The God Who Could Not

Last week, NPR’s Morning Edition presented a thoughtful, in-depth series titled “Losing Our Religion.” Reporters tracked down an interesting array of people who had turned away from organized religion, though not necessarily from spirituality and prayer. I was struck by how many of them had lost faith as a result of a personal tragedy, especially the death of a loved one. I was even more struck by an assumption they seemed to share with the most fervent religious believers.

The assumption is that any deity worth its salt must be omnipotent. God (if there is one) must be able to stop a deranged gunman from storming an elementary school in Connecticut, or catch a falling tree just in time to spare the lives of a young couple walking their dog in Brooklyn at the onset of Hurricane Sandy. But what happens if God could not?

One person who has agonized over this is Rabbi Irving Greenberg, former chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He has peered at the question continually through the horrific lens of the Shoah. “In the presence of burning children, how could one talk of a loving God? I once wrote that no theological statement should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children,” Greenberg said of its victims, in an interview adapted in The Life of Meaning, by Bob Abernethy (and me).

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Greenberg recalled that as a young Orthodox rabbi, at times he could barely speak the words of the prayers recited daily by observant Jews. “It would be almost a mockery of the children to speak of the God who—as we do in our central prayer—redeems the children and saves them for the sake of his great name,” he explained. “How could you say that in a generation where there was no liberation?”

Between Belief and Unbelief

Greenberg’s message to those interviewed by NPR would be, to start with: I hear you. “Even for the most devout people, there are moments when the ashes of the smoke of Auschwitz choke off any contact with God or heaven. Therefore, I came to see that the line between the believer and the doubter is much thinner than I once thought,” he said (in what was originally an on-air interview conducted by Susan Grandis Goldstein for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly).

But he has kept his faith, partly with a fresh appraisal of covenant. In his interpretation of that biblical concept, God enters into a partnership with humans—and “self-limits,” as Greenberg puts it. God surrenders power, so that his/her Creation would have it.

Elie Wiesel … once suggested that the messiah, the all-powerful, deus ex machina God who saves us against our own will and ability—if that kind of messiah would come again now, it would be an outrage. It’s too late for such a messiah to come. It would have been a moral monster that could have come to save those children or to save those people and didn’t come.

But a God who wanted to intervene, and could not—that’s different, says Greenberg.

In a sense, to me, that’s the starkest, ultimate outcome. The fairy tale, the God of the white beard in heaven, all’s well with the world, the one who does it all for us, I think, is no longer credible, no longer possible. But a mature understanding of God who loves us in our freedom, who has called us to responsibility, who is with us at every moment—I think such a God is, if anything, more present and more close, and maybe, having suffered together and having shared our pain infinitely, is more beloved and maybe more inspiring to follow.

I don’t dismiss the perpetual question: If there’s an all-powerful God, how can such terrible things happen to the most innocent people? I just think the “if” could use some careful attention. …read more

When MLK was Old

King at Boston University

A new study published in Science magazine invites a fresh take on Bob Dylan’s refrain, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” The study of 19,000 adults found that most people realize how much they’ve changed in the past ten years but seriously underestimate how different they’ll be in the future. People of all ages think they’ll stay pretty much the same—incorrectly, according to the Harvard and University of Virginia researchers. They call it the “end of history illusion.”

That’s to say, we think we’re so much older and wiser, but we’re younger than that now. There’s more growth to experience—different values, preferences, and personality traits to make our own. I don’t know if that’s necessarily comforting. Depends on how much you want to stay “just the way you are” (with apologies to Billy Joel). There were helpful summaries of the study and its methodology in Science Times and the Boston Globe, and at NPR online.

With Martin Luther King Day coming up, it’s worth asking how many of history’s great figures would have predicted how different they’d be, ten years out. I don’t think MLK, sprinting to his doctorate in theology at Boston University in 1953, had a clue.

Absorbed in Hegel, Tillich, Niebuhr, and others, King had what he saw as a clear picture of his future self. It involved standing at the front of a class in social ethics at a seminary or university, preferably a northern institution. As Stephen B. Oates recounted in his 1982 biography of King:

He hadn’t all the answers, by any means. He realized how much more he had to learn. But how he enjoyed intellectual inquiry. He would love to do this for the rest of his life, to become a scholar of personalism [the philosophical school that engaged his mind at B.U.], the Social Gospel, and Hegelian idealism, inspiring young people as his own mentors had inspired him. Yes, that would be a splendid and meaningful way to serve God and humanity.

King—on track to become a tweedy tenured theology professor—was so much older then.

A year later, he accepted what he assumed would be a sleepy temporary pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama. Newly married to Coretta, he took the job at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a relatively affluent congregation, figuring he’d get a little pastoral experience and draw a paycheck while wrapping up his doctoral dissertation.

Coretta wanted to get out of the Deep South as soon as possible. But on December 1, 1955, a 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, and was escorted to the police station. Uproar ensued, and King’s fellow clergy, a fairly timid bunch, drafted the 26-year-old into the leadership of what became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was no turning back.

Postscript

Last week, the Bible that MLK used in his early ministry made news. It was announced that Barack Obama would take the oath of office with his hand on King’s Bible as well as Lincoln’s. That’ll come at the highpoint of the January 21 inauguration ceremony, which happens to fall on the King holiday.

On the inaugural platform, you won’t have to look far to find a living person whose identity changed in unexpected ways. Just keep an eye out for Barry Obama. …read more

Read Thy Enemy

Ross Douth

I flipped through some of the expected commentary about what to read in the New Year, but one column that nudged me was Ross Douthat’s in the Times, “How to Read in 2013.” The conservative pundit issued a moderate challenge: “Consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share.” He made a point of using what he referred to as that fusty word, “subscription.” Reading all of a magazine, Douthat explained, is a better way of grappling with its ideas than plucking this or that item from its web site.

So, if you wait for National Review to arrive in your mailbox, or inbox, make sure you also get The Nation or The New Republic, Douthat suggested. Or, if The New Yorker is your blend of tea, think about subscribing also to The Weekly Standard.

“And don’t be afraid to lend an ear to voices that seem monomaniacal or self-marginalizing, offensive or extreme,” he advised. “There are plenty of writers on the Internet who are too naïve or radical or bigoted to entrust with any kind of power, but who nonetheless might offer an insight that you wouldn’t find in the more respectable quarters of the press.”

The December 29 column has led me to take stock of my own reading. Like most members of our species, I am attracted to ideas and information that confirm my positions and worldview. There are names for that in the social sciences literature—“confirmation bias” and “pattern bias” come to mind.

Although I prefer the left-leaning MSNBC, I do go to the conservative channels. But for me, watching The O’Reilly Factor or some other Fox News productions is like eating a vegetable I don’t care much for—without the consolation that it’s good for me. I find more appetizing the (online) offerings of National Review and especially The American Conservative but tend to pick and choose among them. I usually pass up the antigovernment and free-market screeds. More palatable to me are pieces that tap into my culturally conservative sentiments, which I wear less on my sleeve than I used to.

Taking up the Douthat challenge, I’m not sure if I’ll actually take out a new subscription to a politically conservative journal this year (or a liberal one, for that matter). But I’ll add to my New Year’s resolutions an intention to regularly sit down in the periodical room of a Boston College library and read The Weekly Standard or The American Spectator cover to cover.

At the same time, I’ll make an effort to read books and articles outside the political-theological-philosophical complex. I’m already starting to crowd out that resolution, though, with items piling in my Amazon cart. I’m eagerly awaiting the February release of Jeffrey Frank’s Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, about Eisenhower and Nixon.

Douthat’s column has evidently touched a chord with many readers, and I’m glad for that. But is he putting his finger on the most glaring oversight in our politics today? Would that be the failure of liberals to read conservatives and vice versa? Or would it be that too few people in general are listening to the least of these, to the weak and vulnerable?

At one time—prior to Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic The Other America—the poor were invisible. Now they are simply inaudible. They’re seen waiting at bus stops and standing behind fast food counters, but seldom heard in our public debates. And I wouldn’t expect to hear their voices all that clearly in the pages of The Weekly Standard. But maybe I’ll be surprised. …read more

Lamentations Rising: Civility Part 2

Eric Liu: Politics is about “blood and guts.”

In the run-up to Nov. 6, laments about the decline of civility have continued to mount—as seen in headlines such as “A Call for Civility in Days Leading up to the Election,” “Can Civility Be Returned to Politics,” and “Reporter Confronts Obama Over His Lack of Civility.” The latter story, from Fox Nation, cried foul over President Obama’s off-color remark suggesting that Mitt Romney is a serial prevaricator.

We need critiques of incivility, early and often in an election year. And for a particularly thoughtful and earnest one, I recommend James Calvin Davis’s recent essay, “Resisting Politics as Usual: Civility as Christian Witness,” in which he adds a Calvinist punch to such virtues as humility—“an important Christian corollary to the belief that God is God and we are not.”

But we also need critiques of civility itself, or its depth and relevance to questions about justice, truth, and solidarity.

Eric Liu, a former speechwriter and policy adviser to President Clinton, hits a few of the high notes in his Oct. 16 opinion piece in Time, “Civility is Overrated.” He gives civility its due, but says that focusing on it can make us “pay disproportionate attention to the part of politics that’s rational. Which is tiny. Democracy is not just about dialogue and deliberation; it’s also—in fact, primarily—about blood and guts. What we fear, what we love, what we hate, how we belong, this is the stuff of how most people participate in politics, if they participate at all.”

Rational dialogue is just a “tiny” piece of politics? I hope not, but listen to Liu as he draws nearer to the core question of justice.

The danger with pushing for more civility is that it can make politics seem denatured, cut off from why we even have politics. As a Democrat, I want to see more anger, not less, about today’s levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration. I want that anger to swell into a new Progressive Era. And as an American, I need to understand better the true sources of anger and fear on the right and the ways those emotions and intuitions yield political beliefs. For all the formulaic shouting in our politics, we don’t often hear the visceral, emotional core of what our fellow citizens on the other side are trying to express.

I highlight here “levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration.” Naming that, and doing so with a touch of rage, ought to be part of civil discourse.

Civility is about Caring

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, was similarly underwhelmed by the usual pleas for civility. “Personally, I worry more about what’s happening to civil rights than to civil discourse, and I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about civility if all it meant was good manners, manners often at the expense of morality,” he wrote in an essay on civility and multiculturalism that appeared in his 1999 book The Heart is A Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality.

But, for this liberal Christian stalwart, civility was never about good manners. Look at how civility took on both a theology and an epistemology, a concern for truth, in Coffin’s hands:

At its most profound, civility has little to do with taste, everything to do with truth. And the truth it affirms, in religious terms, is that everyone, from the pope to the loneliest wino on the planet, is a child of God, equal in dignity, deserving of equal respect. It is a religious truth that we all belong one to another; that’s the way God made us. From a Christian point of view, Christ died to keep us that way, which means that our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.

The takeaway? “Caring, I believe, is what civility, profoundly understood, is all about,” Coffin said.

If his essay were less about multiculturalism than about economic justice, he would have undoubtedly emphasized that civility is, above all, about caring for 100 percent of God’s people—but especially for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. How the weak are faring in a society increasingly in the grip of the strong is a fair question for the civility patrol. …read more

Knights and Death Mongers: Civility Part 1

From an ad sponsored by the Knights of Columbus

Civility—the word, if not the social attribute—has crept back into the political repertory. In the remembrances of George McGovern this week, headline writers made sure to highlight the former senator’s “legacy of civility.” Many others have bemoaned the lack of it, all through the 2012 elections. And, the Knights of Columbus recently launched a “Civility in America” campaign.

As (last I checked) a member in good standing of that Catholic fraternal order, I received an email announcing the initiative, under the heading, “Help us mend the tone of America’s political discourse.” The message offered some examples of my fraternal dollars at work. These included full-page newspaper ads inviting people to sign the Civility in America petition, which blandly calls on politicians and pundits to adopt a “civil tone” and focus on policies rather than personalities. A Knights-commissioned poll also found, unsurprisingly, that most Americans regard our politics as uncivil.

I was pleased to know of this effort, especially in light of something I recall from 2004—a cover of Columbia magazine, the organ of the Knights, distributed to its 1.8 million members during the presidential election season that year. I can’t seem to find a copy of that edition, either online or in my periodical closet, but I remember a kicking donkey of the Democratic Party, depicted with the words—“Party of Death.”

We all have our moments of rhetorical excess. But I think a nice way to start off a civility campaign would be to make it clear that you’ll no longer refer to your political opponents as death mongers. The Knights have yet to make that particular pledge.

“Civility” seems to waft in and out of public discourse, probably because people are unsure of it. What is it, anyway? Politeness? If so, it’s not much a virtue, at least not a political one.

In his highly readable 2001 book, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville characterizes politeness as “a show of virtue, its appearance and nothing more.” But the show must go on. Comte-Sponville explains, “We end up resembling what we imitate, and politeness imperceptibly leads—or can lead—to morality.”

And surely, civility is knitted to some real virtues. To name a few: humility, tolerance, and gentleness, all of which can leaven our public conversation.

I like, as far as it goes, a definition circulated by the Institute for Civility in Government.

Civility is about more than merely being polite, although being polite is an excellent start. Civility fosters a deep self-awareness, even as it is characterized by true respect for others. Civility requires the extremely hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and perhaps fierce disagreements. It is about constantly being open to hear, to learn, to teach and to change. It seeks common ground as a beginning point for dialogue when differences occur, while at the same time recognizes that differences are enriching. It is patience, grace, and strength of character.

That’s a relatively strong notion of civility, but how deeply does it bring us into questions at the moral core of politics, having to do with justice, truth, and solidarity? I’m not sure, but I’ll take another swing at it before the season of incivility draws to a conclusion on November 6. …read more

Jihad on the D Train

Photo by REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

I’d like to say it’s been a quiet week in my hometown, as Garrison Keillor recites at the beginning of his monologues on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. But I’m never able to say that, because I’m not from Lake Wobegon. I’m a New Yorker by birth and by attitude, though not by residence over the past nearly three decades.

The commotion in recent days has been over an ad posted in subway stations that equates the Islamic principle of jihad with savagery. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man,” says the ad, sponsored by a pro-Israel citizens group. “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Let’s skip over the part where I acknowledge that people have a right to express their opinions. And let’s skate over the place where I hold that civilized people try to build bridges of understanding between religious traditions. They don’t dynamite them.

What should be noted is that the ad is also theologically untrue. Maybe that’s beside the point, but it communicates that jihad is essentially a principle of bloodletting. That’s like saying the Trinity or the Chosen People are vile notions, because some fundamentalist Christians and right-wing Israeli settlers, respectively, are doing odious things in the name of those beliefs. I wouldn’t expect to look up and see that message on a cardboard poster while riding the D train into Brooklyn.

Jihad is usually taken to mean “holy war” in the West and, fair to say, in the violent precincts of Muslim extremism. But in the vast reaches of Islam, it refers primarily to a different kind of struggle—to improve our world and, first of all, ourselves.

Nearly a year after the atrocities of September 11, 2001, I had a conversation about this with University of Virginia religion scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina, who had just written a book titled The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism. He pointed out that Mohammed spoke of an “inner jihad,” a struggle against one’s baser instincts. In fact, Mohammed called this the “greater jihad,” as distinct from the “lesser jihad” of struggle against external enemies.

Turns out that for those Muslims who don’t point their guns randomly at infidels (in other words, nearly all of them), jihad may have less to do with war than with reconciliation. “The ability to forgive requires a jihad against one’s anger and resentment in order to restore one’s spiritual station by participating in the divine attribute of forgiveness,” Sachedina wrote in his book.

To me it sounds a lot like the Augustinian notion of the inner self as a battleground, a clash of wills between our lower and higher selves.

Try fitting that message onto a subway poster. But I take some assurance in the live-and-let-live philosophy of New Yorkers, one of whom was quoted in a Reuters dispatch. “It’s not right, but it’s freedom of speech. To put it on a poster is just not right,” said a 29-year-old man as he strode through the Times Square station. “But it caught my attention and I support freedom of speech, so you got to live with it.”

Reuters said most subway riders passed by the ad in a tunnel there without even noticing it. That’s a bit assuring, too, though I also saw, in another item, a photo of a young woman in traditional Muslim headdress, staring at the ad. I can only imagine what she was feeling at that moment. …read more

We Interrupt this Culture War to Report …

A church burns in India

I don’t know if Mitt Romney really believes that 47 percent of all Americans will never have a sense of personal responsibility, will never “care for their lives.” How can anyone think such a thing let alone speechify about it? I also don’t know if he truly believes that one man in America is amassing the power of government to persecute its citizens just because they’re religious. But in an ad last month, the GOP nominee renewed this line of attack on Barack Obama. He and his surrogates have continued to argue, with a wary eye toward the administration’s birth-control mandate, that the president is waging a “war on religion.”

There’s certainly a culture war over religion, and it has apparently come to my quiet neighborhood in Andover, Mass. Walking back from town the other day, I noticed a blue and white sign on a front-porch railing that read: “Stand Up for Religious Freedom.” It’s part of a national campaign targeting this alleged jihad against people and institutions of faith.

I’ve known my neighbors to get up in arms about pressing matters such as parking restrictions and overgrown trees, but this was a bit of a surprise for me. The debate over religious freedom in America has been one of the oddly unexpected features of the 2012 elections. If it were a reality show, I’d be grateful to see a news bulletin break in: We interrupt this broadcast to report that there are people in the world who are actually suffering religious persecution, and not one of them lives in Andover, Mass., or any place like it.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter provided such a public service during a forum at Boston College this past April, titled “Is Religious Freedom Under Threat in America?” As the forum’s moderator, he interrupted the panel discussion—entirely about the domestic squabble—to point out that an estimated 150,000 Christians die each year in religious violence in places like Egypt, Nigeria, and India. “In the past hour, 17 Christians have been killed on this planet,” Allen reported, extrapolating from the average toll.

Allen committed the faux pas of talking about actual religious persecution abroad, when he and others on the panel were supposed to be speaking seriously about dubious religious persecution at home (and they did speak seriously and thoughtfully on the subject, from different perspectives).

I hesitate to add that I wrote an article about that forum for Boston College Magazine, and my paragraph on Allen’s intervention was edited out—for perfectly sound editorial reasons, I’m absolutely sure. But it’s just another indication of how the issue of religious freedom has been domesticated. In some hands it has become a political football.

More about this in a month—when thousands are expected to take personal responsibility and turn up in Washington for an October 20 “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally. Undoubtedly there will be some 47 percenters among them. …read more

College: An Employment Agency with Gothic Towers?

With this item, TheoPol resumes its weekly schedule.

Gasson Hall, Boston College

As the parent of a high-school junior who will be deep into the college search soon enough, I’ve been forced to reflect on the purposes of a college education. My philosophical conclusion is that college is fundamentally about two things: getting into the habit of lifelong learning, and forming or developing yourself as a person. My parental view is less untroubled. I grapple with the idea that college is really about spawning a career and, by the grace of the financial gods, eluding the demons of monstrous debt.

These perspectives are not naturally allied, and increasing numbers of middle-class families are acting on the latter assumption and making stark choices about college.

Last month, the gigantic student lender Sallie Mae issued its annual report, How America Pays for College. Among other sobering results, the study found that students are dropping out of the humanities right and left, stampeding toward degrees such as nursing that would appear to make them more employable. More than ever, families are eliminating college choices—for example, the high-priced liberal arts school that offers a well-rounded education—because of costs. And, for the first time in recent memory, more than half of all college students are living at home.

How are the thought leaders of the liberal arts responding to these realities? In the circles I travel in, some are doubling down on the message that a university is not an employment agency with gothic towers. On the contrary, students are there to discover their passions, to learn how to think and to serve others, according to many of the messengers.

One of the more colorful among them is Father Michael Himes, professor of theology at Boston College. Several times this past summer, he delivered the word to incoming students and their parents at Boston College’s freshmen orientations, one of which I attended in June, not officially as a parent but as a contributing writer for Boston College Magazine. Here’s part of my rendering of the Himes presentation:

After a preamble about how “robust conversation” defines a great university, Himes arrived at his core contention. A great university is not about finding a job or “adding a zero to a starting salary line” or even getting into graduate school, he said. “Don’t get me wrong,” Himes went on in his curiously blended accent, part Brooklyn and part Britain (having grown up in the borough, around relatives from abroad). “It’s terribly important. It’s just not what a university is good at. It’s not what it’s about.” He continued—“It’s about producing intellectuals.” These are people who are never completely satisfied with an answer to a big question and always keep probing. Their rallying cry is, as Himes put it, “Yes, but.”

At a place like Boston College, he said, students ask questions about human existence, about who they want to become, and how they can channel their passions and talents into service to the world. During the Q&A, a parent asked from his seat in a middle row what “we,” parents, should fear most about what lies ahead in college. Himes replied in an instant—“that at no time in the next four years will your student shock you and fill you with horror.” The response brought down the house, although a disproportionate share of the high-spirited clapping and cheering appeared to come from younger hands and voices.

Part of me wonders if this is an ivory tower version of Mitt Romney’s Thurston Howell-like advice to students: “Borrow money from your parents if you have to.” The variation might be—Worried about paying for college and earning a livelihood after you graduate? Become an intellectual! On its face, it’s a non-response.

But leaving aside “intellectual,” the case that Himes makes is not without its practical side. He’s shrewd enough to know that a narrow vocational training for jobs today might not help much tomorrow, and that young people, most of all, need to learn how to think, analyze, communicate, and problem-solve. Or at least that’s the belief of those who take the leap of liberal arts faith.

And then there’s the nagging question of being a person. College students need space and (dare I say) intellectual leisure to reflect on who they are, and what they have to offer to the world. I’m not sure if this could happen if they’re desperately seeking a career from day one. Not an easy question, but an important one, especially if you agree with Himes when he says: “Before you can do something, you have to be someone.” …read more

Calvinism 2.0

For some time now I’ve been waiting patiently for a cultural reassessment of John Calvin and his presumably dour theology. And, some of my friends would add teasingly, who hasn’t been? But if you’re a theo-geek like me, you’re going to have to wait a little longer for the Calvinist reboot.

Recent articles in The New Yorker and the New York Times are just the latest perpetuations of Calvin’s uptight, puritanical image. Writing in the July 30 New Yorker, Sarah Payne Stuart (“Pilgrim’s Progress: God and Real Estate in New England”) lays at the doorstep of Calvinism her observation that New England is still “an unforgiving place. Like a disapproving mother, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations.”

Matthew Hutson opines likewise in “Still Puritan After All These Years,” his Aug. 3 op-ed in the Times. The science writer plies the notion that Americans today exhibit attitudes and behavior traceable to “those austere English Protestants” who arrived on these shores in the early 17th century. Those were mostly Calvinists, followers of the cleric who, as Hutson recites, “viewed success as a sign of salvation.”

Hutson digs into a few psychological research studies of whether American work habits reflect the Protestant work ethic (as prone to caricature as Calvin himself).

“Calvin argued that socializing while on the job was a distraction from the assignment God gave you,” he purports. “The psychologist Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks has found that Protestants — but not Catholics — become less sensitive to others’ emotions when reminded of work, possibly indicating a tendency to judge fraternizing as unproductive and unprofessional. He and collaborators have also found that Americans have a culturally specific tendency to view family photos and other personal items as unprofessional presences in the office.”

I’m skeptical of whether religious affiliation would explain such a workplace hang-up, but let’s continue down the Reformation trail.

“Not all of the legacy of Puritanism suggests moral uprightness,” Hutson informs us. “Studies since the ’70s have also found that Americans who score high on a Protestant Ethic Scale (emphasizing self-reliance and self-discipline) or similar metric show marked prejudice against racial minorities and the poor; hostility toward social welfare efforts; and, among obese women, self-denigration.”

My guess is that the most avowedly self-reliant among us tend to be politically conservative. So it’s not shocking that these people would be more likely to frown upon “social welfare efforts” and the like. That aside, here we have, once again, the Calvin of popular assumption, served up with shibboleths about classical Protestant theology (I’m Catholic, by the way).

Rehabilitating Calvin

Some writers and scholars in recent years have offered a fresh reintroduction to the man from Geneva. My favorite among these revisers is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping and Gilead. (Mark O’Connell looked at the Calvinist colors of her fiction in the May 30 online edition of The New Yorker, available here. And, a scholarly review of one of her Calvinist essays is here.)

In an illuminating PBS interview with my friend and collaborator Bob Abernethy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Robinson noted that Calvin spearheaded many social reforms in his city that were certainly progressive in his time. These included the establishment of public education for both boys and girls, and the requirement that men financially support the children they conceive out of wedlock. With Calvin’s encouragement, Europe’s first edition of the Qur’an was published in Geneva. (Calvin also saw concentrations of wealth as unbiblical, which I discussed in an article late last year for The Christian Century.)

Theologically speaking, Robinson said, relating a centerpiece of Calvinism:

We are given the world to enjoy. The signature of God in creation is beauty, as well as the expansion of understanding or the expansion of awareness, which is never complete precisely because it’s a manifestation of the presence of God. That life in the world is an enormous privilege, which is enhanced as privilege in the degree to which we are attentive to what is being given to us, not just as gift of prosperity or something, but what’s given us to understand, to allow us to reconceive.

True, Calvin was a tad obsessed with sin and human frailty. But this of a piece with his intellectual humility, urgently needed in our politics today.

According to Robinson, Calvinism presents “the idea that the world is continuously unfolding itself for your further understanding … [and] that whatever understanding you bring to this experience is incomplete, is too small.” Put another way, every act of seeing is partial. Every instance of human understanding is at least partly inaccurate. Tell that to the folks who claim to know with absolute certainty what God ate for lunch today!

It’s this awareness of human fallibility that led Calvin away from—not toward—the unforgiving and judgmental attitude that has been pasted historically all over him. Much of this theological sensibility derives from his understanding of Original Sin, which “makes it so that we can never see clearly or understand entirely. And this, of course, undermines the assumption that secure judgments can be made, that we actually know,” Robinson told Bob in the 2010 interview.

When Bob asked about a Calvinist ethic of forgiveness, she elaborated:

The assumption is that forgiveness is owed wherever God might want forgiveness to be given, and we don’t know. So you err on the side of forgiving. Or you don’t, or who knows what God’s ultimate intentions are, in any case? But you assume your fallibility and you also assume that anybody that you encounter is precious to God, or is God himself, which is sometimes how [Calvin] describes this when you are encountered by someone, even an enemy. And when Calvin talked about somebody who wanted to kill you, that was most of Europe at that point, from his point of view. But he says this is the image of God that has approached you. And the question is what does God want from this moment? And so there’s this absolute valuing of the other that comes under all circumstances and just leaves the idea of judgment as a meaningless idea.

 Judgment as a meaningless idea? Welcome to Calvinism 2.0—if it ever finds a market.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Art of “Messing About”

G.K. Chesterton: "Leisure is being allowed to do nothing."

Americans have a fraught relationship with leisure, as might be gleaned from two stories that spilled through a news cycle recently. Over the Fourth of July weekend, the press reported that the Obamas have decided to spare us the annual debate over their summer excursion to well-heeled Martha’s Vineyard by skipping the trip this year. Meanwhile, the Romney clan spent a full week jet skiing and speed boating along the family’s sprawling compound in New Hampshire. The president’s politically calculated move was seen as prudent at a time of voter distress over the economy; the Romneys were chided for having a bit too much fun in the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee.

We the people are ambivalent about leisure, and not just when it comes to our leaders decamping to privileged havens. Throughout our history we have often viewed leisure with suspicion, as a form of idleness or a flight from responsibility. Maybe that’s why there’s an unmistakable quality of busyness in our leisure, a feeling of urgency and determination.

As the writer and architect Witold Rybczynski noted in his landmark 1991 book, Waiting for the Weekend, people used to “play” tennis, but now they “work” on their backhands. He and many other commentators have noted that leisure has become unleisurely in this and many other respects. Or perhaps it was always so in a country molded (in some salutary ways) by the Protestant work ethic.

On this particular score, I’ll take G.K. Chesterton over Luther or Calvin. The English Catholic writer pointed out that leisure is not just the liberty to do something. More profoundly, he said (as cited by Rybczynski): “Leisure is being allowed to do nothing.” Chesterton also once quipped, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” He was extolling the pointless pursuit of play.

Of course many people are leisure-deprived. Well before the economic crisis, average Americans were working longer hours just to stay afloat or hold their ground; couples were pressed into what has become the 90-hour family workweek. As for the jobless, they’re not exactly enjoying an extended vacation. That is, unless you agree with those wooly-headed economists who regard unemployment as voluntary and thus a form of leisure.

Still, even if everyone were blessed with livable wages and adequate free time, we’d still have a leisure problem, at least according to a noble tradition of ethical thought on this matter.

“The provision of … leisure is not enough; it can only be fruitful if … man himself is capable of leisure,” the German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote in his 1952 classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. In other words, leisure isn’t just two weeks of paid vacation. It’s a state of mind—“a condition of the soul,” as Pieper phrased it. And part of that soul of leisure is effortlessness.

“Man seems to distrust everything that is effortless … he refuses to have anything as a gift,” Pieper wrote 60 years ago. Here, the philosopher was tapping a tradition that goes back to Aristotle and owes as well to St. Thomas Aquinas, who stressed that virtue resides in the good rather than the difficult. In that way of thinking, the truest and most restorative leisure is never something done as a means toward an end, like improving a backhand. It’s something we do purely for its own sake, for the sheer, goal-less joy of it.

Examples of such leisure are beside the point, because it’s not so much the activities as the spirit one brings to them. Chesterton’s pastimes were sketching and collecting weapons, but in spirit he was, as he put it, just “messing about.” …read more