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”Buy truth, and do not sell it;

buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.”— Proverbs 23:23

Photo: Cesar Viteri, Unsplash

When I buy books, real books, the kind that fill the palm and give off the faint scent of forests and ferns, I most often buy used books. To put a noble purpose to it, I see it as a matter of providing a second or third life to a being whose greatest delight is to be itself in service to others. Used books, like used houses, contain quiet discoveries: a penciled note in the margin or a passage scored in red, with an exclamation point next to it. What emotions did it stir? What memories did it bring up?

I have a volume of philosophy, picked up in a second-hand bookshop in North Hollywood, which has a blue-inked stamp on the flyleaf: “If found, please return to —-,” with a name and an address in Los Angeles. Was its presence in that shop evidence of abduction or betrayal? Was it offered up in the dissolution of a love affair by a woman who wouldn’t stoop to throwing out a book with the potato peelings and coffee grounds? Or the New English Bible I found, inscribed, “To the most wonderful mother in the world. We love you—Rhonda, Carol and Ron,” given on Mother’s Day, 1970, and so lightly used that the pages had to be parted with two hands and a puff of breath.

I am reading now, No Other Book: Selected Essays of Randall Jarrell, which includes a bookmark made out of a horoscope from Sunday, March 7, 1993 (birthdate of Piet Mondrian and Daniel J. Travanti!), that advises me to “Shower family members with affection. Playing the hermit role keeps you trapped in an isolation tank. Spread the gospel of goodwill and exuberance.” It also suggests that I take up sports “like cycling, tennis or golf.” But since I am not a Taurus, perhaps that would be unwise.

For such books, received by others and then forgotten, I give a safe and warm home, an active life, the assurance of a deep and appreciative relationship, and the promise of continued service when I have passed on.

I buy used books, not simply because I love books, but because their histories trace connections back to the authors who wrote them, whose imagination and diligence while writing were often frustrated and thwarted, but who somehow followed a lantern of discovery deep into an unknown country. And there are sometimes geological layers of comments and annotations to decipher, connections to those who cherished them.

So when I find one that gives no evidence of having been pored over, hefted, carried along, returned to, and in a word, loved, there’s a residue of sadness for the writer who labored over this work, perhaps for years, before releasing it into the wild. Once out of her hands her book faced the world alone. Maybe it was sought for with open hands, or merely opened, flicked through, and replaced with a sigh. Maybe it flourished later with meanings that its author could not see, a gift extended.

Some of my books have been with me for most of my life. One of my treasured collections of poetry, The Major English Romantic Poets: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, I bought new in 1967 for ninety cents, 715 pages of poetry so impassioned as to blow open my imagination and enlarge the regions of my heart. Another one, Modern Poets, introduced me to Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others. I was searching for wisdom, although I did not think of it in that way.

In the tales of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, the heights and depths of kings and battles in Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking People, and in the terrors and stoic courage of Camus’ The Plague, there was a revelation of what Randall Jarrell calls “the Wisdom of the World which demonstrates to us that the Wisdom of the World isn’t enough.”1 Jarrell wrote that about one of Robert Frost’s poems, “Provide, Provide,” which, he said, gives us the minimum case for morality, but with a beauty and conviction that is far from minimal.

It was the conviction that beauty—seen, heard, and above all, rendered in language—is an indispensable element of wisdom, that drew me on in the search.

I was, most probably, not so much in rebellion against my strict but loving upbringing, as I was uneasy in my place, shifting and stretching, unable to locate my magnetic north, but unwilling to stop looking. When the body needs salt, it finds it; when the spirit craves awe it pauses at the roadside shrines. Our restlessness rings about us like an unresolved chord.

At sixteen, the world appeared absurd to me. Beautifully so, but absurd, nonetheless. As I write, it is fifty-one years to the day that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the last in a trinity of public figures whose lives, at that time, gave me reason to hope for a new order in the world.

Over against this was my dutiful play in the fields of the Lord and my willingness to be haunted by the Jesus of the gospels.

The world was absurd, intuitively understood, because the allocation of resources and wealth were both capricious and cruel. Not only that, the burdens that so many bore simply by accident of birth and race, could not be justified or accounted righteous in any universe I wanted to be a part of. As I passed the brown backs of laborers bent over the vines in the Napa Valley, I wondered how it was that I was blessed to flourish in the California sun, while thousands of miles away a little Vietnamese girl and her brother ran naked and screaming down a road, their flesh consumed by napalm, as the sky behind them boiled with clouds hellishly dark? “There but for the grace of God,” said some with a shudder. But that was blasphemy, an homage to a god even smaller and more ignorant than the systems that perpetuated it.

Therefore, entirely arbitrarily, due to no merit on my part, I had the luxury to be surrounded by choices, to have time and safety and the means to look ahead to college. Again, at sixteen it seemed absurd (and still seems so today), but the purest response could only be to use those choices wisely and well.

Albert Camus was an early and lasting influence. I shared his love for the sun, the sea, the night. “But these are gods of enjoyment,” he says, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, “they fill one, then they leave one empty.”2 Borrowing the faith of others, I agreed, but not for the same reasons as Camus. Such emptiness, the default position of the church made clear, could only be filled by a personal relationship with Christ. I wasn’t so sure. Couldn’t one love this Earth for itself, this sea, these stars? Wasn’t glorying in the creation also worshipping the Creator? Camus’ heaven basked solely beneath the sun—he held himself to an austere code of honesty—but he retained a wistful awareness, it seemed to me, of a transcendence he could feel, but would not be reconciled to. I believed it but could feel it only faintly.

Camus was seventeen when he knew he would be a writer. Describing the gradual awareness of this possibility, he writes:

“Something, someone was stirring dimly within me, longing to speak. Reading one book, hearing one conversation, can provoke this rebirth in a young person. One sentence stands out from the open book, one word still vibrates in the room, and suddenly, around the right word, the exact note, contradictions resolve themselves and disorder ceases.”3

For Camus, the book that gave him the courage to write what he lived was Jean Grenier’s Les Iles. For me? Well, I suppose some of my contradictions began to resolve themselves through the poets of Isaiah—all three of them—although at the time I only knew of one—and the Gospel of John, that mystical and earthy portrait of the Jesus of signs and wonders. In almost any translation or version, they held for me language that transcended my experience while keeping me rooted in this world. The Bible itself was a library, or better, a bookshop of well-used books, holding the histories of millions, and containing layers of connections and annotations and memories there for all to ponder.

Surprisingly, Camus (referring to Grenier) says, “For it is indeed lucky to be able to experience, at least once in one’s lifetime, this enthusiastic submission to another person.” He draws up the image of the master and the disciple, a confrontation which becomes a dialogue for life. “In the end, the master rejoices when the disciple leaves him and achieves his difference, while the latter will always remain nostalgic for the time when he received everything and knew he could never repay it.”4

Camus did repay it, however, in the ways he inspired and mentored people like me. Although I took a different, but in some ways parallel path to his, we were both searching for wisdom.

I am still stumbling along, trying to commit discipleship. In the books which the Spirit and serendipity lead me to, I find traces of wisdom well worth the price of experience.

  1. Jarrell, Randall. No Other Book: Selected Essays of Randall Jarrell. New York: HarperCollins, 1999, 24.
  2. Camus, Albert. Lyrical and Critical Essays. New York, Vintage, 1970, 328.
  3. Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 329.
  4. Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, 329.

Glory Days

Paul is perhaps the greatest poet of personal religion . . . The first romantic poet in history.”1

Photo: Marius Christiansen, Unsplash

Those who set out to write The Great American Novel after Huckleberry Finn are doomed to failure, although the attempt has produced works worthy of admiration, and inevitably, emulation. Did Twain know he was writing literature that would not only have a shelf-life beyond his own mortality, but would stand as a story that continues to delight and enrage people to the present day? Did the artist known as Homer grasp that his Iliad and Odyssey would become the templates for war novels, road trip movies, and epics of war heroes returning home in disguise? Probably not, although in Dante’s case he was pretty matter of fact that his Divine Commedia was destined for greatness, and within his lifetime it was proven so.

We make our judgments about what is good-better-best when we have more than one thing to compare. We rely on our experience and, probably more than we should, on what experts tell us. We know what we like to read, what moves us and fills our heads with strange and huge ideas.

But when it comes to the Bible, particularly the New Testament, we rarely think of the beauty of the writing. We’re concerned for the authenticity of the voice and the orthodoxy of the theology. The irony is that none of the writers of the New Testament thought of themselves as theologians. They wrote what they saw and imagined and recalled within their communities as they were moved by the Spirit of God. That any of their narratives came together in the first place, particularly the Gospels, seems like something of a miracle in itself.

When we realize that post-resurrection believers of the Way, who lived and worked and worshipped together weekly, exchanging stories of ‘the Christ,” did so without any of the written texts that we know as the Gospels—did so for some forty years, an entire generation—it should give us pause as we dust off that paperback version of the New Testament which can be had for the price of a latte.

Editions of the Bible, niche-marketed more heavily than any other book in the world, may strike us as opportunistic (a “Souldiers Bible,” a Protestant version, was carried by Oliver Cromwell’s troops), the goal of Bible publishers being to spread the Word by any means necessary. Annual sales of the Bible top $425 million, with over 80,000 versions loose in the world today (Brandon Gaille.com). Zondervan alone has over 350 versions of the Bible in print, and in any given year over 20 million Bibles are sold in the United States. The average Christian owns at least nine versions of the Bible, nevertheless twelve percent of American Christians think that Noah was married to Joan of Arc.2

Thus, we idealize the Biblical authors in such ways that we don’t see them having a life apart from their writings. Amos is “among the shepherds of Tekoa” when he is gripped by God to prophesy. We don’t know how he felt about this disruption to his life. Given that the message he carried was of woe and darkness, it couldn’t have given him much comfort or ease among those with ears to hear. Was he a shepherd himself? We assume so, but we don’t know. Did he go back to sheepherding after his prophecies thundered out?

Maybe they came in spurts as he meditated on the hills with his flocks. Maybe he carried them in his head until such time as he could write them down—and how remarkable that he was literate. Did he exult at the excoriations of Israel’s neighbors and tremble at the judgements on Judah and Israel for their triple transgressions? When he was bashing the rich and indolent women of Bashan for their vanity and cruelty, did he imagine that thousands of years later we would read of them dragged out through their breached city walls by fishhooks through their noses and cheeks?

Isaiah—and then Second Isaiah and probably a Third Isaiah—are years apart as authors, their writings spliced by anonymous editors into some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, jaw-dropping poems of grief, exultation, and glory in the Western canon. As Robert Alter notes in his magnum opus, the translation of The Hebrew Bible, “It is above all the vehicle of poetry in all these prophets that demands close attention . . . and it is perfectly fitting that God should address Israel not in prose, which is closer to the language of everyday human intercourse, but in the elevated and impressive diction of poetry.”3 Were they writing for the ages or for their own time?

We want to know their motivation for writing, the methods they used, whether the writing itself was a burden or a joy or something they saw as a holy duty. In contrast to the best-selling authors of our time, they functioned as conduits instead of celebrities in their own right. We infer their temperament and purpose from the broad strokes of their writings.

The author of Mark writes a hasty, breathless, and down-home form of Greek. It is a compressed narrative that Matthew and Luke expand, revise, and extend. Matthew’s constant citing of Hebrew prophecies and laws reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of centuries-old hopes. Luke begins his gospel with a personal salutation, but then drops into the background and stays there, even through his sequel in Acts, appearing obliquely as the companion of Paul. John offers some tantalizing hints about himself as “the disciple Jesus loved” and “this is the disciple who is testifying,” and then finally, in the last verse, emerges onto the stage himself to say, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about his best friend.

But it is in Paul’s letters—all of them written in a fairly short span between the middle fifties and sixties before his execution, probably in CE 64—that we get a sense of a Biblical author in some detail. He can be, and probably was, an infuriating person. He certainly provoked enough animosity to be beaten, threatened by mobs, chased out of towns, and forced to flee for his life more than once.

That he was an extraordinary person is beyond question. Fluent in several languages, he was fueled from a passionate core that took him from being one zealous for God to the point of having a license to hunt down the people of the Way, to one equally zealous in the service of the risen Christ. The man who could roundly curse his opponents in Galatia by calling them “dogs” could also write a panegyric on love in First Corinthians 13 that has never been equalled.

There is no disputing that what we know as Christianity owes its existence in large measure to this indefatigable little man, small enough to be lowered in a basket over a city wall, who traveled thousands of miles, usually on foot, for some thirty years, establishing small communities of believers in cities throughout Asia Minor.

He remained a faithful Jew all his life, but one who had his spiritual and intellectual axis violently recalibrated by a vision of the risen Christ. For him, this crucified Jesus had breached the defenses of the principalities and powers of this dark world, and had brought heaven and earth together. God, through Jesus, had bridged the abyss between divine and human, reconciling the world to himself, and it was Paul’s honor to carry that message and to suffer with Christ.

There are few people like Paul. He was relentless in his purpose, unwearying in his efforts to build communities of people who would cease to live for themselves and instead be the hands of God in the world. Confident to a fault, he could yet call himself “chief among sinners,” and in his lowest moments wonder if he had wasted his life for no purpose.

In his second letter to the Corinthians he confides that “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8).” While God had rescued him from that peril, in the letter to the Philippians written from prison in Ephesus, he writes a poem about Jesus that could only have come from a man who had had time to explore doubt, fear, and the sure prospect of a violent death. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he pleads, tracing the self-emptying of Christ who “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5,8).”

Paul encourages his friends—and we may count ourselves in that select group—to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12,13).”

He never loses hope, not that he will escape suffering and eventual death, but that he will soon see Christ Jesus face to face and he will “know as he is known.”

This complex, irascible, brilliant man, who can thread the needle of the closest arguments, and yet pour out his heart unreservedly to whoever is drawn into his orbit, probably had personal contact with fewer than a thousand people in his lifetime who would, in time, be referred to as “Christians.” In the letters he wrote, letters that both dealt with the common frictions of diverse people living together and yet revealed the most glorious secrets of the living God, we find the preparation for the Gospels themselves, and the most compelling example of other people’s mail changing the world.

  1. A. N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, 220, 221.
  2. Brandongaille.com
  3. Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: Prophets, 618.

The Worlds We Make

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We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols. — Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking

The first line of the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, is, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With that, the Buddha signals that thought precedes action and mind shapes character. This is in common with the words of another sage: “As a man thinketh, so is he (Proverbs 23:7),” a maxim which suggests in its context to beware of the stingy who insincerely invite one to share a meal. They are not to be trusted, for the hidden thought will be exposed in the interplay between the two.

So, I am here quoting those who once lived upon this earth, people we know only through their words. The gulf that lies between the utterance of those words in time and where we stand today is not just about the millennia that have passed between us, but about the worlds those words brought into being and the worlds that arise when we read them today. Are they the same worlds?

We create worlds through our words, says Nelson Goodman, in Ways of Worldmaking. In a few pages of closely reasoned arguments, Goodman shows that the frames of reference we construct to describe what we experience are systems of description; they are not that which is being described. We never truly apprehend the object of our experience, only the description we construct to talk about it.

An example: If we say, “The sun always moves,” and “The sun never moves,” both statements are equally true and equally at odds with one another. Goodman asks if these statements describe different worlds— whether there are “as many different worlds as there are such mutually exclusive truths?” No, rather we make accommodation by saying that under this frame of reference this statement is true and with another frame of reference the other statement is true. “Our universe, so to speak,” says Goodman, “consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.”

I find this both invigorating and disconcerting. In a way, Goodman is playing games—language games—to make a point: there is no irrefutable foundation for all truth, only descriptions that are more or less right for their context. The fact that we construct these descriptions out of what we find in anthropology, physics, psychology, literature, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, means that we are constantly remaking our worlds of thought. “Worldmaking as we know it,” says Goodman, “always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.”

***

Here are some materials at hand that we can make a story out of, a description of something and someone that matters a great deal to us.

Jesus is crucified about 33 CE and the first gospel, generally thought to be Mark’s gospel, is written about 70 CE. That is a gap of about 40 years—a whole generation—without any written source of Jesus’ life. The people who gathered each week in small groups to remember the Lord were those who had had first-hand knowledge of Jesus. The boy who gave over the loaves and fishes that Jesus fed five thousand people with would have been a man with children and grandchildren of his own. Lazarus, raised from the tomb and given a second life, would have passed on by this time. The disciples, men with families when Jesus chose them, would have grown old and scattered, some to Rome, others staying in Jerusalem, Thomas (as legend has it) making his way to India to establish a Christian community, and Philip probably down in Ethiopia. All of these people lived and died on the stories that were told and retold about Jesus, as they met together in upper rooms, sometimes in a wealthy person’s home, sometimes on the run, often over a meal with song and celebration. They were people, quite literally, of the word, the Word that came and lived amongst them.

Think of the stories they told, the anecdotes tenderly passed down through the family chain like pearls of great value. From the sayings of Jesus to the signs he performed to the parables he told, these narratives sustained these groups through their days and eventually formed the web of Mark’s gospel.

In his breathless and rustic style, the author of Mark’s gospel creates a narrative—a world!—that Matthew and Luke break down to use in the remaking of their individual worlds. Later, around 90-100 CE, comes John’s gospel, a parallel universe to the previous gospels, converging at points, but drawing its own course through its orbit. It closes with these tantalizing words:

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These gospels are the Gospel, the good news about Jesus who came into the world and “the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him (John 1: 10).”

***

We read these words today, millennia away from their creation, in the awareness that the bone and sinew, words and meaning of their author and the person of which he wrote come down to language and symbols, marks on paper or pixels on a screen. Despite the billions of words devoted to this Jesus, the stories that could be told have no end because these words, having been written, continue to produce new stories in the strength that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).”

Instead, we may become accustomed to these stories to the extent that we no longer take in their meaning. Our eyes pass over the letters, we register the shape of the words as we would the silhouette of objects whose outlines against the light are familiar only because of the form of their darkness.

“This world, indeed,” notes Goodman, “is the one most often taken as real; for reality in a world, like realism in a picture, is largely a matter of habit.”

“Language can create faith but can’t sustain it,” says Christian Wiman in Ambition and Survival. I’m not so sure. When I read of the Buddha holding up a flower before his gathered disciples and one of them—only one—smiles, and Buddha says the equivalent of “He gets it!,” something in me thrills to that imagined scene. When Jesus begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .,” it’s “Once upon a time” all over again. We’re hardwired for stories: good, bad, mediocre, we pick them up, and turn them over and over in our hands until we find the seam that opens them. From these we fashion a world that we can live in.

“To have faith in a religion, any religion,” continues Wiman, “is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality.” That I can agree with.

He goes on: “This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, . . . is that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion.”

Separated as we are by thousands of years and the innumerable worlds of language and imagination between us and Jesus, these slender figures on our pages are the portals between our worlds. The path to the divine remains, astonishingly, through the darkness and light that is our world.

Photo: Lydia Shi, Unsplash.com

Can a Leper Change His Spots?

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“There is so much more meaning in reality than the soul can take in . . . This, then, is an insight we gain in acts of wonder: not to measure meaning in terms of our own mind, but to sense a meaning infinitely greater than ourselves” — Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man

I’ve been thinking lately about the ten lepers that Jesus healed, and the one that returned to thank him. The story is in Luke 17:11-19, and at first glance it seems oddly out of place in the narrative of that chapter. It is one of those pericopes,the nuggets of stories that make up so much of the weight and heft of the Gospels. They are like pearls on a necklace: cut the string and they scatter in every direction, losing value as they bounce away. But scoop them up and place them next to one another and they gain a certain nobility of place.

Jesus and the disciples are heading south to Jerusalem, coming through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As they enter a village, ten lepers, keeping the prescribed distance, call out to him in desperation, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus sees them and answers, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And Luke adds laconically, “And as they went, they were made clean.”

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Who do we identify with and why? One of my professors in graduate school told us that in reading the parables, for example, we should stand in the audience which Jesus was addressing instead of standing next to him, basking in our self-righteousness and our proximity to the Master.

If we stood in the audience hearing Luke’s gospel read out loud in gatherings, we would instantly and instinctively react to the prejudice behind this story. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, hated each other with a religious passion that ran deep, generation after generation, like Irish Catholics and Protestants used to. Luke places the event at the border of Samaria and Galilee, a flashpoint of possible conflict or perhaps a neutral zone where peace could break out. The roving band of lepers, cast out with curses from their villages, find a bond of mutual misery together. Jesus is their last, best hope.

Perhaps his notoriety had proceeded him. Perhaps a sympathetic relative tipped them off that Jesus and his disciples were on the road. In any case, the exchange between Jesus and the lepers is brief, decisive, and effective. They ask, he responds, and they are healed when they move.

Nine of them are Jews: we know this because they immediately set out for Jerusalem to be certified as clean by the priests—a journey of several days. So . . . no time to lose.

The verse doesn’t mention how long it took for them to realize they were healed. But one of them saw the new flesh, pink with life. He spun around, praising God loudly (loudly enough for the other nine to hear?), ran back and threw himself down at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. The one who returned was a Samaritan. Luke points it out in a way that cannot be mistaken, and Jesus rather caustically asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Jesus’ sense of irony rings through this. Here are his own, his people, off down the road without a backward glance, while a traditional enemy, one not deserving of respect by tribal measures, comes back to praise God and thank God’s servant. It’s enough to make a person erase the lines in the sand.

Luke raises the contrast between those getting on with their lives and those who, unexpectedly, in one glorious moment, see God like a fountain springing up from within the eyes of this man. The nine were no less healed in their haste, but having received much had perceived so little.

New Testament scholars tell us that Luke’s gospel was intended to show how Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God was open to everyone, strangers and foreigners, as well as Israel. That would include us, readers searching the stories for points of contact, people of an era that desperately claws at the slope down which it is plummeting headlong. If there is a “still, small voice” of God to be heard we will have to remove our earbuds first.

Here we are, over 2,000 years later, picking up a Gideon’s Bible in a Motel 6, flipping it open to a random place and finding this story. What could make us pause, finger tracing the words, long enough to turn from the window and sit on the edge of the bed? Northrop Frye says in Words with Power, that “Experience is of the particular and the unique, and takes place in time; knowledge is of the universal and the assimilated, and contains an element withdrawn from time.” Both are needed: the expected flow is from experience to knowledge. Could it be reversed? Could knowledge of an event long ago on a dusty road create an experience that blooms within us? Isn’t that implicit in every story written down and sent into the world?

Abraham Heschel writes in God in Search of Man, “The soul is endowed with a sense of indebtedness, and wonder, awe, and fear unlock that sense of indebtedness.” Look both ways and hold hands when you cross the street together, say please and thank you, clean up after yourself, be good to each other, and don’t tell lies. These are some of the universals, and as we mature we realize how much we owe to others, the indebtedness that has not only kept us on the way, but has made the way even possible. “Oh, the debt I owe,” sings James Taylor in ”Watchin’ Over Me.” “I said oh the damage done/How’m I gonna pay that debt I owe.”

Jesus looks at the man at his feet: “Get up and go on your way,” he says, “your faith has made you well.” What was freely given was freely received. All of the ten asked, all were healed. One came back to thank the Master. What does this act reveal?

An indebtedness acknowledged to an enemy of one’s people renders that enmity chained. And in turning back, the Samaritan not only offers thanks, but sees in the man before him the God of all people, lepers and Samaritans included. Like the others, this man’s body was restored and his social curse lifted; unlike the rest, his faith opened his eyes to the wonder of a meaning he now carried that was greater than himself.

And we may respond, also, to a story with a life beyond its telling. Abraham Heschel writes, “We cannot survive unless we know what is asked of us. But to whom does man in his priceless and unbridled freedom owe anything? Where does the asking come from? To whom is he accountable?”

Our leprosies may be the means for seeing how great is the height and depth and breadth of the love that sets us free.

“We journey through a narrative,” writes Northrop Frye, “and then we stop and confront what we have read as though it were objective. It is not objective, because it is already a part of ourselves. There is a further stage of response, however, where something like a journeying movement is resumed, a movement that may well take us far beyond the world’s end, and yet is still no journey.”

Photo: Alex Woods, Unsplash.com

My Bibles, My Life

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“The Bible, more than most books, forms part of one’s life once it is absorbed into the system. It does not remain static, any more than you remain ever the same. Your perspective of it will change with the years.” — A. N. Wilson, The Book of the People

I cannot remember a time in my reading life when a Bible was not within my reach, both literally and figuratively. In the home I grew up in, the Scripture was the primary source of one’s instruction and inspiration. It was read aloud morning and evening, discussed at church, memorized as Bible verses, emblazoned on bulletin boards at school, and called upon in times of celebration and grief. Its phrases came naturally to the lips, its stories became the video of our imaginations long before there were pixels, the grand highway of its narrative from Genesis to Revelation (pitted with potholes in the Pentateuch) provided both a spiritual history of humankind and a kind of eschatological weather report (“Look for a cloud on the horizon the size of a man’s hand!”). Later, through the ministrations of our well-meaning elders, its revelations came to us like birthday gifts from distant uncles who still thought of us as five-year olds. It was unavoidable and indispensable.

But I find I can trace out the course of my life by looking at the Bibles on my bookshelves, each one having played a role in my life that was both episodic and cumulative.

***

In high school my Bibles of choice were the Living Bible and Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament in Today’s English. The Living Bible was a paperback brick, lovingly slipped into a doeskin cover that my grandfather had gotten for me in Canada, with a painting of an Indian brave on the front. Inside the end pages I wrote notes of favorite verses, quotes from religious authors, and lines of poetry. The LB was fresh, a bit cheeky, conversational without falling into cultural jargon. The Good News New Testament was plain, small enough to carry in one hand, and modest in its literary aspirations. Its line drawings were simple, evocative, and good-humored. I was also reading a lot of C. S. Lewis at the time, along with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Byron, Shelley, Yeats, and Matthew Arnold. It was a heady mix.

My first year in college, working on a double major in religion and journalism, I used a standard issue King James in my religion classes. I’d had it since my baptism at 12 and I knew my way around its paths by sight. These were the phrases and verses I had heard all my life. They seeped into my consciousness and became the language of my operating system, an eloquent counterpoint to the informality of the modern versions.

***

In the summer of 1971 I left California for England to work with friends in Coventry in starting and running a Christian folk club and then to spend the school year at Newbold College. Away from home for the first time, I spent the year in a constant state of wonder and discovery. That summer I bought my first New English Bible, a paperback Penguin version of the New Testament whose language and verses seemed like poetry to me. I found a tanner’s shop in Leamington Spa and made a book cover for it from suede leather, stitching a peace symbol with a cross in the center on the front. The cover art on the Penguin version was a reproduction of Georges Rouault’s Head of Christ, thus beginning a lifelong admiration for his art. In the fall, as a student at Newbold, I hitchhiked down to Reading and bought J. B. Phillip’s The New Testament in Modern English. I also started a year-long course in Koine Greek. I was terrible at it, but I scraped by with enough margin to be given a copy of the British and Foreign Bible Society’s Greek New Testament with critical apparatus. Burrowing into the permutations of Greek verbs and nouns reinforced my life-long fascination with word origins and their meanings.

That year I always carried in my backpack at least one Bible, usually two. As I hitchhiked to Scotland or down to Wales or up to London, these Bibles became my traveling companions, provoking comment and conversation from the generous people who gave me rides. Comparing these translations and paraphrases jolted my imagination and gave me different lines of sight to their meaning. And always I carried a small Authorized Version whose cover could be zipped closed. I left it behind in a train station in Milan one December; two years later it showed up in my mailbox at Pacific Union College, having made the journey through the kindness of strangers on the strength of my college address at Newbold.

***

All through graduate studies at Andrews University and Claremont Graduate University, my familiars were the New English Bible I had bought in Wales in 1974 when I worked in evangelism there, and The Jerusalem Bible, another chunk of a Bible whose lyrical Psalms were refreshing and whose Job was high tragedy. Later, teaching Jesus and the Gospels, Hebrew Prophets, and Paul and His Letters at Columbia Union College, I entered into a professional relationship with The New International Version. Those who knew their Biblical languages assured me it was the latest and most accurate rendering, but its starched and anemic language gave me no joy. Time and again I went back to my NEB, by now so annotated and stuffed with typed-out quotes and photos of friends, that when the spine finally collapsed my wife made me a book cover for it from the jeans I wore out hitchhiking through the UK.

***

In these later years I have come back to the New Revised Standard Version, not to be confused with the Revised English Bible, a second take on the NEB. As I write there is one just behind my shoulder on the bookshelf, another one next to my comfy chair across the loft, and a third one, barely marked, in another bookshelf. Recently, having finished my courses for the semester at Trinity Washington University, I stopped into the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, right across the street from Catholic University, and indulged myself in a beautifully leather-bound Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. I intend to study the Apocrypha this summer.

***

I’ve entered the Bible as into a vast and varied library — ta biblia, the books. Not a single, coherent narrative, but stories of wonder, beginning in a garden of light and ending in a city with a river running through it. To try to understand the people within the stories is to read with a dual vision: that in certain irreducible ways they and we come from the same stock and harbor the same emotions and motivations. And in other ways, bound by time, culture, language, and technology, we arrive at our final home having traveled such disparate paths. I am grateful to the archeologists, linguists, anthropologists, and theologians who have peeled back the layers of the Bible for us and interpreted its structures.

The Bible has meant different things to me through many different stages of life. It has both revealed and hidden God, and it has held a mirror up to myself. The Jesus I have found there is no less enigmatically divine than when I first began with the Gospels, but now even more touchingly human. The Bible, I’ve found, is large enough that it can play many roles in a person’s life. Like the Earth itself it presents a different but constant face to the observer hovering in orbit above it. It is guide, wisdom, puzzle, danger, mystery, and light. It is still the literary foundation of many of us.

The Bible creates an alternate world that runs parallel to our own. It is like holding two magnets in tension so that you feel the pull of one to the other. Let one go and the tension is gone, the case closed, the story resolved, the horizon suddenly walled up. Unless we see both the fragments of light it illumines around us and the Light itself — and the distinction makes all the difference — the Bible remains just another revered and unread bestseller.

Photo: Rafael Barquero, Unsplash

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

Welcoming the Child

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“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” — Mark 9:36, 37

Jesus called a child to him. I am that child. Or was. That was many years ago and now I have a child of my own. I remember him that day, how he smiled at me, and touched me on the shoulder as I was playing. He drew me to him and put his arms around me. I looked down at his tanned hands, the fingers interlaced across my chest. When he spoke to the men around me I could feel the resonance of his voice rumbling through his face next to mine.

I knew these men. They were friends of my father and my father was one of them. I was glad that day because my father was at home, finally, and I hoped that he would stay for a few days this time, before he and the others and Jesus went off again.

I liked Jesus. He was kind to me and he listened to me. Sometimes he would carry me on his shoulders down by the lake and he would tell me stories as we skipped rocks. But sometimes, when we were sitting by the lake, he looked sad. I knew children weren’t supposed to ask grownups questions about themselves. “You don’t want to pry into other people’s business,” my mother always said, but it made me sad to see him that way.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?’ He called a child, set him in front of them, and said, ‘I tell you this: unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. Let a man humble himself till he is like this child, and he will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” — Matt. 18: 1-5

***

The grownups are acting like children, we say, when they squabble and bicker over who gets to be first in line. In the midst of this revolutionary experiment of living up to a higher plane, the disciples want to know, in all seriousness, who will be first in the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus does not react with impatience or astonishment. Instead, he draws a child to him and, encircling him with his arms, speaks of turning in the opposite direction, away from the door which the adults have crafted and toward a child’s doorway, one that you would have to bend down to get through—that is, if you’d even noticed it.

Once again, Jesus reverses expectations with such abruptness that you can almost see the skid marks. “Become like children,” he says, in a society in which children, while loved, were to be seen and not heard. Decisions were made for children, not with them. Children gazed upward, puzzled, as the adults vigorously debated the consequences of their behaviors and the perils of nonconformity over their heads. No one, having been a child, would want to return to that state.

To turn around on this track (the word is metanoia, to repent) means to recapture the difference between childishness and childlikeness, the latter of which picks up the simplicity and trustfulness of childhood. We cannot, knowing what we know as adults, simply reverse the tape and re-record our lives. Nor is there any goodness in a pious helplessness that refuses action without a direct command from God.

We don’t chide children for being “childish.” It’s what we call people whose behavior doesn’t match their age. But to be “childlike” is to suggest a sense of trust, of wonder, of innocence. When spoken of an adult there is sometimes a tinge of pity, as if this naif was off picking flowers when he should have been reading up survival guides for the apocalypse. Sometimes you sense a bit of wistfulness for eyes that can see goodness in the world or in another person.

And then there is Paul:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways . . . Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. — I Cor. 13:11; 14:20

Except you become as a little child you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Christ wants us to be childlike; Paul wants us to grow up.

It’s a question of maturity and, as Reinhold Niebuhr suggests in Beyond Tragedy, “Childhood cannot see beyond its time and place. Maturity extends the range of its knowledge to larger areas of life and experience. Maturity is thus the fulfillment of the promise of creation. It represents a larger life than childhood.”

But maturity can also signal the atrophy of imagination and eagerness. Sincerity devolves into deviousness, ‘mere’ honesty into becoming brutally honest. Maturity that has lost its anticipation of the new relies on the sighs of cynicism to carry the weight of authority.

The consciousness of childhood gives way to the self-consciousness of the youth, and the egotism of the adult. Every adult experiences the reality of the Fall, over and over, in the course of life. Our rational freedom, a gift from God, opens possibilities to transcend our situation. But it’s also reason which often sabotages our ability to achieve such harmony. Niebuhr warns that, “Therefore man is estranged from himself and discovers that there is a law in his members which wars against the law that is in his mind (138).”

Becoming as a little child again is not a promise of a recaptured innocence. “To repent and be converted,” says Niebuhr, “cannot mean to achieve perfect honesty. It must mean to achieve the honesty of knowing that we are not honest (142).”

Paul sees spiritual maturity as the conscious evolution of the child in Christ. There’s no condescension toward being a child: the child speaks, thinks, and reasons as a child should. Rising to maturity, on the other hand, is not inevitable as one clocks the years. The very fact that Paul has to exhort the Corinthians suggests that becoming an adult involves a clear-eyed decision to take the long view over the short-term gratification of childishness.

“Be infants in evil,” says Paul, “but in thinking be adults.” Paul, of all people, is neither naive nor cynical. Don’t be experts in the latest ways to do others in. Don’t be sophisticated in your conspiracies against your enemies. Be innocent of evil and be grown up in how you think.

***

As I say, I remember Jesus from that day, the last time I would see him. He went up to Jerusalem. He was killed there, my father told us. Something else happened soon after. My father wouldn’t say much about it, but every time he talked about it he’d shake his head in wonder. A few years later someone read us a letter at our gathering that said, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

***

“And we are put on earth a little space,

That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

— William Blake, Songs of Innocence

Photo: Carolina Sanchez, Unsplash.com

Imagine That

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“Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp.’ But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, ‘Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.’ The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert.

The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, ‘Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?’ Then one of his officers said, ‘No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.’ He said, ‘Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.’ He was told, ‘He is in Dothan.’ So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night and surrounded the city.

When a servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6: 8-17)

And what stops us in our tracks is not the cloak-and-dagger tension of military secrets revealed, and not the perfectly understandable reaction of the servant to besiegement, but the laconic way the man of God answers his servant’s terrified cry. He may not have even looked up when the fellow burst in through the door as the first streaks of morning light shot across the threshold.

“They’ve come for you, you know!”

“Yes.”

“What are we going to do?”

It was a matter of what one sees and what one understands. Was it a trick of the light, maybe a distortion in the retina that early in the morning? The eye sees dark shapes, maybe boulders . . . but then they move, and suddenly a vast army is revealed and we cannot see it now as anything but rank upon rank of men and horses, standing silently, with a stamping of hooves occasionally, and a muttered command, and an awful dryness in the mouth as one’s eye begins to twitch.

William James says we pay attention to what matters to us and yet we grasp so little. “One of the most extraordinary facts of our life is that, although we are besieged at every moment by impressions from our whole sensory surface, we notice so very small a part of them.”

Let us imagine the young man as one of us, a person who relies on the facts, sees for himself what is real, and runs everything he encounters through his field-tested, rigorized, and fully guaranteed BS filter. We are surrounded by insurgents in white Toyota Land Cruisers with turret-mounted 50-caliber machine guns, grenade-launchers, and farther back, armored trucks.

“Don’t worry,” says the master behind us. “There’s more with us than are with them.” And he prays, short and simple: “Lord, open his eyes that he might see.”

We can see alright. We know what we see before us and what we see is a guarantee of a quick but excruciating death. If it were dark we could still see with night-scopes, night-vision goggles, and all manner of devices to cut through the darkness and the fear. We see what can be touched. Our hope for survival is built on nothing less.

Thomas Merton says, “So much depends on our idea of God! . . We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening.”

So let us freeze this frame and ask ourselves what the old man sees that we are missing? What is out there that he is so sure exists that he doesn’t even come to the window, he doesn’t even get up from the table nor close the book he is reading? What does he know that we don’t?

 * * * *

In his The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann asks what would happen if we imagined that the triune God was real. How would our perception of the world change? Brueggemann does not assume that such a claim is obvious, but rather that we must establish again and again the evidence for such words. “The key term in my thesis is ‘imagine,’ that is, to utter, entertain, describe, and construe a world other than the one that is manifest in front to us . . .”

Against the evidence of our senses—and certainly against the prevailing common sense of this culture—the prophetic imagination invites us to see with the eyes of faith what the heart longs to experience.

We are witnessing two divergent narrative streams. The dominant narrative is rarely questioned nor is its conceptual framework laid bare. Because its narrative arc sets our own expectations of life we cannot stand away from it far enough to see it for what it is. Brueggemann calls it “military consumerism,” the story of self-invention for self-sufficiency, a social construction whose origin we no longer recognize.

The alternate narrative is the story of YHWH, grounded in the prophets and reflected in the gospels. In its simplicity and directness it sets up a contest like Elijah’s Mt. Carmel showdown between the gods and YHWH. Two construals of reality, one decision to be made.

In our time, this story may flow through the preaching of those who are embedded in the alternative narrative of YHWH. It may also be ours if we can see with the eyes of humility. “Thus the offer of prophetic imagination is one that contradicts the taken-for-granted world around us,” writes Brueggemann.

In the Old Testament the expression of it is the Exodus story in which the “Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . and gave us a land flowing with milk and honey.” In the New Testament Paul crisply summarizes the kerygma “that Christ died for our sins . . . that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”

These are acts of the imagination, not that they are conjured up by us, but that we are asked to imagine ourselves living in that narrative stream instead of “in the old dispensation/With an alien people clutching their gods.”

  * * * *

So Elisha prays that the young man will see through the surface appearance to the essence of the moment, a reality that shimmers just beyond the senses, a gift of magnification. Elisha’s own seeing, seared into his memory when he saw his master, Elijah, caught up into the heavens, was enough to last a lifetime. He knows what is there without looking.

Today, we are that young man whose world is constricted to the obvious appearances. Against all odds and experience the Word comes to us as a gift.

Imagine that.

(Photo: Mohamed Nohassi, Unsplash.com)