Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

Colleagues

The death of a colleague is a shocking grief. Although my teaching career was cut short at Nashotah House, the faculty there was always small, and often close-knit in a way that an insular school promotes. I had been teaching there for about eight years when Daniel Westberg was hired to teach ethics and moral theology. Dan was kind, gentle, and non-political. At first he was part-time, but eventually he became a regular member of the faculty at some personal expense. We came to know him and appreciate his wisdom and patience. Dan was a priest and had earned his doctorate at Oxford University. Just over a decade my elder (the faculty from which I left was generally at his age; I was the youngster), Dan kept in good physical shape, as befits a truly spiritual person.

Nashotah House takes its name from the lake by which it was built. Colleagues sometimes joked about the fact that the seminary was wooded, lake-front property and implied that recreation time belied research time. It was, however, a place of intense study for the faculty. It did also offer the opportunity to experience nature. Dan drowned in a boating accident on Upper Nashotah Lake this past week. The image of that lake is etched forever in my mind. The night before I learned of my colleague’s death I was reflecting how I stood on the shore of that very lake late one night to photograph comet Hale-Bopp burning in the western sky. I had been reading about comets and that night by the lake stands out in my mind as a numinous moment. The lake, it seemed, had always been there.

After I left Nashotah House I let my colleagues fall into the safe mental compartments of memories. A few of my students kept in touch, but in general I heard from my colleagues only very rarely. Some may assume I spend more time on Facebook than I do. There are painful memories associated with the seminary. Now one more painful memory is added to the rest. I ate with Dan and his wife. Talked with him. Attended chapel with him. We had that distance that always separates clergy from laity, but I considered him a man that could be trusted. A priest with integrity. We went through quite a lot together in that small community on the lake. The death of a colleague comes with a guilt for not having kept in touch. A sadness for an opportunity missed. A life of kindness extinguished is a shocking grief.

Contrary Living

“Where, o where, are you tonight?” If your mind has supplied the tune and pitchfork, you know just what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you too remember this old chestnut: “Gloom, despair, and agony on me…” Those who know me often think I’m just another middle-class professor-wannabe like all the others. The truth of the matter is that I grew up culturally backward, living in a place that looked up to hillbillies as our sophisticated superiors. I’m no classist. When I say blue collar I may be exaggerating the shade of gray working-class outerwear actually represents. The myth when I was young was that getting an education meant you’d improve your lot in life. Yet here I am with a car in the garage that won’t start and a president who courts my kind for reelection when he should be thinking about trying to govern.

Now that we’ve got a Beverley Hillbilly White House, I think we ought to bring Hee Haw back. For those who might secretly doubt my redneck pedigree, I was raised on a steady diet of the country-western music and comedy variety show and WWF Wrestling. And there was, at least in the former, some wisdom to be had. Reading the headlines I see that what the Democrats need is somebody that people like. Celebrities are the political future. We’ve seen enough Ronald Reagans, Sonny Bonos, Jesse Venturas, and Arnold Schwarzeneggers to tell us that. Ironically, many entertainers are Democrats. The problem is our party likes intellectuals to run the country. It’s not a bad idea, really it isn’t. The electoral college has become the Nielsen ratings board.

No matter how many times I watched the “Where, o where, are you tonight” sketch, I always turned my attention to the TV when it came on. You never knew who the second singer would be, or how the verse might change for the week. And the down and outs on the dilapidated front porch with their moonshine always sang of “deep dark depression, excessive misery.” What I didn’t know then is that Hee Haw was ahead of its time. Of course, back then the rural south tended to vote Democrat. Why, even the opening title card had a donkey on it. Perhaps I’m stretching for a little too much sophistication here. I wouldn’t know, because I grew up with back-woods sensibilities. I just wish that since Jed is in the White House we might have a little comedy once in a while to lighten things up on the way to World War III.

The Falls

I can’t recall if I’ve been to Mexico City before. You see, back in the late 1980s I frequently read the novels of the existentialists, and although a copy of The Fall has been on my shelf since then, I don’t recall if I read this Camus classic. It’s sometimes that way with existentialists. In late 1980’s Back Bay, a used bookstore called the Boston Book Annex charmed my days. The Annex has sadly closed, but I do remember buying my Camus novels there. This one, however, I don’t remember reading.

So, unsure of my past, I decided to read it. Perhaps again. The existentialists make sense to me. I have to say that in today’s rushed and harried lifestyle it’s a little more difficult to find time to spend in Mexico City. Although the book is short, it’s not quick. There’s much to ponder as you wend your way through an evening bending elbows with Albert. Perhaps that’s an unwonted familiarity regarding a man who died before I was born, but existentialists know that kind of thing happens.

One of the more compelling aspects of this literature is that the existentialists often address religion. The Fall is a first person narrative throughout, and about four-fifths of the way through Jean-Baptiste Clamence begins to address Christianity explicitly. Since this is a retelling, in secular terms, of the biblical “fall,” this is not unexpected. Jean-Baptiste is a lawyer who is making his confession. He states that his clients “probably feared that heaven could not represent their interests as well as a lawyer invincible when it came to the code of law.” Genesis, of course, is attributed to Moses, himself a law-giver. From this point until the end of the chapter he reflects on the fact that although no one is innocent, all are glad to find the crime in others. He describes torture devices of the Middle Ages, exonerating God from their invention. He respects Jesus, but not what people have made of religion.

Reading, perhaps re-reading, this reminded me of why I found the existentialists so compelling as a seminarian. They force you to think. I read Kafka, Camus, and Duerrenmatt, pondering how much wisdom could be crammed into such brief books. Ironically, it takes time to read them. Our world is crowded with concerns about money over meaning. Matter over mind. Once in a while we need to step back, spend an evening or two in Mexico City, and consider how we’ve become a fallen race.

Beam Me Where?

It’s kind of like the transporter dilemma on Star Trek. Where is the person/Vulcan/Klingon when their atoms are being disassociated in one location and reassembled in another? In the classic series, McCoy was never happy with the technology, and even today our doubts linger about what constitutes a person. The other day in a routine medical procedure, I underwent anesthesia. Lying there in the corridor, staring at the calmly themed over-head light colors (no, they actually were themed covers; the drip hadn’t started yet), I wondered where I was about to go. I’ve only had anesthesia once before that I can remember, and I recalled awaking suddenly from the most profound, dreamless sleep ever. It was very different from ordinary sleep. So where was my consciousness at the time?

We have no satisfactory answer to the question of what consciousness is, let alone where it is. Materialists would say, literally, it’s all in your head. Consciousness is a happy mixture of electro-chemical signals in a dull gray organ that’s busing churning out this illusion that Steve A. Wiggins is something more than, well, a mixture of electro-chemical signals. Those of us who’ve experienced enough to question such simple answers wonder a bit more deeply about it. What is consciousness? We’ve all had that feeling, I suppose, of awaking from a dream and being disoriented, even throughout the day at points, as to whether it was real or not. Or, alternatively, remembering something but not being sure if it “really happened” or might’ve been a dream. Ordinarily we recognize the difference between waking and dreaming consciousness, but sometimes the line is blurred.

My experience this time around was the same as last. One moment you’re talking to an anesthesiologist and the next you’re awaking from a completely blank state of mind, a little confused about where you are. You haven’t been in dreamland since there was nothing there. The exact mix of chemicals isn’t the same as when you fall asleep. For all intents and purposes, you are completely gone for that span of time. When I woke up I remembered the anesthesiologist and the watch he was wearing. His accent. His assuring me that the bubbles in the tube were okay. Between that moment and this, nothing. A complete blank. I went in hoping that I might explore alternate states of consciousness in those few disassociated moments, but that’s not how it happened. I think I’m ready to beam back aboard now, though. I trust my consciousness will follow my gray matter, even as I’m being beamed through the ether.

Shipping Good News

Some say the infrastructure of this country is crumbling. It’s something I try not to think much about when I’m on the Helix or in the Lincoln Tunnel, but the concrete of those aging piers doesn’t look too healthy to me. So when I see a truck with a religious message, I guess I’m supposed to take comfort. On a recent drive along interstate 80, the great New York to San Francisco highway, we passed a Sam Kholi truck. You can tell a Sam Kholi truck because they declare “Jesus Christ is Lord, not a swear word” in bold letters on the side. The back has just the first part of the aphorism followed by “Almighty God the First and the Last.” A little research revealed that Sam Kholi is from Syria and now lives in San Diego. Many Americans, in these days of Trump, don’t realize that many “middle easterners” are indeed Christian. I got my start in publishing from a Syrian Christian. Prejudging is seldom a good idea.

Sam Kholi is combining his faith with his practice—something that harkens back to more ancient forms of religion. Lived religion used to be the only kind of religion. Once it was systematized, it became an academic pursuit. Knowing precisely what you believed became more important than what you did with it. Today’s religion, at least in these hallowed states, seems to be purely a matter of what you believe. Whether you live morally, treat others justly, or even pay attention to what the Bible says about caring for those in need, none of this matters as long as you believe the right thing. The result is people suffer. No matter, orthodoxy is secure.

Since our actions are more vocal than our words, I’m amazed and perplexed by what many evangelicals say. They are the ones who claim for themselves the literal truth of Jesus’ words. How they can deny the rights and needs of others based on race, gender, or sexual orientation is a mystery given the many passages in the Bible concerning forgiveness and love. When it comes to religion as how you live, apparently it is one size fits all. Driving, it seems to me, is one of the places where lived religion is put to its harshest test. Religion is how we live with others, and driving is how we show what we really believe. It takes a tremendous amount of faith to paint your belief on the side of a truck.

The Name of the Game

I have a confession to make. I’m not a gamer. Just like everyone old enough to be aware in the 1970s, I was amazed at Pong. Television, which had always only been a passive producer of entertainment, could now be interactive. Slower than real table tennis, the game nevertheless easily consumed hours of life otherwise productively spent. I went off to college and left the burgeoning video game market behind. Then in the late 1990s Myst appeared. The new Macs of those days came loaded with action games about dinosaurs stealing eggs. My daughter was fascinated and so I played. Then I lost interest again. That had been family bonding time, so it wasn’t completely wasted. Now we live in a world where, writers tell me, the real money lies not in movie rights to your novel, but game rights.

Kids, developmental psychologists assure us, need to play. It’s how they explore their world. As the human world becomes more and more electronic, games become more a part of virtual life. Some even have plots and genuine character development. A friend sent me a link to a story on Mashable, “Jesus battles the Buddha in fighting game hellbent on offending.” Victoria Ho describes Fight of Gods where deities of all denominations duke it out for dominion. After posting about god novels recently, it seems to me that we’ve begun to enter a time when the divine world hasn’t disappeared, but has transmuted. In this new world while all gods are not exactly created equal, they all have a shot at supremacy. It’s a matter of who can hit hardest.

No matter whether one finds this offensive or not, there is an element of profundity here. Historically religions have made gods of the things we fear. Storms, diseases, wars, and death—all of these have been, and continue to be, represented as deities. Human insecurity is deeply rooted in our psychology. We’re afraid of things we can’t control. In periods of governmental chaos, phobias naturally rise to the level of personal panic. What can we do in the face of such forces? Especially when prominent figures tell us all religious belief is for the weak-minded and feeble? Don’t we have to strap on our virtual armor and hope some powerful divinities are on our side? In such times as this we need our gods, no matter their tradition of origin. For me, I fear I won’t be able to spin this dial fast enough and that strangely square ping-pong ball is going to get past my virtual paddle.

Clown King

Like many people, I enjoy a Stephen King novel from time to time. King has a talent for drawing you into his tales, and whether or not they’re scary you feel a kind of relief when they’re over. A few years back I read IT. I was prepared to be scared because many people talked about fears of bathrooms after reading it, and, of course, of the terrifying clown. Not being a fan of serialized television movies, I never saw the 1990 movie adaptation. Besides, reading a novel that long is a serious investment of time, and since I like to hear lots of different voices in my reading, I spread out the wealth. In any case, the novel didn’t scare me beyond the neighborhood bullies (who’ve since moved to Washington DC) and I moved on to other things. The new film adaptation has people talking about IT again, and clowns, and clowns always remind me of college.

During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was fashionable for Christians to clown around. Taking cues from Paul’s one-liner about being fools for Christ, evangelicals began to experiment with clowns as a means of witnessing. I got involved my freshman year at Grove City College. I researched clowns. Where had they come from? What was the proper way to do it? Was there a deeper meaning? A friend recently sent me a video from Origin of Everything on the subject. I see a lot has been added to the history that I once studied. The idea of the circus clown is one of the more recent innovations of a character that was, in origin, a bit frightening. In classic horror movie style, heavy makeup functions like a mask and we rely on faces to know if someone is friend or foe.

We were taught, in our rudimentary training, that clowns do not talk. To express yourself you had to exaggerate gestures. I learned that makeup did indeed free you from social constraints. The Christian clown, however, had to be good. We weren’t meant to scare anyone into heaven. As nights are growing longer and people’s thoughts are coming to grips with the end of summer, clowns make good companions in the dark. IT may not be King’s scariest novel, but he did understand that bullies and clowns are fears that never go away. And when you combine the two, and move them into the White House, vaunting white faces and corrosive social values, well, maybe it’s time to go to the movies and try to have artificial fears for a while.