Monthly Archives: January 2018

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Coincidence and Morality

Coincidentally, I was in a hotel shuttle with a couple who hail from Oskarshamn, Sweden. “What a small world,” I said. “One of my favorite authors, Axel Munthe, comes from there.”

“Oh, yes,” they said, “we love Axel Munthe.” They were on their way to Disneyland, but I on quite another errand of consulting for a Californian liberal arts college.

“It’s a small world after all,” I said, not being able to resist, once I had discovered where they were heading. Chuckles all round.

But the essence of today’s blog is yet another coincidence. Not that seeing my old friend from high school was coincidental, for it was not. Indeed, a few weeks before we had planned the rendez-vous at a restaurant on the San Clemente pier; and what spectacular views of the Pacific coast can be seen from that pier! And the conversation was loaded with coincidences, too, if you believe in that sort of thing, for it takes a certain kind of faith to believe in coincidence. I haven’t that faith; I rather invest mine in Providence.

 

A quick synopsis of the conversation with John: life, family—kids in particular—jobs. And that is when it got interesting—how he had gotten his current position through a labyrinth of coincidences. And mine, too, I said. How I had come to be writing what I am writing now—no, I shan’t tell you, my reader, as that must remain between me and John until it is completed—and so much more. My work in California, and the potential for more where that came from, and on and on. All of which was loaded with coincidences, coincidences that can, in my view, best be explained by Providence, as it seemed that some of them were so coincidental as to suggest the evidence of the intervention of a divine hand, a divine plan.

“As you know, I am a moral agnostic,” John said, and then he added with a wry smile, “Probably the only happy agnostic I know.” I agreed that he is one of the few truly content moral agnostics that I know. And I agreed that he is moral, for he is. He lives by a moral code. And in spite of his clearly moral posture, a friend had, he shared with me, given him a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. I told John about an old friend of mine, a doctor also named John, who had read that book and become a Christian.

“Yet,” I added, “I think you would enjoy C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity more. It’s really written for moral agnostics.” I then recapitulated a bit about C.S. Lewis’ life and his connection to J.R.R. Tolkien and the other Inklings.

We parted, John generously picked up the tab, and I got in my car and thought of what I should have added, of course, about morality, for I agreed with him that these days our society needs a good dose of morality and its twin sister civility. But what I didn’t state as clearly as I might have is that morality must have a source, an authority outside of ourselves, for if morality just comes from within us, one person’s morality could look very different from that of another’s. One person might justify stealing or lying or coercing or bullying and even casting aspersions on someone as means to a greater end, while another might see lying or the other nasty behaviors just enumerated as wrong under nearly all circumstances, or even all circumstances. In other words, as Lewis shows deftly in Mere Christianity, we are ourselves not the buoys or the stars and we are certainly not the compass or the magnetic poles. We are, rather the ships, or better the pilots of our own ships, and sailing out of line can damage or even sink our neighbor’s ships, too.[1] Without doubt we, as captains, can and sometimes must use dead reckoning to sail, but that would only be on a cloudy day when we can’t see the sky and we have misplaced our compass. So, being moral is great—good ship captains are welcome—but it necessarily derivative. And then the question becomes, derivative of what source? And that source does in fact matter very much. Do we really want it to be textless, ever-shifting cultural groupthink? Are there not founts (maybe Cicero Plato, Aristotle?) or an even higher source (perhaps the Ten Commandments?) that speak to our moral formation better than pop music, reality T.V. shows, Dear Abby or the op ed page?

Alas, I neither got that far in my thinking nor we in our conversation. Why not? I would like to say it was only because I had a plane to catch, but in reality it was because I am not as mentally quick on my feet as I would like to pretend I am. Yet it was a delight to see an old friend, and a joy to think through the need for civil discourse in a world so fallen, so in need of kindness, so lacking in grace and forgiveness. But there I go again, sounding like someone lamenting, “In my day it was much better…” But maybe, just maybe it was, and the only way back to that day or an even brighter and better one is to find, once again, our moral moorings and, most importantly, the Source that gives those moorings its authority. Not that it was all perfectly clear even “in my day,” but maybe just knowing that it is there at all can be our first step toward what Plato calls “the good,” as we navigate in these waters that have of late become choppy in terms of morality and simply civility. But the faith to get through it, to find the moorings, and to act on their teachings—that’s where coincidence ends and Providence begins.

[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, Ch. 3, passim.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Name Rings a Bell

In his own words, Captain Henry Bell, who served in the court of King James of England, when he was soundly sleeping one night, saw a frightening vision of “an ancient man,” who grasped Captain Bell by his ear. That vision admonished him to translate a book that the captain had cryptically received from a German gentleman named Casparus Van Sparr, a friend of the captain whom he had met in Germany. Thousands of copies of that book, known as the Colloquia Mensalia (in German, Tischreden), had been burned throughout Germany to the delight of Ferdinand II but the chagrin of many German protestants, for it is, of course, the wittiest work of Martin Luther. One copy of that book, however, that captain recounts, had actually been mummified and preserved “deep into the ground, under … [a building’s] old foundation, … lying in a deep obscure hole, being wrapped in a strong linen cloth, which was waxed all over with bees-wax, within and without; whereby the book was preserved fair, without any blemish.”

The captain’s narrative, dated to 3 July 1650, reads as if it were a combination of a detective novel, a moment of poetic inspiration, and a remarkable account of supernatural intervention in a para-biblical narrative. Bell himself comes off at once as a character from ancient epic instructed by a divinity (e.g., Aeneas heeding Hector’s ghost in Aeneid 2 or Mercury’s charge in Aeneid 4); Joseph, jailed but remaining faithful in the midst of a long sentence only to be sprung from prison if not in return for, at least in light of, his faithful obedience; and Boethius, whose consolation was Philosophy (whereas for the captain it is Theology):

“… about six weeks after I had received the said book, it fell out, that I being in bed one night, between twelve and one of the clock, my wife being asleep, by myself yet awake, there appeared unto me an ancient man, standing at my bedside, arrayed all in white, having a long and broad white beard hanging down to his girdle steed, who taking me by my right ear, spake these words following unto me: ‘Sirrah! will not you take time to translate that book which is sent unto you out of Germany? I will shortly provide for you both time and place to do it’; and then he vanished away out of my sight.”

The captain soon goes on to explain the Boethius-like circumstances under which he would render the Tischreden.

“… sitting down to dinner with my wife, two messengers were sent from the whole council-board, with a warrant…. Upon which said warrant I was kept ten whole years close prisoner, where I spent five years thereof about the translating the said book; insomuch as I found the words very true which the old man, in the aforesaid vision, did say unto me –’I will shortly provide for you both place and time to translate it.’”

Eventually Captain Bell would be released from prison by an order of the House of Lords, and his Table Talk—for that is the English titled when translated from either the Latin or the German, cited above—or, rather, Martin Luther’s Table Talk, would become well known in the English speaking world, having been duly approved by the House of Commons in February of 1646. And thus, in his recounting of the entire affair, which was obviously quite an ordeal for the captain, he concludes:

“…now bringing them [the Tischreden] again to light, I have done the same according to the plain truth thereof, not doubting but they will prove a notable advantage of God’s glory, and the good and edification of the whole Church, and an unspeakable consolation of every particular member of the same.”

Martin Luther

Now at this moment you just might be wondering why I tell this story in this week’s blog? Well, I will tell you, for there are a couple of good reasons. First, the Captain, however kooky he might seem to you, was obviously a man of some noble character, for he embodies perseverance and grace under fire. Jailed unfairly, like Joseph of the book of Genesis, Captain Bell does not kvetch about it but rather accepts it as a part of his story, a part of the rich beauty of his purpose in life which involved, I think it seems fair to say, the preservation of Martin Luther’s dinnertime remarks. These include moments of amazing insight combined with moments of raucous humor, scathing curses (mostly directed at Erasmus or the pope), and moments of tender reflection on the value of liberal education. And they’re funny, and give us a real glimpse of the personality of Martin Luther and some of his cronies. Second, the good Captain shows, too, the value of knowing another language well, in his case German. And third, the story shows—and this is the amazing bit—how history can sometimes hang by a thread. We can lose a valuable chunk of it all too easily, in the twinkling of an eye. In this case though, we wouldn’t have lost the Table Talk, we would most certainly have lost Captain Bell’s understanding of it. How perilously close we came to that, so close. Yet because the good Captain saw purpose in his life, even in captivity, and because he believed his work was worth something, he persevered in the face of opposition from an at first unfriendly government to find a way for his book, i.e. Luther’s book, to come into the English language.

And there you have it—a story you may not have known and a person of whom I don’t think we even have a single portrait but we do have this story about a brave and patient captain whose knowledge, obedience, and perseverance seem worth noting nearly four centuries now after the fact. We don’t know his face, but maybe now his name at least rings a bell.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: How to Build a Library

Well, this title may be a bit misleading—but I do intend to suggest how to build a library below. But I need to back up a bit, to suggest first why to build a library. Now when I say “build” I don’t mean physically to build a building or anything like that. Rather, I mean to build a library collection. And when I say why, I don’t propose that one size fits all. Some folks are not readers—and that’s okay, it’s not sinful not to be a reader. So if you’re married to one, that’s alright, too. You needn’t file for divorce because your husband or wife happens to prefer watching Game of Thrones to reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, which I have not yet read myself, but I want to.

But you obviously are a reader, for you are reading this. Chances are, therefore, you read books, too. And if you do, you should probably think about building a library. Why? Because outside of character, books are the best legacy you can leave to your children, if you happen to have them. Books inform character. Yes, I just wrote that. Books inform character, and they tell you something about someone’s character. This is pretty obvious if you look at, say, someone’s movie collection. If they have lots of “spicy” titles, even X-rated titles, well, then, I don’t think I have to explain that to you. If they have classic films in their collection, that says something else again. Likewise books—we are what we eat and we are even more what we read, for food shapes the body but books the mind. So be careful of what you put in your mouth and what changes into the cells that make up your body—for bad food makes bad cells, and bad cells are called cancer. But good food and good books—you can do the math.

Building that library, putting good books in your library, will tell your children someday a lot about you, for they will inherit your books. And remember, while you’re off in the kitchen cooking, your dinner guest is sitting in your sitting room doing what? Well, I always find myself looking at peoples’ bookshelves. Why? I’m curious about what they’re like to read, of course. Aren’t you? Don’t you? Aren’t you curious? (Now that sound’s familiar, for it’s the theme of this website and the Curious Autobiography, a book you really should read. Not that I’m trying to make you feel guilty for not having read it by now, especially if it is already in your library. But maybe, then again, I am.

Well, so that’s why to build a library, one rich in good books. But now, how? Well, that’s a bit easier. Amazon Prime? Yes, that works. But better, of course, to go to a bookstore and peruse. Now that bookstores like Barnes and Noble often have coffee bars attached, how can that not be a good idea? And there’s nothing better than smelling a fresh book. Nothing better. Not even smelling delicious coffee. But books and coffee do go together quite well.

Finally, where will you keep all the books? Well, you’ll see from the pictures of my own library here in this blog that there are all kinds of nice storage places, from the tool room to the garage-converted-into-a-library. So, go for it! Read? Yes. Buy? Yes, or at least borrow from your local lending library. And, whatever you do, unless you give a book away, don’t ever get rid of your books. Build yourself a wonderful library, instead, book by book. Tolle, lege! “Pick it up and read it!”

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: How to Determine God’s Will

detail from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Well, now, there’s a provocative headline for you, n’est-ce pas? I’m sure you agree, I mean, about the title being provocative. But seriously, I have had many a friend ask me how one can determine God’s will. It’s a scary question, in a sense, even otherworldly, especially if you turn around the possessive from “God’s will” (friendly sounding) to “the will of God” or “the will of the Lord” (more august, a touch scarier). Some of those friends are spiritual folks, like a good friend of mine from Montana, who earnestly tries to do the right thing and sometimes calls me for advice, advice ultimately about what God’s will might be for the next big decision, the next step in that friend’s life. Other folks, who themselves are quite skeptical about spiritual things, ask me a bit more petulantly, almost mockingly, as if  I couldn’t possibly really know what God’s will is. And they’re right to think that I am no oracle or even a holy, religious man. I am just a Christian, and a boring one (Lutheran) at that, which may obliquely make the title of this blog even more provocative.

I write this week, I confess, somewhat autobiographically, which is fitting, I suppose, for a website entitled The Curious Autobiography. I myself have often faced big decisions, and who knows, I may even have to do again soon. In any case, I recently found myself asking how I may know what the will of God is. And I thought about what I have done in the past when confronted with a big decision: what worked and what didn’t work. In thinking about the question of God’s will, the answer simply donned on me, so I thought I would share it cathartically with you.

That answer—the short version at least—lies in what one might call “overlaying” or “mapping.” For me that begins with prayer and knowing some key bible passages well enough to have them at my fingertips; if you’re a sceptic, perhaps I’ve already lost you. Perhaps you think the Bible just an old and irrelevant book and you haven’t prayed since you were six years old. But, I think I will just tell you anyway, if you’ll keep reading. Because I believe God to be a loving, kind, and tender person (an opinion about him I have largely derived from the comportment of his Son), I ask Him not that I may know precisely what His will is, or for a sign that would confirm that x or y or z is His will, but rather I ask Him to equip me to learn from this new challenge what I need to learn and, most of all, ultimately to seek to do His will, even when I don’t know what it is or even why it is. In other words, I ask God to make me like a character from the Bible who behaved in a similar fashion, particularly one whom I perceive to have been in a similar situation.

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus and Dines at His House
from the Gospel Book of Heinrich II
German (Reichenau)m ca.1007-1012
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452_fol.200r

Such mapping can vary widely, as the situations of the assorted characters of the Bible so vary. So, to take a banal example, a few weeks ago I invited a friend over to dinner whose spouse had been out of town for quite a while and I thought it would be nice to share a meal together. So I perhaps was thinking of Zacchaeus, the wee little man who welcomed Jesus to dinner on short notice. Or perhaps I thought of him the first time I did that kind of thing on short notice and now have simply become Zacchaeus to some extent. I am so used to imitating him that I don’t have to look at my arm-band and think, “WWZD?” (“What would Zacchaeus do?”). That’s a rather mundane example. But when I moved with my family to Texas from New Jersey, a long time ago now, the mapping was more extreme—it was more like Abram leaving Ur of the Chaldeans, where he and Sarai had been, I suppose, more or less happy Chaldeans minding their own Chaldean business, hoping to have a large Chaldean family but being entirely unsuccessful. Yet, perhaps they were content with just trying to do so when they were young. And yes, no doubt as time wore on they were frustrated by their lack of success. But maybe not having children allowed them to amass wealth that might not have happened otherwise. I’m not sure. It seems from Scripture that Abraham eventually became pretty wealthy, and I imagine that my wife and I would be a much wealthier if we had not had children or, if we had had, as Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar) eventually did, only two children, one of whom was sent packing with no alimony payments. Poor Ishmael, and Hagar, too; at least, though I’ve always found it strange, Hagar got some nice double-knit slacks named after her.

And there is, of course, in these paradigms, also anti-paradigms. Each of these folks were not perfect, so we have to learn from their mistakes as much as from their steps of faith. But in the end, I want to remember as we look at their lives, what they did that was noble and good and was clearly “doing God’s will,” and I seek to do likewise. Moses obeyed God and, even though he was happy herding sheep on Mount Horeb, he listened to God and did what God told him to do. Joseph was an obnoxious teenager as I suppose I was, but when God rescued him from the pit and had him sold into slavery, he remembered the faithful God of his youth and obeyed Him and received God’s special gifts and blessings—even though he was in jail. Gosh, I’ve felt like Joseph a time or two.

David, Donatello, Early Renaissance

And David was minding his own business until he saw Goliath making a fool of the army of God. He could bare it no longer and became the highest paradigm of faithful heroism. Inspired by David’s bravery, no doubt many a soldier has dived on a grenade to save others in the foxhole.And Abraham of the Chaldeans, he is the one that St. Paul holds up as the best example of all: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). The writer of Hebrews, too, speaks of Abraham’s faithfulness “by faith, Abraham, when he was called to go … went out, not knowing whither he went.…” (Hebrews 11:8).

 

“Now you’re waxing theological,” someone from the skeptical set might say, “and you’re losing me.” I apologize but, seriously, what do you expect from a blog entitled, “How to Determine God’s Will”? And with that I will close. I determine God’s will simply by studying characters in the Bible who I perceive to have done God’s will and then I try to do likewise. And I will do that same thing with my next big decision. In the meantime, I will try at every opportunity to show good hospitality like Zacchaeus, a wee little man with, no doubt, a big heart.