Without Precedent

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a national treasure. So many of his Op-Eds make such unwavering good sense that it is difficult to believe he’s not a household name. His recent piece in the Miami Herald concerning Jimmy Carter’s announcement that he has cancer is a case in point. Many reporters would be quick to point to the tragedy since, although the Carter administration is generally undervalued, nobody would ever say that Carter is less than a true gentleman. Pitts, however, takes us deeper. He looks at this understated announcement in terms of faith. Faith, as he points out, in a world where it has taken on an unsavory, if not downright evil, flavor. We do indeed hear about faith that moves mountains, but it is with the power of fully fueled passenger jets. We hear about the faith that builds mega-churches while the homeless and hungry sleep in the city streets. Pitts is quite right, our faith requires a shot in the arm.

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I sometimes wonder how we have come so far down what seems to be obviously the wrong road. Our religion has become a charade and it is used for people to get what they really want rather than to make the world a better place. I always thought true religion was putting others before yourself. Nothing like working in Manhattan to show you how totally off-base such sentiments might be. Jesus can sell books, but his teaching is definitely passé. Yesterday. Old-school (but not in the good way). We have faith in money because immortality, or at least the antidote for mortality, is readily for sale. There’s one born every second. This, we are told, is what gives life meaning.

Of the presidents who’ve retired, we generally hear very little. They sequester themselves and write their memoirs to gain even more money for themselves. Carter has been known to be out there building houses for the poor, living what presidents all say they believe when they ask us to cast our votes in their direction. I’ve always been proud that the first president I ever voted for was Carter. Of course, it was in the beginning of those recent Dark Ages known as the Reagan Administration, and I had voted for the underdog. My faith in the political system has been severely challenged since then. I have seen stolen elections treated as legitimate by those who can’t possibly do too much for themselves. And I remembered my first lowly vote given for a man who, perhaps more than any other, showed Americans their misplaced faith after he had been denied a second term in office. Although Pitts doesn’t say it, I can see it in his pen: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Something Lost

LosingMyReligion“Losing my religion,” I learned some time ago, means “going crazy” in some regions. It was that REM song that made me look it up. Losing My Religion, by William Lobdell, is much more literal. Having a hunger for spiritual memoirs, even if they end up with non-belief, has become an avocation for me. Growing up religious and having paid a pretty steep price for it throughout my career, I feel a bit like I’ve just risen from the analyst’s couch after a particularly helpful session. Here are people baring their innermost selves, trying to make sense out of a world that doesn’t add up. So it was for Lobdell. Since he was a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, his is the compelling story of a specialist who’s seen through the veil. His honesty is disarming. When I read such memoirs the question in the back of my mind is always, “what did it?” What pushed a believer over the edge?

By far the majority of these confessions I’ve read are those of women. Since religions have historically treated women poorly, it stands to reason that they might have second thoughts about what they’re being saved from. Lobdell, on the other hand, narrates what brought him to Christianity in the first place, and what forced him to conclude that it was wrong. Going the well-worn path from evangelical to mainstream Protestant to Catholic, he was seeking greater depth at each stage. Then theodicy. Theodicy is a god-killer. No matter how we frame it, there is no acceptable reason for good people to suffer needlessly. Out primate brains simply reject it. That’s not to say that for some faith can’t overcome such persistent doubts. It’s always a struggle, however, and, as Lobdell points out, not everyone is capable of believing what their mind tells them makes no sense.

One thing that stands out from all the spiritual memoirs I’ve read is how religion has such a difficult time explaining suffering. I suppose here’s where eastern religions generally have a stronger starting point. By acknowledging that life is suffering, they ask what we can do about it. Western religions, which often extol the good life, run into problems when theodicy hits. It’s almost as if the concepts can’t keep up with the realities of day-to-day life. Religions are often part of the culture you inherit, being born where and when you are. They also reflect belief structures from the age in which they emerged and those structures evolve over time. Today’s Christianity shares ancient concepts with the first century, but also modern sensibilities about psychology, culture, and philosophy. It can be a difficult mix, not least because it’s artificial and synthetic. As Lobdell notes, he isn’t alone in all this. It is, I might suggest, one of the reasons that studying religion is so important, even for those who do not believe.

To Whom It May Concern

Everything we do is an investment in the future. Some times it’s intentional, and other times it’s purely accidental. My wife sent me a CNN story about what might be the oldest message in a bottle ever found. It’s difficult to conceive an idea more romantic than the lonely castaway throwing a message in a bottle into the sea, hoping for rescue. The size of the oceans make any such chance qualitatively smaller than the smallest possible needle in the largest possible haystack. The sheer volume of the oceans is among the most mind-boggling quantities on earth. The chances of finding a single bottle in the blue is practically nil. Still, the message in the bottle is an investment in the future. We hope it will be found, despite the odds.

This particular bottle, although of some scientific value, is the least of the romantic kind. George Parker Bidder III, a third-generation scientist, dropped about a thousand bottles into the sea to study deep ocean currents. This was more than a century ago. Those finding the bottles were instructed to send the message back to Bidder, now long dead, so that he might enter the data in his notes. Bidder died in 1954, and one of his bottles was just recently found in Germany. Here is a case of a man writing to himself beyond the grave. Could he ever have imagined that six decades after his death a sample of his work would be found? For those who’ve labored only to be forgotten in their own lifetimes, this is like finding a genie in a bottle. We want to believe our lives have made a difference. For most of us, we go through our daily chores never really sure that any more than a handful of people care, and most of them only care if it is earning something for the company. Others stand on the shore and throw bottles into the sea.

The Bible has positive words to say about casting your bread upon the waters. Indeed, it will come back to you, we’re told, in a time of need. This is a metaphor, of course. It is all about investing in the future. When it comes to money, this doesn’t often work. Some people are fortunate in their investments, but many are not. Bidder wanted to know about deep water currents. This bottle would have told him something about them, but he isn’t here to receive the news. Instead he is being heralded as someone who deserves to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. Maybe not a scientist’s first choice of memorials, but an investment is an investment. More people will read about world records than will ever find a message in a bottle, no matter how metaphorical.

Casting bread on the water, New York style

Casting bread on the water, New York style

Buying the Kingdom

Who doesn’t admire the presidential wannabe who can take a personal hit without flinching? We are, after all, a nation of tough-minded individualists who think they know quite a lot about God and the way the universe works. So Donald Trump has been, according to Steve Benen on MSNBC, been saying the Bible is his favorite book. As Benen notes, when asked to point to some specifics, the ultra-rich contender prevaricates, recently saying that of the Testaments, he liked both equally. I wonder which verses are really his favorites? I’m guessing Proverbs 11.28 must be among them: “He that trusteth in his riches shall fall; but the righteous shall flourish as a branch.” Or 28.22, “He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him.” Or maybe Ecclesiastes 10.6, “Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.” It could be that the New Testament has a slight edge over the Old. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 19.23) must be right up there. Or Luke 6.24, “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.” Maybe James 5.1, “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.”

Actually, a near constant vexation to those who try to take the Bible seriously is it’s refusal to take one position on wealth. Written by many people over hundreds of years, it is clear no single viewpoint emerges. Wealth is considered both a blessing and a curse. One thing, however, that the Bible refuses to countenance is the presence of great wealth while poverty still exists. Those who have riches are expected to make sure everyone has enough before enjoying their surplus. Who among the one percent, no matter how much they claim to give away, can ever honestly claim the Bible as their favorite book? There are places where the rich are let off easy, but they are few. Wealth corrupts, and those who have riches in great abundance don’t come off looking good. Still, you can’t be a presidential candidate without the Bible. And money.

I can think of no better use of the Bible as an iconic book than Trump’s claims to valuing it as his favorite, if private, book. This is a Bible containing no words. It is a hollow leather shell that can be used to buy votes—spiritual currency of the highest market value. When is the last time someone could be a non-religious candidate for the highest office in the land? If you can buy your way into the White House, you can surely buy it into Heaven as well. Every god has his price. If I were a rich man running for the presidency, I’d put my money in needles. If I were a literalist, I’d have one cast so large that I could easily walk through. This would be my best chance to inherit every possible kingdom through the use of money.

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Dog in a Manger

I’m easily amused. I suppose I never outgrew that sophomoric fascination with the little things that seem like big jokes. The other day, for instance, I was given a copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education to read. The supplement featured Great Colleges to Work For; what are we supposed to do with that? None of them have jobs, so why advertise? It’s so funny when those who have a great thing going advertise it, even though there’s nothing to it beyond bragging rights. Those of us who’ve tried repeatedly to get into higher education (and I even succeeded for nearly two decades, in some measure) would love to take a job at even the worst college to work for, but they’re not hiring either. Nobody is. So why does the Chronicle want to remind us that the fruit will always be just out of reach, and that the water will be just too low to sip—even if we’re bathing in it?

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The frustration that settles in when the laughter dies off is because everyone I know agrees that I should be teaching. Colleagues, tenured and not, former students, friends. “Why aren’t you a professor?” they say. Many of my best friends are. Full professors. Sabbaticals. Grants. Time that’s not spent on the bus or in the office. Perks of every sort. Ask them. Or ask the Chronicle. I can’t reach the grapes, but they’re probably sour anyway. I mean, I can’t help it that I spend hours on faculty webpages and see those who made the cut not writing the books I have like jets in a holding pattern over Newark. How can the get written when time is he one thing I haven’t got? (Oh, and money too, but you don’t need so much of that to write.) Any one of those Great Colleges to Work For appear on the advertisement pages? Anyone hiring a warmed over religion professor who reads a hundred books a year? Nah!

Just joshin’ ya. I poke fun at higher education like you can only tease a lover. I’m into exercises of nihilism as much as the next prof. Didn’t old Ecclesiastes say it centuries ago: learning is a zero-sum game? So the academic vehicle that doesn’t boost the number of jobs offered will continue to tell us where we should work, if there were any jobs. Perhaps professors of privilege demand more than I think. Just give me a classroom and a syllabus to teach her by. I’ve done so in very primitive conditions at a college that make no marks on the “Best of” scale. Real world experience, however, doesn’t count. We’re only telling you what you can’t have anyway. Isn’t that better than where you work now?

Interstices

College move-in weekend can be a stressful time. In our particular case it means crossing a couple of state lines and staying in a hotel. Well, I suppose we technically might manage to load, drive, unload, and drive in a day but that seems awfully abrupt. You need time to shop for those supplies that might have run out, wait for roommates to arrive, and spend the last quality time together before facing an empty nest for four months. So we find ourselves in a hotel. It’s the one closest to the university, but it is also the host to some kind of event that draws a lot of people but fails to make internet event calendars. We usually stay at this hotel, and they even emailed us at the start of summer to make reservations early. The clientele this weekend is a cross-section of town and gown. It’s a mixed group. In the hall I see other students about, but there are those here who’ve come for non-academic entertainment, whatever that might be.

The barking started about 6 p.m. I grew up with dogs and most members of my family still have dogs. In fact, evidence points to the dog—the wolf at the time—being the first of the domesticated animals. Before agriculturalists rounded up sheep and goats and cattle, the dog accompanied the hunter-gatherer and both engaged in a win-win scenario. The successful hunt of a large animal left food for both humans and their best friend. Ironically for dog-owning anti-evolutionists, dogs are among the most selectively bred of animals. Looking at a pug, or a maltingese, it’s difficult to conjure up images of the wolf pack. The dog next door, obviously lonely and abandoned, was the small, yippy sort with a high-pitched, insistent bark. It was clear there was more than one in there. And, of course, hotel doors are about the least soundproofed surfaces on the planet. It was like Fifi and company was in the room with us. When I turned in about 10, the barking was still going on, and the front desk said they were trying to locate the guests registered for that room.

What's that shining?

What’s that shining?

I grew up with dogs, and I understand the attachment. I do, however, sometimes wonder about the courtesy of others. Some actions impact other people in direct ways, and sometimes we just don’t think of the consequences. I don’t just mean dogs. Lying awake, listening to distraught pets, I thought of the point of higher education. It is an “industry” in which I have a strong investment. The point of it all is to make our life together on this planet better for everyone. There will always be those who can’t travel without their dogs. There will always be those who have to venture far from home to get the education they want. Can’t there be affordable hotels with doors to dampen the noise just a little bit? Or maybe some of us a just over-sensitive at times like this. Maybe it’s time for me to go back to school to try to figure it all out.

The Fall

“Herr, es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross,” go the opening words of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1902 poem, “Herbsttag.” Autumn day. “Lord,” one might feebly translate, “it is time. The summer was very great.” The English words fail to capture the lyricism of the Teutonic original, but these words have been running through my head since about the middle of August when, standing outside before dawn waiting for the bus, some days, I think a jacket might be nice. Just a light jacket. Something to cover the parts of my arms not protected by a tee-shirt. And I realize, although autumn has always been my favorite time of year, it cannot come without a sense of loss. I’m no summer beach fan. Most of the time when I wander to the ocean it has already taken on its gray fall coat. But still, the passing of summer is sad, always sad.

At the National Watch and Clock Museum, we learn that Galileo, often presented as the antagonist of the church. got his idea for the pendulum from watching church lanterns sway from their chains. Time was passing, but it was “God’s time.” The growing season ends, and the harvest is at hand. Our children head reluctantly back to school after too few months of unstructured time. Time when sleep is abundant and the sunshine lasts long into the night. Adulthood robs us, perhaps, of such finery, but I can still appreciate it from a distance. Were I more mature, I might even say it is of greater significance for being further away. I’m a little too young, however, to have forgotten how summer can make me feel. I adore the autumn, but I miss the sun nevertheless.

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Here in that transition between hot, endless days and the chill release of Halloween, I find myself contemplating the religious nature of time. “If I could save time in a bottle,” Jim Croce wrote, and then his plane crashed on take-off. Time is like that. It promises eternity but gives mere seconds. Apart from the beach bums pining for endless summer, those of us enamored of autumn stand still and reflect on the cusp of seasonal change. Perhaps, like the year itself, this is all a cycle. The face looking back at me from the mirror has more gray hair than I remember growing. And yet the clock on the wall continues to tick. Work will always be waiting there on Monday morning, and the sun can reach quite as high in the sky as it did only last month. “Herr,” I sigh, “es ist Zeit.”