answers to offer them. No neat packages of faith, with Bible references to prove them. Only doubts and questioning and uncertainty. I had some suggestions to make — possible new ways of thinking about God. Ways that might allow us to go on, down a new and uncharted road. But in the end, the only thing I could say for sure was, “I don’t know,” and that just might be the most profoundly religious statement of all.

I showed Honey’s talk to the students in my “Beauty and Violence” honors colloquium, a semester-long interdisciplinary exploration of precisely the questions Honey is raising, a week ago. With half of the semester behind us, my students are used to grappling with these problems. Many (most) of them are from religious backgrounds, and have found the colloquium both fascinating and disturbing. In a reflection on last week’s class in her intellectual notebook, one of my students—a biology major on her way to med school in the fall—described the impact Honey’s Ted Talk had on her own continuing questions and struggles. Without edit, here’s what she wrote:

The breath of fresh air this week was to finally hear a member of the church say “I don’t know” like Rev. Tom Honey did in his Ted Talk from this week.  For my entire life, I have faced members of various religious institutions try to stifle my questions, to give me answers that left me unsatisfied, and instructed me to simply “trust in God.” Lemme tell you here first, “trust in God” has never floated my boat as a viable answer to religious questions. And to have a religious figure finally come forward and address the grievances of natural and human disasters, and not dismiss them or wrap an “everything happens for a reason” bow around them is unbelievably refreshing. But also, it’s kind of concerning. If a man of the church doesn’t have confidence in his own teachings, how on earth am I supposed to ever get to that point? Suddenly, my hope to come out of this class with some slim part of my religious beliefs still firmly in tact seems to be withering away. Although I don’t think that is what Reverend Honey was going for, the feeling in my gut that religion is not my thing is only growing stronger. 

I distinctly remember my confirmation into my church when I was younger. We had to write a series of essays which covered a series of topics from reciting various facts about the Lutheran church to affirming our undeniable devotion to the church. I remember my one essay, about my “all in attitude” I had about faith. I wrote it as this metaphor about how I was getting into a taxi cab, and I had no idea where I was going, but I had total faith in the driver that wherever the final destination was, it would be better than where I was now as long as I had total faith. And the pair of moms who were my church leaders thought it was just wonderful, I was saying all the right things, I was “ready” to devote my life to my church. And there I was, fifteen years old, thinking to myself “this is a total lie.” I had my fingers mentally crossed the entire time.  I wanted to just get the hell out of that “taxi” and run back to my house because the whole thing just felt so ridiculous. I had so much doubt, so many parts of my faith that I would think to myself “hm this doesn’t quite make sense”. But I squashed that down because it seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to go to heaven, right? 

I have always doubted so much about my religious background, especially as a science major, but resisted the urge to question because it “wasn’t okay” and, honestly, I wanted to keep my back covered in case the whole heaven thing panned out after all. But Honey called me out, just as our texts and conversations already have many times this semester. And this entire class has made me feel more comfortable than I have ever before in voicing these concerns and being able to say “no I don’t think that’s right.” That was something I never felt like I could do in that Lutheran church.

Will this young lady be able to keep any part of the faith she was handed as a child in tact as she continues to give herself permission to challenge and question? I don’t know. But this I do know—the best foundation for a real and vibrant faith is questioning, doubt, revision, and the courage to keep doing all three. Simone Weil once wrote in a letter to a priest friend that has come to be known as her “Spiritual Autobiography,”

One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.

What Silence Sounds Like

Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again. “The Sound of Silence”

One Sunday a couple of months ago as I was listening to our local NPR station in the car during an errand run, I heard a brief piece on “Disturbed,” a heavy metal band that had just received its second Grammy nomination. Their first was in 2009; now, eight years later, they had another one. My knowledge of contemporary heavy metal is non-existent, as is my interest in that musical genre—this would have usually been reason for me to switch to the Boston NPR station to see what they were up to. But Disturbed’s Grammy nomination was for their acoustic cover of a song that was a central tune in the sound track of my youth: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” I had to listen.

For those familiar with Simon and Garfunkel’s original (link below), a remake or cover of their iconic masterpiece is close to sacrilegious. But the intensity and power of Disturbed’s version is not to be missed—I agree with one commenter on Youtube who called it “chilling and magnificent.” The NPR piece included a brief interview with David Draiman, Disturbed’s lead vocalist. Noting that the choice not to go “heavy metal” with “The Sound of Silence” was the drummer’s idea, Draiman said that the acoustic demands of the song took him to vocal spaces he had not visited in many years.

I was trained to be a cantor, which is someone that leads the Jewish congregation in prayer. So I learned classical vocal technique from a very young age . . . I hadn’t attempted to go to that spot of my vocal ability for very many years. I was so overwhelmed with emotion listening to the way my vocals sounded in that beautiful bed of music. And not having heard my voice in that way for so long, it was really just very, very overwhelming.

I’ve been reminded of this story a number of times over the past two months during the first half of the current semester. I find that questions that ask how human beings are to think about what is greater than us—is there anything greater than us? And if so, what are the implications?—make frequent appearances in my various classes, some planned and some not. This semester has been no exception. Many (a significant majority) of my students come from religious backgrounds (mostly Catholic), but have never analyzed critically or sufficiently exactly what going on when we mere mortals attempt to establish a line of communication with what is greater than us. The formalized version of these attempts is usually called prayer; various worship activities in each of the great monotheistic religion include prayer on a regular basis. As a cantor, David Draiman led such collective attempts to make contact with God, and in response we often get exactly what Paul Simon’s lyrics describe—the sound of silence. Crickets chirping. It’s enough to drive a person of faith nuts. As C. S. Lewis once wrote to his brother Warnie in a letter,

The trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong.

I grew up in a prayer-obsessed world; Wednesday nights at church were marked as the time to obsess collectively. As a creative youngster, I usually was able to find something in every foray to church to pique my interest, however briefly. I liked some of the hymns we sang on Sunday morning and evening, for instance, and enjoyed the stories in Sunday school. But we didn’t sing on Wednesday nights—people gave testimonies, and then we prayed. For a very, very, VERY long time. I remember prayers that were more like speeches than anything else, insistent, complaining sorts of speeches whose intent was apparently to wear God down. Not that the things being asked for were unimportant—“please bring X to a saving knowledge of you,” “please heal Y of diabetes,” “please help Z find a job”—but the tone was often strange, petulantly childish, demanding, insinuating that this time, for once, God had damn well better get off His ass and do something. Of course anyone actually saying that at Wednesday prayer service would have been in danger of hellfire, but that’s the atmosphere I remember.

How to pray was a mystery to me—I recall my mother saying frequently that I should just talk to God the same way I talked to her. That never struck me as one of my mother’s better pieces of advice, since I clearly couldn’t talk to an invisible, far away, scary “something” in the same way I could talk to her. But I did learn, as all good Baptist kids learned, how to make up a convincing sounding prayer at the drop of a hat. It’s just that it never seemed to go past the ceiling. Many years later, in a text we are using in one of my courses this semester, Annie Dillard expressed the frustration as clearly as I’ve ever seen.

Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe? The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already. . . Who is like you, O Lord, among the silent, remaining silent through the suffering of His children?

The best advice I ever received concerning prayer, not surprisingly, came from the person who knows me best. A number of years ago, in response to one of my frequent complaints about divine silence and inscrutability as a “response” to ineffective prayer, Jeanne said “Vance, for you thinking is praying.” It has taken me many years to recognize just how right she was. Although her comment was for me, the larger point is for everyone. Prayer understood on the transactional model, as an attempt at bargaining or pleading with a silent partner who might not even exist, is a guaranteed recipe for frustration and failure. But what if prayer is not something the person of faith is supposed to do? What if, instead, prayer is something that we are called to be? Being a prayer is a matter of learning to recognize and trust the places where the divine is most likely to be found—in myself and in others, in those thin places where the barrier between human and divine dissolves. And people of the book should know this—it’s right in there, both in the Jewish scriptures and the New Testament. Where is the divine to be found?

It is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven . . . nor is it beyond the sea . . . But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.

If prayer is a call for the divine to enter the world, we need to be attentive to where that might be happening—in us and around us. It probably will not be where we expect. As Paul Simon wrote in the last verse of “The Sound of Silence,” the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.

The Problem of Goodness

During the early years of my career I developed the habit of teaching at least one overload course per semester in my college’s evening program. The immediate reason for taking on the extra course was entirely mercenary—new professors don’t make a lot and we needed the money. sceTeaching in the evening school—it’s called the School of Continuing Education (SCE) at the college where I have taught for the past twenty-one years—provides unique challenges. The typical evening course has an eclectic group of students, ranging from day students who either are trying to earn an “easy” three credits or are making up for an “F” the previous semester to adult students who are earning an associates or bachelor’s degree one course at a time, a process often stretched over many years. I particularly love teaching adult students, grown-ups with life experience who often are either making great personal sacrifices returning to college after many years or who are in their fifties or sixties (or older) taking their first college course. Such students seize ownership of their education in ways that eighteen to twenty year olds seldom do. They challenge, question, participate, keep the teacher on her or his toes, and inject life into even the most boring topics. I stopped teaching regularly at night a number of years ago for several reasons, but still miss my SCE students.wordperfect

I remember with particular fondness an introductory philosophy course that I taught many years ago in the SCE, so long ago that I no longer have the syllabus and lesson plans in my digital archives (the documents were probably written in WordPerfect). The twenty-five students were the usual grab bag, including five or six youngsters from the day school, a couple of ROTC officers, some secretaries and administrative assistants from various departments and offices across campus, and a guy who had just been hired by the college as a night shift security guard. Before I even met my students I decided that they would be guinea pigs as I chose to scrap earlier versions of the syllabus and do something new. A standard topic in introductory philosophy courses is “the problem of evil”—why do bad things happen to good people, problem of goodnessif there is a good God why is there so much evil in the world, and so on. My intuition then (and now) was that a different angle on this stale set of questions was needed. What if we flipped the question on its head and asked where goodness comes from? After all, we are thoroughly familiar with the multitude of bad things that humans do and that happen to them. Instead of spinning our collective wheels there, why not investigate the phenomenon of goodness? How does goodness happen in a world where bad things grab most of the headlines and air space? I called the course “The Problem of Goodness,” and we were off.

I remember the discussions far more clearly than the texts and materials we used. I do remember spending class time with several films—“Schindler’s List, ” “Playing for Time,” and the wonderful “Life is Beautiful.”life is beautiful We read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of how the seeds of a powerful therapeutic technique for psychological healing were planted and nurtured in the midst of Auschwitz. But my main “take away” from this course came to light during one of our final class meetings. “What conclusions can we draw from our semester together?” I asked. “What have we learned about the possibility of goodness in the face of a world filled with evil?”

Various suggestions were offered, but I have never forgotten an idea contributed by one of the ROTC officers sitting in the back. “It seems to me,” he said, “that Goodness is perpetuated by individuals while evil, more often than not, is perpetrated by groups.” Such sweeping generalizations are always open to counter-examples, but at the time the students agreed that our studies that semester supported the conclusion. I have frequently returned to this thesis over the fifteen or more years since our “The Problem of Goodness” class, most recently in a colloquium I am currently teaching for the third time with a colleague from the history department called “Love Never Fails: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era.” In this focused investigation of goodness in the context of evil, the conclusions drawn by my students have been remarkably similar to those drawn by my students almost two decades ago—goodness is sparked by individual commitment—what is committed to is less important than the requirement that individuals must be willing, often contrary to powerful collective forces, to risk a great deal–even one’s own life—in the pursuit of goodness.Edmund-Burke

Edmund Burke famously said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In order, however, for this to be more than just another platitude we need to ask exactly what is required for good people to do something. It is one thing to rail against the failure of individuals to resist the collective power of evil, but it is another to specify what is needed for people to act. Two years ago, in the final seminar of my “Love Never Fails” colloquium, I gave my students the following assignment: Based on what we have learned, suppose that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

know who you areKnow who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. I cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. But one of the continuing themes of the semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied, this was not an academic exercise. socratesJust as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. As Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is the ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” There is no greater technique for escaping the iron grasp of ego and self-centeredness than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

fear notDon’t be afraid: There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

Nature and Nature’s God

What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello? Annie Dillard, “Teaching a Stone to Talk”







A few weeks ago, Harvard political philosopher and professor of government Danielle Allen gave a talk on campus as part of my college’s year-long centennial celebration. I was fortunate enough to be invited to join ten or so faculty and administrators at the President’s house for dinner after the talk. Allen’s most recent book is Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality; her talk and the conversation at dinner were so good that I ordered a copy from Amazon that night. It’s terrific, so good that it should be required reading for all American citizens, starting with the President (I wish). I’m sure portions of it will be the focus of some future essays. But my first “aha!” moment while reading the book had nothing to do with politics or citizenship—it was sparked by the reference to “Nature and Nature’s God” in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s what my Honors colloquium is about.”

About once every four years I have the opportunity to teach a capstone colloquium for juniors and seniors in our Liberal Arts Honors Program. I am offering “Beauty and Violence: The Problem of Natural Evil,” this semester for the third time, a class that I have come to consider as my “signature course.” My fourteen students reflect the eclectic nature of the texts we are studying, with four Accounting majors, two in Biology, two in Sociology, two in Education, and one each in Finance, Marketing, Biochemistry, and Engineering/Physical Systems. “Mostly left-brain people,” Jeanne observed. No humanities majors, in a course taught by a philosopher who over the years has morphed into more of an interdisciplinary humanities professor than anything else. We are considering texts by theologians, biologists, philosophers, novelists, and a couple of people who cannot be categorized, with a Jesuit paleontologist, a Benedictine nun, and an Anglican physicist thrown in for good measure. My kind of course, in other words—I’m having a ball, and the students (per their comments in class and on discussion forums) are having their minds blown. Our connecting theme, as the Declaration’s phrase states, is “Nature and Nature’s God.” From careful observation of the natural world, what might we intelligently speculate concerning what or who put it in place?

Our initial three weeks were spent with reading several essays by Annie Dillard, then her brilliant Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in its entirety. I’ve written previously on this blog of how this book has influenced me over the years.

Books that changed my life: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Dillard models the energy and curiosity that I seek to inspire in my students in this course. As she records her detailed observations of the natural world in all its beauty and violence, then uses them as a springboard for intense and irreverent questions shot heavenward, I am reminded of a verse from Proverbs in the Jewish Scriptures: “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, and the glory of kings to search it out.” This hide-and-seek game, with the divine hiding after leaving cryptic clues behind, and we mortals trying to figure out what they point toward, is Dillard’s continuing obsession.

What have we been trying to do all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello? 

Dillard once described liturgy as a set of words and practices that human beings over the years have managed to direct toward God without getting killed; is science a similar sort of activity, attempting to get a glimpse of the most elusive of prey? Many, probably most, scientists would say that questions of what lies behind the natural world are not within their purview—their task is to figure out what is the case, not why it is the case. But one does not have to look too far to find scientists who think otherwise.

One of my favorite sources of conversations with persons who have spent their lives getting science and faith to talk to each other is Krista Tippett’s public radio program “On Being.” For instance, geneticist and Anglican priest Lindon Eaves describes how although he needs to separate his inner scientist and priest at times, he often notes just how close the energies of his two life-defining activities are.

To be a thorough-going scientist I am compelled in the short term to see really good reasons for not believing the current model for reality because that’s how science perceives . . . You can either think of, let’s say the creeds of the great traditions as it were, as telling you what you ought to think. Or you can say they are in some sense comparable to the theories of science. They are the best distillations of where we’ve been. But we don’t approach reality treating those models as if they are the last word. We treat them as operational hypotheses.

The creeds of the faith as operational hypotheses, our current best shot at what might be appropriate to believe about God? Both science and faith at their best are reflections that any conviction worth its salt must cohabit with a piece of mystery. All of our traditions insist on a reverence for what we do not know now and cannot tie up with explanations in this lifetime.

In a different conversation, Vatican observatory astronomer Fr. George Coyne tells the story of how, during the question and answer period after he gave a conference paper on the uncertainties of determining the age of the universe, an audience member commented, “Father, it must be wonderful that, with all the uncertainties we have in our scientific pursuits, that you have this faith, this rock of faith to stand upon.” Father Coyne was not amused.

I took off my Roman collar and faced him down and said, “Who told you that my faith was kind of a rock?” I said, “Every morning I wake up I have my doubts. I have my uncertainties. I have to struggle to help my faith grow.” Because faith is love. Love in marriage, love with friends, love of brothers and sisters is not something that’s there once and for all and always kind of a rock that gives us support. What I want to say is, ignorance in doing science creates the excitement of doing science, and anyone who does it knows that discoveries lead to a further ignorance.

Ignorance and doubt are wonderful places to be as we turn our attention toward the unknown. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told Krista Tippett, “Whatever God is, he is not as simple as we are. He is in places you would never expect him to be . . . Don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.” And than science, I might add.

One of the late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s last books was Rocks of Ages, in which he argued that religion/faith and science should be treated as “non-overlapping magisteria,” equally important areas of human endeavor and belief that operate according to entirely different principles and, therefore, should not be allowed to talk to each other. At the beginning of the book, Gould favorably quotes the old cliché that “science gets the age of rocks, and religion gets the Rock of Ages.” With all due respect, Gould is wrong. Charles Sanders Peirce once wrote that the point of investigation is to find out something we don’t know by using those things that we do know. When the stakes are the highest, when the object of investigation is what is greater than us, all of our best human tools are appropriate for use.

Who Would Jesus Bomb?

It’s President’s Day, which for all college professors means–as do all Monday holidays in the middle of the semester–“catch up day.” It’s the Spring semester’s version of Columbus Day. I will be spending most of the day catching up on the grading that never seems to end, particularly since I have this nasty habit of assigning my students a lot of writing assignments. But it’s also a time to think about Presidents–not the current one, if I can help it–as well as social policy and politics.

There are many things that I love about visiting our friends Mike and Suzy. Included among those things are the various and random items spread about their house that make me think. We usually enter their house through the garage; next to the door into the house is an extra refrigerator/freezer containing, amongst other thing, the better-than-Bud-and-Miller beer that Michael always makes sure is on hand for my visits. I take full responsibility for raising Michael’s beer awareness over the years and proudly survey the contents each visit.

For all of the years we have been visiting, two bumper stickers on the outside of this refrigerator have frequently caught my attention. The first: When Jesus said “Love your enemies,” I think he probably meant don’t kill them. The second: Who Would Jesus Bomb?  Striking, provocative, and very timely. Although our country always seems to be wondering who to go to war with, these bumper stickers particularly came to mind a few years ago as the most “do-nothing” U. S. Congress in recent memory debateed what should be done in response to events on the other side of the world—the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. Do-Nothing-Congress1[1]This was (and continues to be) a Congress whose members had become so constitutionally incapable of true discussion and compromise that they would rather use each other’s toothbrushes than try to understand each other’s arguments. Yet they were strangely united by the question of what is the best and most appropriate violent response to violence. Although possible diplomatic solutions were proposed, the tenor of the conversation seemed to be not so much whether to respond with violence, as when and how. And the Syrian conflict continues unabated.

I do not pretend to know what is in the best interest of the United States or of those in the Middle East. Whatever votes are taken, whatever decisions are made, and whatever actions are endorsed are always fraught with uncertainty and subject to endless second-guessing. I am also strongly committed to the separation of religion and politics in the sense that public policy should not be fashioned with any particularly religious framework in mind. But over the past few years I have begun to explore the parameters of my Christian faith in new ways, discovering over and over again that these parameters are more expansive and flexible than I could have ever imagined. wwjd-bracelet[1]Questions like whether or how to respond to what the Syrian government allegedly did to its own citizens jerk me up short when considered in the light of my Christian beliefs. Because I find absolutely no justification in the seminal texts of my faith to justify violence under any circumstances, even if such violence is proposed as a measured and proportional response to violence of a different order entirely. And this concerns me.

Truth in advertising requires that I reveal that my natural tendencies lean strongly toward pacifism and non-violence. I grew up in the sixties in the midst of the Vietnam War; my brother, three-and-a-half years older than I, was a conscientious objector. The draft lottery ended just as I became old enough to be subject to it; had it continued, I would have followed in my brother’s footsteps as a conscientious objector or perhaps in the footsteps of others to Canada.Vietnam_War_Protest_in_DC,_1967[1] So it is not surprising that I resonate with the non-violence and pacifism of the Gospel texts—they align with and confirm my natural tendencies. For exactly these reasons, I am very cautious about making claims concerning the appropriate Christian position to take in cases such as Syria. The philosopher in me knows that human beings, myself included, have a very strong tendency to interpret texts through subjective lenses and then treat that interpretation as if it was objectively true.

But I challenge anyone to find in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s parables, or his teachings from the Gospels anything that justifies responding to violence with violence, regardless of the nature of the violence that demands a response. This is what makes even sketching the outlines of a consistent Christian position in cases such as Syria so maddeningly difficult. Jesus in the Gospels continually stresses the importance of caring for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick—the disenfranchised and powerless, in other words. _143081042209598[1]And could there be a more blatant example of abusing the powerless than killing innocent civilians, particularly children, by using chemical weapons?

A text I have used frequently in classes over the past several years is Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Philip Hallie’s riveting account of how the villagers of Le Chambon, a small Protestant village in southeastern France, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them children, under the noses of the Gestapo and the Vichy police during World War II. Inspired by the Gospel in action as taught to them by their dynamic pastor, Andre Trocme, the villagers hid and cared for refugees in their homes, farmhouses, shops and places of worship until they could safely be taken across the nearby border into neutral Switzerland. And they did all of this, at the continual risk of their own lives, in the open while fully dedicated to non-violence.

Hallie reports that upon the publication of his book recounting the story of Le Chambon, the author of one of the first letters he received sought to remind him of just how limited and insignificant the Le Chambon story really was in the larger context of World War II and the Holocaust. “Le Chambon wasn’t even in the war,” the author of the letter wrote. “Reverend Trocme and a miniscule number of equally eccentric kindred-spirits had no effect,” and mattered only to mushy-minded moralists. Only vast forces “make history,” forces energized by power that overwhelms moral niceties over and over again. Le-Chambon-before-the-war-634x397[1]“Nothing happened at Le Chambon,” the letter concluded, at least nothing worth paying much attention to.

Hallie admits that “the moral brilliance of the villagers does not light up the moral darkness around the village as much as it makes that vast darkness seem darker by contrast.” Individual and collective acts of moral bravery in the face of inhumanity, terror, and violence often appear to have no greater impact than spitting into the face of a hurricane. Force can only be met by greater force, violence often can only be thwarted by violence. Hallie himself was a combat artilleryman in the European theater during World War II, and writes “I knew that decent killers like me had done more to prevent the mass murders from continuing than this pacifist mountain village had done.” So in the real world, a world in which no one loves their enemies and no one turns the other cheek, why even try to think through violence within a framework of non-violence?

The world in which we live does not accommodate non-violence as a response to violence, peace as a response to aggression, apparent weakness as a response to power. Every attempt to institutionalize goodness and organize moral behavior ends up playing the same sort of power game that is supposedly being opposed. The message of the gospel is gutted every time it is joined to recognizably effective tools of power, even with the best of intentions. As followers of Jesus, we are saddled with a perspective and a call that is guaranteed to be a failure. Teachings_of_Jesus_6_of_40._parable_of_the_leaven._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible[1]And this should not be a surprise, since the whole Christian story is rooted in weakness, suffering, loss and apparent failure.

But this is what makes the presence of true faith and belief in this world so crucial. We are told in the gospels that “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Despite its apparent insignificance, yeast over time works its apparent magic on the lump of dough, changing it incrementally into something entirely different. Who would Jesus bomb? No one, because that is not the divine response to even the most horrific of evils. We are called to be present in the midst of it all, not proposing policies that God would endorse or solutions stamped with divine approval, but rather as witnesses of hope, of the possibility of transformation, and of an insistence that a better way is possible. As Philip Hallie wrote to his letter-writing critic, “thanks for your point of view. But something really did happen there.” We are called to be catalysts for changes that often are so small as to seem invisible. But as the proverb reminds us, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

One of my favorite annual teaching activities is immersing freshmen in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.

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.

I Was a Stranger

A bit over a year ago, in the midst of the Presidential campaign that no one will ever forget, I found myself part of a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in. On that thread, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. The person she was likening to the exterminator in her analogy is now the President; last Friday he issued an executive order temporarily suspending immigration to this country, prohibiting immigration indefinitely from certain countries, and setting off a flurry of lawsuits, protests, and other sorts of push back. In the midst of it, I was reminded of a story from ancient Greek mythology thousands of years ago that raises the very challenging issues and questions that we find ourselves grappling with.

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

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

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

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

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

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