A Theology of Embarrassment

By some worldly measures, the mystic and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel was not very embarrassable. He had fled Poland just six weeks before the Nazi invasion there, and arrived in the United States in 1940 at a time when Jews, including his fellow rabbis, were trying hard to look and sound like other (preferably secular) Americans. Heschel contributed little to the effort.

At the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the professor would show up at 7:00 a.m. morning services donning a prayer shawl and tefillin—two small leather boxes containing scrolls with passages from the Torah (he wrapped one box around an upper arm, the other, around his forehead). During prayers he swayed back and forth while the other professors “sat stiffly, dignified,” his biographer Edward K. Kaplan noted. Heschel sported a yarmulke and grew what eventually turned into a conspicuous white beard with a surfeit of tousled white, wavy hair, as though he were vying for the lead role in a movie about the ancient Hebrew prophets.

Heschel did have, however, a sense of what he termed “ultimate embarrassment.” As he saw it, this is the feeling all people of faith should have, when they stand in awe of a God who is just and righteous, who demands more of them and their world.

I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life…. There are slums, disease, and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas.

These words were penned by Heschel in 1965—the same year he strode with Martin Luther King in the front line of the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. Susannah Heschel, a noted religious-studies scholar at Dartmouth, says her father (who died in 1972) looked upon embarrassment as the beginning of religious faith, but not the end.

“Embarrassment is the impulse that must lead to an awareness of being challenged,” she comments in a superb new collection, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, which she edited as part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series published by Orbis Books (a Catholic publisher).

Less Than Mortified

Heschel’s theology of embarrassment resonates politically at a moment when poverty appears to be metastasizing in America. This month the Census Bureau reported that more than 46 million Americans were struggling below the official poverty line of $22, 314 a year for a family of four. At 15.1 percent it is the highest poverty rate since the early 1990s.

Conservatives used the data to proclaim the failure of Obamanomics and trumpet their agenda of unceasing tax-and-regulation-slashing. Liberals reasserted the need for a raft of social-welfare policies including extended unemployment insurance (an existing policy that the Bureau said had kept a few million other Americans out of poverty).

Analysts and partisans responded quickly to the news, but were scarcely mortified. There seemed to be little pause for reflection, little soul-searching about our collective failure over decades to lift all boats, even in the midst of rising economic tides.

One analyst who has scaled the subject with both urgency and humility is Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times correspondent David K. Shipler. During the 1990s boom, Shipler began a long search for understanding. He traveled to African American neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and all-white towns in rural New Hampshire, to malnutrition clinics in Boston and sweatshops in California, and many points in between.

The result was the best book on poverty I’ve ever read, next to Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic The Other America. Shipler wrote in his 2004 book The Working Poor:

Working poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: not just low wages but low education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just poor housing but also poor parenting, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households.

Such balance (“unwise spending”) might seem less to the point now, as more Americans fall into poverty for reasons completely beyond their control. Just the same, Shipler achieved a tone and spirit that would elevate any conversation about this continuing American scandal. The closing words of his remarkable reportage were, “It’s time to be ashamed.”

Across time and celestial space, one could almost hear Rabbi Heschel intoning those same words. …read more

Obama’s “Gig,” and Ours … A Discernment

Polls show that confidence in President Obama’s leadership is slipping among Americans, even as he struggles to regain his voice with an ambitious new jobs plan. According to various commentators, the president has seemed unable to stick with his own program, to stake out a credible vision of his presidency, to decide he’s one thing and not another.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Obama, like many of us, doesn’t really know or appreciate his “gig.”

That is a thought engendered by my friend Andy Boynton, dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. Boynton talks about the importance of “knowing your gig,” what you’re all about as a professional and where you’d like to be going in your career. (He developed the concept together with me and Bill Fischer in The Idea Hunter).

In this rendering, a gig isn’t something done by a musician on a Saturday night. It is far broader in scope. It’s closer to one’s personal brand or professional identity, even to the sense of vocation many people seek to nurture. The function of a gig is to steer people toward ideas, projects, and proposals that are right for them.

How does a politician or anyone come to a thoughtful understanding of his or her gig? I’d suggest taking a cue from those who help young people discern their callings in life.

Michael Himes, a Catholic priest and theology professor at Boston College, has come up with some useful tools of self-reflection for those purposes. In several papers and presentations he has outlined three key questions people can reflect on, when choosing a profession or even just a job or some other role. Those questions are:

1. Is this a source of joy?

2. Is this something that taps into your talents and gifts–engages all of your abilities–and uses them in the fullest way possible?

3. Is this role a genuine service to the people around you, to society at large?

Himes has a pithier version of this discernment:

1. Do you get a kick out it?

2. Are you any good at it?

3. Does anyone want you to do it?

Such a process of theological reflection could help someone decide whether to be, for example, a politician. That would be a calling. But the process could also guide a person toward a certain way of being a politician, a particular way of adding value to local or national politics. That would be a gig.

A Place in the Political Universe

At the beginning of his administration, most people would have guessed that Obama had a gig.

He seemed to have a passion of sorts for social and economic justice, tempered though not eclipsed by a genuine desire for common ground. He was pretty good at crafting the message and selling it to broad swaths of the American public. And people were in the market for his brand of policy solutions (and still are, if polls on job creation and taxes on the wealthy are any guide).

Naturally, this picture grew a little murky as Obama grappled with the inevitable opposition. Governing is messy business, especially when the votes in Congress aren’t there. Political compromise is both necessary and honorable.

Still, it was easy to lose track of Obama’s essence as he commendably engaged Republicans in dialogue and curiously debated on their terms. This happened most recently during the debt-limit crisis, as the president’s focus turned altogether to deficit reduction rather than jobs.

It’s as if he had discerned his place in the political universe, his passion for economic fairness, and had become slightly embarrassed by it. Or had never really owned it.

This is just one track of analysis. Maybe Obama conceives of himself, above all, as a post-partisan, post-ideological politician. It’s an interesting possibility, but it would probably fall shy of a gig, since there isn’t much of a constituency at the moment for that way of being president.

But what would happen if Obama had a more-palpable sense of his mission and purpose as (let’s say) one who advocates a strong public sector? Would his popularity rebound? It’s not as simple as that, but at least Americans would have a sharper notion of who he is and who he isn’t.

They would know he’s the guy who stands in a long political tradition that uses government machinery to help lift the economy out of a deep ditch. He isn’t the guy who, at such a moment, proposes the biggest rollback of government spending power in American history, as he did in the debt-ceiling negotiations with GOP leaders.

We wouldn’t all agree with him, but we’d know his gig. And many of us would think more of him as a leader. As we might, depending on what unfolds in the coming months. …read more