Tag Archives: William James

Just Do It

I9780547725147_custom-7ea8f0969dfd404059558eab13a60fdfc6cf6a67-s6-c30n the early hours of a Sunday morning not long ago, I read the final pages of Daša Drndić’s Trieste, the most powerful, unrelenting and unforgiving book related to the Holocaust I have ever read. As a reviewer for Amazon wrote, “Trieste is not a book for the faint-hearted, either in style or subject. . . . Enter if you are brave enough, and if you stay the course you will be changed.” No one—those in authority, the church, those who turned their heads, those who simply did whatever they could to stay alive—are spared in this brutally honest and unflinching account of what human beings are capable of.

As I read I was reminded of something a post-Holocaust Jewish theologian wrote: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.” 5210537_f248With regard to those men who were at the same time both murderous killers and yet tender fathers and husbands, Drndić writes that a father is not “a sacrosanct being. . . . There are no sacrosanct beings. Even God is not sacrosanct, perhaps He least of all.” To those who wish to excuse the culpable silence and frequent collaboration of religious institutions, she writes that “this caricatured parade and more than revolting fabrication, this costumed theatre of transparent lies and empty promises should be done away with right now, once and for all.”

And then Jeanne and I went to church. I was lector, she was chalice bearer—we couldn’t skip, but I was hardly in the mood. I was responsible for the Isaiah reading from the Jewish scriptures, a text I had briefly glanced at during the week, describing it to Jeanne as “kind of weird.” At the lectern, I found myself channeling something unexpectedly disturbing.

Isaiah 58 begins with the prophet mimicking the complaints of the “house of Jacob”: We have been fasting and humbling ourselves, just as you require. Why aren’t you answering our prayers? Why aren’t you taking notice? In response the prophet laughs with the voice of God. pisaiah“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight. Is such the fast that I choose? . . . Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” In other words, your “fast-day” is all about you. It’s all about your pitiful and self-centered attempts to twist divine favor in your direction. It’s all about having convinced yourself that skipping a few meals, attending a few extra meetings at your preferred house of worship, that arguing with each other about which forms of ritual are best, are all that it takes to draw God’s favorable attention. “You call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

You want to know what a real fast-day would be like? What it would really be like if you humbled yourselves? Here’s a clue:

script_poster_5_isaiah_585B15DTo loose the bonds of injustice

To undo the thongs of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free

To share your bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless and poor into your house

To cover the naked when you see them

Try doing that for a while and see what happens.

As I considered in a post shortly after the November election, Jesus says this sort of thing frequently in the Gospels.

http://freelancechristianity.com/blessed/

But in Isaiah’s prophetic tones, the call to attend to the hungry, poor, widows and orphans is not a suggestion or an invitation to try out something new, as we might mistakenly read the New Testament texts. imagesThe text from Isaiah is a flat out command. Just f–king do it. And until you do, stop pretending that you are anything other than a self-centered piece of crap. And stop expecting anything other than a perpetuation of the continuing, sad human story of injustice and violence. Period.

As I haphazardly told Jeanne about some of the difficult aspects of Trieste on the drive to church, she said “I hope I die before this all happens again. Because it will—eventually no one will remember.” As my teaching colleague and I proceed through the early weeks of our colloquium on the Nazi era with very bright nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, the most frequent sort of question raised isReichsgründungsfeier, Schulklasse “How could they have done this?” or “How could people have gone along with those who were doing this?” Trieste has convinced me that before proceeding with these students, for whom the Holocaust is history as ancient as Julius Caesar and Pericles, to love, grace, truth and freedom in the midst of horror, perhaps more time should be spent in the horror part. No one in Trieste dropped in from an evil planet other than Earth—each person is a human being with darkness ready to erupt when inattentiveness and self-interest push common human decency into the background.

tumblr_l5rqy6R4A01qbmt20When one of the characters in Albert Camus’ The Plague is described as a “saint,” he responds “I have no interest in being a saint. I’m more interested in being a man.” This strikes me as a good place to start. A central problem illuminated by texts such as Isaiah and Trieste is the powerful human tendency to set the moral bar so low that even the most basic moral behavior looks like heroism or sainthood—a standard perhaps to be admired but not one that I hold myself to. We are told in sacred texts over and over again that God demands that we be fundamentally aware of each other. But the belief that basic morality and common decency require a conscious awareness of needs other than our own, particularly those of other human beings, need not be rooted in religious faith or practice. Whatever it takes to convince even a few of us that not only our thriving, but our very existence and survival depends on expanding the membership of our moral community to more than one is worth hanging on to.

On the final page of The Plague, at the end of a harrowing tale of individuals fighting against an out-of-control evil that could not be stopped, the main character Dr. Rieux takes stock of what he has learned now that the plague has left as inexplicably as it came. “He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saint but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” 220px-William_James_b1842cThis is both a thankless and glorious assignment, one that William James in “The Will to Believe” recommends that we embrace with enthusiasm:

For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.

What I inherited from Mad Eagle

On this Father’s Day, I’m remembering my Dad with whom I had a complicated relationship but who I miss very much. He has undoubtedly made more appearances in my blog in its four years of existence than any other family member other than Jeanne. This post–originally titled “Tapestries and Quilts,” was one of the first posts I ever published–it reminds me just how much of who I am is due to Mad Eagle (one of Dad’s many nicknames).

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

To the Graduating Seniors

For those who read this blog regularly, it will come as no surprise that I believe I have the greatest job in the world. So great, in fact, that I don’t consider it to be a job at all. It is a vocation, a calling, what I was made to do—pick your favorite description. But every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began ten years or so ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Me: Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. One hundred and eighteen years ago,  at an obscure university about fifty miles north of here, books[2]Professor William James gave a talk to the Young Men’s Christian Association at Harvard University. The topic the group asked him to speak on that evening was “Is Life Worth Living?” For the next few minutes I would like to explore that topic—“Is life worth living?”—with you.

I know, I know—you’re thinking “Come on Professor Morgan, that’s really a downer. This is graduation weekend. We are expecting to hear how hard we have worked, that the world is waiting for us with open arms, that we can be anything we want to be if we simply set our minds to it.” I am well aware that this is what you want to hear this weekend, and I guarantee that plenty of people on this dais and the dais at the 013[1]Dunkin’ Donuts Center tomorrow morning will tell you exactly that. But for the moment—let’s get serious. No one in this room, especially those in the center front who are graduating tomorrow, wants to consider tough questions this weekend. But I guarantee that many of you already know, and everyone in the Peterson Center today who is over thirty knows, that someday, sooner or later, you will wake up and find that “Is life worth living?” is a very meaningful and pressing question. So note to self—when that day happens, remember these few minutes we have together today. It may save your life.

To remind you that there is a long tradition in which such questions are taken seriously, let me drop a few names on you from the distant past—your DWC days. Hey, what did you expect, I run the program! For instance, in his History of the Persian Wars, HerodotusWorldMap[1]Herodotus tells the following story about how a certain Thracian tribe welcomed the birth of a new baby. “When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.”

Ready for another story? In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche (never thought you’d hear from him at graduation, did you?) tells a story from Greek mythology. “According to an ancient legend, 67a37eee-699c-40f5-8fae-01aabd563d38[1]King Midas had long hunted the forest for the wise satyr Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into his hands, the king asked him what is the very best and most preferable of all things for man. The stiff and motionless satyr refused to speak; until, forced by the king, he finally burst into shrill laughter and uttered the following words: ‘Miserable ephemeral race, children of chance and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is—to meet an early death.’”

Had enough yet?  How about one more from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the last seminar with my Honors freshmen this semester? Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,”king_lear2_edgar_gloucester[1] living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward: As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.

Over and over again throughout literature, philosophy, theology and more, an important question arises that is as pertinent now, for everyone in this room, as it was several thousand years ago. How am I to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that frequently lacks either one? The world does not come to us wearing meaning and values on its sleeve. The universe does not care that you are graduating with honors and is oblivious to whether your hopes and dreams are realized.220px-Dorothy_Allison_at_the_Brooklyn_Book_Festival[1] In a reality such as this, where are meaning, values and purpose to come from?

Novelist Dorothy Allison provides a clue when she writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” In other words, you are responsible for being bearers of meaning into the world. Is life worth living? It is if you make it so. Truth, goodness, value, hope, all of those things that are central to a life worth living are not the objects of a treasure hunt. They are the products of a continuing creative task that each of you has been assigned as an educated and nurtured human being—to create the world that you want to believe in and live in.

For me, this task is best understood in a framework that includes what is greater than us, that is infused with the divine. Perhaps this framework will work for you as well. Benedictine sister sisterjoan[1]Joan Chittister expresses it this way: “Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.”

In ctintern-abbey[1]losing, let me drop one more DWC name. In his signature poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth describes our world as one that is “half-created, and half-perceived.” There’s not a lot that we human beings can do about the “perceived” part. As my wife would say, the world “is what it is.It-is-what-it-is2[1]” But great moral traditions from the ancient world to the present tell us that it is the “half-created” part that makes all the difference. The question is not “what is going to happen?” but rather “what am I going to do with what happens?”  The power and the privilege of shaping and creating a better world is yours. There will be days when life may not seem worth living—on such days, what will your response be? William James’ closing words to those young men at Harvard over a century ago are my final words to you. James said “These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Believe it.

imagesCABHGLT0

Bored with Thinking

Many years ago I read a paragraph in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth that was the single most helpful piece of advice I ever received concerning teaching. Brittain writes thattestament of youth

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be awakened before learning can occur. Most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

The idea of thinking and learning as being intimately connected to the desire to think and learn has driven my pedagogy for a long time, but perhaps even more important in this passage is Brittain’s claim that wanting to think and learn is a moral issue. In our contemporary world, learning is often understood in terms of processing information and then applying it, usually with a view to becoming a more and more efficient and productive member of society. But how might the cultivation of thought and learning be transformed if we paid close attention to the moral aspects of these foundational human activities?arendt

Hannah Arendt once said that “every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them children.” We all know that part of the process of civilizing these little barbarians is equipping them with values and with a moral compass, as well as providing training in how to use these moral tools. If thinking well and being committed to lifetime learning is part of being a moral human being, then muddled and sloppy thinking, as well as the attitude that no further learning is necessary, are moral failings of the same order as lying, cheating, and stealing. We live in a world in which we are in danger of—if we have not already arrived at—cognitive immorality. Not because of the immoral contents of our thoughts, but rather because of our collective unwillingness to commit to the hard work of thinking clearly, work that takes the sort of time and commitment that modern human beings are often loathe to engage with.

I began thinking anew about the moral features of thinking and learning after listening to an interview that Krista Tippett did on her On Being radio program with Maria Popova.brain pickings

Maria Popova: Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age

Popova is a bit of social media phenomenon; she is most notable for Brain Pickings, a popular blog that began as a weekly email to seven of her friends. Now a website, Twitter feed and weekly digest, Brain Pickings covers a wide variety of cultural topics: history, current events, and images and texts from the past. In the introduction to their conversation, Tippett called Popova a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age.” Popova observes that

As a culture, we seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. We’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. The true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. The only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else.

I can think of no better contemporary example of this than our current political cycle. The sense I get is not so much that candidates and voters are incapable of thinking. Rather, there appears to be general agreement with violetViolet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, who once quipped that “All this thinking is overrated.” Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders telling us “I will do this” should be enough—why insist on an explanation or account of how this will be done? Most of us remember being told on a middle or high school mathematics exam to “show your work”—no shortcuts allowed, in other words. How then have we come collectively to a place where we cannot be bothered to “show our work” when it comes to some of the most important decisions we will make in the next several years?

During my childhood and adolescent years I was occasionally told, particularly by family members and people who attended our church, that “you think too much.” A corollary was often that “things really aren’t that complicated.” The truth, of course, is that there are very few times in life where more thought is unnecessary, and things really are that complicated. There is a strong tendency in human nature to want things simplified; even more, there is a strong desire to move from premise to conclusion without having to do any of the nasty and time-consuming work in between. Part of moral and cognitive maturity is to move forward with intelligence and conviction through a very complicated and messy world. We would like everything to be reducible to a bumper sticker or sound bite but, as jamesWilliam James reminds us, “Nature is not bound to satisfy our presuppositions. In the great boarding house of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean.”

The moral aspects of teaching often begin with resisting the temptation to deliver a product, to give the customer what she wants. Sometimes, Maria Popova suggests, what people want is the last thing they should get.

Giving people what they want isn’t nearly as powerful as teaching people what they need. There’s always a shortcut available, a way to be a little more ironic, cheaper, more instantly understandable. There’s the chance to play into our desire to be entertained and distracted regardless of the cost. Most of all, there’s the temptation to encourage people to be selfish, afraid, and angry. Or you can dig in, take your time, and invest in a process that helps people see what they truly need.t and f

I try to focus on the importance of “digging in” every time I’m in the classroom. But observing myself outside of the classroom, I find that I have a lot of work to do. I spend time on Twitter, even though communicating in 120 characters or less is hardly an example of in-depth discourse. I quickly block or unfriend Facebook people who clearly hold political views that are radically different from mine. I bristle when someone challenges me in the “Comments” section of this blog. If I am going to call for moral maturity in thinking and learning, that maturation process begins with me.

This or That?

I got into an interesting conversation the other day with someone who insisted that on the particular issue we were discussing, “all or nothing” was the rule—either one took one position or the other, with no room for nuance. The issue was an important one, but this “all or nothing,” “either/or” attitude is not unusual. Human beings are hard-wired to categorize things, including each other. all or nothingThis is a survival skill honed over the millennia through the evolutionary process. Faced with an extraordinarily complicated and threatening environment, creatures with the capacity to quickly simplify things by sorting them out into a manageable number of categories have a leg up in terms of survival on creatures who lack this capacity.

But this useful ability that developed in our evolutionary past does not serve us well when applied to many of the complicated and complex matters that contemporary human beings face every day. One of my most important tasks in the classroom is to convince my students that reality is not neatly and cleanly divided up into familiar or comfortable categories; as William James wrote,william james “In the great boarding-house of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean.” Our current political dysfunction is at least partially due to our insistence on reducing every issue, from abortion to climate change, from immigration to health care, to sharply opposed and incompatible options. Compromise, which has historically been the lifeblood of social policy and politics, has become a dirty word. All or nothing. This or that. Make a choice.

And yet . . . I must admit that quick and rough division into recognizable categories is one of the most useful tools available for trying to understand ourselves and the world around us. I have written about my favorite categories for understanding human nature on occasion—here are a few of them.

Hedgehog/Fox: Archilochus’s observation that “the hedgehog knows one big thing, hedgehog and foxbut the fox knows many little things” is so indispensable to understanding authors, colleagues, friends and family that I have written about it twice, once in the form of a primer

Hedgehogs and Foxes: A Primer

and another time discussing how I use the hedgehog/fox distinction both in teaching and in administration.

How to Herd a Hedgehog (or a Fox)

Another useful way to talk about this difference is to ask whether a person is a “bottom-up” individual (details first, then big picture) or “top-down” (big picture first, applied then to the details). bottom upI am both by nature and philosophical orientation far more fox-like than hedgehoggy, preferring the messiness of details to the pristine purity of the big picture, but I try to remember that none of these distinctions are value-laden. One is not better than the other—they are just very different. Each of us runs into trouble when we assume that our way is not only ours but also is universally best, then act on that assumption.

Cromwell/More: This distinction is about change and certainty—with which are you more comfortable? In my estimation, this is the most useful teaching tool in my arsenal when introducing students to the pantheon of philosophers in the Western tradition for the first time. Two great streams of philosophical thought flow from deciding which is more important to focus on as we try to decipher ourselves and our world. In the certainty camp can be found Protagoras, Plato, Descartes, Hegel, and most of the great metaphysical system builders of the past two millennia and more, while Heraclitus, Aristotle, Hume and the great empiricists focus their attention on the importance of change. I have named this distinction Cromwell/More because of the following passage from cromwell and moreHilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, around which I built a discussion of this distinction a few months ago.

Wolf Hall

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

Although I am thoroughly Cromwellian in all facets of my life, I try to remember—although it is often difficult—that for many people certainty is both a refuge and a requirement (even though I often say that it is vastly overrated).

high maintenanceHigh maintenance/Low Maintenance: For those blessed J with administrative and leadership duties, the most important matter to become clear about as soon as possible is who the high maintenance people are. The low maintenance people are those you will never hear from—they just do their jobs. Toward the end of my time as director of a large interdisciplinary program with 80 professors under my guidance, I wrote about how this distinction effected my scheduling of classes for the next academic year.

What I Want When I Want It

In review I realize that I probably was as too critical of high maintenance people. And from the perspective of an administrator, it is difficult not to start resenting the five percent of people you are responsible for who take up ninety percent of your time and are responsible for ninety percent of your headaches. Over time I have frequently been surprised by how often high maintenance people take pride in being high maintenance. squeaky wheelAny time you hear a person say that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” that person is almost certainly a high maintenance person giving you a soundbite explaining why they are the way they are. It’s their way of getting things done. If someone doesn’t stir the pot, nothing will happen. And (I can’t believe I’m saying this) thank God for high maintenance people—just as long as they are using their abilities for the good of everyone instead of just themselves. And thank God that a significant minority of people are high maintenance. My prescription for what ails our current dysfunctional Congress? Stop electing so many high maintenance people.

Introvert/Extrovert: You knew this one was coming. I ruminate about the joys of introversion and the frightening aspects of extroverts frequently; today, I’ll simply take note of two very helpful checklists that have been making the rounds on social media and elsewhere for a while now.

how to care for introverts

how-to-care-for-extroverts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I look these over, I am astounded by how well my extraordinarily extroverted wife abides by the rules of taking care of people like me, particularly because when we first got together she not only didn’t know anything about these rules but didn’t seem to even be aware that introverts exist. familySpending a bit of time with her extended Italian/Irish family will explain why—there are no introverts in sight. I only hope that I am continuing to learn to let her shine and talk things out as well as she has learned to respect my need for privacy and silence as well as my lack of need for dozens of friends. For those strongly on one side of this divide in relationship with someone strongly on the other side, I suggest that you find a couple of things that you both love where you can focus you shared energies. Dogs, great television shows and God do quite well.

Everyone uses these quick and effective tools to sort out a complicated world—there’s nothing wrong with that. The trick is not to impose moral values on traits that are, for the most part, hard-wired in each of us as default settings. Vive la difference!

 

My Best Friends

I sat down in my usual aisle seat on one of my infrequent airplane flights not long ago, and immediately dug out one of the half-dozen books in the backpack containing my current reading obsessions. This is my custom when flying, because I want to let my neighbors know that I am busy, I am deep in thought, Introvert[1]and I am not the least bit interested in striking up a conversation with a stranger, just one of the many effective tricks of the introvert trade. This behavior, along with the fact that the book I am reading is by some obscure author and the fact that I have a gray ponytail, usually provide sufficient clues that one tries to engage me in conversation at their peril.

On this particular day, however, the window seat to my left was occupied by a guy my age who apparently never got past the class clown stage. At the conclusion of the stewardess’s usual spiel about what to do if we have to land in water or lose cabin pressuresafety-demo[1], we were asked to turn off all electronic devices for takeoff. I, of course, read all of the way through the stewardess’s instructions and continued to read as people all around me turned off their phones, I-pods, and other electronic paraphernalia. “Hey!” my neighbor shouted down the aisle at the retreating stewardess while pointing at me. “Make him turn his book off too!” He repeated the exact same routine at the end of the flight when we were instructed to turn our electronic devices off for landing. Very funny—but he had a point. Of the two dozen or so fellow passengers within my field of vision throughout the flight, I was the only one reading a book.

9780312429980[2]Which reminds me of another flight several months earlier. This time in the middle of the flight I was deeply engrossed in reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. As the woman seated in the seat across the aisle one row in front of me returned from a journey to the facilities, she noticed what I was reading. “Do you like it?” she asked. “I love it,” I replied. “So do I!” she exclaimed as she pulled her KindleKT-slate-02-lg._V399156101_[1] out of her purse.” “I’m reading it too! Isn’t that weird?” I thought something that an extrovert or a rude person might have said out loud: “It would be a weird coincidence if you were actually reading, but looking at words on a screen is not the same thing as reading.” As I’ve said many times to many people over the past several years, when they invent a Kindle (or whatever) that feels and smells like a real book, I’ll buy one.

On occasion in our early years of being together, Jeanne would observe how few close friends I had (and have). This, coming from a person who is in the 1% most extroverted beings in the universe, was not an entirely fair comment. But one time she added “it doesn’t matter, though, because your books are your friends.” That not only is a fair comment, but it is entirely true. It’s too bad you can’t be friends with a book on Facebook, because that would increase my Facebook friend count from its current 568 well into the thousands. Several years ago I assisted my carpenter/general contractor uncle (actually I was more like his indentured servant)301189_269422219756617_1084268382_n[1] at my house as he tore out a wall in a corner-bedroom-soon-to-hopefully-be-a-library for the purposes of building a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcase in its place. “That’s a hell of a lot of books!” he laughed as he looked at the stacks of dozens and dozens of books on the floor for whom the bookcase would be a new home. “Have you actually read all of them?” (haw, haw, haw). “Actually I have,” I truthfully answered. “And these are less than a quarter of the books we have, plus an equal number or more in my office at school.” End of that conversation.

I suppose there is something to be said for the inevitable move from the printed word to the e-word, but whatever that something is, I’m not going to say it. There are few activities I enjoy more than organizing books on a bookshelf, roughly categorizing them according to an intuitive scheme that I am only partially conscious of. But when Jeanne is looking for a book that she read several months ago, prior to the last two book reorganizations, I can zero in at least on which two shelves of our multiple bookcases at home the book lives. When our basement, after two and a half years of sucking money out of our checking account, was finally finished the first furniture event was deciding which books should go on the bookcase in the new reading corner. I decided on the category “During- and post-sabbatical books roughly in the spirituality range that have been  meaningful to me (and occasionally to Jeanne) over the past six years.”

Moving those books downstairs opened up various possibilities for new groupings upstairs, more or less like planning the seating arrangement at a sit-down party with well over a thousand attendees. Who would like to talk with whom? Will charlesdickens[1]jodi-picoult[1]Charles Dickens mind sitting next to Jodi Picoult? (Charles probably would mind. He can sit next to George Eliot and Jodi can hang out with Pat Conroy). Would Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong get1216[1] along with Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister?df66925abac20a7d9362c6.L._V192220566_SX200_[1] (Yes). Who might the Pope like to sit next to?—I haven’t decided yet, but I’m thinking perhaps either Marcus Borg or Rowan Williams. Would it make more sense to seat Doris Kearns Goodwin next to David McCullough, or would the party benefit more by having the historians on different shelves? (Separate them).There is a distinct visual attractiveness and interest to a well-arranged bookcase. Tall and short, thick and thin—the appearance of books is as varied as their contents.

plato-2[1]aristotle3[1]My planning of the party in my philosophy department office has always been less creative, with chronology the order of the day across the shelves of my four large bookcases. But as I move in four years worth of accumulated books from my former director’s office, I’m rearranging the shelves to make room and am thinking that it’s time to mix things up. Plato must be sick of talking only to Aristotle by now (they’ve been disagreeing for over two thousand years) and would probably enjoy conversing with William James220px-Daniel_Dennett_in_Venice_2006[1] or Richard Rorty.Thomas-Aquinas[1] I’m pretty sure Aristotle would have a great time sitting down with Friedrich Nietzsche. And if Aquinas or Augustine sits down with Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, all bets are off!

Many years ago, shortly after we met, Jeanne bought me a paperweight that occupies a prominent place on the desk in my philosophy department office. It contains the following attributed to Descartes: “Reading books is like having a conversation with the great minds of the past.” Indeed it is. Which brings me back to where I started. I cannot enter the world of electronic books because real friendship—with books and with people—is a multi-sense experience. Visual, olfactory, tactile. I can be friends with a book, but I cannot be friends with a digital screen. I could, presumably, load every book I own into a Kindle and carry my friends with me wherever I go. But my Kindle-books would no more be my friends than the 10,328 “friends” that an acquaintance of mine has on Facebook are really his friends. I don’t know what will happen to my books when I die; amazingly my sons are not competing to get them. But in my version of heaven my friends will be with me. No friend left behind.

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

Casting Lots

400000000000000126050_s4[1]On the recommendation of one of my colleagues, I recently read Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein. It’s hard to resist for a philosophy professor, since Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most important, yet enigmatic and difficult, philosophers of the 20th century. The Wittgensteins were fabulously wealthy, one of the most successful families in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ludwigludwig_wittgenstein[1] was the youngest of nine children; one died in her youth, and the three oldest sons committed suicide. The other remaining son, older brother Paul, was a concert pianist who lost his right arm during World War I, after which he crafted a highly successful concert career playing pieces written by the great composers of the day for the left hand only. Ludwig, Pautumblr_m35rh09mU21qb8ogko1_500[1]l, and their three remaining sisters all suffered from various psychological ailments and considered suicide at various times in their lives. The Wittgensteins were both outrageously successful and spectacularly dysfunctional.

Although considered by almost everyone other than his family who knew him to be a genius, Ludwig had a very difficult time deciding what to do with his life. Talented in engineering and mathematics, he showed great promise in the burgeoning field of aeronautics while at Cambridge University in 1911 at the age of 22. Yet his heart wasn’t in it, and Ludwig attached himself to Bertrand Russell, the most famous philosopher of his day in the English-speaking world, wondering whether philosophy might turn out to be his true passion. Despite Ludwig’s abrasive and neurotic personality, Russell humored him to the point that one day Wittgenstein asked Russell: tumblr_lyzv9vekTr1qcu0j0o1_500[1]“Will you please tell me if I am a complete idiot or not?” Russell replied, “My dear fellow, I don’t know, why are you asking me?” “Because,” Wittgenstein said, “if I am a complete idiot I shall become an aeronaut; but if not I shall become a philosopher.”

Ludwig finds himself in a predicament that all of us face at times. A choice, often an important one, must be made and we need help making it. Do I play it safe or take a risk? Do I continue on a familiar path or take “the road less traveled”? Do I end a relationship or hang in there for a while longer? In such cases we often look to someone other than ourselves for direction. Ludwig was lucky—he actually got some help. Russell told him to write something on a philosophical topic over vacation; based on what he wrote, Russell would provide his advice. Russell reports in his memoirs that after reading what Ludwig produced for one minute, “I said to him, ‘No you must not become an aeronaut.’” And he didn’t. Instead, Wittgenstein became a philosopher whose originality and influence vastly surpassed Russell’s and who set a standard in philosophy that has influenced the discipline ever since.

Given that Bertrand Russell was a dedicated and virulent atheist, it seems odd to ask Why can’t God be more like Russell? But think about it—Ludwig asked Bertrand for assistance, Russell gave it, Wittgenstein followed it—problem solved. But God doesn’t operate that way.sviatui-apostol-matii[1] A case point shows up early in the book of Acts with the case of Matthias. Who, you say? It’s a fascinating and illuminating story. Jesus chose twelve disciples, of course, but one of them turned out to be a disastrously bad choice. So early in the book of Acts, between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, the problem of replacing Judas arises—it’s apparently not cool to just have eleven disciples, although I’m not sure why, it being a prime number and all. The qualifications necessary to be the new disciple number twelve are clear. Peter says that it needs to be someone “who has accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,” starting with the baptism of John all the way through seeing the risen Christ. Apparently there were dozens of good candidates; the two finalists are Justus and Matthias. Then the disciples do what might be expected—they pray for the Lord to reveal which of these two equally qualified candidates is to be the new disciple twelve.

Now if I were God, I’d honor this hard work and proper request with an appropriate answer. Justus or Matthias would get a halo, or start glowing and levitating, or a dove would descend from heaven while a voice would say “This is my beloved new disciple.” But what do the disciples do?election of Matthias icon[1] “And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias.” “Casting lots” is the biblical equivalent of rolling a pair of dice or flipping a coin. So this is like the beginning of a football game. “Call heads or tails in the air, Justus.” “Heads!” “It’s tails—Justus, thanks for playing; Matthias, you’re the new disciple. Here’s your ‘I’m A Disciple and You’re Not’ T-shirt and bumper sticker—Andrew and Bartholomew will teach you the secret handshake.” The new disciple is chosen by a flip of a coin, and everyone accepts it as the will of God. Neither Justus nor Matthias is mentioned again in Acts or anywhere else in the Bible. Weird.

But maybe not. It’s typically human to want “signs and wonders,” to look for unmistakable answers to the most important questions. But such answers are not generally available in the normal, human run of things. There are many occasions in scripture where big time miraculous answers and solutions are given in difficult predicaments—crazy Gideon with his fleeces, for instance—but the preponderance of relevant texts say something like what Moses tells the children of Israel in Deuteronomy.word is near[1] The will of God “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.” God has given us everything we need to address the problems in front of us. Trust what you have been given, do your homework, look at the options, then choose. And flip a coin if you have to. What’s the worst that could happen? 220px-William_James_b1842c[1]One of my favorite philosophers, William James, recommends a certain lightheartedness when making even the most important choices, a lightheartedness that I also detect in the Matthias story. “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than excessive nervousness on their behalf.” Jesus was human too, and according to Matthew his last words to us were “I am with you always.” Finding God’s will is a matter of believing that these words are true.

lo_i_am_with_you_always_postcard-r315abba365ce42479f6e62065309ebf0_vgbaq_8byvr_512[1]

Getting Stoned

In preparation for studying portions of the New Testament with Freshman students later in the semester, I’ve been reviewing the book of Acts. This reminded me of a brief conversation I had with a Benedictine monk a couple of years ago. “Happy Stoning Day!” Brother John said as he greeted me after noon prayer. December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen, officially designated as the first Christian martyr. Brother John, a guitar-picking, out-of-the-box product of the sixties, is not your typical Benedictine. “I’ve always wanted to play Dylan’s ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned’ at mass on St. Stephen’s Day.” My kind of monk—irreverence is my favorite virtue.

Stephen has always been a problem for me. Although Acts has been one of my favorite books of the Bible since childhood, with its exciting stories of early Christians acting just like imperfect and flawed human beings, regularly bailed out of tough circumstances by the Holy Spirit, I got uncomfortable when Stephen came up in church or Sunday School. Stephen died for Jesus, just like some missionaries in South America that we were always hearing about. “Would you die for Jesus, just like Stephen did?” the pastor or teacher would ask, to which I (internally) would definitively answer “Hell No!” Dying for Jesus ranked right up there with becoming a missionary to deepest, darkest Africa as things I definitely did NOT intend to do with my life. If being a good Christian meant being willing to die for Jesus, I thought, then maybe I should check out what they do at the Catholic church on the other, spiritually mysterious side of town.

Little did I know then that Catholics have been making martyrdom into a cottage industry for centuries. Although I’m much more aware of it now, since I’ve been married to a recovering Catholic and have taught in Catholic institutions of higher education for the past two decades, my few remaining Protestant sensibilities are still occasionally jangled by the Catholic fixation on martyrs. Just a few years ago I burst out laughing when I stumbled across a very peculiar piece of artwork while looking around a little church in Boston’s North End. Peculiar in the sense that it was a statue of a demure young woman holding a plate with two eyeballs on it. “Oh yeah, that’s Saint Lucy,” Jeanne said in the same tone of voice with which  she might have gestured in my direction and said “Oh yeah, that’s my husband” to an inquiring stranger. Saint Lucy is either the patron saint of opticians or disgusting hors d’oeuvres, I suppose.

Philosophy has only one martyr—Socrates, the godfather of Western philosophy. And there is at least one very interesting parallel between Socrates and Stephen. They both clearly were looking to die. Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 is so inflammatory that he’s got the crowd “gnashing their teeth” by the time he’s done. For some reason, the audience did not take kindly to being called “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears” or “the betrayers and murderers” of God.

Similarly, Socrates’ defense against trumped-up but serious charges in Plato’s Apology is anything but apologetic. Now he didn’t have to die. His Athenian accusers were not interested in killing him—they just wanted him to go away and stop annoying everyone. And had he played the game by the accepted rules, that’s what would have happened. Instead, he is so obnoxious and unwilling to compromise his principles that he is found guilty by a 281 to 220 vote—the Athenians liked big juries. During the subsequent sentencing portion of the trial, the unrepentant Socrates is so offensive that more jurors vote for the death penalty than voted “guilty” in the first place. A few weeks later he drinks a hemlock cocktail and dies, exhibiting the same calm and composure in the face of death as Stephen four and a half centuries later.

I love teaching philosophy and at least claim to believe, just as the godfather did, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But I’m just about certain that I would no more die for philosophy than I would have died for Jesus as a kid. My model in such things is Aristotle. About fifty years after Socrates drank the hemlock, Aristotle found himself in political trouble eerily similar to the problems that had brought Socrates to trial. Aristotle’s response was to hike up his toga and haul ass out of Athens, reportedly saying that he did not want to give the Athenians the opportunity to sin against philosophy twice. He went on to write his greatest books, was hired as Alexander the Great’s personal tutor, and no one holds it against him that he left town. I’m with Aristotle—life strikes me as an attractive alternative to death.

What things are worth dying for? I asked one of my classes that question a few years ago, and their response was both revealing and disturbing. Or their lack of response, rather—they couldn’t come up with anything. Family, friends, country, beliefs of any sort—none of my students was willing to say that she or he would be willing to die for any of these. That class, perhaps more than any other I’ve ever been in, changed me. It wasn’t that they weren’t sure which things were worth dying for—I’ve obviously struggled with that one too. It’s that the very idea of loving or believing in something so much that one would stake one’s life on it was foreign to them.

When relating this story to some friends a few days after my encounter with Brother John, one of them (a lifelong activist in various causes) reminded me of something that Dr. King said: “If you don’t have something to die for, you don’t have anything to live for” (or something like that). My students’ apathetic response to my question gave me a clear direction in my teaching that has been a focus ever since. Although over the years I’ve not embraced many of the candidates offered to me as being worth dying for, it’s always been clear to me that something is—perhaps the whole point of both the intellectual and spiritual quest is to find out what that “something” is. Part of my teaching vocation has become convincing my students to commit to something, to believe in something, to stake their lives, at least figuratively, on the possibility of something’s being true. Learning and growth depend on it. William James once challenged a bunch of college students to “believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Sometimes commitment comes before content.

I don’t think that “everybody must get stoned”—fortunately my reality doesn’t demand a “life or death” choice of me. But I do believe that something else Socrates said while sitting in prison waiting for his execution is true—there is a difference between living and living well. The difference, I think, has more to do with seeking than finding.