Summer/Autumn 2010 (Vol. 38 Nos. 3 & 4)

Summer/Autumn 2010

Perspective:
Lessons in Learning by Kathryn Dodgson

Dialogue:
Constitutionally Sound, Educationally Innovative by Diane L. Moore
The American Academy of Religion establishes content and skill guidelines to help public school educators teach about religion appropriately.
Morality Begins at the Top by J. C. Cleary
We can learn from Confucian perspectives on morality and leadership.
The Trivialization of Compassion by Bradley Shingleton
Compassion is being made trivial as it becomes overused as a word.
Companion Theodicy by Mark S. M. Scott
Sometimes it is better to be actively silent in situations of profound suffering.

Featured:
The Philosopher Who Would Not Be King by Michael D. Jackson
The philosophy and life of the "disarmingly vulnerable" Richard Rorty reveals a man who wanted to be of use in the world.
Immaterial Witness by Madeleine Avirov
A painter discovers that spirituality can be found in what is sensed rather than in what is seen.
The Dialogue of Socialism by Dan McKanan
Nineteenth-century Protestant utopian communities and radical political organizations provided a venue for early interfaith dialogue.
Missing Scenes by Mark D. Jordan
Representations of instruction are absent from the work of contemporary Christian ethicists, leading to destructive consequences for Christian communities.

In Review:
Reading St. Therese by Stephanie Paulsell
Appreciating St. Therese's "little way" of striving for holiness.
Outstretched Arms as Liturgy by Susan Abraham
Susan R. Holman's God Knows There's Need: Christian Responses to Poverty.
Reflecting on a Rabbi's Legacy by Sharon Goldman
Elie Wiesel's Rashi: A Portrait.

Poetry:
Two Poems by Kate Farrell
Lord of Having by Christian Wiman

See also: Past Issue

Companion Theodicy

Mark S. M. Scott

Theodicy, in its classical sense, signifies the rational attempt to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the doctrine of divine omnipotence, goodness, and justice. To those in the midst of suffering, however, these logical explanations often fail to bring any comfort. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his poignant Lament for a Son, bemoans that in the aftermath of his son's death from a mountain-climbing accident, he found no solace in theodicy: "I have read the theodicies produced to justify the ways of God to man. I find them unconvincing. To the most agonized question I have ever asked I do not know the answer. I do not know why God would watch him fall. I do not know why God would watch me wounded. I cannot even guess" (68). It seems to me that if theodicy fails here, in these concrete moments of despair, it fails everywhere. If it does not make sense in the crucible of tragedy, it loses all intellectual and existential credibility and relevance.

The Book of Job has been the locus classicus for theological reflections on the problem of evil. Nevertheless, its message is notoriously difficult to discern, and many deny that it gives us any "solution" at all. I would not be so foolish as to venture an interpretation of Job in these few words, but I have found in Job an image that has constructive value for theodicy. When Job's friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar first see him "from a distance," they perceive the depth of his suffering and weep and mourn for him (Job 2:12). What happens next is astonishing: rather than uttering specious theological explanations for his plight, they simply sit with him in his pain and sorrow: "They sat with him seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great" (Job 2:13). In the tableau of Job surrounded by his friends in the midst of his suffering we have a beautiful biblical image to guide what I call a "companion theodicy."

A companion theodicy begins with the assumption that those in the throes of suffering find comfort in our solidarity with them, not in ill-timed and ill-conceived theological theories. They do not need someone to stand in front of them spewing empty words. Even when offered with the best of intentions, theological speculations ring hollow at best and compound suffering at worst. Rather, those beset by misfortune need someone to sit beside them in silence and solidarity. The depth and breadth of evil in the world defies simplistic explanations. While I would not abandon the project of theodicy, all theodicies eventually come to the realization that the mystery of evil exceeds our noetic capacity. We simply do not and cannot know why God allows some to suffer and not others. Since we "know only in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12), we should speak with theological reserve and humility. A companion theodicy refrains from hasty theological conclusions (silence) and attends to the practical and emotional needs of those who suffer (solidarity). Theodicy, in the expanded sense of reflective responses to suffering (both intellectual and practical), speaks best through compassionate actions, not words.

Wolterstorff employs the apt metaphor of a "mourning bench" (Lament for a Son, 5, 34, 63) where those who suffer from loss sit in silent solidarity. Wolterstorff's metaphor perfectly complements the image of Job's friends sitting silently beside him. The mourning bench is a place for silent reflection, for sharing pain that surpasses speech, and for deep friendship—not for false consolation that "it's not really so bad," or for blame. Job's friends lose their way and become the proverbial "Job's comforters" when they rise up from "the bench" and begin to accuse him of wrongdoing. Similarly, Pat Robertson lost his way when, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, he blamed the natural event on the Haitians themselves, calling them "cursed." Although theodicy eventually must speak, it should wait for the right moment and search for the right words. More often than not, we are wise to say nothing at all.

The more I read and write about theodicy, the more I am convinced that the "solution" to the problem of evil does not lie in books and talk at all. Research and scholarly discourse have their place, but at the end of the day people in the depths of sorrow want aid, companionship, and, yes, answers, but not scholarly sleight of hand. In moments of tragedy and despair, we should come alongside those who suffer and help as best as we can: sometimes by doing, sometimes by speaking, sometimes by silence. A theodicy of silence and solidarity—a companion theodicy—calls for theological agility, humility, and humanity. It recognizes the mystery of evil and the limits of human reason. It combines theory and praxis. It creatively employs and adapts the most promising aspects of classic and contemporary Christian theodicies to meet the needs of particular situations of suffering. And last, it strives for theological sophistication, systematic coherence, and practical relevance. If I were to blaze a pathway in theodicy, it would be in that direction.

 

Mark S. M. Scott, PhD '08, is Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri–Columbia.

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Constitutionally Sound, Educationally Innovative

Diane L. Moore

Ms. Q is teaching an eighth-grade world history course that covers the fall of Rome to the beginnings of the European Renaissance. As part of their study of the "Golden Age" she has [the class] act as explorers of the diverse cultures that came under the rule of expanding Islamic empires. After reading excerpts from the logs of medieval Muslim travelers such as Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Batuta, and Naser-e Kosraw, . . . students watch clips from the documentary "Islam: Empire of Faith" and conduct outside research on medieval cities from Central Asia, North and West Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and Arabia that includes an investigation into mosques that were built in these locations during this time period. Students conclude by creating their own "Explorer's Journals" in which they describe, through writing and illustration, the similarities and differences they saw between expressions of Islamic life and practice as Muslims moved into these culturally diverse regions. . . .

Mr. J always starts his tenth-grade English class with a unit on biblical stories in order to prepare his students for the Western classics they will read that year. First, he gives his students a selection of biblical-themed cartoons from The New Yorker and asks them to identify in writing as many of the characters and stories as they can in five minutes. As most students discover they know only a few of the "big ones" (Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses), Mr. J shows them "He forgot—and I—remembered" by Emily Dickinson and points out the various biblical allusions that they would need for an in-depth exploration of the poem. He then hands out a list of several popular biblical allusions . . . and students choose which story they will research and present. As part of a five-minute Powerpoint presentation, students must provide . . . a short synopsis of the story as it appears in the King James Bible (Mr. J chooses this translation since it is the one the majority of English authors they are studying would have known and used) and a representation of this story in an art form other than literature.1

How many of us have actually had classes in elementary, middle, or secondary school like the ones described here? It is probably safe to guess that all too few of us have. Contrary to the popular belief that the "separation of church and state" bans teaching about religion in public schools, religion is actually deeply embedded in state curricular standards across the disciplines and is especially prominent in the areas of history, social studies, and English. In spite of this fact, few teachers have had the opportunity to learn about religion from the religious studies lens appropriate for public schools. Furthermore (unlike other disciplines), until now there were no content and skill guidelines for educators about religion itself that were constructed by religious studies scholars. To address this gap, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) recently published the American Academy of Religion Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States2 as a resource for teachers and citizens.

The Guidelines took three years to draft and were constructed by a six-member task force in cooperation with public school educators, teacher educators, and the broad membership of the AAR. They are based on three assumptions: First, there is a widespread illiteracy about religion in the United States. Second, religious illiteracy has many consequences, but an especially troubling one is that it can fuel prejudice and antagonism between and among religious groups and between those who profess religious belief and those who do not. Third, it is possible to diminish illiteracy about religion by teaching about religion in public schools from a non-devotional perspective called religious studies. There are important differences between this approach and a faith-based approach to learning about religion. A helpful thumbnail sketch for distinguishing between them was first articulated by religious studies scholar James V. Panoch in 1974,3 and a revised version is included in the AAR Guidelines: A religious studies approach encourages student awareness of religions, but not acceptance of a particular religion; studying about religion, but not practicing religion; exposing students to a diversity of religious views, but not imposing any particular view; and educating students about all religions, but not promoting or denigrating religion itself.4 Establishing the difference between the devotional expression of religion and the study of religion through a religious studies lens provides a point of departure in the Guidelines for how educators can incorporate the study of religion into curricula in constitutionally sound, intellectually responsible, and educationally innovative ways.

The 50-page document is organized into four sections that move from rationale to practice. Part One attempts to answer the question "Why Teach About Religion?" by pointing to the unfortunate consequences of religious illiteracy and the importance of teaching about religion from a religious studies perspective in K-12 public schools. Part Two discusses "Religion, Education and the Constitution" and clarifies the distinction outlined above between a devotional approach to religion and a religious studies approach appropriate for public schools.

Part Three, the heart of the document, provides several practical tools and tips for educators. It begins by identifying the common approaches to teaching about religion (historical, literary, traditions-based, and cultural studies) that are already employed by educators and offering an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each. Following this overview is a focus on pedagogical strategies that can be used to engage students in examining their assumptions about religion, belief, or particular religious traditions at the outset of a lesson or unit where religious themes will be addressed. Educators have learned that students often harbor unexamined biases and assumptions about religion that can easily derail even the most well structured plans. Recognizing the force of these assumptions and helping students become aware of them are some of the particular challenges that come with teaching this subject.

The document then outlines and elaborates upon three fundamental premises about religion that are central to a religious studies approach: 1) religions are internally diverse; 2) religions are dynamic; and 3) religions are embedded in culture. Unfortunately, in schools and in popular culture, faith traditions are often presented as a single set of beliefs, practices, and representations that are uniform, ahistorical, and distinct from other realms of human experience. (Typical examples include learning about the Five Pillars of Islam, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, and the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity as sufficient representations of these faiths.) The premises that religions are diverse, evolving, and embedded in culture are then illustrated in "snapshots of practice" (such as the two found at the beginning of this article) that aim to represent a more accurate and robust depiction of religion than is typically practiced in classrooms today. Part Three of the document ends with suggested answers to "frequently asked questions" by students in schools, such as "Are religion and science incompatible?" "Did the Jews kill Jesus?" and "Is Islam a violent religion?"

Part Four focuses on teacher education, providing "content competencies" necessary if educators are to teach religion in an intellectually sound and constitutionally responsible way. Not only are "pedagogical competencies" listed, but so are "appropriate attitudes/postures," which include such advice as "Teachers should never try to coerce students to accept or reject any particular religious tradition, belief, or practice, including non-belief or atheism," "Teachers should not discourage students' free expression of their religious beliefs or ideas," and "The personal religious beliefs or practices of the teacher do not qualify or disqualify the teacher from teaching about religions in his or her classroom. Rather, academic training in religion content and pedagogy are the qualification for teaching religion in the schools. . . ." Part Four ends with examples of how teachers can gain the content and skill competencies necessary for teaching about religion, including the opportunity to earn a Citation in Religious Studies and Education through an initiative jointly sponsored by Harvard Divinity School and the Harvard Extension School.5

Of course, the effectiveness of the AAR Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States will be measured by its usefulness for teachers and the implementation of its suggestions in public schools and schools of education. Though educators were centrally involved in constructing and vetting these guidelines, the AAR is eager to share the document more broadly and to solicit feedback from teachers nationwide. Toward these goals, members of the Task Force will work with the Executive Office of the AAR to distribute and publicize the guidelines widely among educators and educational associations. As part of my own research, I am seeking K-12 teachers and teacher educators from several states to volunteer to participate in a pilot study whereby they will utilize these guidelines in their own classes and programs. Part of that study will involve seeking feedback from educators that can be used in future revisions.

Given that one of the primary purposes of mandatory schooling in the United States is to provide students with the skills necessary to function as active and informed citizens of our multicultural democracy, understanding the religious dimensions of our multiculturalism is a vital yet underdeveloped component of that important purpose. Those of us who were centrally involved in drafting and vetting these guidelines realize that their publication is only a beginning, but we hope they will provide a meaningful resource for teachers and other citizens who wish to strengthen literacy about religion in our nation.6

 

Notes

  1. "Snapshots of Practice," from the American Academy of Religion Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States (American Academy of Religion, 2010).
  2. American Academy of Religion Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States
  3. Peter Bracher et al., PERSC Guidebook, Public Education Religion-Studies: Questions and Answers (Public Education Religion Studies Center, 1974), 2.
  4. This version appears in many First Amendment Center publications, including A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools (First Amendment Center, 1999).
  5. For information about the Citation in Religious Studies and Education, visit http://www.extension.harvard.edu/.
  6. Special thanks are due to Wendy McDowell for the original idea for this article and for her helpful suggestions.
 

Diane L. Moore is Professor of the Practice in Religious Studies and Education and director of the Program in Religious Studies and Education at Harvard Divinity School. She is also the chair of the American Academy of Religion Task Force on Religion in the Schools that constructed the AAR Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K–12 Public Schools in the United States.

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Immaterial Witness

Madeleine Avirov

I remember as a child lying on my back in the grass of the failed garden behind the garage. Tall, tasseled grass, sky full of wind. I am hot and miserable, yet I dare not move until something happens to me. I owe all success, all failure to the exacting rules of childhood. My father's Philadelphia street voice in my head: Everything in time. The grass is scratchy against my bare arms and legs. I startle at a grasshopper and stiffen with fear of more. But the heat lulls me into a half-sleep, and my sweat, like a solvent, effaces the boundary of my skin.

I wait, staring into the tangled precision of grass, willing myself small so that, like Alice, I might enter the green glade, knowing with the poet Charles Wright that "the line between heaven and earth is a grass blade, a light green and hard to walk." I jumped off the swings a lot that summer, always in the hope of flying, but a larger hope lay in the sky itself, that its unseen hands could lift me clear of this life.

I date a certain knowledge from that time, a certain awareness of the hunger that the facts and appearances of the world could not satisfy, and a habit of making little worlds from whatever was at hand: masking tape, pipe cleaners, string, my mother's wire hair curlers, the gray cardboard rectangles that came home from the dry cleaner inside my father's shirts. In the everyday world I was a worried, urgent, solicitous child, but in the making of these things and the images they conjured, I found a sanctuary. Drawing especially would become a portable refuge, a crustacean's shell—I was praised for it, even as I understood which drawings pleased (the pretty ones) and which did not, and kept the latter hidden. These hidden drawings prefigured the written notebooks and sketchbooks I began to keep as a teenager, part commonplace book, part diary, each a hedge against insubstantiality, the suspicion that I had not survived my months-long turn with scarlet fever at 7, and continued only as a disconsolate shade.

The drawings, the writings, were a way of gathering evidence of the unseen, the world within, a fulfillment of the urgency to render visible the invisible and to sow it across the uneven plain of my imagination. What grew there would bring neither love nor money, nor any negotiable skill, only the capacity to wait. It is waiting that teases out the intangible but durable inner aspect of all things—the deep form, wild and shy, and withdrawn from time, that stops my heart when, say, where I live in Los Angeles, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, a red-tailed hawk drops out of the sky above the freeway or a coyote materializes on an empty street before dawn. In these moments I am thrown back into the invisible world that everyday consciousness resists but that insists on its centrality to any truth, any image, worth bothering with.

In these moments I also see my life in miniature and remember my true vocation, which seems to have so little to do with the long and mostly dreary work history in which, over 40 years' time, I have: scrubbed toilets and worked the grill in a fast-food restaurant; sliced bread, boxed cannoli, and bagged groceries at Catalano's bakery; waitressed on Lee Road in Cleveland (with Vera, then in indeterminate middle age, a true broad of a vanished generation, who taught me to drink Scotch and insisted I go back to school); drawn charcoal portraits of children during 10-hour shifts at an old-time amusement park, as well as assorted car parts in the back room of a sign shop; managed a newsstand and its lonely customers shopping for foreign cigarettes and pornography; edited newspaper copy on the night shift and manuscripts at my kitchen table for the University of Chicago Press; shopped and cooked for a wealthy woman in a Chicago high-rise; hand-lettered wedding invitations in Copperplate calligraphy; walked the beige corridors for a dozen years in corporate publishing; illustrated magazines from the drafting table in my living room. The idea was that none of these jobs should require a real commitment, so that I could save myself for my serious work in the hours before dawn. But I produced little more than fragments and, come afternoon, struggled to stay awake. Until I was in my 40s, I was mystified by the artists I knew who approached their work as if it were a rational, upwardly mobile career. My mother and father were working-class, first-generation American Jews, born in the 1910s, reared without fathers. As their eldest child, I understood work as penance, meaningless except as a source of money, and my need to make art as an indulgence, even a disability. Like W. G. Sebald, who did not consider himself a writer, I did not consider myself an artist. "It's like someone who builds a model of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks," he said. "It's devotional work. Obsessive."


In the early 1970s I enrolled at Kent State University as a studio art major, but realism and instruction in craft (materials and techniques) being out of fashion, I studied these on my own, copying Michelangelo's drawings from library books and walking the town with my sketch book. I was 19, barely acquainted with oil paint, and experimenting in the studio late one night, when my instructor was suddenly standing over me. I turned to see him cover his mouth with his hands. He said, "You should stop painting and get some help."

The art school's all-male faculty then privileged large-scale, hard-edged abstract painting and did not hide their disdain for the representational. I had been looking at James Ensor, at Edvard Munch, at Käthe Kollwitz, at the German Expressionists. What I remember about the painting I was working on that night is that it ran toward blue and that there were three heads which issued from one torso, and that I was in a state of high excitement because I had given form to the figures who haunted my imagination and cornered me in dreams. I destroyed it before walking home in the snow.


If art had been a way of charting my position in an unstable world, I reasoned then that writing could take its place, and for some years it did. I left school and would not return, but in the life others did not see I continued to read in coffee shops and library stacks, copying out passages from literature and poetry, religion and science. And I walked, memorizing light in its intervals, color in shadows, the logic of form in its twist and splay through the branches of trees. At 26, I moved to Chicago. The rooms I lived in were littered with false starts of stories, only a few of which ever saw publication.

In my early 30s, beset by a vision of myself at 90, aged hands still grieving the lost brush, I began again, with an apple-green ceramic pitcher, which I set on a white cloth and rendered in watercolor from multiple angles, in natural and incandescent light, on smooth hot-press paper and rough cold-press. I continued with house plants, the cats, my husband in an armchair; eventually, I stopped mixing paint on the palette, instead dropping each color singly onto wet paper, one into another.

These watercolors were technical exercises, working drafts. Yet while I was mindful of Monet's advice to "try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field . . . and paint it just as it looks to you," I was also feeling my way back to a memory of union with the objects of my perception, which required seeing every thing in its absolute particularity, as a thing living in itself.

At an early age I had grasped the technique of cross-hatching, which artists like Albrecht Dürer had devised to represent form, light, and shade. It was through line that I thought about objects, line through which I slowed down enough to find myself in the world I recognized as a fluid medium rather than one of separate entities. Now, I was after the same fluency with mass, with color, but it would come only slowly and, unlike drawing, be hard won.

A year or so after my return to watercolor, I rediscovered oil, in a Saturday class with a portrait painter. Some months later I would leave my marriage, and three months after that be fired from my job as a book editor. Before long I could no longer afford the class. I ran out of paint and canvas and could not replace them. I was 35. Early in the morning I walked along the edge of Lake Michigan toward home and passed by the homeless woman who slept in a cardboard lean-to under the viaduct beneath the Howard Street elevated train. I left quarters in the winding sheet near her head. That winter I hung bed sheets with safety pins over my curtainless windows. In my notebook, a half-dozen voices emerged who jostled side by side for space in my mind.

Years later, having gotten back together with my husband and now the mother of a son, I would talk with friends about that time as a necessary dark night, during which I located certain of the lies I had lived by. I did not bring up Simone Weil, to whom my thoughts continually returned that winter, the ardently French moral philosopher who refused to eat as she lay dying from tuberculosis in England in 1943. Privilege had gotten her out of occupied France, but the hunger strike that may have killed her—at 34—was a gesture of solidarity with her countrymen, many of whom were living on meager rations. What preoccupied me, however, was not her conviction that food in her mouth meant that someone had gone without, but her late coming to faith, to a God who would work through her only if she were "transparent," got out of the way.

During the 1980s a domestic third world emerged in the streets as Ronald Reagan emptied the asylums. During the 1910s my father's older sister entered an asylum in Philadelphia and presumably died there. Lingering that winter, less and less tethered to community, I dreamed one night that my aunt was the woman under the viaduct, and the next time I found her sleeping, at pains to obey the dream even as I was stricken by its violation, I bent down to her, as if familiarity had outflanked my inborn reserve and wariness and required me to save her—or join her. I did not know which.


I returned to painting in a Sunday life class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I worked in oil, with models who held the same pose for three three-hour sessions. Although my instructor praised my drawing, he criticized my reliance on it and pushed me to work faster. In the hours that it took me to draw the figure on the canvas in charcoal, other students had completed a painting. I thought of these studies as exercises—one could spend a lifetime painting the human knee, let alone the head, and never be done, never know all there was to be known—and rarely brought one to completion, but my every effort was laden with a tension between my facility with line and comparative lack of it with mass and color. There was the tension in each mark, whether to restrain the hand or release it. And there was the tension of my ambition. I was caught in a net of memory and expectation woven from the facts of my history, which by now should have ended any and all thoughts of a destiny distinct from my uncomplicated if somewhat ill-starred relatives. But experience had forced certain obsessions upon me, among them a preoccupation with pattern, such that it often still takes a practiced effort of will to completely attend to another person in conversation, so distracted am I by the breaking and shifting planes and colors of the face and head. Add to that an early awareness of what Eastern traditions call the witness—the "you that is not you," at once a kind of consciousness and presence which both participates in and observes the self. Slipping into this state as a child, a roomy place and off the clock, it seemed to me less invention than fact that I did not end at my skin but rather lived nested in an older self, who herself lived in a room off the future, hidden in plain sight. I was 11 when I drew my brown shoe. I was hatching the stitching around an eyelet when something like the aura before a migraine at once clouded my vision and gave me to see the vast and whole and implicate order on the table in the form of the shoe. It would happen again when I was 16, at work for three weeks on an Ebony-pencil portrait of my great-grandmother, who was more than 100 years old. I understood then that what we mean by appearances is only a fraction of what we see. In practice, this has come to mean working in silence or otherwise becoming still enough to sift the chaos of my moods and emotions from the vision's strict inward progress.


About 10 years ago, guided by classic texts as well as Rembrandt and Titian, I began to experiment with oil-color mediums, with the techniques of glazing and scumbling. I gave myself permission to work on one painting for as long as necessary, whether weeks or months, a kind of luxury that would prove shocking in its degree of psychological nourishment and would strengthen my resolve to further resist the charge from all sides to hurry in all things. Thus was I reacquainted with the childish wish to make a world that, even in its fidelity to that which lies beyond the self, comes from the interior, and, coming from the interior, is sanctuary for the hidden self.

In this painting I am holding up my son—then six months old—under the arms. He twists away with pleasure as I kiss his neck. I chose this time-honored subject to test myself against it, to step self-consciously into the stream of art history, which, as a woman of little means, without academic credentials, without connections and the disposition to make them, I had little hope of entering. In my memory, the studio is lit up. I marveled at the seemingly sudden but unequivocal payoff from years of working from life, that in the absence of a model I could now refer to a snapshot, use it as a kind of mnemonic, then set it aside, and that—in the mysterious way of learning—color temperature, saturation, edge, hue, and the like now had a working relationship with each other on some back acreage of my mind, clearing the foreground for higher concerns. I didn't have to think so hard about these things, endlessly, irritably reaching after fact and reason.

By building up the surface of the canvas transparently, I gradually translated into oil a method of applying paint I'd long used in watercolor, a method constructed from the study of tree bark, and the pictures of Cézanne, the Spanish realist Antonio López García, and the English figurative painter Euan Uglow. Now, I would lay down patches of color to build form almost architecturally, constructing the image as if it were a mosaic, each tile placed at a slightly different angle to the light.


There are certain settings, certain angles of incidence, that have long structured my imagination, their contours now so insistent that they would begin to resolve on canvas into rooms that my mother and father would not ever have chosen but could not part with. Bernard Malamud had put many of his Jews there: the cold-water walk-up set in what Philip Roth called "a timeless depression in a placeless Lower East Side." Someone said about writing that if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self. In the three paintings that thus far had taken shape in these rooms (Father in Bed, 2003; Ma, 2004; Old Jew with Bird, 2009), I seemed to have come close. I hoped that by inserting my mother and father into invented interiors, whose every wall, window, garment, outsized crow would be self-evidently numinous by virtue of how I had described them, I could force open a door into the details of the past. And, even as I resisted art history's injunction to interpret images, to find the narrative of what is being told, I hoped that the door thus opened might yield a story, one that was true in the way of a fiction being the great lie that tells the truth.

Many years ago I asked my grandmother to tell me about the shtetl, the impoverished village in Eastern Europe where she was born. She waved me away. "Europe. Feh!" she said, dismissing the continent entire. "You're American born." Her answer to a thousand years of displacement, privation, rape, cruelty, but I understood her to mean that the exile was complete. If loss is experienced, mourning accomplished, through detail, the loss is not only of a particular place—the village, the peasant house (I knew only that it had a dirt floor)—but of the very possibility of being placed, an eviction from even an imagination of home. For my grandmother and my parents, becoming American meant exchanging themselves for the future. For some of my generation it meant learning to be ashamed of one's parents. The cost of their silence and my shame is in my inability to fathom my mother and father's ordinary suffering, the small and dry exile at its heart, which has thronged my every day like a flock of hungry gulls.

(I must have been in my early 20s the one time my father sat for a portrait. After less than an hour I begged off, closing the sketch book without letting him see it, unable to bear his self-consciousness: he thought of himself as an ugly man, still bore the scars of the cystic acne he had suffered in his youth, the memory of the boils that grew under his shirt collar in the heat of the brewery furnace he fed in the 1930s. He said to me once, "I didn't want anybody to look at me.") By the time I completed Old Jew with Bird, I had come to accept that, as with the human knee, I would never be done. But during the many months I spent on each of these three works I was accompanied by a difficult knowledge, as by a second self who, having a greater depth of field, could at once see the work of art that must of necessity divine these people and the distance I would cross in order to gain it, the farther shore upon which my father, dead now five years, still burned in his incomprehension.


My working practice itself now began to cut through a decades-old knot of confusion about the function of light in painting. In traditional European painting, space is physical and light crosses emptiness and all things are perceived as "outside" and "over there." As I work or walk, however, especially in the early morning, I become the thing I behold. (John Keats said that the poet "has no identity. If a sparrow comes before my window, I take part in its existence and peck about the gravel.") Further, I had come to understand non-Western pictorial languages in which space is not physical but incorporeal, in which light is not something that crosses emptiness but is, rather, an emanation, a luminous healing force. As in the Russian icon, whose timeless space, opening out toward us, gathers up, even consumes, the eye, which itself then closes in prayer. The image—now wholly isolated in the mind's eye—then, in holiness, can make itself known.

With the landscape Late Summer, Midwest (2004–05), this understanding would surface in a way that has marked my work ever since. I continued to work as before, building up the surface in a kind of geological process, but where previously I only built up, now it seemed that I was also digging down, excavating the image from the canvas, in which, like a fossil record, it was waiting to be found. At the same time I had become conscious of my effort, as, in The Elements of Style, William Strunk had said of words, to make every mark tell, and in its telling, to compose a whole with any number of the marks, scrapings, erasures surrounding it, so that wherever the eye might fall a door into the image would open.


In the autumn of 2005 my husband took a job in Los Angeles and we drove west from Chicago with our son and our cats. For the next 13 months, until my husband was laid off, I worked for the first time unencumbered by a day job, freelance work, or the necessity of finding one or the other to pay the bills. I had intended to pick up my work again with the series of paintings depicting my parents, but I was turned aside by a tree. A neighbor introduced me to a trail in the mountains not 10 minutes by car from home, and in the weeks that followed I returned, walking in farther and farther, until one morning I rounded a bend in a canyon and came upon a stream. The sun angled in from the canyon's upper reaches, picking out a dense weave of roots, branches, and trunks somehow human in their uncertain growth out of the opposite bank. I have since come to know many California live oaks, some of whom live to be 250 or more, but this singular tree answered my anguish about leaving my native Midwest. It made me forget for a while the vast horizontals, the longing that only a long northern winter uncovers.

In the year that followed, during the hours that my son was in school, I did not answer the phone or the door, giving myself to the problems of a large canvas and an intricate landscape. I drafted and redrafted, advancing by endless recapitulation, hobbled by the difficulties of subordinating local color to certain effects of light in the landscape, as sunlight strayed across tree limb, root, leaf, grass blade, water, soil and stone, the trunks and crowns of distant trees, the crumbling concrete of a neglected retaining wall, the decay and leaf litter of the forest floor. Toward the end of the year that it took me to complete 100 Roots, Angeles Forest (2006–07), I hit a wall and could not resolve it. For hours, days at a time, I sat in the studio in anxious silence, making a tentative mark, stepping back, wiping it off, reaching for the state of mind a cigarette used to confer. Then waiting, watching my breath as the argument and counter-argument in my mind receded from flood tide, until I received a clear presentiment from the canvas itself of what had to be done. (I'm told that Philip Guston once said that when you first start painting, everyone is in the studio with you—your influences, your family and friends. One by one they leave, until it is just you. And then you leave, too.) In those hours, stripped of goals and reason, I submitted to a rapid, calligraphic mark-making that made the bending grasses and liquid depths come alive in a way that I could not have anticipated or planned. During this interval the title of the painting surfaced in a few lines from Rainer Maria Rilke: "Yet no matter how deeply I go down into myself / my God is dark, and like a webbing made / of a hundred roots, that drink in silence."


When my son was born I knew that he would force me into a more public life, if only on the playground, in ways I would find excruciating. Yet, at the same time I welcomed it. I could do for him what I could not do for myself. There was no similar motive power in my career. Although I had exhibited some before moving to Los Angeles, it was only at the request of a curator or a friend in charge. Over the years I had sent out packages of slides, applied for a grant, a residency, but the rejections were more than I could bear, each summoning a dark critic from the past, leaving me weakened and ashamed. Not even when my husband lost his job in the fall of 2006, or six months later, when we lost our health insurance, or six months after that, when his unemployment ran out and still I had not found work—not even Trader Joe's would hire me—and we were served with an eviction notice and my husband lost his health and I came to believe that he would never work again—not even then could I risk repudiating the singular story that had ever told me who I was and what was possible. (With Czesław Miłosz, I suspect that "perhaps a memory older than our own lives, the memory of the species, circulates through us with our blood.") The story was shot through with that memory—a hundred times familiar, like a city visited only in dreams, although I knew I had not seen it before. The motive power, although not in the career, only in the work, was that memory. And, where the memory was all weightless interiority and blind alley, and the work an attempt to give it bones and flesh, the career was all exteriority, all external authority, a judge who gave the work 15 seconds and for whom since childhood I had altered my clear vision in order to appease.

The memory revealed itself in dreams when I was young, in long and winding narratives set in northern latitudes where weather, always cloud- and wind-filled, figured prominently. The dead made regular appearances, sitting on hard-backed chairs in rooms with dark-painted walls or standing just inside partially opened doors or on railway platforms exposed to wind and rain. I rarely saw or heard them speak but was instead given to identify them in my mind's ear, where they answered my questions about the future by giving me numerical puzzles to solve.

"Later on, you don't see these things anymore." This was the response of a Hasidic sage when he was asked by a student how God had made himself known to him. Similarly, I no longer dream at great length, and the dead visit rarely. The memory is less showy now, it comes through in the song of a bird, in the silhouette of a tree against the tinted light of early morning, in the granite cornerstone of a downtown building, dated 1906, seen through the window of a bus in the rain. The poet Irena Klepfisz, 2 years old when her father died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, asks whether there are "moments in history which cannot be escaped or transcended, but which act like time warps, permanently trapping all those who are touched by them."


In 2008 an old-line Los Angeles art school hired me to teach figure drawing to inner-city teenagers, but by the next June the school's donors had fled and the doors closed. Now, we live on my husband's unemployment checks, on whatever freelance work either of us can pick up, on the sporadic sale of paintings from my studio. When someone asks why I don't have a dealer, I say that I've had the happy problem of selling work almost as soon as I can make it. Then I change the subject, lest I fall into the chasm this question opens up between us—on their side there is a tomorrow, with, perhaps, a kitchen in it to remodel; on my side there is a door without a doorknob, such as one might find in the drawings of children in crisis.

So much has depended upon not drifting into what Gerard Manley Hopkins called (in the context of poetry) the "underthought," that level of meaning that adds to, but may also contradict, the surface meaning, the "overthought." Like a live broadcast on a delay—but hours, not seconds, later, the same day or that night—the underthought comes on as a rerun about money: what it will be like if the commission falls through or the check doesn't come by Tuesday; what it will be like if my husband can't get out of bed again today; what it will be like if we fall any farther behind on the rent and the landlord knocks on the door again, as he did when it was standing open in the heat of August, affording a full view of the table and three shallow bowls of spaghetti, to serve us with a notice to "pay or quit"; what it will be like to live in the car. . . . And, what it is like to be in the car (I have a car!), waiting for the light to change, while the homeless veteran with one arm stands on the curb with an upraised squeegee—especially on those rare days when I have a dollar in my wallet to give him and tell him to save his strength, but he insists on cleaning my windshield.


Last spring I completed the third in the series of paintings depicting my parents, Old Jew with Bird; then, in November, Elegy for the Angeles Forest, which I began only days before a man set fire to the foothills above Los Angeles. From late August through October, a fire hot enough to melt automobiles burned through 160,577 acres—nearly 250 square miles, or almost one quarter—of the Angeles National Forest, which ranges across the often steep and inaccessible terrain of the San Gabriel Mountains, a transverse range that rises between the Los Angeles basin and the Mojave Desert. I live in the foothills of northeast Los Angeles, and from the upper-floor window of our wood-frame house I watched through the wavering heat as the smoke rose and spread like a vast cumulonimbus cloud, raining ash and diminishing the quality of the air to what the Los Angeles Times called "unhealthful for all."

I have not adapted to this place of little rain. I lack the faith of a native friend that, in winter, when the rains return, any one tree can drink enough to offset the thirst of the dry season. On summer afternoons I stay inside, emerging mostly in the early morning darkness to walk with my neighbor's dog in the nearby Arroyo Seco, a dry riverbed that begins its narrow course in the mountains to the north. During the fire, the animals living in the mountains began to come down through the arroyo. I saw a blue heron, deer, more coyotes than usual, and considered the options left to those I did not see: to bear, opossum, raccoon, skunk, Nelson's bighorn sheep, mountain lion, California red-legged frog, mountain yellow-legged frog, arroyo toad, bat, yellow warbler, Cooper's hawk, San Gabriel Mountain slender salamander, California spotted owl, cactus wren, red-shafted flicker, scrub jay, two-lined garter snake: Escape the fire, burrow, or die.

In the days before the fire began I was sorting through photographs of Buckhorn Canyon I'd taken more than a year earlier, setting to one side those in which the late-May snowfall merged colorless into the sky. I settled on a massive conifer—whether Jeffrey or sugar pine I don't know—that stood on a slope amid oak, incense cedar, and alder at 6,500 feet in the San Gabriels. Ralph Waldo Emerson called the woods "plantations of God." The writer John Fowles said that trees were "very like the only form a universal god could conceivably take." In his essay "Those Dark Trees," Ptolemy Tompkins writes, "All trees say: Vanish into us." This begins to get at my devotion to trees; it begins to get at my unrelieved despair, which persisted as the fire pressed on, as two firefighters died, as the charred body of a young bear was found clinging to a blackened stump rising from the gray waste. The consensus so far seems to be that the regional ecosystem, if only its plant life, will recover.

To mitigate the horror I felt at having to live a normal life at the edge of a cataclysm, I worked. Not to replicate that particular Buckhorn grove, or any place, but more to conjure a remembered dimension in which things are rearranged, local color is heightened, dimmed, ignored, and the surface in places remains broken and unfinished, in keeping with the broken world. On a late September Sunday afternoon, when the thermometer in the house hovered near 100 degrees and the windows were open to the smoke, I lifted the four-foot-tall canvas from the easel and, kneeling on the floor of the studio with a single-edged razor blade, scraped half of it, weeks of work, down nearly to the cloth. With less anxiety, however, than I would have had not so long ago, when I could not help but to obey impulses I did not understand, instead now nodding to the role of destruction in creation, and yielding to the work's insistence that it show.


There is an imaginal world that I don't believe in but that nonetheless has been the ground of the greater part of my happiness in this life. It is an opening out of the intermediate world where images reign, the "suprasensible world" spoken of by Henry Corbin, the scholar of Sufism, "which is neither the empirical world of the senses nor the abstract world of the intellect." Here, things are less solid, less still, an openwork through which the God of all things rises like steam, or speaks, to whom Thomas Merton wrote: "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. / I cannot know for certain where it will end." Yet, somehow, I can see the way of the work. In Elegy for the Angeles Forest, I noticed my growing distaste for line, an impatience with hard edges in general, a desire to suppress them—to suppress, even renounce, my own draftsman's virtuosity—in favor of mass, color, texture. Is this a final movement toward abstraction? Then I recall Apollinaire: "A full winter sun lights the hills / How beautiful nature is, how broken my heart." Would that I could contain the beauty of the world so simply—and bear witness to our condition—but without telling the usual story, or telling one that isn't afraid to show its daily reacquaintance with the emptiness at the end. It is an inward movement, but one that carries with it the loved things of the world.

This kind of geological process, of excavation, has long been at work in the practice, but where before I was all about the image—an image, down there, out there, back there in the incurable past, something somehow familiar—now my eyes are fixed more and more on that which is sensed rather than seen, or that which is seen only in the dark.

The goal is to get out of the way (or, as Simone Weil put it, "to see a landscape as it is when I am not there"). It is more than to become the thing that I behold—the tree on fire in the forest, the bending grass—and there to rest in the flickering knowledge that such refuge can be had but be unable to bring it back. To bring it back I have to walk the fault line between what fifth-century Christian monastics called the kataphatic, which finds God in created things through image, and the apophatic, which stresses emptiness, "imageless-ness"—I think about the canvasses of Mark Rothko, or, even, Rembrandt's late self-portraits. These terms define two approaches to spirituality. I have borrowed them to define two approaches to painting. In The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, theologian Belden Lane writes that "apophatic spirituality has to start at the point where every other possibility ends. Whether we arrive there by means of a moment of stark extremity in our lives, or (metaphorically) by way of entry into a high desert landscape, the sense of naked inadequacy remains the same. Prayer without words can only begin where loss is reckoned as total."

 

Madeleine Avirov is an artist and writer who lives in Los Angeles. More information about her work, and images of the paintings mentioned in this essay, may be found on her website, madeleineavirov.com.

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Lessons in Learning

Kathryn Dodgson

Here is a childhood memory, from India, about unintentional lessons. During the years when I was around the ages of 9 to 12, I looked forward to going with my mother on her weekly visits with Senehi, an elderly woman who lived in a tiny, one-room brick house with a tin roof on the Leprosy Clinic road, behind our house. Senehi's sparse white hair was twisted into a bun, and she wore white cotton saris. She didn't pinch our cheeks nearly as hard as the other Assamese mothers tended to do—she couldn't, because her hands were deformed. She had a radio, her lifeline to the outside world, and she had summer squash and other interesting gourd-like things growing on the roof of her doll-sized house, and not much else. She was blind, she carried other marks of nerve damage and injury from leprosy, and she had a beautiful smile. She was, always, serene.

Senehi had a goal: she was memorizing the entire Assamese hymnal, and my mother was "helping" her. When we arrived, we would first take her hands between ours, a tactile namaste, important because touch was important. Then my mother and Senehi would talk, while I lingered close by. My mother would read out loud to Senehi, and the two of them would sing hymns, a cappella—no easy feat, and not because Senehi couldn't see to read or because my mother was singing in a language not her own, but because my mother takes after her tone-deaf father. But the two of them persisted and enjoyed each other's company, because my mother was as fond of Senehi as I was.

Here is another lesson. A few years later, I said my farewells to my home in Northeast India and arrived in New England to start college. I wanted to write (and to write seriously) and so I registered for a short-story writing seminar. Because I diligently tried to follow the dictum to write about what you know, I poured my heart into a "story" about leprosy and the value of human touch, a story really about Senehi. It was not a success. When I finished reading my story, the professor grimaced, shuddered, and said, "The very thought of touching a leper gives me the creeps." That was the first and last creative writing class I took in college.

In "Laboratories of Social Change," one of Doris Lessing's 1985 Massey Lectures (published in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside), she said: "Looking back, I see what a great influence an individual may have, even an apparently obscure person, living a small quiet life. It is individuals who change societies, give birth to ideas, who, standing out against tides of opinion, change them. . . . Everything that has ever happened to me has taught me to value the individual, the person who cultivates and preserves her or his own ways of thinking, who stands out against group thinking, group pressures. Or who, conforming no more than is necessary to group pressures, quietly preserves individual thinking and development."

As I read again through the contributions found in this issue of the Bulletin, two things strike me. One is confirmation of the remarkable and unforeseen impact that certain individuals have on our lives. The other is that these individuals, who stay with us, in memory, in our thinking, in our writing, are also our teachers and guides, regardless of whether we thought of them as such at the time or they saw themselves in this light.

In her evocative account of reading (and rereading) the autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux, Stephanie Paulsell shares "a story about growing up, about maturing, about moving from an exclusive focus on oneself and one's feelings to noticing the effect of one's choices on others." Madeleine Avirov digs down through layers of time and memory, weaving together what she has learned from other writers and artists, from her own experiences and the lessons she has received, to "see the way of the work."

In the lead article, Michael Jackson reflects upon his own and Richard Rorty's thoughts on the role of philosophy in the world—"whether philosophy has anything to say that might make a real difference to our lives, and. . . whether the insights of thinkers can change the world." Mark Jordan reminds us that "ethics is attention to how lives are shaped around teaching" and that we need to "pay attention to our own ongoing practices as teachers, learners, or bystanders." In his discussion of Chinese ideas about leadership and political legitimacy, J. C. Cleary looks to the lessons of Confucianism, which holds that "the legitimate ruler is above all an educator, who teaches by example and transforms others by moral force."

The involvement of communities in "scenes of instruction" (Jordan's words) is a thread I see also running through Diane Moore's update on new guidelines for teaching about religion in the public schools, and in Dan McKanan's history of the unfolding role of dialogue in the expansion of religious pluralism among socialists, freethinkers, and other communities of the nineteenth century: "A common vision of a better world made it possible for socialists to listen attentively to religious ideas that others might have dismissed as blasphemous or preposterous." These groups both required and allowed for a level of acceptance and openness that then shaped and fed new understanding: individuals were able to learn from each other.

What we, as students, succeed in learning has as much to do with our own self-understanding and receptiveness as it does with the abilities of our teachers to provide us with what we need in our time. A Sufi lesson says: "All of the Wise have to learn how to pass on the knowledge. But they can do this only if the student will allow himself to learn what it is and how it is that he is to learn. Technique of learning is what the teacher has first of all to teach. Unless you are prepared to study the technique of learning, you are not a student. And if your teacher advises you to learn by words, or deeds, or by baking bread—that is your way."

 

Kathryn Dodgson is director of communications at Harvard Divinity School.

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Lord of Having

Christian Wiman

Lord of having
hell at hand
Lord of losing
what I have
this heaven now

may I move
in time
like a cloud
in sky
my torn form
the wind's
one sign

may my suffering be
speechless
clarity
as of water
in some reach
of rock
it would take
work
to ascend
and see

and may my hands
my eyes
the very nub
of my tongue
be scrubbed
out of this hour
if I should utter
the dirty word
eternity

 

Christian Wiman is the editor of Poetry. His next collection of poetry, Every Riven Thing, will be published this fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Missing Scenes

Forgotten forms of teaching need to be restored to the writing of Christian ethics.

Mark D. Jordan

There is nothing like a course—or an essay—on Christian ethics to fuel skepticism and to promise boredom. I share the skepticism, but I take the expectation of boredom as a riddle. I suspect that it tells us more about how we have cut out the academic field of "ethics" than about the role of religious languages in telling or shaping human lives.

My friends concede—my enemies complain—that I am regularly tempted to pun in titles. I have succumbed once again. "Missing scenes" means three different things. First, I mean that certain scenes of teaching have gone missing in the discourses of Christian academic ethics. Second, I suggest that Christians are indeed missing them, if obscurely—and that they act out their loss in various ways. Third, I argue that Christian writers of academic ethics still miss these scenes—fail to recognize them as they happen, fail most of all to reflect on how to write them.

I write as an almost Christian, to use John Wesley's famous phrase, about the forms of Christianity I know best, which are in the United States. But so far as the United States is still disentangling itself from the collapse of Christendom, and so far as our speech about religion has been conditioned by Christian forms even when it has opposed them, I may also point out some circumstances of our public speech. Perhaps this will also suggest to you some useful analogies to other religious traditions—or some salient contrasts. Any serious study of Christian ethics is intrinsically comparative in any case, because of Christianity's historical and global pluralism, because of its repressed dependence on Judaism and "pagan" antiquity, because of its millennial engagements with other religions, especially Islam. I'm also not persuaded that we are adept at counting or individuating religions. I'm not sure, for example, that the differences between what we count as two religions are necessarily more profound than the differences within what we count as one.


Scene of Instruction
I now start to unpack my title. What do I mean by a scene of ethical instruction? A scene is first a place, real or imagined. Some scenes of instruction spread out in luxurious detail: the exact plan of a room or walled garden, with its furnishings and decoration; its sounds—laughter, quarreling, sighs, music—or deliberately none; a fragrance or a stench; drowsy heat or alerting breezes; the display of implements for a feast or a ritual or an execution about to begin. Other scenes take place on a bare stage where the wavering background only hints at shapes, while the props are few and unstable. Either way, the space of the scene already begins to teach us about ethical instruction. Is the scene to be public or private? How do we enter it? Is it connected to other places—to the kitchen or bedroom, the marketplace, the temple? Is it a place in which some normal expectations are suspended—or severely enforced?

A scene of instruction is also a time. It may begin at a specified hour. It may fall on an anniversary. Summer has brought cicadas to sing in the plane tree overhead, or the night promises a torch-lit procession on horseback in honor of a Thracian goddess.—These are the times of Plato's Phaedrus and Republic.—Other scenes refuse to settle on any fixed calendar. They want to unroll outside of time or to roll time back over itself. But every scene of instruction, even one that happens in a visionary moment, supposes a sequence, the series or order of learning itself. And so the time of a scene leads us to other questions about ethical teaching: How much time does the scene's pedagogy require? Fifty minutes, the length of a master's degree, more than a lifetime? What is presumed to have happened before the scene begins? What hopes or fears color its impending futures?

The scene of instruction is a place and a time, but both set the stage for characters. Characters are not simply people. They are both more stylized and more diverse. For example, they don't always own bodies, though disembodied characters—souls, virtues, demons, deities—are often lent bodies so that they can appear within a scene. There the body can express or enact a lesson, but also change, resist, suffer, fall away. Characters are patterns of action in every sense—for deeds, but also for thoughts, passions, words. Sometimes a character presents a fixed pattern, but there can be no scene of instruction unless some characters at least can change. A scene of instruction is an occasion for bringing new meanings into action, for binding new words into bodies, and so some characters are liable to be remade.

Scenes display, perform, and address characters. Some ethical characters, the most obvious, are held up for praise and blame. Be like this! Don't be like this! Exemplary characters have always been more consequential in lived Christian ethics than principles, rules, or cases. But often more important than the characters given as examples in a scene are the characters that inhabit it—the learner, the teacher, and, frequently, witnesses or bystanders. The relations enacted by the characters inhabiting a scene are both the means and the substance of ethical teaching. Their relations make ethical teaching significant and effective. They also make it interesting.

I have been talking so far as if the scenes happened right before our eyes. Of course, when we study or teach traditions of religious ethics in classrooms, we turn mostly to re-narrations or re-presentations in text and picture. The larger frame of narration or presentation introduces other characters: the author and reader, or the painter and viewer. The long presumption of Christian communities has been that representing scenes of instruction, as if in common memory, can have important ethical effects, not least by establishing new ethical relations. One original scene of Christian ethical teaching, the so-called Sermon on the Mount, is a vividly evoked episode with a variety of characters, both exemplary and enacted. Christians encounter this scene not by direct experience, but as textual construct. The scene is enriched with textual devices of allusion and symmetry. The textual construct also creates new ethical relations—among the author or authors, communities of transmission or interpretation, and generations of readers. When I talk about scenes of instructions, I mean both the scenes and their representations. Indeed, the two are inseparable.

A final caution: the word "representation" is easy to misunderstand—and not only because it has several meanings. I am not using the word as a synonym for realistic figuration—as when we distinguish in painting between representation and abstraction. Nor do I imply that the representation of a scene of ethical instruction is ever literal or complete—as if a representation could fully capture the scene. A text can be related to scenes of instruction ironically or emblematically. It can represent them by its failures and silences. It can be a script or set of directions that only makes sense when performed. It can fracture or mock its own efforts at representing or giving instructions. It can be camp. It can be drag. By representation I mean not what captures ethical instruction, but what reactivates it, carries it, incites it again by urging attention to its means and purposes.

So far, an introduction to scenes of instruction and their representation. I can now fill in the punning meanings of my title. Christian representations of scenes of instruction have gone missing. Christian communities are obscurely and even destructively motivated by the sense of their loss. Contemporary writers of Christian ethics still regularly miss the occasions and the art of representing them.


Scenes That Have Gone Missing
A fresh reading of the long arc of Christian writing—a comparative reading—notices quickly enough the gradual disappearance of important forms for writing scenes of ethical instruction. This absence would be obvious to contemporary Christian readers if we hadn't been taught to ignore mere forms of representation as beneath the dignity of pure ethics. Let me try to restore some memory of what has gone missing.

The writing of what we now call Christian "ethics" begins in competition with scenes staged by ancient Mediterranean philosophy. The philosophic schools of Graeco-Roman antiquity are preoccupied by the relations of teachers to learners and the limits on their effective restaging. Every Platonic dialogue represents a scene of ethical instruction even as it worries, explicitly or implicitly, about representation itself. Philosophic writers alongside or after Plato, including some we tend to classify as historians, offer an exemplary life, a biography, as the privileged pattern for showing morals. Other texts record the daily transactions in a philosophic school—lectures, but also the give-and-take of argument or the scrutiny of ambiguous cases. The ethical works of Aristotle, as we inherit them, condense a school's ongoing debate, including its revisions of terms and forms. Many ancient works cast instruction as a letter to a distant student. The epistolary form is no mere convention; it reactivates an absent community of relations and so underwrites many of the crucial arguments. Still other ancient texts are collections of striking sayings meant to be carried through daily life either "in the hand" as a portable reminder or, better yet, in the memory. And then, last but hardly least, there are what we tend to call allegorical readings of canonical texts—like Neoplatonic readings of Homer—or else allegories simply speaking, including some in which the allegorical covering is so vividly satisfying that it raises doubts about whether any further teaching lies behind.

Sacraments are the evocation and conferral of a troupe of characters, and liturgy is a play that inducts its audience into the cast of a recurring story.

I recite this history because Christian ethical instruction appropriates all of these philosophical forms. Sometimes the appropriation is explicit. Ambrose sets out to rewrite Cicero's letter, On Duties, for Christian ministers. Augustine redoes the famous Stoic handbook, the Enchiridion of Epictetus. Gregory of Nyssa rewrites Plato's Phaedo in retelling the death of his sister, the contemplative Macrina, and their final conversation about the soul's immortality. Christian moral readings of the Hebrew scriptures are notorious, but we shouldn't forget to pair them with allegorical uses of the New Testament or with Christian poetic allegories, in all their ambiguity. Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy—that remembered, allegorical rehearsal of songs for ethical therapy—still provokes debates over whether it is a Christian work at all. The allegory is seamless.

I stress the borrowings not to accuse Christian writers of plagiarism but to remind us that both ancient Mediterranean philosophers and their Christian successors wrote ethics as representations of scenes of instruction. Nor would it be hard to extend the list of examples into medieval innovations: more stylized classroom disputes, moralized encyclopedias of the liberal arts, saints' lives and miracle stories, bestiaries, mystery plays, and, of course—of course—liturgies and sacramental rites. Sacraments are the reiterated evocation and conferral of a troupe of characters, and liturgy is a play that inducts its audience into the cast of a recurring story. Much more should be said here, but I hope that I've already said just enough to make my point about the richness of representational forms in Christian ethical writing.

How do we miss this history? What happened to those forms? The two questions intertwine: we miss the history of forms because we have been raised on a program for writing ethics that banished them.

It is fashionable once again to blame the Enlightenment, especially Kant, both for the modern change of direction in Christian ethics and for our ignorance of its older forms. In certain moods, I am willing to blame Kant for almost anything. Certainly it isn't hard to show that the neo-Kantian fixing of a canon of ethics—that neo-Kantian decisions about what counts as ethics—determined both the method and the historical memory of Euro-American academic ethics in the last century and a half. But we writers tend to exaggerate the power of single books to shift world history. The impoverishment of writing in Christian ethics takes more than the Enlightenment and starts much before it. One long process is legalization, by which I mean recasting Christian scenes as courtrooms and rewriting Christian ethics into forensic genres. You can trace this in the growing regulation of confession, which takes on both the procedures and the purposes of criminal judgment. Or you can trace it through patterns of moral codification, both in grand schemes for organizing ethical doctrines and in the classification of cases—in casuistry.

An equally important process is the deployment of moral theology as a tool for polemic. It is hard to overstate the effect of continuing Reformation controversies on representational forms in modern Christian ethics. Or on the Enlightened conviction that any religious ethics had to be shrunk, stripped, for the sake of establishing a tolerant peace. So the impoverishment of representation in Christian ethics cannot be blamed on the Enlightenment, though the Enlightenment remains a culpable episode in it.

Whatever the causes, the loss of represented scenes of instruction in Christian ethics is the loss of significant power to describe or shape lives. Since the Reformation especially, academic writers of Christian ethics seem to peel off one after another of their most powerful genres. We'll give this set of forms to the novel. We'll delegate the slow disciplines of formation to spiritual writing, to religious education, to homiletics, to sacramental theology. This knowledge will go to a new science called psychology, and that set of practices to psychotherapy or counseling. And in case anyone should still be tempted to write ethics beautifully, we'll create a condescending category for the "merely literary" essay as catch-all. What forms are left then to ethics proper? Some syllogistic skeletons, a few maxims or intuitions, the drone of the monologue, and a little flotilla of lifeboat cases. This does indeed assure boredom—and uselessness.


Acting Out the Obscure Sense of Loss
Now the second meaning of my title. Many Christian writers—many Christian communities—register the sense that something has gone missing in their speech about ethics. Too often, the loss is obscure to them—and they react to it badly.

Some writers bewail the disappearance of compelling Christian voices—or at least progressive ones—from public debates. The remedy, they think, must be more focused messaging. Others judge that the solution is to find more rigorous arguments by retrieving tradition. Papal sponsorship of nineteenth-century neo-Thomism grows out of just this reaction to a feeling of loss. In the face of modern "relativism," so the project declared, Catholic ethicists would have to rearticulate philosophical foundations using Thomas Aquinas as guide. But the new articulation was instructed to ignore the old scenes of instruction, the old forms, in favor of thoroughly modern manuals.

A different sort of response to the sense of loss appears in progressive Anglican or Protestant critiques of sexual ethics. From the 1950s forward, for example, church writers of various denominations announce that the old sexual codes are no longer working and then propose a radical break for the sake of beginning anew. I am sympathetic to these writers—indeed, some of my work descends directly from them. But I think that they often respond not to tradition, but to its modern caricatures.

There can be no ethics without the capacity to make and form characters, and there can be no making or forming of characters without some capacity to represent them in compelling ways.

I also see a misunderstood loss—or, rather, its dangerous acting out—behind the extraordinary importance now given to disconnected ethical issues, especially sexual ones, as tests for Christian orthodoxy or church membership. What is striking about contemporary ethical debates in American churches is not the connection between heresy and irregular sex or gender—that's old—but the privilege given to one irregularity as the only kind of heresy worth fighting over. These sexual standards are supposed to be dictated by more "fundamental" principles of scriptural or ecclesiastical authority, but in contentious fact the relation often flows in the opposite direction: Official voices must defend certain citations of scripture or of authoritative documents because they have no other way to talk about topics of sex and gender, which sometimes seem to be the only topics left to Christian ethics. The volume and passion in these official voices registers the loss of whole libraries of forms for speaking the breadth of ethical teaching. The shouting comes from the anxiety of having nothing convincing to say.

The loudest calls for a return to ethical tradition, the bitterest laments for the loss of Christian teaching authority, are regularly couched in language that erases traditional characters and pedagogies. Consider church debates over same-sex desire. Across the relatively short span of 50 years, there has been an astonishing succession of characters for same-sex desire within church discourses. Since 1950, American churches have talked about inverts (as opposed to homosexuals), homophiles, homosexuals (as equivalent to inverts), gays, gays and lesbians, and now persons subsumed by one or another letter in that ever-expanding jumble of an acronym: LGBTQIIA. . . . Along with these changes of name, churches have adopted and then confusedly discarded an incoherent array of theories of personality formation and their corresponding therapies. So, for example, early ministries of the "biblically based" ex-gay movement applied a model of same-sex desire borrowed explicitly from American psychoanalysis of the 1950s. The felt loss of Christian characters and their scenes acts itself out as the wholesale adoption of "scientific" characters and "medical" pedagogies. The obscure mourning becomes frantic borrowing.

In one sense, of course, churches can never finally surrender the power to display, address, and perform characters. A text of Christian ethics that has forgotten how to represent scenes, that denies their importance, still projects characters around itself. It still addresses readers, still makes presumptions about them, still tries to change them. But so far as a text of Christian ethics refuses to represent its own scene, so far as it refuses to acknowledge its own power to stage characters, it opens itself to other pedagogies, to other systems for forming selves. It is not just the names and theories of the modern clinic that are borrowed by the ex-gay movement. The scene of the modern clinic is installed as well, supplying its power as a comforting consolation for the obscure sense that something important has gone missing. The consolation completes itself in the claim that ex-gay diagnoses and therapies were always already there in the Christian Bible. The frantic borrowing is now disguised as pious retrieval.

I dwell on this example because it seems to me to illustrate at once the loss of Christian ethical speech, the temptation to supply the loss from newly powerful competitors, and the risks in announcing projects of retrieval. So many recent retrievals in Christian ethics are in fact capitulations. In trying to make good the loss, they complete it. While I think that Christian ethics must always be engaged with the full range of past speech—the first meaning of my title—I don't think that it can console its loss of that range by projects of retrieval—the second meaning. The safer way forward is to try to speak, to write, by confronting the forgetfulness of loss with new forms for representing the scenes that still happen around us.


Missing Surrounding Representations
Now the last meaning of my punning title. Those of us who attempt to write Christian ethics for the American present regularly miss various sites at which new Christian characters or scenes are improvised around us. More importantly, we miss the cultural conditions for effective representation—without which Christian communities can't even begin ethical discourse. There can be no ethics without the capacity to make and form characters. And there can be no making or forming of characters without some capacity to represent them in compelling ways.

Contemporary Christian writers seem to notice representation most when they complain about competing powers to broadcast patterns for life. The present regime of advertising and "the media" does indeed challenge the teaching of Christian ethics, though its challenges are not entirely new. (What is Carthage for Augustine but an all-night mall selling satisfactions to desire that it has just taught its customers to commodify?) Then again, churchly complaints about the media are often envy. They tacitly assume that Christian ethics or worship should copy, season by season, the most lucrative techniques for market representation. Having spent so much of my life trying to restore complexity to Christian scenes of instruction, I am not particularly eager to hand over ethical formation to techniques pioneered by lifestyle magazines—or by online hook-up sites.

I am interested in other sites where complex new characters are formed—especially sites that look directly at the conflict between churches and other systems of representation. I spent part of my last sabbatical studying—or, rather, learning from—a congregation in San Francisco. The congregation, just now celebrating its 40th anniversary, was one of the early churches planted by the Metropolitan Community Church, or MCC, a predominantly gay and lesbian Christian movement founded in 1968. By any standard I know, MCC SF is an exemplary urban church—if a small one. During the year I was there, it worshiped intensely, with open doors. It worked to serve meals to the hungry; to arrange clothing, shelter, and showers for the homeless; to meet the hundred expected and unexpected needs that desperation brings to a church's door.

Since this church door is located a few blocks from the corner of 18th and Castro, that is, at the center of San Francisco's most famous gay male neighborhood, it has been deeply identified with the concerns of those stigmatized for their sexuality and gender. During the first wave of AIDS deaths, the church performed hundreds of funerals, sometimes as many as eight on one day, not least because other churches refused to bury those who had died from "the gay plague." The church has also been blessing same-sex unions for most of its 40 years.

If there has been an impoverishment of the academic writing of Christian ethics, there has also been a curious continuity of lived pedagogical relationships.

All of this is notable, but it doesn't explain my chief interest. I went to MCC SF to learn how people represent their own improvisation of queer Christian characters—of characters that reconfigure Christian ethical teaching against the long history of condemnation; of characters that many Christian groups still consider to be impossible or abominable. I wanted to watch these characters improvised in worship, in prayer, in community service, but also in dialogue with the representations of activist politics. The rhetoric of liberation or aids protest has often been stridently anti-Christian. "Stop the Church" was the slogan for one of the most controversial demonstrations by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). So I went to MCC SF to see how characters were being made after the impoverishment of Christian ethics, in the presence of opposed speeches and images for shaping human lives.

During life-history interviews, I would ask people to talk about how they grew out of childhood Christianity into a nonstandard sexual "identity" and then back into MCC. Most of my conversation partners told me that they had never been asked the question before. Certainly they had not been given traditional Christian language for answering it. They stammered. They fell silent. Then they began to tell about an often solitary search for names, rituals, forms of life. What they described to me—what they performed before me—was the simultaneity of multiple characters and much skill in parallel ritual systems. Some would go to the dance club on Saturday night, then to the local Catholic parish on Sunday morning, and finally to MCC for Sunday evening. Others celebrated rituals within closed women's communities or sat in Queer Sangha—both meeting at MCC—before joining public worship on Sunday morning.

It is easy to misstate the interrelation of these various scenes of instruction and so to miss the significance of their formal innovation. I was not watching the hybridization of characters, which would imply the creation of a new cultivar out of different breeding lines. Nor was I learning about an intersection, which would imply the meeting of preexistent lines in a geometrical space. I was watching something more like performed juxtaposition—or constellation, to use Walter Benjamin's metaphor. My interlocutors were juxtaposing, were constellating multiple characters and ritual scenes. The result was not a thing, not an identity, not a doctrine, but a form for showing together what was supposed to be kept apart at the risk of incoherence.

Juxtaposition, constellation—or collage, montage, remix, mash-up. These are characteristic and privileged forms of representation in our art and literature. They capture something deep in our sense of how lives should be represented. The interviews at MCC SF were describing not just new characters, but a sophisticated understanding of ethical representation. Indeed, their improvisations were more sophisticated negotiations of the modern crisis of representation than can be found in most academic ethics. So the whole challenge for me was not to erase the shape of these characters or their scenes of instruction under the form of my writing. In their unlikely—and, to some, shocking—juxtaposition of the new rituals and characters of urban queer life with the continuing practices of the Eucharistic table, prayerful discernment, Bible study, and works of love, my interlocutors in San Francisco both improvised new characters and troubled their representation. What is the form for representing the collision or collapse of forms? That is a central question for modernist aesthetics—but also for any writing of Christian ethics that wants to be modern—or that remembers the lessons of negative theology.

I still don't know how to write what I saw in those new characters—though I think I have some new ways for constellating their traces in the archives of church-speech. But even if I had found or made some dazzling form in which to represent these scenes of ethical invention, of invention by juxtaposition, I couldn't simply tell you about it. I couldn't reduce it to a propositional summary. I would have to show it to you. Indeed, if anything I have said is true, then talk about ethics is necessarily more boring, and less useful, than representations of scenes in which ethics is taught. You cannot remedy the loss of a form for representation by talking about what it would be like to have it. You have to display the form.

The same demand applies to any serious talk about ethics itself. You have surely noticed that I haven't at any point defined ethics. I won't do so now. Nor will I propose my own clever criteria for cutting out ethical teaching from the rest of Christian doctrine and practice. I don't think that it should be cut out. Nor will I propose a better ethical canon to counter the neo-Kantians. The canon of Christian ethics may well be just as extensive as the library of Christian writing and the gallery of Christian images.

But if a student came to me to ask in all seriousness, or in all playfulness, about ethics, I could say something. I could suggest, for example, that she pay attention to our own ongoing practices as teachers, learners, or bystanders. Whatever else it might be, ethics is attention to how lives are shaped around teaching. When I offer readings of the forms in certain old texts, I might tell her, I do something that much resembles some of the scenes of instruction represented in those texts. I am also repeating scenes of instruction that communities have enacted around the texts in many other times and places. If there has been a striking impoverishment of the academic writing of Christian ethics across centuries, there has also been a curious continuity of lived pedagogical relationships. We still gather to listen to a lecture—that is a lectura, a teacherly exposition of texts. We still dispute disagreements among our authorities. We still scrutinize ambiguous cases. So, I would advise her, first attend to our local pedagogical practices and then consider how you might represent their enacted relations in forms that strike you as most moving—even if least religious. In that exhausting and delightful writing, you may begin to see ethics.

 

Mark D. Jordan is Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He has just finished a book on the rhetoric of American church controversies over homosexuality.

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Morality Begins at the Top

J. C. Cleary

The recent economic debacle has provoked some renewed questioning of our contemporary political orthodoxy. Perhaps unbridled acquisitiveness at the top is not always a natural right or a public good. Perhaps leaving the big players free to do whatever maximizes their own short-term profits does not automatically lead to economic well-being and prosperity for all. Perhaps cynical bought-and-paid-for leaders cannot keep the social consensus going, despite all the arts of the public relations and advertising specialists. With history erased, who could have known that a powerful social stratum left to its own devices could actually crash the very system from which it profits so mightily?

To stimulate our own rethinking process, we might benefit by taking into consideration ideas that come from other traditions than our own.

As China has grown in economic strength in recent years, it has naturally attracted more attention in the West. There is more motivation to learn something about the Chinese people and their cultural heritage, and to understand more clearly how this heritage might be contributing to China's contemporary successes.

An outsider seeking a deeper understanding of Chinese ideas of leadership, social order, and political legitimacy should try to become familiar with the basic axioms and perspectives of the Confucian tradition. Confucianism, of course, was just one of the streams within Chinese thought. Another stream of great contemporary interest would be the tradition of strategy and statecraft exemplified by Sun Zi in The Art of War, and in many kindred works.

As always, the first step toward understanding systems of thought from other cultures is to face squarely the reality that, however we have been trained to regard them, our own culture's preconceived categories are in no sense inherently natural or necessarily true. To understand Confucianism, we have to mobilize our cognitive skills and avoid the trap of assuming that our own culture's way of thinking about society and politics, individuals and communities, religion and ethics is somehow natural, logical, scientifically correct, inevitable, or free of contradictions.

Coming to grips with Confucianism poses this challenge from the start. In the Confucian worldview, "social theory" and "personal ethics" are not seen as separate realms. The principles that guide what we would call the moral development of the individual are intimately connected with the principles that would structure a just social order and guide the ruling elite. The Confucian cardinal virtues ren (human fellow-feeling, acting humanely) and yi (justice, acting righteously) apply in both realms.

Our distinction between "philosophy" and "religion" does not apply to Confucianism in any straightforward way. Confucianism does not feature an anthropomorphic deity or stories of supernatural events, but in the Confucian worldview, the patterns which human communities and individuals must follow if they are to prosper are mandated by Heaven, an abstract source of both natural order and human norms.

Confucianism does not fall in line with our contemporary culture's conviction that there are "ideals," on the one hand, and "what works in practice," on the other; that "being idealistic" is normally at odds with "being practical." In the Confucian worldview, following Heaven's pattern for human affairs is what in fact works best, as a matter of natural logic. "Ideals" are ideals because they prescribe the most effective attitudes and actions for achieving optimal results.

So far we are on alien ground conceptually, but perhaps no more than sophisticated cosmopolitan Westerners of today will be used to, when exploring the world outside their home cultures.

Even more disconcerting may be the way Confucianism accepts social hierarchy as a given, and proceeds from that. The Confucian methods of self-cultivation are open to anyone who makes the effort, in principle, but in practice Confucianism was oriented to preparing the members of the ruling class to fulfill their duties toward maintaining the social order and keeping it sound.

There was a career open to talent in traditional China, and the Confucian notion of a social elite is based on a higher level of education and moral development, not hereditary rank. But Confucianism does not share our customary concerns with veiling social hierarchy and power politics, overlooking inherited privilege, and emphasizing "meritocracy" and "equal opportunity" in describing our social order. Certainly Confucianism does not share our laissez-faire faith that impersonal mechanisms like "the rule of law" or "the free market" can produce a favorable outcome regardless of the moral level of the people at the top and the example they set.

On the contrary, Confucianism is one of those classic teachings that takes it as a given that those in the upper ranks of society must be held to a higher moral standard than the ordinary people. Why so? Because any moral failings among people in positions of power and privilege can be exceedingly damaging to the social order as a whole. Unbridled greed, lust for power, and egotism can cause harm at any level of society, harm to the person's family, harm to the person's neighbors. But when these moral defects are found in people who wield political power, or the social power and prestige that come with wealth, this will inevitably undermine the basic solidarity and sense of fairness that every social order needs to survive and flourish.

The idea that society can be structured according to the principle of the unlimited pursuit of self-interest strikes the Confucian mind as pernicious nonsense. Confucian historians regularly highlighted episodes that showed the pitfalls of immorality at the top. A classic figure is King Jie. He launched war after war against the neighboring states to force them to pay tribute and hand over treasures. King Jie's advisers tried to warn him that he was wasting the people's resources and endangering the realm, but he silenced them by terror. He declared that the whole world belonged to him and he was invincible. The people hated him and prayed for his downfall. This finally came at the hands of a righteous leader who put together a new coalition in a neighboring area, and moved to overthrow him. King Jie maintained his arrogant, self-deluded style right up until the day of his defeat. They say he took his court ladies to observe the final battle from a hilltop, saying it would be amusing, like watching a hunt.

If we generalize across the long complex history of Confucianism, we can pick out certain ideas that are axiomatic for the tradition.

The Confucian contention is that to be politically strong and morally healthy, a society must be united by bonds of reciprocal loyalty and concern among all ranks. Justice in any community or social group is based on the principle of reciprocity. Both rulers and ruled have obligations to each other. If the leaders expect their followers to be loyal to them, the leaders must be loyal to their followers.

Society needs leaders who follow Heaven's true pattern, in order to inspire people to adhere to the correct social forms and thus create the conditions for a sound society. A legitimate social order is one that serves the material, social, and spiritual needs of the people, and wins their loyalty. A legitimate ruler wins the hearts and minds of the people by serving their real interests. Legitimate rulers pattern their rule on Heaven's impartiality, magnanimity, fairness, justice for all. "Heaven sees through the eyes of the people." A legitimate ruler is the "Legate of Heaven," and has the "Mandate of Heaven."

Thus, the legitimate ruler is above all an educator, who teaches by example and transforms others by moral force. The duty of the legitimate ruler is to embody virtue and spread knowledge of Heaven's true pattern, and to inspire people at all levels to align themselves with the true pattern. The duty of a ruler is to implement policies in such a way that the common people are guaranteed a reliable livelihood, a healthy community, and a just social order: these things being to the average person the prerequisites for moral cultivation and a wholesome life.

The social elite has a responsibility to Heaven and to the common people to act in a way that maintains the soundness of the social order. If the ruler or other members of the social elite put their own private interests above the common interest, then they have lost their legitimacy. If a ruler loses the allegiance of the people, that ruler has lost his legitimacy, that ruler and his regime have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Taken together, these axioms make up the Confucian analog to our idea of the social contract, and the will of the people as the source of political legitimacy.

Obviously, the Confucian perspective on social order and the special duties of those in power are poles apart from the canons of laissez-faire market fundamentalism. The Confucian contention is that human nature itself shapes the requirements for a just society. People yearn for humane and righteous leaders who sympathize with the everyday reality facing the ordinary person and who put the common good ahead of their own personal desires. People yearn to be part of a community governed by norms of reciprocity and human fellow-feeling.

To taste the flavor of the Confucian discourse, a good place to start is the classic collection of the sayings of Confucius known as Lun Yu. The central concern of Confucian education is to develop the morally developed person (Tu Weiming's artful rendering of the key term junzi)—the person who has fully cultivated the innate human moral sensibilities necessary for group living, and vital to fulfilling the responsibility that power brings to those of high rank in society. "Morally developed people understand matters of justice, petty people understand matters of personal advantage" (1.16).

Addressing the social elite of his own time and place, Confucius said: "You are truly humane if you can practice five things in the world: respectfulness, magnanimity, truthfulness, acuity, and generosity. If you are respectful, you won't be despised. If you are magnanimous, you will win people over. If you are truthful, you will be trusted. If you are acute, you will be successful. If you are generous, you will be able to employ people" (Lun Yu, 17.6).

A disciple asked Confucius: "Is there a word that can be practiced all one's life?" Confucius said, "What about sympathy? What you do not want yourself, do not inflict on others" (15.24).

The opposite of the morally developed person is the "petty person"—the person whose horizon is defined by personal self-interest and ambition for self-aggrandizement: "Don't worry that other people don't know you. Worry that you don't know other people" (1.16). "Morally developed people are universal and not parochial. Petty people are parochial and not universal" (2.14). "Morally developed people foster what is good in others, not what is bad. Petty people do the opposite" (12.16).

In another memorable maxim, Confucius pointed out that morally developed people have their own moral compass, and therefore cannot be put to use by the organization or group to which they belong in ways which violate their own moral standards: "The morally developed person is not a tool" (2.12).

On the legitimacy of leaders, Confucius said: "Riches and status unjustly attained are to me like floating clouds" (7.15). A pupil asked Confucius about the proper way to conduct government. Confucius replied, "Lead [the people] and work for them." The pupil asked for more. Confucius said, "Be indefatigable" (13.1).

"If leaders are courteous, their people will not dare to be disrespectful. If leaders are just, people will not dare to be intractable. If leaders are trustworthy, the people will not dare to be dishonest" (13.4). Confucius also said, "When friends are honest, sincere, or knowledgeable, they are beneficial. When friends are pretentious, fawning, or opportunistic, they are harmful" (15.37).

A disciple asked Confucius about human fellow-feeling. Confucius said, "Love people." Then the disciple asked about knowledge. Confucius said, "Know people." The disciple didn't understand. Confucius said, "Promote the honest, placing them over the crooked, and you can cause the crooked to straighten out" (12.22).

Does this all strike us as too lofty, too "idealistic"? We can end by simply repeating the challenge as Confucius posed it to the power holders of his own time: "Is human fellow-feeling far away? If you want to be truly human, then human fellow-feeling arrives" (7.29).

 

J. C. Cleary holds a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. He is the translator or co-translator of numerous works from Zen's Chinese history, including The Blue Cliff Record and, most recently, Zen Under the Gun: Four Zen Masters From Turbulent Times.

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Outstretched Arms as Liturgy

Susan Abraham

In Review | Books God Knows There's Need: Christian Responses to Poverty, by Susan R. Holman. Oxford University Press, 216 pages, $29.95.

That Christianity always was and continues to be at the service of the poor and the sick is the lesson to be learned from Susan R. Holman's deeply satisfying book God Knows There's Need: Christian Responses to Poverty. The raucous and intractable "debate" on health care reform taking place right now will find resources in this text to address the polarized and contradictory ways in which the debate has shaped up publicly. Some Christians may find it distinctly uncomfortable to realize that the Christian tradition has, from the beginning, invested itself in the care of the sick and dying as a direct implication of what it means to self-identify as Christian. Such activity on behalf of the greater good defined the earliest communities of Christians. While Holman's book is an exercise in historical theology, her complex integration of the personal, the scholarly, and the practical persuasively engages the reader seeking resources from within the Christian tradition to address contemporary issues of poverty and the unequal distribution of social amenities.

There are a number of ways to discuss the book. One could follow Holman's complex organizational reasoning. Chapters 1 through 4 set out various challenges that the contemporary reader might face when attempting to retrieve the complex Christian past. Chapters 5 and 6 are a conversation with early Christian sources to address the gendered nature of poverty in the exemplars Euphemia and Maria of Amida. Chapter 7, "Living Crunchy," is the consummate model for contemporary radical politics of equality and, finally, chapter 8 is a solidly theological discussion. Or, one could follow Holman's tripartite thematic division, which forms the interpretive scaffolding for the book: sensing need, sharing the world, and embodying sacred kingdom.

But it is a third strand, not explicitly stated by Holman, that I will follow here. In my reading, Holman's overarching argument in this book is for a practical, embodied, and incarnational spirituality developed through a self-reflective engagement with historical texts. For example, in chapter 8, the theme of embodying sacred kingdom is developed in the practice of meditation. Earlier chapters present other forms of attentive engagement with different texts, such as Gregory of Nazianzus's Oration 14, also called "On the love of the poor." The specific form of textual engagement to be found in Holman's chapter 8 is that of meditative reflection on a nineteenth-century Russian icon. The icon of Saints Basil and Alexis on page 167 depicts Basil on the left in full episcopal garb and Alexis on the right, dressed in the manner of the poor, and, above them, the image of Christ, whose right hand is raised in blessing and whose left hand holds a book.

As Holman asserts, the viewer is drawn into the image and its theology, which challenges the notion that Christianity has marginal or occasional investment in the social and political context within which poverty and illness flourish. Christian theology would cease to make sense if "need" in the world remains unrecognized by Christians. Further, the icon's capacious meaning insists that all activity of compassion is contained in the framework of the grace of Christ. "Sainthood," in other words, is measured not just by one's capacity to respond to poverty, but by one's capacity to be disposed to the primary grace of Christ through which the needy are recognized as Christ himself. What is demanded is a practical and spiritual discipline in which one clarifies one's identity as Christian in relation to the suffering Christ and his presence in the world.

Holman points out the most astonishing feature of this icon: it is "historically impossible" (169), since at no time in history could Saints Alexis and Basil have shared the same space. First, Alexis's story is hagiographical, an act of narrating history, and an invitation to meditation. It is the story of a saint who becomes a "holy beggar" in deliberate imitation of Christ. Some of the earliest versions of the story date from fifth-century Edessa. Second, even if the man from Edessa were a historical person, he could never have met Basil, for Basil had by then been dead 30 years. While this fact may alienate those invested in literalist notions of truth and history, Holman argues that the icon invites us into a participative theology in the context of a "timeless eschaton." The lives of Basil and Alexis only make sense as Christian lives enacted under the sovereignty of the grace of Christ, whose figure appears above the two saints. It does not matter whether Basil and Alexis shared temporality, because their actions as Christians indicate that they share a timeless space created by the overarching judgment of Christ who will come in glory as described in Matthew 25:31–46. Incarnational spirituality is to be modeled on these two men, whose stories make sense to the extent that they "go and do" in the manner of the great commandment to all followers of Christ.

For the Christian, acts of Christic imitation are not meant to be occasional or unique. In fact, as Holman reminds us, "leitourgia could mean either worship or service," and the practical behaviors which we associate with public service were always part of the liturgy for early Christians. She writes:

Service to beggars, offerings given to the poor and material provisions for widows, was incorporated at a very early date into the liturgical pattern of the church "service." Widows' prayers were equated with offerings on the altar, and, as the stories of the Cappadocians, John Chrysostom, and Jacob of Sarug illustrate, many early Christian authors described aid to the physical body as literal engagement with the body of Christ. Such "liturgies" to the needy were also understood on a suprahuman level, as actions that contributed to the remaking and healing of the whole cosmic order by enacting the justice and mercy of God in space and time. (157)

The receptive, embodied stance of the liturgical participant is the gesture of outstretched arms (159), signaling that one exists only in relation to others, a view of community under God that is at once ecclesial and participative. It is this gesture that most forcefully captures Holman's threefold thematic division of the book—sensing need, sharing the world, and embodying sacred kingdom—and practical Christian dispositions necessary for an incarnational spirituality.

She also successfully demonstrates how these three theological paradigms lend themselves to our present moment of crisis, providing for a robust theological relevance of the Christian past in relation to the crisis of poverty in our current world without denying the differences in their own contexts (15). Holman presents not an ungainly model of application, but a nuanced theological reading of history, articulated as "empathic remembering" (7).

Sensing need is the first theme systematically developed by a spiritual disposition of empathic remembering, and involves a "literal experience of the other" through the senses (15). In developing this theme in chapter 2, Holman points to Salvian of Lérins's plea to Christians to use their material possessions to encounter Jesus in the bodies of the poor. Our beliefs in Jesus and the Christian God are not separable from our actions to the poor. This sensory encounter leads us to the second paradigm: sharing the world. Sharing the world is "incarnational giving" (19), an act of reciprocal relation. Here, Holman explores the idea of religious divestment in relation to contemporary ideas of the common good, arguing that "the kinetic motion of material goods" (117) does not fit into the market culture and economy we inhabit because it demands that sharing, giving, divesting, and redistributing material goods is essential to the Christian life. Finally, the third paradigm of embodying sacred kingdom asks what it might mean for us to bring embodied experience into relation with the eschaton of the Christian vision. In Holman's reading, embodying the sacred kingdom significantly challenges colonial or dominative masculinist ideologies and theologies from within an eschatological space and time (20).

As a theological educator in North America, I particularly appreciated Holman's insightful analysis of "need." "Need," she asserts, is related to death and exhaustion and "has nothing to do with desire or personal preferences" (26–27). We have to become aware of need within ourselves before we venture to empathize with the needy and address systemic injustice. Becoming aware of need within and without, however, is part of a spiritual discipline. Given the currency of self-validation and self-gratification in society and the exaggerated presence of this problem in the ministerial and helping professions, her call to spiritual and intellectual honesty is welcome. Even the generosity of well-meaning individuals can turn corrosive in the context of true need, if it arises out of emptiness, ignorance, delusion, or the need to be needed. Sensing need is less about acts of messianic zeal or heroism and more about acts of repeated commitment, made daily, even in the face of deep despair and doubt. Even the most publicly untarnished works of mercy can be haunted by doubt and depression. Holman points to Mother Teresa as a case in point.

Mother Teresa's letters to her confessor, released after her death, show that she was haunted by such despair. Yet it remains the true mark of holiness in Mother Teresa that she was able to recognize her human limits even as she persisted in her commitment to the poor in Kolkata. Such honest soul-searching may confuse those who would prefer the "saints" of the Christian tradition to be one-dimensional and uncomplicated. As Holman argues, this is only possible if there is a shallow assumption of a strict correspondence between thought and action in ministerial preparation and experience. In fact, the ability to face and explore one's ambivalence and negativity, including remembering personal poverty in the most honest way possible, sharpens one's ministerial "response-ability" to privation and illness.

God Knows There's Need is a successful negotiation of the complex called the Christian tradition, spanning Christian history, Christian systematic or dogmatic theology, and Christian practice. These dimensions of the tradition are often woefully separated by disciplinary boundaries in the academy. Moreover, the book's emphasis on the Christian tradition does not vitiate its usefulness for the religiously pluralistic contexts for which students prepare. Holman argues that a common ground between different religious or theological persuasions could be hewn from the primary context of global suffering and poverty, with social justice as a type of interfaith dialogue (40–45). Clearly, for the committed Christian, there is no world—past, present, or future—devoid of the "least among us." The tradition has often emphasized the Christic presence in these "least." Scholars and student practitioners of Christianity cannot overlook this important book of Christian history and theology and its practical relevance for Christian life today.

 

Susan Abraham is Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Identity, Ethics, and Nonviolence in Postcolonial Theory: A Rahnerian Theological Assessment (Palgrave Macmillan) and co-editor of Shoulder to Shoulder: Frontiers in Catholic Feminist Theology (Fortress).

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Reading St. Therese

Stephanie Paulsell

In Review | Shelf Life Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. ICS Publications, 1975, 288 pages.

In the late summer of 1970, the year I was to enter the second grade, my hometown closed the schools. The last week of August came and went, and we children all remained at home.

During the 16 years since Brown v. Board of Education, my hometown of Wilson, North Carolina, had moved with slow reluctance toward integration. It was 12 years after the United States Supreme Court ruled the concept of "separate but equal" unconstitutional before Wilson took its first steps toward integrating its schools, and, even then, Wilson, like many other towns and counties in the south, did only the minimum: it offered school choice, but it did not actively assign children to different schools. Finally, the courts insisted: the Wilson Public Schools must integrate. My hometown responded by shutting the doors of all its schools and locking them tight.

When the town refused to give our parents any indication of when the schools would reopen, my parents sent me to a Roman Catholic school named for St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a saint who lived in France in the late nineteenth century, a Carmelite nun who entered a monastery at the age of 15, died of tuberculosis at age 24, and became famous for the "little way" to God that she wrote about in her autobiography.

St. Therese Catholic School was already integrated. Many of my African American classmates arrived each morning in a yellow school bus that said "Saint Alphonsus" on its side. The school was run by the Sisters of Providence: Sister Mary Griffin was our principal and Sister Mary Ann was the second-grade teacher. They lived in a convent, a big white house, next to the school.

St. Therese's book carved out a place of solitude inside me, a place I could go to meet her; a place to meet God.

Sister Mary Griffin and Sister Mary Ann became friends of our family. They played their guitars and sang in our living room on the evenings when my dad's students came to dinner; they joined in on the long discussions of prayer and theology and the Vietnam War going on at our dining room table or in our backyard; they let my dad's students do their laundry at the convent. I wanted to be just like them, and one evening, while everybody was sitting around talking, I crawled up into Sister Mary Griffin's lap and poured out my desire to become a Roman Catholic. Later, when we were all standing around in the front yard, my dad picked me up by one arm and one leg and swung me in circles. "You want to be a what?" he laughed while I giggled uncontrollably. That's how so many of those evenings ended, with all of us laughing in the yard as the dusk deepened into darkness.

At school, Sister Mary Griffin and Sister Mary Ann taught us and disciplined us and played with us. Every day at recess, someone would plug a 45 rpm record player into the outdoor socket. I remember Sister Mary Griffin coming outside to dance with us to the music of the Jackson 5, swinging her head with its tight cap of hair to the beat.

The other thing we did at recess was to climb around on the shrine of St. Therese until Sister Mary Griffin and Sister Mary Ann made us stop. The shrine was made of stone and held within it a statue of "the little flower," as St. Therese was often called. But there was also room for a small child or two in the niche that held her. It was hard to resist climbing into that shrine. The sisters had to shoo us out of it every day.

The public schools opened about three months late that year, and busing finally began. At the end of the year, the Sisters of Providence—including my beloved Sister Mary Griffin and Sister Mary Ann—were sent away from our diocese. When I entered the third grade, yellow school buses appeared all over Wilson, and I attended a formerly segregated school for black children on the southeastern edge of town.

My days at St. Therese were over, but St. Therese entered my life again a few years later, in 1975. My dad had a copy of a brand-new translation of the original manuscripts of her autobiography, Story of a Soul, and he loaned it to me. It was a big gray book with a sketch of the saint on the cover. The print looked almost like typescript, as if the translator had been so eager to make it available to English readers that he couldn't wait for a fancier printing press to do the job. Inside were photos of St. Therese herself. She had a face like an apple, round and full, and eyes that seemed to look out of the page and straight into me.

In her autobiography, Therese tells a story about being loaned a book about the spiritual life by her father when she was 14 years old. "This reading," she writes, "was one of the greatest graces in my life. I read it by the window . . . and the impressions I received are too deep to express in human words" (102).

That's what reading St. Therese's book was like for me. Her book carved out a little place of solitude inside me, a place I could go to meet her, a place I could go to meet God. Reading her book, I could feel God shining on me, like a light from a distant star.

What did I love about her? I loved her account of playing "hermits" with her sister Marie. One would pray while the other worked in the garden; then they would switch, all in total silence. I loved the way she would build little altars in niches in the walls of her house. I loved the way she imagined herself as a little ball the child Jesus picked up and played with from time to time. I loved that she had thrown herself at the feet of Pope Leo XIII during a papal audience in which she had been told not to speak to beg him to allow her to become a nun, and I loved that she tried to turn the smallest interactions with family and friends into opportunities to cultivate love and holiness. I loved that she used italics and capital letters and exclamation points so liberally that her words seemed to leap off the pages. I loved her accounts of the feast days she observed with her family, the processions she participated in with her church. I loved that she prayed for the criminals she read about in the paper, hoping that they would turn toward God and seek forgiveness for their sins. I began to comb through the Wilson Daily Times looking for criminals of my own to pray for.

St. Therese's "little way" did not seem, to me, little at all. It seemed huge, spacious, full of places to explore—large enough, certainly, for me.

Elementary school gave way to high school and high school to college, and I found new books to read, new writers to admire. When I was a junior in high school, members of the Ku Klux Klan and a local neo-Nazi group in Greensboro, North Carolina, murdered five members of the Communist Workers Party. They shot them down in the street, in front of rolling TV cameras, and were found not guilty by a jury of their peers. When I arrived in Greensboro for college two years later, I was befriended by the widow of one of those murdered CWP members, and my political education began in earnest. The books I read from my dad's shelf in those years were Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness and Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander; from my mom's, the writings of Virginia Woolf. If I'd thought about it, I'd probably have thought that St. Therese's "little way" wasn't up to the challenges of our day. (I was ignorant of the fact that Dorothy Day herself loved St. Therese and had even written a biography of her.) What our world needed was a big way out of the mess we had made: a change of consciousness, a conversion on a massive scale. Revolution. What did St. Therese's pious musings have to say to the world I lived in? I had a warm memory of St. Therese, but I didn't read her, or seek her out, during those years. It wasn't until graduate school that I encountered St. Therese again.

In a seminar on Christian women mystics, I found her on the syllabus. So much of what I was learning in graduate school was deeply unfamiliar, and I was glad to see the name of a writer I remembered knowing and loving. I mentioned to a friend, a former Roman Catholic nun, that I was excited to get to read St. Therese again. "Ugh," she said. "The little flower. She was crammed down my throat in the convent. We were all supposed to be like her, and who would want to be? I'll be glad if I never read her again."

This shocked me, the idea of St. Therese as a tool of oppression. But my memory of loving St. Therese as a child was still strong, and I turned to Story of a Soul with excitement.

I didn't have my Dad's old copy, the one I'd read as a child, so I bought a new copy in the bookstore, one without the photos of Therese. And I found that no one—not my teacher nor my fellow students—called her "Therese." They called her Tay-rez, using the French pronunciation of her name: Thérèse Martin, Thérèse de Lisieux. As impossible as it was for me to imagine the school I attended in Wilson, North Carolina, as "Sainte Thérèse" Catholic School, I tried to get used to the sound of this new name, the feel of it in my mouth. And so, with an unfamiliar edition of her book, addressing her with a new name, I set out to reacquaint myself with the saint I had loved as a child.

In an essay on reading, the cultural critic Sven Birkerts remembers loving Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road as a young man. But when he returned to it years later, he found that "whatever magic had been there now survived as only a memory of magic."1 That pretty much sums up my experience of reading Therese's book as a 24-year-old. The italics and capital letters and exclamation points that had made her text come to life for me as a child seemed rather immature now, reminding me of the loopy handwriting of little girls who dot their "i's" with hearts. She seemed overly obsessed with tiny domestic dramas in her home and in the convent to which she attached cosmic importance—for example, her description of her great "conversion" on a Christmas evening when she was 13 years old. The family had just returned from midnight mass, and her father, cranky and tired, expressed annoyance with Therese for her continued child-like love of opening presents after the service. Looking at her slippers filled with presents in front of the fireplace, he grumbled, "Well, fortunately, this will be the last year!" (98).

Ordinarily such a rebuke would have sent Therese into spasms of crying: "I was really unbearable because of my extreme touchiness," she writes (97). But that Christmas night, she says, Jesus changed her heart: "Forcing back my tears I descended the stairs rapidly; controlling the poundings of my heart, I took my slippers and placed them in front of Papa, and withdrew all the objects joyfully. . . . Having regained his own cheerfulness, Papa was laughing. . . . I felt charity enter into my soul, and the need to forget myself and to please others; since then I've been happy!" (99).

Well, what kind of conversion is this, especially when compared with Paul being knocked from his horse on the road to Damascus, or Augustine hearing the voice of God in scripture and leaving his wild ways behind? She's really just describing the kind of self-mastery that we all have to learn in order to grow up. Ordinary. Unremarkable.

And weren't those fervent prayers for the murderers she read about in the paper sentimental at best and macabre at worst? And didn't it seem like she wanted to enter the Carmelite monastery at age 15 so that she could be with the big sisters who had raised her after her mother died and who had entered the convent before her? And what about that passage where she talks about being splashed by dirty water in the laundry room by a nun who wasn't taking care with her task? Is her choice not to wipe her face so as not to make the other nun feel bad really a way to holiness? "My dear Mother," she writes to her prioress about this episode, "you can see that I am a very little soul and that I can offer God only very little things" (250). I'll say. With all that God has to think about in the great, suffering world, did she really think God noticed how she responded to being splashed in the laundry room?

When I read St. Therese as a child, her words had opened space around me, above me, below me. I grieved that I couldn't return to that space, "that great cathedral space which was childhood," as Virginia Woolf once put it. St. Therese had set my feet in a broad place when I was 12, but when I was 24, she herself seemed to me utterly hemmed in—trapped by her piety, by her times, by her culture, by her gender. Like a lot of my classmates, I was searching among the women mystics of Christian history for models, for mentors. I found it much more comfortable—not to mention more intellectually and politically respectable—to read the saint for whom St. Therese had been named: St. Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century. Now there was a saint: a reformer of her religious order, a founder of monasteries, a teacher, a mystic, an interpreter of scripture who clashed with the Inquisition. During her childhood, St. Teresa of Avila ran away from home with her brother to seek martyrdom, rather than looking for ways to make the littleness of her life holy. She wanted a big life, an "epic life," as the novelist George Eliot later put it when she invoked St. Teresa in the prologue to Middlemarch. Teresa of Avila's namesake, St. Therese, seemed but a pale imitation—St. Therese, the little flower, the child.

It is a tribute to the power of childhood memories that, 20 years later, I've found myself wanting to return to St. Therese, to read her again. I couldn't bear, though, to read the copy of the book I'd read for my seminar 20 years ago. I felt that I needed to read the same book I'd read as a child, that very one. I needed the relic, the thing itself. Visiting my parents a few summers ago, I looked all over my dad's study for that book, with no luck. But then, a few months later, I found an edition almost exactly like the one I'd read as a child in the bookstore of the Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. The typeface was nicer, but the chapters were laid out on the page exactly as I remembered, and all the photos were there. It's hard to describe what it felt like to find that book. "This is it!" I exclaimed to my husband and my daughter. They smiled patiently, and, I'm pretty sure, rolled their eyes behind my back. "Are you obsessed with her, Mom?" my 9-year-old daughter asked me.

I began reading the book slowly but soon picked up steam, because I couldn't put it down. And I heard things in her writings that I hadn't, somehow, heard before.

I heard her desire to be a priest, for one thing. How had my young feminist self missed this? Her frustration that she cannot be a priest juts to the surface throughout her writings and even through others' remembrances of her. How I wish I were a priest, she would say, so that I could preach a good sermon on the Virgin Mary! She felt that one rarely heard a good sermon on the Virgin Mary: preachers tended to make her perfect, unable to be imitated, remote. Therese was drawn to stories of Mary's humanity, like the one in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, where Mary doesn't understand what Jesus means when he says to her, after she had lost him after the Passover festival in Jerusalem, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" It's not perfection that attracts Therese to the mother of Jesus; it's Mary's ability to remain faithful and loving even in the face of events she doesn't understand.

In a letter to her sister Marie she wrote, "I feel in me the vocation of the PRIEST. With what love, O Jesus, I would carry You in my hands when, at my voice, You would come down from heaven. And with what love would I give you to souls! But alas! While I desire to be a Priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood" (192).

I love that; she'll refuse the priesthood, not be denied it.

Not only did she want to be a priest, she also longed to be a missionary. She had hoped that God would let her live so that she could go to the Carmelite house in Hanoi. Unable to fulfill that goal, she corresponded with a young missionary priest and supported him with her prayers. In a letter to him, she assures him that her death will not separate them. When I die, she wrote, "there will no longer be any cloister and grilles, and my soul will be able to fly with you into distant missions. Our roles will remain the same: yours, apostolic [labor], mine, prayer and love."2

I was also surprised to find, reading St. Therese this time around, that she spent the last year and a half of her life in what St. John of the Cross once called "the dark night of the soul." On the night before Good Friday in 1896, Therese had a coughing fit in the night, and when she awoke the next morning, she was covered in blood and knew that her dying had begun. She was at first filled with joy at the thought of leaving this earthly exile and joining Jesus in heaven. But by Easter Sunday, that joy was gone, and it never came back, ever.

Even in this night of nothingness, with her vision of God's love obscured, she stayed turned toward God, and she kept loving.

St. Therese died in 1897, quite young, at 24. If she had lived as long as some of her sisters lived, my lifetime might have overlapped—a little—with hers. She lived in an in-between time—in between a culture suffused with Catholic Christianity and its practices and a culture which would question the very existence of God. It was a time of great scientific and technological advances, the time when Marx, Freud, Darwin, and Nietzsche were doing their groundbreaking work. Although she was cloistered in a monastery, she was not immune to the great questions of her age. When faced with her imminent death, she fell into a trough of doubt and fear. She said it was like living in a country upon which an impenetrable fog had settled; try as she might, she could no longer make out the joyful confidence she had had in God's love and care and promises. It was a night, as she put it, of nothingness.

But even in this night of nothingness, even with her vision of God's love obscured, she stayed turned toward God, and she kept loving. Even though I no longer have the joy of faith, she wrote, I am trying to carry out its works.

It took St. Therese a year and a half to die. She never regained the joy of her faith and the consolations it had once provided. But she never stopped loving God either. She was living in the midst of what the philosopher Simone Weil calls "affliction"—an uprooting of life, in which God can seem entirely absent. "The soul has to go on loving in the emptiness," Weil writes, "or at least to go on wanting to love, though it may only be with an infinitesimal part of itself.&nbsp.&nbsp.&nbsp. If the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell."3

Christ loved like this on this cross, Weil says. The one "whose soul remains ever turned toward God though the nail pierces it finds himself nailed to the very centre of the universe."4 This, Weil writes, is the place where the arms of the cross intersect; it is the true center of the world; it is God.

This is where Therese Martin, 23, 24 years old, lived for the last year and a half of her life. Nailed to the center of the universe, with her face turned toward God, she remained determined to make her whole life, up until her last living breath, an act of love.

Now St. Therese's "little way" no longer seems so little. I even have a renewed appreciation for her Christmas conversion. Yes, it is a story about growing up, about maturing, about moving from an exclusive focus on oneself and one's feelings to noticing the effect of one's choices on others, to putting the feelings of others before one's own. Yes, and what better definition of conversion could there be? And how had I ever thought that this was a simple change in her life, that it had nothing to do with holiness? That only shows how much I need to be converted.

St. Therese's "little way" is cherished by millions of people around the world because it is a way of holiness that anyone can pursue. Seeking to make every interaction, no matter how ordinary, an opportunity to love more deeply, she prepared herself to keep loving, even in the face of doubt and suffering and death. Her little way invites us all to take the small steps that make the big steps possible. In my hometown, we needed the courts to take a big step, to insist that we integrate our schools. But without the little way of children cultivating friendships on the playground, of black parents and white parents choosing to send their children to integrated schools, it would have been hard for the big changes of those years to take root.

When I visited my parents the next summer, the old copy of St. Therese's autobiography was back on my dad's shelf in his study. (Where had it been last summer? Only God and St. Therese know. Maybe it had been there in front of my eyes the whole time, and I just couldn't see it.)

It has my dad's name in the front, and also mine. And it has some underlining that is most definitely mine. I turned every page to see what had struck me when I was 12. I laughed out loud to see my unsteady pencil marks underneath the words "Martyrdom was the dream of my youth. . . . I would die flayed like St. Bartholomew. I would be plunged into boiling oil like St. John . . . With St. Agnes and St. Cecelia, I would present my neck to the sword" (193). I laughed because I am the person I know least likely to seek martyrdom, or to want to suffer in any way, for any reason. I have no memory of desiring this as a 12-year-old. What did I love here? Why did I mark this passage? It's her passion, I think, her desire to do all for God—to leave nothing out—that I think I loved.

There were a few other passages underlined or marked, mostly passages with lots of exclamation marks and italics. But there was one passage that stopped me in my tracks. In the back flap of the book, I found the words "page 87" written in my handwriting. And when I turned to page 87, I saw underlined in heavy pencil these words: "I felt it was far more valuable to speak to God than to speak about Him, for there is so much self-love intermingled with spiritual conversations!"

I felt it was far more valuable to speak to God than to speak about Him, for there is so much self-love intermingled with spiritual conversations.

I felt that I was receiving a message to my middle-aged self from my 12-year-old self, or perhaps a message from St. Therese herself. There's not a single bit of italics anywhere in that sentence (although there is an exclamation point), but I felt it as if every single word had been italicized. Being in the religion business, I spend a lot of my hours and days talking about God and having "spiritual conversations." But how much time do I spend speaking to God? How much time do I spend in prayer? I heard those two young girls—myself as a child and Sister Therese of the Child Jesus—ask me: Don't you remember? Don't you? Hand in hand—in cahoots, even—they whisper the word that Therese knew was at the heart of everything: love. More love.

 

Notes

  1. Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Fawcett Columbine, 1994), 104.
  2. Mary Frohlich, St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Essential Writings (Orbis Books, 2003), 164.
  3. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 70.
  4. Ibid., 81.
 

Stephanie Paulsell is Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice (Jossey-Bass). This essay will be included in the forthcoming collection Reflections on the Spiritual Life, edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr. (Westminster John Knox).

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Reflecting on a Rabbi's Legacy

Sharon Goldman

In Review | Books Rashi: A Portrait, by Elie Wiesel, translated by Catherine Temerson. Nextbook/Schocken Books, 110 pages, $22.

Eleventh-century Spain was an auspicious time and place to be Jewish. Now hailed as the "Golden Age," the period is known for its unprecedented tolerance between the ruling Moors and the resident Jews. Scholarship flourished on both sides of the religious divide; fear for one's life was hardly the norm. Not so in France. Though the Jewish community had been well established since the days of the Roman Empire, Jews were excluded from citizenship and were regularly impugned as the source of myriad social and natural maladies. The order to convert came in 1017. In 1095 the First Crusade began its pernicious way down the Rhine, slaughtering thousands of so-called heathens with impunity. For Jews across Europe, martyrdom was not uncommon. Given the choice of conversion or death, many families elected to die by their own hands. Against this background of terror and grief, Rashi, the much-renowned scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud, produced voluminous commentary.

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (1040–1105) spent the better part of his life in Troyes, France, where he established a world-renowned yeshiva. Though Troyes was fortunate to have fallen outside the bounds of the Crusaders' path, there is little doubt that Rashi was well aware of the attacks, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel suggests in his latest book, Rashi: A Portrait, that this climate of extreme persecution shaped and colored Rashi's hermeneutical lens.

Rashi is credited with having written commentary on most of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) and the Midrash (the canon of legal explications and stories designed to elucidate and supplement the Tanach) and with an almost complete commentary (finished posthumously by his son-in-law) of the Babylonian Talmud. To this day, it is safe to say that no one studies these texts without consulting Rashi; he is considered to be a sine qua non for rabbinical students and laypeople alike. A translation of Rashi's running commentary can be found in every version of the Babylonian Talmud printed during the last 500 years. The depth and breadth of his work has shed light on the overarching shape of the text and has parsed and decoded specific sections. It is no surprise that over the course of the millennium, many books have been written about this imposing scholar. What then does Wiesel's have to add?

Wiesel begins with two questions: "Why Rashi?" and "Why me?" These questions lead us through a ramble into Rashi's neighborhood in Troyes and through Wiesel's childhood memories of Rashi-related discussions in his Yiddish-speaking, Hungarian home. Rashi is neither a straightforward biography nor an exegetical foray. Rather, it is a series of short, contemplative paragraphs landing somewhere between homage to Rashi and a reflective account of Wiesel's personal relationship with him. Clearly, Rashi has inspired Wiesel in his own scholarly career, and he honors Rashi's legacy both as a person and as a scholar. In the preface Wiesel writes: "I feel the need to tell him everything I owe to him. . . . He is my first destination. My first aid." Throughout his homage, Wiesel reminds us of Rashi's humility and patience: he is purported to have written "I don't know" over 100 times in his commentaries.

Wiesel's impressionistic, meandering style notwithstanding, he does crack open a window into Rashi's hermeneutical approach. We see how Rashi freely breaks apart portions of text, inserting lengthy responses between selected phrases. We also see how Rashi extracts excerpts from their original context and juxtaposes them so that they appear to cohere and present a singular idea. Rashi is known to jump to later portions of the Tanach (both in terms of when they were written and their order within the canon) to explain earlier ones. For example, his biblical exegesis begins by questioning why Genesis starts with creation: " . . . the Torah should have started with 'This month shall be unto you the first of the months' . . . since that is the first mitzvah, the first commandment given to Israel. Why did it start with Bereshit or 'In the beginning?' " Rashi doesn't settle for the facile explanation, that the world had to be created prior to the creation of nations and their laws. Instead, in what could be construed as a proto-Zionist stance, he arrives at an answer by drawing upon an excerpt from the Psalms—"He hath shewed his people the power of his works, that he may give them the heritage of the heathen" (Psalm 111, verse 6)—and continues: "the whole earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed be He. It is He who created it, who offered it to whomsoever He wanted. When He wanted. He gave it to them (first) and then in accordance with His will, He took it away from them and gave it to us." By juxtaposing phrases from these two sources, Rashi is able to make the case that we start with creation, not because of the chronology of world history, but because by starting with creation, we assert a philosophical principle—that the world belongs first and foremost to its creator.

Rashi is known both for his adherence to the literal text and for his scrutiny into the hidden level of its meaning. Wiesel provides examples of his exegesis: In Genesis, the "us" in "Let us create man in his image" demonstrates God's humility, and hence the supreme importance of humility even among the great. Rebecca's statement, "I will go [to marry Isaac]," instructs us that women should never be forced into a marriage, but rather should enter into matrimony of their own accord. When God condemns Cain for spilling Abel's blood, he speaks to Cain in the plural, implying that descendents can be implicated in the sins of their ancestors. As for the Garden of Eden, Rashi avers that Eve gives Adam the apple to share so that, if she dies, Adam will not outlive her to find another spouse.

Through Wiesel, we also learn of Rashi's biases. Rashi chooses passages in the Midrash depicting other nations in their most negative light. While the Talmud itself will point out the patriarchs' flaws, for Rashi they could do no wrong. He holds Jacob in highest esteem, despite the episodes of duplicity, while he excoriates Esau, Jacob's brother, casting him as the ancestor of those who have persecuted the Jews. Could these biases be a reflection of the historical reality and the theological pressures of the time? Did Rashi feel compelled to contrast so sharply the glory of the patriarchs with the foreign element in order to find meaning and solace during the most devastating of times? Could it be that Rashi was a bit infected, understandably, by a blight of xenophobia?

Wiesel suggests that the answer to these questions is "yes," but only faintly. Though offering us a historical framework, he resists a more invigorated historical analysis. There are points at which Wiesel could have taken a more decisive stance. For example, he underscores the fact that Rashi addresses the length of time it takes Abraham to get to Mount Moriah with Isaac. This three-day period reveals Abraham's composure; he did not act capriciously or in a fit of insanity. However, Wiesel omits the fact that the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) served as an important touchstone in Europe during this period, as a justification for martyrdom at the hand of the Crusaders.

True to the book's subtitle, A Portrait, Wiesel portrays Rashi the rabbi as much as Rashi the writer/exegete. People came from all over Europe not only to study with him, but also to seek his counsel on everything from matters of religious practice to business affairs. It is important to remember that rabbis did not assume the same role that we think of today. They were equally, if not more likely, to be found adjudicating legal decisions at a beit din (a court of law) as they were to be found conducting a religious service in the synagogue. Men (and they were exclusively men) did not become rabbis by going to rabbinical school (there was no such thing, other than the yeshivas), but rather earned their stature by demonstrating a keen understanding of text and a facility with applying that understanding to daily concerns.

Wiesel offers a friendly introduction to Rashi. The book, however, would be more compelling had he actually answered his two initial questions. Other than acknowledging the request of his publisher and noting that his family claims direct lineage from Rashi, Wiesel neither adequately addresses nor responds to these questions. Beyond reminiscing about Rashi's inspiration to him personally, it is not clear exactly what is driving Wiesel to write this book and, more specifically, how this book is relevant to us now. From someone so adept at weaving together discourse across the disciplines and at bringing the past to bear so poignantly upon the present, we expect more.

 

Sharon Goldman, who received a master of theological studies degree from HDS in 2005, is a teacher in the Arlington, Massachusetts, public schools.

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The Dialogue of Socialism

Common interest in a better world led the way for religious pluralism.

Dan McKanan

For most churchgoing Protestants in nineteenth-century America, the name "Owen" evoked a fascinated horror. The Owens—father Robert, son Robert Dale, and their close associate Frances or "Fanny" Wright—were notorious "infidels," preaching that the Bible was a fable, the clergy hypocritical scoundrels, and human character a product of environmental factors rather than spiritual grace. Like their freethinking predecessor Thomas Paine, they were foreigners: Robert Senior visited the United States briefly in 1825, leaving Robert Dale Owen and Fanny Wright behind to promote his ideas in the New World. Above all, they were social radicals. Wright was notorious for her feminist sentiments and for the interracial commune she established at Nashoba, Tennessee. Robert Owen espoused a pure communism in which all property would be shared equally and a common system of childrearing would prepare everyone for a culture of equality. His purpose in coming to the United States was to establish such a society at New Harmony, Indiana; when that community formally dissolved after a tempestuous two years, Wright and Robert Dale Owen turned their energies to a radical newspaper called the Free Enquirer and to the Working Men's Party, which they joined in 1828 to support striking journeymen and demand universal male suffrage, free public education, and a 10-hour day.1

Yet when Robert Owen arrived in the United States, he was welcomed by a society of Bible-quoting Protestants. The New York Society for Promoting Communities was the brainchild of Quaker physician Cornelius C. Blatchly, who recruited a board that included five ministers. Among them were a Congregationalist who had recently embraced the esoteric teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and two leaders from a rebellious Methodist Society that repudiated the authority of bishops, celebrated working-class culture, and had facilitated the emergence of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church as a distinct denomination.2 Together, these visionaries called "every religious congregation" to reconstitute itself on the basis of the "community of goods" first practiced by the apostles. Successful communism, they argued, would necessarily be religious, because "all goodness comes only from God" and only the influence of the gospel could overcome the "inefficiency of human and external laws to reform and regulate the conduct of the social family."3

Surprisingly, Blatchly's Society published this millennial manifesto alongside excerpts from Owen's writings in which he defended socialism on an opposite basis. For Owen, "the character of man is always formed for him . . . by his predecessors," and he insisted that the economic system of joint ownership was a sure means of preventing "in the rising generation . . . the miseries which we and our forefathers have experienced."4 The juxtaposition of these two arguments helped inaugurate more than a century of interaction that brought radical Protestants into continuous practical cooperation—and more intermittent interfaith dialogue—with disciples of Owen, Charles Fourier, and Karl Marx, as well as with a diverse mix of spiritualists, Theosophists, Reform Jews, New Thought practitioners, Ethical Culturists, and humanists who shared their vision of a post-capitalist society.5

Socialism (a term coined by Owen's disciples, defined here to include both "utopian" experiments and more "political" organizations) is not commonly seen as a site for interfaith dialogue, for at least two reasons. First, its history does not easily mesh with the usual chronology of dialogue. Many interpreters present dialogue as an eminently twentieth-century phenomenon, possible only after American culture had moved through the stages of toleration and inclusion to a mature "pluralism." And that has certainly been true for the majority of Americans and their churches. After the high profile encounters of the 1893 Parliament of World Religions, mainstream American Protestants reached out to the religious "other" in a series of concentric circles, committing to the Protestant ecumenism of the Federal Council of Churches in the 1910s, to the tripartite system of "Protestant-Catholic-Jew" in the 1960s, and seriously encountering Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists only after the immigration reform of 1965 brought large numbers of Asians into professional-class neighborhoods.6 It has only been in the last decade or so that most dialogue organizations have widened the table to include people of "no faith" as well.7 Yet the socialist dialogues of the nineteenth century typically excluded orthodox Calvinists and Catholics while embracing Reform Jews, Theosophical disciples of the Buddha, and a host of movements generally perceived as "unbelieving."

This is the second reason that socialism has usually been left out of the dialogue story: it is not generally understood to be "religious" at all. There is merit in that perception. The Owenites were "secularist" in their zeal for church-state separation and "antireligious" in their tendency to spend more time criticizing Christianity than they did in spelling out their religious alternative. The same was true for doctrinaire Marxists, though less so for spiritualists, Theosophists, Ethical Culturists, New Thought adherents, and humanists, all of whom tried to place primary emphasis on what they did believe. All of these groups departed from conventional understandings of "religion" by disavowing a supernatural basis for their beliefs about ultimate reality, though they often held beliefs that seemed supernatural or irrational to outsiders. Typically, they were composed primarily of people who had once been Protestant, or at least had come from culturally Protestant families. The dialogue between members of these groups and radical Protestants thus crossed boundaries of faith but not culture, and participants on both sides shared prejudices against Roman Catholicism in particular and established or ritualistic religions in general. Many participants even changed sides, lapsing from their Protestant commitments over the course of the dialogue! It was easy to see the conversation as one between believers and apostates rather than between two distinct religious worldviews.

This perception of religious absence rather than presence obscures the fact that many ex-Christian socialists had both explicit beliefs about ultimate reality and much of the apparatus we usually associate with religion—creedal statements of belief or disbelief, "social hymns," designated leaders (many of them originally credentialed as Protestant ministers), rituals of initiation and excommunication, even the practice of meeting on Sunday mornings for singing and a sermon. Robert Owen devoted a major section of his Book of the New Moral World to "The Principles and Practice of the Rational Religion," and frequently claimed that observance of this religion would usher in the millennium.8 His followers gathered in such freethinking congregations as Boston's Society of Free Enquirers and New York's Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists. Their services featured readings from Owen's writings, songs from his Social Hymns, and talks on topics ranging from the platform of the Working Men's Party to the doctrine of the soul.9

Congregational institutions of this sort provided an indispensable base of support for the labor unions, political parties, and utopian colonies that are the better-remembered institutions of every wave of socialism. Without the former, the latter might not have come into existence. But practitioners of post-Christian spirituality were not alone in socialist unions, parties, and colonies. They worked alongside a roughly equal number of Protestants and (especially in the twentieth century) Jews who found a powerful sanction for socialism in biblical faith. Some of these biblical believers gathered in their own freestanding radical congregations, while others clung precariously to the fringes of mainstream denominations. On several occasions, their cooperation with post-Christian socialists blossomed into dialogue.

Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright voiced their commitment to dialogue in the first issue of the Free Enquirer. Declaring that "silence on the subject of religion seems to us little better than treason to truth and virtue," they promised to open their pages to "any spirited, well written communication, be it religious or infidel, orthodox or heterodox, if it be dictated by good taste and expressed in the spirit of charity."10 Undoubtedly, this reflected their zeal for the principle of free speech more than any desire to listen deeply to their Christian brothers and sisters. Still, they set a precedent for several instances of meaningful interchange. When budding abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who then based his critique of slavery on biblical authority, was turned away from both Unitarian and Orthodox Congregationalist pulpits in Boston, the First Society of Free Enquirers opened its hall for his revolutionary demand for immediate abolition.11 (Garrison repaid the favor a few years later by protesting the imprisonment of the Society's "minister," Abner Kneeland, on charges of blasphemy as "a proof of the corruption of modern Christianity."12)

In 1835 Kneeland's newspaper, the Boston Investigator, also featured a brief exchange with Orestes Brownson, who, like Kneeland, was a former Universalist minister who had been disfellowshipped for heterodox views; he had come to Boston to create a Society for Christian Union and Progress as a rival to Kneeland's Free Inquirers. While Kneeland defined himself as a non-Christian "pantheist," Brownson (at that moment in his long spiritual pilgrimage) sought a basis for Working Men's politics in the Christian scripture. And so he wrote to Kneeland that he believed humanity could be divided into a "stationary party" that supported "things as they are" and a "movement party" that "desires something better." Conceding that organized religion was generally aligned with the "stationary party," he posed a question: "Suppose you should find the church maintaining the most universal freedom, exerting itself incessantly to meliorate the condition of man, carried away always by a spirit of progress, of perfectionment, would you not cease to oppose it?" Kneeland quibbled with Brownson's categories, noting that even Roman Catholicism was notoriously un-stationary in its list of doctrines. After conceding the main point—he would not "object to the mere name of christianity, were its principles to be what you suppose I would wish to have"—Kneeland added waggishly that anyone who "avow[ed] such principles, and endeavor[ed] to carry them out in practice" would "no more be considered a christian by the 'stationary party' of christians, than I am."13

Though spiritualism is remembered for its spectacular manifestations of contact with dead spirits, the movement was also marked by a vigorous tradition of both feminism and socialist activism.

Kneeland aptly predicted the way in which dialogue would unfold in the next great wave of American socialism. Charles Fourier, whose detailed communitarian blueprint inspired dozens of colonies in the United States, appealed to many American Christians precisely because he was no Robert Owen. Neither an atheist nor an exponent of the theory that character is formed by environment, the eccentric Frenchman taught that the human person is a complex of divinely ordered "passions" (for sensory pleasure, for romantic love and parental affection, for a diversity of occupations, and above all for "universal unity") that will harmonize perfectly with the passions of others so long as the "Divine Social Code" is followed. Apparently drawing on strands of Western esotericism, Fourier affirmed that this same code explained the gravity-like laws of "attraction" binding together individuals, groups, planets, and even universes, as well as the hidden correspondences linking the musical scale and the sequence of planets to human passions.14

Fourier's theory of correspondence closely paralleled the esoteric Christianity of Emanuel Swedenborg, and so it naturally appealed to the Swedenborgians (among them Blatchly's erstwhile associate) who organized the Leraysville Association and to the Transcendentalists of Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, many of whom were familiar with Swedenborg's writings.15 But other phalanxes were dominated by Hicksite Quakers or the ecumenically minded Disciples of Alexander Campbell, and virtually all took a fierce pride in their religious diversity. "We had seventy-four praying Christians, including all the sects in America, except Millerites and Mormons," claimed one phalanx leader. "We had one Catholic family (Dr. Theller's), one Presbyterian clergyman, and one Universalist. One of our first trustees was a Quaker. We had one Atheist, several Deists, and in short a general assortment; but of Nothingarians, none; for being free for the first time in our lives, we spoke out, one and all, and found that every body did believe something."16 The Brook Farmers took special delight in sharing their religious differences. One recalled learning to appreciate "the great beauty of the Swedenborgian doctrines" from one friend, the inner meaning of Judaism from another, and the "symbols" of Catholicism from "persons who are not and never can be Romanists any more than myself. "17 On a more humorous note, another Brook Farmer recalled how the simple task of peeling potatoes provided an occasion for a woman of working- class background to introduce "stirring Methodist hymns" to a companion who, "having stepped at a bound from Episcopacy to rationalism, was a stranger to this spirit."18

The effect of this dialogue was both mutual understanding and a convergence toward religious liberalism. " 'I am a Jew, but a liberal, understanding Jew,' " one Brook Farmer quoted his companions. " 'I am a Catholic, but I am a liberalized Catholic,' says another. 'I am a Swedenborgian, but my belief liberates me from the crudities of Swedenborg,' say others. . . . 'We all see how the forms of our churches were intended for good, and we all see how many of them have been prostituted.' "19 The result was what Kneeland had predicted: however Fourierists understood themselves, their neighbors viewed them as rank infidels, and those phalanxes that attracted significant numbers of truly orthodox Protestants experienced wrenching divisions. Orestes Brownson, by this time a Roman Catholic who had repented of his youthful radicalism, aptly noted that the Fourierist "starting point" was "at the opposite pole from Christianity" because it denied original sin. The rich dialogue of Fourierism was for him a symptom of the "miserable eclecticism" of the age, which reduced every religion to "symbols. . .of partial truths" and thus denied the possibility of truly authoritative revelation.20

In part because most of its Christians were liberal Unitarians rather than orthodox Calvinists, Brook Farm was able to continue the practice of dialogue even after its demise as a community. In 1847 former community members and friends organized a Religious Union of Associationists that for four years gathered weekly for musical performances, prayer, and presentations on such varied topics as the "Solidarity of the Race," "The War With Mexico," and "The Relation of Christ and the Spiritual World to Us." Among their many dialogues was a conversation among a Catholic, a Jew, and a rationalist about the diverse paths that had brought them to the Associationist movement.21

Fourierist communities provided an important seedbed for the most successful non-Christian religious movement in nineteenth-century America, the wave of spiritualism that swept the nation in the 1850s. (Two other milieus that fostered spiritualism were radical abolitionism, especially in upstate New York, and the Universalist denomination; both Robert Owen and Robert Dale Owen were also among the radicals who embraced spiritualism during its heyday.) Though spiritualism is best remembered for its spectacular manifestations of contact with dead spirits, the movement was also marked by an elaborate cosmology and a vigorous tradition of both feminist and socialist activism.22 Most phalanxes that survived into the 1850s hosted séances; some of those that didn't were reborn as spiritualist communities; and several community leaders had subsequent careers as spiritualist lecturers. The best known systematizer of the movement, Andrew Jackson Davis, was notable for the degree to which his cosmology blended Swedenborgian mysticism with Fourierist social theory.23

Davis, who began his career as a medium transmitting spirit messages from Swedenborg, increasingly divorced his harmonial philosophy from Swedenborg's Christian exegetical context. "The church estimate of human nature is an insult to the Great Spirit," he wrote in one book, while in his own (perhaps half-serious) catechism he answered the Calvinist question about the "chief end of man" by saying that it was "endless progression; to do good, be happy, get wisdom, and aspire calmly toward perfection; to become harmonious even as his Father-God and Mother-Nature are harmonious."24 Such rhetoric was not calculated to please socialists who felt they were following the gospel path to God's Kingdom on earth.

American socialism did not unfold according to plan because the native-born proletariat was too racially divided to be fully class-conscious and too in love with Jesus to accept dialectical materialism.

One such socialist was Adin Ballou, who had steered his Hopedale community of "Practical Christian Socialism" on a path that was parallel to but distinct from Fourierism because he regarded Fourier as both insufficiently Christian and too wedded to abstract theorizing.25 A prodigiously productive scriptural exegete who wrote the century's most influential treatise on Christian pacifism, Ballou was predictably "amazed and confounded" by the way Davis's writings "sweep away very unceremoniously some of our long cherished religious opinions and views." But he also found that they "confirm some of our purest, sublimest, most unselfish convictions and aspirations." Ballou's sympathy for Davis's social ideals not only kept him reading; it led him to support spiritualist experimentation at Hopedale (especially after the death of his beloved son, which gave Ballou new incentive to contact the spirits) and to chair several spiritualist conventions. The ultimate fruit of Ballou's participation in this dialogue was a proposal for a Christian spiritualism that would allow the "fundamental truths" of Christianity to be "reaffirmed, clarified from error, demonstrated anew, and powerfully commended to the embrace of mankind by fresh spiritual communications."26

Spiritualism was at the height of its influence when Karl Marx unveiled a radically new system of "scientific socialism." Dismissing the schemes of both Owen and Fourier as "utopian" and rejecting all forms of religion as understandable but unhelpful "opiates," Marx insisted (with as much faith as science!) that a class-conscious proletariat was historically destined to usher in socialism by first seizing state power and then allowing the state to wither away. This vision had little room for the vagaries of spiritualism, and yet for a brief moment the two movements might have merged in the United States. In 1871, just as Marx's International Workingmen's Association was trying to gain a foothold among both native-born Americans and German immigrants, a highly self-aggrandizing spiritualist named Victoria Woodhull organized section 12 of the Association. In rapid succession she managed to get both the American Association of Spiritualists and the National Woman Suffrage Association to nominate her for the presidency of the United States. Though this feat was the result of manipulation rather than genuine leadership, it also exposed the overlapping constituency of the three movements.27 Indeed, as open-minded experiments exposed spiritualism to be less "scientific" than it originally claimed, it was natural for spiritualists to drift to the (perhaps equally suspect) claims of scientific socialism. The leadership of the two movements continued to overlap into the early twentieth century, when several journals promoted both causes and at least one Socialist local (in Galena, Kansas) was chaired by a devout spiritualist.28

With or without spiritualist support, American socialism did not unfold according to Marx's plan. The native-born proletariat was too racially divided to be fully class-conscious and too in love with Jesus to accept dialectical materialism. Marx's most ardent disciples were immigrants, many with bitter memories of reactionary established churches in Europe, who dominated the Socialist Labor Party of the 1890s and the Communist Party formed in the wake of the Russian Revolution. If doctrines and excommunications make a religion, these parties were certainly religious, and the latter in particular was profoundly shaped by Yiddish culture and Talmudic styles of exegesis. But it would be a stretch to say that they were arenas for interfaith dialogue.

The situation was quite different for the milder, less class-conscious forms of socialism that sprang up in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Appalled by the persistence of poverty amid industrial abundance, Henry George proposed in Progress and Poverty (1879) a "single tax" on land that would have effectively socialized real estate but not other forms of capital. Laurence Gronlund went a step further in The Cooperative Commonwealth (1884), arguing that collective ownership of both land and capital could be achieved through an evolutionary consolidation of existing monopolies rather than a violent revolution. This was surely a form of socialism, though when Edward Bellamy popularized it in his novel Looking Backward (1888), he cleverly labeled it as "Nationalism" to avoid anti-Marxist stigma. Each in turn, George and Bellamy inspired experimental communities and electoral politicking before folding into the broader Populist movement.29

Just as spiritualism and Fourierism were intertwined, so Bellamyite Nationalism built on the organizational structures of Theosophy, a partial successor to spiritualism that relied on the revelations of mysterious "Mahatmas" rather than of dead spirits for its cosmology. The Theosophical Society's first objective was "to form a nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity," and when a cluster of Boston Theosophists discovered a similar hope in Bellamy's novel, they procured an endorsement from the Society's leader, Madame Blavatsky, who agreed that Bellamy had identified "the first great step" toward brotherhood. The Boston Theosophists also initiated a national network of "Nationalist Clubs" that quickly attracted Protestant ministers. Nationalist clubs ceased to be an arena for dialogue when their turn toward electoral politics gave Blavatsky cold feet. "If Nationalism is an application of Theosophy," she urged, "it is the latter which must ever stand first in your sight." Still, Theosophists went on to build a series of cooperative colonies in California, and Theosophical ideas became integrated into the discourse of reform-minded journals.30

Many of the Protestant ministers who were drawn to Nationalism had first had their social consciences pricked by the absence of working-class people in their congregations. By the turn of the twentieth century, these ministers and their lay allies had coalesced into a diverse movement that would eventually be labeled the "social gospel." Many histories of the social gospel assume that its institutional base was in the Protestant seminaries, the denominational social service agencies, and above all the Federal Council of Churches, founded by social gospelers in 1908. These organizations included more than a few committed socialists, but they were dominated by reformers whose vision fell short of socialism. Moreover, they had little commitment to interfaith dialogue: the Federal Council, in particular, drew its boundaries narrowly enough to exclude Unitarians and Universalists, to say nothing of spiritualists and Theosophists.

A rather different set of organizations appealed to those social gospelers who believed, with labor leaders Terence Powderly and Eugene Debs, that Jesus was a class-conscious worker whose gospel required the overthrow of capitalism. Most of these activists participated in informal "fellowships" that brought ministers and laypeople together for conversation and mutual accountability. The most famous of these was the Baptist Brotherhood of the Kingdom; the most notorious was the Midwestern Kingdom movement, which helped propel its founder George Herron from the Congregationalist ministry to a bitterly anticlerical style of Marxism. Even after renouncing Christianity, Herron participated in a Chicago "Fellowship" of socialist activists who shared his hostility for organized Christianity.31 Other fellowships were intentionally interreligious. New York's Collectivist Society, organized by an Episcopalian layman, included Baptist Leighton Williams and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose His Religion and Hers proposed a naturalistic faith committed to the well-being of future generations rather than eternal life in heaven.32 The Brotherhood of the Daily Life, active in 1905, declared itself "Catholic in its broadest sense. Jew, Gentile, Christian or Pagan, all are welcome."33

Another important institution for radical social gospelers was the freestanding "People's" congregation. Though these churches had a variety of trajectories, they were most typically launched by charismatic Protestant ministers who had gotten into trouble with their denominations both for biblical liberalism and for sympathy with organized labor. Some were tiny and struggling; others attracted parishioners by the thousands and built massive edifices. Free from confessional moorings, they were able to declare social concern as their core identity. Thus, Chicago's People's Church, launched in 1880, promised to provide a place where "strangers and those without a religious home, and those of much or little faith" could unite in "the great law and duty of love to God and man, and in earnest efforts to do good in the world."34 People's Church of Cincinnati said its only "article of faith" was the "establishment of the brotherhood of man,"35 while in the 1930s the Church of the People in Seattle "made it obligatory upon applicants for membership to subscribe to the dogma that the capitalistic system is inimical to the religion of Jesus."36

The exploration of diverse religious ideas was a formative practice at many People's Churches. The sanctuary of People's in Cincinnati displayed quotations by both radical Christians and freethinkers—among them Lev Tolstoy and Thomas Jefferson—alongside a single biblical admonition to "know the truth and the truth shall make ye free." The Los Angeles Fellowship, a thousand-member congregation launched by a former revivalist who had been converted to socialism by George Herron, offered classes on Whitman, Emerson, and the Bhagavad Gita.37 And Seattle's Church of the People encouraged dialogue between Christians and Communist Party members by welcoming both into the congregation's fellowship. "Communist members are among the best," reported the minister. "They have a sense of discipline that others lack. . . . One thing is certain, the Communists have learned a good deal about the religion of Jesus and the religionists have learned even more about Communism."38

Perhaps because of these experiences of dialogue, veterans of the fellowships and the People's Churches played a vital role in fostering religious pluralism within the most electorally successful socialist entity in United States history, the Socialist Party of America. Ostensibly Marxist in ideology, the party brought together Marxists who found the Socialist Labor Party too narrow and Populists who found William Jennings Bryan's 1896 campaign too broad in its emphasis on "free silver" rather than the fight against capitalism. Protestant ministers had a special cachet among the party's founders, who hoped they would attract native-born voters into an alliance with immigrant socialists who were not yet citizens. Thus, at the founding convention in 1901, George Herron served as temporary chair and a key negotiator between the factions, while a few People's Church ministers were among the delegates. Herron worked with another former minister to establish the Rand School of Social Science (for party activists in training) in New York City; former ministers were elected to office on the party ticket in California, Montana, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts; and a Universalist pastor named Charles Vail signed on as the party's first "national organizer."39

Most of these ministers were active in the Christian Socialist Fellowship (CSF), which, despite its name, created ample space for interfaith dialogue. Founder E. E. Carr believed (in accord with the Socialist Party's electoral strategy) that "The hope of America is not in applied Paganism, but in applied Christianity," but he also affirmed that "we should freely and lovingly welcome to membership any Jew, Hindoo, or other religious socialist who is broad enough to work with us under the name of Jesus."40 Apparently no Hindus took him up on this, but several Jews did, along with New Thought lecturers and a disproportionate share of ministers from denominations excluded from the Federal Council's definition of "Christian."

The fellowship's Christian Socialist newspaper featured careful exegetical arguments that "the Socialists can well claim that were Jesus here today he would be one of us"41 alongside declarations that "SOCIALISM IS RELIGION: not a religion, just religion. There is only one religion, and that is man's expression of his humanity."42 Some of the party's leading spokespeople situated themselves right in the middle of the dialogue between these seemingly divergent theologies. In a widely reprinted article, Berkeley mayor Stitt Wilson affirmed, on the one hand, that "what America needs is a revival of genuine godliness and of primitive Christianity," and, on the other, cited New Thought prophet Ralph Waldo Trine to the effect that "All men must be brought into 'tune with the Infinite' and all institutions of men must mirror the harmony and Freedom of the Good and the Free."43 Charles Vail took time out from writing manuals of scientific socialism to publish The World's Saviors, a comparative study of Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and a dozen others. Vail concluded (in line with Theosophical teaching) that "all religions have their source in the Divine Wisdom of the Brotherhood of Perfect Men," and that therefore "every religion is at its best as it comes from its Founder."44

The CSF also sustained a more combative dialogue with those Marxists who wanted the Party to declare itself unequivocally for a philosophy of "scientific" materialism. That dialogue was contentious not only because the Christians' status as "good socialists" was at stake, but also because so many of the debaters on the other side had defected from Christian socialism. In both Chicago and New York, the fellowship established local worshiping congregations only to see the leaders start declaring that "While it may not seem so at first sight, the scientific method is best, and it will win out in the end."45 Such were the risks of dialogue in the socialist milieu: the religious loyalties of the participants were constantly changing.

A similar spirit of dialogue continued in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which after World War I supplanted the Christian Socialist Fellowship as the most important network of left-wing social gospelers.46 Unlike the CSF, the FOR's defining identity was pacifist rather than socialist, but most of its active members voted for the Socialist Party, at least after FOR member Norman Thomas had ascended to the top ranks of the party and made it explicitly open to non-Marxist varieties of socialism. Like many in the CSF, Thomas was a convert from a biblicist Christianity to a radical humanism. At the beginning of his editorial stint, he could declare that "for the ills that beset our race the spirit of Christ is the one sole medicament"47; by the end, he was committed to what he called the "implicit religion of radicalism"—a "religion of the future" that would build on the radical labor movement's faith in the human capacity to build a better society.48 As Thomas shifted his energies to politics, the two sides of his internal dialogue were carried forward by editorial successors Kirby Page (whose Jesus or Christianity defended the "simple faith" of Jesus against the "alien and hostile elements" found in the church)49 and Devere Allen, whose Quakerism vested no special authority in Jesus.

Page and Allen aptly illustrate the common ground that kept the socialist dialogue (mostly) friendly for more than a hundred years. Page the Christian despised the church's Constantinian compromises with power every bit as much as post-Christian Allen, while Allen admired the human Jesus enough to describe him as "the light of the world, throbbing with reality, incomparable" in a series on the theme "Would Jesus Be a Christian Today?"50 The glue that held their socialist dialogue together was the original Protestant critique of medieval Catholicism as an abandonment of the primitive faith of the apostles—a critique that was itself a distorted echo of the Hebrew prophets' critique of priestly religion. Christian and post-Christian socialists found common ground because they shared both the culture and the ethos of Protestantism, and as a result their experience offered only a shaky precedent for the more inclusive dialogues of the late twentieth century. It could readily make room for the most radical of Reform Jews, but not so easily for Catholics or others who saw ritual, asceticism, or historical continuity as essential to faith.51

Still, the Fellowship of Reconciliation did much to inaugurate the contemporary era of dialogue. Beginning with John Haynes Holmes's sermon that Gandhi was "The Greatest Man in the World," and culminating with the publication of popular manuals of Gandhian technique, the FOR played the central role in introducing Americans to the nonviolent Hinduism of Mahatma Gandhi. Members of the FOR staff introduced Gandhian techniques to the bus boycotters, student sit-in leaders, and Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement. Yet, enthusiasm for Gandhi hardly involved an open dialogue with Hinduism. Gandhi was comprehensible to American socialists in part because he had learned the language of both liberal Protestantism and Theosophy during his studies in England; like his American admirers, he was fond of pitting Jesus against Christianity. Many of those admirers, in turn, shook their heads in bemusement "that a man of Gandhi's ability could take seriously the heredity of professions, celibacy, and cow protection."52 One historian has cited this passage as evidence that the FOR was deeply shaped by the Orientalism of Christian missionaries.53 The fact that the author, Curtis Reese, was not a Christian at all, but a major leader in the humanist movement, only underscores the point. He was no Christian, but he was still a Protestant, and that gave him a place at the table of socialist dialogue.

The Gandhian activism promoted by the FOR would eventually create a context for dialogue that was intercultural as well as interreligious, especially after the Vietnam War brought many American radicals into conversation with Vietnamese Buddhists. By the 1970s the FOR was in fact organized on a dialogical basis, with affiliated Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and Protestant denominational Peace Fellowships. But this turn, and the broader rise of dialogue in U.S. culture, occurred after organized socialist movements had ceased to be viable players in the American political scene. The Socialist Party in the 1940s and 1950s was little more than a vehicle for Norman Thomas's "educational" presidential campaigns, while the Communist Party, after a period of vigorous "Popular Front" organizing in the 1930s, virtually collapsed as a result of revelations about Stalinist tyranny and red-baiting backlash. Many people continued to regard themselves as socialists, and in some ways they were more religiously diverse than ever. The anarchist Catholic Worker movement, the loosening of strictures against socialist affiliation during Vatican II, and the rise of liberation theology in Latin America all made it much easier for Roman Catholics to identify as "socialist" in the second half of the twentieth century.54 But when these folks came together in conversation with Protestants, Jews, and post-Christians, it was more likely in the context of civil rights or anti-war activism than under the rubric of socialism.

What, then, does the socialist experience of dialogue have to teach those of us who are committed to dialogues that move beyond the logic of Protestantism? A first lesson is that no single taxonomy of religious groups can apply in all contexts. We ordinarily think that "Christianity" is an inclusive category and "Protestantism" a subset thereof, and that is certainly true in many respects. But the Protestant influence on American culture reaches far beyond the boundaries of formal Christianity. It is possible, in some settings, for a dialogue that ostensibly brings together a "Christian," a "Buddhist," and a "Jew" to include only people whose way of thinking about religion is culturally Protestant. Certainly, that was the case for the dialogues staged at Brook Farm! Such dialogues may well have great value, but only if the Protestant presuppositions are acknowledged and worked through by all involved.

A broader implication of this point is that any dialogue involves some common presuppositions, values, and even prejudices, as well as the differences that are usually the focus of conversation. These commonalities, I suspect, are helpful only to the extent that they are acknowledged. Socialist dialoguers were brought together not only by their unacknowledged commitment to Protestantism, but also by their acknowledged commitment to socialism itself. And that was a great boon. A common vision of a better world made it possible for socialists to listen attentively to religious ideas that others might have dismissed as blasphemous or preposterous. Without such a vision, Cornelius Blatchly might never have given a hearing to Robert Owen, or Adin Ballou to Andrew Jackson Davis.

This vision of a better world may also help to explain the penchant of socialists to change their religious loyalties in the middle of the dialogue. Everyone discussed in this essay would fit in Orestes Brownson's "movement party" of people who "desire something better." As such, none of them were fully satisfied with the politics or the religion they had inherited. The practice of interfaith dialogue, like the practice of socialism, has an inherent appeal to such people, for it promises to introduce new ideas that might be better than the old. Yet, many dialogues are structured with the expectation that participants will speak out of the (more or less "stationary") traditions they represent, rather than out of their personal questions and questings. Such structures may be a valuable corrective, making dialogue a bit more friendly to persons of more "stationary" disposition who would otherwise be underrepresented in dialogue. But the legacy of socialist dialogue reminds us that, ultimately, the table of dialogue must be set for progressive seekers and stationary traditionalists alike.[55]

 

Notes

  1. Overviews of the Owenite movement include J. F. C. Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America: The Quest for the New Moral World (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969); Arthur Bestor, Jr., Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian Origins and the Owenite Phase of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663–1829 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950); and Donald E. Pitzer, "The New Moral World of Robert Owen and New Harmony," in America's Communal Utopias, ed. Donald E. Pitzer (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 88–134. On the broader context of "workingmen's" activism in the antebellum United States, see Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (Oxford University Press, 1984), and Jama Lazerow, Religion and the Working Class in Antebellum America (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).
  2. The history of the "Stilwellite" movement within Methodism is traced in William R. Sutton, Journeymen for Jesus: Evangelical Artisans Confront Capitalism in Jacksonian Baltimore (Pennsylvania State University Press), 91–95; and Kyle T. Bulthuis, "Preacher Politics and People Power: Congregational Conflicts in New York City, 1810–1830," Church History 78/2 (June 2009): 270–281.
  3. An Essay on Commonwealths (New York Society for Promoting Communities, 1822), 3–4, 27.
  4. Ibid., 46, 50.
  5. Many of these traditions are featured in Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).
  6. On the gradual emergence of religious pluralism in the United States, see William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (Yale University Press, 2003); on the current context for dialogue in the United States, see Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).
  7. President Barack Obama's inaugural description of the United States as "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers" has been widely cited as evidence of this new understanding of dialogue.
  8. Robert Owen, The Book of the New Moral World, part 4, Explanatory of the Rational Religion (James Watson, 1852); and Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites, 92–139.
  9. "Sunday Lectures at Lower Julien Hall," Boston Investigator, April 23, 1831, 15.
  10. "Prospectus of The Free Enquirer," The Free Enquirer, second series, 1:1 (October 29, 1828): 5.
  11. Henry Mayer, All On Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (St. Martin's Press, 1998), 102–103.
  12. "Imprisonment of Abner Kneeland" and "Petition for the Pardon of Abner Kneeland," Liberator, July 6, 1838.
  13. Boston Investigator, April 17, 1835.
  14. The definitive study of the Fourierist movement in the United States is Carl Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell University Press, 1991). On Fourier himself, see Jonathan Beecher, Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World (University of California Press, 1986).
  15. The most recent of many studies of Brook Farm is Sterling F. Delano, Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).
  16. John Greig, cited in John Humphrey Noyes, History of American Socialisms (J. B. Lippincott, 1870), 280.
  17. B. J. Thomas to "My Dear Friend," 9 June 1845, in John Thomas Codman, Brook Farm: Historic and Personal Memoirs (Arena Publishing Company, 1894), 270.
  18. Georgiana Bruce Kirby, "My First Visit to Brook Farm," Overland Monthly 5 (July 1870): 9–19, in The Brook Farm Book: A Collection of First-Hand Accounts of the Community, ed. Joel Myerson (Garland, 1987), 107.
  19. B. J. Thomas to "My Dear Friend."
  20. "Mr. Brownson's Notice of Fourier's Doctrine," Phalanx 1/14 (July 13, 1844): 197–198.
  21. Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Memoir of William Henry Channing (Houghton Mifflin, 1886), 225; and Sterling F. Delano, "A Calendar of Meetings of the 'Boston Religious Union of Associationists,' 1847–1850," Studies in the American Renaissance, 1985, 187–267.
  22. Notable among recent studies of spiritualism are Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Beacon Press, 1989); Bret E. Carroll, Spiritualism in Antebellum America (Indiana University Press, 1997); Robert S. Cox, Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism (University of Virginia Press, 2003); and John B. Buescher, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House, 2004).
  23. Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale University Press, 2007), 206–220.
  24. Andrew Jackson Davis, The Great Harmonia, 8th ed., 5 vols. (Colby & Rich, 1884), 4:10; and Davis, The Penetralia, Being Harmonial Answers to Important Questions (Bela Marsh, 1856), 26.
  25. Adin Ballou, Practical Christian Socialism: A Conversational Exposition of the True System of Human Society (Fowler and Wells, 1854); and Edward K. Spann, Hopedale: From Commune to Company Town, 1840–1920 (Ohio State University Press, 1992).
  26. Adin Ballou, "Spirit Manifestations—No. 1," Practical Christian 12/11 (September 27, 1851): 42. Ballou elaborated his views in An Exposition of Views Respecting the Principal Facts, Causes, and Peculiarities involved in Spirit Manifestations (Bela Marsh, 1853).
  27. Braude, Radical Spirits, 170–173.
  28. Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870–1920 (University of Illinois Press, 1981); see also Paul Buhle, Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left, rev. ed. (Verso, 1991), 67–70.
  29. Henry George, Progress and Poverty (W. M. Hinton, 1879); Laurence Gronlund, The Cooperative Commonwealth in Its Outlines: An Outline of Modern Socialism (Lee and Shepard, 1884); and Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (Ticknor and Company, 1888).
  30. J. Gordon Melton, "The Theosophical Communities and Their Ideal of Universal Brotherhood," in America's Communal Utopias, ed. Donald E. Pitzer (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 396–418.
  31. The vision of this Fellowship is amply represented in Socialist Spirit, published 1901 and 1903.
  32. W. J. Ghent, "The Collectivist Society," The Commons 9/2 (March 1904): 89–90; E. E. Carr, "The Christian Socialist Fellowship: A Brief Account of its Origins and Progress," Christian Socialist 4/16 (August 15, 1907): 5; and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (Century, 1923).
  33. "The Christian Socialist Fellowship," Christian Socialist 2/20 (October 15, 1905): 7. The quote is from a letter by Robert W. Irwin.
  34. Thomas Wakefield Goodspeed, University of Chicago Biographical Sketches (University of Chicago Press, 1922), 1:351–352.
  35. Zane L. Miller, Boss Cox's Cincinnati: Urban Politics in the Progressive Era (Oxford University Press, 1968), 143–145; "Pacifist Whipped in Kuklux Style," The New York Times, October 30, 1917, 3; "Ohio: Two & None," Time, January 13, 1936. Also see Daniel R. Beaver, A Buckeye Crusader: A Sketch of the Political Career of Herbert Seely Bigelow (1957).
  36. Fred W. Shorter, "An Experiment in Radical Religion," Radical Religion 1/4 (Autumn 1936): 19–22.
  37. W. A. Corey, "The Benjamin Fay Mills Movement in Los Angeles," Arena 33/187 (June 1905): 593–595; "Rev. Benj. Fay Mills Dead," The New York Times, May 2, 1916, 13; Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Peregrine Smith, 1973), 257; and Beryl Satter, Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement (University of California Press, 1999), 205.
  38. Shorter, "An Experiment in Radical Religion."
  39. The best introduction to the role of religion in the first two decades of Socialist Party history is Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America, ed. Jacob H. Dorn (Greenwood Press, 1998). For general histories of the party, see David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (Macmillan, 1955); Howard Quint, The Forging of American Socialism: Origins of the Modern Movement (University of South Carolina Press, 1953); Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897–1912 (Monthly Review Press, 1952); Frank A. Warren, An Alternative Vision: The Socialist Party in the 1930s (Indiana University Press, 1974); Buhle, Marxism in the United States; Anthony V. Esposito, The Ideology of the Socialist Party of America, 1901–1917 (Garland, 1997); and Seymour Martin Lipset, It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States (Norton, 2000).
  40. E. E. Carr, "The Christian Socialist Fellowship," Christian Socialist 2/20 (October 15, 1905): 4.
  41. Ibid., 10–13.
  42. Everett Dean Martin, "Why I Am a Socialist," Christian Socialist 6/3 (February 1, 1909): 2.
  43. J. Stitt Wilson, "Individual and Social Salvation," Christian Socialist 4/11 (1907): 1–3.
  44. Charles Vail, The World's Saviors (Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Company, 1914), 194.
  45. "What Bentall Thinks," Christian Socialist 5/24 (December 15, 1908): 5.
  46. The Fellowship of Reconciliation is the subject of two outstanding recent histories: Patricia Appelbaum, Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture Between World War I and the Vietnam Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2009).
  47. "An Interpretation and Forecast," The New World 1/1 (January 1918): 4–5.
  48. Norman Thomas, "The Implicit Religion of Radicalism," World Tomorrow 3/8 (August 1920): 231–233.
  49. Kirby Page, Jesus or Christianity (Doubleday, 1929), 1.
  50. Devere Allen, "Would Jesus Be a Sectarian Today?" World Tomorrow 11/11 (November 1928): 458–461.
  51. The one important exception to the anti-ritualism of the socialist dialogue was the involvement of radical Anglo-Catholics, many of whom were also formative leaders in the New Thought movement. For a representative example of this strand of socialist thought, see Jacob H. Dorn, " 'Not a Substitute for Religion, but a Means of Fulfilling It': The Sacramental Socialism of Irwin St. John Tucker," in Socialism and Christianity, ed. Dorn, 137–164.
  52. Curtis Reese, "Mahatma Gandhi's Ideas," The World Tomorrow 8/5 (May 1930): 229.
  53. Leilah C. Danielson, " 'In My Extremity I Turned to Gandhi': American Pacifists, Christianity, and Gandhian Nonviolence, 1915–1941," Church History 72/2 (June 2003): 361–388.
  54. Early in the twentieth century, the Catholic hierarchy was unrelentingly hostile to socialism, even though, beginning with Rerum Novarum in the 1890s, popes and bishops promoted a middle path between capitalism and socialism that was well to the left of mainstream Protestant thinking on the economy. The rigidity of church authority made active involvement in socialist movements virtually unthinkable for most observant Catholics. This began to change in the 1930s, when the Catholic Worker in the United States and Esprit in France began promoting more radical interpretations of Catholic social teaching. Though the Catholic Worker movement's vision was more anarchist than socialist, it broke the taboo on Catholic affiliation with all stripes of economic radicalism. See John C. Cort, Christian Socialism: An Informal History (Orbis Books, 1988), for an evocative account of religious socialism from the perspective of one Catholic who came to socialism via the Catholic Worker movement.
  55. I am most grateful to Kip Richardson for his assistance in researching this article.
 

Dan McKanan is Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. His most recent book is The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation (2008), and he is working on a general history of the religious left in the United States.

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The Philosopher Who Would Not Be King

Richard Rorty's pragmatism allowed him to be both intellectual and activist.

Michael D. Jackson

The day was hot. Trudging up the long avenue toward the university, I kept to the shade. The figs and eucalypts reminded me of Australia, bark stripped and straggling, or littering the dry ground. The oaks, myrtles, and phoenix palms took me back to the south of France. I imagined that I could feel at home here, this commingling of antipodean, Mediterranean, and American flora, this winterless climate. But the buildings, colonnades, tiled terracotta roofs, and open courtyards were a less congenial mix. Inexplicably, Auguste Rodin's Burghers of Calais had been made strangers to one another, standing alone rather than grouped as they are in Calais and London, willing hostages prepared to give their lives to save their besieged city. At the entrance to the university there was an inscription dedicating the campus to the memory of Leland Stanford, Jr., "born to mortality . . . passed to immortality," a mother's undying love metamorphosed into an institution of timber beam, plaster walls, reinforced concrete, and carved stone.

So we convert our tragedies into objects that will withstand corrosive rain, seismic upheavals, and time. We place memorial urns in the cloisters, a chapel at the heart of it all, columns and commemorative plaques that lift our eyes from the ground. Even our intellectual labor aspires to the condition of permanence and transcendence, though our lives are transitory in comparison, our miseries commonplace, our labors unavailing. I felt a strong desire to testify to the struggle of those who lacked the means to pretend that life was otherwise. In about an hour I would present a paper about the life of a Kuranko woman for whom this place might well appear to be paradise, but whose thoughts were always under duress, bound by the obligations of parenthood, the struggle to make a farm, pay her children's school fees, and provide food for them, as well as overcome the debilitating effects of an undiagnosed illness. I was also thinking that this was where Richard Rorty taught from 1997 to 2005; Palo Alto was where he died.


That any philosophy mirrors the life of the philosopher is an assertion from which many thinkers would recoil, since it seems to reduce thought to the prejudices, preoccupations, and persuasions that supposedly characterize the musings of mere mortals. If every great philosophy is, as Nietzsche avows, "an involuntary and unconscious memoir" reflecting who the philosopher is before he or she takes up philosophy, then thought is but an adventitious byproduct of one's life rather than the disciplined, disinterested work of reason. I thought of Nietzsche when I first met Richard Rorty. There was something disarmingly vulnerable about him. Though renowned for his groundbreaking Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and his MacArthur "genius award," he seemed socially unsure of himself, and nonplussed whenever the talk turned from academic to mundane matters like Australian wines, the films of Werner Herzog, or the best Vietnamese restaurant in Canberra.

It was 1982. The Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. We were there on visiting fellowships—myself, Dick Rorty, Don Hirsch, Zygmunt Bauman, Paul Connerton, Russell Keat, Patrick McCarthy, and others I got to know less well. I was writing essays on embodiment, profiting from long conversations with Paul, who was writing his book on bodily social memory, and Russell, who was preparing his critique of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. It was my hatha yoga practice that had inspired my explorations of body consciousness; unfortunately, it had also turned me into an obnoxious fundamentalist who believed that the respiratory and psychophysical disciplines of yoga enabled one to achieve a truer and more realistic relationship with the world, and that discursive thought was largely illusory. Rorty objected to the essentialist overtones of my view, arguing that efforts to ground knowledge in the body or the mind, in reasoned discourse or strong intuition, were equally misguided. And he cautioned me against explaining any human experience in terms of some prior cause or first principle. In my defense, I pointed out that a philosophical argument against foundationalism could not be transferred to the real world, since all human beings have recourse to notions of firstness, foundations, and fundamentals in their everyday lives. If it is existentially the case that life is insupportable without such notions, what is the point of making philosophical arguments to the contrary? Moreover, I felt that the Deweyan argument, to which Rorty subscribed, against Platonic dualisms like body-mind, true-false, and subject-object left unconsidered the way we deploy these antinomies to capture different modes of experience. Making epistemological claims for such distinctions is absurd, but recognizing the phenomenological differences they communicated was, I thought, vital to understanding human experience.

I suppose I was ineptly asking whether philosophy has anything to say that might make a real difference to our lives, and whether its insights had value only within the academic circles where they served as currency. I quickly learned that these were also burning questions for Rorty, for beyond the philosophical issue of whether we can ever truly represent what lies outside our minds—whether human thought can mirror nature—lies the much more pragmatic issue of whether the insights of thinkers can change the world.

Though Rorty's parents broke with the Communist Party in 1933, they turned to the political philosophy of Leon Trotsky, even sheltering John Frank, one of Trotsky's secretaries, for several months following Trotsky's assassination in Mexico in 1940. "I grew up knowing that all decent people were, if not Trotskyites, at least socialists," Rorty would later write, reflecting on the influence of his parents. For even as a boy, he believed that the very "point of being human was to spend one's life fighting social injustice."1 One wonders whether this shy, bookish, and precocious 12-year-old appreciated the ironic contradiction between his desire to reform the world and his reclusive personality that would lead him to understand the world from afar.

In an interview that first aired on Dutch TV, Rorty is asked to describe himself as a child.

Appearing almost ingenuous, Rorty searches for the right words. "Shy, withdrawn, ingrown," he says carefully. "Um, constantly afraid of being beaten up in the schoolyard. Hm. Not playing much of a role in any activities. Hoping to get away from school as soon as I could."

"Why? Because . . ."

"I just felt awkward and unable to join in things."

"For what reason? Because . . ."

"Dunno. It's just a fairly early memory of being asocial."

Watching this video, I am immediately struck by Rorty's matter-of-factness—his refusal to reduce his shyness to some sinister cause, to find fault with his parents and upbringing, to judge his behavior as either good or bad. But the interviewer is determined to press him, to pin him down, to fathom this solitary behavior, and to use it as a key to unlock the secrets of the man.

"The schoolyard, then. You're standing alone, or . . ."

"You know, actually my memories aren't very strong until about the age of eight, or seven or eight, something like that. I was always being moved from school to school. I think I went to seven or eight different primary schools. In each one I would always wonder if I was going to make any friends, and then never did."

"But do you know why? This shyness, where did it come from?"

"Dunno."

"Did it accompany you all your life, or . . ."

"I've never been very easy in my dealings with people. I'm a lot better than when I was a child, but still I tend to avoid parties because I can't think of any small talk to make."

"As a shy boy, escaping the schoolyard, escaping the others in the classrooms, going from school to school seven or eight times, you might suppose there's somebody who reads books in the silence of his room, at home? Am I correct?"

"Yeah, yeah. According to my parents I pretty much taught myself to read when I was four or thereabouts and spent most of the rest of my life reading books."

If Rorty is bored or irritated by the interviewer's probing, he does not show it. He listens to each question and tries to answer it, even if the picture that he is allowing to emerge is of a nerd who felt indifferent to the rough-and-tumble of the world.

"The world in these books, was it perhaps more important to you than the world outside?"

"Yeah, much more. The world outside never quite lived up to the books except for a few scenes in nature—animals, birds, flowers."

Rorty is alluding to his childhood passion for collecting wild orchids, flowers that may have attracted him because they were "hard to find," "socially useless," and made him feel, at certain Wordsworthian moments, that he had been "touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance."2

But the interviewer wants to know "what kind of world" this boy was "creating by reading books and combining them."

"Oh, fantasies of power . . . ah . . . of control . . . um . . . of omnipotence. The usual childhood fantasies . . . um . . . you know. Turning out to be the unacknowledged son of the king, that kind of thing."

"Power. Control. The control and power you missed in the schoolyard?"

"And I think basically I was looking for some way to get back at the schoolyard bullies by turning into some kind of intellectual and acquiring some kind of intellectual power. I wasn't quite clear how this was going to work."

"Did you manage to come back to them as the intellectual?"

"No, I just lost touch with them by living in a world of intellectuals."

"After primary school, did the situation remain the same, that is to say, you were escaping, escaping into a world of books and fantasy?"

Not only are our philosophical pictures of the world artificial, but the world itself lies largely beyond our linguistic and intellectual grasp.

"Well, actually, I was very lucky, because when I was 15 I went to the university. And it was a particular program in a particular university where nobody talked about anything except books, so it was, you know, ideal for me, and it was the first situation in which I felt more or less at ease and in control of things."

"Was there any feeling that you had at that time in your childhood or early adulthood that you would become a philosopher?"

"I think philosophy was somewhat accidental. I think that I could equally well have become an intellectual historian or a literary critic, but it just happened that the course that I was most intrigued by when I was 16 was a philosophy course, and so I sort of kept taking more and more philosophy courses and signing up for more and more degrees."

"Why were you intrigued?"

"I think because of the sense of mastery and control you get out of philosophical ideas. You get the impression from reading philosophy that now you can place everything in order or in a neat arrangement or something like that. This gratifies one's need for domination."

The interviewer, it seems, is determined to have the last line.

"And compensation for shyness?"

"Yeah."

If the truth of a statement lies neither in its correspondence to a preexistent reality nor in its logical coherence, but in its capacity to help a person cope with life, to carry him or her into a more fulfilling relationship with others, what kind of truth is established by this interview? Given Rorty's philosophical position, his reclusive childhood did not cause him to become a thinker, doomed to converse with himself because no one would talk to him. What he is telling the interviewer is that books and philosophy were not escapes from the harshness of the world, but ways in which he coped with this world. "I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity," he writes, "a nerdy recluse and a fighter for justice."3 In pragmatism, he would find a viable compromise between the life of the mind and the life of the social activist. And by placing philosophy on a par with art and craft, storytelling, religion, bird-watching, and life skills, he could simultaneously puncture the pretensions of academics who regarded intellectual cleverness as intrinsically superior to all other forms of cleverness and affirm a solidarity with men and women whose skills were practical, social, or aesthetic.


My wife and I invited Dick and his wife Mary to our house for dinner. Since Dick and Don Hirsch were close friends, we invited the Hirsches as well. It was a convivial evening, and though I have a clear memory of cooking Indian food, I cannot now recall much of our conversation. A few weeks later, Dick and Mary invited us to their house for a meal. It was a monocrete bungalow in Deakin, a suburb of Canberra, and their two children, Patricia and Kevin, were preparing for bed when we arrived. From the start of the evening, it was clear that Dick had decided to assume the role of host. Moreover, I had the distinct impression that Dick had had to persuade Mary, against her better judgment, that this strict division of labor was a good idea. Not only did he cook and serve the food; he ensured that our wine glasses were filled and that we were properly introduced to the other guests, who included Tamsin and Ian Donaldson. Even now, 29 years after the event, I retain a poignant memory of Dick's determination to prove himself equal to the occasion. But what moved me most was his obvious struggle with tasks that most of us take for granted—cooking a simple meal, bantering about the weather, commenting on current events, discussing travel plans. That none of this came easy to him was obvious. Perhaps he had never before cooked a meal for eight guests. The food was not very good, but the determination to please was overwhelming, and we responded as parents might respond to a child bringing them breakfast in bed, the toast burned, the egg underdone, the tea cold. I don't want to sound condescending, for when I later reflected on the evening, I felt only admiration that someone should push himself so hard to perform tasks that did not come naturally to him. It seemed to me that the labor of producing a meal was greater, for him, than the labor of writing an essay on Dewey's critique of metaphysics.

After Canberra, I did not see Dick Rorty again, though we corresponded for a couple of years. He sent me an inscribed copy of Consequences of Pragmatism, and I reciprocated with a copy of Allegories of the Wilderness, which also appeared in 1982. And when my wife died in September 1983, Dick sent his condolences with a phrase that conveyed that passionate acceptance of contingency without which it is difficult to survive any loss, yet communicating that sense of hope without which it is impossible to envisage a future: "I only wish there was something useful I could do."

As it turned out, his work proved to be more useful than he, or I, could have imagined, for in the months after Pauline's death I spent several hours every day methodically reading, and taking notes on, the collected writings of William James and John Dewey. Had Richard Rorty not introduced me to these writers, I would perhaps never have realized how directly and profoundly pragmatism spoke to our struggle to recover a raison d'être in the face of catastrophic loss. Unlike Boethius, who I also read at this time, I found no consolation in thought as "the one true good"; rather, it was the realization that abstract thinking was little good for me that enabled me to yield to the natural processes of mourning, which always occur in their own good time.


One can never know how one's actions or words will impact others. But it is sometimes a person's struggle to be good, or decent, that impresses one more than his or her achievement of such virtues. During Kuranko initiation there is a lot of role reversal, men pretending to give birth to the neophytes, women playing at being men. These gender transformations are, of course, physically impossible. But the dramatic power of these performances lies in the clumsiness and ineptitude with which the actors pretend to be someone they are not, so that the blurring of role distinctions ironically sharpens our sense of these distinctions, reminding us of the limits of our gendered identities. Something similar is true of philosophers who aspire to change the world. Not only are our philosophical pictures of the world artificial, as Rorty points out; the world itself lies largely beyond our linguistic and intellectual grasp. Yet it is in those moments when thought struggles to become worldly or the world seems to conspire in our struggle to understand it that we most clearly grasp the impossibility of the unity of mind and matter, but find in that disappointment a sense of oneness with those who have traveled the same path, engaged in the same struggle, and come to the same conclusion. Rorty once wrote that "the meaning of one human life may have little to do with the meaning of any other human life, while being none the worse for that."4 But it is gratifying nonetheless to recognize affinities, sympathies, and common ground where divergent backgrounds, affiliations, and intellectual capacities led one to expect none. In such recognitions we realize the usefulness of Rorty's observation that discovering unity beneath appearances may be less exciting than discovering that comity is compatible with radical and contradictory variousness, and that there is nothing necessarily wrong with bringing Trotsky and wild orchids together in a single story without first explaining what they have in common.

Not long before his death in June 2007, Richard Rorty wrote a piece called "The Fire of Life"5 in which he meditates on being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and speaks of the consolations of poetry. He concludes: "I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts—just as I would have if I had made more close friends."

I take Rorty to be saying something more than that poetry and friendship provide pleasure. He is saying that they carry us across the threshold of the self into richer and stranger regions than any we have known alone. Philosophy needs the language of poetry to enter the penumbral—that force field around us, partly lit, partly in shadow, that shapes who we are yet defies our attempts to fully control or comprehend it. Whether we refer to this realm as natural, spiritual, historical, or political is less significant than its essential ambiguity. It enthralls us to the same extent that it eludes us. And though it may unsettle and even destroy us, it may become a source of generative power.

In a magisterial study of Sinhalese sorcery, Bruce Kapferer explores this ambiguity. His starting point is the "magicality" of human existence, a term he borrows from Sartre to emphasize that "human beings are at once individuals and beings who transcend and transgress the boundaries and space of their own and others' organic individuality."6 This field of wider being in which we are immersed is "magical" because our knowledge and mastery of it always remain slippery and uncertain. Thwarted in our efforts to achieve presence, prosperity, and power through direct social and economic action, we have recourse to magical, occult, or ritual means of attaining our goals. In the Sinhalese social imaginary, this is the field of sorcery, embodied in the image of Suniyam riding a blue mare (emblematic of his power), carrying a broken pot of fire in his left hand (destructive heat) and a sword in his right (judgment and punishment), and his body covered with snakes (venomous punishment). What fascinates Kapferer is that the forces of sorcery permeate both the body politic and the individual body, so that the struggle against political anarchy and personal madness are always intertwined. This is compellingly shown in the life story of Lillian, a "soothsayer" (sastra karaya) able to work with demonic forces in ways that enable her to dispense medical and spiritual advice to clients.

Lillian was in her 70s and had been attending supplicants at a temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 1935, though she had her own shrine in the poverty- and crime-racked shantytown of Slave Island where she lived.

Her father, a rickshaw man, had come to Slave Island from an equally notorious part of the southern provincial city of Galle. Lillian and her parents lived among a group of Tamil drummers, members of an outcaste community. As Lillian tells it, she would dance at their ritual occasions, and at eleven she experienced her first encounter with the goddess Bhadrakali, who possessed her. Three years later she married Liyanage, who sold tea to the dockworkers. By then her father had died, but his ghost (preta) maintained an attachment to her. When she became entranced by her father and danced possessed, her husband was infuriated and beat her. Her husband continued beating her as Lillian had other possession experiences. The ones she recalls in particular are her entrancements by the goddess Pattini, whose violent and punishing form she connects with Bhadrakali. In 1935, after bearing five children, she left her husband and journeyed to the main shrine of Kataragama in the southeastern corner of the island. While she was at Kataragama, her husband, who was still fighting with her, met with an accident and was killed. Lillian felt that he had been punished by the god Kataragama and by Bhadrakali for beating her and her ill-treatment. Lillian possesses the violent and punishing powers of Bhadrakali and Pattini. . . . As she describes it, she would visit the shrine to Vishnu at a local Buddhist temple and declare before the god that she had achieved knowledge, or realized the truth (satyakriya), and that she was pure, refusing sexual contact with her husband and having no intention to be married again. On one occasion, the eyes of Vishnu's image closed and then opened. Lillian took this as a sign that Vishnu had granted her his powers through which she could control the violent forces that she manifests. Lillian constantly renews her relationships with the gods by visiting their key shrines. . . .

Lillian expresses in her own life a personal suffering and a violence present in close ties. She also embraces in herself wider forces of violence as well as difference. She freely admits a connection with criminal elements in the city, and this is vital to her own power. Lillian represents herself as a totalization of diversity and claims a knowledge of eighteen languages (eighteen being a symbolic number of the totality of human existence). . . . Lillian, I note, is an embodiment of fragmenting force but also a potency for the control and mastery of such force. This is one significance of her warrant from Vishnu, the guardian of Buddhism on the island and a major ordering power. . . .

Lillian's clients invoke the powers that reside in her body. Some address her directly as Bhadrakali maniyo [mother, soothsayer]. Lillian says that she has cut thousands of huniyams [sorcery objects], and has used her powers in the making and breaking of marriages, the settlement of court cases, and the killing of personal enemies.7

This powerful story reminds us that the world around—whether conceived of in terms of supernatural or market forces, of sectarian, class, or caste identifications—is potentially a source of well-being and destruction. Not only must we struggle against an external world that limits our choices and circumscribes our existence, we must also struggle against our inner fear of being crushed and erased, as well as our anger against the forces that oppress us.

I have cited Lillian's story at length because it brings into dramatic relief the complexity of the struggle to exist in a world sundered by sectarian violence, class conflict and oppressive political power. Strategies to earn an income through business ventures coexist with tactics to avoid domestic violence and channel the powers of the gods. But Lillian's story also calls into question the appropriateness of labeling her choices as real or illusory, or asking whether it is better to struggle against injustice rather than devote oneself to "private projects of self-creation."8 There are no algorithms for answering such questions. We can no more know for certain whether a Marxist analysis of social injustices in Sri Lanka would be helpful or harmful than we can know for sure whether our understanding of Lillian reflects our own Western dismay at unnecessary human suffering. For Rorty, it is enough to describe and testify to the lives of others, as far as we can, on the grounds of our human solidarity with them. They are not misguided creatures, in alien worlds, but ourselves in other circumstances.9 But to invoke poetry, or to speak of the consolation of wild orchids, may be to risk rendering the world too benign, and to leave its social violence unremarked. During his first trip to India, Rorty spoke to a fellow philosophy professor who was also a politician. After 30 years attempting to help India's poor, this man confessed that he had found no solution to the problem. "I found myself," Rorty writes, "like most Northerners in the South, not thinking about the beggars in the hot streets once I was back in my pleasantly air-conditioned hotel." But back in America, recalling his experiences, Rorty's only conclusion is that all the love and talk in the world—the technological innovations, the new genetics, the power of education, the politics of diversity—"will not help."10

Is this defeatist? A confirmation that, for us, the poor will always remain unthinkable? And where does such a conclusion leave us? Withdrawn into the safe confines of our own small world, immunized from the perils of actually entering the world with which we claim solidarity, consoled by poetry? Or inspired to return to the streets until we find one person whose life is changed, no matter how imperceptibly, by his or her encounter with us, so that the question is no longer whether solidarity can be thought into existence, but how it is actually brought into existence by our everyday choices of what we do?

 

Notes

  1. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (Penguin, 1999), 6.
  2. Ibid., 7–8.
  3. Richard Rorty, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," in Wild Orchids and Trotsky, ed. Mark Edmundson (Penguin, 1993), 34–35.
  4. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 266.
  5. Published in the November 2007 issue of Poetry magazine.
  6. Bruce Kapferer, The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power (University of Chicago Press, 1997), 1.
  7. Ibid., 48–50.
  8. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), xv.
  9. Ibid., xvi.
  10. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 226–227.
 

Michael D. Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of works of anthropology, fiction, and poetry, most recently The Palm at the End of the Mind. This piece is a chapter from his unpublished manuscript "The Stone in the Stream: Being With Oneself and Being With Others."

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The Trivialization of Compassion

Bradley Shingleton

Compassion is an indispensible word in the vocabulary of religious experience and practice. Its emotional recognition, in situations of suffering and need, of a common thread binding life with life is both vital and potent. "He who feels no compassion," says a Hasidic proverb, "will become insane."

But in common parlance, we are witnessing its gradual evisceration. (To be sure, other words are endangered as well, but they must be defended one by one.) Compassion is becoming more trivial and emotionally cheaper, and is increasingly a shadow of itself.

Oddly enough, the hollowing out of compassion coincides with its profligate usage. Nowadays, "compassion" pops up in an array of contexts, from politics to personal relationships to consumer services. You can invoke its morally elevated connotations by applying it, adjectivally, to most any context. Though it continues to sound weighty, it is increasingly removed from its etymological roots in shared feeling. Instead, it now connotes a kind of generic benevolence, a patient, accepting outlook, a generous frame of mind, a tolerant, other-directed spirit. It is anything but censorious, and therefore is fitting for a pluralistic cultural climate. But these comforting associations take on more the flavor of greeting-card sentiment than that of a morally substantial emotion.

Compassion's current vogue tells us something about where we find ourselves at the moment, culturally, politically, and spiritually. It hints at something we hunger for. Politicians and their speechwriters—most famously George W. Bush in the 2000 election, with the phrase "compassionate conservatism"—have seized upon it as a way to soften the edges of an ideology of limited government. Though little was heard about compassion during Bush's years in office, it magically reappeared in some of the postmortem assessments of his presidency as it drew to a close. In particular, the speechwriter who coined the phrase "compassionate conservatism" (Michael Gerson) has continued to flog compassion as a cornerstone of a revived conservative politics, to the continuing disapproval of some of his political fellow travelers.

Compassion has also been discovered in academic circles, particularly among political scientists and philosophers. Some of their explorations seem faddish and aimless, but others have produced serious work investigating what compassion has meant and can mean. For example, Martha Nussbaum has developed a detailed understanding of compassion in her 2001 book Upheavals of Thought; others have written productively on it as well.

Most recently, compassion has also been promoted as the basis for interfaith harmony in the Charter for Compassion project, an ecumenical undertaking promoted by Karen Armstrong and others. A reputable and best-selling author of several studies in comparative religion, including A History of God, and In the Name of God, Armstrong contends that compassion is deeply valued in every one of the major world religions; indeed, she claims it is "far more important than belief" in the life of religion. In fact, she writes, "all the great religious sages insist that compassion is the chief religious duty." Through the Charter for Compassion, Armstrong hopes to change the conversation among religious traditions, and "make it cool to be compassionate." Her call has met with mixed response. Some religionists have endorsed it without reserve; other observers have dismissed it as "well-intentioned silliness," a "Kumbaya movement," and a project that reflects "mushy thinking."

These diverse uses of compassion appear to have little to tie them together. Some uses seem particularly quixotic. How, other than rhetorically, is political ideology compassionate? Does that mean that government should strive for more social equality, or less? Does it entail more, or less, funding for social needs? Does it mean that civil servants will be more polite?

Philosophical and ecumenical treatments of compassion seem more worthwhile, but they present challenges as well. Some academic writing on compassion is helpful in explicating compassion's provenance and subtleties, but the prescriptive value of such analyses is not obvious. Ecumenical concern with compassion, virtuous as it may be, is complicated by the difficulty in translating it across traditions. Though Armstrong's Charter for Compassion states, on its website, that "compassion is central to all religions," neither the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion nor the multivolume Encyclopedia of Religion has an entry for "compassion"; there are only entries discussing the Buddhist concept of karuna (compassion). As a consequence, it is difficult to know how notions of compassion in different traditions match up with each other.

The pervasiveness of compassion-talk evidences a desire for human connectedness. Compassion is an emotional counterweight to our national concern with individual autonomy—one that, by being inherently personal, avoids the coercive impersonality of governmental action. But the nature of compassion is far from self-evident. Is compassion an emotion, a motive for action, or an action itself? How much can it be—should it be—concerned with addressing the practical needs of others? And, in an era of streaming information, can compassion realistically be anything more than a fleeting, passive spasm of sympathy, almost simultaneously triggered and suppressed by relentless reports of human catastrophe and then quickly displaced by another image?

Information media have much to do with this. They deliver images of suffering to us from the far corners of the earth to our living rooms. The image is near, the source is far. Events are primary, participants are secondary. Even if we want to respond in some way, there is not much we can do. Compassion is preeminently a visually oriented emotion, yet visual technology tends to evoke a passive, spectator attitude. Furthermore, the logistical hurdles to rendering assistance to remote locations are considerable, and there are so many deserving cases to address. And in some instances there is simply nothing to be done about suffering: the damage is over and done with, irretrievably, irremediably, and irreparably. It is easier to turn off the screen and go about our business. An odd dynamic is at work: at the same time as media increases awareness of the opportunities for compassion, it diminishes our confidence in being able to do anything about it. Can you imagine if the Parable of the Good Samaritan were televised?

You might call this the "inaction problem." If the observer cannot act on compassion, then it seems useless and ultimately worthless. Susan Sontag notes in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others: "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers." The more the occasions for compassion are mediated, the more evanescent the experience of compassion becomes. If you do nothing, compassion is a velleity. There is indeed something corrosive about witnessing suffering to which you are unable to respond. Emotion collides with practical reality—the impossibility of rendering aid, the incomparable convenience of doing nothing, the gradual narrowing, particle by particle, of concern to the doable and the familiar. Faced with this, the observer becomes calloused, resigned, or both.

This leads to another difficulty with compassion—the boundary problem. How far should compassion extend? If it applies to strangers, to those you encounter only through media reports, then compassion will soon exhaust itself. Contempt for do-gooders is rooted in a belief that they do not know where to draw lines. Without some way of restraining compassion, it is doomed to fatigue. It will spend itself in useless, unavailing gestures, vindicating the cynic's disdain for witless and pointless gestures concerned more with the needs of the observer than those of the sufferer.

The answers given this and other questions inherent in compassion suggest that there is not one form of compassion, but many. One kind is philosophical—typically associated with the Stoics, the ancient tradition recently rehabilitated by Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum shares the Stoic's concern to distinguish properly the situations deserving of compassion from those that do not: trivial losses do not qualify, neither do self-inflicted calamities. For the Stoic, it is important to limit compassion to appropriate persons and situations—those relevant to oneself. Of course, we can't know everything about the circumstances when we encounter compassion. We may be wrong about what has happened, and therefore wrong about whether the suffering is deserved and compassion is warranted. But that is a risk the Stoic must accept.

A different breed of compassion has biblical roots, and it has a decidedly different flavor from the Stoic version. Biblical compassion is visceral, emotive, and relatively disinterested in the circumstances of suffering and the moral accountability of the sufferer. In its view, physical and moral life are connected to a common creative source, endowing each living being with an irreducible minimum of value. This universal earthiness is reflected in the etymology of the Hebrew equivalent of compassion. In the Hebrew Bible, humans are enjoined to imitate God in being compassionate; indeed, compassion is in the very heart of God. In Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, Abraham Heschel wrote: "The Tetragrammaton, the great Name, we do not know how to pronounce, but we are taught to know what it stands for: 'compassion.' "

Christianity shares in Judaism's embrace of compassion. Drawing on the second great commandment to love others, its scriptures proclaim a duty of concern for the neighbor. Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan, related in response to the question of who is a neighbor, leaves no room for customary preferences. According to some, Christian ethics is inescapably other-directed. It is nonjudgmental at heart. Biblical compassion sees, in a saying of Maimonides, the sufferer and not the suffering. It reflects a bedrock conviction in the co-inherence of life, rather than a preoccupation with moral gatekeeping. It is other-concerned and relatively indifferent to the individual interests of the observing self.

The contrasting versions of philosophical compassion and biblical compassion are obviously at odds about what compassion is and when it should be acted on. There are no easy ways of mediating between the two versions, for they both reflect competing aspects of self-understanding, at least in this culture. As Americans, we are wary about compassion when it threatens to undermine responsibility; it goes against the cultural grain. Stoic compassion fits more comfortably with the American myth of self-reliance and autonomy; at the same time, many people realize that unwavering enforcement of moral accountability in situations of personal catastrophe can be hardhearted. Scrutiny of the circumstances of individual misfortune can usually turn up evidence that the victim was, in some way or other, in the wrong, or at the least, imprudent. But this seems overly judgmental. Moreover, often innocent third parties are derivatively affected by catastrophe, and it is difficult indeed to withhold compassion toward them because of the blameworthiness of someone else.

As the empirical data collected by Robert Wuthnow, Daniel Batson, and others show, people, particularly in the United States, manage the dissonance among conflicting notions of compassion by selectively appropriating elements of each. While this is a workable way to deal with contradiction, it makes compassion too subjective and too tailored to our own biases and predilections. And too unconscious as well, and that is where the muddling—and the trivialization—worsens. All too often it is unclear whose interests compassion serves: those of the evaluating, discriminating observer, or of the victim in distress? Or both? The phenomenon of compassion fatigue shows that the ability to respond to a victim's needs is subject to limits—another version of the boundary problem. Such fatigue is readily understandable, yet how does it affect, over time, our moral and spiritual health? Under pressure, compassion tends to sentiment. Oscar Wilde's definition of a sentimentalist comes to mind: "one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it."

This is not to say that we must be well versed in theories of compassion, intently and scrupulously sifting through the subtleties of competing traditions each time circumstances invite compassion. It urges, instead, a recognition that beneath its smooth surface, compassion poses sharp questions whose answers tell us a good bit about ourselves. What do we, as persons, have in common with each other? How do we see each other? As economic actors, neighbors, psycho/physiological manifestations? What, as a result, do we owe to each other?

Perhaps compassion has a difficult future, primarily as grist for politicians and other rhetoricians. Perhaps there are too many of us; perhaps we are too detached from each other and are too preoccupied with a myriad of other concerns: economic anxiety, ecological destruction, terrorism. After all, what difference does compassion make? A simple answer is that it doesn't make any difference. Few legal systems impose any duty to render assistance to persons in distress. Victims of misfortune do not usually blame passive bystanders for their inaction. Those around you may think the less of you for your inaction, but that is not a particularly harsh judgment. There will always be suffering. We will always have the poor, and our children will as well. But dispensing with compassion does matter in one way. Without it, bit by bit, our grasp of the elusive, yet shared reality of humanness slips. John Donne saw in the diminishment of one person the diminution of all: "Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. . . ." We are also the less without it; we need compassion, untrivialized.

 

Bradley Shingleton, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School (MTS '78) and Duke University Law School (JD '82), practices international law in Washington, D.C. His publications include Dimensions of German Unification (Westview, 1995).

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Two Poems

Kate Farrell

The Search

But then the moon
comes up after all and with
a glow bright enough to wake
you through the bedroom
curtains:
            the night outside, one
vast luminous room beside which
indoor rooms seem to belong to
a preliminary, rudimentary
dimension,
              and her there shining—
mother daughter friend anima mundi
so still and low that it's almost as though
you hadn't broken every vow you ever
made in the wayside tabernacles of
the universe.
                  This time you go
back to bed, close your eyes and set
out into the dark, hunting a state in which
things are seen and known in the light
love throws, doing away with
mental fuss.
                 Soon you're walking
down an unfamiliar road in a nighttime
countryside, hoping to come across a local
acquainted with the lesser known
lunar writings.
                   Houses are few;
everyone is asleep; the air suffused
with a beautiful half-light whose source
you can't place. You're strangely
unafraid and in no hurry.
 

 

 

The Stream

Through the woods out
my window is a stream
whose secret windings
bring to mind the mythic
town which, so the story
goes, appears for just one
day every hundred years
and into whose apparition
a stranger from this world
happens on one such day
to wander. In the version
I remember, the question
on which the story turns
is this: will he remain with
the beautiful townswoman
with whom he falls in love
over the course of the day,
returning with her and her
town to who knows where
exactly—or not? Likewise
my stream can only be seen
from a particular window
for a short while on certain
mornings when a perfect
angle of illumination all
at once reveals a winding
galaxy of sparkling light
way off in the depths of
dark hemlocks; maybe one
day I'll go back with it to
the place it comes from,
like a stranger called by
love to a vanishing town.

 

Among Kate Farrell's books are Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry With Essays on Reading and Writing (written with Kenneth Koch) and Art and Wonder: An Illustrated Anthology of Visionary Poetry.

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See also: Poetry