All the way back in seminary my friends and I used to joke about virtual church.What made it so funny was that the idea seemed ridiculous.The very raison d’être for church (which essentially means “gathering”) was, well, gathering.We joshed about putting a communion card into an ATM and getting bread and wine.Little did we know we’d live to see virtual church become a reality.While I prefer not to tip my hand as to my affiliation (I began doing this when teaching at secular schools, for if a professor of religion is being academic about their specialization their affiliation should have no bearing on the class) I confess I am the member of a religious community.That community has become virtual, as of today.
This isn’t a permanent thing.Unless coronavirus is a permanent thing.As I spoke with my clergy person about it, I wondered how many people would attend virtual services.Sermons would need to be stellar.Who would hear if I tried to sing hymns (this is not a pretty thing, take my word for it)?My laptop doesn’t even have a disc slot into which I could insert my offering.Churches, synagogues, mosques—they’re about community.What does community feel like when you’re sitting there in your pajamas, at least on the part that the webcam doesn’t pick up?Does the minister see you in virtual church?Have I, like number 6, been reduced to a numeral?I suspect the current crisis is going to be a real test for faith communities.Meeting together would make us all feel like snake-handlers now.
The funny thing was, back in seminary it was a joke.At Boston University School of Theology in the late 1980s we knew that churches weren’t really growing.Some megas had started and we now see them following the mushroom cloud to its dissipation stage.As little as we meant it, we could see devices creeping into the mix.I did not use a computer until after seminary.Funnily enough, thinking back to the pre-1990s, we survived without cell phones.If you were going to church you were going. To. Church.These days of pandemic in the pews will be a real test of the preacher’s power.For Episcopalians the mediating of grace had to be done in person.I remember watching worriedly as the priest, clearly with a sniffle, was the first one to take a sip from the community chalice before holding it out for others to drink.We wondered about efficacy of ATMs dispensing consecrated hosts.It was only a joke, then; really it was.
Dmitri didn’t do it; guilty anyway. That’s it in six words. I have to confess my tolerance for really long novels isn’t what it used to be. Blame it on being a child raised by television—every thirty minutes I’m ready for something new. I first read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov when I was in seminary. Seminarians are an odd breed, and many of them relished the deep, ponderous novels with profound things to say about humankind. The Brothers Karamazov is such a novel. When you’re a student, reading’s part of the job description. As a writer Dostoyevsky gets away with things that’d lead to you failing composition class these days. Speeches that stretch on for chapters, characters taking 100 pages to die, and children talking like adults. It’s a heady mix.
I’ll have to admit that I remembered very little of the story from my last reading. I knew Fyodor Karamazov got killed. I couldn’t remember by whom. All the buzz in seminary was about the famous Grand Inquisitor scene. That’s the part where the Grand Inquisitor interrogates Christ and finds him wanting in the eyes of the church. So daring. So deep! And so early in the book. As I made my way through many heavy-lidded pages, with some dismay I realized that after I’d read the high point of the book I still had 457 pages to go, none of which I remembered from my reading three decades ago. I don’t mean to disparage the classic—I noted and underline several passages as I read. The blame is entirely on me. Still, the endless gloom of personal guilt that hangs on every character, even Alexei—whom Dostoyevsky states outright is his hero—become overbearing at times. This is a nation battened down by Christianity.
Often I’ve expressed the idea that we force children to read great novels before they’re ready to do so, ruining the classics for them for life. I first read Moby-Dick in seminary and I’ve read it several times since. It seems nobody’s really ready for Melville before their twenties. What is the age for Dostoyevsky? I think I comprehended more this time through. There were ideas here that, had I more time, I would likely have enjoyed lingering over. If life were so kind as to allow us the leisure to digest huge books I have no doubt that we would all be wiser, if not more satisfied. Fyodor Karamazov is dead. Alexei is cheered by the school boys. This long journey has itself been the goal.
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.
It’s that spooky time of year when nights have surpassed days and the chill in the air suggests an oncoming period of bleakness. Leaves are raining down off the trees and strange sounds fill the dark. So when a friend sent me an article on The Vintage News entitled “Website ‘Died in House’ can tell you how many people have died in your home & how” I had to look. At the story, I mean, not the actual website. You see, I’m not sure if I want to know too much about those who lived here before me—or died here before me. Like many people near a major city, we rent. I’ve never owned property (never had a job that paid well enough to do so) and as a renter you’re limited in what you know about your home. We’ve lived in our current situation a decade now. Of the four families in the two houses that make up the property, we’ve been here by far the longest. The house, however, has been here even longer. Has someone we’ve not met?
We live in a rational age, but we still fear ghosts. Belief in the lingering spirits of the departed goes back to the earliest written records and, we have every reason to suppose, far before that as well. We just can’t seem to shake that feeling, no matter what our rationality tells us. I didn’t go to the actual website, but Vintage News reports that it is a paid service. You want to check your address, you’re going to pay. And the results only go back to 1980. I don’t know about you, but to me it seems there’s a lot of years before that to wonder about. I mean, I was in high school in 1980 and there were lots of houses in my town that looked pretty old even then. If you’re going to pay to learn about ghosts, you want to be sure you’ve got the older periods covered as well.
I’ve lost track of the number of places I’ve lived. Some of them have been fairly old and some I have been curious about. Would I want to know if anyone had actually died there? I’m not so sure. One of the seminary houses I lived in had a spooky, neglected feel. I never saw anything that most people would characterize as a ghost, but I knew nothing of the history of the place when I moved in. It never occurred to me to ask. Now you can ask. A few keystrokes and a few dollars and you can learn if your house has “that kind” of history. The question is, with the increasing hours of darkness, and the wind whistling through the gaps around the windows, do you really want to know?
Seminary is where you go to learn what they didn’t tell you growing up. Many people have rather idealized views about clergy and somewhat untrained views about their church (the same may apply for religions outside Christianity, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to say so). Since church membership is declining, albeit not drastically, seminaries are finding themselves less in demand. Meanwhile all manner of political candidates can claim a biblical literacy they don’t rightly deserve, and who’s to challenge them? It is sobering to read The Christian Century and see just how sickly theological education appears to be. Seminaries closing, seminaries merging, seminaries not really appearing on anybody’s radar scope. As the founding institutes for nearly all the Ivy League universities (which are not closing), it seems that few people appreciate just how much our seminaries have contributed to our culture. Our culture, however, is focused on more material pursuits now. Let history bury the dead.
The days when clergy were a step away from royalty and political power are long gone. Figures like Increase Mather could personally pull cords with the crown to select a governor for colonial Massachusetts. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. could almost single-handedly lead to the beginnings of the demise of one of the greatest social injustices in a democracy. Even Fred Rogers could daily assure us that it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Seminary graduates all. None of that matters now, as long as my back pocket’s heavy with greenbacks and one of the rich elite inherits the White House. The thing is, seminary helped many of our past leaders to mature. Not just spiritually, but intellectually. Obviously seminaries aren’t perfect. They can leave you with PTSD just as easily as a PhD. Still, I wonder at the loss.
I didn’t know about seminaries, growing up. Those who attend fundamentalist, non-denominational churches seldom do. When I learned that there were specialized schools to attend to become a minister, I was intrigued. I guess the idea of a monastery was somewhere in the back of my head. Little did I realize that seminary was about forcing you to think about things you’d always assumed. Yes, seminaries have their casualties. Some leave with as simplistic an outlook as when they entered. For the majority, however, it is the opportunity to find out that the world of religious belief is much more complicated than people would ever, ever imagine. Angels dancing on the head of a pin, this is not. Any computer could calculate that with the right algorithm. Those who think deeply about what they say they believe are rare. They do a service to society in general, but only if we are willing to listen. When the doors are closing, this will become increasingly difficult. As long as the money flows, I guess it really doesn’t matter.
My brother, who art near Philadelphia, recently told me that the City of Brotherly Love began towing cars from the no park zone a week before the Pope’s anticipated arrival. There are those apocalyptic concerns for the commute into New York City this week as well. Papal visits are always big news, but Pope Francis has captured the hearts of many, Catholic, Protestant, and non-Christian alike, because of his obvious and sincere care for people. Mercy, kindness, sympathy, and empathy have long been overlooked in many organized religions, and to have the head of the largest Christian body in the world emphasizing just those things has been a breath of well, spirit. As our world has turned increasingly towards materialism fueled by a rationalism that says this physical world is all there is, a hunger has been growing. People need to be assured that there is some meaning in being people.
Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr
Theological purity is all fine and good, but it is only, literally academic. We send our clergy to seminaries to teach them to understand the rational part of faith. Many laity may not realize that a Master of Divinity is a three-year degree because it has to allow time for spiritual development. I was unlike most seminarians, having majored in religious studies. Coming into ministry from all areas of life—science, medicine, politics, business—many seminarians aren’t accustomed to taking school time to get in touch with their souls. It is a foreign concept in a world where we’re daily told we have no souls. Pope Francis is a pontiff with a soul. And the world has noticed.
We need those to whom we can look up. We need heroes not only of the action movie variety, but those of more human dimensions as well. Two of the most populous cities in the country are preparing for a kind of epiphany. America has long been a country of laissez faire ethics. Leave it alone and it will all take care of itself. We can all see through that. The northeast coast is bracing for a different kind of hurricane this season. It will mean traffic headaches, for sure, and no doubt many will be chagrined at all the fuss. Still, I have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a hopeful sign. Perhaps we have a need for religious heroes still, after all.
How about that weather? Changeable, isn’t it? I have spent a large part of the last few days going over the proofs for Weathering the Psalms, the book I wrote over a decade ago. While I’m excited with having the validation that comes with publication, I worry a bit about the changes that the last decade has brought. Although I live near some impressive libraries, my time is devoted to commuting and working and anyone who has tried to be a serious scholar as a weekend warrior only knows that it is unsustainable. One element that good research absolutely and uncompromisingly demands is time. When I began commuting into New York City three years ago, I taught myself to read on the bus. As someone who easily gets car-sick, this took an enormous effort, but it paid off in the number of books I’ve been able to finish. There are limits, however. Seriously research-oriented academic books do not fare well on a noisy commute or at early hours. As much as we scholars like to think our books are riveting, try reading them at 6 a.m. Perspective makes all the difference. In short, I had to leave the main body of the text of my book as it was a dozen years ago.
There is a lot of good information there. You notice things by laying out all the Psalms that refer to weather side by side. I can’t tell you those things here, since that’s the point of the book, but suffice it to say, I still agree that the material should be published. One of the main reasons is the change in worldview over the last several millennia. Although we like to complain about the weather, for most of us it is merely the inconvenience of being outdoors that brings it to focus. We spend our days behind computer screens, living a virtual reality. But when we have to trespass outdoors—weather awaits us. For those in the world of the Bible the opposite was true. Indoors was shelter, but not insulated like today’s homes. Most of the day would be spent outdoors, weather permitting. They knew a lot more about the practical aspects than we tend to. We, on the other hand, know the science but have tended to forget the experience.
My book surveys a cross-section of the biblical worldview (the Psalms) for what it tells us about the weather in ancient thought. I suspect others have begun to explore this since I wrote my humble contribution to the discussion. Today I would have done it very differently, but Weathering the Psalms was written by a scholar isolated in a seminary, literally and figuratively in the woods. The fact that other scholars had noticed the weather now and again showed me that the task, though halting, was necessary. Rereading it is like a time-capsule. These were the thoughts of a younger man, employed full-time in a kind of academic setting. Hopeful that the next job would be worthy of tenure. Believing that there was a next job. But the weather is changeable. Indeed, we know it is unpredictable. Despite its archaic cast, I look forward to Weathering the Psalms and hope that it inspires others who are isolated to keep up the effort. Even if it’s raining.