Jesus, One for All

“Praxis will make Jesus alive among us. As a mystery, he is therefore never the exclusive possession of Christians. He is ‘common property.’” — Edward Schillebeeckx, God Among Us: The Gospel Proclaimed

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, a name that for people the world over is instantly recognizable as unique, yet for his time was as common as Mohammed is today. Biblical scholars have pointed out that we know very little of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, that the reports of Matthew and Luke are ‘gospel’ truths, not historical facts, and that he entered the world unnoticed. But of course for his parents, and perhaps for a few friends and relatives, this birth was, like most births, an occasion for joy, tinged with the darkness that waits patiently just beyond the reach of every parent.
It is ironic that one of the most beloved of Christmas traditions, the “Hallelujah Chorus,” exalts the magnificent titles later bestowed on this little anonymous Jewish boy born under the oppressive rule of the Roman empire: King of Kings and Lord of Lords . . . forever and ever and ever! Matthew pulls in lines from Isaiah about a baby born back in the day who is named Emmanuel, ‘God with us,’ but the angel who appears in Joseph’s dream commands that this child be named Jesus (which is the English equivalent of the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic ‘Yeshua,’ the Latinized version of the Hebrew ‘Yehoshua’) which means ‘Yahweh is salvation.’ Close enough: Matthew’s calling up of ‘Emmanuel’ dovetails nicely with the name ‘Jesus’ in that God moves close to us in the form of the one who saves—Yahweh.
How do we connect with this child? We usually don’t. Say the name ‘Jesus’ and you most likely see a grown man trudging up and down the roads of Galilee. You just might see a young boy, having slipped the anxious bonds of his parents, stunning the theologians in the temple with his knowledge of scripture. For the most part, though, we jump directly from the manger scene to Jesus’ baptism because the Gospels are silent about those years.
And yet through countless paintings, sculptures, images, poems, songs, and Christmas cards, we imagine this baby, perhaps one of many born that day called ‘Jesus,’ and we see this one as the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, the Redeemer.
Jesus himself seems almost oblivious to his own identity, caught up as he is in his mission for others. When people ask who he is he sometimes demurs, other times answers obliquely (I and the Father are one), and occasionally, in the presence of his friends, speaks directly—“I am among you as one who serves.” He is a man consumed by his passion for God, yet he grows weary like any man. He constantly threads his way between the messianic and revolutionary hopes of the peasants around him and the pragmatic realpolitik of the ruling religious parties. The people can see the difference: ‘He speaks with authority, not like the priests,’ and ‘no one speaks like this man.’ “Why do you call me good?” he asks. “Only the Father is good.” And that, says Edward Schillebeeckx, Dominican monk and professor of theology, “can only be said by someone who is so obviously good that he is not even conscious of being good. And precisely that will betray his identity.”
At times I wonder where Jesus can be found in all the Christmas mashup concocted by the religio-commercialized complex. There’s precious little left of him after the season is over, so obscured is he by our frenetic worship of getting. Occasionally, I imagine the terrible scene sketched by Nietzsche in which a madman rushes into the city square with a lantern in midday, crying “God is dead! And we have killed him!” And after I jump down from my own petard before I am blown up by self-righteousness, I glimpse a figure moving steadily through the crowd ahead. I quicken my pace, but I lose him at the corner. I pause, turning in a full circle, eyes straining, but he is gone. Then I see him, standing alone, the crowd swirling past him, and when our eyes meet he smiles. My eyes tear up in the wind and when I clear them he has vanished. No matter: Imagination will suffice when beckoned by hope.
Like the first Christians, we understand this better when we read back from the unthinkable resurrection to the birth of Jesus. As Schillebeeckx says, “Human birth, life and death are in fact accessible only in a story, and not in theory or ‘theology.’ “

Mandela’s Choice

“. . . no matter what a man’s frailties otherwise may be, if he be willing to risk death, and still more if he suffer it heroically, in the service he has chosen, the fact consecrates him forever.” — William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

At one of the campuses where I teach, a student remarked in a symposium that a fellow classmate had just heard of Nelson Mandela’s death. ‘You know who he is, right?” asked my student. “Sure,” came the response, “he’s an actor” — a case of life being confused as art imitating life, as Morgan Freeman played Nelson Mandela in the film, Invictus

A great man passes on and the world mourns. Jailed for 27 years as a terrorist by the South African government, Mandela emerged from the notorious prison on Robben Island in 1990—and the world held its breath. He had the power to plunge South Africa into all-out racial warfare, but instead he worked for reconciliation and peace. 

Branded a communist and a terrorist early in his career, Mandela was only taken off the U. S. terror watch list in 2008, long after he received the Nobel Peace Prize with F. W. de Klerk in 1993, and was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994. Some perceptions die hard.

His life followed an arc unusual for the type of human rights heroes we think we know. Unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King he was not assassinated nor was he always a pacifist. They lived in the public eye and died violently; he lived for decades locked up for life and died at home in bed. There is no template for these kinds of heroes. A man plays the hand dealt him as best he can and lives—and dies—aware of forces larger than himself at work.

What must it be like to walk out of a cell to stand before thousands of people for whom you are both symbol and cipher? To look into the eyes of those around the negotiating table and see both fear and admiration? To turn at the end of the day to stand by a window, feeling the warm night air fold around oneself as the curtain brushes your cheek? To see oneself from a distance, a thin stick-figure gesturing in silhouette, the words from one’s mouth flying like a dove from an ark, looking for a place to land?

Through film, biographies, autobiography, stories, articles, photos, we attempt to understand the human being behind the image. It is we who build the image, but we demand authenticity, the real Truth about the man. It’s not even as if we knew for sure that there was a truth to be had, but every story, every interview, every anecdote from Those Who Were There tries to shatter the Image and find the Man. 

We have need of both the image and the man: the image is portable, can be synced across many devices, and can be updated across all platforms. It is a creation not quite ex nihilo, out of nothing, but if it were not there it would be necessary to invent it. The Man is, literally, another story. 

I don’t know that we ever know ourselves completely. Mandela must have searched his soul intently during those 27 years, piecing together an armature upon which he could create a new man, one dedicated to peace. It may have taken him that long to reconcile with this new man, to learn his ways, and to recognize when he weakened and was in need of hope. 

If that is the case, if it might be true that Mandela—and any of us—may be recreated into new beings whose very existence defies the logic of circumstance, then we are in constant discovery of ourselves even in those moments when we choose “the road less travelled by,” — the one that makes all the difference. 

This theory would run up against the familiar spirit that haunts our discourse about the fitness of those who would be our leaders, for example. Thus, a man, midway through life is presumed to be the same person as the impetuous youth who inhaled or drank or otherwise indulged in foolishness. But do we really believe that no one evolves over time, that we are the same yesterday, today, and forever? 

“You’ll become only who you always were.
What the gods give they give at the start,” 

says Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, through “Ricardo Reis,” one of his writing personas. We interpret this view of Fate as laying out a path we are bound to follow no matter what. This is the flip side of another American myth—that of the man or woman who rises, despite the odds, to triumph and glory through sheer will power by any means necessary. Both of these stories lead us into temptation. The first resigns us to passivity: we are already what we shall always be. The second gives us false hope that if we just follow this or that self-help program we will emerge the victors. 

Perhaps our path lies closer to the center—not because having split the difference between the two we are now trapped in the middle—but rather as a genuine third position. 

This position says that we are in a context, a culture, a society, that shapes us through family, education, religion, and social influences, but that does not determine us. Through self-awareness we see our circumstances for what they are: the place we are at in the present, out of all the myriad possibilities within that cultural context. But now that we see where we are we have some choices. They are not infinite but they are choices, and we ignore them at our peril. 

We also recognize that we are inevitably the product of our genetic heritage, yet that too is not definitive of our character. What matters, what opens possibilities for change and renewal, is the awareness that arises through reflection. It may come through a faithful commitment to a spiritual path or it may come through the recognition that we are not alone in this world. However we receive it we now can decide, and it’s the decision that matters. 

We rightly regard Mandela as a hero because he chose to respond to hate with forgiveness. Ironically, the very system that was designed to break him and force him to submit was itself dismantled, piece by piece, in no small measure by the strength of his patience and the power of his character. 

NOTE: I’ve decided to continue Wretched Success here at Blogspot and to copy these musings to Look for some changes to come in the next few weeks!

And Now For Something Completely Different: Tragic Faith and Gratitude

“Tragedy is real and by its very nature cannot be explained. Spirituality, accordingly, involves finding or giving meaning to that which cannot be explained or justified.” — Robert Solomon, Spirituality for the Skeptic

In the introductory class on philosophy that I teach each year I ask the students to come up with a list of the worst evils that have occurred in all of human history. This year rape was number one, followed by child molestation. Terrorism, mass shootings, violence toward women, and cruelty to animals were also mentioned.
We can learn from their observations. First, nobody mentioned the Holocaust. Second, all the evils were generic; none were the actions of specific persons. Third, allowing for a certain historical inevitability of such crimes, none of these occurred earlier than 2001. And finally, everything, without exception, fit into the ‘moral evil’ category. No hurricanes, typhoons, tornados, earthquakes, avalanches, tsunamis, or fires need apply. That was all stuff for which there is at least a scientific explanation; the real evil was perpetrated by humans upon each other.
That’s a modern sensibility at work. Unlike people of the eighteenth century or earlier, most of us no longer think of natural disasters as punishment for sin nor do we see a connection between God and tsunamis. These things happen, we say. There’s nothing, really, that we can do about it, although some of my students thought the effects of global warming—rising seas, more frequent and more intense storm systems, and wild variations in temperatures for the seasons—could be traced back to human indifference, corruption, and even maleficence.
When bad things happen to people we slip on our metaphysical raincoats to protect us from the depressing downpour and are thankful that two buckets catch all the meaning we’ll ever need. One bucket is labeled ‘natural disasters’ — what used to be called ‘acts of God’ —and the other bucket is simply ‘moral evil’— that which we do out of ignorance, hatred, bad karma, or stupidity.
Yet, while we live in a world that is taut with globalized connections and wired for instantaneous reaction to horrors, our views of evil are provincial and localized. That’s not to say they are trivial or inconsequential, but rather to note the obvious: what happens to us is of the utmost importance, but the significance tapers off rapidly the farther the effect ripples away from ourselves. In another setting, one of the Marx brothers said something like, “comedy is when you step on a banana peel and fall down a manhole; tragedy is when it happens to me.”
We don’t have much place for tragedy these days. Outside of assigning it to certain Shakespearean plays and young lives cut short through car crashes, we’re almost embarrassed to use the word. We have an egalitarian notion that suffering is personal, therefore individual, and that everyone is entitled to their own version of it. Perhaps because we are resolutely bound to respect another’s suffering as entirely their own we are at a loss for comforting words and we fall back on such stiff, managerial phrases as ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
But as Robert Solomon notes in Spirituality for the Skeptic (2002), it is as tragedy that suffering has meaning. “Whether or not life has a meaning—whatever that is taken to mean—we make meaning by way of our commitments . . . It is by making meanings in life that we free ourselves from the meaninglessness of suffering.”
One of the lessons that we learn, sooner or later, is how much that happens to us is simply out of our control. This runs against our pride and our unbounded faith in technological progress. If things break they will be fixed. And if they can’t be fixed someone will pay. Those who are responsible will be held accountable, and the line of responsibility, while sometimes tenuous, can usually be followed back to a person or an organization. Thus, we look for someone to blame before anything else.
Sometimes we do things that result in tragedy through shortsightedness or negligence or laziness. But sometimes, despite our efforts and all our best practices, terrible things happen that we cannot find sufficient reasons for and we certainly can’t explain them. There is no one to blame, no one to sue. Why can’t we just leave it at that?
There are moments in everyone’s life that are beyond explanation. Reason fails us precisely because there are no categories nor words to express what we are experiencing. In those times we simply gasp in dumbstruck awe and then set about cleaning up, restoring what we can. That is where suffering becomes meaningful in the depths of our tragedy.What reason cannot articulate, spirituality can express through a muscular silence.
There’s another position between the arrogance of reason and the resignation of despair—that of tragic faith. I’m not talking about melodrama or narcissism but of a clear-eyed recognition of the limitations of our lives. The human condition is one of beauty and ugliness, nobility and depravity, astonishing courage and shrinking cowardice. That’s us—all of us—without exception. We are tragic figures because we have such greatness in us and yet we fall so far short. As a Christian deeply drawn to an existentialist vision of life I take the centrality of making meaning as part of the action of faith. A tragic faith is not one of despair but of humility and gratitude. To live in hope and in passion is to live with gratitude and good humor. I did not ask to be born, but I’m here! How cool is that?
When we come to the end of our days, says Annie Dillard in one of her books, we take our leave like guests going home from a friend’s house. The natural thing to say to the host is ‘Thank you!’
Dear Readers: This is the last post here at Wretched Success. I’m moving to Medium, a new site for online writers that’s been developed by one of the co-founders of Twitter. Please follow this link

The Passionate Life

PassionLife1:todd-diemer-220621If you trap the moment before it’s ripe
The tears of repentance you’ll certainly wipe:
But if once you let the ripe moment go
You can never wipe off the tears of woe. — William Blake, Riches

Some of us are constantly caught between exhortations to seize the day and those of a more cautious nature. We hesitate, we muse, we ponder, while all around us (so we suppose) others are grabbing the carp from under our noses. Our culture is made of two types of people: those who act deliberately and those who deliberate and then act. The first group gets all the headlines but the second group meets its deadlines. 

It’s hard not to like spontaneous people, but I suppose if they were around long enough the strains might begin to show. I remember being on a flight from San Francisco to London one summer during my college years. I boarded with a suitcase overhead, a small pack under the seat, and another suitcase stowed on board. Before the flight I fell into conversation with a group of three people my age, two guys and a girl. One of them had driven the couple to the airport and was seeing them off. But while we talked he suddenly decided to come along. Whipping out a credit card he bought a ticket on the spot (this was long before Homeland Security and two-hour check-in times) and boarded with nothing but his wallet and the clothes he came in with. I don’t know if he made it through customs at Heathrow; not many people carry their passports around with them. 

I was impressed. There I was, prepared for every contingency, enjoying the moment of boarding as the culmination of months of planning, saving, anticipating, and striving. And this guy comes along and whoosh! Off he goes with nary a thought for tomorrow. Aside from the benefits of an apparently unlimited line of credit from his parents, he seemed unencumbered by responsibilities or plans. He wanted it, he got it. Seize the carp indeed. 

In a spiritual sense it’s the eternal struggle between reason and faith, or as Kierkegaard would put it, between speculative philosophy and passion. Speculative philosophy is the result of objectivity in thinking, says Kierkegaard. He’s against it. Objective thinking about the meaning of life, the gospel, about religion and Christianity, can only lead to a certain cold detachment. It doesn’t even come close to a quest for eternal happiness, which is, Kierkegaard says, the whole point of being a Christian. 

This has been on my mind, fitfully, for years. Kierkegaard was my sparring partner in college and graduate school, the weird little Dane with enormous ideas, a Socrates for his time, messing up the neatly coiffed hair of the respectables of his society, and poking me in the eye with his insistence on the irrationality of faith. 

I wasn’t about to blink, having fallen under the spell of Albert Camus’ cool lucidity and C. S. Lewis’ persuasive reasoning. In fact, nothing in my cultural or religious upbringing could have played along with Kierkegaard. In my brand of 19th-century American evangelical Protestantism we were taught to regard the emotions as suspect. Passions were to be curbed, enthusiasms channeled into acts of obligation. The Bible was a sourcebook, a divinely-inspired Wikipedia of spiritual facts, suitable for going to war against unbelievers and lighting up, like Bilbo’s sword, whenever we found ourselves near where the scornful sat. 

However, the caution against emotion did not apply to responding to the pleas of pastors to give up our sinful desires and come to Jesus. Every trick in the book—and I can say this now without rancor—every trick in the book could be employed to bend us toward the straight and narrow path. After that, of course, it was mostly a matter of proof-texting our way through our pilgrimage of religious progress. 

There didn’t seem to be an alternative between a sober, respectable religious life and a fanatically driven one. Since fanatics were unpredictable it was better to err on the side of reticence and reason. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Faith is belief, belief is assent to the truth, the truth is in the Bible, now go and study. 

But that wasn’t nearly good enough for Kierkegaard. “Christianity is spirit, spirit is inwardness, inwardness is subjectivity, subjectivity is essentially passion, and in its maximum an infinite, personal, passionate interest in one’s eternal happiness,” he says. You leave everything to reason and objectivity, you end up with indifference toward the one thing most important: your happiness in this world and the next. 

Decisiveness, says Kierkegaard, only comes to those who care, who actually care about how to live in this world. If whatever (or whomever) you put your trust in does not churn up your soul then you are a dead man walking. 

Something in me really resonates to that chord. I admire that vigorous, muscular spirituality. I think it’s possible to be passionate about what really matters without becoming an avenging angel wielding the sword of the Lord. God save us from crusades and crusaders. 

But I am wary of this word ‘passion.’ In our time it is a ‘God-word,’ a term that everybody uses and approves of without really knowing what they mean. It is often used as a substitute for education and training, as in “You don’t need college. If you have passion enough you can accomplish anything you put your mind to!” Well .  . . maybe. Sometimes it’s a synonym for hard work, other times it’s a kind of blind force that bores through any barriers warning of the cliff up ahead. And sometimes it’s just a cover for sublime silliness. 

Perhaps if we remembered that ‘passion’ comes from the Latin word passio, which means to suffer, to submit, we would be more judicious in our use of it. Kierkegaard had it right: if you’re going to be passionate about something be prepared to suffer. To suffer means to put aside anything that would distract you from the commitment. You are putting your self into this, not just some passing whimsy. 

In matters of the heart what matters is the bond between two people. Where there’s a giving of one’s true self there is suffering—along with consuming joy, delight, pleasure, and desire. 

Which brings us back to Blake’s quatrain about our constant dilemma: do we stay or do we go? Leap or turn away? Play or watch? Experience or observe? Maybe that is what the passionate life is about: the suffering we feel in that moment of indecisiveness when we awake to what we long for with all our heart.

We are never so alive than when we gather ourselves to leap.

Photo: Todd Diemer on

Hello, I Must Be Going!

“I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” — James Baldwin

Michel Montaigne, patron saint of essayists, declared once that “Every man has within himself the entire human condition,” a line as true as it is deliciously politically incorrect. In the introduction to an encyclopedic collection of essays which he edited, Phillip Lopate notes, “The personal essay has an implicitly democratic bent, in the value it places on experience rather than status distinctions.” 

That anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay (Random House, 1995), gave me the push I needed to get this blog rolling. I’d been raised in the school of thought that credentials gave one license to speak, but I realized along the way that often the most credentialed are the biggest windbags. The personal essay appealed to me because it was a direct line to the reader from the writer—as close to conversation as one could get in prose. It is the perfect form for the unabashedly curious and for those who do not know what they believe about something until they see it in writing—preferably their own. 

William Hazlitt, Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Wendell Berry have been my mentors. To read their work is to eat a loaf of dark, firm, warm bread. They are savory, not sweet; muscular, not soft; wise, daring, and transparent. Each of them is a virtual window thrown open to the world they have discovered, yet to read a paragraph of any of them is to hear a distinctive voice. When I began to write essays I strained to hear my voice, and then I saw that I would grow into my voice. 

I began this blog almost two years ago because I wanted to see if I could write honestly and without pretense. Like the bear who went over the mountain I, too, wanted to see what I could see. And I wanted to put to use the books that waited patiently, silently, on my shelves. 

I rarely had a subject in mind, but I usually had an epigram, something I’d come across in my reading, a sentence splendid in its isolation, waiting for companions. I used that sentence like Ariadne’s thread as I descended into the labyrinths of thought and passion. The pleasure in the work was to inch my way back to the surface, clutching what I had found. And sometimes, like David Crosby sang, “Beneath the surface of the mud. . . there’s more mud there. Surprise!” At those times I learned to be ruthless, dropping full paragraphs without tears and cutting a new path back to the thread. 

The comments have been stimulating, the repostings have been gratifying, the stats on my audience have been intriguing. Next to the United States my biggest readership is in Russia—way up in . . . the double digits. Somewhere in Holland is a regular reader and also in the United Arab Emirates. I see readers from Germany, France, Italy, the UK, Hong Kong, and Brazil. “Of all things,” said John Dewey, “communication is the most wondrous.”  Yes, it certainly is: at no other time in the history of the world have we had such possibilities of communication across cultures. What would Seneca have done with a blog or Montaigne with a regular online column? Would H. L. Mencken have tweeted his scathing comments or Mark Twain his sardonic bon mots?  

So, thanks for reading and listening and responding! I’m stepping back for awhile, writing in some new directions, and going back to the well. If you’re subscribed to Wretched Success you’ll get notice of new posts  as they appear. 

See you on the other side of the mountain.

The Hope in Shame

“We have lost a sense of moral clarity that would give rise to the fear that certain actions—whether we privately feel guilty about them or not—could lead to disgrace. For they don’t. If enough, and enough well-placed people do them, the only disgrace you need fear is the failure to get away with it.” — Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity, 369

In 1994 Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was released and immediately bent the needle of the outrage meter. No matter. It went on to win an Oscar and solidified Tarantino’s bad-boy status. Critics said it glorified violence, but they were not quite right. It didn’t glorify violence so much as trivialize the pain behind the violence. 

After the outcry died down I went to see it, lured like anyone else by the promise of sex and violence. In one particular scene, John Travolta turns on a guy in the back seat of his car and threatens him with a gun. But the gun accidentally goes off, splattering the guy’s brains all over the back window. Travolta’s reaction provoked an instant response in the theatre; almost everyone laughed. Nervously, at first, and then in embarrassment, but laughter nonetheless. I felt three reactions in rapid succession: shock with revulsion, spasmodic hilarity, followed by shame and bewilderment. It was the shame that stayed with me long after the plot line had faded. I was trying to understand why I and so many others had reacted that way. 

It’s not hard to figure that we cover our embarrassment with laughter, but why are we embarrassed? It’s not as if we need to apologize to the character, a fictional being after all. Would we have laughed watching it by ourselves? It occurred to me that one reason for our embarrassment was that we didn’t want others to think we were heartless, stone-cold bastards. On reflection I came to think embarrassment was the appropriate response. It means that there’s still something in us that can’t bear to watch someone’s humiliation at their most vulnerable moment.

“Guilt,” says philosopher Susan Neiman, “is the internal sense that you’ve done something wrong, even if no one ever discovers it. Shame records your consciousness of wrong before a community whose values you honor.” There it is: our moral behavior has a powerful social kick behind it. We want to do right, to be in favor with God and man. Like it or not we carry the community with us and we measure ourselves up against its approval—approbation is what philosopher Adam Smith called it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments

Smith thought that we were basically good people, but he saw the approval or contempt of society as a means for keeping our conduct in line with social norms. It was in our interest to do right and receive the praise of others just as the implied threat of community anger at our actions would fill us with shame. That depends, of course, on whether we cared at all what others thought of us. Smith was pretty sure most people did care, leaving out the insane and the psychopaths. And just as his “invisible hand” guided the spirit and function of capitalism, so his “moral sentiments” appealed to our self-interests as well as the interests of a stable society. The balance and order was kept because most of us had both the need and capacity to love and be loved as well as the need to avoid the disapproval of our community.  

Neiman makes a persuasive case that shamelessness is pervasive in our culture and our lack of shame is what made such violations of human rights as Abu Ghraib possible. “If the ideal of human rights is destroyed by the violations that were said to be needed to realize it, our children will pay the price. Many of them are already paying, for they believe in next to nothing.” 

It’s easy to lose sight of the presence of human decency when we face into the perfect storm of perversity in the media every day. I’m not ranting about particular TV shows, films, fashions, musicians, Wall Street shysters, TV evangelists, or politicians. What I’m trying to get at is the underlying tone of mockery at the human plight that runs through so much of media culture. You can’t avoid it at movie previews where upcoming films, all PG-13 at least, are reduced to slapstick or thunderous exhibitions of firepower. It was there in the photos of grinning soldiers posing with heaps of humiliated and terrified Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It is there when Lance Armstrong, a symbol of courage and endurance to millions, bullies his way through years of doping, lying, and degrading the sport. 

Neiman believes that the only way to reverse the erosion of shame is to “return to the language of good and evil.” In a culture such as ours, in which a helpless relativism reduces moral dialogue to diatribes or a pouty solipsism, this is strong stuff. The word “evil” is over-used and abused, trivialized and rendered almost meaningless when it is applied where it does not belong. But even more threatening to our own sense of human dignity is when we refuse to apply it to our own actions—we frail, bumbling, confused and pitifully arrogant human beings. 

Kant thought the foundational principle of right action was this: Act so that you never treat other people as a means to an end, but as ends in themselves. That means that we treat ourselves with respect and treat everyone else, even our enemies, with respect also. To demean and demonize them means first of all that we could wish for such a world in which everyone did just that. 

We have the means but not the wisdom nor the right to call anyone evil. But recognizing our limitations in that regard does not mean we should give up on trying to understand why we—and others—may do evil actions. We are so easily drawn into situations in which evil actions are the consequence of fear and ignorance; we need a reverence toward words and language such that we could choose to speak of good and evil again. 

The degradation of our humanity sometimes pulls us down through enormous events such as genocide or systemic rape and exploitation of women. But if we regain, as a society, the capacity to be ashamed of our evil actions, there is hope. We can retrace our steps, make amends, learn humility, and receive grace. 

If evil is not our nature, but in our actions there is hope. We do have choices, tragic though they might be at times. But if we wish to remain human we cannot be passive. Our humanity erodes, slips away, sifts through our fingers when we look only to our own self-interest. This freedom to shape our responses in situations both mundane and extreme is what separates us from lentils and aphids. It truly is the image of God in us. 

Back to Beowulf and Beyond

“Whoever lives long on earth, endures the unrest of these times, will be involved in much good and much evil.” — Beowulf

What can I tell you about my recent—no, current— obsession with Beowulf, except that it’s caught me like a healthy virus, drawing me through a fiery portal into Denmark in the 9th century? In one of those serendipitous grazings through my library that I’ve come to see as a deja vu in the making, I pulled down The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, Including the complete Beowulf—the full title—and began to read the main feature. It had been years since I had first ventured into the story, probably through an assignment, and as these things go it had gone poorly. I read as much as was required, did the assignment, and placed it on a mental shelf of books that I resolved to get back to in due time. Apparently the time had come because I read through it in two days and came back for more. 

By now Beowulf has been translated many times, edited, commented upon, anthologized, stretched upon the rack of many a Ph.D. dissertation, and even filmed, but its power to enthrall has not diminished. Seamus Heaney, one of the finest poets in the English-speaking world, comments in his translation of Beowulf, that “It is impossible to attain a full understanding and estimate of Beowulf without recourse to this immense body of commentary and elucidation,” but first-time readers, he notes, will be as delighted as they are discomfited by the strangeness of that world.

The strangeness derives from the names (Hrothgar, Hnaef, Hilderburh, Ecglaf, and Ecgtheow), the places (‘the land of the Scyldings’), and the style, but most of all from what counts the most—the virtues they honored and strove to live by. 

The story was written by someone in England who wrote about the Swedes, the Danes, and the Geats, the forebears of many who called themselves English in the centuries after the Romans left. Christianity shaped their world but the old gods lingered in stories and songs. The poet lives and breathes a robust Christianity and ascribes belief to Beowulf and his companions. He pities those whose gods are idols and who cannot count on them for deliverance. 

Midway through the poem, jacked up on various translators notes, it dawned on me that the author and I have something in common: we both look back in wonder on those times. For him they are the exploits of his distant ancestors; for me they walk in the realm between myth and history. For both of us the poem reveals the epic conflicts of life and death, good and evil, chaos and harmony, light and darkness. In other words, like all great literature Beowulf  illumines human experience. 

The hero faces three consuming tests of strength and character: he battles Grendel and defeats him, he battles Grendel’s demon mother and defeats her, and late in life he battles the dragon that threatens his people. He battles the first two monsters alone because he is determined to win renown and glory, to be known throughout the world for his strength and prowess. Fifty years later, facing the dragon that is terrorizing his people, he stands alone again. But this time, when he needs them most, his warrior band melts back into the forest, sorrowful in their cowardice. Only one stands with him—Wiglaf—a young man whose loyalty to his king overrides his terror. When Beowulf finally falls it is Wiglaf who buys time, driving his sword into the belly of the beast. The king, his life ebbing away, draws his sword and kills the dragon. “That,” says the author, “was the last of all the king’s achievements, his last exploit in the world.”

As the poem draws to a close, Beowulf’s body is burned on the pyre, a massive barrow is raised in his memory, and his deeds are recounted in song. His people, now defenseless, await with dread the attack of their enemies. 

The values of honor, loyalty, and courage came to mind as I watched The Hobbit this week. Tolkien, whose epic story of the battle for Middle-earth drew on his deep knowledge of Beowulf, had given the twentieth-century its own ‘ring-cycle’ in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It was Tolkien’s seminal essay, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, published in 1936, that changed perspectives on the poem because he assumed, and proceeded to show, the artistic integrity of the piece. It was Tolkien’s view that the author had melded the traditional stories of a heroic past together with the mythic qualities, and through his own oracular artistry had created a masterpiece for the ages. 

It does us well to ask why our children are so drawn to heroes such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and the myriad creatures that sweep across their gaming devices. Could it be that this hunger for the heroic is a necessary element in their own character formation? The heroic age of the earth is over, but our fascination with them continues. 

Coursing through Beowulf, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and many other epics is the loyalty to family and clan. Loyalties are put to the test time and time again, and as Michael Alexander, translator of one of the most well-known versions of Beowulf puts it: “Northern heroic tales involve a conflict between the obligation to lord or kinsman and obligations to an ally, a spouse, a host or a guest.” Later in his introduction to BeowulfI Alexander remarks that, “an ethos of retribution for slighted honor or slain kindred governs most of the stories behind the central action.” 

It is striking that we do not condone this way any longer. The Enlightenment emphasis on individuality, personal autonomy, and an ethic of responsibility helped to erode the ties to clan and family. In Western societies the individual’s rights are claimed above all else, often times to the detriment of the community or the family. When we do hear of such things it’s usually in the context of ‘warlords’ in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and it’s anything but heroic. 

So I read it in Beowulf and I’m drawn to the courage and the honor exemplified; the idea of following a leader worth following stirs up something deep inside me. Yet, blood feuds sicken me as does any war that purports to defend God’s name. Can we aspire to such virtues without bloody conflict? Can we hold to a view of life that rules out any war on evil? Gandalf, the formidable wizard of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, didn’t think so. Evil is always looking to break, corrupt, and destroy, he said. 

Is our natural state of existence one of constant conflict, like Hobbes believed? Are we doomed to be cannon fodder for the powers that be? The evil that arises in Beowulf and in Lord of the Rings comes from greed and aggression that is unrelenting and remorseless, serving no end but destruction and chaos. The tragedy for the valiant and the brave is that their nobility is seen only in war and destruction. 

Why does it seem that the choices back then, though hard, were at least clear? Either you fought for the right or you capitulated to evil. It was never that easy then and it still isn’t easy today. One enduring lesson of Beowulf is that evil is never just Out There in the darkness of the night; it runs right through us, all of us. In the moment of our greatest triumph we can succumb to the lure of power, fame, and wealth. Our true heroism lies in understanding that we are all ‘poor, blind, and naked’—and fighting bravely anyway.

The Mystery of Iniquity

Recognizing reality and demanding to change it are fundamentally different activities. Both wisdom and virtue depend on keeping them separate, but all our hopes are directed to joining them.” — Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought,  60-61.

In a relativistic world a murder mystery in the hands of a master writer can be a sword, rightly dividing hypocrisy from truth. The mystery writer is also a problem-solver and a moral arbiter; the pleasure for the reader is in the careful twining of many threads to make a coat of justice. 

James Lee Burke, author of 30 novels and two collections of short stories, is a master of the genre—indeed, he was named a Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America in 2009 and has twice won their Crime Novel of the year.

Dave Robicheaux, former cop for the New Orleans Police Department, a dry alcoholic, and a police detective in Iberia Parish, is one of Burke’s most compelling literary creations. Robicheaux, a Vietnam War vet and a life-long resident of coastal Louisiana, has no qualms about calling out the evil ones in our midst. 

In Robicheaux’s cultural hierarchy the small-time hoods and grifters make up the lowest level. They are the bottom-feeders, those desperate enough to attach themselves to powerful and twisted people whose need for distance and deniability make them almost invulnerable. Robicheaux is not without sympathy for these figures whose lives are steeped in violence and despair. It’s a measure of Burke’s vision and compassion that he gives them a solid dignity in the midst of every trigger pulled or fist cocked. As for the rich, morally bent, and self-righteous, Robicheaux finds them, binds them to the case, and pulls the threads together. 

Reading Burke at his best is like swallowing nails dipped in chocolate. On the one hand, he’s a word-painter who can put you in a late-summer electrical storm along the bayou in a flash. In the next moment, violence erupts as inevitably as lightening. Robicheaux believes in evil because he has seen it in the eyes of the wealthiest, the most powerful, and often, the most revered in his society.  What truly distinguishes these people from their small-time counterparts is the level of self-deception they are capable of maintaining. While they believe themselves to be virtuous, natural-born citizens of the elite, educated, and genteel, their feral nature is only a few insults from the surface. In those moments Burke’s prose reveals the skull beneath the skin. It’s like walking in a thoughtful daze through a gallery of impressionist paintings and rounding a corner to find George Bellow’s paintings of bare-knuckled and bloodied fighters surrounded by dissolute ghouls. 

But Robicheaux—and Burke—live in a universe that is tragically evil, that is, those who are marked as evil may have chosen their actions, but were acting on compulsions beyond their control. Through a long apprenticeship in deceit and denial, they now look back in anger to see how far from their innocence they have come. There was no moment in which they stepped across a threshold into evil, but they are undeniably in that far country now. 

Perhaps the one thing, besides shock and grief, that unites us in the face of an unspeakable tragedy like the shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, is that we search for a reason Why? We look for trace elements of aggression in the killer’s childhood, we mine the memories of his neighbors, we sift the impressions of doctors, teachers, relatives—anyone who might be able to put the mark of Cain on his forehead with some degree of certainty. Psychologists and pundits stack up the similarities in the profiles of mass murderers and we all look for patterns. This is natural and even noteworthy, futile though it is for determining cause. But if society does not care enough to search for answers in the face of such tragedies, then we are truly at a moral tipping point. Outrage is a sign of conscience: the lack of it may be the first symptom of moral paralysis. 

The moral philosophers of the Enlightenment  separated natural evil from moral evil. Tsunamis, wildfires, hurricanes, avalanches had all been thought to issue from the hand of God as punishment for sin. But Rousseau took the evil out of natural evil by thinking of them as simply nature following the laws of God. What mattered more was the ‘evil that men do,’ and especially so since we are beings endowed with reason. Why do we do evil then? It makes no sense from a rational standpoint, so we have to seek an explanation elsewhere. Broadly speaking, Rousseau located the cause of evil in the subversion of the individual by society. Kant saw moral evil arising from our denial of our autonomy and our moral duty.

Rousseau thought the key to moral improvement was education. He spent much of his time trying to work out a social contract between the individual and society. Most problems, he thought, could be negotiated by reasonable people working together. One result of this was the decreasing role of God in human affairs. In her rewriting of the history of philosophy in Evil in Modern Thought, Susan Neiman says, “The more responsibility for evil accrues to the human, the less belongs to the divine.” 

This resistance of nature that we see and experience, says Neiman, is not the work of angry gods “but simply part of the arbitrary stuff of the universe.” They are part of living with limits. Finitude isn’t a punishment, it’s simply part of our structural framework. As Neiman so succinctly puts it: “We have purposes; the world does not.”

So the problem of evil became irresolvable. The way Kant figured it the problem of evil was one of us being dissatisfied with the difference between the way things are and the way they should be. The first is the realm of nature, the second of reason. “Happiness depends on events in the natural world,” comments Neiman, and virtue depends on us exercising our reason. We can’t control much in nature—and that includes our happiness—but we may have more control in the realm of virtue driven by reason. “The one [reason] is a matter of what ought to be; the other [nature] is a matter of what is.” For Kant, what was most important was distinguishing between the two. “Recognizing reality and demanding to change it are fundamentally different activities. Both wisdom and virtue depend on keeping them separate, but all our hopes are directed to joining them.”

Or as the Rolling Stones said: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

Kant would agree. The gap between the is—the way things are—and the ought—the way things should be will never be entirely bridged. But we’ve got to try: our dignity as humans and our hopes for this world demand it. 

Such tragedies as the Newtown shooting, the Aurora killings, the Columbine massacre, demand a rational explanation. We struggle to find one and if we can’t find a common pattern or a series of movements we despair because above all else we want to live in a rational universe. We shudder to think—and we dare not say—that there may not be a rational explanation for these people running amok. If that is true then we are faced with the fact that without a clear cause these events cannot be predicted nor can they be prevented. And the tragic result of that is a fortress mentality and officially sponsored societal paranoia. 

We may find a cause someday that will explain—as fully and as clearly as possible—why these killings occur. We should continue to gather evidence, try out theories, hope to understand. But we must also realize, as Kant so brilliantly works it out and as most scriptures testify, that we humans are limited, finite, even broken and fractured. This is not a cause for despair, said Kant, but rather simply the way things are. We can do better and we should try to, even while realizing that all our efforts will fall short of perfection. 

And the worth of our striving can be measured by the degree to which we act with compassion toward those who are suffering and with humility and wisdom toward those who bring the suffering.

In Gratitude . . .

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment.” — Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

It is fortunate that at least once a year we are reminded of thankfulness and gratitude—lest we forget. To the market forces Thanksgiving is the occasion for the holiest day of the year—Black Friday—when all the bare-knuckled commercialism that has been throbbing resentfully since Halloween can finally burst into the open. From Black Friday until Christmas it is open season on consumers, a vortex of induced guilt that results in final quarter earnings and the measure of economic success. 

But Thanksgiving as a concept is harder to identify. For many, “thanksgiving” is part of religious services, a pouring out of praise to God in return for all the blessings received. Thanksgiving, Thankfulness, Gratitude—all live in the same neighborhood, but Gratitude doesn’t get out as much as the other two. Call it reticence or shyness on their part, or even general neglect or misunderstanding on the part of the public, but Gratitude and its sibling Gratefulness do not make it into the public’s eye on many occasions. 

Gratitude doesn’t appear on Aristotle’s list of virtues nor does it show up in St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit. You won’t hear it mentioned much, if at all, in politics, except during victory or concession speeches and almost never in the entertainment industry except for Oscar night. 

I’ve wondered why we seem to find it difficult to utter the words, “I’m grateful for. . . “ or “I have gratitude for . . . “ Perhaps it’s just awkward to speak the words or we find ourselves slightly embarrassed to be uttering them because one never knows where emotions such as these will go. 

But it’s more likely, I think, that gratitude is seen as weakness or even a craven kissing-up to those who wield power over us. Who wants to be seen as being in debt to another, especially if that person is someone for whom we also feel resentment? Having to call on someone else for help is embarrassing; it taps into our fears of becoming redundant and it might allow others to see our incompetence. 

There are days when I walk out of the classroom  absolutely convinced that every student there sees me for what I am—an imposter. What gives me the right, I rage to myself, to imagine that my pitiful scraps of shared knowledge will be of use to anyone? Where do I get off thinking that my explanations and descriptions are clear, that my logic convinces and my credibility isn’t fragmented by a well-lobbed question? The dark magic of pride, hypocrisy, and self-doubt combine to become a catalytic converter for resentment. What begins as an opportunity for reflection sours into excuses: If I had better students . . . . If I had more time . . . . If they’d pay more attention and actually study the readings. . . . 

It’s all a dodge, a pitiful attempt to salvage some self-respect on the barest of pretenses. Other professors make it look so easy. Their discussions flow like cream, their questions are simple and yet profound, their students cannot help but be enlightened. In Kurt Vonnegut’s vivid phrase, ‘they glow like bass drums with lights inside.” Do I forget those who have helped me over the years? No! In moments like these I remember them with shame and embarrassment and shame finds it difficult to be grateful. 

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Catholic priest  and author of 40 books. In his commentary, The Return of the Prodigal Son, a meditation on the parable of Jesus and the painting of the same name by Rembrandt, Nouwen says, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.” 

There is in ungratefulness a rough shouldering aside of others, a terseness of speech and a looming sense of denial. In his multi-layered biography, John Lennon: The Life, Philip Norman notes Lennon’s frequent callousness toward those who had served him without complaint, in some cases for decades. Employees were dropped without warning, the prodigious artistry of the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, was dismissed by John as “production shit,” and lifelong friendships jeopardized by his impatience and insecurity. Yet those who knew him best and loved him most could cite many more instances of his kindness and thoughtfulness than of the cutting remarks and cruel comments.  As his self-confidence waxed and waned his gratitude did so also. At times his vulnerability was achingly apparent such as in the lyrics to Help!:

But every now and then I feel so insecure/I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.

In the last years of his life, before he was murdered outside the Dakota on December 8, 1980, he reached out to people he had hurt over the years and thanked them for what they had done for him. Spending so much time with his infant son, Sean, taught him patience and brought out in him a paternal instinct that he was not at all sure existed. As he took less and gave more his need to impose his will on others diminished and his generous nature became more evident. 

So perhaps that provides a clue to gratitude, that it is there to be drawn upon when we relax our grip and learn to open up to others. Nouwen says that gratitude is a spontaneous response to our awareness of gifts received, but also that gratitude can be lived as a discipline. “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.” 

I’d like to think of gratitude as both a virtue to be practiced and a gift to be received. In receiving there is re-cognition, a rethinking of who we are and how much we have been given. In the practicing of gratitude there is constancy and commitment. How much we could transform our world through such simple acts!

It’s Time For Idealism Again

“The inevitability of cynicism often looks like the twentieth-century legacy, but one goal of philosophy is to enlarge our ideas of what is possible.” — Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists

Now that our long national nightmare is over we can take up a new opportunity for idealism. In the rather confined circles that I spend my working days and nights in, there was relief rather than ecstasy at President Obama’s re-election. In other parts of the country—and, no doubt, in our fair city—they were dancing in the streets, provided they weren’t splashing through water up to their knees or slogging through sand and mud in the aftermath of Sandy. 

Immediately after a battle is as good a time as any to ask oneself, was it worth it? And while I watched the fight from the middle distance, I was fascinated enough by the posturing and the propaganda from both ends of the political spectrum to ask myself some questions: Does it make a difference (the “it” being the right to vote)? Is there still a place for hope in these post-apocalyptic days? What, if anything, does a progressive Christian faith have to offer a society that is fed up with fundamentalists of all stripes? 

[Full disclosure: I do not vote, since my citizenship is Canadian and my card is green, but having lived in this country most of my life I travel on parallel paths.]

It does make a difference, for a number of reasons, whether the citizens vote or not. The usual reason is that every vote counts, a truism which cannot be denied in states like Florida for example. But surely casting a vote, as commonplace as the action itself might be, has some kind of moral validation to it? If we act on our best judgment we make that which we might only tentatively hold dear all the more real. 

As Susan Neiman points out in her enthralling argument for a reasoned idealism (Moral Clarity, 2008), “. . . . the American revolution was nothing short of miraculous. ‘We hold these truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ was, metaphysically speaking, an astounding move. . . . In 1776 a band of colonials had the audacity to declare the idea self-evident—and thereby began to make it come true.” 

Even aside from the obvious reasons, the act of voting, like the efficacy of prayer, has less to do with tracing the cause to the effect as it does with changing our attitudes toward “we the people.” Maybe the American people aren’t quite as passive and imbecilic as they are made out to be if they can resist the millions of dollars pumped into the media-political pipeline by Citizens United, Sheldon Adelson, and the Koch brothers. 

These people certainly have the right to spend their money as they wish—after all, the Supreme Court likened that spending to a form of free speech—but it’s still somewhat reassuring to see that this time around such blatant manipulating of a Constitutional right came up way short of the goals. And that would still be the case had the Democrats done the same.

Is there hope for those on the left of the political spectrum? If this election served as a wakeup call to the Democratic Party and those affiliated with it, then an unintended consequence of good has glimmered into light. Against the odds, the President has been re-elected, despite a dragging economy, a dragged-out war, and some liberal measures that might not have flown four years ago. Despite four years of ideological gun-slinging progress has been made in human rights, restoring the infrastructure, and setting new directions. 

This election blew the gaskets of some on the right to a degree I’ve not seen before. Donald Trump, Ted Nugent, Victoria Jackson and others were apoplectic over the election results. This would almost be funny if it were not for their malignant disavowal of democratic principles. Apparently—if Donald Trump had his way—there would be lynch mobs marching with pitchforks up Pennsylvania Avenue as we speak. Isn’t it time the media fired Donald Trump?

Nevertheless, free elections were held, no one was machine-gunned in the waiting lines, millions of people of good will and conviction—Democrats and Republicans alike—made their wishes known and moved the country fractionally ahead by the sheer virtue of acting on their convictions. This is no small thing in today’s world and we should be grateful for it. Immanuel Kant said, “If we depreciate the value of human virtues we do harm, because if we deny good intentions to the man who lives aright, where is the difference between him and the evil-doer?” 

So how can idealism be taken seriously again? Susan Neiman, a philosopher who is also an expert on Kant, looks to him: “Kant says you do it by talking about heroes: those who risk their lives rather than resign themselves to injustice.” 

The form of religion expressed in a twisted and malevolent way by those on the right is seen for what it is by its fruits. By contrast, as a knee-jerk reaction, those on the left who reject religion do so by allowing their understanding of it to be defined by the distorters of it. There is no reason why religion cannot have a voice in the political realm if those who speak for it point us away from the naked grab for power and if they hold out for something better in the world. This is transcendence and Neiman says that the urge for transcendence expresses two drives. “One is to criticize the present in the name of the future, to keep longing alive for ideas the world has yet to see. The other is to prove our freedom, and dignity, by having a hand in bringing those ideals about through some form of human creativity.” 

The criticism that we fall short of our ideals is no thunderbolt of truth—our sins are ever before us. But neither is it an excuse not to try. As Kant reminds us in his Lectures on Ethics: “The remedy against such dejection and inertia is to be found in our being able to hope that our weakness and infirmity will be supplemented by the help of God if we but do the utmost that the consciousness of our capacity tells us we are able to do.” 

It would be a change for the better if those who invoked God did so from the humility of hope rather than the hubris of hypocrisy.