Lascivious Swedes and other Vindications of Calvin

Vice magazineLately I’ve been exploring Vice, not the awful habits (those come naturally), but the international print and online magazine by that name. This week I’ve clicked on pieces with such headlines as “A Muslim’s Adventures in Pork,” “Massachusetts Might Force a Women to Share Parental Rights with the Rapist Who Impregnated Her,” and “You Can’t Just Walk Around Masturbating in Public, Swedish People.” The latter story was about a 65-year-old man who did the deed on a public beach in Sweden but was acquitted on grounds that he wasn’t seeking to harass “any specific person.”

But what really drew me into Vice was not a lascivious Swede, but an interview with Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of acclaimed novels including Housekeeping and Gilead, and one of the more clear-eyed observers of the human situation.

When I saw the headline, “A Teacher and Her Student … Marilynne Robinson on Staying Out of Trouble,” my first thought was that she’s a creative choice for a publication called Vice. Robinson has a fresh and thoughtful take on the theological sensibility of John Calvin, who had a searching eye for all manner of human frailty.

Asked if she had any notable vices, Robinson quickly mentioned “lassitude,” apparently alluding to the second definition of that word—“a condition of indolent indifference.” She recalled a comment by a scientist on why creatures sleep—“It keeps the organism out of trouble.” She added, “So every once in a while I sit on the couch thinking, I’m keeping my organism out of trouble,” suggesting another human foible, that of self-rationalization.

“I do get myself involved in things that require a tremendous amount of work. And of course, I’m always measuring what I do against what I set out to do,” she continued. “My other vices—I cannot have macaroons in the house! I’m a pretty viceless creature, as these things are conventionally defined. On the other hand, one of the reasons I have taken [John] Calvin to my heart is that I can always find vices in the most unpromising places.”

Asked what a vice is, Robinson gave a sort of classically Calvinist response, “I have no idea. Underachievement, I suppose. The idea being that you have a good thing to give and you deny it.”

The Trouble with Seeing

The interviewer, Thessaly La Force (a former student of Robinson’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), evinced no interest in the theological side of Robinson’s ruminations. And the part of the conversation I’ll remember for a while had to do not exactly with a vice, but with the decline of a virtue—simple respect for others and their degrees of goodness. Here’s how she unpacks the problem:

I think that a lot of the energies of the 19th century, that could fairly be called democratic, have really ebbed away. That can alarm me. The tectonics are always very complex. But I think there are limits to how safe a progressive society can be when its conception of the individual seems to be shrinking and shrinking. It’s very hard to respect the rights of someone you do not respect. I think that we have almost taught ourselves to have a cynical view of other people. So much of the scientism that I complain about is this reductionist notion that people are really very small and simple. That their motives, if you were truly aware of them, would not bring them any credit. That’s so ugly. And so inimical to the best of everything we’ve tried to do as a civilization and so consistent with the worst of everything we’ve ever done as a civilization.

On the surface, the notion that human beings are deserving of cynicism might seem to be an instinctively Calvinist (read dour) view. But that’s not how Robinson presents this misunderstood man of the Reformation. She has pointed out elsewhere that Calvinism starts with the idea that human beings are images of God, and every time we see another person, we’re encountering this image. The complication is that humans don’t have very good vision, in that regard.

Every act of seeing “tends to be enormously partial, just given the human situation,” Robinson told my friend and collaborator Bob Abernethy a few years ago. We may see things in a person that bolster our cynicism without seeing much else. And so, in her hands, this Calvinist perspective, this awareness that we never see adequately or exhaustively, “sensitizes you to the profundity of the fact of any other life—that people can’t be thought of dismissively.” And yet, that’s exactly how we are often made to think of the other, courtesy of this human situation. …read more

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

Rush Kidder and the Secular Souls

Recent political arguments over religion have turned light on a welter of anxieties about irreligiousness in the United States. As seen on the stump, Republican presidential hopefuls have taken to upbraiding unbelief, or what Newt Gingrich denounced last month as “the growing culture of radical secularism.” Less incendiary but equally worried assessments have come from even-tempered observers like Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon. She wrote earlier this month in America magazine that the “changing religious landscape in the United States … should set off alarm bells” together with what she considers the current assault on religious liberty. The landscape Glendon fears is one with fewer Americans, notably young people, claiming a religious affiliation.

In moments like this it’s useful to go back to first principles. Why should political leaders be so concerned about the growing presence of the undevout? What would be the compelling public interest in throttling back this trend?

One reasonable answer would be that a good society depends on good people, and organized religion has traditionally been the primary source of public virtue. True enough, but there are other sources as well, secular traditions of moral reasoning reflected in philosophical and common sense ethics (more on that in a moment). In any case, what the worriers fail to appreciate is that the secular souls are among us. They’re here to stay—perhaps in greater numbers than ever. This simple fact would seem to call for a more pastoral approach to the nonreligious, as distinct from demonization or handwringing.

One person who understood this better and earlier than anyone was Rushworth Kidder, writer, ethicist, and president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockport, Maine. Word came last week that this author of such popular books as How Good People Make Tough Choices died of natural causes, at age 67. I chatted with Rush a few times over the years and interviewed him at length for a 2007 book I did with Bob Abernethy. We titled the section including his remarks, “The Good, without God.”

Rush himself was not without religion—he was a Christian Scientist and one-time columnist for the Christian Science Monitor. But he was keenly responsive to the many people who seek the ethical life apart from religion and spirituality; he spent much of his time over many years with them, in seminars he offered for schools, businesses, and other groups. When we spoke, I asked him about those people who do not have religious reasons for wanting to reason morally. Here’s part of his reply.

It’s probably the oldest question in moral philosophy—why be moral? After all, the manifest advantages of the immoral life are lying all around us. If you want something, just steal it. Why bother to be truthful if you could lie?

Probably the oldest answer to that question is—because that’s what God wants. That was, for a long time, the accepted and rather standard answer in the United States….

Here, in the early twenty-first century, it is still a powerful answer for a lot of people…. But it is not and cannot be allowed to be the only answer. We’re not willing to assume that people who don’t have that framework not only aren’t ethical, but can’t be ethical or in some ways don’t deserve to be ethical. There’s too much of a polyglot and varying theology in this country today, and there are too many people who deliberately have no theology for us to rule them out and say, “Yes, we’re assuming that when you don’t have a god, you don’t have ethics.”

… There are three major ways in which individuals resolve ethical dilemmas, and at least two of these come straight out of the largely secular tradition of moral philosophy. When somebody says, “Look, I try to do what’s best for everybody—the greatest good for the greatest number,” that person is drawing on John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian philosophy. Using a different principle, the teacher who says to a five-year-old kid, “Gosh, Johnny, if I let you do that, I have to let everybody do it,” is actually speaking a fairly pure form of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative—the idea that the only viable moral decision is one which universalizes what you’re doing, so that if you can’t say you’d want everybody in the world to do what you’re about to do, then you’re about to make an unethical decision. Third, there’s the Golden Rule—do to others as you would have them do to you—which typically comes to us from a religious source but is as commonplace as the Native American adage, “Don’t judge somebody until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins.”

Just observing the twenty-five thousand people who have gone through our seminars in the past fifteen years, we find them resorting to these three standards again and again. So whether they know it or not, there’s a structure in place, and you’ll notice that nearly everything we’re talking about here has no reference to religion. And we’ve noticed there isn’t any salient distinction between the moral reasoning capacities of people who are religious and those who are not religious.

A Question about the Future

At the end of the interview, Rush added this caveat to his otherwise hopeful assessment of secular moral reasoning:

For me, the question is: Is it possible to lead the ethical life apart from the religious or spiritual life, without simply continuing to drain down the reservoir. In other words, I wonder whether we are, in fact, living off the accumulated moral capital of the past. That capital was largely put into place in a theological context. Yes, I’m sure it’s possible to lead the ethical life now and to help others lead that ethical life. But will we be effective at creating entire cultures of integrity, rather than little pockets of character throughout society, if we try to do it absent a set of theological constructs that posit a divine purpose underlying human ethics? I don’t know the answer to that. …read more

On Being Respond-able

Gratitude is a feeling, but even more, it’s a response. That’s how the late William Sloane Coffin limned it in an interview he gave to my friend and colleague Bob Abernethy—adapted as an essay for our 2007 book The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World. Here’s a portion of those remarks.

I’m convinced that gratitude is the most important religious emotion. Duty calls only when gratitude fails to prompt. When you’re grateful for the undeserved beauty of a cloudless sky, you’re praying. You’re saying, “Thank you, Lord,” praying all the time about the beauty of nature, the beauty of the deeds some people do. In World War II, occasionally a soldier fell on a grenade there was no time to throw back. Well, you could be absolutely appalled by their deaths, but you could be struck by the beauty of selfless courage.

I feel grateful all the time, so my prayers of thanksgiving are very full. I don’t tell God what to do, but thinking about other people and trying to think what God would think about them is a way of directing my thoughts to other people. I pray for world peace, but not, “Grant us peace in our time, O Lord.” God must say, “Oh, come off it. What are you going to do for peace, for heaven’s sake?”

A lot of people think their prayers aren’t answered. They are answered; the answer is no, and they haven’t heard it. I don’t think you have to be self-conscious about your prayer life. You can just live in wonder and gratitude and with a sense of wanting to respond—responsible means “respond-able,” able to respond. If you’re able to respond to the beauty of nature, you’ll be an environmentalist. If you’re able to respond to human beings’ basic right to peace, you’ll be a peacenik. It’s a matter of being full of wonder, thanksgiving, and praying for strength to respond to all the wonder and beauty there is in human life.

Bob Abernethy’s original PBS interview with Coffin can be read in full here. …read more

The Life of Meaning

The Life of Meaning

Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World

By Bob Abernethy and William Bole, with a Foreword by Tom Brokaw

Nautilus Book Awards Gold Winner 2008

The Life of Meaning presents conversations with 59 extraordinary people speaking candidly about their own spiritual struggles. Their insights on community, prayer, suffering, religious observance, the choice to live with or without a god, and the meanings that are gleaned from everyday life form an elegant meditation on the desire for something beyond what we can see and measure. Among those profiled are Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, Harold Kushner, Madeleine L’Engle, Studs Terkel, Andrew Greeley, Anne Lamott, Francis Collins, Marianne Williamson, Irving Greenberg, Thomas Lynch, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marilynne Robinson, and William Sloane Coffin. …read more

http://williambole.com/the-life-of-meaning/

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