I’m teaching the early Renaissance today, kicking off the unit with a few glimpses of the marvelous, human revolution in art sparked by Giotto.

In one of those strange moments of convergence when around every corner you unexpectedly keep bumping into things you were already thinking about, I found myself staring at Giotto’s fresco of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey when I opened my e-mail this afternoon.

A friend had sent me this recent column from Andrew Sullivan at The Dish. Sullivan is a Catholic I’m always happy to find still with me in the fold. And his comments about what we learn “on the bus” reminded me of how much I get out of bus rides. An entry I wrote in this blog last year was on the same subject.

The Pope continues to be at the center of Catholic conversation, not only in the media, but at the proverbial water cooler. A maintenance staff member at our school today could hardly contain his joy at the news that a day for simpler folks and a more modest approach to ceremony might be dawning in the Church.

I wonder if Giotto’s frescoes didn’t  electrify–or alienate–in a similar way the hearts and minds of those who saw them for the first time.

Giotto Cimabue

The  halos and angels are still there, but unlike the medieval iconography that  held sway in sacred art for 500 years, he enshrines the details of daily life; his faces capture the drama of authentic human emotions. His works say, like the example of a Pope who rides the bus: “He is one of us.”

Posted by: cctracker | March 14, 2013

Pope Francis: Questions on Day Two


Today, next to the extraordinary story of a humble Jesuit from Argentina, a friend of the poor,  becoming one of the most powerful human beings and well-known faces on the planet, the skeptical questions are already piling up:

Does a 76 year-old really have the energy for this job?

As a Vatican outsider can he really clean house in the Curia and get on top of the sex abuse scandal?

Don’t his conservative views on women and homosexuals mean the Church will remain stuck in the past, offensive to modern sensibilities and irrelevant to the young?

His simplicity and love for the poor notwithstanding, doesn’t his record in Argentina show that he is unwilling to stand outside an established culture in the name of justice and human rights?

How should a reflective Catholic or an intellectually engaged observer of the Church approach questions like these?

A bright, young 20-something asked me another question about the Papacy  yesterday.

“How long has this ‘political’ kind of speculation about the views and agenda of a new pope been going on? Was it always this way?”

My immediate answer was to say that I thought it was relatively new. Certainly the journalistic approach to the Pope as “Ultimate Celebrity” would have been incomprehensible to former generations. Before John XXIII, I speculated, this kind of intense, public conversation through modern media outlets would have been muffled, covered over by an aura of reverence, respect or simple lack of knowledge about the inner workings of a 2,000 year-old institution which claimed that ultimately the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church.

Today’s newspaper ran a chronological list of every Pope from St. Peter to Francis. I’m not much of a historian, so I couldn’t call many rich particulars to mind, but as I read through every name I tried to remember or imagine the context for each era:

Early years of living within, and then beyond,  Jewish law.

Years of Roman persecution in which every Pope was named a Saint.

The first years of Roman Catholicism when the message and example of Jesus of Nazareth was digested and transformed by Roman law and culture.

The obscure early Medieval period during which the Church served as a flawed, fragile and primitive vessel to carry, not only the Gospels, but much of Western Culture, through the darkness.

The unimaginably complex drama of power, piety, political intrigue, sex, heroic virtue and horrific abuse that characterized the Middle Ages and Reformation.

The gradual emergence of a Church and Papacy coerced by circumstance and duty into conversation with the irresistible forces of modernity in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

And then the mind-bending contradictions of the present “post-modern” context:  an era of instantaneous communication in which the world nevertheless watches for smoke to tell the tale, rejoices in the sound of pealing bells, waits over an hour to hear the name of a Pope proclaimed aloud from a balcony and only then is allowed to glimpse the man himself as he steps out from an inner sanctum into the all-seeing eye of video camera and internet.


He stood there before us as a simple man, arms mostly at his side rather than in the Roman gesture of welcome, looking somewhat dazed, perhaps as uncomfortable with the ecclesial formality from which he’d emerged as with the adoring, or curious, paparazzi assembled before him.

It was the humble reality of his physical body that stuck me at that moment.

He came from working class, immigrant parents. He studied chemistry before theology. He chose the worldly but devotional Jesuits and intentionally rejected the trappings of clerical office in favor of hard work, fidelity to Church teaching and service to the poor. In broad contours, this is his story, the “body” he lives in. What else should we expect but that he will continue to live and act according to its dictates?

Biologists tell us that while the eye is miraculous for what it does, it bears the unmistakable marks of an improvised history, designs no engineer would submit for approval. Neural chords take meandering paths through awkward, vulnerable vessels. At times, these structures even get in the way of the project at hand.

Fortunately, the body’s mechanism of sight has evolved in dialogue with the irresistible attraction of what lies beyond itself: the goal of an encounter with the truth of the world as it is.

And so it is with the Church, the “Body of Christ.” It, too, is an organism molded and shaped by the centuries through which it has come. Like our own bodies, the evolution of the Church through the ages has produced awkward, imperfect organs and organ systems. There is no other way forward in flesh. Every shred of ceremonial dress, every word of  scripture or high theology, every ritual gesture bears the mark of its progress through time in dialogue with its goal, its mission, the work at hand.

ursuline nuns copy

And what is that work?  To lead humanity toward conformity to “Christ:” the embodiment of a creative, free, loving and totally human response to the mystery of God’s love.

Some will say that our rapidly changing times demand immediate and dramatic changes to the body . If necessary, surgery.

Others will point with reverence to the miracle of what this Body has done and is doing for the human family. They warn that the world in its selfishness and impatience fails to see and understand that this work is being done by the Body of Christ at the direction of  God at a time when the miracle of life itself is being commodified and must be ever more vigilantly protected.

Some will say that while certain changes may be needed, others must clearly be resisted. And there may be key questions that deserve honest, ongoing exploration and study. But which is which? And how will change in one part of the Body affect its overall health? They claim that the only responsible path is a cautious, conservative approach to change–an approach that attempts to respond to the demands and questions of modernity while protecting the integrity of the Body so that it can continue to love, serve and guide a wounded world.

Child center connected to El Norte De La Salud health clinic.

Image of Catholic Relief Services Worker at http://www.hispanicprwire.com

Day two in the reign of a new Pope, particularly one as unexpected as Francis, is an appropriate day for asking some of the urgent questions of our times. But we must remember that for Francis, as it was for Jesus of Nazareth and as it has been and will always be for his Body, the Church, the answers to these questions must be lived out in humble openness to God’s will, according to the flesh.


Posted by: cctracker | March 13, 2013

Pope Francis

The Roman Catholic Church has named a Jesuit as the new Pope. He has taken the name Francis. And he is from Argentina. Those three powerful symbols alone tell us that we are at a unique , threshold moment in history.


“We live in [Argentina, 3rd world] the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least…” “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

“We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church. It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that’s sick because it’s self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former.”

Posted by: cctracker | March 9, 2013

True/False in Town, Village, and World

Once a year Columbia, Missouri is the site of one of the world’s great film festivals: True/False.


Who knew? Columbia is a pretty hip college town. With two son’s living there and the other a frequent visitor, I’ve recently come to really appreciate its low slung, human-scale, niche-filled, bohemian cool.


Image at blog.preservationnation.org

But as far as most of the country, much less the world, is concerned, I figured it was just another  town. Though we’re in the center of the country, nothing from “Missouri“–I think I finally hear that name the way it sounds to  folks from everywhere else–ever seems to be the center of attention.

But if you are into film, this event breaks the stereotype. This year’s festival featured over 30 documentaries from film makers all over the world. Many of the directors come with their films and talk with audience after the screenings and later, in the pubs. Celebrities stroll snowy sidewalks the way I hear they do in Telluride and Park City. This year’s True/False crowd broke attendance records with over 35,000 people gathering in theaters all over town. I’m still shocked that so few folks in the mid-west seem to know about it.

I saw one film at the festival: “Village at the End of the World.” It documents just under two years in the recent history of a tiny village on the east coast of Greenland. The film shows us a cluster of 25 or 30 man-made structures huddled on a strip of land sitting in a low saddle between two great masses of rock.  The sea stretches out before them, a bay wraps in behind.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m always drawn to the drama of particular human communities and the unique quality of their connection to the land. I was mesmerized by the images of a a tiny village on the vast, indifferent but stunningly beautiful canvas of ocean, ice and barren rock. The film tells a story of how the people successfully face down extinction by reclaiming a fish processing plant shuttered by the government and a large conglomerate. One of the main characters is a guy who’s job is to empty the toilet of every house by hand and cart the sludge down rocky pathways to the edge of the sea for dumping. You can imagine the one-liners.  The film has stayed with me. According to our host’s remarks before the screening, it was one of the few films at the festival to offer a positive, somewhat uplifting meditation on human potential.

But the film that has affected me most is one I didn’t see. It is called “The Act of Killing.” I came across a review of it by Henry Flaxfield.  I’m sharing here with the author’s permission because it speaks powerfully to one the most important underlying themes of this blog.

Yesterday I began a spiritual quest. I attended  a screening of “The Act of Killing” at the True/False film fest in Columbia, Missouri. The film is a devastating, numbing, core-shaking, revolution in documentary filmmaking.  It is an intimate telling of genocide from the mouths of the perpetrators themselves, self-proclaimed sadistic “gangsters“ who not only justify the killing, rape and  torture of thousands of suspected communists in Indonesia, but actively boast about it. In response to seeing a documentary on the brutal ‘65-66 genocide, they decide make their own film to show the world how they see themselves: sadistic yet disturbingly heroic.


Image at hlaoo1980.blogspot.com

The documentary captures them on set, in full make-up either reenacting the killings  or playing the part of their communist victims.


Image at articles.latimes.com

They revel in sadism the way one might idealize a freewheeling youth. Describing torturing their victims by “shoving wood up [their] anus until they die,” they laugh as if reminiscing about good-ol’ college days getting into trouble. Their cold-hearted, cruelty and the near silence of opposing voices is, in part, a testimony to the  triumph of the anti-communist rhetoric of the right-wing Pancasila Youth Paramilitary movement and their millions of members. The film shows the killers appearing on national talk shows, smiling in funny hats and loud outfits, answering questions about their heroic efforts to exterminate the threat of communism. They have yet to be condemned publicly or tried in court.

The story was so immense and horrific, I found myself unable to fully penetrate the content or even to get personally invested. I put up an emotional shield and let it wash by, though the tension in the small, stuffy theater, filled with trendy youths, was inescapably palpable. Inevitably, the shield began to crack as the film trudged on. The “gangsters” along with an army of youths, burned raped and pillaged a village of extras playing the role of “communists”, taking the roles to earn extra cash. One talked in between takes of rape and murder about how “delicious” it was to rape virgin communist girls, especially the ones “14 or younger.”  Somehow, I was able to keep letting these scenes go by, still  resisting processing it all.

The shield  crumbled near the end. Anwar Congo, the main character in the film who admits to personally killing close to 1,000 people, asks to watch a scene in the movie in which he himself is tortured and murdered in a dark, smoky, film noir-ish room by his genocidal partner in crime wearing a suit, tie and cocked hat reminiscent of MacMurry or Cagney.  The look is no coincidence: the two are Hollywood fanatics.

Anwar watches the scene with his two grandchildren, boys near the ages of 7-9. He says lovingly: “look at your Grandpa on the movie… See how good I am… See, it’s just a film.”  The innocent faces are nestled next to the worn face of their murderous Grandpa, watching him act out the last minutes of a tortured human life. Anwar comments to the director: “In this scene I could feel what they felt…” Director Josh Oppenheimer quickly responds: “But Anwar, this is a movie. The people you killed actually knew they were going to die.” Anwar looks on contemplatively and, after a few moments, says:  “I know it was wrong..” and in the first demonstration of his humanity in the film, wipes away tears.

In the final scene at night, Anwar revisits a concrete slab on the roof of an apparel store where he killed many blind-folded men with a piano wire. The film had opened at the same spot with him explaining the executions and reminiscing about dancing and drinking with his friends out on the town afterward in further desecration of the lives he’d taken.

Now, at the end, in the silence of night, the break-down building inside him throughout the film comes to the surface.  He collapses. He tries to recount again, as he did at the beginning, what happened here, but can barely spit out half a sentence before mumbling:  “I know it was wrong…” For the next few minutes he audibly vomits and is seized with dry heaves, humanity rushing back so violently that his body rejects it.


Image at soundonsight.org

It was this core-shaking and violent glimpse of humanity in the last minutes of the film that broke my own shield. This is genocide explained from the point of view of the perpetrator, arrogance slowly crumbling before violent internal turbulence in sober acknowledgment of the truth. I had never witnessed anything so horrifyingly human in my life.

The harder truth to swallow is that Anwar Congo is just one player in charge of just one of the many death squads in this genocide, accounting for only a small percentage of the 500,000 to 1,000,000 Indonesians executed between 1965 and 1966. Most likely the CIA had a to role play. Most of all, it disturbed me that I was completely ignorant that a genocide of this scale had even taken place. How many other cultures have been victimized since then? Even worse, how many are ongoing and unreported by Western media as I type? The scale of human suffering is incomprehensible.

My spiritual quest was born in this moment. The ugliness of humanity reared its head. I grasped  for intellectual and critical thinking skills, but they felt inadequate and even somehow inappropriate. I had to “move on” and let the film be felt only skin-deep until I was able to unpack it.

My hope is to discover a spiritual identity that can provide the resources and foundation to articulate, in a more targeted way, a response to my experiences. I hope to find a base from which to respond, not only to something so vile , but also to those things that I feel, deep down in my bones, are good in the world. On such a foundation, perhaps, my intellectual yearning can confidently rest.

Posted by: cctracker | March 8, 2013

Addendum: Naming “Christ”

As I noted in the last post, the last few weeks have been concentrated days of reflection and listening on the issue of how to articulate key articles of faith in a way that opens the mind to the mysteries they express rather than shutting it down with explanations that instead create “cognitive dissonance” and cause the hearer to withdraw not only from the terms but from the mysteries themselves.

The word “Christ”  has a been a particular focus for me on this score  for many months now.

I first encountered Fr. Richard Rohr–a Franciscan priest, author and speaker– in high school theology classes 40 years ago. He is still writing and teaching. Lately I have been getting his daily posts from The Center for Action and Contemplation.


His post for today brilliantly captures a way to think about who Christ is in a way that honors the Christian tradition, but at the same time opens the mind to a reality that  cannot be held or owned in any tradition. As we face a post-modern cultural context, I am convinced that we need voices like these just as much as those who sound the call for a return to tradition and devotion. Here is his post for today:

Christ Is the Stand-In for Everybody: Richard Rohr

Meditation 13 of 52

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who fall asleep.   — 1 Corinthians 15:20St. Paul seldom leaves the message at the level of “believe this fact about Jesus.” He always moves it to “this is what it says about you!” or “this is what it says about history!”

Until we are pulled into the equation, we find it hard to invest ourselves in a distant religious belief. Paul normally speaks of “Christ”—which includes all of creation—for he never knew Jesus “in the flesh” but only as the eternal Body of Christ.

Christ Crucified is all of the hidden, private, tragic pain of history made public and given over to God. Christ Resurrected is all suffering received, loved, and transformed by an All-Caring God. How else could we have any kind of cosmic hope? How else would we not die of sadness for what humanity has done to itself and to one another?The cross is the standing statement of what we do to one another and to ourselves. The resurrection is the standing statement of what God does to us in return.

Posted by: cctracker | March 1, 2013

Who is “Christ” and What is “The Church?”



As someone for whom theology has been a vital tool, not only for exploring and expressing faith, but for opening my heart and mind in an effort to grow as a spiritual person, I’ve returned to these terms over and over again in an effort to understand what they mean.

Are they still worth clinging to?

To what do they refer at root?

How far can they be stretched before they become indistinguishable from other expressions that serve similar ends without carrying the historical, doctrinal and cultic baggage that makes them inaccessible or unappealing to so many?

What transcendent authority and human potential might they still name and release in a unique and essential way?

For the last few days I’ve been in a conversation with one of my favorite partners in the dialogue about life’s “essential questions.” He’s also one of the toughest. We know one another so well that much of the “conversation” happens for me after we talk. I carry what he said around with me for days, asking him questions, listening to his answers, formulating replies. Weeks or months from now the actual exchange may pick up again. We just had an out loud session the other day that got me thinking about the questions I’ve noted under the title of this post.

Photo James Burton

Photo James Burton

The occasion of Pope Benedict’s resignation got Andrew Sullivan thinking about the same questions. You can read his entire post on The Dish but here is what he says after asking if the “ship” of the Church might be sinking under the weight of the child sex abuse scandal:

“But because we are the church, and every act of love in Jesus’ name is the church, and every sacrifice for another is the church, the actual church can never sink. It is, in his Holiness’s words a “community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ.” It lives on – in the lives of so many, lay and priests and sisters and brothers alike, men and women who have been betrayed by their nominal leaders, even as they witness to Jesus every day of their lives.

This church, whoever is elected Pope, will rise again. It will rise because in a world of such potential destruction, the message of non-violence and peace is more vital than at any time in the history of humankind. It will rise because the global capitalist system, while bringing so many out of poverty, is also now creating vast inequalities and straining the planet’s eco-system with a frenzy that we have an absolute duty to slow and control again. It will rise because the supreme values of the current West – money, power, fame, materialism – are spreading everywhere. And they lead us not to some future hell but to a very present one, in which the human soul becomes a means, not an end, in which human life is regarded as disposable not sacred, in which even the more enlightened countries, such as the US, legitimize the evil of torture and pre-emptive warfare.

We are the second generation of humankind capable of destroying the entire planet with weaponry. We are the first capable of destroying its very eco-system with greed. We need the Gospels more powerfully now than ever – because the stakes have become so great and humankind’s hubris so vast and expansive.

Yes, as a Catholic, I pray for a new Pope who sees this and can speak truth to the power of the world. But as a Catholic, I also know this will change nothing unless we begin that renewal from the ground-up.”


The renewal Sullivan speaks of will require a Church rooted in “Christ.”

On this late night near the end of winter, I know Christ in the embrace of my wife caring for me through illness. In the gentle, wordless, and comforting hand of a maintenance worker the other day who touched me on the shoulder for no reason at all. In the relentless and under-compensated generosity of nurses and health care workers stationed on the chaotic front lines of human frailty and disease all over the world.  In the face of an aged Pontiff who knows that in many ways he failed in the tasks he undertook, but who nevertheless steps down from an office of staggering power with remarkable humility to affirm the presence of God in all of us–in the Church–rather than in himself.

“Christ” names the individual and communal Spirit of all of us in loving service to one another. And yet that Spirit is “given” not called up from within on our own strength and authority. If we open ourselves to that Spirit with prayers of genuine desire and gratitude, we can channel the presence we ourselves need and depend upon. We can be Christ for others. We can renew his Church.

Posted by: cctracker | February 21, 2013

A Lost Campaign for 600 Words

Every four years an intense Presidential season runs from the February before the general election to the State of the Union address the following February.  The season has just ended.

For 12 months the office of President of the United States, a subject never far from the headlines even on the most ordinary of off-election year days, dominates the news—and our imaginations.  No matter who gets in or what unfolds in a four-year term, the story of an ordinary, flawed human being bearing  unimaginable responsibilities has to be one of the most dramatic of all possible settings for a story.


This past November I tried to write a story for NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest. Three minutes is about 600 words—that was the limit. The only other rule was that the story needed to feature an American President, fictional or real. I wasn’t thinking of writing but the moderator’s last bit of advice hooked me: “Write what you know. Write what you care about most deeply.”

I’d entered a contest like this once before, but the challenge was much fluffier: to complete a romantic detective story set in St. Louis. In my story the villain drowned at the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi; I can’t seem to stop thinking about rivers. But the prompts for this NPR Presidential story got a lot further under my skin.

This time I found myself drawn to the setting of Ozark streams, but the advice to include what I cared most about reminded me that I’m also instinctively drawn to the angle of morality and meaning, the human struggle to choose good over evil, to square one’s life with one’s conscience and the truth.

For a few days I thought a lot about a President, a river and choice. I started a draft, saw that I was going way over the limit and started cutting words before I had the plot problems figured out. I got down to nearly a thousand, but couldn’t sustain the idea with anything leaner. The last few weeks I’ve tried to at least finish a “fat” version weighing in at a hefty 4500 words. Since I’m an inexperienced writer of fiction, it was a humbling task. But the exercise was a  way to imaginatively work through some of the themes I’m trying to explore in this blog.

So, here it is. It takes about 8 minutes to read silently.

The Heart of Shannon County

Boots Wald reached up in darkness for where muscle memory put the next handhold. Wheezing, he hooked a ledge with raw fingers and pushed with what was left in his legs to haul himself up into the next niche of the zigzagging limestone chimney.

The surprise of faint daylight filled the damp, stone cell, thin gauze suspended in slightly warmer air. “Morning,” he rasped out loud. The light was palpable hope—something he didn’t know he’d been holding out for—soaking through his skin into his chest.

“Breathe. Take a minute.”

The 3-hour climb up through the natural shaft from the cave below—an hour of pure exhilaration at 15 when he’d last done it with Sam—had taken him to the edge of exhaustion.  But he was smiling. Sam might actually be up there, standing in Crowder’s field right now with the truck.

For the first time in weeks the tumbling rush of thoughts calmed, his awareness widening out the way the canoe had shot through the chute of whitewater hours before in the dead stillness of a moonless Ozark night and eased into the wide, slow hole at the entrance to Jam-Up Cave. If the secret service guys hadn’t caught up with him by then, they’d never track him here.

When had the chaos begun?

As soon he’d framed the question, he flinched against the sound of shrieking tires, fresh and obscene though he’d heard them a thousand times, the sickening thump and roll of body and limbs eleven years gone. This time he didn’t push the memory away.

He remembered the serene pleasure of the instant before: the flush of victory tingling in his belly, radiating out to his limbs, his body suffused with the alcohol in his brain. There was Charlie Childress in silhouette against street lights outside the car: his friend, Senate Campaign Manager and the only person he’d taken orders from for 14 months, sober and staring straight out into the night. He recalled how strange it was to see him looking almost peaceful.

Then impact. Charlie exploding. “Get over!!” Clawing wildly to get under him to the driver’s seat, shoving him into the passenger door. “Buckle in!”  Charlie rushing out, stooping to cradle a woman’s head in his hands. Charlie with the Police. Charlie’s face looming over him the next morning saying that an accident wasn’t going to put an end to the political career of the man upon whom his whole political future would be built. Scattered images from the weeks of inquiry, the crisis fading away under Charlie’s low-key brilliance at the first press briefing.

“Yes, the newly elected Senator from Missouri had been celebrating, that’s why I was driving. The plain truth is it was dark. Darlene Green was crossing against the light. The Senator extends his deepest condolences to the family.  Of course,  I am profoundly sorry. But my conscience is clear. This is no scandal; it was a terrible accident. Accidents can happen to anyone.” The performance had terrified him.

Charlie had even been the one to tell his wife. When she collapsed screaming, Charlie dropped to the floor, took her face in both hands and refused to let her look anywhere but straight into his eyes.

“Abby, I was right  there and I swear to God there was nothing he could do. If I’d been driving this woman would still be dead. The facts are arbitrary. Change them around and the career of a man this country desperately needs is over, along with any chance of a normal life for you and Sarah. So, I was driving, do you understand? That’s the only way–and the right way–to think about this.”

The first few nights, he had waited for her tears or whispers as they lay together in bed. They never came. Within a few weeks Charlie’s voice had convinced him, too, and walling himself off from what happened became habitual and unconscious enough to muffle his anxiety of being exposed.

16 months later, Charlie had gone into treatment for an Oxycodone addiction. Eventually he’d returned to academia. He had not seen or heard from him during the Presidential campaign, but he had been following his advice about the accident everyday of his life until this morning.

The accident. That was the beginning, the most important thing to be clear about right now.

But the last moment of genuine calm he could remember before this moment underground was two months ago on the Truman Balcony the night before his last press conference. In most ways it had been just another day: Chuck Blair from the House had called to put the last nail in the coffin of the debt bill, though it had really died three days before when the TreadNots pulled the plug on the Cushing tax hikes for the wealthy. Without so much as a phone call, Blair had appeared on JOLT:

“We’ve got an entitlement problem, 9% unemployment and the President insists on more taxes! So I told him ‘No!’ How ’bout we grow this economy and get some more taxpayers!” Even worse, Donna Hellwig from the Senate hadn’t called, either. “ Just know this, America,” she’d announced on WIRED, “we had a deal for all Americans. We never gave you up to Wall Street fat cats. Speaker Blair and his party walked away from this deal because they already have.”

Poole, the young agent from his security detail was with him on the balcony that night. “I love it here,” he’d said to him. “I forget I’m pretending to be alone and I almost believe it.” The kid  just stood there, not knowing what to say.

He  reached up to probe a nearly invisible scar on the window casing. “You know, Clayton, a year ago they dug 5.56 millimeter LMG out of the woodwork right here.”

“I know all about that, Mr. President. We spent 3 weeks breaking that down and…”

He had waved to cut him off, pivoted in the chair and settled back. “I sit here just like this many nights. It would have hit me right here in the back of the head.”

He’d been thinking that night about how any night really could be his last. He tried to imagine the expression on Abby’s face at the public funeral. Sarah was almost 11,  but he wondered how many network commentators would compare the way she held Sarah’s hand to Jackie Kennedy anyway.

The election still over a year away, he was already sick of what he said in public all day long while hundreds of terrible secrets he knew about the nation and the world called for urgent action. He’d been thinking about the wasted weeks of gratifying work on the debt bill. And he’d been mulling over a plea he’d read in a letter from a young mother in Waldron, Arkansas: “Do something to help us believe that you’re all not just in there for yourselves.”

He’d gone to sleep that night imagining those words coming from the face of a tired woman who reminded him of his Aunt Helen. That face, in turn, pulled him upstream, back before the Presidential Campaign, before six years as the Junior Senator from Missouri, before the terrible night on Division Street,  all the way back up into the winding hills of Shannon County to memories he couldn’t mark in order on the map of his life, but could see in his mind’s eye and feel in his limbs and bones: stands of short leaf pine, logging lots, wood smoke, church dinners, blue-cold pools at the end of a spring branch.

Lying in bed that night, he remembered thinking that before the accident he’d been almost worthy of his own legend. The boy from the Ozarks whose parents died in a house fire, raised by kinfolk. Eminence High valedictorian and Georgetown scholar who’d won his first election for Congress at 27. Shannon County was proud. As an intern on Capitol Hill he’d charmed every one without trying. Something about his voice they couldn’t resist. “We got a Democrat here who sounds like Brad Pitt in ‘Inglorious Bastards,’ I swear to God!” one of them had said years ago. Party leaders saw charisma that would sell in any demographic and hustled him upward.

Most of all that night, he’d been thinking of Sam who stood in the frame of every picture called up from childhood.

His father had given him his brother’s name, but it was Sam himself who’d first  called him “Boots” watching him walk around in his Dad’s shoes in the weeks after his folks died. Neighbors heard the nickname and assumed the boots were his uncle’s. “Walkin’ in your Uncle’s boots, little fella?”  For 10 or so years their names were together on the lips of family and friends scattered all over the county. “Boots and Sam.” By the time he was six they were already floating the Jack’s Fork from The Prongs down to Alley Spring.

He was eight when Sam first guided their canoe onto the bank below Jam-Up Cave. Climbing up to the  yawning 80 ft. entrance he’d been thrilled and terrified: irresistibly drawn to clambering over cabin-sized granite boulders down into the darkness, but overwhelmed with fear at leaving the light behind, gaping up at an unimaginable mass of rock overhead that might come crashing down to shut off daytime forever.

Sam led him in 400 yards to near total darkness before he turned  on a headlamp to reveal the laundry-basket sized entrance to the shaft. “Climb in, Boots. This leads back up to the light.” Even that first time he’d gone in ahead of Sam, his headlamp below showing him the next place to grab hold, his voice soothing him past the panic and fear of that first ascent. They had come out into a sunlit field. He’d never tried to put into words what it was like to emerge from the underworld that day. Sam standing in the bleached, late winter grass beaming at him. His head tilted back with eyes closed and the sun on his face. A moment later he smiled into his nephew’s face without a word.

In a few minutes they’d clambered down the granite escarpment back to the river, but before they pushed off  he’d called out: “Boots?” He remembered  taking his eyes off the water, turning around to the back of the canoe as his uncle feathered a paddle to ease them into the middle of the stream. “Boots, there’s nobody in on this but you and me, OK?”

Next to that was a memory of  the unannounced visit he’d had with Sam in the heat of the August Presidential campaign. They’d had a night of beer, horseshoes and music in Clemmy’s backyard. Sam had driven him into town before dawn the next  morning. He’d had asked if they could be alone before he left town. Somehow the Candidate managed to  negotiate just one unmarked security car and two plainclothes guys. They’d climbed up through the abandoned hulk of the 10-story U-Haul building near the center of town at the corner of Hwy. 19 and Route ZZ. He remembered wondering if Sam had found out about the accident. If he was taking him up to look out over town and convince him to turn himself in.

But Sam spent the first five minutes or so just leaning out over a railing, making small talk. Catching him up about events and characters they’d have laughed about or lamented in former days.  Finally, he stopped talking altogether.

Kent Snowden from his detail stepped out of the shadows and tapped his wrist.

“Sam, my window is running out for the rally in Springfield; I gotta’ be going.”

They were looking east out over town. The sun was just coming up below a vast shelf of gold and pink clouds at the horizon. Sunrise would be covered over in a minute. A line of cars and trucks were coming up past the Pizza Hut to the intersection and pulling into the lot next to Sonic. Despite tight security, word had gotten around somehow and folks were out gawking. But his uncle wasn’t moving and, candidate for President or not, he wasn’t going to cut this moment off without permission.

At last, Sam spoke again. “You’re from Shannon County Boots, you understan’?” he asked, still staring out across town.  “An’ you got the best of us in you.” He’d paused to  jangle keys in his pocket and started up again, but in another direction. “Hell, we got the problem here, too. This is the tallest buildin’ in five counties. Goddamn disgrace. Coulda’ jus’ been a few roll-up door garages, an’ we’d still be gettin’ plenty a’ use out of ’em.  But Symes had ever’body on the Council seein’ more tall buildins an’ more free money. I bleeve we all knew it was bullshit, but he made us want to bleeve it wasn’t. You know what I’m talkin’ about?”

He remembered shame rising in his throat like bitter coffee and figured it was obvious on his face. Sam folded his hands, lowered his head and leaned further out into the warming air. He spoke with the flat sobriety that had unmistakably signaled dead seriousness every time he’d used it across their years together.

“Boots, I figure Presidents lie all the time about all kind a’ thangs. Has to be.” He waited for those words to settle, then looked over at him and grinned to call up without a word the hundred stories of dirty lies and goddamned liars he ever told. In a moment, somber lines settled back on his face. “But when the lies are for you, about protectin’ the world you’re all living in, instead of about servin’ all of us the best you can, well…”

After that night on the balcony, he’d finally been able to fall asleep by imagining Sam’s voice in his ears. No particular words, just the soothing, flat music of his voice like he was telling a story, as if he were a few feet below him in the shaft, steady and reassuring, guiding him up to the light.

A recollected calm was with him the next morning. It lingered as he finished the briefing before the Press Conference. He couldn’t recall exactly when he made the final decision, but as he walked over to the East Room he knew he wouldn’t be using the prepared text. By the time he stepped to the podium he’d rehearsed the first few lines of what he wanted to say in his head. The rest just came.

“Good afternoon. As you all  know I come from one of the poorest places in the country: Shannon County, Missouri. Folks there take pride that one of their own is President. But this afternoon, I want to tell all of you that I am proud of them. The fact that I’m here is more a credit to them than to me. Any strength or virtue I’ve called upon to reach this office, came from them. My heart–my soul– has been molded by the hills and rivers, by the people, of Shannon County.

“Now they’re not perfect, but they’re real. They’re honest. Like so many people in communities all across America, they work hard to wrestle a living from tough circumstances. But unfortunately,  again along with folks all across our nation, they are mighty discouraged about Washington D.C. right now. They watch us call each other out instead of working together for the good of the Country. They listen to us take positions on one side of an issue or another and they see opportunists out to advance careers instead of public servants trying to solve problems. As a woman from Arkansas put it in a letter I received just the other day, to many of them, it looks like we’re in this for ourselves.

“Today, I want to tell you that I agree with her. And I’m pointing the first finger right back here. I think the American people understand that there are times when a President, for the safety and security of the country, can’t tell the whole truth about some things. But that doesn’t give me–or  any of us who serve you as elected officials–permission to place politics before our obligation to serve all of you with integrity.

“I regret to say that I have forgotten that obligation. As my campaign has geared up these past few months, my public statements on issues from Medicare to Israel, from Greenhouse gasses to Immigration have been mostly aimed at one thing: getting reelected in November. In fact, many times I’ve said one thing, but in that honest place inside where I know what it is going to take really get something done, I’ve believed another. I apologize to all of you for that.

“So starting today you’re going to hear something different from me. Starting today, whatever the political consequences, I intend to tell you a plainer, tougher version of the truth about our problems. I hope to lay out a more honest–and therefore an ultimately more realistic and achievable–vision for our future.

“Let me get started right now. How tired are all of you of hearing someone in one party accuse somebody in the other party of ‘kicking the can down the road’ on an issue?  Well, I’ll agree that all of us in Washington, Democrats and Republicans, have been kicking the can down the road on a whole host of them. But the truth is that most of the responsibility for that falls on you–the voters, the people. You put us here. We take orders from you. If you were speaking up and making your voices heard, if you were telling us to make the hard choices calling for shared sacrifice, if you were demanding that your representatives in Washington and in your own communities truly take responsibility for the county we are passing down to our children, we’d be doing it. Because if we didn’t, you’d be voting us out.

“As much as I hope to serve four more years as your President, it may not be possible to run a successful campaign talking this way. So be it. But My fellow Americans, I believe it is time for us to face–together–what most of us know individually in the quiet of our own hearts and minds: there really isn’t anyone else to blame, or anyone else to do the work. It really is up to us, all of us, together. If you agree, I hope you’ll give me your vote in November. Meanwhile, as they say where I’m from,  it’s time to ‘Git ‘er Done’ in the United Sates of America.  Thank you.”

“Now I’m happy to take your questions.”

The room erupted with laughter and applause. For a few seconds he mistook the surge of energy for ridicule.  But scanning the pool of faces for someone to call on, he read waves of affection sweeping toward him at the podium, the laughter expressing a combination of incredulity and outright joy.  Helene Cooper from the Times got a nod for the first question.

“So, Mr. President, what’s the good news on your debt bill?” A burst of laughter.

“Gave me a mighty good excuse to sample some fine micro-brews, I can tell you that.” An even bigger swell of laughter.

But as he began his answer in earnest the room went quiet. He said that as much as he’d been stung by its failure in the  House, the bill had been mostly window dressing and deserved to die. Between bloated military programs like the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship which both parties had colluded to protect, and means testing and benefit age adjustments to entitlements which any actuary or social scientist could explain but no one in Congress was willing to propose, the fundamental outline of solutions to the country’s budget woes were pretty clear–and had been for some time. The real issue was political will, specifically  the will of America’s affluent middle-aged and elderly folks who were taking far more out of the system than the country could afford or morally justify.

There was a surreal quality to the atmosphere in the room as the questions continued. On the economy: most of the “investment programs” he’d been advocating were politics more than policy. The American economy would take off whenever corporations decided to spend the money they had in the bank, winnings many of them had taken from the house in the last gambling spree managed by the financial services industry. But most of the upper middle class in the country were shareholders one way or another in those corporations so, again, we had mostly ourselves to blame.

On healthcare: the government and healthy Americans with private insurance were subsidizing the wages of far too many health care providers and administrators delivering Cadillac services to far too many comfortable, wealthy and–many times–elderly Americans. Meanwhile the quality of basic healthcare for the young and the needy was terrible and getting worse. It was time for us to admit we had a bloated healthcare welfare system for a fortunate few, an expensive, mediocre system for many and a non-existent system for the rest. Either an honest market system or a well-managed and efficient single payor system could work, but we had the worst of both in a single hybrid monster right now. It was time to choose. He was for single payor.

On Israel and Palestine: Israel’s security and its right to exist were established policy and would continue to be, but the root issue standing in the way of peace–and being ignored or manipulated by extremists on both sides–was justice and quality of life for the Palestinian people. We’d been putting our money and our rhetoric mostly behind Israel for decades. It was time to champion Palestinian interests in matters like access to water and their right to travel and do business in their own territories as Israel’s best path to security. This would undercut Islamic extremists all over the world. Israel would have to figure out for itself how to deal with their own extremists.

When he finally stepped away from the podium, the Press corps was in raucous celebration of a stunning vein of material and his staff was in shock. Minutes later the Post ran the headline:  “Wald Says: ‘Git ‘Er Done!'” For the next few days his Administration was blasted from all sides and party power-brokers were calling on him to end his campaign and step aside for a new nominee.

But excerpts from the press conference kept cycling through the cable news shows and online feeds all week. Calls to the White House shifted massively in favor. At an appearance in Duluth, the chanting and applause had gone on and on in 7 degree cold and wind.

The first ‘Git ‘Er Done’ rally happened on a Wal-Mart Parking lot in Frankfort, Kentucky. The second was in Hyde Park. By mid-April the movement had offices in 24 states and online leadership registrations of over 1 and a half million. Nearly every state had a prominent leader from one party or the other that had defected. The Medicare Reform bill had passed on the strength of his speech on the floor.  His clout in rural America had held up. Independent political organizations focussed on solving problems rather than ideology were sprouting up all over the country. The machinery of the Republican and Democratic parties was in disarray.

It was  late April when Speaker Blair and Majority Leader Hellwig asked for a private meeting with extra measures for privacy. He assumed they were coming to resolve the last obstacles to the budget deal and the expanded Pre-School education Bill. Blair’s first sentence told him everything he needed to know about the purpose of the meeting.

“Mr.President, we’ve been talking with Charlie Childress.”

Donna Hellwig said that though Charlie was still a mess, all he wanted was a position somewhere in the Administration for his own security. Blair reassured him that Charlie was plenty scared and understood that there were no more payouts coming. They were convinced he’d spoken to no one else.

Chuck Blair continued, “As you can see, Mr. President, Donna and I are on the same page here. Both parties are ready to work with you as you steer this country back around to a more responsible and prudent course. Childress is in our pocket and the whole thing is all but dead…it’s over as long as we know you’re on board.”

Their proposal had been worked out in astonishing detail. His first public statements wouldn’t be straight retractions, just off the cuff remarks while he walked to meetings: “Yes, this new energy is wonderful, but we’ve got to be clear-eyed, and practical too.” “Revolution is easy, governing is hard.” He would never again mention the national rallying cry.

Then the addresses were to become more direct.  An Electrical Workers Union Rally in Buffalo to get labor focused on not losing ground their grandfathers had fought for. Another at the American Association for Manufacturing Technology to remind the country that private capital and investment had its own vital dynamism that could easily be thrown out of whack by government intervention. By the end of the summer, he would be pitching “the unique genius of our American system” rather than homespun remedies. Yes, he’d likely lose in November, but given the other option, perhaps that wasn’t so bad.

He’d agreed to their terms without looking either of them in the eyes.

“I believe I’d like to go home for a few days to think this all through. It’s going to take a few days to get it right in my gut. That’s the only way I can do this.”

The trip had been arranged according to the protocol for secret visits to foreign military installations. A small detail would be with him at a family cabin off Hwy. 17. He would have two days to be  alone in the hills. He left a note for Abby: “Away unexpectedly. Missed calling Sam for his B-Day. Tell him I’ll talk to him Sunday morning. Tell him  it will be ‘just between the two of us.’ Those words. Love always, Boots.”

It had been easy to get away from the cabin Saturday night. The detail had been on order to give him space to be alone. A light rain was falling and there was plenty of cover in the spring woods. They would have no clue how to track him. It would be at least a few hours before they got choppers in and even then it would still be dark. Two and a half miles cross-country brought him to Harold’s canoe outfitting shop. He’d asked Harold to call his nerdish, techy cousin Jason and tell him to meet Sam first thing the next morning. For the next hour he was alone on the Jack’s Fork with his thoughts.

It was clear from the cast of the light in the limestone cubicle that the rain had stopped.

As long as Sam was up there with the truck, he could finish this. His cousin Jason would be able to get him out on video all over the internet. He would apologize. Tell the country what happened on Division street that night, expose Blair and Hellwig. But in his last, unofficial, Presidential address he would also tell Americans they were still in charge. This had never been about a President. They could still rise above their own individual, narrow interests for the sake of the country, for the sake of future generations of Americans. And they could still demand that their elected officials “Git ‘er done” on behalf of the people they were elected to serve.

He stood, eased his head and chest through the next slot and reached up to get a good grip. Faith told him Sam would be waiting. Beyond that, all he knew was that there was a spring meadow in the Ozarks up there. And for Samuel James Wald, with a few hours left as the 44th President of the United States and the most powerful human being on earth, that was enough.


Posted by: cctracker | February 10, 2013

Living, Again, in the World of Birds

“Looking at birds really takes away sadness in a lot of us…Looking at birds takes you out of yourself into the real world.” 

-Starr Saphir

Have you ever had a week when you felt like you were suffocating? As if your private obsessions–tasks and lists of tasks at work, the failures of others and even more your own failures, dark thoughts about the world’s troubles–create a mood that comes down over your head like a plastic bag, cutting you off from those around you, making the real world outside your head feel opaque and remote?

If you’re like me, you feel guilty on top of being miserable after a week like that because you know that you put the bag on your own head and, for some strange and shameful reason, refused to take it off.

I’ve come out of such a week and I’m grateful to all of the people and small graces that cooperated in helping me to take the bag off and breathe the air of the real world again.

I was already breathing good air by the time I read Starr Saphir‘s obituary this morning in the NYT, but her voice was a reminder that, for me, looking at birds is one of those ordinary graces.

Here’s hoping we can all keep spotting the little invitations to keep it real.

Photo James Burton

Photo James Burton

Posted by: cctracker | January 18, 2013

The Examined Life

“The Examen” is a prayer central to the  identity of the Jesuits.

In this January 18th post titled “A Cause for Pause,” James Santel describes how well it can work, even practiced for just two minutes a day by 1100 boys in the halls of a high school.

AS we C it: an ASC blog.

I’d be hard-pressed to count how many ways the Jesuits and Ignatius have shaped my inner life.  And the Examen captures the heart of their theology as well their spiritual practice: diligent attentiveness to grace in the ordinary.


Posted by: cctracker | January 8, 2013

Myth Buster or Monster?

white-dragonA monster disguised as a philosopher attacked the nation in today’s New York Times. I battled it all day while putting away the Christmas decorations. With the days of Christmas waning, I guess the beast saw an opportunity to strike. But it forgot that Sunday was the Epiphany and that Christmas had some fighting spirit left. That was my inspiration for taking it on. Actually, I was grateful for the chance to grapple with it.

You can read what it had to say here in a piece called “The Myth of Universal Love.”

Before I launched an attack, I circled warily, taking careful measure of its strengths and my own limitations. Take a look for yourselves, but here is my effort to capture the beast speaking on its own terms:

“We’re barraged this time of year by Christmas entreaties to extend “Good Will” to all. Our religious and political mythologies support the message. Because every human being is endowed with fundamental dignity and inestimable value, they say,  we have the obligation to extend our ethical care beyond our small circle of family and friends to include everyone. 

“But it is time for us as a species to face the truth that this message is a deeply engrained, irrational and ultimately harmful assumption of Western Liberalism. Our highest values and ideals don’t rest on universal truths “beyond” us somewhere. They come from our own emotions, mostly from the Limbic system if you want to get specific.

“The appeal of the ideal of universal love–which usually makes us feel guilty for how badly we fail it by the way– is a product of our biological evolution. And the plain, biological fact of the matter is that our neural capacities for empathy and care can only stretch so far before they’re overwhelmed. We’d exhaust our very capacity for empathy if we tried to stir it up every time we saw a need. And if we really tried to live by the idea that a stranger in greater need was more deserving of our care and concern than those closest to us, we’d never be able to buy nice shoes for our own children or give preferential treatment to our own mothers. There would always be someone with a greater need who was more deserving.

“Instead of wallowing in guilt and failure, let’s celebrate the generosity and loyalty we feel for members of our own tribe. Not only are many of our own practical needs met in return for the love and devotion we show them,  but taking care of our own is really the best way for us to learn true  generosity and gratitude. Only in the small circles of family and friends can we appreciate the selfless gifts of others. Committing “sins” of loyalty  that sometimes collide with universal principles of justice and equality is actually a better path to happiness than heeding the call of the Buddha or Gandhi for universal compassion.The sooner we accept that  all people are not equally entitled to our moral duties, the better off we’ll be. 

“After all none other than Cicero recommended that we confer most of our kindness on those with whom we are most closely associated. And it was Catholic novelist Graham Greene who said: ‘One can’t love humanity; one can only love people’.”

So, there it sat, leering at me on newsprint with a self-satisfied smirk after saying its piece. Where and how to strike first?

I was on the defensive for a while. I’m a big fan of the explanatory power of science, particularly evolution and neurobiology these days, and the monster had made some valid points. I had to admit that my neural net was often stressed by grief for a world of strangers I felt powerless to help. I certainly did give preferential treatment to my mother over the needs of the poor. And, intellectually speaking,  it wasn’t easy to reconcile that with the ideals of my Christian faith.

Still, the longer I paced around, packing up ornaments and lights, dragging the tree to the curb and getting all the boxes back down to the cellar, the angrier and more repulsed I became. But as evening came on and the stars came out on a clear, winter night, I regained my composure and saw that I needed to attack with words and ideas springing from reflection rather than fear and rage.

I ran at it first with the Lance of Common Sense. The beast had a terrible blind spot and I struck at will over and over again.  It was blind to the interior lives of ordinary human beings. The beast claimed that human beings shouldn’t expect to be able to hold love and grief together without suffering disabling cognitive dissonance and that, therefore, they shouldn’t try. This stupidity was probably the fault of its binary brain, since any real, organic, analog being who has reflected on the human experience of love at any depth knows that every moment of love is colored by the grief of inevitable loss. They always go together. In fact, they can’t be separated. I killed the monster on this point eventually, but back to the battle.

Since it was posing as a philosopher, I thought I’d have a tougher time getting through on this protected flank, but I drew blood and began slicing off limbs as soon as I slashed at it with the Sword of Elementary Logic. The beast wasn’t claiming that strangers weren’t human. It wasn’t  denying that each and every one of them had lives, families and friends as precious and worthy to them as his own beastly life, kith and kin were to him. Of course, he wasn’t affirming this truth either. It just didn’t matter to him. And he advised the rest of us to take a similar approach for our own neurological stability, aka happiness. In fact, philosophically speaking, he didn’t acknowledge any truths at all beyond his own biologically conditioned existence. “Truths,” you may remember from his manifesto, are simply relative expressions of our biological feelings. When I asked him on what grounds he would demand of other monsters that they not rape and pillage his household and torture him for their amusement, he had no answer but did roar and breathe fire in my direction. I sliced off his snout and moved to his left flank wondering where I might find the heart of the beast to put it out of its misery.

But of course, it didn’t have one. The monster was, as I suspected all along, a machine. I didn’t have to kill it, really, because it had never been truly alive. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t spread its message into living beings who might mistake its teachings for wisdom to live by, so I did have to finish it off.

Would spiritual weapons do the trick? The ultimate spiritual weapon, of course, was love itself. This had been the real target , after all, of its Epiphany attack. So, while it lay wingless and legless before me, singeing its own eyebrows with every fiery breath,  I tried to talk with it about love. I explained, as gently as I could under the circumstances, that love–even the love it had acknowledged it felt for its own family and friends– required belief, a kind of faith, in two truths:

First , that one’s own interior life was real, unique and beyond our capacity for comprehending or quantifying. However limited that interior life might be in biological or emotional terms, when the light of that interior life blossomed into self-awareness to the degree that freedom became possible, the possibility of true love, the free gift of one’s self to another, was also born.

And that, I continued, wondering if the beast could follow language that was ultimately metaphorical more than logical,  brought us to the second truth:

Faith that the “other” was really present, too, and could receive a gift of self and respond with a free gift of  his or her own. The monster just stared blankly back at me, uncomprehending. That’s when the real horror of what it was preaching registered in my soul. As far as it was concerned, when you are really honest about it, human beings are better understood as “thinking and feeling machines” programmed to reproduce themselves. They operate best when they respect the manageable scale of their neural nets and create self-gratifying loops of “relationships” that sustain them until they cease to function.

Which is what happened to the beast itself just a moment after I tried to explain all of this. I would say when it expired I was left alone with my thoughts, but the chilling fact is that I’d been alone all along. I’d really been fighting myself.

I guess this is where my parable about battling a monster comes to an end and the true confession begins.

There were a number of years when my faith in love was, if not lost, certainly at risk of being so. I was reading my way through evolutionary biology, physics and neuroscience and trying to understand how a lifelong faith in the transcendent value of “being” could be maintained in the face of the powerful explanatory power of “nothingness.” It would take a long time to explain what I mean by that if this journey isn’t personal for  you. But a very brief way of explaining is to say that as I became acquainted with more and more sophisticated mechanical explanations for experiences like affection and longing that I had always labeled “spiritual,” I began to take seriously for the first time that all might be simple mechanism. “I ” might not be here in any meaningful way and neither might any “other.” The universe might be, in the end, relationally speaking at least, dead. All of which is to say, I was in danger of losing my faith in God.

Practically this meant I was moody at home and given to fits of silence at meal time with my family. It also made for some very strange days as a high school religion teacher.

I’m grateful that the darkest part of that period in my life didn’t last too long. I may try to tell a part of the story of how I emerged from it in a future post. There was no single moment of revelation, but there were key experiences that brought new insights. Most of them involved contemplative gazing at people and experiences that had been with me all along.

I don’t carry my faith today as something I own. I believe in God, but many days I can’t say in abstract terms what it really means to make such an affirmation. But concretely, in terms of flesh and blood, in terms of a “Christmas Theology” I know it means that every human being has inestimable value and must never be considered as object, someone whose worth is conditioned by their usefulness to me. I know that this faith is at the core of our convictions in the Judeo-Christian West from Moses to the Constitution. This faith animates the spirit of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, the latest grand attempt to codify it.

Several times in my life I’ve had the opportunity to spend weeks at a time among very poor  people. My heart still breaks at what I came to know about them. I return to their names and faces many times. One family high up in the hills of La Paz served me Coca Cola. It had cost Sixto, the father, nearly a week’s wage. He had seven children and four of them had died of diarrhea. The cup he served me with had been washed in the same water that may have been responsible for killing his children. My “neurological caring and ethical mechanisms” were certainly stressed by the experience. But there is more joy and gratitude by far within me for  having known them than there is sadness or regret.

I read the news of the day and on purpose try to extend my heart–my neurological sphere of care, concern and responsibility–to the Congo. These are hopeless days in that country. The ocean of pain and suffering they have endured seems to have redeemed nothing. And yet, in ways that are difficult for me to articulate, I could not love my wife and family as hopelessly as I do if I chose to close myself off to the people of this nation. I prayed for them everyday of the Christmas holidays. I could not have opened or given a gift with real joy if I hadn’t.

One of the “knights” in my castle read the same piece that triggered this entry. He knew I was battling with it. He responded to the piece with a question that cut so succinctly to the heart of the problem: “This guy just doesn’t seem to have a clue about what  ‘awareness’ is, does he?” We do not make the world, or ourselves. Our challenge, our call, is to respond to reality, especially to one another, with deep awareness. Which is to say with love. That is the message of Christmas.

Steven Asma, the author of the piece in today’s Times, is a stranger to me.  But as a fellow human being, I genuinely wish him, his family and his friends well. As a philosopher concerned with fundamental questions of meaning and value, I respect his chosen vocation and am grateful to have access to his work. And I believe that by exercising a modicum of responsibility in my communal life–paying taxes, obeying laws that protect public safety–I am serving him in a small but meaningful way. Steven Asma is certainly no monster himself.

But he is a man with a monstrous and profoundly deceptive idea, one that threatens the very heart of who we are individually and communally. It seeks to undermine our hard-won and fragile recognition as a species that truth transcends culture and biology. It attacks and seeks to devour our faith that the spirit of universal love is our highest calling and our best hope. That is why we  must fight back with words and ideas every time this monster rears its horrifying and seductive head to speak.


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