Almost Thou Persuadest Me

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‘King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ Paul replied, ‘Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.’ — Acts 26:27-29

Paul, canny fellow that he was, rarely missed an opportunity to speak freely and to testify about his conversion from domestic terrorist to revolutionary preacher. In this episode, appearing in chains before Festus the governor and King Agrippa II and his wife, Queen Bereniece—who also happened to be his sister—Paul charges in where angels fear to tread. Evangelist that he is, he asks a question and quickly answers it: ‘I know that you believe.’ And Agrippa? You can almost hear the incredulity in his voice: ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ But Paul will not be diverted. In a rhetorical jujitsu move, he deflects the criticism and extends the offer to everyone within earshot—the whole court. Agrippa doesn’t bite, but as the party moves offstage they are heard giving Paul a pass. “He doesn’t sound all that bad.”

Paul is now inside Agrippa’s head and who knows what the result will be down the road?

We can speculate why Agrippa reacted the way he did with the aid of a communication theory that analyzes attitudinal changes for persuasion.

Social Judgement Theory says that when we hear or read a message we immediately assign it a location on the attitude scale in our minds. This is a subconscious sorting of ideas that occurs at the instant of perception. In other words, it’s a reaction rather than a considered response. We judge every idea by comparing how far away or close to our present point of view it is. That present point of view is called our anchor point.

Carolyn and Muzafer Sherif, the authors of the theory, believed that our attitudes can be understood as an amalgam of three latitudes of acceptance, rejection, and noncommitment. The latitude of acceptance is the range of ideas that a person sees as reasonable or worthy of consideration. The latitude of rejection is the range of ideas that someone sees as unreasonable or unworthy of consideration. And the latitude of noncommitment is the range of ideas that a person sees neither as acceptable nor objectionable. Carolyn Sherif said that as persuaders we need to know the location and the width of each of these latitudes in order to know what it will take to persuade that person.

Another important concept in Social Judgement Theory is what the Sherifs called ego-involvement: the importance of the issue to us. High ego-involvement means you have a lot invested in the position, that you feel strongly about it, and that you’re likely to reject most challenges to it. The greater the degree of ego-involvement the harder it will be for attitudes to change and to persuade those persons to shift their position.

There are three characteristics of people with high ego-involvement in an issue. First, their latitude of noncommitment is almost zero. If we really care about an issue we’ll tend toward the extremes of either zone of acceptance or rejection.

The second feature of high ego-involvement is that the latitude of rejection will be large. We’ll see things in black and white. If we thought about it more we might see something we agree with—but our quick inferences judge even mild statements as something to be rejected.

The third characteristic is that people who hold extreme opinions often take criticism personally. Extreme positions and high ego-involvement go together. It’s a matter of identity: if you attack my position then you’re attacking me.

All of this describes how the Sherifs pictured the cognitive structure of a person’s attitude. But what is the process that is triggered when we read or hear a message?

Muzafer Sherif said we compare our anchor point to all incoming messages and judge accordingly. Messages that we reject we push even farther away from our anchor point so we don’t have to deal with them. Messages that we agree with we snuggle up to—even if they may not have all that much in common with our anchor point.

These two effects are called contrast and assimilation. Messages that we reject we sharply contrast with our anchor point. Our reasons for drawing the contrast may be that we don’t like the speaker or the issue is too complex for us, or we are impatient, bored, or tired. And sometimes messages that are intended to persuade us through fear or force we will reject even more decisively in a boomerang effect. We are more often driven to attitudinal positions than we are drawn to them.

But messages that we like we may judge closer to our anchor point than they really are because we find the speaker attractive or the message reinforces what we’ve always thought. We won’t embrace it fully, but our position will shift incrementally. We will assimilate it into our thinking.

The authors thus believe that the greater the discrepancy, the more the hearers will adjust their attitudes. Nevertheless, we don’t leap from one extreme to the other. Change, if it comes, takes place in small steps, incrementally.

Most of these changes occur below our awareness, yet they powerfully shape attitudes and actions. From the outside, we may see no change in a person until suddenly the tectonic plates slip, and a major quake takes place. What looks impulsive and momentary may have been building for a long time. Persuasion is a gradual process. It’s also a social process that has the most lasting effect on us as a result of the influence of those we care about.

What advice do the Sharifs have for us if we want to persuade people? We need to find a message that is right on the edge of their latitude of acceptance. If there’s a small step from rejection to wary acceptance, that is much better than the boomerang effect. Don’t ask for too much at first; accept them and reward them for small steps.

Some things have become clear in the testing of social judgement theory One is that the greater the perceived expertise of the speaker the wider the latitude of acceptance. Credibility makes a difference, and credibility is a combination of honesty and expertise.

A second thing is that ambiguity often persuades better than clarity. We might think of it as emphasizing the general over the particular in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Finally, some people are simply hardwired for dogmatism on every issue. Their minds are made up. There isn’t much point in trying to shift them because they are probably rooted in place.

This theory has some interesting implications for our communication with others, especially as we apply it to how we talk about spiritual matters and as we examine our own position within a faith community.

Through the years, as I was teaching courses in communication theory and persuasion and propaganda, this theory stood out because of something I had read years before by Ellen White, a 19th-century American writer, about conversion. She was talking of Saul’s “Damascus Road” experience, a Biblical story that has become synonymous with a traumatic and instantaneous change of heart and life. She said something to the effect that Saul would not have become Paul had not the Holy Spirit been working on him for a long while. Being flung from his horse and hearing a voice from heaven was the culmination of a long phase toward conversion. It was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Unconscious prejudice gave way to conscious allegiance and to the eruption of a new fire in his heart.

SJT illuminates the forming up of our attitudes and how those attitudes trigger our decisions and actions. It could also rattle our thinking about the effectiveness of mass evangelism techniques. I believe it calls us, instead, to speak one-to-one, to be thoughtful, and to be sensitive to the time it takes a person to reflect on profound ideas. Most of all, it recognizes the freedom God gives us to respond to the persuasion of the Holy Spirit, all in good time. Kairos, Paul would call it—the right time.

Photo: Justin Veenema, Unsplash.com

Our Infinite Choice

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“The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

One of the extraordinary features of religion, as one studies it, is the infinite variety of its expressions. The moment we step out of the holy place wherein we worship, and into the crowd swirling past outside, we are enveloped in a multitude of faiths, each one with a history, symbols, myths, art, language, casualties, diagnoses and prescriptions. They pour past us as we stand transfixed in the midst of the stream.

Some might picture themselves as a rock, immovable and stalwart, dividing the waters that flow past, resisting the current, sure in their grounding in the streambed. Others, less sure than curious, join the flow to ask those at their elbows and around them where they’re going, what set them on their path, or why they continue. Still others will do their best to divert the stream into side channels, away from the swiftly-flowing current into quieter, shallower rivulets, and eventually to pools of standing water.

We will step lightly up on the riverbank now, away from the analogy, carrying with us the twin observations of the variety of religious expressions and our attitude toward them.

The sheer number of religions sparks in us wonder that God could be filtered through so many veils and still be perceived in coherent form. At the very least the history, traditions, and practices cause us to view our own thin wedge of religious history as one among many.

Ask yourself this: If you joined your religion as an adult, what was the deciding factor? If you were born into your religion, why do you continue in it?

Joiners or borners—the questions stand open.

Is a religion a vehicle to deliver us to a destination, at which point, our quest fulfilled, we will enter into a sacral bliss? Is a religion a chrysalis within which we are transformed into another creature, a new creation? Perhaps we are pilgrims traveling through a barren land, seeking a city not made with human hands. If we become disciples of Jesus we will have no place to lay our heads, even if foxes have their dens and the birds of the air their nests.

“What makes a man human,” says Abraham Heschel, “is his openness to transcendence, which lifts him to a level higher than himself.” Religion, despite its flaws and obsessions, and depending on its light source, can be both a mirror and a window to transcendence.

Metaphors matter, because they both reflect and shape our experience and behavior.

Machiavelli regarded religion as a paltry crutch for an individual, but he saw the value in it for creating conformity and confining the masses. Durkheim regarded it as the social glue that created community and provided fellowship between people — solidarité.

When we bow in epistemological humility before our need for evidence that will undergird our faith, it is bracing to recall the debate between W. K. Clifford and William James.

Clifford, a British mathematician and a psychologist like James, was a friend of his, but also someone with whom he was delighted to debate. Clifford’s assertion in his The Ethics of Belief begins with the idea that our hypotheses ought never to be accepted until we have solid evidence for them. We find easy comfort in that which pleases us and soothes our doubts, says Clifford. We need to resolutely turn our backs on these superficial comforts and take the manly road of ethical integrity to face the universe as it really is. As it is in science, so it ought to be in all matters of life, including religion. As James quotes Clifford: “Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer . . . It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”(Emphasis supplied)

James answered Clifford in a closely reasoned essay entitled, The Will to Believe,a title that James came to regret because so many erroneously took it to mean “believe what you will.” In fact, it is about both the right and the will to believe.

There are two ways of dealing with received opinion, says James: “Believe truth! Shun error! . . . by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life.” Clifford, asserts James, would have us choose the latter, to remain in suspense forever as we wait for conclusive evidence in order to avoid the risk of believing lies. In the thousand ways each day that we believe and act on the thinnest of evidence, says James, even Clifford fails his own stringency. But in withholding our trust until all—how would we even knowif it was “all”—the evidence is clocked, tallied, and catalogued, James says we have already made our decision. Not to decide is to decide—a forced option.

Where do we get the spark of trust in order to light the fuse of faith? Augustine writes of the faith that precedes faith in God—and intimates that God gives us that faith as well.

No trust is without risk, as anyone who has ever fallen in love knows. We think that the currency of trust is backed by the gold standard of the degree of risk involved. In our calculus great risk should equate to great reward. But when it comes to trusting God we often find that a step taken in clenched fear, with a breath of hope, turns out to be merely a passing shadow in the waves of joy and relief after the act.

The debate between W. K. Clifford and William James in The Will to Believe is an example of calcified certainty (Clifford) versus the right to believe (James). We cannot wait for all the evidence to be in before we make decisions; James chooses to believe with both reason and passion.

For those of us born into our religion, we must choose at some point to make it our own or to search elsewhere for transcendence. What goes into choice? Circumstance, inclination, temperament, and tradition. But also reason, coherence with our reality, conviction, and passion.

“But the spiritual life can be lived in as many ways as there are people,” says Henri Nouwen in Making All Things New. “What is new is that we have moved from the many things to the kingdom of God. What is new is that we are set free from the compulsions of our world and have set our hearts on the only necessary thing. What is new is that we no longer experience the many things, people, and events as endless causes for worry, but begin to experience them as the rich variety of ways in which God makes his presence known to us.”

Photo: Johannes Plenio, Unsplash.com

Burn for the Infinite

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“But a thinker who has no desire to think cannot think . . . And one who desires but cannot imagine what it is he wants is not getting very far with his desire, which, if it were real, would attempt to achieve an intelligible form.” — Northrop Frye. Fearful Symmetry, 27

How might we know an infinite God . . . as finite as we are? If we shall someday perfectly “know as we are known,” and if perfection is completeness, and if we’ve never experienced perfection, would we know the Infinite if we believed?

Reinhold Niebuhr, writing in Beyond Tragedy, says we have lost the tragic view of life. We think history is the record of “the progressive triumph of good over evil.” We do not recognize the “simple but profound truth that man’s life remains self-contradictory in its sin, no matter how high human culture rises; that the wisest expression of human spirituality, therefore, contains also the subtlest form of human sin.”

Three Conjectures

Our human tragedy is that we burn for the Infinite, yet we lack the imagination to reach for it.

What if we were honest with ourselves and admitted that what we know about the patriarchs and prophets in the Bible isn’t much after all? That in the stories we grew up with we got flashes of insight like lightning in thunderclouds or we heard something faint, like French horns in a fog, that made us curious, longing to climb through the story and drop down to the person beyond? That maybe, with respect, we need to bracket for the time being the things we’ve been indoctrinated with and widen our scope. That most of what we know about God that wasn’t thrust upon us we picked up at a yard sale secondhand, and maybe it’s time we thought for ourselves as we read these stories. Maybe it’s time we see David, Rahab, Jereboam, Isaiah, and Jonah as real people instead of characters in a sermon illustration that inevitably ends up somehow washed of all life’s reversals, misunderstandings, beauty and tragedy, and reflects—however improbably—the necessary successes of a middle-class American life.

We have two sources to think and imagine our way into the lives of these ancients: the tradition of memory and our personal insights. We hear our tradition as we read these stories together; we understand ourselves as we stand within the shadows of these people.

When we read, says Northrop Frye, we feel the centripetal force within the story, drawing us into its time and place; we also feel the centrifugal force spinning us out through memory to the external world and the meanings we associate with the words we read as we align ourselves with our reality.

As Christopher Fry says in his play, The Dark is Light Enough, “in our plain defects we already know the brotherhood of man.” Can we know then, these people whose experiences are so distant from ours in time and yet who are so tangibly, breathtakingly, solidly drawn?

Thought and desire, reason and imagination . . . these are the avenues of the soul Godwards, even as we sit trapped in traffic at the end of the day.

Our human tragedy is that we do not burn for the Infinite, yet we envy those who do.

What is tragic about exceeding our limitations, about “reaching for the stars,” about striving to become more than what we are? Isn’t this the very core of American exceptionalism and individualism, that we are limited only by our ambition and work ethic? That if we work hard enough we can achieve anything we put our minds and our hearts to? That we can fly if only we believe we can?

The poet, Stephen Spender, says in The Public Son of a Public Man,

“How shall we know that we really exist

Unless we hear, over and over,

Our egos through the world insist

With all the guns of the self-lover?”

We desire to be gods in our impatience with the “merely” human. When we substitute the penultimate for the Ultimate, says Paul Tillich, our false gods dry us up at the root.

Our human tragedy is that we burn for the Infinite, yet we cannot fully perceive it.

We cannot tell the whole truth about God because we do not know it and we couldn’t express it fully even if we did. That’s our tragedy, such as it is, when we live and move in the Spirit in this mortal dimension. When we speak or write in the name of Christ, then, we know that we are deceivers, yet true. Going in we know that whatever our metaphors of God in our best moments of self-reflection, our highest reach for truth, they will still result in gaps, miscues, diversions, and muddiness when we express them. To take the pulpit swelled with pride is to guarantee our own deflation. Yet in imagination, through will and hope, in some mysterious way through God’s Spirit, we may be lifted higher.

“Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level,” says Christian Wiman, in his My Bright Abyss, “rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.”

What we do know is that our best in potentia falls short in actuality. Between imagination and action, between desire and fulfillment, between thought and speech, between the mountain spring and the sea, lie numberless deflections, any one of which can turn the flow in another direction or stop it up completely. But we try. That’s what matters.

Niebuhr says, “Human existence denies its own deepest and most essential nature. That is tragic . . . But out of this despair hope is born. The hope is simply this: that the contradictions of human existence, which man cannot surmount, are swallowed up in the life of God Himself. The God of Christian faith is not only creator but redeemer. He does not allow human existence to end tragically. He snatches victory from defeat (19).”

There is a moment of finite perfection. It lingers before the singer takes a breath or the preacher speaks the first word before her people or the diver on the cliff’s edge flexes up on his toes before flight. In that moment is the potency of imagination, that which none greater can be experienced under our bright star.

Photo: Karen Hammega, Unsplash.com

All Our Gods

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When I was teaching a world religions class from semester to semester I would sometimes ask my students a question: Are God and Allah the same entity?

It was a complex question, but it would invariably provoke a simple response. At first there would be a momentary silence, with faces looking back at me in shock or puzzlement, as if they were waiting for me to say, “Just kidding!” But I wasn’t, and then the hands would go up and we were off, with questions and assertions richocheting around the room for the next few minutes.

The lines of consensus would usually form up in some fairly consistent ways. There was one group that was unequivocal: Allah is not God, no way, not ever. How could they be sure? Well, look at the kinds of horrific crimes against humanity that the followers of Allah have perpetrated. How could a real . . . god . . . be in charge of such a cruel and capricious lot?

Others would then point out the crusades of Christians against Jews and Moslems, the genocide by American Christians against native Americans, and the centuries of slavery. The Holocaust would be raised and apartheid in South Africa would be recognized.

Having fought to a draw, both sides would then stand down, panting a little. Then a hand would be raised. “Yes, I think they are both the same entity.”

But why?

“Because God can appear as Allah if He wants. He can do anything He wants. Besides, who are we to say who God is or what He does?”

If we think of this response as illustrating an epistemological pebble causing a ripple, then the degree of certainty expressed diminishes rapidly as the energy dissipates outward.

The question about God and Allah is complex because we cannot prove, by the usual standards of observation or deduction, if there are such entities, much less ones that answer to this name and not that one. What this question does first is to stop us in our tracks as it reveals the limits of language in the service of knowledge. As Job says into the whirlwind, “I have spoken of things I do not understand.”

This is not a concession by Job to withdraw his demand that God answer his charge of injustice, but an admission that, putting his charge aside, Job cannot grasp all that God is. But this does not stop him from addressing the God he does know, nor should it stop us.

The mystery is that God is more than we can know, but not less than we can desire.

Traversing the terrain of God’s nature in this way is throttled by some people when the conversation about the divine leaps into the higher elevations. Often, in the midst of animated conversations after the church potluck, someone will play the Homo sapiens card: “Now you’re thinking man’s thoughts. If they speak not according to the word it is because there is no light in them.” The fact that it took human cogitation to come up with that sentence is lost on such a person. For him the Bible is a literal transcript of pronouncements God gave in dictation to selected secretaries over the course of thousands of years. In his view it is an answer book for vexatious questions and a recipe book for doctrinal casseroles.

The problem with such a fundamentalism is, strangely enough, a coldly indifferent lack of respect for God. The metaphors of God that ring through the Biblical stories are about a being who is fiercely—and tenderly—involved with His creations. By contrast, the contractual obligation of the fundamentalist God is to deliver on the promise of an eschatological gated community in return for fulfillment of stipulations on conduct and creed. It keeps God at a distance, a being so abstract that the only indications of its existence are the myriad ways it is not like us.

There is no intellectual curiosity, but even worse, no spiritual wonderment and awe.

But there is a second purpose for such a question, and that is for us to discover the values that form our descriptions of God and how those values shape our action in the world. Like Parent, like children, you might say. Who do we think God or Allah is? How do we characterize them? How do the values we attribute to our gods align with those we live by? What do those values have in common with believers in other religions? And most importantly: What practical effect do such “God-shaped” values have as we learn to live with others and their divine values?

There are two ways of thinking about this. Conceptual thinking reasons out the problems and is useful when we try to add to our knowledge of the world. Situational thinking involves an experience. We need them both.

Abraham Heschel, the great twentieth-century rabbi and philosopher, says in God in Search of Man, “Situational thinking is necessary when we are engaged in an effort to understand issues on which we stake our very existence.” The nature of God, and our relation to people of faith in all religions would qualify for both kinds of thinking. Conceptual thinking would explore the history of the ideas, the development of nuances in religious philosophies, the sources of wisdom in the traditions. But situational thinking would look to events, the times and places where the gods touch the earth, and the songs and visions and psalms that well up from those springs.

Somewhere, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it produces.” On the face of it the hearer might nod and agree, thinking, perhaps, that the proof is in the pudding and that our puddings should be of the highest quality, lest they be spewed out of the mouth of the Lord. But then a second thought occurs: Wait! Given our record as human beings and the monumental capacity we display for turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear, what hope is there for any religion? Considering the many shortcomings and pure screw-ups of any given denomination, especially one’s own, surely this is a bar no one can reach, a standard that cannot be achieved?

We do, however, have Jesus saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” and cursing a fig tree for not producing fruit in due season, and stories about cutting down trees that don’t produce. Behavior seems to matter to Jesus.

I would amend it to read: “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it is producing.” We are not end-products; we are in process. The gardener knows the tree will thrive when it has the nutrients it needs.

Christian Wiman, poet and essayist, notes in his wonderful book, My Bright Abyss, that “An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive.”

In the loving embrace of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, we may sense, rather than see, the One who is closer to us than the vein in our neck.

Photo: Val Vesa, Unsplash.com

Consider the Lilies

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“Consider the lilies,” says Jesus.

Is it a demand, like “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice?’” Or is it an invitation like that extended to Matthew who, as a taxman, was sitting in his booth collecting the blood-money from his people to be handed over to the occupying Roman force?

Jesus is walking along, says the Scripture, and he sees Matthew in his little booth, like those photo booths you’d see in parking lots of grocery stores, not even as big as a restroom at a Phillips 66 service station, and he just says, “Follow me,” and “he got up and followed him,” says the Gospel according to Matthew (no relation).

This invitation comes to Matthew as something of a command, for how else to explain leaving a job in which the money is made so easily (the size of the booth notwithstanding), just a matter of slipping an extra 10 percent on the standard tax so the Empire gets its money, you get your slice (in addition to your paltry salary), and everyone is happy—well, everyone with the exception of your people who await with dread and resentment the next shakedown at your command. If you didn’t mind being a pariah and knowing that every face turned toward you was either coldly indifferent or seething, then the job had its advantages. A pariah you might be, but a rich pariah you were, and that almost made up for being alone.

The lilies, then.

“They toil not, neither do they spin.”

***

Our work, what we do for most of the life we have, how do we see it? Is it a command or an invitation? Were we sitting in the little booths of our adolescence, bored and avaricious, waiting for a summons that only we would know when we heard it? Did we think the summons would be dispersed in general to everyone like us around us or would it single us out—we alone—lifted up out of the ordinary on the strength of a talent long buried like a bone in the garden, a talent perhaps, that we had ourselves buried for shame for even imagining it was our talent?

Or did we back into the spot, the one available at the time, that would become our place for so long that the weeds would grow up around the tires and the seasons wear down the frame as it settled?

Our self-image, like a Polaroid snapshot, emerges gradually from black to gray to color as we phase through our work life.

We imagine ourselves to be vaulting over all obstacles, achieving that which others have despaired of reaching, or bending down kindly to raise up those behind us who are slipping on the rungs of achievement. Suddenly there is no one ahead of us, the field is clear, we have been called to lead! We turn with an encouraging shout, only to find that the others, leaders and followers, have calmly dropped back. They regard us from a distance with pitying looks. We are alone.

We do not recognize the person we are until we see ourselves at work in the vocation we believe ourselves to be called to. Then we wonder if the gap between perception and vision can be bridged. We give ourselves to the work, glancing to the side at colleagues and up ahead at those who beckon—they make it look so effortless. We feel like imposters. It is in those moments that a fundamental truth is revealed to us: we have entered a conversation that precedes us by thousands of years and will continue after we cease to speak. It is possible that by listening we may learn and by speaking we may remember what we have learned. In speaking our own minds we may find that we have also spoken what others have thought but could not say. With Emerson we may be like the one who is “happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly.”

***

Matthew followed Jesus, seemingly without hesitation. Was it a relief to shuck off the taxman’s cloak? He gave up routine, the comforting groove of repetition, for day-to-day dislocation and the tingle of the unknown. In a moment he jackknifed himself from solitude into a band of brothers, discarding ambition like a fraying belt and making no plans beyond the setting of the sun. What his former life had been was the mention of some nudges and terse comments at first, but then that arc of his life evaporated and was gone. Filled with a strange elation, he fell into the rhythm of the days, feeling his stride lengthen and his horizons widen. What was he now? The first time someone asked, “Where is your master?,” he almost laughed before he realized that he had become a disciple, a follower.

“It is precisely the most solitary people who have the greatest share of commonality,” said Rilke. “The one who could perceive the whole melody would be most solitary and most in the community at once.”

Strangely, what Jesus offered was a hallowedness that made every action seem both familiar and sacral. There was an inwardness about him that lingered even when he smiled. Matthew found it compelling, a sense that even as Jesus was among them, sharing meals and stories and the hard ground under the stars, he was yet just beyond their reach.

His intensity was infectious, if exhausting. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” he cried out. He acted like a man whose life was converging with a future that was accelerating toward him at the speed of light.

The next day they were moving through a springtime field awash with flowers, heading north following the line of hills to the west. “Consider the lilies,” he said, trailing a hand through the blossoms as they walked. “They neither toil nor spin.” They didn’t need to toil to justify their short time on this earth. They simply were: they were their own reason for existing. As brief as their lives were, he said, God took care of them. Wouldn’t He do the same and more for you? God knows what you need.

That night he said to them, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Don’t worry about tomorrow.” He looked round at them, quizzical faces turned up in the firelight. “Tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

And now Matthew is considering the lilies, even as he turns over all that Jesus has said. He thinks about those for whom life is one hard-scrabble decision after another, those who could never imagine that the story provides an excuse for blithe idleness. For them, subsistence is necessity and tomorrow is never guaranteed. For them, faith is all the guarantee they will get—and all they will need.

He decides it is an invitation: “Consider the lilies!”

Photo: Josephine Amalie Paysen, Unsplash.com

Evil: Ancient and Modern

“It’s an old story

but one that can still be told.”

— Herbert Mason, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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It’s important to pay attention to the history of the question of evil. Seeing how our understanding of evil changes through the centuries shapes our present response to it—and may give us more compassion and forgiveness for others looking back.

Depending on how one defines evil, the earliest recorded story of its entrance into the world is in the Babylonian creation myth called the Enuma Elish.  We will compare it to the account in Genesis 1. We’ll also look at the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest stories in the world, and one that has helped to shape how we view friendship, loss, and death. Finally, we will look at Susan Neiman’s book, Evil in Modern Thought, to see how philosophical thinking about evil has changed since the Enlightenment.

The Enuma Elish (named after the first line which begins, “When on high”) is the Babylonian cosmogony myth (story of how the world and the universe came to be) and theogony myth (story of how the gods came into existence). It is also the oldest combat myth on record, in which the universe is seen as a battlefield split between good and bad divine powers.

In this story, reality begins with two gods, Apsu and Tiamat. They create all the other gods, which live in Tiamat’s body until she births them. The children of that generation, the grandchildren of Apsu and Tiamat, get on their grandparents nerves. As children do, they get noisy, so noisy that Apsu, their grandfather, threatens to kill them. Before he can, Marduk, one of the grandchildren, gets wind of the plot and kills his grandmother, Tiamat. From her body he forms the earth and the sky, and in the process becomes the primary god in the Babylonian pantheon.

This myth has several aspects that are key to understanding prehistorical views about evil. First, Tiamat, the chaos god, is not identified with evil as such. Rather, the emotions of hatred, envy, fear, and murderous rage are associated with the younger gods such as Marduk. Second, these gods, the ones victorious over Apsu and Tiamat, show us that evil is in some way intrinsic to reality and the inevitable conflict to establish the cosmos. Because it is brought to being through conflict and chaos, through combat, the cosmos is laced with evil: evil is literally embedded in the very substance of the cosmos.

When we turn to the Biblical creation myth of Genesis, especially the first one in Genesis 1, we can see some striking differences from the Babylonian combat myth. For one thing, there is no destruction at the creation of the world. Rather, God “created the heavens and the earth” without struggle. The “deep” (tehom) over which God’s spirit hovers, passively awaits God’s action. Further, God sees what God has created and deems it good, very good in fact, if God says so Godself. The author of Genesis 1 seems to be distinguishing the narrative in contrast to the Enuma Elish, with which he was most likely familiar.

For the ancient Hebrews the Fall is not the entrance of evil into the world. Rather, Adam and Eve actualize the potential for evil, which is part of the structure of the cosmos that God has created. As Charles Mathewes, a scholar of religion, points out, despite the fact that the Genesis account resists the Babylonian combat myth, “it still suggests that evil and temptation were a potential presence in the world (Mathewes 20).”

Adam and Eve act on that potential, eating from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the serpent’s words, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

This raises all sorts of interesting questions.

What is the sin here? Is it the experience of temptation or the disobedient act itself? Does God know evil objectively or subjectively, from observation at a distance or experientially through suffering from it — or causing it? Was the Fall inevitable, given the combination of human freedom plus desire, arrogance, and ignorance?

Or is the Fall a tragic breakthrough of human consciousness, one that opens the universe to us through imagination and desire, but in so doing defines our limits and their consequences?

The Hebrew root of the word for ‘knowing’ suggests an intimacy that goes beyond acquiring a set of facts; it’s more akin to sexual intimacy in which two become one. In some way the knower and the known enter into one another. For convenience we might think of the symbol of the Tao, two complementary opposites joined as one.

The third great myth is the Sumerian-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the first recorded attempt, as Mathewes says, “to understand and inhabit a world in which suffering occurs and perhaps a world in which suffering is partially constitutive of what makes us human (Mathewes, 9).” The tablets found at Ninevah date back to the 7th century BCE, but scholars now believe that the oral traditions of Gilgamesh most likely emerged about 3,000 BCE, well before the Genesis account.

Gilgamesh is the aggressive king of the great city of Uruk. He harasses and tortures his people until they cry to the gods to give him a competitor to distract him. The gods send Enkidu, a wild man from the desert. The two meet in the wilderness, engage in combat, and Gilgamesh is the victor. They become best friends and go on many adventures together. But the gods become jealous of their friendship and kill Enkidu. Wild with grief, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find immortality.

“Perhaps insane, he tried

to bring Enkidu back to life

To end his bitterness,

His fear of death.

His life became a quest

To find the secret of eternal life

Which he might carry back to give his friend.” (Mason 55)

Through a perilous journey Gilgamesh makes his way to the sea of Death, on the shores of which a young woman finds him and cares for him in his extremity. She tells him:

“The gods gave death to man and kept life for

Themselves. That is the only way it is.” (Mason 65)

Eventually, Gilgamesh returns to his city of Uruk, older, sadder, perhaps wiser, knowing now that death is what lies ahead for every person, and in that knowledge he is able to find some peace in the achievements of his people.

From these three ancient myths we can glean a number of insights. From the Enuma Elish we see that combat and conflict is riddled through human consciousness from the beginning. From the Epic of Gilgamesh we understand the tragic joy of friendship and the limit of death upon all our passion and loves. From the Genesis account we learn that knowledge acquired through defiance gives us both freedom and terrible suffering. But most of all it means we are separated from God. Innocence to experience and then to a chastened, but healing, innocent experience.

Now, a leap of centuries to 1755 and the city of Lisbon.

The earthquake in Lisbon on November 1, 1755, took an estimated 60,000 lives in a matter of hours. Hundreds of people who had gathered for All Saints Day services perished in churches. Many rushed down to the quay and the harbor, only to be engulfed by the tsunami that sunk ships and swept hundreds of people out to sea. Then the fires burned for five days. The earthquake devastated areas of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and North Africa, and was felt as far away as Norway, Sweden, and Italy.

The Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the history of philosophy, for it marks the beginning of modern philosophy and its attempt to take responsibility for the world we find ourselves in. Up to that point earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other natural disasters were ascribed to God’s acts of judgement on a stubborn and sinful people. After Lisbon scientists, philosophers, and eventually theologians, separated natural disasters from moral evil.

It is Susan Neiman’s thesis in Evil in Modern Thought, that “the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought (Neiman 2-3).” In fact, she asserts that the problem of evil is the heart of philosophy, especially from the early modern period until the Holocaust. The other end of the spectrum she examines is the Holocaust, what she refers to as Auschwitz. Whereas Lisbon provoked tremendous discussion and the production of essay, plays, books, and bad poetry, the philosophical silence after Auschwitz was deafening. Here we reach the limits of reasoning. If Lisbon differentiated natural disasters from our own moral evil, in an effort to take more responsibility for our actions, then Auschwitz simply stunned philosophers, humanists, artists into silence.

“Before Lisbon, evils were divided into matters of nature, metaphysics, or morality. After Lisbon, the word evil was restricted to what was once called moral evil. Modern evil is the product of will (Neiman 268).”

The problem of evil exists, Neiman and countless others have noted, when we try to hold three propositions together:

Evil exists

God is benevolent

God is omnipotent

No matter how you bend or twist or crush them together, they will not fit. One of them has to go.

“The premodern world,” says Neiman, “experienced earthquakes with fear and trembling that not only didn’t threaten religion but often enhanced it (Neiman 246).” Science looked at the earthquake as the natural world following certain immutable laws. In that regard, there was no sense in blaming God nor should it be taken as a judgement. Rather, there was some relief and certainty in seeing these terrific natural forces at work. Newton, with his laws of the universe, both freed the world from God’s arbitrary judgements and shrank the sphere of God’s influence.

But Auschwitz was several orders of magnitude beyond Lisbon—in fact, not even in the same category. “Auschwitz was conceptually devastating because it revealed a possibility in human nature that we hoped not to see,” says Neiman (254).

The moral conundrum of Auschwitz is that natural evil is now in the category of regrettable accidents and metaphysical evil is just the recognition of our finite limits, but moral evil is that which is produced with evil intention. Yet, “at every level,” notes Neiman, “the Nazis produced more evil, with less malice, than civilization had previously known (Neiman 271).”

Theodicy, the attempt to rationalize evil with a good and omnipotent God, springs from the desire to see the world put right. If our century has given up on theodicy it has more to do with our recognition that reason cannot explain evil, but hope cannot give up on seeking a better world.

In a sentence that frames the Parkland students so well, Neiman says, “In the child’s refusal to accept a world that makes no sense lies all the hope that ever makes us start anew (Neiman 320).”

References

Mason, Herbert (1970). Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Mathewes, Charles (2011). Why Evil Exists. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses.

Neiman, Susan (2002). Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Photo by Atlas Green from Unsplash.com

Lane Walkers

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“The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality.” — Walden, Henry David Thoreau

How much of our life do we truly comprehend? We may feel like political observers at a rigged election: we can see what’s going on but we lack the power to change it. Caught up in our routines, not daring to vary from them lest we lose a step, we see the surface changes of light and shadow, while we sense that tectonic shifts are taking place beneath us.

At a corner of an intersection frequented by panhandlers a man held a hand-lettered sign which proclaimed him to be God’s anointed, a “prophetic, proud, American preacher.” I held a dollar out to him while waiting for the light to change, and listened while he spoke about his ministry. He was a handyman who had been touched by the Lord some years ago and sent on a mission to bring a message of hope, prosperity, happiness, and health to all who would listen. He gave me a flyer he had written up, complete with a website, and resources that, if ordered, would restore a sense of pride in America and gratitude to the Almighty. There was no irony for him in the fact that as the bearer of the message he was a walking refutation of its benefits. But that suspicion was answered by his earnest claim that it was his humility which marked him out for the divine dispensation.

His jaunty sanctity was touching. Far from being an object of pity he thought of himself as a man with a mission. He wasn’t begging, he was witnessing. The transactional nature of his work called for him to give as well as to receive. If I gave a dollar he was happy to bless me and share with me the nature of his work. The dollar, a gesture of solidarity, was less a donation to an indigent than it was a validation of his calling. You’ve got to respect a man like that. As the light changed and the phalanx of cars pulled away, he proclaimed his willingness to work at anything—car repair, house painting, yard work, preaching.

I’ve wondered at the necessities and rules of panhandling. No doubt there are social norms that come with the occupation, perhaps even vocabularies and expectations that must be met. Does a median strip belong to those with seniority or is it ‘first come, first served’? Do you dress for the neighborhood or for the rigors of the job? On blazing hot days can the men go shirtless or is that  a social faux pas that cannot be tolerated? Must the women always be mothers with four children and no rent money or can they be young, single, and brave—with time on their hands? How does the body adapt to or resist the thrumming roar of traffic, the waves of heat radiating from exhausts, engines, and metal surfaces? Do you stay on the median or walk between the lanes? Smile and thank whoever pauses or keep the gestures to a minimum?

These are the lines of adaptation to which the organism conforms, the terrain that must be plowed, the rules of engagement for a public transaction of a moment. I’ve seen lithe, well-dressed young men, affable and surefooted in the traffic, whose only indication of need was the hand-lettered sign they carried. And I’ve seen men, perhaps veterans of our interminable wars, whose faces were roasted red from the heat, whose hair was bleached and lifeless from the exhaust and the wind, and whose clothes had lost all semblance of garments.

I have found myself asking, while waiting out the light, what slight movements of the spirit brought them to this place and this moment. What butterfly, blithely flitting from flower to bush in a garden on an island in Japan, set in motion the winds that blew these people up on our concrete beaches? Alone in a crowd, islands in a river of molded plastic and glass, do they wonder as they pace their walkways, if there was an inexorable fate that brought them here? Were they singled out for punishment or just slower than the rest sprinting for the exits?

The consistency and persistence of these people is what lingers in the memory. Every day they are out there in all weathers, working the lanes, radiating a cheerful resilience, regulating their practice according to the elements they have found that work through necessity and chance.

Every one of them began as a child without guile. Most were loved, some no doubt carried the hopes of the family on their shoulders. There is no need to romanticize them or bill them as urban artists; they have too much dignity in themselves to be the object of our casual pity.

They live with the facts, the bare unadorned necessities of survival. They are not a tribe apart, they are the rest of us stripped down, without our pretense and assurances, without our facile privilege. There was a time when the Fates would have gotten the credit for having twisted up these lives in ways that could not easily be undone. Now those lives are proxies for the millions whose existence, when noted, is signaled merely by a downward tick on a graph in a Senate hearing.

“We know not where we are,” says Thoreau near the end of Walden. “Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface.”

Practicing Conversation

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“It is not enough to relate our experiences: we must weigh them and group them; we must also have digested them and distilled them so as to draw out the reasons and conclusions they comport.” — Michel Montaigne, The Art of Friendship

“This is only my opinion, but. . . .”  Lately, whenever I hear that in the classroom, in a conference, in a faculty meeting, or in casual conversation, I want to tear off all my clothes and start screaming. Since that is against most social norms and my better judgment, I signal my displeasure by the merest arching of an eyebrow.

How did we come to this point in common discourse? Why is it that when we edge ever closer to subjects of significance and weight, points that ought to be argued, elements of life that divide and conquer people, we retreat with a disarming smile into a cloud of unknowing?

The rules of engagement in these battles are followed to the letter. First, the disclaimer: “This is only my opinion. . . . “ Translation: I’m sorry if you take offense at anything I say, but everyone has the right to their own opinion.” This is followed by the actual opinion, which varies in its relevance to the discussion, but usually reflects the unconscious prejudices of the opinionator. Finally, there is the idemnification clause, intended to protect against the disagreeable opinions of others fired at point-blank range: “You may disagree, that’s okay—everyone is entitled to their own opinion—but I’m just saying. . . .” Then the speaker usually lapses into passivity, content to have said his piece, but uninterested in any extension of the argument unless it challenges his right to express his opinion.

This signals the death of dialogue and the throttling of democracy, which relies on the free exchange of ideas. But how can ideas freely circulate when they come walled about with petulant assertions designed to shore up fragile egos? We have lost the art of “conversation,” a word which can be traced back to its Latin roots in the idea of living in company with others, literally, ‘to turn about with.’ Another ancient root, a scriptural meaning, relates conversation to a ‘manner of life,’ or a way of being, never merely as a means of communication. It signifies a willingness to trust one another, to extend to others the means of grace whereby genuine learning can take place. It assumes that conversation takes time, that it evolves, and that it is so much more than mere assertion.

Robert Grudin places this squarely in the realm of liberty and calls these conversational skills the ‘arts of freedom.’ In a fascinating meditation entitled On Dialogue, Grudin says, “Once gained, moreover, the arts of freedom must be kept fresh by thought and action, taught to the young, bequeathed down generations.” Otherwise, he warns, the posturing demagogue and the ravenous mass-marketer “will turn liberty into its own caricature, a barbarous fool driven by fear and greed.”

It might seem a long leap from a classroom discussion to the foundations of democracy. We must also be wary of blaming the end of civilization on the young and restless. But Grudin, a professor of English at the University of Oregon, believes that these arts can and should be taught. “The operative pedagogical philosophy is that skill in these arts will enable people to make decisions and follow courses of action beneficial to themselves and society. In other words, people can learn freedom. Freedom is useless without a rational and emotional instrumentation that gives it substance.”

What I often see in classroom discussions is more a clash of egos than an exchange of ideas. Many times those who speak up are so eager to claim their point of view as theirs that the point—if there even was one—is lost.

Teachers don’t help much either. When I worked in faculty development I saw many syllabi which laid out elaborate rules for classroom discussions. I was struck by the pervasive fear which ran through the assumptions behind these rules. Students had to be protected from the sharp edges of differences between them: once you entered the classroom there were no races, genders, or cultures. Reference to these social categories was taboo: each person was simultaneously an individual so autonomous that she perceived reality in exclusively personal terms and she was a member of a massive, amorphous, egalitarian lump. No doubt the intentions were that no student should feel discriminated against—something no one should have to suffer—but the effect was to limit discussion to the confident few who wielded their vorpal swords for sport. These parts of our identity help make us who we are and we ignore them at our peril. They come back as labels and epithets if we don’t take their influence into consideration.

We learn with each other: that’s what conversation is. We are social beings, which is to say we find out who we are through interaction with others as well as reflection by ourselves. Self-awareness and self-reflection, though, are learned behaviors, brought about through practice in hearing about ourselves from other people as we dialogue. When we don’t practice at listening before we speak we panic when spoken to. Our desire to be known for ourselves rises up and before we know it we are chanting the mantra of the blindingly obvious: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. . . .” Whereupon we deliver our opinion as a verdict rather than an invitation.

I once went to a conference for men held at a large hall in downtown Washington, D.C. It was led by Robert Bly, a poet and self-styled men’s mentor, who had just published a book entitled Iron John. It was a manifesto on being a real man without becoming a slack-jawed, brutish jerk. During the course of his presentation he gave some time for statements and questions from the floor, but placed some conditions on the speakers.  They had to keep their contributions to three sentences in the interest of time and they could ask questions—but any sentence that was not a question had to be a simple, declarative sentence. It was issued as a challenge: say what’s on your heart without hedging it about with qualifiers. I took it as a request for open, sincere, and rugged conversation.

Nobody could do it.

Virtually everyone who spoke danced about their subjects, adding implied questions, footnotes, self-referential phrasing, and jargon. Bly was disgusted and berated us for our narcissism.

I have often thought of that experience for it revealed some principles I’d like to live by. We need to think before we speak; we need to listen to others; we need to give each other grace so that we have a space in which to learn from each other. That’s not my opinion, that’s my invitation.

Photo: William Stitt, Unsplash.com

The Dali State

“In the transition stages of falling asleep and waking up again the contours of everyday reality are, at the least, less firm than in the state of fully awake consciousness. The reality of everyday life, therefore, is continuously surrounded by a penumbra of vastly different realities.”  Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy, 42.

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Somewhere, I once read that Salvador Dali would take a nap every afternoon in the heat of the day, lying upon a couch with a spoon clutched in his fingers. As he slipped into sleep and his fingers relaxed, the spoon would clatter to the tiled floor and Dali would spring up, his head full of the bizarre images that we see in his paintings—headless torsos, eyes on legs, soft clocks dripping over the edges of tables, crutches supporting distended body parts. It was from this transition state that Dali derived so much of his imaginative power; he had learned how to lure it up from the depths and coax it out into the harsh light of day. Such a wonder should not go unremarked.

I have experienced something like this time and time again, usually while waiting at interminable traffic lights in my commute to the university where I teach.  Lest the reader draw the conclusion that I am an accident waiting to happen, let me say that so far my powers of concentration and alertness haven’t let me down. I may also have guardian angels who draw down overtime and hazardous duty pay.

My Dali state does not take the form of vivid images, but of words that, for the brief duration of seconds, are like overhearing the one-sided conversation of an alien anthropologist reporting back to base camp. With eyes half-closed, I marvel at the collision of ideas, metaphors that lunge out of dark crevasses, similes like clanging cymbals, and the occasional meteorite of a thought arriving at the speed of light from a distant galaxy. I wish I could conjure up this stuff when I’m staring at a blank computer screen.

Being a product of the 20th century, I naturally view all this through psychologically-tinted glasses. It’s all there in the unconscious, I say, so at some point I must have snatched up these bright baubles and tossed them into a bin for later use. But instead of a sober and reflective scrutiny of them through the lens of reason, I see them flung in the air, catching the light as a mad juggler tosses them from hand to hand. In the Dali state they have a coherence that vaporizes when the light turns green and the SUVs around me lumber into motion. Just as our dreams impress us with their genius in the dark hours, but seem overwrought in the first light of day, so the messages one gets in the Dali state find a place in polite conversation only with difficulty.

Yet, in pre-modern times such messages were often thought to be of divine origin, having arrived in the nick of time to avert catastrophe or to predict one. Millenia before Freud lit his torches in the labyrinthine tunnels of the mind, the boundaries between waking reality and the visions that unfolded behind the eyes of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and many more throughout the centuries, were seen as permeable. Not only that, the scripts of these ultimate reality shows were written down, turning the mysterious and numinous into prose for us to ponder in these witless and distracted times.

Would we know a vision if we saw one? I’m under no illusion that these traffic-light dreamlets are anything more than the venting of steam from an overactive curiosity reactor, but that’s partly the point here. The “plausibility structure” of ancient religions made room for such phenomena; there is no space in our metaphysical blueprints for anything like that. Maybe we see no burning bushes, not because they don’t exist, but because we’ve ruled them obsolete.

Dali used these intimations for his flights of visual imagination; John Lennon would read in his garden and then look up and hear music to the words for a song he was working on. However they appear to us, they come from the same place, I believe, and that is our consciousness.

Huston Smith, one of the greatest teachers and scholars of the world’s religions in our age, explored this in one of the last books he wrote, Why Religion Matters. He thought of consciousness not simply as “an emergent property of life, as science assumes, but instead the initial glimpse we have of Spirit,” and likened it to a screen upon which is projected our perceptions, sensations, dreams, thoughts, memories, and feelings. “The light itself,” he writes, “without which no images would be possible, corresponds to pure consciousness . . . the common property of us all.”

When we experience pure consciousness, whether through introspection or meditation, Smith writes, “we have every reason to think that what I experience is identical with what you experience in that state . . . The infinitude of our consciousness is only potential whereas God’s consciousness is actual—God experiences every possibility timelessly—but the point here is that our consciousnesses themselves are in fact identical.”

We Protestants and we Adventists hold a resolute consistency in hewing to a sober, almost literalistic, perspective on this life. In our desire to define the lines which we are to toe, we brush aside the imaginative impulse, preferring the legal to the hopeful. Our art, our symbols, and our worship are the poorer for it. To walk into an Adventist A-frame church on a Sabbath morning is to realize the triumph of the utilitarian over the holy. There is little chance to be awed, even less to catch a glimpse of the sublime. We could do better, and without exorbitant cost.

It’s a paucity of imagination, a bankruptcy of collective consciousness, the desertification of the Spirit in our midst. Young Adventist artists, musicians, writers, and film-makers who have been discouraged as children from opening up their imaginations, may struggle not only to excel in their arts, but also to channel the Spirit in creative ways. It takes practice from an early age to allow one’s imagination to emerge and to flourish.

I’ve longed to sense the numinous, “to dream dreams and see visions,” as Isaiah promised the Hebrews 2700 years ago. While I seem to have little capacity for transmission, I do believe the receptors are there. Perhaps the signal needs to be amplified or there is presently too much noise in the channel. Wordsworth lamented:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

We see now in a mirror darkly, and our efforts to know God as we are known are—for this time and place—stunted and bound. But, if nothing else, that channel of consciousness can be deepened and widened, its banks cleansed of the litter left behind after our floods of guilt and frustration. We can, we are told, open ourselves to “the promptings of the Spirit” if we open up the bandwidth.

“I want to unfold.

Let no place in me hold itself closed,

for where I am closed, I am false.

I want to stay clear in your sight.”

Rainier Marie Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, translators.

Photo: Saksham Gangwar, Unsplash.com

Practicing the Grace We Have Received

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Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? —Matthew 25:37 (NRSV)

When I took a group of students down to a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. some years ago, I fell into a conversation with a young man who was living and working there. His father was a professor at Yale and this fellow had grown up in ease, if not luxury, and had gotten an Ivy League education for free. I wondered what kept him there, working day in and day out, never getting a word of thanks from those he helped. I wondered because I had just witnessed a homeless man, clutching his coat around him in the January chill, roundly curse out my acquaintance as he served him soup in the gathering shadows outside the row house on Euclid Street.

“Do they ever thank you?” I asked. Kevin stopped for a moment and thought, and then shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “Why do you ask?” He leaned forward to ladle soup into an outstretched bowl.

“Because I wonder what’s in it for you,” I said. “Why do you stay, considering the kind of upbringing you had? You could be anywhere else, doing whatever you want.”

“I am doing what I want,” he said. He frowned, puzzled. “It doesn’t matter whether they thank me or not.”

I persisted. “But you see the same people day after day. Nothing changes for them. Why do you keep at it?”

His answer was indistinct as he reached for a bowl to hand to the old woman in front of him. “Because they could be gods,” I thought I heard him say. Or perhaps he said, “Because they could be God’s.”

The story Jesus tells in Matthew 24 is about Judgment Day. All the nations are gathered in front of the Son of Man who sits upon his throne. He divides them up, some on his right side, some on his left. The writer calls those on the right side “sheep” and those on the left he calls “goats.” Those hearing the story must have understood the analogy because there is no explanation why sheep are preferred over goats as moral exemplars. Since we probably derive most of what we know about sheep and goats from this and other stories in the Gospels, we have to find the meaning for ourselves. And there are two things that are intriguing in this story.

The first is that the list of good actions taken by the sheep is repeated—once with approval by the king and again in puzzlement by the sheep-people. In fact, when we get to the goat part the list is again repeated, this time as actions not taken by the goats (to the disapproval of the king) and their anxious query: Tell us again when we didn’t do these things for you? The actions are important to the writer and to Jesus. Feeding the hungry and thirsty, taking in the stranger and clothing the refugee and the displaced persons, being with the sick and those forgotten in prison—these are the actions which separate the sheep from the goats.

This is what we are to do, all of us, from all the nations. Not just those from churches, mosques, and temples, but just people. They are designated not by religions but by nation-states and cultures. And what separates the nations is not creeds of beliefs or political ideologies or even economic prowess, but how well they take care of those pushed into the shadows and left behind.

The second thing that intrigues is the apparent blindness of both the sheep and the goats to their actions. Both are genuinely surprised at the judgments of the king. The sheep can’t remember doing anything of the sort and the goats are anxiously raking through their memories, trying to think how they could have overlooked something so obviously to their advantage. Both were unconscious of their actions and therein lies the meaning of this tale.

In intercultural communication studies there is a grid that shows the stages a person might go through as they grow aware of the complexity of communication. It is divided into four quadrants of communication competence.

The first is unconscious incompetence, the stage in which we are blithely unaware of our rampaging incompetence. We don’t even notice the trail of missed cues, trampled symbols, and outright weirdness on our part. Somehow, through the grace of God and the graciousness of others, we are spared the humiliation of being called out in public for our sins of commission and omission, and we live to err another day.

But then someone might kindly take us aside and clue us in to what we’ve missed and now, embarrassed but determined, we follow the actions of others like a cat on a laser-pointer. We are focused and aware, but we still make mistakes that can only be lived through and learned from. We are consciously incompetent.

The third phase comes through practice, patience, and imagination as we become consciously competent in our communication with others. While our actions still demand our attention, we have the experience and the confidence to handle most situations that come our way.

In the final phase, rare but not impossible to attain, we are unconsciously competent. We have watched, listened, followed, and learned to the point where we no longer have to decide every action. The situation gives rise to our response. We act in the right way at the right time for the right reason and with the right result. It is so much a part of us that others may describe it as our ‘second nature.’

CommComp

This is what Aristotle called virtue, the habit of choosing the right action between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Finding the sweet spot between them is neither formulaic nor precise, he said. Ethics is not like mathematics and we should recognize this for ourselves and others. Cut some slack, he said, this kind of thing takes a lot of practice. It’s not enough to self-consciously act appropriately one time and feel we’ve done our duty, for “one swallow does not a summer make.”

This is what Confucianism and Taoism call wu wei, “action-less action,” that which requires no effort on our part because we have practiced. The body and muscles retain memory, just as does our conscience. It is what Jesus calls “walking in the Way.” Aristotle thought it would be best if we started early in life on this and Hebrew sages encouraged parents to train up their children in the way they should go and when they were old (adults) they would not depart from it.

We do depart from it, of course, and quite frequently. Just as the sheep can learn the unconscious competence of virtue through practice, the goats can learn the unconscious competence of vice in the same way. This is what flares up into deadly force between people and roars up into wars. It’s what turns economic policy into weapons against the poor and cuts off those who struggle to speak.

The habits of a lifetime become our character. None of us succeed at this without effort; all of us are capable of behavior that is grace-filled.

Photo: Pixabay, Graphic: Barry Casey