The Times, They Are A’Changin’

Count on it.

Let’s take as an example the Roaring Twenties and the Stodgy Fifties. [1]  The 20s were a time for experimentation and throwing away traditional norms.  The 50s were a time of recovering from that and reacquiring those traditional norms.  Then, beginning in the middle of the decade with what we now call “the 60s,” another time of experimenting, leading to another hungering for “the old days.”

That way of looking at society and change has the rhythm of the tides to it.  In and out; in and out.  But when you are at the end of a prolonged period of what I called above “recovery,” it doesn’t feel like that.  It feels like the whole society is static and dull and has been like that forever and that change—something!—would be better.

I heard that in Bob Dylan’s song, “The times, they are a changin’,” which “we” sang in atime changin 7 concert last week.  “We” is the Plaza Singers, a choral group in Holladay Park Plaza, where Bette and I live.  It was part of a program called “When we were 15,” which tells you a little about how the songs were chosen. [2]  And one of the songs “we” sang when we were 15 was “The times, they are a’changin’”, which was released in 1964, by my calculation the very last year of the 1950s or possibly the first year of the 60s.  I was 15 in 1952, so there must be some younger people in the choir. [3]

The result of all these developments is that I heard the song in a way I had never heard it before.  I can hear the frustration in it, especially in the assessment of the culture that is just about to be “outgrown.”  The deluge is coming and it is going to sweep all these unimaginative and stodgy social structures away.

Here are some samples, then I would like to come back and reflect a little on the Tea Party and Trump revolutions.

It calls on politicians who are not up for drastic change to get out of the way.

Come senators, congressmen/Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway/Don’t block up the hall

For he that gets hurt/Will be he who has stalled

There is going to be a crowd of people blowing through the halls of Congress, this says, and you can go with them or get out of the way or get crushed.  Those are your options.  Note that the political establishment and the energized populace are the two actors here.  Was that ever the case?

Or this one.

Come mothers and fathers/Throughout the land

And don’t criticize/What you can’t understand

Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command…

This one is a little different.  It is intimate, for one thing.  This is not about Congress, it is about families.  What will, later, be lamented as “the breakdown of the American family” is here celebrated as the beginning of the revolution.  “Command” is the old way, and the kids have outgrown that.  Just what they have grown into is not specified, but control by the parents for any reason, even deep respect, is over.

Note that it is the parents who do not understand and the kids who do.  This is not antimes changin 5 intergenerational kumbaya moment.  This is a massive supercession of an old and failed generation by a new and resourceful generation.  Imagine that David and Ricky Nelson rise up and put their sad old worn out parents Ozzie and Harriet, in their place.  That’s what we are talking about here.

So, in any case, we did all that.  We “offed the pigs” and we “brought the Mother down” and we made free love and we had a wave of radical violence, some based on race and some based more on class.  And then the tide came back in again and Congressmen were expected to actually govern, rather than just be run over by angry young people, and parents were expected to provide that best conditions they could for the development of their children.

It became clear in that era that some of the major players in Congress—and everywhere else throughout the legislative and executive branches—were the major economic players.  It isn’t just “the people” on one side and “the government” on the other.  It is the military-industrial complex and the Wall Street firms and the extractive industries and the labor unions.  And what once looked like “the people” demanding change from “the government” comes to look like a much more complicated transaction in which the government was bought off and the people distracted by actual prosperity for some and the promise of prosperity for all.  That kind of complexity does not sustain revolutions.  It also does not make good folk songs.

Now we have major parts of our society trying to get “back” to where they thought theytimes changin 3 were in the 50s before all these self-appointed radicals took over.  We had a lot of flag burning [4] and so we now demand that people treat the national anthem as a sacred moment. [5] And we don’t have families the way we remembered them but we do have By God Family Values.

Think of it this way.  All the wonderful stable things we lost in the decadent 1920s we got back in the return to “normal” after the depression of of the 1930s and the war of the 1940s.  Then we lost them again—this is the period Dylan is anticipating—and now substantial sections of society are trying to get them back again.  Note especially, in this poster, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in their separate little single beds.

It isn’t quite that simple, but when you look at society as ebb and flow, the once and for all drama of songs like “The times, they are a changin’” don’t have the power they seemed to have at the time.  We don’t actually go back, but the yearning for “going back” is now a powerful political force and we see it driving agendas in sexual orientation and immigration and publicly mandated religious expression, and sexual norms and a whole host of other questions that have become, as a result of the social ebb and flow, political hot spots.

It looks like the times, they are a’changin’.  Back.

[1]  Not to be judgmental.  I don’t remember ever hearing a characterization of the 50s.  I friend suggested “Fabulous Fifties,” but I don’t think I have ever heard that.

[2]  We also sang, for example, “Peggy Sue,” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “The Sounds of Silence.”

[3]  But in 1952, when I actually was 15, we listened to Jo Stafford’s, “You Belong to Me,” and Very Lynn’s Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart,” and Patti Page’s “I Went to Your Wedding,” none of which were sung by the Plaza Singers this year. 

[4]  Which turned out to be a constitutionally protected form of “free expression.”

[5]  We started singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the ball games in 1918 when World War I was looking very grim and people were wondering why all these superb athletes weren’t off at war with everybody else.  Solution: sing patriotic songs.

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The Church and Reconciliation

I have just read a report by Ian Lovett, written for the Wall Street Journal in May 2018.  The subtitle of the report runs like this: “A push toward activism among liberal Christian denominations is reshaping traditional worship and splitting congregations.”  My apologies for not providing a hyperlink to the article.  I don’t have that kind of access to The Wall Street Journal. 

I want to begin this thought experiment with two questions.  Ordinarily, two questions multiply like two rabbits, but not always.  We will see. The two questions that first occurred to me are:

  •  “Who are we getting from this reshaping and who are we losing?” and:
  •  “Are the options as stark as Lovett says they are? 

There is nothing religious—nothing notably Christian—about the activism Lovett describes.  And there is nothing necessarily apolitical about the traditionalism.  So why are they presented as alternatives and why, particularly, are the people who are attracted and repelled by the activism, presented in that dichotomous way?

New Members and Old Members

Who are we getting?  Millennials, apparently.  Social activists.

For some congregations, that shift has prompted a surge in attendance–especially among young people–something mainline Protestant churches haven’t seen in decades 

Regular Sunday attendance, meanwhile, has jumped to about 100–including an influx of young people who hadn’t attended church in years, or sometimes ever.

And what are we losing? Older people.  Long-time members of the church community.  People who are used to hearing about Jesus on Sundays.

Should the church be doing “this” or “that?”

The downside of that phrasing—“the church”— is that it implies that all the churches should be doing the same thing.  I want to reject that as a realistic option, but I don’t want to throw it away as a way of asking the question because it seems to be presumed by a number of the people quoted in this article.

politicization 2David Hoover, for instance, says, “We just have to keep standing up.”  Hoover is “encouraged by the church’s sharper political tone,” says Lovett.

On the other hand, Riki Ellison says, “There is no sanctuary at Christ Church,  just a battleground.”  That’s why he and his family are leaving.  This is the same church Hoover was talking about when he said the liked the “sharper political tone.”

When Lovett looks for a way of characterizing the change, he says the two sides are “parishioners who believe the church should be a force for political change” and “those who believe it should be a haven for spiritual renewal.”  Note that in this formulation, there are only the two goals and they are diametrically opposed to each other. [1]

The new activism of the clergy, says Lovett,  “[has] alienated conservatives, or politicization 3worshipers who think politics has little place in church.”  That depends crucially on what Lovett means by “conservative.”  Does Lovett mean by “conservatives,” people who think the church should not be politically active?  These might be called “ecclesial conservatives.”  

Or are they political conservatives, who might very well see their activism as “not politics,” but as part of a great crusade for restoring morality to America.  Picketing an abortion clinic, for instance, isn’t really “politics,” they might say; it’s just “doing the right thing.”

Lovett’s next paragraph introduces the Rev. Kaji Douša, who has goals of “stopping the wall” and also of “stopping the deportations.”  She says “the point of following Jesus is that you move and you do.”  It wouldn’t be hard to call that “activism,” but as soon as you call it “activism,” you remember right away that there are all kinds of activism.  The alternative, as the Rev. Douša sees it is “just getting people in church.”  It is almost as if nothing worthwhile can happen in church and that is why there is such a gap between “getting people in church” on the one hand and “moving and doing” on the other.

“If we’re not going to stop the wall and the deportations, then I don’t think we’re following Jesus,” said the Rev. Kaji Douša, pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church in Manhattan. “We’re just getting people in church, and that’s not interesting to me. The point of following Jesus is that you move and you do.” [2]

New York and Oklahoma

Another perspective on this divide comes from the Rev. John Bain and his daughter, Danielle Bain.  Danielle joined the Park Avenue Christin Church last year after ten years away from what Lovett calls “organized religion.” [3]

“Churches have upped their activism this year, because there’s been a call for it,” said Ms. Bain, who took part in a recent protest against deportations that the church helped organize in Washington Square Park. “Those churches are really drawing the millennial crowd.” 

Who has been “calling for it?” I wonder.  Is it something that they want no matter what the cost?  If the radical politicization of the church causes it to break up into little pieces and sink to the bottom, would these people say that they had to destroy the church to save it, as if it were a Vietnamese village?

politicization 1And then there is the question of who is leading and who is following.  If there is a public demand for a certain kind of activity and the church does what is necessary to meet that demand, isn’t that the same as if there were a demand for a new kind of housing unit and contractors fell all over themselves building that kind to meet the new demand?  That is the way commerce works and the way it is supposed to work, but what does it cost the church to work that way?  Pictured here is the Rev. Kaji Douša.

Then again, Ms. Bain is in New York City.  Her father, the Rev. John Bain, is in Stillwater, Oklahoma and in his church, “Democratic and Republican party leaders sat side-by-side in the pews.  Keeping the peace was never difficult, he said, until last year.”

Bain implies that he had been mentioning President Trump in his sermons, but we learn about that only by his saying that he had stopped doing it.  We don’t know what he said about the President.  What we know is that his church created a special ministry for immigrants, which outraged some members.  They saw it as taking a political stand. Several longtime members left the church.

It wouldn’t be hard to make a case that the church has a special responsibility to the sojourner apart from any politics entirely.  Deuteronomy 10:19 [4] could serve as a beginning text for such a church, provided that the responsibility was not set into a modern political context.  But if Rev. Bain had been talking about President Trump and also beginning a ministry to immigrants, he may very well have put it into a setting of partisan politics.  And if he did, it is not hard to see how the Republican and Democratic leaders started to have trouble sitting together.

Are those really the only options?

It probably did not escape your notice that David Hoover’s vision is about the church acting in the world outside.  That’s what “We just have to keep standing up” points to.  On the other hand, when Riki Ellison mourns the loss of the church as a sanctuary, he is not pointing outside at all.  He sees the church as a place of fellowship and maybe even of healing.  It makes no sense at all to ask which of those two the church should be doing.

I think we lose a great deal by organizing our options as political activism, on the one hand, and “just getting people in church” on the other.  I feel a real clarity about what we lose by building that picture.  Maybe a little anger, too.

I don’t have that same clarity about what we should be doing instead, but I do have an idea.  What if we made it a part of our ministry to de-tribalize our communities?  That’s not all that different from casting out demons.  [5] I see this in two settings.

First, this is something the church as a body, an institution, could do.  Imagine that along with the committees on Fellowship and Worship, etc., there was one on Reconciliation. [6]  The work of this committee would be to survey the issues that have turned their neighbors into partisan predators.  Back in the days Robert Putnam surveyed in Bowling Alone, people who didn’t agree with each other about very much competed against each other year after year in bowling leagues.  They could do that because the crime of “Bowling with the Enemy” had not yet been invented.  Now, of course, it has.  Along with Shopping with the Enemy and Going to Parties with the Enemy, and so on. [7]

politicization 5Here is a small example.  The church might, with a little training, nail down a table at a Starbucks where partisan bloodletting is simply not allowed.  The consensus of the group is that we are here for other things.  We have established a very local culture of civility and reconciliation.  It’s how we do it here.  If you want to do proselytizing or flamethrowing, go do it online somewhere.politicization 4

That’s the institutional face; it is something the Committee on Reconciliation might take on and systematically monitor.  But there could also be an individual face.  Individual members of that church could serve that same function wherever they go—provided they are willing to give up “winning” to serve as a group’s de facto conciliator. [8]

So if the split between remorseless partisan activity on the one hand and meaningless religious quietude on the other seems to you an unnecessarily broad split, let’s remember that this is something we are doing to ourselves.  There are vitally important things we can do that are not either of those and if the partisan Prodigals are ever to want to come home, it would be nice if there were a home for them to come back to.

Maybe we could do that.

[1]  When I see goals set out like that, in fundamental opposition to each other, I wonder whether there are not other goals that could be endorsed instead of or in addition to these two.  What about “community reconciliation,” for instance?

[2]  I suspect that the Rev. Douša is  a young person.  If that is true, the expression “not interesting to me” might mean only “not worth doing.”  Many young people have begun to use “interesting” as a marker for “worthwhile.”  But if this is not just the thoughtless language of a young person; if, by contrast, it is a serious argument, then it is a flagrantly bad argument.  The notion that God will call you only to things that “interest you” has been rejected by the church in all its ages and for good reason.

[3]  I always wonder what that term means.  Plausible antonyms could be “unorganized religion”—but then how would you know it was religious?—and “disorganized religion.”  Certainly we have seen a lot of that.  I suspect the term intends to point to the institutional structure within which the activities are carried on.  So “institutionalized religious practices” is probably what the terms intends.

[4] “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

[5]  I intended that remark mostly as a quip, but it started me down the road to thinking about it.  When you look at the effect the demons had on the…um…hosts in the New Testament, “casting out demons” might not be a bad metaphor at all.

[6]  You couldn’t call it the Committee on Exorcism, I suppose, but it is so tempting.

[7]  And watching others commit those crimes and not saying anything about it makes you “complicit,” so there is no “sanctuary” anywhere.  This goes to Riki Ellison’s point about the church as a sanctuary.  How about the church as “providing Sanctuary?”

[8]  It is the groups that must do the reconciling, of course.  The role of the “conciliator” might never be recognized and if it recognized, it still might not be understood.  “How did he do that?” would come to replace “Who was that masked man?”

 

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All the “Yes” you will ever need

I have been thinking this year about the Resurrection.  There is no way to avoid it, really, because at the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, Oregon (hereafter, “my church”) Easter is not a “day,” it is a “season.”  So on Easter day, when everyone else is wrapping up the celebration [1], we are just beginning “the Easter season.”  So the choir sings Easter-themed anthems and the congregation sings Easter-themed hymns and there are Easter-themed sermons and all that while normal people are drifting on to Pentecost.

So there is no way I can not think about the Resurrection.  But this year, I have shifted consciously over to the experience of the disciples, who gave the whole show up for lost and then were persuaded that it wasn’t.  And that it never had been.  The end of the show, which they so mourned, was just the intermission and if they had read the program carefully, they would have known that (see Luke 24:32).

Looking back, I am amazed that it took me so long to get here.  What chance, after all, do I have to grasp the experience that the risen Jesus has had?  The attention gets focused on Jesus very naturally because what God did for him (see Acts 2:36) bears very strongly on beliefs that are central to the church. [2]  But once you start thinking about what it must have felt like to discover that it was all true after all, you gravitate quite naturally to the experiences of the disciples, who were the  people who had that experience.

So today, I want to put two accounts on the table for our common inspection.  One is scientific and draws on some recent discoveries in neuroimaging. The other is Stephen King’s  Hearts in Atlantis, which actually is a good book, although that’s not why I’m offering it to you.  But let’s start with the science.

An emotional portal

There is no way we can study the Resurrection, but we have spent quite a bit of time and invested the lives of innumerable grad students in studying what it means to “experience” something.  I was one of those grad students, after all.

I admit that the neurology I read was oriented to non-neurologists. In other words, I know enough to appreciate the argument, but not enough to make it.  

Which brings me to Kelly Lambert’s 2013 article in the New York Times.  I am going to come, in a moment, to her account of  how she preserved the experience of Christmas for her kids, but I want to begin with the work of Pascal Boyer.

Pascal Boyer, a professor of memory at Washington University in St. Louis, differentiates between what he refers to as episodic memories — the first time we sat on Santa’s knee or the year a blizzard knocked out the electricity — and mental time travel memories, or M.T.T. 

lambert 1These come closer to re-experiencing a remembered event. Professor Boyer describes how neuroimaging evidence indicates that, when certain events are recalled — presumably after being triggered by familiar sights, smells or sounds — emotional brain areas are activated as well as visceral responses. You relive the feelings you experienced in the past. These recollections can be thought of as full body and brain memories.

I don’t respond very well to expressions like “mental time travel,” especially when we are talking about the results of neuroimaging, but the idea that sometimes you can recall an event in a way that causes you to “relive” the feelings you had at the time of the event.  That’s what it means to say that the areas of the brain that cause us to experience emotions (not just visceral reactions) bring the feeling of the experience back, not just the meaning of it.

And what does that have to do with Kelly Lambert, neurologist and mother?

So, although I was in mom-mode and not neuroscience-mode when I came up with that cockamamie story about Santa’s bad back, [3] neuroscience research confirms the benefits of trying to assure that my girls have an emotional holiday portal  [bold font not in the original] for their future adult brains. I believe this is just as important as their childhood vaccinations — as it is for all children, whether their memories are of Christmas or of other celebrations and traditions.

An emotional portal.  These early experiences preserve access to the part of the brain that will reconnect with the experiences.  This is different from remembering what you used to do at Christmas when you were kids.  This is reclaiming some of the buzz you had when you did it as kids.  These are the feelings that “belong with” the meanings of the experience. [4]

Note that nothing about the operation of this “emotional portal” bears on whether the event is true or false.  It has to do with whether you have access to the emotions that belong with the event.  This can have to do with what events the smell of a baseball glove bring back to you or the shaft of sunlight that picks out the one grove of scarlet oaks in a cluster of fir trees or the feel of silk under your fingers.  Those events may be artifacts of your distant recollection or they may be brought back as a powerful emotional experience depending on whether you have an “emotional portal” that lets you experience them again.

So it isn’t about true or false; it’s about distantly remote or vividly present.

There are several accounts in the gospels in which Jesus’ disciples “experienced” the “alive again after his death” Jesus. [5]  It was a really powerful experience for them.  Twenty centuries later, is it going to be a distantly remote “experience” for Christians who for whatever reason have allowed that emotional portal to close.

If the portal has closed, I think it is just shut off to you.  You can read about an event and feel a great affinity for it and approve of it and “believe in” it, but you can’t go back and use the neurons that long ago shut down from lack of use.  What I understand about Lambert and the “emotional portal” is that you can keep those neurons from shutting down from lack of use and that is what she was doing for her kids.

“He remembered me.”

How to tell you about Stephen King’s book?  Bobby Garfield develops a very strong relationship with an old man, Ted Brautigan.  At the end of the story about the two of them, Ted is captured by “the Low Men,” and taken away to serve “the Red King” as a Breaker. [6]  Bobby goes into a protracted tailspin, which gets him several terms in the Juvenile Correction facility.  Ted is gone and Bobby has turned bad.

Bobby’s time in juvenile corrections isn’t the only indicator of how deeply broken he is.  He has so fully rejected his mother, that when she threatens him (in a parental sort of way) he rejects her completely.  Here’s what that looks like.

Liz (Bobby’s mother) stood weeping in the doorway as Officer Grandelle led Bobby to the police car parked at the curb. “I’m going to wash my hands of you if you don’t stop!” she cried after him. “I mean it! I do!”

“Wash em,” he said, getting in the back. “Go ahead, Ma, wash em now and save time.”

But when he gets home from the corrections facility, there is a package waiting for him and it is from Ted.  In the package are rose petals.  Here they are.

There was no letter, no note, no writing of any kind. When Bobby tilted the envelope, what showered down on the surface of his desk were rose petals of the deepest, darkest red he had ever seen.

Heart’s blood, he thought, exalted without knowing why. All at once, and for the first time in years, he remembered how you could take your mind away, how you could just put it on parole. And even as he thought of it he felt his thoughts lifting. The rose petals gleamed on the scarred surface of his desk like rubies, like secret light spilled from the world’s secret heart. 

Not just one world, Bobby thought. Not just one. There are other worlds than this, millions of worlds, all turning on the spindle of the Tower. And then he thought: He got away from them again. He’s free again. 

The petals left no room for doubt. They were all the yes anyone could ever need; all the you-may, all the you-can, all the it’s-true.

That’s the experience.  It is not the explanation.  But Bobby has an explanation of sorts.  It is this.

Ted was free. Not in this world and time, this time he had run in another direction .. . but in some world. 

Bobby scooped up the petals, each one like a tiny silk coin. He cupped them like palmfuls of blood, then raised them to his face. He could have drowned in their sweet reek. Ted was in them, Ted clear as day with his funny stooped way of walking, his baby-fine white hair, and the yellow nicotine spots tattooed on the first two fingers of his right hand. Ted with his carryhandle shopping bags.

And finally, this.

He sat at his desk for a long time with the rose petals pressed to his face. At last, careful not to lose a single one, he put them back into the little envelope and folded down the torn top.

He’s free. He’s . . . somewhere. And he remembered.

“He remembered me,” Bobby said. “He remembered me. 

That experience and the explanation Bobby provided for it changed his life completely.  We learn about that in one of the later short stories that make up the remainder of the book. [7]  But there is also an immediate effect.  After he  gets the great gift that the rose petals have for him, he reaches out to his mother.

He got up, went into the kitchen, and put on the tea kettle. Then he went into his mother’s room. She was on her bed, lying there in her slip with her feet up, and he could see she had started to look old. She turned her face away from him when he sat down next to her, a boy now almost as big as a man, but she let him take her hand. He held it and stroked it and waited for the kettle to whistle. After awhile she turned to look at him. “Oh Bobby,” she said. “We’ve made such a mess of things, you and me. What are we going to do?”

“The best we can,” he said, still stroking her hand. He raised it to his lips and kissed the palm where her lifeline and heartline tangled briefly before wandering away from each other again. “The best we can.”

Bobby’s Portal and Mine

In this last section, I am going to describe the neurology I got from Kelly Lambert as it applies to Bobby Garfield and me.  It’s easier with Bobby, partly because he has a world class author to bring him to life and I have a few autobiographical speculations.

Bobby experienced the truly uncanny in Ted.  Sometimes it was wonderful; sometimes it was awful.  But it was all extremely powerful and when it all crashed into meaningless disaster—the Low Men captured him and took him away— Bobby crashed as well.  “All that” was over.  Everything he invested in was gone and the person Ted had enabled him to be was gone as well.

lambert 4But it wasn’t losing Ted that did all that to Bobby.  It was knowing that what seemed to be true while he was learning from Ted, had all been fraudulent.  The strong did as they chose after all.  The world was only predators and prey.  Even revenge, which Bobby indulged in, didn’t bring meaning back.  That being the case, there was no reason not to beat the kid up and steal his guitar and no reason not to break into the convenience store for cigarets and beer and no reason not to decisively cut off his relationship with his mother.  Here, from the movie version are Anthony Hopkins as Ted Brautigan and Anton Yelchin as Bobby.

What the rose petals did for Bobby was to take that old time, the time when Bobby thought life was meaningful and he was a good person, and say that it was true.  It was true then and it is still true now, despite the current difficulties.

The rose petals are all the “it’s-true” anyone could ever need.  That deals with the facts.  The rest deal with the implications: the petals are all the yes and all the you-may and all the you-can.

And all those meanings are rooted in Bobby’s understanding that somehow, Ted was lambert 2again free and in his freedom, Ted had sent this to Bobby.  And the relationship Bobby thought he had with Ted and then despaired of; that relationship is back.  He is free and he remembered me.

I’ve never had an experience like Bobby’s, but I think that, had I been one of Jesus’ disciples, I would have felt the way they did.  They said, meeting a stranger on the road (see Luke 24), “ But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel…”  That period of trusting is over.  We “had trusted,” but obviously, we don’t anymore.  The two pictures in this section are the Emmaus road scene as I picture it with the emotional portal and then without it.

This Jesus was a prophet mighty in word and deed and we thought at the time that it meant something.  Now we know and everyone knows, that it did not.  Like Bobby Garfield, it isn’t that their present day hopes are dashed.  The crucifixion showed everyone that it never meant anything at all.  Jesus’ enemies are celebrating and the initially interested have gone back to “real life” and Jesus’ disciples are reduced to saying things like, “we had been hoping.”

And the sudden appearance of the risen Jesus with them at dinner didn’t mean that the situation was about to get better.  It meant that Jesus’ life had always meant what they had thought; what they wanted to be true had always been true. 

lambert 3And that is my portal.  I can read the post-resurrection stories as well as anyone.  I can try and fail to understand what the experience of resurrection could possibly mean.  I can lock the formal meaning of the Resurrection into the doctrinal orthodoxy which is so important to the Christian church.  But when I read this passage from Stephen King, I simply sat down and cried.

I felt what it meant to them to have given up on it and then to discover, to know that they were right all along.  And they can continue to be the people they once thought they could be, back when they thought it was all trur.

That is the experience I can have.  The neurons I need to experience that again were not, apparently, destroyed.

And now I get to cash in on a distinction that might have seemed a little too fine to you, back when I introduced it.  Here’s what I said.

So it isn’t about true or false; it’s about distantly remote or vividly present.

The distinction, remember, is not between true and false.  That’s not what the portal does.  It is between what is distantly remote, only a memory,  and what is vividly present.  The fact that this experience seems present and vivid to me is no guarantee that is what historically true. “Truth” travels a different road entirely.  But to experience vividly the return of the disciples’ hope and my hope as well, is a crucial resource for living the kind of life I want to live.

[1]  No reason to consider this necessarily a religious celebration.  I am thinking of Easter eggs and new clothes, and, why not, a new pickup truck to celebrate Jesus’ transcendence of death.

[2]  The Incarnation, which “my church” celebrates at Advent and the Resurrection which we celebrate at Easter are the two historical events that the church cannot give up and still be the church.  Giving up the “water into wine” trick is a small thing by comparison.

[3]  One year, her children discovered their Christmas presents hidden in the attic.  No problem.  She told the kids that Santa was having back problems this year and had contacted all the parents whose kids were expecting bulky gifts so that he could send the presents ahead of time by UPS.

[4]  Which is also the reason that I have labored manfully in recent years to bring back the word “orthopathy,” to mean “having the feelings that belong to  your understanding of the event.” Not much luck so far, but I’m still at it.

[5]  “Resurrection” is an explanation for what the disciples experienced.  The clunky phrase I used here is what they actually experienced.

[6]  A whole cosmology would have to be developed to say just what “a Breaker” is and why “…there are other worlds than this, millions of worlds, all turning on the spindle of the Tower.”  For our purposes today, being “taken away” by the Low men is like being crucified and “turning on the spindle of the tower” represents other modes of being and consciousness.  Stephen King never has any need of the full cosmology and doesn’t really care that we might like to know more.

[7]  Especially the last one, which is called “Heavenly shades of night are falling.”  The first one, where the story of Bobby and Ted is told, is called “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” which is set almost forty years before “Heavenly shades…”  

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My place or yours?

It’s not what you think. [1]  The “places” I am thinking of have to do with memorial services.  Bette and I have just come from a service at our church, celebrating the life of a dear woman.  We had just the kind of service she would have wanted, but it brought into sharper relief a question I have been turning over in my mind for a few years now.

The question is about how to imagine a memorial service and it takes the form of “my place or yours?”

My Place

I began planning my memorial service with nothing more in mind than that I wanted to be thoughtful about it; I wanted the service to fairly represent the kind of person I was.

memorial 3You can go a long way with no more of a head start than that, trust me.  You can start by rejecting the saccharine anecdotes that so often show up at memorial services.  These very often misrepresent the guest of honor and they also imply a closeness to the person or a degree of insight that are palpably false.  I didn’t want that.  I was attracted particularly to the prospect of these pigeons crapping all over my life clock.

I wanted something that was more nearly “true.” [2]  So, moving away from simply rejecting the saccharine anecdotes, I imagined something like a tapestry, which would be much more vivid a representation of a person’s life because it would have the dark parts as well as the bright parts and the bright parts would be vivid and beautiful the way the one grove of maple trees is beautiful in September when it is set in a whole hillside of dark green Douglas Firs.

I still like the idea of the mixed dark and light—I have had plenty of both in my life—but then I got to thinking about who I would ask to relate those dark parts.  And I imagined how I would feel if a friend, having just that sort of notion about his own memorial service, asked me to describe one of those dark parts in his own life.  I would probably do it out of friendship, but I would dread it for months ahead of time and having to do that would dampen my experience of what would otherwise have been a rich sharing among friends.  I wouldn’t like that at all.

I also liked the idea that this mix of dark and light might provide a sense of invitation of people who knew me in ways other than the “official ones,” the ways being featured at the memorial service.  That was one of the things that came forcefully to me at my friend’s memorial service.  I knew her in ways that seemed, maybe only superficially, to contradict the “official biography,” on which the speakers all seemed to agree.  I didn’t want that to happen at my service.  I wanted at the very least a safe hiding place for people who knew me differently than the way I was being presented.

I am in the process of jettisoning that view, but in doing so, I am seeing better how I got memorial 5there in the first place.  In Orson Scott Card’s series, there is a book in which Andrew Wiggin (Ender) serves as a Truthteller.  It is true that he has extraordinary resources for finding out what the truth actually is, but it is also true that in the instance we get to see in Speaker for the Dead, people realize as they hear him speaking that these are truths they knew already.  They had been exercising a great deal of restraint to keep these truths out of their own consciousness and out of the shared public awareness—but they did know these truths already.

That was enormously appealing to me.  What a tagline for my last event!  “Let the truth be told.”  Except, of course, the form “Let the truth…” is passive and if someone is actually going to tell the truth, it will have to be active and I don’t know anyone with the resources Andrew Wiggin has.  And the alternative, assembling a group of friends, and passing out the several areas where “the truth” would have to be told, really isn’t an adequate alternative.

It doesn’t really provide “the truth;” only as much truth as the several speakers can scrape up.  And it doesn’t meet the needs of the people who would have assembled to celebrate my life and to affirm the part each of the others had played.

Your Place

It was at that point that I realized that I wasn’t the customer.  Hello.  Was that so hard?  What I have is a bunch of friends [3] Who are grieving for themselves and for each other and who are celebrating the parts of my life that they want to celebrate.  And there may even be a few who are thinking about their own memorial services with mine in mind and I wouldn’t object to providing an example that brought a little clarity to that project.

So…all is well.  I have arrived at the place where I can ask a much better question than before.  I call that progress.  The fact that I have no good idea how to begin answering that new question is a small matter, compared with spending a lot of time on the wrong question.

memorial 2I foresee difficulties, of course, but they are not mine to solve.  The people who attend my memorial service will have the same constraints that the people who assembled to hear Andrew Wiggin had.  As they simplify their image of my life and my character [4] they are going to realize that there are some truths they have always known and have not admitted that they knew.  I know that sounds ominous, but some of these truths are going to be really positive.  Others, not so much.  And as they prepare to share what they know with others, they will have to distinguish between the truths that are important only for them to hold and those that are also important to share.  I liked this picture because it is about everyone who is bereaved, not just the people who are being reaved of me. [5]

But, as I say, that is their job, not mine.  I wish them well. I hope my memorial service meets their needs and I hope, if Bette is still living, especially that it meets her needs.  But nothing I plan is going to do that and I need to let it go.

As the master, in one of Jesus’ best stories, told the field hands who wanted to go through the field and take out all the weeds, “That’s really above your pay grade.”

[1]  Although I did have the pleasure of running on Portland’s famed Wildwood Trail “with” a woman who was a Nike employee and who was wearing a tee shirt that said “My pace of yours?”  I couldn’t come anywhere near running at her pace—hence the quotes around “with”—but every time I saw her coming, I would start to laugh and eventually, we stopped and exchanged names and for years afterward, greeted each other as we passed.

[2]  Which, now that I think about it, is a strange position for me to take.  The question of what is “true,” has, as I have said for a long time, no bottom to it at all, and we must learn to settle for what is useful.

[3]  I was going to say “former friends” on the grounds that since I am not here anymore, “we” are not currently friends, but the visceral meaning of “former friends” was just too strong and I had to give it up.  Except here, of course.

[4]  These are not “untruths,” they are simplifications.  You clean out the inconsistencies unless those are what you want to spend your slice of the public time on, and you refine a clearer image, so you can share it.

[5]  Sorry.  Just a little word joke is passing.

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New fashions in exculpation

 

When fashion writers comment on the new styles of the new season, then don’t stop to call their readers’ attention to the fact that all these people have chosen to wear clothes.  They take that for granted and so do we.  In this essay, I am going to survey the current styles of exculpation. [1]  I am not going to stop to call anyone’s attention to the fact that people who are caught in a scandal try to shift the attention and the blame to others.  I take that for granted and so do you.

But in exculpation, as in haute couture, there are fashions; new ways of catching andExculpation 1 deflecting attention and I would like to look at the recent troubles of the former (but only recently) governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens.

He was caught in a nasty sex scandal.  Got it.  A lot of powerful people come, after a while, to think that everyone should accede to their preferences.  In addition, there are apparently a lot of women who get drunk on the power and the presence of that kind of man and agree to do things they would not do when they were sober.  Got it.

But if you were such a man—the New York Times article called him “chiseled and charismatic”—and you got caught, what would you do to place the attention and the blame somewhere else?  And how would you deal with the unavoidable residual blame?  My idea here is that ways of doing this vary from one time and place to another just as clothing styles do and I would like to take a look at this season’s fashions in exculpation.

Here’s the first one.

Defiant but somber, Mr. Greitens, who was voted into office in 2016, insisted that he had committed no crimes or “any offense worthy of this treatment.”

Crimes, yes.  But the punishment is more severe than this particular crime deserves.  Right away we wonder just how severe a punishment he thinks his “crime” deserves and whether the really thinks that is a crime.

And then.

He described “legal harassment of colleagues, friends and campaign workers” and said “it’s clear that for the forces that oppose us that there is no end in sight.”

This a significant and very helpful shift of focus.  It is not about “us,” is about “them.”  And those people—“them”—a given no identity at all except by their opposition to Gov. Greitens.

All this harassment is the result of something the governor did, apparently.  We don’t businessman hiding face not my faultlearn what it was from any of the statements he is making.  Which is interesting because Greitens and his wife described “the situation” as “a deeply personal mistake.”

“Personal” rather than what?  Rather than public, I think.  “Eric” might have exercised poor judgment, but “the Governor” is not involved in this in any way.  This is a crisis in our marriage, but it is none of the public’s business.

Besides which, if we are going to talk about personal characteristics, let’s talk about how “Eric” responded to this “situation.”  He “took responsibility”—for what, the statement does not say—and we (Mrs. and Mrs Greitens, not the Governor and the First Lady) dealt with this.

How did they deal with it?  “Together, honestly, and privately.”  All three.  Notice how nicely they group together.  This response is everything that the Governor’s offense was not.  The Governor had an affair with “his former hairdresser.”  This is flagrantly “not together” so far as his marriage with his wife is concerned.  And however “honest” the pair might be about dealing with what the governor had done, there is nothing at all honest about the affair.  And the couple dealt with this event “privately,” as well but, of course, the extraordinary measures the governor took to keep this affair private, show what “privately” means about the actions themselves.

And finally, from his resignation speech.

“I know, and people of good faith know, that I am not perfect.

This functions as an admission of some flaw in today’s political culture, but it is hard to see just how it could.  The “not perfect” defense imagines a scale like this  

 Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 8.40.42 AM.png

This is obviously a very convenient scale.  No one fits the specifically named right end of the scale and everyone fits on the rest of the scale.  The effect of the “not perfect” ploy is to deny any real difference between what the governor did and what everyone else does.

A Primer

So if I were writing a primer for Exculpation 101, I would be delighted to have this come along as a case.  You get caught in the most sordid kind of sex controversy and you don’t want to get blamed at all.  You certainly don’t want to get impeached.  So what do you do?

First, you deny it for as long as you can.  That includes preventing others with certain knowledge and/or evidence from saying what occurred.  Gov. Greitens’ ploy was to threaten to release an embarrassing photograph.  Pres. Trump’s was to offer hush money.  Two kinds of strategies with the same goal.  So far, neither seems to be working all that well.

Failing to deny it, you try to contain it.  This is a private matter, just between my wife and me.  We have resolved our differences so the issue, being only private, is done.  People who continue to beat the drums are making public what ought to be only private.  This is the “Eric” v. “the Governor” dimension.

At the same time, you attack the people who are attacking you.  These brutes are causing untold grief to your professional associates and to your family.  The grief they are causing is unrelated, of course, to any misdeeds of Gov. Greitens; they relate only to the viciousness of the opponents.

exculpation 5And at the same time, you trumpet the governor’s virtues.  These virtues, it goes without saying, do not have to do with the affair itself or the threats that accompanied it.  They have to do with how well the governor is taking it.  That is where “together” (he’s just another husband) [2] and “private” (it’s none of the public’s business) and “honestly” (after all those months of lies, we are talking candidly about what to do) come in.  These are all virtues.  At least the names all sound virtuous.

Who would want to bring a vice charge against the private choices of such a nice guy?  And to hurt the feeling of his wife?  Really!

And finally, you do the “I’m not perfect” ploy as if that were the standard to which we wanted to hold public officials.  But, of course, “perfect” is not the standard.  On the other hand egregiously tawdry adultery isn’t any useful part of the campaign either, not for a rising star in the Republican party.

So if you are thinking of teaching a course or even just a module on Exculpation, let me offer you this case.  It’s a classic of most of the best moves.

[1]  An obvious word, given that culpa = guilt or blame (as in mea culpa) and that the prefix ex- means what it always means.  Obvious, but not used as much as it deserves to be used.

[2]  Very near the end of A Guide for the Married Man, Walter Matthau is trying to talk his way out of the affair he halfheartedly set up.  “Don’t you want a husband,” he asks the attractive woman who looks ready to start taking her clothes off.  “I have a husband,” she replies.  “No, no,” Matthau responds, “I mean one of your own.”  I loved that.  It was good comedy.  On he other hand, who “has” a husband who is a public figure conducting what is supposed to be a very private affair, is a relevant question.  And the husband had definitely been had.

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Peers and Um-peers

“Peer” is the English language version of the Latin par, which means “equal.” [1]“Umpire” just means “not a peer.” English borrowed nompere from the French but over time “a noumpere” became “an oumpere”—a process I learned just today is called metanalysis. And that is why in English, especially at baseball games, an umpire, who is “not a peer” gets to say which are balls and which are strikes. Pitchers, catchers, and batters may disagree, of course, but they are all peers (equals) and so must defer.

Mariners vs Pirates - June 29, 2016But in the U. S., we live in a time of tribes and there is a squeezing together of people who were once “peers” into a virtually featureless mob of adherents to a common cause. “We” now all hate the same people and love the same people. This is a real problem for someone whose instincts run in the direction of making up his own mind and the role of umpire beckons.

This squeezing of pre-established hierarchies into groups of peers has been an artifact of war for a long time now. Of course, it sound better in iambic pentameter.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…

So it goes in the famous Crispian’s Day speech in Henry V. These few brave Englishmen did not melt into “a featureless mob of adherents,” at least not in Shakespeare’s treatment of them, but the silos of like-minded political activists do, in fact, run that risk. They read the same sources, subscribe to the same blogs, listen to the same broadcasts and podcasts, and attend the same rallies. The idea that other people might raise questions that begin from another ideological base place is a genuinely foreign idea.

There are two common responses to the well-known fact that some people do, in fact, formulate problems beginning at a different place than yours. The first is that they are wrong. Something—morality or efficiency or sustainability or something—requires the starting point that my tribe and I have chosen.

ump 4The other, the one that comes down on my house, is that admitting that there is more than one starting place is a bad idea because it weakens the tribal bond. And they are right. It does weaken the tribal bond. A person who often says that you can plausibly start at either place really has the burden of justifying this practice to his colleagues. [2] This person is an umpire—a non-peer.

The count is 3-2, last of the ninth, two outs, the bases loaded, and the pitch comes in in the vicinity of the outer edge of the plate. The batter knows it is wide and starts off for first base. The pitcher and the catcher know it caught the corner and head for the dugout pumping their fists. These are two peer groups: the batter belongs to one, the pitcher and catcher to the other. The interest in one call or the other is very strong and their perceptions follow along obediently.

The umpire is in a different place. [3] His job is to say where the ball was, with reference to the strike zone, no matter what the implications are for one team or the other. And now that we have electronic tracking of each pitch, it is worth pausing to admire how good these human calls really are.

That’s not the kind of umpire I am. I am the kind that says that when you start here, the logic of inference will bring you out there. This is the tribe-specific answer to the claim that the event is “really about this.” As I noted recently, I have a special antipathy to “that’s not what it’s really about,” which is, nearly always, a demand that we start the discussion here, where I am, rather than there, where you are. And we should do that, according to this particular device, because “the issue” is “really about” one thing but not the other. Puh-leese!

Here’s an example. A black man jaywalks across a busy street, putting the orderly flow of traffic at risk. The police arrest him. Liberal sources will feature “black man” and “police.” They will not say that this citizen should not have been breaking the law. Conservative sources will feature “lawbreaker” and “police.” They will not say that the man is a member of a small racial minority which is often arrested for doing things that members larger racial minorities are not arrested for. [4] Both of these are true. The pundits at each site will say, with reference to the other source’s emphasis, “but the real issue is.”

In fact, it is true that I, acting as an umpire, am weakening the argument being made ump 7by my friends and neighbors. That is a cost to the issues they hold most dear. If I am going to continue in their company—not to be a member of their tribe because umpires don’t belong to tribes [5]—I need to make at least one other point. Here it is.

Recognizing that other people begin with alternative biases is a good thing for this group. It benefits them is some important way to be continually aware of that. If you are trying to sell an idea, for instance, you don’t start with why the target audience ought to care. We already know they don’t. You need to start with what they already care about and sell your idea as a way to expand the value they already hold.

Here is an extremely local example. I live in a senior center that has just taken a turn away from “homey” toward “professional.” One small part of that change is that the residents receive, at the end of the meal, slips to sign indicating that the charges for the meal are correct and that we consent to have that amount subtracted from our monthly total. These slips are printed on expensive and non-recyclable paper.

Some people don’t like these slips—they are new, after all, and we are old—because they signal the decay of the homey culture. We are moving, they say, toward a more “commercial” and “impersonal” culture. Some don’t like the slips because they are environmentally aware, and hate to waste all that paper. Some don’t like it because the paper is expensive and in one way or another, we are going to have to pay for it.

I don’t have to be a member of any of these groups to know that if I want their support, I am going to have to start where they start. I don’t start with the green group and try to argue that they should resent the creeping commercialism of the new process. Why would I do that? I will start with what they already value—this is non-recyclable paper and there is a lot of it—and point out that getting rid of the post-meal accounting system would save a lot of trees.

I’m not going to make that point at all in my role as umpire. I am going to try to get this group of greens to be willing to keep me around because “beginning with people who have alternative biases” is a really good skill to have. My awareness of the different biases cherished by other people makes me a benefit to this tribe, even though I don’t argue the tribal line. That’s why they should consent to having a non-peer (me) in the group with them.

I feel sometimes like Andrew McPhee in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. He is the designated skeptic in a collection of people called to fight to the very end in a war that is, to McPhee, murky and uncertain. You wonder after awhile why he is there. [5] But Edwin Ransom, the Director, says to Jane Studdock, a new member, “I want you to like him if you can. He’s one of my oldest friends. He’ll be about the best man if we’re going to be defeated [by the forces of evil]. …What he’ll do if we win, I can’t imagine.”

I like being an umpire. I don’t like not being a part of the tribe, but I think that is a cost that going with the position. The deal is that they like to have you around because of what you can do that they can’t do or don’t want to do. They forgive you your lack of enthusiasm for the currently hot consensus because they want you to stay even though you are a pain in the butt from time to time.

It’s really not a bad deal at all.

[1] I can scarcely use the word without hearing the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance singing “Peers will be peers and youth will have its fling.”
[2] I am not counting as “colleagues” the other people who have that same practice. I am picturing a logician in a group of friends, pointing out that the other argument is as logical as ours. I am aware that this logician has colleagues—other logicians—who will applaud (in absentia) what he is doing.
[3] It is not quite as different as is sometimes maintained. Umpires are under a good deal of pressure to keep the strike zone constant. They would be criticized harshly fall establishing a narrow strike zone in the early innings and then expanding it when the game is on the line in the ninth. That means that the umpire needs not only to see where the ball is, but also to remember how he has been calling pitches like that in the game so far.
[4]I know that sounds clunky, but I keep hearing that whites are going to lose their status as “the majority” in the U. S. and I thought I should begin practicing other ways to say it.
[5] Someone is going to cite the Major League Umpires Association, superseded in 2000 by the World Umpires Association as the “tribe” to which umpires belong. There is some merit in that point, but umpires do not live with the other members of the Association, so the problem doesn’t really go away.
[5] Some Lewis scholars think that is adding McPhee to the mix, he is redeeming the story of his own teacher, William T. Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick whom the Lewis men (father and two sons) called “the Great Knock” had no room at all in his life for the Christian faith which was later to be the foundation of Lewis’s life, but Lewis remembered him with great affection and brought him back into the story as McPhee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Episcopal Ghost from Hell

I have been a fan of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for a long time. I have appreciated it the way a reader of fiction appreciates, and since I have taught courses using it as a text, I have also appreciated it the way a teacher appreciates it. The course I taught was called “Seven Characters in Search of Damnation,” a play on Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

The Setting

The basic mechanism that collects these characters in one place is the bus that leaves Hell every morning, taking any Ghosts (that is the term for the people who have chosen to live in Hell) up to Heaven. There, they will meet Spirits (the term forEG 6 people who by accepting God’s invitation, have chosen to live in Heaven) who have come down to the bus stop to meet them and if possible to assist them in any way. With a single exception, every character in the book who comes in the morning chooses to go back “home” in the evening.

The sin—it is the same one for every character—is the determination to put something first that is not God. God is to be used, variously in the case of the different Ghosts, as a tool to get something they value. This valued thing varies from one Ghost to another, which is what makes the book so interesting, but over the years, I have found “the Episcopal Ghost”(EG) to be the most challenging. [1]

The Episcopal Ghost

In this little episode, Lewis [2] comes very close to condemning liberalism as such. I say “very close” because he makes the Episcopal Ghost such a fearful hash that even people who would like to embrace some version of his positions do not want to be seen in public with him. I feel that way myself.

EG 8That is a very good way to write a character. You push him out to the very margins of what anyone would tolerate. Then you define “the alternative” as certain (the Spirit actually knows the truth) and as conservative as you like. The reader is put into the difficult position of inventing an alternative where there is no space for one. The positions taken by EG and the Spirit take up all the theological space there is. You would need a crowbar and an immensely long lever to create any space at all between them. And yet, I do believe that I fall between them. I am not the muddled theological liberal EG is. On the other hand, I am not aggressive and knowledgeable conservative the Spirit is.  Where I live, think really don’t have the clarity he draws on. And Lewis, is, after all a master of the either/or. For instance.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.

And yet, the dilemma the Spirit faces with this Episcopal Ghost has intrigued me for many years and I want to look a little more carefully at this episode, which, does, after all offer a daunting question: Can a person really be damned for believing the wrong things?

EG is the classic maddening liberal.

Picture yourself trying to make a point—any point—to someone whose mind works like this. The structure has collapsed entirely. Everything is process. Words cannot be found that clearly mean anything in particular. Tone is everything. Allow yourself to get good and disgusted and then we can come back afterwards and see if anything can be salvaged of his actual views.

EG here shows no understanding of where he is at the moment or at where he was before he got on the bus in Hell. But that isn’t the worst part.

‘Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!’

‘But wasn’t I right?’

‘Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way.

He still believes in “a literal Heaven and Hell” he says, but only “in a spiritual sense.”
The Spirit faces the Ghost with the reality of his choices and their effects. That doesn’t go too well either.

‘I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact point you are trying to make,’ said the Ghost.

‘I am not trying to make any point,’ said the Spirit. ‘I am telling you to repent and believe.’

‘But my dear boy, I believe already. We may not be perfectly agreed, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realise that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.’

The context here is doctrinal. The notion that the Ghost’s beliefs are “a real and…precious thing” brings no clarity at all to the doctrines he holds to be true. The Spirit knows what is true and what is not and “my religion…is precious to me” is neither true nor false. It has nothing to do with truth or falsity.

So that doesn’t work. The Spirit then tries direct and immediate action.

‘Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?’

This is not doctrinal, please notice. “Let’s go to the mountains (the natural goal of every Spirit in heaven) and let’s start now. Here, take my arm.” But the response is eerily familiar.

‘Well, that is a plan,” says the Ghost. “I am perfectly ready to consider it.”

Notice that “considering the plan” does not get either of them any closer to the mountains. Walking would; “considering” will not.

At that point, the Ghost begins to ask for assurances. I will consent to accept Heaven if I can be given some guarantees. He has two in mind. You will not need to be told, at this point, that neither of them is viable.

The first is that he wants to be “useful.” Then he demands “the free play of the mind.” These are not ridiculous, particularly if we contrast them to the alternatives as he experienced them in his life on earth. But they make no sense at all in Heaven, as Lewis describes it. Here is the Spirit’s response.

‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry; for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’

We are not “needed” in Heaven as if God had some deficiency that only we could remedy. “Inquiry” is not needed when the plain and true factuality of everything is staring you in the face.. Forgiveness is needed and it is abundantly available and the Truth is here, indeed it is unavoidable except by such subterfuges as the Ghost keeps using.

Nothing works. The Ghost needs to be needed, even by God, and he needs to keep his mind spinning by what he calls “free inquiry.” But facing the clear and real Fact of God, the Ghost equivocates.

“You will keep on implying,” he says, “some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, “there”, and to which our minds have simply to conform.”

Notice the pejoratives. “Static” is bad because it is not “dynamic,” “Ready-made” is bad because God, not this particular Ghost, has made it. “Conform” is bad both because it implies compulsion and also because it is a demand made by a reality outside the Ghost himself. Everything about Heaven and God is not quite up to snuff, somehow.

And finally, God is not a person in the sense that one can have a relationship with Him. God is:

“The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance—and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.”

A man like this Ghost would drive me crazy. He is repulsive to me in nearly every way. The Truth, apparent and irrefutable for once, does not meet his needs and he escapes back to Hell where his talents can be more fully utilized. “Service,” you know.

Believing your way to Hell

I have spent a little of your valuable time on the true ugliness of this Ghost because I EG 7want to separate it from the reason he is in Hell in the first place, which is, according to the Spirit, who has to inform him of the reason, that he is apostate. [3] He was once “a slave of Christ” (Ephesians 6:6, Colossians 3;24, 1 Peter 2:16), but he has “run away,” as the etymology implies.

This is the part of the dialogue between Spirit and Ghost that I wanted most to explore. The setting of Heaven and Hell (and the bus line that connects them) and the obnoxiousness of the Ghost, are just setting the table. What, specifically is the charge that the Spirit brings against the Ghost. Here is the central passage for that question.

‘Go on, my dear boy, go on. That is so like you. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there. I’m not angry.’
‘But don’t you know? You went there because you are an apostate.’
‘Are you serious, Dick?’
‘Perfectly.’
‘This is worse than I expected. Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.’
‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’
‘There are indeed, Dick. There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed—they are not sins.’
‘I know we used to talk that way. I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow. It all turns on what are honest opinions.’
‘Mine certainly were. They were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.’

The heart of EG’s defense is that these were “honest opinions.” Here is the Spirit’s rebuttal.

‘Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?’

EG responds.

“But it’s not a question of how the opinions are formed. The point is that they were my honest opinions, sincerely expressed.”

This is the Spirit’s devastating response, which he knows to be true because he was there at the time and made the same mistakes.

‘Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.’

Let the Trial Begin

EG says first that there are no “errors of the intellect” and if there are, they are sins like prejudice, intellectual dishonesty, timidity, and stagnation. He says then that his new beliefs were honest (When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it) and also courageous.

This is EG at his best, I think. Not the weasel-worded obscurantist who shows up later in the dialogue. This is the best he has got.

And it is not nearly good enough for the Spirit. First, the Spirit says that there are, in fact, “errors of the intellect.” He says that right away. And the language Lewis provides is very strong because the Spirit asks EG to deny a negative formulation. “Do you really think there are no—that there is no such thing as— errors of the intellect?”  A less strong response by the Spirit would be no answer at all.

Second, the Spirit describes how “honest opinions” must be maintained. This sounds odd to my ears and I am guessing it will sound odd to yours as well. I’ll take the second one first. Dick (the Spirit) and EG followed the same track at first.

“Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith.”

EG 5This way of looking at it is as far as can be imagined from EG’s “When the Resurrection ceases to recommend itself to [my] critical facilities, I openly rejected it.” [4] The validity of the Resurrection is “maintained,” as the Spirit now sees it, by praying, by resisting the drift toward unbelief, by refusing to accept the pull of our desires. “Belief in the Resurrection” as the Spirit now sees it, is based on basic spiritual disciplines. These require active intentional living. Prayer requires that. Resisting the drift away from the faith requires that—in fact even being willing to notice the fact of drifting is harder than you might think if you have never tried to do it. Refusing to give in to the pull of illicit desires [5] requires that.

“Keeping the faith,” is, in this formulation, like keeping a marriage alive and vivid. You don’t keep testing your relationship with your wife to make sure that it continues to “recommend itself to your critical faculties.” You work it. You remind yourself of your common intention. You supply those intentions with resources. You attend to any “drifting” you encounter—although everyone will assure you that such drifting is perfectly natural—and try to counter it.

EG didn’t do any of those things, and neither did Dick, according to his retrospective account, and that is why their faith failed them. (Dick reconsidered his spiritual laziness toward the end of his life—becoming “narrow” according to EG—and reclaimed his faith.) Contrast this with the Spirit’s notion “believing the Faith” requires constant effort of every kind, not just intellectual assent.

And where does such drifting get you? A man gets to the place where he will believe lies about his best friend. A drunkard gets to the place where he “sincerely believes” (at the moment) that another glass will do him no harm. Those beliefs are “sincere” in the very limited sense that one believes them at the time, but they are also culpable because you should have known better than to believe them at the time.

That is the prosecution’s case as it bears on “sincerity” and “courage.”
But these failures are not personal peccadilloes. They are part of the familiar structure by which neighborhood conservatives “go off to college” and become secularists. Dick and EG grew up in the faith, then they went away to college where they heard other things: things that seemed “modern and successful.” [6] And they wrote the kinds of papers that their godless professors and their godless fellow students approved of wholeheartedly.

"My mother broke up with Jesus in college; he wouldn't return her calls."Lewis is not holding back here and I think his case is better for that. Outside “the home” is “the world” where the forces of evil hold sway. And at college, there is the social whirl, which is a really good way to keep yourself from being alone and thinking seriously if you know where the choices you are making are leading you. Nothing in your academic training encourages you to wonder whether “the Supernatural” might not be True—with a capital T—especially since everyone laughs at the idea and would laugh at you, too, if you began to consider it.

These two explanations (accusations) by the Spirit fit together ominously well: the personal and the programmatic. The personal practices that would defend your intellect against the attacks of secularism are abandoned. The friends you cultivate are not the kind that will help to remind you of your highest loyalty and are, in fact, the kind that would ridicule you for that loyalty.

You accept your own desires as worthy of fulfillment, even as you are only half aware of them, and you accept the rewards offered by the formal programs as “daring” and “modern” rather than as true. [7]

But what about the Resurrection?

I chose this character to examine because, like him, I have concerns about the Resurrection. I don’t confuse, as Lewis does, “my faith” and “the doctrine of the Resurrection.” I am aware that after Jesus’ death, something happened that dramatically catalyzed his disciples and sent them out proclaiming his continuing presence. I don’t know what that “something” was and the written accounts provided by the writers of our gospels don’t show much interest in exploring  just what that “something” was. Whatever questions we are asking, they really didn’t care about them.

I guard “the faith I was given” as well as I know how. I understand that relying on it requires active investment in the practices and the associations that support my faith. These are the things the Spirit accused EG of neglecting.

But, frankly, Heaven and Hell have never meant very much to me. If there is any life after this one, it will be in God’s care, just as this one is. And “things,” by which I mean the intersection of what I believe and how I feel and what I do may not be related to an afterlife in any way that ever occurred to me. I may wind up, as Lewis described his own conversion “as the most… reluctant convert in all England,” Or, in my case, England’s former colonies.

[1] All the other Ghosts want to use God in some instrumental way, like Michael’s Mother who will worship God as much as anyone would like provided that when she is done, she will get to see her son, Michael. Or they refuse to accept God’s forgiveness because they demand to receive only what they deserve, like the man I call “the Rights-monger.”
[2] Lewis is also a character in this fantasy. He is the schlub to just doesn’t get it and who in that way gives his guide, George McDonald, a chance to explain further.

[3] Here, as so often, the derivation of a word casts its current meaning into sharp relief. The Greeks is apostatēs and it referred to “a runaway slave.”
[4] You may have noticed that I left out a few words in my formulation. EG refers to “the doctrine of the Resurrection,” rather that the event itself, distancing himself from it. He also describes his critical faculties as “the critical faculties which God had given me,” implying that he had made a proper use of those faculties.
5] I am willing to use the word “illicit,” even though the Spirit does not use it because it has the effect of weakening your fidelity to your own faith. That’s enough for me to call such desires “illicit” even though I don’t know what they were.
[6] There is an odd transition here where you give up the faith your learned at your mother’s knee (uncritically because you were only a child) and substitute for those beliefs notions that you learned at the knee of your Ph. D. advisor (also uncritically, because you are only an apprentice in your new trade). In terms of credulity, there is very little to choose between these two socializations.
[7] In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, the senior devil, advises his apprentice, “don’t waste your time trying to persuade them that the messages you are giving them are ‘true.’ Let they think them to be “bold” or courageous” and that will work as well or better. Lewis takes the same view here.

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