Thursday, April 28, 2011

A lesson in hate

We do not, President Obama said yesterday, need to spend valuable time on this, yet in a sense we do, for the lessons of hatred and deep-seated racism, which are evident in the Trump-Birther pseudo-controversy, have to be re-learned every now and then if we are ever to move civilization forward.

Hearing Jonathan Capehart on TV last evening, I was taken back to the class I taught on hatred called The Faces of Evil, where we studied the work of psychologists and sociologists who have analyzed the relation of fear to anger and hatred.

Capehart movingly spoke of the pain of being an African American journalist watching the most powerful man in the world--the president of the United States--forced to produce a birth certificate to show the world that he was legitimate. Even when a black person, it seems, achieves the ultimate prize (or because he has achieved it), he still has to prove his worth to a skeptical minority while the rest of us watch with embarrassment.

This comment captured much of the sadness of this issue in which a demogogue has used lies and false accusations to denigrate a man of proven worth. Why? For his own ends. Trump et al. appeal to those in our populace who feel disenfranchised, hurt by the economy, angry at government for understandable reasons, and who lash out at those in charge, feeling empowered by attacking the Other, the one perceived by the majority to be the outsider. This is the classic pattern of hatred.

Ultimately, however, the hater becomes the victim of his or her own hatred. And, as in this sorry case, it wounds the body politic. We are all tarnished by this shameful circus of lying, in which facts and the truth do not seem to matter as much as publicity.

Sadly, there are some Americans who still want to believe that Bill Clinton was responsible for the suicide of Vince Foster nearly twenty years ago. It makes them feel better to have some "inside knowledge" about what a powerful, wealthy man might have done (even if he did not). Conspiracies naturally appeal.

Even worse are the large numbers of Americans who want to believe that Obama is somehow not qualified to serve as President. No documentation or arguments will persuade many of these people since the ideology of hatred they have imbibed is stronger for them than the simple facts will ever be.

I hope Gandhi was right when he said that history shows that the way of truth and love always wins in the end.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Poem for Easter

I rarely get inspired to write poems, but once in a while, something mysteriously moves me to express myself in the concise, more challenging form of poetry, "a fairer House than prose," as Emily Dickinson called it. So here is my latest effort:


"I want to die," she cries each time
we visit what is left of her.
Today we bring flowers, chocolate eggs
and candied smiles for Easter.

I want to say something
about hope or light or life,
but she draws me into her darkness
and we're back in Gethsemane,
waiting, waiting
with all those who suffer alone.

Easter is never easy.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Darwin: Evolution and Faith

Last night, we watched Creation, with Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin. It is an unusually sensitive portrayal of a man's inner life, his grief and anxiety.

Trailers for the film focus on the obvious conflict between the skeptical scientist and his wife, Emma, who is conventionally religious. There is much more in this intelligent script, especially the love and grief for the Darwins' 10-year-old daughter and the emotional strength of the main character as he struggles to write his famous book.

Reading about this British movie today, I was dismayed to learn that US distributors have been reluctant to show it here because of pressure from the Christian right, whose websites blasted Darwin and his "silly theory" of evolution as well as the film as anti-Christian.

There is nothing anti-Christian about this fine film, unless you insist on watching movies that reinforce strict fundamentalism, unless you are afraid to consider a God who, unlike the one found in a literal reading of Genesis, did not create everything in the world 6,000 years ago in six days. Catholics know, or should know, that our tradition does not read Genesis in such a literal-minded way and sees no essential separation between the existence of God and evolution. I believe this applies to other mainstream Christian groups.

By coincidence (or was it?), I have just been reading in a biography of Cardinal Newman this statement from one of his letters (1874): there is "nothing in the theory of evolution inconsistent with an Almighty God." Since then, several popes have said similar things. Why? Because one must have an idea of God that is expansive: God is Being itself, the ulimate source of all life, the loving "I Am" who revealed Himself to Moses, the One who is beyond all limitations, including that of time and space.

Interesting, too, is that in real life, Emma and Charles Darwin lived out an amicable marriage of 43 years based on mutual respect, understanding, and acceptance; they coped lovingly with their differences, as suggested in the film. Emma even helped her husband edit and complete his Origin of Species, even though it slighted the conventional idea of a creator-God.

That is the spirit of openness and trust that should guide all Christians to learn more both about the relation of science and religion--even if those ideas seem threatening--and to open their hearts and minds to a wider notion of God than what we learn as children. It is only by being enlightened, as Newman was in Darwin's own time, that people of faith can coexist with the realities of science and reason.

Enlightenment and understanding of the mysteries of creation and life itself are essential if Christianity is to be a religion of love rather than of fear, hatred, and prejudice. This is asking a lot, I know--even on Easter with its message of miraculous illumination and total transformation.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

To sleep, perchance to dream

The approach of Good Friday is an appropriate time to reflect on death and on what happens when we die. Not that I need an excuse for such speculation.

The fear of death for many is probably due to the sense that this most final and inescapable event, over which we have no control, means the end of life as we know it. Even if part of us lives on, it is impossible to imagine what such a life might be.

Even if death means extinction, Socrates taught, it would be a wonderful gain, an endless sleep with no dreaming. He thought that a dreamless night of peace is infinitely preferable to our ordinary nights in which the unconscous mind keeps on producing images.

This assumes that the death of the brain ends conscious as well as unconscious life. Yet myth and religion have always portrayed the souls of the dead as having some identity. They speak and retain their names. Christianity (Catholicism in particular) has always insisted that the souls live on in God. The saints are said to intercede for us with prayers and are linked with those who walk in this life. Of course, the nature of heaven is a mystery about which there is only speculation.

In The Circle Dance of Time, Notre Dame theologian John S. Dunne explores various faith traditions in speculating about the possibility that, like the souls in Dante's afterlife, our post-mortem selves have a kind of consciousness. In the Hindu Upanishads, he says, there might be a conscious union of the soul with the ultimate reality.

Dunne makes a distinction between consciousness and perception: such a union might be conscious without meaning that is a perception of God as an object. This implies a oneness with God that is nonetheless conscious: we blend into the reality of God while retaining some spark of identity. Thus it might be possible to say that there is consciousnes after death.

After several readings of Dunne's challenging chapter "Reasons of the Heart," I found by accident--or Providence--a statement by Thomas Merton, whose study of the mystical tradition in Christian theology led him to assert (with greater confidence than I could ever muster in such territory) the following:

"When we all reach that perfection of love which is the contemplation of God in his glory, our inalienable personalities, while remaining eternally distinct, will nevertheless combine into One so that each one of us will find himself in all the others, and God will be the life and reality of all."

So, it would seem, according to this teaching (which I hope is true), that while we merge in the great eternal ocean of God's being, we still retain our essential individuality. Merton does not reference Dante's Paradiso, but those who have read it can picture the souls leaving the celestial rose to make a guest appearance in one of the heavenly spheres before returning to the One divine reality that is beyond depiction.

As for me, whether or not heaven is a state of contemplation, I take comfort in Merton's summation belief in God as Being itself (not a being) who exists in us as we exist in God in the present and forever. And I like to think that my essential self, freed of my memories and desires along with my body, will not be totally extinguished. The whole thing promises to be an interesting experience that I look forward to being fully aware of.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Obama and Shakespeare: Authenticity

Like the Birther madness, which never seems to end, the persistent belief by many people that Shakespeare was not the author of the plays bearing his name refuses to go away. There will always be those who persist in believing what they want to believe, irrespective of the facts, who enjoy keeping controversies alive and calling them conspiracies.

Obama was born in the U.S., in Hawaii. End of discussion.

Alas, the Shakespeare controversy (or conspiracy in the minds of some) is much more complex. I have just read James Shapiro's Contested Will, which reviews the history of the problem and shows, again, why the facts do not support anyone but the man from Stratford as the author of the plays and poems.

The question of authorship was never in doubt in my graduate school training or in my teaching of the Bard. At the University of Illinois, lectures by T. W. Baldwin, who devoted his life to the curriculum of the Stratford school, showed that those boys who attended that school would have received a solid classical education, equivalent to today's college major in Latin. Will was anything but illiterate and made good use of Plutarch's Lives as well as the chronicles of Holinshed, from which he lifted big chunks (great authors don't just borrow; they steal).

And our studies of the sources and printing of Shakespeare's plays--and the history of scholarship behind this field--show just the opposite of what Mark Twain and others have insisted: that great writing comes only from experience: the author of the plays would, according to this theory, have had to visit Italy, not to mention ancient Rome, in order to have written plays set in these places. This is simplistic, at best, and ignores the scholarship of the past 200 years.

What about imagination? What about books? In the Renaissance, certainly in Elizabethan England, the modern idea of literature as autobiographical was as rare as the writing of autobiography itself. This method of interpretation was suppressed in my education at several universities for good reason: because we knew that writing in the 16th cent. was largely a matter of using old sources in new, creative ways; Shakespeare did not create his stories, only his plots. However realistic his characters might seem, his plots and locales are anything but realistic (based on life experience). They are the product of reading and imagination.

If we had studied Hamlet as a key to the personality of the poet, we would have been laughed at as naive fools, unacquainted with the literary culture of the period in which the plays were written. Yet this approach, along with a conviction that Will was a country bumpkin incapable of writing much of anything, is the basis of the anti-Stratfordian position (which means for most skeptics that the Earl of Oxford--cultivated and well-traveled--wrote the plays that bear Shakespeare's name).

Shapiro does a good job addressing the major questions raised by skeptics of the orthodox view, and he shows how the Internet--especially Wikipedia--for the first time gives the Oxfordians "equal time" to be heard, having been denied the legitimacy of academic publication. He shows how easily it was, once Shakespeare was deified in the 1800s, for speculation about possible fraud to arise.

If the denial of Obama's citizenship (and authenticity) makes me angry, I find the refusal of some prominent and intelligent people to doubt Shakespeare's authorship slightly irritating but also somewhat amusing. We will never know the truth about who the real Shakespeare was, but his authorship of 37 plays and some important poems was never in question until about 1800 and should not be in question today.

There are so many more important things to focus on.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Existential Christian

I began this blog by referring to Thomas Merton, who plays a prominent role in the six articles I have published in the past two years, just as he continues to influence my spiritual life.

In reading a recent passage (from The Wisdom of the Desert), I was struck again by his approach, which I call existential. That is, he approaches matters of belief and the inner life through his own experience, in many cases by having encountered what he has read and reflected on it, producing memorable passages like this:

He is referring to his reading of the early desert fathers: "What good will it do us to know merely that such things were once said? The important thing is that they were lived. That they flow from an experience of the deeper levels of life. That they represent a discovery of man, at the term of an inner and spiritual journey that is far more crucial and infinitely more important than any journey to the moon." [He was writing just after JFK's call to land on the moon.]

"What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous."

The idea that we are often strangers to our true selves is a major theme in Merton's extensive writing. As James Finley shows in detail in Merton's Palace of Nowhere, the true self is our essential core or center, the unchanging self known by God, in contrast to the false social masks we tend to wear. Ultimately, the search for the true self is also a search for the presence of God within us.

As Merton wrote elsewhere, "We could not seek God unless He were seeking us....But the mere fact that we seek Him proves that we have already found Him."

This koan-like paradox reflects, I think, the Gospel: "Seek and you shall find..." The one who seeks has already in a sense found what he needs. The asking is itself a discovery. "Knock and it shall be opened to you."

In Merton I find not only an intellectual who read widely but one who also felt deeply and had the gift--almost the obsession--to write as a way of clarifying his ever-growing awareness of the mystery of God and prayer.

All the writing he did may seem narcissistic to some, but I hope my comments have shown that his appeal as a spiritual master is as an existential writer, whose own experience is the ground of his belief and thus a source of continuing inspiration.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fear and Loathing

Generally, I am reluctant to delve into the horrors of the present political scene, but there are times when my restraint gives way, especially since I went to bed yesterday convinced that my last post was too general and vague, meaning I didn't spend enough time thinking it through.

In The Economist today I read about the GOP governor of Maine, an ideologue named LePage, who has put an end to the Maine tradition of polite politics. Like the governors of Florida and Wisconsin and others beholden to the Tea Party doctrine, he has an arrogant approach to most issues and people, calling his opponents "idiots."

Especially idiotic in his benighted view is an innocent mural in the state's Dept. of Labor depicting child laborers and Rosie the Riveter. The governor finds the mural anti-business, thereby summing up whatever political philosophy he has.

Like many others recently elected to Congress and state houses, LePage is indebted to that one percent, the new ruling class described by Joseph Stiglitz, the wealthy corporate types that have bankrolled GOP campaigns. These are people who do not properly understand self-interest: they take it to mean: what's good for me and my group now! To hell with the needy, much less the common good. It's all about people like me.

The current crop of Republicans seems to be a party of resentment, a party of fear and loathing of everything liberal, everyone who's foreign or a minority, every idea that has depth and complexity.

Truth (e.g., the birther absurdity) is irrelevant to these right-wingers who thrive on hate and who see facts and research as part of the liberal elite. This ideology becomes almost comic in the mouth of Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and Michelle Bachmann. But its implications are serious and frightening.

Left unchecked, what will emerge is a new dark age of ignorance and bigotry, based on attitudes that are hateful. When budgets are slashed without concern for human needs, when facts and truth don't count, when all government is seen as the enemy, and when self-interest NOT properly understood rules, we are in peril as a country.

That, I think, is why the Stiglitz article in Vanity Fair was important.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Self-interest properly understood

In the current Vanity Fair, of all places, a significant, thoughtful essay by a distinguished economist, Joseph Stiglitz, who says America has become a country where inequality has been allowed to grow.  A country where the majority are doing worse year after year "is not likely to do well over the long haul."

We have allowed a powerful elite, the top 1% of the population, to emerge. 

Much of the inequality has been caused by the manipulation of our financial system made possible by changes in rules paid for by the big bankers themselves.

The most damning and alarming passage:  Virtually all the Senators and most members of the House are "members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well, they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office."
Stiglitz points out most tellingly the consequences of this recent policy on our sense of identity, opportunity, and community; in short, on social justice issues.  He quotes Tocqueville's identification of something uniquely American: self-interest properly understood.

If we don't think of ourselves, who will?  But if we think only of ourselves, who are we? 

This statement, paraphrased from Hillel, is basic to the notion of the common good, that essential element in any governmment worthy of the name, while recognizing the rights of the individual. 

If we have "properly understood" self-interest, we recognize that paying attention to the needs and self-interest of others is not only a spiritually correct notion but "a precondition for one's own ultimate well-being," in Stiglitz's words. In other words, looking out for others is not only good for the soul; it's good for business.

So our ruling elite, if they fail to see that they are obligated to the 99 percent of the citizenry, are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, as they did in the recent financial debacle.

All this reminds me of the important point made by Robert Bellah twenty or more years ago in Habits of the Heart: that extreme individualism may seem as American as apple pie, but it must be balanced with a concern for the common good. We exist as individuals within the context of a community; we cannot go it alone. We depend for our very identity on those who have created the society to which we contribute.

Perhaps this is why I can tolerate only so much news about what happens in Washington, where unbridled self-interest rules in spite of lofty rhetoric that promises something more noble, where Tea Party members do all they can to advance self-interest--not properly understood.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Importance of Mystery

Asked to define jazz, Louis Armstrong once remarked, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know." It's probably the same thing with the soul. (And I don't mean "soul" in jazz.)

As a parochial school student, I formed a vague but somehow visible idea of the soul from all that the nuns told us about its being darkened by sin and whitened by grace. It appeared in my youthful imagination as a large mostly white blob.

After years of reading theology and philosophy, my idea of the soul remains vague. Yet this is as it should be. Like so many invisible realities I believe in, it is a mystery, and no efforts to define it or imagine it are worth much.

The very fact that it gets mentioned in contemporary intellectual discourse is remarkable; maybe like the mind, which psychologists have generally called the brain, the soul is having a comeback. In reading a blog by Caspar Melville recently about the book Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey, I was intrigued to learn that the old questions, including how immaterial consciousness can arise from a material thing like the brain, are not settled.

Humphrey says that consciousness and the soul are the same thing. He says that spirituality is essential for consciousness, spirituality being the source of awe, beauty and meaning. And I would add: mystery. But in this materialist philosophy, consciousness is hardly immortal, yet it is said to give us feelings that we are special and transcendent.

Only feelings? I would say we are special and transcendent, that the soul or inner life, which Ron Rolheiser says, is something we build up as the result of learning about suffering, among other things, is the immortal part of ourselves. Nothing uniquely Christian here, if you read the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers. Or look into other religious traditions.

Thomas Moore in his popular Care of the Soul avoids any definition of soul; he skirts the issues of immortality but would probably agree that it is a divine spark within us that connects us to the divine. It has to do with love as well as immortality.

If the soul isn't immortal, I would say, echoing Flannery O'Connor, to hell with it. So for Mr. Humphrey, what is spiritual is apparently some invisible energy that dies when the brain does. He tries to write a natural history of the soul without, apparently, recognizing the reality of the supernatural.

I should be grateful that the godless (I found out about the book on a website "ideas for godless people") are concerned with souls at all. But I'd be happier if such investigators would be open to mystery, which includes (for me) the reality of the supernatural.

The goal of science, B. F. Skinner once said, is the destruction of mystery. But enlightened scientists today include mystery as a basic part of our ongoing discovery of the complexity of what is real. I believe in keeping mystery alive.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Death of Privacy

Were it not for all the legal statements issued by medical suppliers about my right to privacy, I would almost think privacy is becoming non-existent.

Yesterday, I looked up an obituary online and was invited to write a note of condolence. I could see at once that four other friends of the family had been there before me. And their messages were displayed for me to read. Notes of bereavement, intended to offer comfort and prayers, are available for the world to view. Why? Do I need a sample of what (or not) to say? Do I want my words disseminated?

In this Facebook age where apparently every detail of our lives is to be shared, I guess the answer is Yes. Like the retirement party I recently attended: The guest of honor received cards from each of the twelve guests, read each one, then passed the cards around the table so we could all see what (private) messages others had written. I almost wished I was emboldened to say, "Our card was just intended for you on your happy day..." but decided I am too sensitive and said nothing.

We live in an time when people think nothing of sharing their phone calls with others in Starbucks or the supermarket, when they enjoy listening to people discuss the intimacies of their bodily functions on TV or routinely share medical information with near strangers. I want to shout: TMI (too much information!)

I am grateful that we live in a more open age, when once-taboo topics can be publicly aired. I think of the bullying of kids, the issue of homosexuality and gender in general, and certain types of family abuse that can't be kept under wraps since doing so causes more problems. I am glad we can talk about hyperactivity and depression and other emotional problems without guilt and shame. I welcome programs that deal with hatred and racism.

But such talk must be done in a safe context wherein people are sensitive about revealing too much personal information. It requires tact, discretion, and good taste. The popular culture is never designed to accommodate such virtues.

Monday, April 4, 2011

On Awkwardness

Thanks to a recent (March 28) blog by Matthew Wollin (, I have been thinking about awkwardness, both the word and the experience.

There is nothing awkward about Wollin's writing; in fact, his reflection is gracefully done. He looks at the forced intimacy of strangers in offices and on subways and finds urban life generally filled with little experiences of awkwardness.

He mentions, of course, puberty, a time of high anxiety on every front, and the awkwardness of sex (unless it is turned into a game called flirtation). And adulthood as a time when we pretend to understand why we feel awkward.

Feeling awkward, if it is a feeling, is so unbearable an experience, he says, that it must be talked or written about; he wisely says that "friends are made through awkwardness shared."

Wollin, who notes the awkward sound of the word 'awkward,' believes that we who use English are better able to express our reactions to social awkwardness than users of other languages. I wonder.

I wonder why he doesn't mention the obvious source of social phobias: fear. Too obvious, I guess. Shyness is commonplace. As a friend has shown me, it is often genetic and not a learned behavior--this fear of being easily embarrassed. Or is it both?

How difficult it is to get my students to talk in class: as first graders, they were probably eager to raise their hands, but, sadly, as young adults they have learned to be self-conscious and follow Mark Twain's advice ("Better to be say nothing and be thought stupid than open your mouth and remove all doubt.")

They don't believe me when I say, there's no such thing as a stupid question. Of course, this is strictly speaking untrue, but in a learning environment it makes sense. How can I instill confidence in them--especially when my own level of confidence is often low, when stage fright can overcome me and when I must play the role of "man in control"?

I invariably face awkwardness in using the phone and walking in to a crowd of people. I would like to think being sensitive is an asset to be proud of. Yet the struggle with social awkwardness is a daily experience, so routine that I hardly think of it.

All of this is very tricky, and I am grateful to Matthew Wollin for analyzing the issue of awkwardness. It affects everyone.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Death on Spring Day

This day in April was radiant, the essence of spring, with a cloudless blue sky and cool breezes, birdsong, and flowering trees. I felt unusually alive, especially after last night's performance--an evening of historical humor co-presented to 100 people whose laughter was itself enlivening.

Then came death, as it ineviably does: sudden news of Melinda's passing, a victim of MS. I had been meaning to visit or call and now it's too late. The familiar guilt. We were not close, yet after 40 years of intermittent association, some bonds are established.

It could have been me, but it wasn't. Death happens to other people, doesn't it? Anyone who has read Tolstoi's masterpiece, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," remembers that idea from the opening, then the long and painful process of sharing in the death of an ordinary man, who only at the end of his life sees the meaning of it all. He begins to say to himself, "I want to live!"

It's almost laughable, yet his insight--and ours as we share in the awakening of his soul--is redemptive. It's all about seeing that loving and being loved are all that matter, not property and polite manners and success.

The catharsis here is powerful, more than is possible with the deaths of those around us, who pass away in hospitals or hospices, their condition not known except to those around them, if at all. We turn to fiction to learn the truth about dying. Tolstoi is the master.

To confront death on a spring day is to say, as another woman in the community--also of my age--said in a message to me today: "Grief is real. But so is laughter. And shining moments of clarity and brilliance." She referred to the poem she had written following the death of her husband a few months ago, and I admired her hopeful courage so well expressed.

We must live fully. Who knows when death will come or what awaits me on the other side? As St. John of the Cross wrote 500 years ago, "I only know that a great love awaits me."

I hope I have his strong faith--as well as the courage of my poet-friend. I hope that Melinda was appreciated during her life for all her shining moments of clarity and brilliance. And that she is now totally free.