In a famous verse from Virgil’s grand epic poem he has the poem’s protagonist say to his close friend, “There are tears of things, and things of death touch the mind” (1.462). Perhaps it is the most famous line in the Aeneid, though there are a lot of quotable lines from that poem.That anguish, Virgil is saying in this most quotable line comes from “things of death.” The word in Latin is mortalia, which is often rendered “mortal things.” But that word “mortal” too often simply is misunderstood as meaning “human, not divine.” But the word mortalia does not mean that: it means things pertaining to death, as in the word mortuary, mortician or the all-too-aptly-named Voldemort. This is what touches our mind: death. The ancient poet Horace, too, admonishes his reader to live mindful of how short life is (Serm. 2.6.97). The reader who takes Horace seriously will ever carry at heart the tears of which Virgil speaks.
If you’ve encountered death close at hand lately, you will know that that is easier said than done. It’s a mere platitude to be able to say, “Well, you know, keep in mind we’re all mortal.” There’s that word again: mortal. The person who has experienced grief firsthand knows that such bromides don’t get you very far in the real world when you really confront the death of a loved one. And the person who has confronted that pain knows that mortal doesn’t just mean human: it means closely connected with death. It means aware of the pain and sting of death; and that person feels that they must now and forever be sad because of that pain.
But somewhere else hope is inscribed on a page, hope that complements the rich realism of Virgil and counters the glib advice of Horace or at least of the many sympathy cards that try but fail to comfort adequately. The poet of the forty-second Psalm writes,
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?” Ps. 42:3 (NIV)
This is a brutally honest description—tears as our food—followed by an equally brutally honest question, both recorded right next to each other smack in the center of the Bible: “Where is your God?” How dare people of faith mention God at a time like this, when it feels so hopeless? And yet, the psalmist knows instinctively that the only real solace not just for death but for life is that our paltry lives have meaning, real meaning. In such a circumstance the vanity of pleasure or glory have no power: they avail for naught in the face of death. Rather, only God, the One who counts up our wanderings and gathers every one of our tears into a bottle, even recording them in a book (Psalm 56:8; John 11:35), can give real comfort. He can comfort because only He can give real meaning to all our suffering, our pain, our lives and the lives of those whom we have lost.
There really are tears of things, and mortal things really do touch our minds. We can cry—it’s okay to do so; we don’t always have to “be strong.” We can be weak, too. Perhaps it is really in our weakness where we shall find more strength than we could ever have imagined. May your tears be few in this new year. But if you have them, may they have meaning, that of rich memory, real comfort and, most importantly, true significance.
I think I have figured out why old people like strange things. In part, of course, I am discovering this because I am getting older. But I think the chief reason that I have discovered this is because I have been rereading the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the Bible that few people read at all these days.
The chief reason for that is, I believe, because few people read any of the Bible at all. They are content to recognize it as “the good book” (when in fact for Protestants, at least, it is comprised of sixty-six separate books), instructions and guidance from on high, from “the Man upstairs,” or the like. That metaphorical description of God is, of course, less than dignified, even unbecoming. And at any rate fits with a no reading of but “general respect for Holy Writ.”
But old people, perhaps because they are themselves getting closer to the “top floor” (if I may indulge the societal predilection for undignified religious metaphors), would seem to be more inclined to read the Bible. Now most do it through something called a devotional book, which means some author has preselected bits and pieces of the Scriptures and then explained them. But some old people (and some young people, too, of course) prefer to read the Bible the way country musicians normally purport to drink whiskey—straight up. And if they do that, then they eventually read, often for the first time, the book of Acts.
Which brings by back to why old people like strange things. For the book of Acts is not normally one’s favorite book of the Bible. It is action-packed, geographically challenging—one really needs a map to read it—and religiously complex (e.g. Acts 21:21 ff.). But old people really like this book anyway. Why? I think I figured it out. It is because the Church described in that book is so very unlike any church they have ever attended. The Church of the book of Acts is active, vibrant, exciting, spiritual, robust, bold, faithful. The church that the old people are members of tends to be just the opposite of these things. In fact, they have sat in their pews and from time to time wondered why people still come to church, when the liturgy is all that there is, and Holy Communion, of course, the latter of which in and of itself, they rationalize, justifies the fairly limited attendance. But then they get gloomy and wonder, when they see a young couple or, worse yet, a young family, whether that family’s child, when it grows up, will actually come to this church or attend any church. And then they think of their own children and wonder if they ever go to church any more, for they don’t ask their kids too much about that, as they are all grown up and it’s true: they have to make their own decisions. At least they come with them to church on the holidays. “Sally’s kids won’t even do that much,” they mutter to themselves before they head off to the after-church cake and coffee.
But when they read Acts, those old people really get excited. Their imaginations run wild, in fact, for they imagine a time when the Church was vibrant, was engaged in society, had meaning and was connected to something bigger, Someone much bigger. Not the “big guy in the sky” or the “man upstairs,” but to God himself. And they ponder whether it could ever be so again. And that’s why they like the book of Acts. And so do I, and I know that it can be so and actually is in some churches.
Now that does not explain why old people like bad coffee—for they do, it’s a well-documented fact—or why they get unduly excited about a slice of apple pie, of which I am still not a fan, which means I must not be that old yet. Or why they love babies inordinately and feel encouraged when they see one—I am not there yet either, for I still think the world is in a tough spot and I do not become instantly optimistic by seeing or even holding a baby. Or why elderly men have such a penchant for t-shirts. I don’t think I know a single elderly gentleman who doesn’t wear a t-shirt or, for that matter, carry a handkerchief.
But they all love the book of Acts. And you don’t have to be old to read it. But if you’re not a Bible reader, I would advise you to read it only after you have first read a gospel (like Luke), for otherwise you might not understand what all the old folks are so excited about. But they are excited, and they are, strangely enough, inspired by nothing less than the very book of Acts.
For reasons I do not know, I am often asked about dreams. I have no idea why anyone would think that I would have an opinion, let alone knowledge regarding dreams. Unlike my mother and (rather more rarely) my grandmother, I do not read tea leaves, nor do I speculate about the stock market, nor do I play the lottery or even prognosticate successfully about politics—until three days before the 2016 election I thought Hillary Clinton would win, and, prior to that, I did not think President Obama would be re-elected (though I did think he would be elected the first time). In other words, I am far from an oracle. Yet time and again people ask me what dreams mean, and I have begun to wonder what it is about me that makes people think I would have any peculiar insight on that topic.
Yet, despite my lack of specific knowledge about dreams, perhaps I can address the subject in general terms. While I can’t comment on dream interpretation per se, I can say that dreams are important. When I say this, I don’t mean having dreams at night is important, though it might be for all I know. But having a dream—the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., did, for example—that is very important.
Why? It casts a personal or, in the case of Dr. King, a collective vision. It is both inspirational and aspirational. Following in the wake of Dr. King, we can dream of an America in which “people will not be judged by the color of their skin,” as he once said, “but by the content of their character.” Dr. King, I believe, was speaking about the merit that their character affords them, that each person would have the chance to receive fairly what he or she earned and not be held back for reasons of racial prejudice. And I think that most of us, or at least I hope that most of us, would agree with that.
But there are other kinds of dreams that cast less lofty visions. For example, you might dream of going to the Bahamas or Hawaii or on an Alaskan cruise. You might dream of your kids going to college or even getting some sort of graduate degree, being well educated and well cultured. Perhaps you hope, too, that they might have a better job than you do, have a happier life. You might dream that they would have less financial challenges than you have had to undergo, have less hardships, have more free time. And it’s okay, as far as I can tell, to dream about such things.
But be careful. For so many of those hardships, challenges, and difficult times were the very things that shaped you, hopefully, for the better. They did if you let them. For life, in that way, is like God. Either you’ll spend your whole life fighting with God (or at least the idea of God) or you’ll slowly (or perhaps suddenly) give in to both, realizing that if He’s just a crutch, like everybody says, then you, too, are in need of that Crutch. For fighting with God ends the day you realize that you’re broken. Only blind pride can keep you back from realizing that.
And life’s not dissimilar. When you stop fighting with the challenges of life—maybe that’s what St. Paul finally understood about life that is given to God instead of given to mere religion when he heard a Voice admonishing him not to “kick against the goads”—and embrace them and even be grateful for them, that’s the first step toward your own dream, not so much of visiting Hawaii as of living life well, even embarking on a greater dream like that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For his dream calls on all those who have ears to hear to put aside their prejudice, itself engendered by blind pride, and walk with him toward a better America and a better world.
But there’s one more thing I would add to my interpretation of dreams. You must remember old dreams to have new ones. You must remember Dr. King’s dream if you are to have your own. You must remember your parents’ and grandparents’ aspirations, hopes, and, yes, dreams for you if you are to have them for yourself or your own children and grandchildren. I think that is summarized in the Bible pretty well when the Prophet Joel says, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). May you do the same, and may it be a dream that is both personal and collective, inspirational and aspirational.
The title of this blog is anything but titillating. I chose it for that reason. It is meant to challenge us to ask a fundamental question: Why would anyone do anything boring? Life is tragically short. Given that fact, I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask why anyone would choose to do something boring.
I have a friend who is a philologist, and you can imagine even from the career description encapsulated in his professional title that he has what most people would deem to be a boring job. Perhaps an aversion to such boring jobs provides the very rationale, to the extent that there is a rationale beyond “ratings” or “advertising dollars,” for “extreme” television shows, or even reality television shows, which seem to me far from real. To take but one example, this week, when I had a bad headache, I turned on the television. We haven’t cable television, but as I occasionally like to watch sporting events, we decided to purchase an antenna that would allow us to get local channels. Now that everything is digital, we actually only sort-of get the local channels, as they often barely come in on time; there are all kinds of data transfer delays so that you often just see blocks of pictures popping up, especially, it seems at critical moments in a sporting event. But no matter—such is the digital age in which we live, like it or not.
But back to the headache. As I convalesced for a few minutes I did what I rarely do—turned on the television for a non-sporting event, only to find a telling example of reality television. Reality? It was a dating program where the same man kissed many women and then got to pick which one he would send home from his harem, presumably because she didn’t kiss well enough. What a message, I thought for young people: for young women, that they need to “compete” to get a boyfriend, in this case a creepy one and, for young men, that they should think of women as commodities, like automobiles, to be test driven and then chosen. Such a sad world we live in now. I’m afraid the show just made my headache worse.
Well, I thought to myself, what is the alternative? Is the alternative to embrace the “boring”? Church, by comparison, must seem very boring. Helping at the local recycling center must seem very boring. Volunteering at a shelter for the poor must seem very boring, too, by comparison with reality televisions shows like that one.
But that’s when I thought of why in fact the reality television show is actually the boring thing—indeed I did find it very boring, as I could stomach it only for a few minutes while I sharpened my thoughts in my throbbing head about it. The reality is that going to a shelter to help the poor is anything but boring. You actually meet really interesting people there—real people with real problems—and you get to speak with them about your life, perhaps even what God has done in your life, if you’re volunteering through a religiously based organization. And God is not boring because he is not the God of “and”—for the man had this woman and that woman and then would send one of them home and next week start all over again and choose the next loser and send her home and then refine his harem and then pick another loser and so on. That’s the world of and, and, and. Advertisers thrive on it: you need this thing and this thing, oh, and by the way, that one, too. And then comes the next commercial. And, and, and …
But God is the God of buts. He says your life is a mess, but I am here to help you. You think you need this and this and that, but you really just need me. To the women in that television show, he says the world turns you into a commodity, but I say you are a human being. To the male star of that television show (and perhaps to any man watching it), he says you want woman upon woman but you won’t be satisfied until you let go of your hedonism and listen to the buts of the Ten Commandments and the buts of the whole story of the Bible. Moses was a murderer, but he was called to lead the people of God. Jacob was a trickster, but he would bear the name of Israel. Joseph was in jail, but he came to rule over Pharaoh’s kingdom. His brothers threw him into a pit, but he forgave them. Peter was a fisherman, but he was called to follow. Paul was persecuting Christians, but he became one. Lazarus was in the tomb and there was a bad odor, Mary said, after all the time he was in there, but Christ called him out. Jesus was dead—but he arose.
But all that is boring churchy stuff—religion, hocus pocus in the age of scientific reality. Yet if reality television is any indication of the alternative, of the reality of this psychologically needy and spiritually defunct age, maybe, just maybe the boring might start to look, if not exciting by comparison, at the very least more palatable, for if it claims miracles—a good, highly educated friend of mine only came to believe in miracles when he saw them occur repeatedly in his own life—it still offers something that the stark world of reality doesn’t quite offer: hope. Hope is what we really need because hope says what God says: but. I’m in a mess now, but there’s hope.
Here I will end, I think, my discourse on the boring, as I have invited a friend to church tomorrow not with a promise of anything but that it may seem boring. We will sing, we will pray, we will listen. That sounds, I imagine, pretty boring. Boring, yes, but for a small word—but.
 I owe the refining of my thoughts about the word “but” to a sermon by Rev. Philip DeCourcy (“Jonah, Man on the Run,” 4th part in the series) who cites a similar observation by the late Rev. James Montgomery Boyce of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia.
The world’s first blogger was, I think, Seneca the Younger. He wrote letters for publication, known as the Epistulae Morales. But they were not really letters; the epistolary genre was for Seneca a conceit. Some are entitled, “On Noise,” or “On Philosophy, Life’s Guide,” or even, “On Quiet and Study” (perhaps my personal favorite). These were, in antiquity, the equivalent of blogs, a word derived, as you likely know, from the curious combination of “web” and “log.”
So, in the tradition of Seneca, who gives us eternal dicta such as “it is possible to grasp the proof of someone’s character even from the least little things” (Epistle 52.12) and “badness is fickle, it often seeks out change not for something better but for something different” (Epistle 47), I write this installment of the Residual Welshman’s blog on things that cannot be proved.
It is the second of these two Senecan maxims that directed my thoughts this week not to write about something new but rather to write about something old. I mean old in two senses, first in terms of antiquity, for I took the point of departure, as I have noted above, from Seneca, the world’s first “blogger,” long before there was a web on which to blog. Second, it is an old topic because I have touched upon it in previous weeks—liberal education. I have elsewhere mentioned that a certain major university in central Texas—Baylor by name—is in the midst of dismantling its venerable core curriculum. It is doing so in the headlong pursuit of mediocrity, a path that other universities have trod to their detriment and to the chagrin of the last remnant of veritable educators at these various institutions. Administrators love streamlined functionality. True educators, like Seneca, love nuance, depth, and breadth.
And, of course, in Seneca we find cautionary words, words that have stood the test of time—until now. Now, I suppose, Seneca won’t be read, won’t be found in the curriculum. Were he to be found at all, he would be found by the very rare student, perhaps in a book rarely read, rarely checked out of the library. Why? Because the students won’t have stumbled upon him in a class because change, as Seneca warns us, too often is sought out not for something better but merely for something different, something streamlined, something easier to work with, something to increase graduation rates, something to allow students the power to choose, something to accommodate.
I will close, however, with something else, namely an observation that actually relates to the title of this blog, namely something unprovable. To suggest that liberal education makes a difference in the way one thinks, the way one might potentially interact with one’s fellow human being is simply a proposition that is not quantifiable, not provable. It is, essentially, the God argument. One infers God not from the fantasy or fancy of religion but from the fantastic quality of nature. One infers Him from the goodness of life. Goodness in spite of human suffering, goodness in spite of human evil. Goodness in spite of our own terminal existence.
If you have been lucky enough to have had a liberal education, there is a chance that you know that education is not job-training. Nor is it just getting requirements “out of the way.” Rather, true liberal education is holistic, meant to mold, shape and form the individual willing to participate in it fully into a better person, a more thoughtful person. But that is unprovable. It is, again, in that way essentially parallel to the God argument. Those who have made up their minds against an argument for God will but seldom be swayed. Those who see education as job-training not training for life, they, too, are unlikely to be moved.
And thus, at my friend’s university, it seems to me, those who believe that liberal education is not really transformative are likely to prevail in the end and destroy the core of the liberal arts there. They won’t listen to Seneca when he admonishes us because they won’t be able to. They will assume Seneca is a town in New York state or, more likely, simply a kind of apple juice. Yet I close with the ancient philosopher’s words, which will perhaps hence forth but rarely be heard in central Texas and words that, in any case, cannot be proved. Yet I believe them to be true, as they take head-on modern questions and point up the need, then as now, for comprehensive, not streamlined education:
Wherefore, put off that wretched hope that you can merely sample in summary form the learnedness of “the greats.” Each work must be treated as a whole, considered as a whole. The matter is carried out by a course of study over time and by studying line after individual line of a work of genius, from which nothing is taken piecemeal without ruining it. Yet I do not deny that you can consider the pieces of it individually—of course you can—but keep in mind that a woman is not beautiful because either her leg or arm is, but rather because her whole appearance has removed the fragmented admiration of the single parts. (Epistle 33.5)
“You see,” I recall him saying as we stood on the dank stairwell of Dickinson College’s Old East Building located at the northeast end of the campus mall, “It is very simple, pal. Either there is one or there is not.” The one he was referring to is, of course, God. Dr. Philip Lockhart had the uniquely Presbyterian knack—to wit, the Westminster Shorter Catechism—of taking the difficult and reducing it to something highly condensed and yet entirely comprehensible.
In response to my query based on the conversation that Dr. Lockhart and I had on that old stairway, Roz replied, “Yes, of course, yes, yes, of course I do.” Roz, along with her husband and nephew, just happened to sit next to me in an airport restaurant in Toronto, where I spent a large portion of the day waiting for my sempiternally delayed plane. Indeed her response was enthusiastic: “I am a Jew. Of course I believe in God.”
I had only asked that basic theological question because I was offering her a slice of the story of Elaine Jakes, a story quite improbable—well, you know if you’ve read the book. For the fact that Elaine had been, mostly at different times, a Jew, Chinese, and African American reveals how each individual vignette elicits the annoying question as to whether the sum of the details of her story could just be coincidence. Frankly, it is just easier to explain if the person you’re telling it to begins with at least a hint of faith—in Roz’ case a good bit more than a hint.
Thus could I relay more confidently one of those improbable stories from the book, and thus did she smile, even chuckle, with amusement and delight. “But how did it happen that you became a writer?” she asked. “How could you decide to become a writer and study Greek and Latin, no less, in college? These are not highly marketable subjects.”
“That same professor,” I said,” Phil Lockhart, directed me to listen to the voices of the past, to hear what the ancients could tell me not only about history and art and battles but about honor, and justice, and bravery. ‘The words of Plato, Cicero, and Virgil,’ old Dr. Lockhart so sagely said, ‘resound eternally. Learn Latin and Greek so that you can press your ear to the pane of glass and hear them for yourself.’ And he was right, of course. Dr. Lockhart was, like my mother, always right.”
Roz, a lawyer by trade raising a son of her own, was astounded, “So a teacher, a single teacher made such a big impact on you?”
“Yes,” I said, “and so did and still do the voices he referred to that I was able to hear through the glass pane. I can still hear Dr. Lockhart’s voice as if it were yesterday. And I learned enough Greek and Latin in college to begin to hear those other, older voices pretty well.”
“But how did you happen to take Latin or Greek in the first place?”
“Well, this is the part that requires some measure of the faith we spoke of earlier, for it, too, involves an improbable string of coincidences. I wound up in Latin simply because on one solitary evening no less than three people—an Alpha Chi Rho fraternity brother whose name escapes me, a future college president named Chris Reber, and his roommate, Russ Fry, if I am recalling his name correctly after so many years, all told me to take Latin instead of waiting a semester for a spot in French to open up. ‘The prof is great,’ they all said independently of one another; ‘You simply have to take Latin!’ or something to that effect.”
And that prof was, of course, none other than Phil Lockhart. “He and the voices behind the pane of glass,” I continued, “all left quite an impression on me, ever directing me to higher moral ground, better thoughts, nobler action. Plato taught me something like faith, Cicero, honor, and Virgil, compassion, I think. Perhaps, Virgil taught me a bit more than just compassion; perhaps they all taught me more than those solitary ideals. And Dr. Lockhart …,” I paused, “taught me not only how to read them and understand their words but also how to write and speak and think.”
“I wish my son would have such a teacher and experience of college.”
“I hope,” I said, “that he does, too. I hope that he gets a chance to hear the voices behind the pane.”
“I wish I could have that kind of education myself,” she added. “Where can I learn something of this? Do you have a podcast?”
I think it was Roz who asked about the podcast—or was it the woman sitting next to me on the plane? In any case, it was now twice in one day that someone had asked me this question, for at breakfast Marci, a kind woman from Pennsylvania staying at our lovely bed and breakfast in Toronto (Elegant Cabbagetown), had asked the same question.
“Alas, no, but I think that The Curious Autobiography tells a lot of the story and can direct you toward some of the ideas and ideals I spoke of earlier.”
“I will buy it and read it!” Roz said enthusiastically.
Oddly enough, Marci had said the same thing at breakfast. Marci and Roz, if you are reading this now, I hope you can hear Elaine’s voice behind the glass. Her ideas and even her perception of life are built upon the great thoughts of the past. She is there, right now, just beyond the windowpane, sharing a pot of tea with Dr. Lockhart. Unless I am mistaken, it just may be that Cicero or Plato is sitting there with them.
When you get old, one of two things is likely to happen. Permit me to qualify this bald statement (and baldness is, I suppose, also a possibility for getting old) before I even quite proffer it: I am projecting out a bit, I am making assumptions about the aging process that I expect to be true, but as I am not quite old or bald just yet, I cannot say with absolute certainty. Still, as I get older and older, as we all do, it seems to me that what I am about to assert is truer and truer, or at least more and more likely to prove to be true. But what precisely is my assertion?
It is simply this: you will either look back on your life with admiration for what you’ve accomplished or you will look back on your life with appreciation of what God has accomplished through you. Put in more human terms, you will either vaunt how you blazed a successful career, garnering the respect of others for your vast accomplishments, or conversely you will wish to be known merely as someone who chiefly cared about others, whose professional “success” or hobbies (e.g., having been a literary dilettante, animal lover, opera buff, sports enthusiast or even an epicure) pale in comparison to your attention to the lives of those around you. In other words, you will either feel proud of yourself or, instead, grateful for what God has done in your life, not in some mystical or deeply religious fashion but rather borne out of an outlook of humble gratitude and thankfulness.
Now it is probably not that simple, someone might argue, and they might well be right. But I’m not talking about all the nuances here, nor am I suggesting that a professionally prolific person can’t be positively winsome or thoughtful. Rather, I’m suggesting that when one looks—rather I should say you look back—on your life, you will either be in Camp A, in which you deem great the things you feel that God has done or Camp B, in which you are proud of the things you more or less feel you did yourself. If you see God’s hand in the professional accomplishments, well, that would put you in Camp A. But if you feel, as I think most people do, “Hey, look at what I did! It takes a lot of hard work to amass this kind of record,” or something like that, you are heading for, if you’re not already in, Camp B.
Now Camp B might be, I think, where many people want to be anyhow. They feel that they have every right to be proud. I have a friend like that. He tells me that God is the best story that anyone ever made up and that religion’s basic function is to control people. As he soliloquizes on this topic (and he does so quite often), he regularly pits science against a paper-tiger form of religion, and he makes sure that that tiger is vanquished before, of course, anyone might get in a word in edgewise. In fact, I think he engages in a strange kind of scientific conspiracy theory. He thinks that religion and those who “peddle” it are out to debunk science. He is rightfully proud of his accomplishments—he moved up in his company to the second or third highest level—and headed off into retirement with a giant nest egg, so he tells me.
Well, in his defense, there are many a peddler of religion these days—that can’t be disputed. One only need turn on the television to find a disingenuously grinning televangelist who, with teeth agleam, will gladly take your money “to sustain his ministry,” I recently heard one say; “we only stay on the air through the donations of the faithful.” He did not say, “… by the grace of God” or “… by the favor of the Almighty” but “… by the donations of viewers like you.” Not like me, I’m afraid. I sent him no money. I suspect, the ever-needy televangelist might just be in Camp B, with an even finer camp lot than the proud friend of the previous paragraph, and not even realize it.
Now getting back to your retirement home, which turns out to be a campground. You can be a happy camper, I suppose, in either Camp A or Camp B, so I am not writing about which is the happier camp. I am not suggesting that the proud person is miserable. Quite the contrary: he or she might well be happier than someone from Camp A, who sees very little benefit to what they have done in this life, feels that they did not glorify God the way they should have. I was speaking to an A-camper just yesterday who humbly (but unwisely, I think) was comparing himself to another Christian who had adopted children and, my friend said, “sacrificed time, talent, and treasure to do so” (though one can’t really sacrifice talent—one just uses it—and I can aver that he has used his). He felt, by comparison, he had done very little for humanity. I assured him that it was merely a matter of harkening to the unique calling each one of us has, and not everyone is called to adopt children.
Now a resident of the B-camp is not likely to experience this kind of melancholy, however misplaced it may have been for my friend from Camp A. Camper B is likely to compare himself favorably to that person, to say, “Well, that’s nice, but I did X, Y, or Z.” Indeed, I’ve known many a B-camper, and I’ll wager so have you, and that is precisely what he or she will say to you in common conversation. More worryingly, that is also what he or she is likely to say to himself as he reflects on his life sitting on his folding chair in Camp B. And, downright frighteningly, this is likely to be the speech he is preparing to present before God upon death: “Look, God, at all my fine works. Haven’t I been quite a good person?”
Yet Camper A knows this is a sorry plea and a mean hope, even though every true camper in the A-camp also recognizes that he himself has personally accomplished so very little. But he or she also knows God has made the little bit that has been done, even if it hasn’t been impeccable and the evidence of lasting success is not perfectly manifest in it, count, and more than count. Not by our sweat but by His very blood and tears, God, whom we rightly call Immanuel, has made it honorable, dignified, worthwhile, and beyond worthwhile: God has made it worthy of His kingdom.
And that is where I will stop, for I have not yet tottered into my retirement campground just yet. I expect that I have still a few years to go before that day comes. But when it does, save me a slender lot in Campground A where I can look back on God’s dignifying of my lackluster “best effort,” His straightening of my ways, His righting of my wrongs. Hope to see you there.
Moral relativism is not new. It has been around since Gorgias of Leontini (in Sicily) arrived in Athens in 427 BC, and really even before that. In his Protagoras, Plato interpreted the teacher of the same name’s dictum, “Man is the measure of all things,” to be an advocacy of moral relativism, i.e., that any human being is capable of determining what truth is from a personal vantage point. In other words, from the mid-fifth century B.C. on, Protagoras’ view competing with the notion of a moral absolute was established, an early form of phenomenalism that suggests that a single individual deems true what is true for that person. It would quickly devolve into an essentially nihilistic view expressed by the Sicilian sophist Gorgias in his now lost (but preserved piecemeal in two other sources) treatise entitled On Non-Existence which suggests that nothing exists (i.e., being has no existence) or, if it were to exist, what it consists of would be impossible to know, explain or be understood. (Coincidentally, these are the very opinions most of my agnostic friends advance about God).
The most important aspect of Gorgias’ argument—what he has successfully transmitted to the modern age—is that there is no such thing as an objective point of view, for each individual’s point of view is precisely that—individual. And that is where his argument dovetails with Protagoras, and it is on that confluence that I want to focus this blog, for I met a man in Italy who happened to be advancing essentially the same argument as that of Gorgias and Protagoras.
Now a disclaimer: normally these kinds of conversations happen to me on an aircraft but this time it was at a bar. Still, the argument, which I am paraphrasing here, was worthy of any aircraft: it was stated in very anti-platonic terms (but of course, as it is essentially a sophistic argument) that since there is no objective vantage point, all moral codes are constructs. No one can say whether any is better than another or, for that matter, which is good at all, since even the notion of good is a construct. Put metaphorically, there is no “north”; there is only an agreed upon direction that many folks say is north, but if even one person should say that north is not north, then there can’t be a true north. Or, even if there is a true north, it is not knowable, as each person interprets the direction “north” in his or her own way.
On this view, the question of what north is ultimately becomes a preference—do I find north preferable or not? I may have my own ideas about north, but those are just my ideas, constructed for me, most likely, out of the worldview that I inherited. So, even if I say I prefer my interpretation of north I cannot discount another person’s interpretation of north, which might really be east, or south, or west, or some other direction. I cannot say to that person, “No, if you go west when you’re intending to go north it will be quite dangerous for you. I really want to dissuade you from taking the wrong direction.”
And the reason one should not do that, according to the view of the man at the bar, is because we ourselves actually can’t possibly “know,” however certain we may feel about it, where north really is; we only know what we prefer about what is called north and we may like (or simply be habituated to) our own “north” but we have to recognize that someone else’s west might serve just as well as a north as our own north does.
This sounds clever, and at first blush, even generous. Let’s start with the positive: it is generous and very “non-judgmental”—so much so, though, that even when it sees someone going the wrong way, it doesn’t intervene on the principle that true north is not a knowable concept. To press the north analogy just a bit, one might say, “After all, true north is not precisely magnetic north, which itself differs from grid north. So, who is to say what ‘north’ really is anyway?” And thus it is that the person who has thoroughly adopted this mindset can’t intervene when someone is going the wrong way on the principle that he or she should not presume to know that his own way is the right way. He prefers his direction, but it is only a preference.
The only comfort I can find in this argument really is that it is an old one; as Solomon wrote (though obviously not in Latin), nihil novum sub sole, and he was right, there is nothing new under the sun. The relativistic argument has been recycled nowadays and fobbed off as new, sc. post-modern. But really it is very un-modern, a bit humdrum, and in any case very old. And it is also countered not only by the obvious—that we do exist and that there is a such a thing as life, liberty and happiness, honor, dignity and worth—but by the fact that north itself does exist, entirely independent of us, our point of view, or even whether or not our compass should be working properly. While what we call “north” may vary both in terms of precisely where it is (as magnetic north does move a bit) and by what it is called—the Chinese (Mandarin) word for north is Bei, Japanese is Kita (though the symbol [北] for both is virtually the same, since the Japanese calligraphic kanji is based on Chinese Hanji), Hebrew is tzafon, Hungarian is északi; yet despite all these differences, north is, in the end, indeed northward, however tautological that may sound. Since that is true, it is especially important to call attention to the direction in which north lies when we find a person heading west but thinking that he is going north, who we know is clearly sailing into dangerous waters.
Thus it is not ethnocentric cultural superiority to say to the cannibal that it is simply wrong to kill and eat one’s fellow human being. Nor is it a matter of going too far to say that if one sees a woman being beaten by a man, it is good, even necessary to intervene. It is not wrong to tackle a bad guy who is running from the police, not wrong to prevent a terrorist from being successful in his attack (if it should fall to one’s lot to be in a position to do so), not wrong to stop any act of sheer evil. It is not the case that we should say to ourselves, “But I can’t know what the precise motives of that person happen to be, nor can I say that this or that person’s version of right and wrong are the same as my own, so I can’t and shouldn’t intervene.” We are not hardwired to conform to the non-interventionist “prime directive” of the old Star Trek series—the consistent failure to do which, by the way, made Captain Kirk the admirable hero of the series; indeed, do we not innately wish to do precisely what Kirk does?
Thus, we are born with an internal compass that suggests to everyone from every culture a sense of right and wrong and those of us who can recognize true north, actually have a kind of moral obligation—for we ultimately believe in morality, that morality is something given to us by a higher power, by God himself—to direct lovingly, wherever possible, those who are so far off track, whose moral compass is so broken, that they are likely to render harm to themselves or others. Is that ethnocentric cultural superiority? Someone might try to make that argument, but the moral code I am referring to as “north” has been transmitted by the votes of what G. K. Chesterton calls the “Democracy of the Dead,” handed down in many cases by wise teachers like Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, most recently, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. All of those individuals had a pretty good idea of the direction in which north lies. And what has been demonstrated for us by their example is instilled in us, ultimately, by God.
In closing, what can we learn from my friend at the bar? Well, first, we should recall that his ideas are not new: they are very old. They devolve from Protagoras and Gorgias. Second, we can learn that while being empathetic and seeking to understand as best as one can, the point of view of another is certainly a good thing—love your neighbor as yourself is an unqualified command—that does not mean that to do so we must deny our God-given internal compass. (And one should be very careful here, for if we deny it long enough, we may corrupt it or simply lose it, as so many of those who have joined the ranks of ISIS clearly have.) Rather, let us gage our journey by the North Star which means, from time to time, if we are following the internal compass aright, we may even have to direct others trying to find their way on the same path on which we are going. I am heading north; please feel free to join me.
 This treatise, by the way, enjoys the highly ironic title Περὶ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἢ Περὶ φύσεως, which, when translated, means “‘On Not Being’ or ‘On Nature’,” the latter of which the former clearly undermines.
“I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” —Ronald Reagan
This quote is one of Ronald Reagan’s most famous. I would love to be able to assert its veracity unequivocally. I would love to pip something in passing like, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” And though you will see that, if I can’t bring myself to agree with Robert Browning, in the end I will agree at least with some of what the former president says here.
Yet while I wish I could say that the world is a good place, I simply can’t. I can’t when I read a news article about a gentle soul like Lamiya Aji Bashar, an 18-year-old Yazidi girl who was held and sexually abused by her ISIS captors. Her story was a headliner in a number of news outlets; you may already know it. Shrapnel from a landmine that went off as she successfully escaped her last abuser cost her vision in one eye. Yet she remained thankful that she had escaped at all. It was impossible for me to read her story without my soul convulsing. It is impossible to write this this without my soul doing so again.
But let me return to Ronald Reagan’s quote. Though his first sentence suggests otherwise, it soon emerges that what he really means is that mankind is not so good as the president is purporting, after all. For when he says in his second sentence that right will always triumph, he clearly implies a struggle. And the reason for a struggle is because of the badness, the wrongness that right must prevail against.
Yet in this life, right does not always prevail. How many petty dictators exist today? In how many countries is human thriving and creativity deliberately oppressed? In how many cultures are women viewed merely as property, a commodity to be used, abused, and cast aside? They are told that their sole function is to have babies or worse, merely to be objects of men’s desire. In some cases, the milder ones, they are ordered to cover themselves when they breastfeed; in other cases, not at all mild, they are told they have the wrong religion, are told to cover their entire bodies, in others, are often denied a proper education; in others, are prohibited from driving.
Some of my friends think I’m going too far when I say that were a young man to ask me for my daughter’s hand in marriage I would say, “No, for I don’t own her. You and she must make that decision.” Is that going too far? Perhaps, but there’s a point behind it. That aside, in regard to the litany of abuses that precedes this panoply of pedantry and many more unstated cruelties toward women, children and even men, if humankind were fundamentally good, surely this would not be the case. But we are not fundamentally good. We are seriously flawed.
Seriously. A friend of mine even says we human beings are depraved from top to bottom. And he just might be right. Whatever goodness abides in us from our Creator was corrupted thoroughly by our first parents. And if you don’t believe that, well then believe this: you and I are pretty screwed up. We are part of that very human race that took the eye and, worse, the innocence of a sweet girl in northern Iraq. We have made our own immoral decisions. We must own up to our own perverse evil if we are to do anything at all about the evil perversity of the world. It’s too easy to point (or flip) our finger at religious zealots. It’s a lot harder to point the finger at ourselves.
Let’s just say we do decide to do that, to admit that we are a part of the problem. Then what? Well, let’s look at the last bit of Reagan’s bon mot: “… right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” If there are truly purpose and worth to every person’s life, which I am certain is the case, then what about the words leading into that idea, “right will always eventually triumph”? This isn’t a matter of the recent victory of Wales over Belgium or the unfortunate loss of Wales to Portugal, or the basketball victory of the slightly outmatched Cleveland Cavaliers over the Splash Brothers (who have since added a third) that we’re talking about here. No, Reagan’s words are about the looming human problem of right against wrong, good versus evil. And as I mentioned at the opening of this blog, triumph implies a fight, one harder than anything a sports team, even a noble one, can engage in.
So where amidst all this gloom does this leave us, even while the world has its way with those who cannot defend themselves? Perhaps it actually offers us a clarion call to engage in the struggle to protect and rescue the innocent, not to stand idly by while the helpless are tortured and abused. Some say, “America cannot be the world’s police force.” I say merely that, “what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” And each and every life has a name. The one about whom I have written, about whom I had to write in this blog, is Lamiya Aji Bashar.
I would love simply to have written this blog about dining out last evening at a charming restaurant in Bologna known as Osteria Broccaindosso, located at door number 7 on Broccaindosso Street (which explains its slightly difficult-to-pronounce name). I would love to tell you that I savored the best lasagna that I ever had, that the antipasto that led up to the lasagna was itself a feast, one that kept parading in waves toward our tiny table where it marched about in a ritual procession of smidgens of insalata al balsamico, miniature zucchini omelets, two super-fresh cheeses (ricotta and mozzarella) and other less easily identifiable but very easily devoured hors d’oeuvres. I would then love to have added that in fact everything in this tiny restaurant was thoughtfully prepared, delicate to the palate, and all of it something surpassing merely fresh. You would have to have performed in an Olympic triathlon to have worked up sufficient appetite to have desired, after the exquisite primo, a secondo, which I am sure would have been just as exquisite as the primo or antipasto. I would, too, have been sure to mention that the wine was an exceptionally high quality Sangiovese, a specialty of this region, rounding out the entire experience which, as by now you have ascertained, was simply remarkable. To top it off, even though both Piergiacomo (my friend who is an expert in art history, all things pertaining to Renaissance culture, and as a bonus, wine and food) and I did not ask for dessert, we were nevertheless treated to a spoonful each of the most amazing tiramisù that I have ever had—offered, no doubt, to be the final proof that we had died and gone to heaven. But I will not describe such an occasion in this blog, because it is not the time for that.
Why can I not simply focus on something so delightful? Because others have died this week, and they have died not in a world rich in heavenly virtue or even rife with restaurants like Osteria Broccaindosso, for such establishments are rare, but rather they were murdered in a world gone to hell; they were shot to death in a world gone mad. While we saw something more than merely a hate crime in Orlando this week, we nevertheless did see hate-inspired killing at the hands of someone who smugly perceived himself a warrior in a battle. Driven on by hate, he envisioned himself as a hero about to die for a cause, not merely a cause, but for him the ultimate cause. He set himself up—or was set up by other insane zealots—as judge and jury and executioner. And he had, it would seem, no problem in taking up the last of these roles.
Many atheists see religion at the base of this man’s problems. Their facile argument is, “Remove religion and you remove the source of the hatred.” I don’t think it is really worth the time to demonstrate how specious such a statement is. It is probably not even worth suggesting that it is impossible to remove from most human beings their desire to discover their humanity not by repressing their religious impulse but by exploring it. It would be asking too much of a human being to ignore the soul’s cry for God, the hope for something beyond the grave. It is too much to ask us to see everything that is amazing—from the image of a mother lovingly nursing her infant to a powerful lightning storm to the Alps to humpback whales to the less spectacular (e.g. the color blue, another beautiful sunset)—as simply coincidence. Or what about that time you needed precisely $50 to pay the rent and you uncle sent you a card out of the blue with $50 in it? Yes, someone could say that’s all coincidence, but to most of us it does not seem to be simply that. On such occasions it certainly seems to the person receiving the $50 that there is a God. It seems that he is showing his care both in the particular and in the general. One can see the latter in the provision of this marvelous paradise in which we live, even though it is beset with dangers and grave challenges.
Yet I don’t want to get into a debate about religion. Rather, I want to close by addressing the world gone mad in which we live. In such a world it is important not to assign blame fatuously. Religion alone did not cause the shooter to act on his hatred of the freedom that characterizes American culture, of homosexuality, of the western world. Rather, a specific strand of belief did, a strand of one religion, a bad and hateful strand. That shooter’s hatred was not of a particular people but of the values that enable the freedom that allowed for the club that was attacked to exist. God did not cause the massacre in Orlando. Humankind did. A single member of our human community, no doubt egged on by others, took it upon himself to advance the attack on western values. And it all happened so quickly. So many died. So great was the horror. So sad the families. So shattered the lives of those who did survive.
So where do we assign blame if we are so compelled to do so? We have identified the problem, and it is us. For my atheist friends and, for that matter, for all my friends and anyone who might be inclined to blame religion or even God, I can only say this: we live in a broken world, a world broken by our own sin. We can either crassly counter hate with hate, or we can pray for our enemies, even love them. Does that preclude defending ourselves? Of course not. But unless part of that defense is genuine love and care for those who are spiritually lost, who have fallen into a spiral of hate and destruction, we will only get so far as political solutions allow us to get. It’s not simply that religion must solve the problem that one bad strand of religion has engendered. Rather it is that God—the God who offered a sacrifice for this world’s pain and grief, who speaks love, and who by his own example teaches us to love selflessly—alone can inspire the solution. And the solution to hate is, in a word, love.