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

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

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

On the Boundary

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When people of faith look at the world, they see multiple images. There is the natural world that is given, not produced by us. There is the cultural world, the objects and ideas of which are imagined, thought, built, and produced by us. And there is the supernatural world of powers, spirits, angels, and God. If we are honest with ourselves, the first two image sets are more recognizably real to us than is the last.

The challenge is to understand what the world is for us, we who belong to many different communities as well as our own communities of faith. We can think of it through two phrases that are thick with possibilities for understanding: the first is “to be in the world, but not of the world,” and the second phrase is “to live on the boundary.”

A phrase like “in the world, but not of the world,” is a paradox rather than clever nonsense. This phrase is familiar to us, although it doesn’t appear in Scripture as such. We must address both sides of it.

We are in the world in more than just a geographical sense: we are inextricably embedded in this world right down to the molecular level. We share air, water, and space with other creatures and life forms, and our continued existence on this earth is interdependent with theirs. Much of our DNA we share in common with other species. This world is our home.

Yet, we are not entirely at home in this world. That is the paradox in which we live. Christians—people who see themselves as pilgrims passing through—are also citizens, parents, homeowners, students, patients, leaders, farmers, manufacturers, and politicians. Like everyone else, Christians are invested in this world. It is hard to anticipate the end to the world when you are trying to build a hospital or take out a loan for graduate school. How do you live with one foot on the throttle and the other on the brake?

“You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus. The remark is placed by the writer of Matthew just after the Beatitudes, which are themselves reversals of common sense in any well-ordered society. “Blessed are the meek,” he says, “for they will inherit the earth.” We glance up; surely he is not serious. “You are the salt of the earth. If the salt has lost its savor, it is thrown out and cast underfoot.”

It is not so much a warning (don’t become obsolete!) as it is a pronouncement: you bring flavor to the world. And a little goes a long way; you may be few in number (just a pinch will do!), but you make the plain fare of life worth tasting.

“You are the light of the world,” says Jesus. No hint of sarcasm, but more than a touch of irony. Look what we can do with a few good lights! These people of poverty, these people of the shadows, these persecuted pursuers of peace, they are lighting up the world and they will not be hidden. Do your good work in the world where it can be seen—that’s how people will know God exists.

If we do not love this world then we do not love its Creator, for God so loved the world that He gave His own son for it.

To love the world, despite its sinfulness and despair, is to love like God—with patience, long-suffering, and commitment.

Like Jesus himself, we are to be faithful to this world and to the possibility of its ultimate transformation.

We must also speak to the other side of the phrase: “not of the world.” To say this is to ‘re-cognize,’ that is to ‘know again,’ that we have been called out of the dead ends of this world into a new life in Christ.

To be in the world is to be constantly confronted with choices. It can become exhausting. Why couldn’t God have made us so that choosing the good was automatic? Instead, God seems to have set it up so that we need freedom to make our way in the world. Our freedom to choose means we can work in the world without fear—fear of the world and fear of failure. Because we are covered with God’s grace, we can take chances, try new things, and step out in faith. In that sense, the big picture becomes rather simple. In fact, the tagline for Christians might be: “We’ve fallen and we can’t get up. By the grace of God, shall we try it again?”

We may be overwhelmed by the cruelty and the suffering of people in the world. We may be tempted to abandon the world to itself. But this is our world, the place where we find our calling. Playwright Christopher Fry writes, “In our plain defects we already know the brotherhood of man.” There is much to dare and to try while we are here.

There are times when we are called to stand up, stand out, and give light to the world. During times of despair and fear, we must be visible, calling out injustices where they occur, and offering an alternative to hopelessness.

The other phrase about us is “on the boundary.” We are boundary people, we Christians, because we are both in the world, but not entirely of the world. We are a living Venn diagram of the kingdom here and yet to come. We see and respect the difference. We identify both with the suffering in the world and with the Christ who suffers for the world. On our best days we live and serve in the world and in the church. Straddling that boundary can be hard and uncomfortable. It may stretch our imagination and patience until they begin to fray.

Between theory and practice, between what we are taught and what we practice together in the world, there is a tension. If we lean too far toward the theory, that is, toward our beliefs and customs, we run the risk of losing touch with the world. If we lean too far in the other direction, toward our practice, we begin to lose our memory of the community and its history. Both are important.

We are on the boundary also with church and society. It is a question once again of translating our experience with God into language that is both prophetic and imaginative. Can we speak a word of truth to a society that deliberately lies? Can we work to understand those whom we’d just as soon see struck down with fire? Do we have the humility to examine the ways we humiliate those even within our church? Perhaps most importantly, can we listen before we speak?

Finally, we are on the boundary between religion and politics. A religion that cannot speak a prophetic word to the political structure will soon lose its voice. But a religion that seeks first the power of the political structure will eventually lose its soul.

The questions we might ask today do not begin with ‘Whose side are you on?’ but rather with “How may we help?” In order to be in the world, but not of the world, we must remain on the boundary.

Photo: John Baker, Unsplash.com

You Can Climb Through This Window

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“This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.” — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

There was a time, many decades ago, when an aspiring writer could make a subsistence living by writing book reviews. George Orwell did it for years, turning them out weekly, along with novels, opinion pieces, columns, commentaries, and essays. The voice in his essays is so distinctive that anyone who paid attention in their high school literature classes could probably pick his work out of an audible lineup. For anyone writing essays in the last century and this one, Orwell is the mountain that fills the foreground. You can’t go around him—he simply must be climbed. To see the world through Orwell’s eyes from that peak is to glimpse a landscape without ornament: no frills, no unnecessary adornment, just solidity casting shadows.

His wry, lean, prose caught me early in my reading life and I have never completely gotten over it. “Shooting an Elephant,” “A Nice Cup of Tea,” “Politics and the English Language (required reading for anyone who is a citizen of a country)” and especially, “Why I Write,” became lodestones for me. If I was within five feet of an Orwell collection and had 10 minutes to myself, I’d be pulled in magnetically to trace through his paragraphs, wishing I’d written them, and trying to hear my own voice in dialogue with his.

A good writer is like a window, he said, and in my journalism and writing classes in college I strove to become one. I didn’t have the chutzpah or the incandescent trajectories that Norman Mailer could throw into the air nor could I take on the flat, uninflected observations of Joan Didion that usually ended with a shard of glass in one’s eye. Instead, I learned to subtract rather than multiply. There are always enough words to go around, Orwell said. Not to worry. Less is more as long as you tell the truth.

But I had little of consequence to write about. You have to have something—anything—there in order to subtract from it, and piling on adjectives just to strip them away is as perverse as digging holes in order to fill them in. In time I came to see that the essay, a sounding of one’s thoughts with an individual voice that registers the frequencies of one’s age, was ideal for me. The imagination that could spin out a novel as it goes ever on was not yet mine to employ.

“When you write, you lay out a line of words,” says Annie Dillard in the first sentence of The Writing Life. “Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”

You peer ahead through the fog, imagining the shapes of trees or monsters, and, with patience, a rough path appears. You follow it. You lay down more words like flagstones, and eventually you see that you are somewhere, although just where is not clear. But it’s a ‘where’ that is worth the moment and you build on it. That’s the sense in which we discover through our writing where—and who—we are.

For Dillard the trigger often seems to be the natural world. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an epistle of unsentimental wonder about a few square acres of wilderness in Virginia, is like dropping from the sky-blue ionosphere into a forest thicket, to land softly and to be still and to watch a turtle slip silently off a log into the water. Biology becomes prose, prose becomes a window: we look through and are transformed.

Orwell insisted that all art is propaganda, that the writer is trying to get across a particular world view that is rooted in personal experience, and that it flowers in a specific time and place. It was supremely important, he thought, that the writer say what he or she saw. The ordinary person, like a scout on reconnaissance, could report back momentous discoveries disguised in the everyday happenings of life. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction; what matters is the truth expressed.

“Push it,” urges Dillard. “Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search . . . . Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

Freely we have received, freely give.

“Language is mysterious,” says Karen Armstrong in The Bible: A Biography. “When a word is spoken, the ethereal is made flesh.”

The Word and the word are living waters: those who profess faith have drawn much from the well of the Bible. It serves us as a portal to the ancient world of the Hebrews and to the first stirrings of the community of Jesus. It has shaped our language, given us metaphors and analogies that are the substratum of our conversation, and narratives that play out in our imagination. It is our library (ta biblia, the books) from which we may constantly listen for the thunder of the prophets, the crisp wisdom of Proverbs, the angst and awe of Job, the breathless narrative of Mark, the Christ-intoxicated letters of Paul. This is given to us as an open-ended revelation of what life on the Way has been for this great cloud of witnesses that swirls around us. What will we do with this gift?

It is just this which can open us up. What I want to read is how life is opened to another’s eye and then passed along from one to another. What I want to write is to say, “See? Look what I found! What do you think about that?”

To lay out a line of words as truthfully as possible, and for that to be taken up by others . . . Ah, that is worth the struggle.

(Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash.com)

Is THIS My Father’s World?

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It’s on the problem of evil that reason truly stumbles, and skepticism truly triumphs. For here reason is not merely in trouble but in pain.

— Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought

In one way or another, for most of my adult life, I’ve been struggling with the problem of evil. In philosophy of religion this is known as theodicy, the act of justifying God’s character in the face of the constant presence of evil in the world.

The problem is stated by British philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) in this way: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

Something like theodicies, or at least stories that raised the question, have been around for as long as people could tell stories—even before they could write them down. But in fact, blaming or justifying God is the effect. The more pressing question is the cause: why is there evil at all?

There are a multitude of viewpoints. Some are trivial: This is evil, that is good. Excise the evil, keep the good. Repeat as needed. Some are nuanced: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reflecting on his years in the Soviet Gulag, says, “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a part of his own heart?”

Philosophers refer to evil as a problem, as do most people when they talk about it in a rather abstract way. We think of problems as things which can be solved. We might not solve them, but we’re confidant that something will make them better one day. Technology, probably.

In the most reasonable of ways, Hume sets out in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, to show that reason utterly fails when attempting to solve this “problem.” Susan Neiman, whose history of philosophy, Evil in Modern Thought, includes a masterful and ironic reading of Hume, gives us a well-crafted sketch of his evidence.

Theodicies generally make a distinction between natural evil (the hurricanes that devastated Houston and Puerto Rico) and moral evil (Harvey Weinstein’s predations on women). Hume uses the assumptions of natural religion, the idea that our natural abilities—reason and the senses—can be used to discern the nature of God and our religious and moral duties—he uses those to undermine the interests of reason.

Traditional and natural religion relied on a school-yard challenge to opponents of God’s design in nature. What kind of world would you create? Not a fantasy world where everything magically worked out, but a real world with constraints like gravity, decay, and extremes. Hume looks at the world with a skeptical eye and asserts that the evils of the world can be expressed in four circumstances. Any and all of them could have been avoided with a bit more planning on the part of the Creator.

The first circumstance is that pain is used as a goad to action. But couldn’t a world be designed in which pleasure is the prime motivator? Would it have been so hard, asks Hume, to drive us to action through degrees of pleasure? When we’re hungry our pleasure is decreased, leading us to seek nourishment. When we’re cold we seek a return to warmth. Is the amount of pain we experience in the world really necessary in a modestly successful world-design?

The second circumstance is the necessity for natural laws. A world based on laws is predictable and stable. But while there are natural laws, they don’t necessarily work to our particular advantage. What seems much more obvious, says Hume, are the accidents. In fact, instead of constancy and predictability what we most often experience is the irregular and the contingent. If anything can go wrong it will. Couldn’t we have a world in which tankers didn’t burst into flame, in which people in the prime of life weren’t cut down by cancer, and in which those in power didn’t grind the faces of the poor just because they could? Is that asking too much of a Designer?

A third circumstance is the stinginess of nature. The Author of creation didn’t distribute gifts equally to His creatures. The swift are frail—think of the thin legs of deer. The slow and ponderous are helpless if stopped in their tracks—think of a turtle flipped onto its back. And reasoning creatures—we humans—have no natural defenses and we take a disproportionate time to mature. We need constant attention to physically survive to the point where we can successfully rely on our brains to get us through life. It’s really shortsighted of God to skimp on the materials; couldn’t He have thought about these problems before starting? Do we chalk it up to a lack of goodwill or sheer incompetence?

And while he’s at it, Hume adds a fourth circumstance that produces evils in the world. When we look at the “great machine of nature” we can see that some of the parts fit together fairly well, but most of them lack precision. It’s a sloppy job. Winds might be required to make a world work, but why do they have to become hurricanes? Passions and emotions are necessary, but why do they have to spill over into hatred and violence?

If this is my Father’s world it’s not a very satisfying one. Hume, having contracted the Creator for the job, would fire Him for shoddy workmanship. If God is all-powerful, surely He could make a world that worked better. If He is benevolent and powerful, why wouldn’t He want to make the best possible world? Try to reason that out to a satisfactory conclusion: Hume says it’s not going to happen because human reason will let you down and lead you wrong.

Susan Neiman summarizes Hume’s argument: “If you follow human reason, you expect the world to be one way. If you open your eyes, you see that it’s another.” The world doesn’t bend to our syllogisms and arguments. We’re not going to solve the problem of evil through reason, says Hume cheerfully. If we want to maintain God’s existence and benevolence we are free to do so through faith, without anything that looks reasonable at all.

Reason or faith? Pick one, because you can’t have them both.

The Latin word “problema” finds its origin in ballein, Greek for “to throw;” thus a problem is something thrown in our path. Ballein also gives us “diabolical”, from diabolos the name of the devil, the literal meaning of which is ‘to throw across.’ Problems are thrown in our path by the original problem-thrower, the Diabolos, the Devil. We can go over them, under them, around them, or through them. Or we can remove the obstacles from our path.

But if we’ve learned anything through all these stories in these many millennia, it’s that evil cannot be removed like an obstacle in our path. One philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, makes a useful distinction between a problem—something that is objective and outside my being, which can be reduced to a set of details—and a mystery —“something in which I find myself caught up” and in which my very identity can be questioned. Problems can be solved, objectively, at a distance. Mysteries of this sort can only be understood from inside them, subjectively, and without ceasing.

What are we to do?

This is not the place for smugness and self-righteousness nor should we indulge in what Thomas Merton calls “the rotten luxury of self-pity.” Likewise, any trumpeting about the “Church triumphant” should be stilled. We are not saved through the Church nor will the Church save the world.

As long as humankind subverts its freedom we will be subject to evil in our world. Since that subversion is how we play this game this is the mystery that shapes us—person, tribe, and nation.

“For the Christian who really understands his faith,” writes Reinhold Niebuhr in Beyond Tragedy, “life is worth living and this world is not merely a ‘vale of tears.’ He is able to discern the goodness of creation beneath the corruptions of human sin. Nor will he be driven to despair by the latter; for the God in whom he believes is the redeemer as well as creator.”

I do not want cheap grace nor a faith that does not reckon the cost. I want faith that has the courage to be kind and strength that is unashamed about its need. Like Jacob, I must strive with God. There is innocence—to which we cannot return, and there is experience—within which we cannot remain. But our hope and redemption lies in an innocent experience, a transformed seeing of the world in all its cruelty, tragedy, comedy, and glory.

There is undeniable goodness and beauty in the world. At times it is difficult to see, but it is always, always, here. That’s encouraging, but these glimmers will not be enough to last us when optimism in human progress dries up.

Where do we look when we try to hope in spite of evil? When I carry a cup up to my loft I’ve found that if I don’t want to spill it everywhere I have to look at the cup, not my feet. In that way I can provide equilibrium for the cup while trusting my feet to find their way without tripping. That’s a metaphor for the tangled hopes we carry. We’ve got the cup of salvation in our hands, but we’re still afraid for our feet.

“For you have delivered my soul from death,

my eyes from tears,

my feet from stumbling.

I walk before the Lord

in the land of the living.

I kept my faith, even when I said,

‘I am greatly afflicted’;

I said in my consternation,

‘Everyone is a liar.’

“What shall I return to the Lord

for all his bounty to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation

and call upon the name of the Lord,

I will pay my vows to the Lord

in the presence of all his people.” (Ps. 116: 8-14)

Photo: Unsplash.com

First Church of Common Mysteries Now Open (v. 2)

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Every human society is an enterprise of world-building. Religion occupies a distinctive place in this enterprise . . . All socially constructed worlds are inherently precarious. Supported by human activity, they are constantly threatened by the human facts of self-interest and stupidity. — Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy

Religion gets its knocks these days as the perpetrator of all things evil, the invention of adults who never outgrew their childish fears, the condemner of all that is spontaneous and upgrowing. Some of that is true, and when we who can still remember our childhood conscription into religion somehow find ourselves passing as adults and still floundering gracelessly around in the warm waters of the faith we were baptized into we may be forgiven for our slack-jawed lack of defense. Some practices of religion, like manners and clothes, are a matter of habit. Habits smooth our way and free us up to think about important things, so we may be reluctant to drop those which, so far, have not resulted in serious injury or loss of footing.

But, perhaps, like a man whose waist has outgrown his trousers, our boundaries to religion are too small, too much the skinny jeans rather than the comfort waist regular cut with a smoosh more room in the seat. “Were we to limit our view to it,” says William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “we should have to define religion as an external art, the art of winning the favor of the gods.”

Few Christians would admit to that, although their practices might. The institution of religion—its churches, ecclesiastical hierarchies, vestments, holy books, and, of course, the systematic theologies, commentaries, councils, and connections—all of that is the external manifestation of world-building and world-maintenance, as Peter Berger notes in The Sacred Canopy. It’s a way of not only maintaining order in the world, but also, says Berger, “the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant.”

We can’t fault people for organizing a religion: that’s what symbol and ritual lead to, after all. The first person to consciously repeat an action that had projected him into a holy and awesome experience was trying to recapture the moment. And it must have worked on some level or he wouldn’t have passed it on to others. It’s certainly not wrong to long for a repeat of something that moved us deeply, but no experience, however vivid, can fully be duplicated. In fact, the more vivid and detailed the experience the less likely it can be reconstituted.

It’s the generic expressions that translate best over time and culture: the movement of the body in dance and worship, the eating together in fellowship, the common prayer shared amongst a grieving circle, the reading of holy scripture in search of understanding.

All of this is religion, religare, from the Latin for ‘to bind.’ It’s religion that binds us together through these rituals, these attempts to relive an experience of the past. There is nothing wrong with this. But we must realize we are trying to elevate a secondary reflection of someone’s primary experience to a primary experience for ourselves.

What we retain is a reverence for the gesture, the word, the ritual—the ‘finger pointing to the moon’, instead of the cool radiance of the moon itself. We feel a solidarity with the countless congregations through the centuries, gathered in glades deep in the forest, in huts and homes, in cathedrals and chapels, in temples, mosques, and tents.

We are reenacting a drama, reading from a script that by now is tattered and smudged from a thousand fingers tracing out the lines. The script itself becomes a holy object, passed reverently from hand to hand, as the players rehearse for a show that never ends.

Religion binds us together then, sometimes closer than we want, and sometimes in ways that seem to trap and fetter us. But there is another derivation of the word, this one from Cicero, who suggests that religion is connected to relegare, Latin for ‘to go through’ or ‘over again as in reading, speech or thought.’ Still another rendering is that ‘religion’ is related to the English reck, ‘to heed,’ or ‘to have a care for.’

Religion as an activity that humans engage in is that which they care about, what they perform with care over and again from many different motives and with mixed results, to be sure, but at the very least with the hope that through this they will come into the presence of the divine.

Thus, the external symbols and rituals seek to penetrate to one’s heart.

But the internal response, the deep inwardness that comes when we fall into a reverie waiting for the light to change—that is not to be trifled with nor ignored. “The relation goes direct from heart to heart,” says James, “from soul to soul, between man and his maker.”

This is what we call ‘spirituality,’ the diffuse but real sense of the divine surrounding us. I suspect that part of its appeal to many is the fact that it is non-binding. The binding to the institution of religion, its religare function, may be more than some people can bear. Political evangelicals have already alienated many by their enthusiastic endorsement of Trump and his administration’s actions in recent months. Their explicit support for these policies is a break point for many Christians.

But the power of spirituality lies in its first-order, primary experience with God. That’s what people want, even those who are entrenched in rituals, week after week, that make no sense to them. They want to hunger after God, they want the numinous, the mysterium tremendum et fascinansthat lifted Moses and Abraham and Jacob, Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther King, and millions more. They desire meaning and purpose to their lives.

We have these holy moments of beauty; they drift up like dandelion seeds before us and we might not even see them, focused as we are on the flotsam of our days.

There is no inherent reason why spirituality and religion can’t coexist. But it’s clear that religion without spirituality is a valley full of dry bones. And it’s also clear that, as Karen Armstrong says, some people just don’t have the knack for religion.

The capacity for spirituality is encoded in every person. It is not magic nor is it superstition. It is not unreasonable nor does it depend on some secret instruction, a laGnosticism. It is a capacity for wonder that we begin to lose early in life. It is a way of perceiving the beauty around us, despite what we have done to the natural world. It is a willingness to be released from the bonds that fetter us and narrow our vision. It is a prayer of grace and courage to live in this moment in the presence of Jesus.

We should ask ourselves a simple question: Do we want to see God’s beauty in the world? Then attention must be paid, and spirituality as a practice provides the means.

“Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” says Rilke. “Every angel is terrifying.” A star is waiting to be noticed, a wave rolls toward us from the past, a violin yields to our hearing as we pass under an open window—all these are intimations of God if we are awake. Will we practice noticing?

“All this was mission,” declares Rilke. “But could you accomplish it?” This is what grace gives us: the courage to notice the common mysteries of our lives.

“Truly, we live with mysteries

too marvelous to be understood . . .

Let me keep my distance, always, from those

who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company, always, with those

who say, “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.” — Mary Oliver

Photo: Priscilla Du Perez, Unsplash.com

Oprah Maybe, Arpaio No

One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes. . . And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and powerful. — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, #129

Sometimes, the conjunction of two very different people or events or ideas can provoke a perception that would not have been possible otherwise. The ascendancy of Oprah in the wake of her Golden Globes speech, and the announcement in The New York Times that Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff, is running for the senate, provides such a moment.

One of the foundational myths of American culture is that anyone can become president. It is a story, usually bolstered by reference to Lincoln, that is meant to widen our horizons and reassure us that opportunities seized can result in the fulfillment of private ambition rendered for the public good. No matter how humble one’s origin, the story goes, America’s egalitarianism theoretically makes it possible for the guy down at the 7-Eleven, or your neighbor—hell, even for you!—to strive and to rise to presidential heights.

Never mind that the 2016 presidential campaigns alone racked up a price tag of $2.4 billion out of a total of $6.5 billion after the congressional elections were tallied. That means that our last presidential election cost just under the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) for 2017 ($2.5 billion), as estimated by the IMF.

Never mind that our last political contest, by contrast to other democracies, ran to 596 days, while Britain’s 2015 election was 139 days, Canada’s longest election cycle was just 78 days, and Japan’s elections, which are limited by law, are never more than 12 days.

Somehow we live with the cognitive dissonance that the office is open to anyone over 35, while still knowing that a presidential candidate must be prepared to raise and spend about a billion dollars for the privilege.

But in a curious and vulgar way, Donald Trump proved that the myth is true: anyone—no matter how unqualified, incompetent, and dangerous—really can become president, provided the money is there.

We have now entered the era of the celebrity president, one who has no discernible ability to lead and negotiate among the factions of American society nor any desire to support allies across the world. The confounding spectacle of a billionaire whose racist sympathies and misogynistic attitudes were enough to win him the White House but not the popular vote seems to have set the stage for other improbable candidates. If success is name recognition, vast wealth, and the unlimited ability to indulge oneself, then we can expect other celebrities to be courted for a presidential run.

And that brings us to Oprah, whose Golden Globes speech won her the applause of the audience, and the fervent endorsement of Meryl Streep and other Democrats desperate for charisma in 2020. She’s a self-made billionaire, a philanthropist, a uniter instead of a divider, and beloved by millions. What’s not to like? But the fact that people are seriously considering Oprah as a candidate shows how low the bar has dropped for American democracy.

Her achievements are extraordinary, made all the more so by what she has personally overcome through life. But none of that has prepared her for the decisions that must be made when there are no good outcomes and the lives of millions are at risk. If she is serious about public service then she should run for mayor of Chicago. If she could do that job with grit and grace then perhaps she could try for a governorship or a Senate seat. From there, with experience and testing, she could become a powerful candidate for the presidency, taking into account her character, her charm, and her many other likable qualities.

On the other hand, there is Joe Arpaio, the controversial Arizona sheriff who was facing jail time for abusing his power and defying a court order until Trump pardoned him, and who has announced he is running for the Republican senate seat soon to be vacated by Jeffrey Flake.

Arpaio was entrusted with the protection of his citizens and with upholding justice under the law. In his tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona he styled himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He consistently mistreated prisoners, discounted and ignored crimes against women, misused public funds, defiantly bucked a court order to stop illegal immigration roundups, and relished the power he wielded to terrify people of color. If he wins the seat for Arizona Trump will find a senator who is devoted to him, who is willing to flout the law, and whose stance on immigration and civil rights is illegal under current laws.

For elected office a candidate must possess character, vision, and prudence. Character would include, at the very least, courage, integrity, honesty, and compassion. Vision would be a capacity to imagine and to articulate plans for the future that understood historical patterns and present problems. Prudence would be the ability to exercise good judgement about the use of one’s power.

With time and experience it’s possible that Oprah could be that person.

As for Arpaio, his record should stand as disqualifying him for public office of any sort. He represents the worst of what people fear in a politician: blinding ambition, cruelty honed to a knife-edge, a willingness to bend the law until it breaks, and a profound contempt for those he considers his inferiors.

In a country of 343 million people, surely we can do better.

In the End, Hope

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Dear fellow-creature, praise our God of Love

That we are so admonished, that no day

Of conscious trial be a wasted day.

 

Or else we make a scarecrow of the day,

Loose ends and jumble of our common world,

And stuff and nonsense our own free will;

Or else our changing flesh may never know

There must be sorrow if there can be love.

— W. H. Auden, Canzone

Now that it is safely out of earshot we can admit that for many of us 2017 was an annus horribilis, a horrible year. We need think only of the erosion of trust in the truth and the attacks on the values that we thought formed our social community. They are the foreground to the constant thrumming background of deaths to terrorism and domestic violence, to the roiling tempest of wars and natural disasters, and the tossing about of millions of refugees.

For many of us, 2017 brought the eviscerating awareness that politics was war by another name. If the thin veneer of humanity that overlays our social realm seemed to blacken and curl around the edges in the blast furnace of the vox populi of Twitter, then we also realized that by beholding we become deranged. Many of us recoiled from social media in these months while we absorbed the news of the day strained through a much more critical filter.

Millions of us stumbled through November 9, 2016, nauseated and apprehensive. In the endless purgatory that was the election cycle, Donald Trump morphed from a bully and a buffoon into an improbable winner whose jaw-dropping ability to defy the political odds was matched only by his bottomless narcissism. A businessman who consistently failed upwards, he supplied the demand for the open expression of hatreds that were usually masked.

But in the midst of the deluge there were those who managed to rise to the surface. The courageous action of two prominent women and the persistent reporting of The New York Times resulted in the #MeToo phenomenon about sexual assault on women. Within weeks men in high places were resigning or being fired for numerous assaults and indiscretions. It is a beginning. Much that has been taken for granted about the power of men over women will no longer be tolerated. Going forward, communication between men and women—and on this topic—will need honesty, resilience, and empathy more than ever.

For some the ties that bound them to their religions and their faiths frayed, parted, and dropped away. The corrosive effect of policies without principles exposed the pillars of faith to rust. Actions taken by Ted Wilson and the General Conference executive committee at the 2016 Annual Council, and then again at the 2017 Annual Council, seemed to double down on the divisive vote of the 2015 General Conference Session against the unions allowing women to be ordained to the pastoral ministry. In the views of many authority seemed to give way to authoritarianism and uniformity seemed dressed in unity’s clothing.

And yet, hundreds of women who pastored and taught went about their mission with cheerfulness and quiet determination. The attitudes and actions of the few could not distract the many from working in tandem with the Spirit.

This was a year of quiet revelations for me. Crises provoke self-examination or self-destruction: if we’re attentive we can ingest the former and avoid the latter.

I learned that my personal aspirations ran deeper than I had understood and that my enthusiasm for teaching—part of my self-identity for decades—was cooling. Was my perception accurate that my teacherly powers were diminishing? Or was it simply an erosion of my self-confidence? As the gap between my expectations for my students and my awareness of their personal situations widened I realized how tenuous is this process we call education. No amount of “multivalent incentive matrices” can make up for the fact that learning is a solitary and disciplined curiosity made authentic in a community of individuals.

In matters of faith and reason I remain both a believer and a doubter, inherently driven by doubt while longing to trust more fully. I attempt to thread my way between the Scylla of the materialism of the age and the Charybdis of religious fundamentalism. My spiritual mentors this past year were Thomas Merton, Sigve Tonstad, Anne Lamott, and Barbara Brown Taylor, whose sermons and essays enliven the imagination and bring me to my knees in gratitude.

This year it dawned on me that faith is best defined as the courage to follow Jesus. I lack courage of any sort and I wish only to come to the end of the day and not be ashamed of who I was in the world with others. In a myriad of ways, we were asked this year to be courageous in resisting and transforming the casual brutality of the Trump administration. Many of us also recoiled from the methods and goals of self-designated evangelical Christians. We will need to redefine for ourselves what it means to follow Jesus.

Mircea Eliade, one of the great 20th-century historians of religion, noted in his classic, The Myth of the Eternal Return, that ancient civilizations, including the Hebrews, saw the end of the year as the ultimate cosmic degeneration, the wearing down of the world under the weight of sins. The world and its people must be remade through a cleansing ritual that restores them to the newness of Creation. For the Hebrews, Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—preceded Rosh Hoshana—the New Year. Sacrifice and the cleansing of one’s sins prepared one for the renewal of the world and oneself. Despite the inevitable running down of both time and vitality, there was always the possibility of a fresh start.

For us it would be as if December 31 was the end of the world, a death that was inevitable, but then an astonishing rising to life on January 1 in the pure stillness of New Year’s Day.

Without forgetting what brought us to this point in our history, perhaps we can take to heart Isaiah’s words:

Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it?

I imagine that at the end of the year the virtues and the gifts of the Spirit we have been trying to cultivate gather round for inventory. Courage, Moderation, Prudence and Wisdom, all have their say, as do Faith and Love. Last to speak is Hope: “I didn’t see much of you this year,” it says quietly. “Do we have a future together? Should I go or should I stay?”

And I imagine myself, startled and stuttering to say, “Stay, please stay! It’s you who makes the others even possible.”

(Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash.com)