Rethinking the University: Part One, Commencing the Conversation

Note: From a speech given to the College of Arts & Sciences, Lee University, Cleveland, TN, August 12, 2015

When you say “Arts & Sciences” it sounds, word-wise, as it you are actually referring to something, but the truth at our institution is that when you use the term, you are referring more to what the Arts and Sciences are not than what they are. At our university, “Arts & Sciences” means “not Education, not Religion and not Music.” Our 160 full and part-time faculty are divided among a couple dozen disciplines in six departments that are themselves widely cast nets. So, capturing an identity for such a college is difficult to say the least.

Certainly as a loose affiliation of disciplines we do have common cause … in the General Education Core and in the overall mission of the university. But truth be told, the things that bring us together as a distinct entity are not typically any different from those of the rest of the university, so it has always seemed to me that addressing anything specifically to the college would just as easily be addressed to the entire university, and be just as applicable for that scope. That may very well be the case, but as I am dean of this particular college, I feel I have a responsibility to generate some truly meaningful conversations among our people. And that’s what I want to do now.

Cambridge UK
Cambridge, UK

In January of this year I got a chance to get away for the spring semester. I am indebted to President Paul Conn and VPAA Debbie Murray for making my absence possible. I’m also grateful to Dr. Jean Eledge for stepping in on my behalf while I was gone. I spent January to April in Europe with the UK Study Abroad Program. During that time, when I wasn’t teaching or supervising 20 delightful undergrads in Cambridge, I did a lot of free association thinking. I hadn’t had a sabbatical in my 23 years in higher education, so it was a good opportunity for me to take a passive role and benefit from the experience as a whole. I don’t normally have a spontaneous bone in my body, but I grew one in Cambridge, and I soaked in stone, as it were, as I wandered windswept, rainy back alleys steeped in 730 years of educational history.

Upon my return to the States, something struck me pretty clearly. I found a different kind of educational atmosphere greeting me back home. As I read accreditation renewal documents and encountered higher ed news, I came to the sudden realization of something that had been tugging at the base of my brain for some time. Basically, higher education in this country is under threat.

I’m not an alarmist, but for the first time in my career, I found myself facing a certain amount of fear for this thing I do for a living. Part of that fear is that I’m not exactly sure how afraid I should be, but I hear and read all these rumblings that higher education is now a target for wholesale reform. What kind of reform? People in positions of power and influence, people who can seriously affect funding that makes my job possible seem to think that college should be about job training and should be the servant of variable market forces, like the interest rate. College should take about three years and should conclude with job certification. High schools should be able to deliver the first year of college and what the high school offers in this regard should be interchangeably accepted wherever a student chooses to go as if it were part of the meal plan. A college education is referred to as a right, something that should be free. While the sentiment has an undeniable glow to it, everyone of us in higher education knows that somebody somewhere has to pay for all this. “Free” means taxes, not tuition. You can’t pay for college with just lottery dollars. And that speaks to bureaucratic distribution of funds based on systems of merit that reflect narrow interests and priorities.

I am afraid on one hand, but I’m excited and hopeful on the other. I feel strongly that action is called for here, the sort of action that would move us to understand and articulate why what we do is so important. What is it that makes us different as an institution? What is it that makes us the better choice for people who come to college with the hope of creating a foundation for the future? Because college is investment in every sense of the term, right? In its original sense, “investment” meant to put on the vestments, or the robes, of an office. We don’t make undergrads wear robes anymore, except at graduation, but colleges once did (and some still do). The fact is that their new life starts at our doors. Why should they take that bold step here when they have 4725 other schools in this country alone to choose from, many of which are bowing to pressure to make things easier, quicker and more market-responsive?

IonaI think the answer is to be found somewhere in the intersection between hope and fear. On the one hand we have a vision of the University as the descendant of Celtic monasteries where knowledge was saved from the wreckage of civilization and books on vellum parchment were rescued from fire and sword. Perhaps I shouldn’t liken current threats to the Viking pillagers of Iona, but, well, there may be a small parallel between an utterly utilitarian view of education and pitiless raiders interested only in the gilding inside the abbeys they sacked.

Certainly we would be foolish to ignore market pressures entirely. This is America, after all, and the American Dream is alive and well, even though you might have trouble getting two people to agree on what the dream entails. But expanding personal marketability is perceived to be one of the greatest responsibilities of higher education. Do we dare live in denial of these pressures? That would be unwise. But we should at least be informed about how to answer the questions we are already receiving on this issue and to acknowledge that our university is not a pure liberal arts institution. We know we are more of a hybrid, and that’s a good thing.

Given our realities, the answer to our challenge may be boiled down to a single statement, one with big implications that should be teased out much more fully, but here is an attempt to put it succinctly:

The best qualification for work in a complex world is as much about formation of the person as it is about the acquisition of qualifying knowledge and skills.

Carl Gombrich, Dean of Arts & Sciences (BASc) at University College, London, has been writing and speaking about the formation/qualification axis for the past few years. From a recent Gombrich post, “We need to envisage universities as places that are about more than obtaining a paper qualification. Universities are – or should be – principally places of formation. What do we mean by formation? Broadly, it’s what happens when minds are formed, values begin to settle, ideas of purpose in life take root and there is enculturation – the beginning of an integration of students into the culture or environment in which the university is based.”

Training for the next practical step in life and educating for formation need not be mutually exclusive. I quote from Gombrich again: “For the foreseeable future it is extremely hard to imagine any advanced society that will not require managers, leaders, directors, innovators, people who drive corporations, found political movements and charities, act as thought leaders and helmsmen and women of industry and commerce. And if you accept this, turn the argument around and imagine a world run (for it will be largely run) by such people who don’t have a chance of a more complex, intellectually rich formation, a professional class who have not had a chance to explore their own minds, to have exposure to a wide range of thought. A society with no accepted formation for its young people is barely, one might say, a society at all.” I think, unfortunately, that we can already see what Gombrich is warning us about.

Anyone who hears or sees the daily news knows that the world is begging for ethical practitioners in every walk of life, from the foreman of a factory line to the CEO of a financial institution. What it comes down to is what kind of world will greet our graduates.

reddit-logoMost of us in this room are probably unfamiliar with the web-based group of forums known as “reddit,” but most of the students in your classes will have at least heard of it and a few will be regular participants in one or more subforums known as “subreddits.” Reddit.com, which claims to be the front page of the Internet, is the 10th most popular site in the United States outranked only by the likes of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. It ranks higher than Netflix. It is the single most visited English-language source of threaded discussion and interchange on the Internet with almost 10,000 different active forums, 170 million unique visitors every month, generating over 7.5 billion page views. Items of interest that emerge on Reddit are eagerly borrowed and passed on to outlets like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and their online British counterpart the Guardian. Thousands of tidbits float up from Reddit every day, from which hundreds of lists and other items make it into the undiscriminating newsfeeds of these other outlets. Some of those “go viral” and burst onto the national scene when captured by CNN, FOXNews and the other primetime outlets. If you watched a viral video today, more often than not it surfaced on Reddit first. The joke by Reddit users is that if you saw it on Facebook, it’s old news on Reddit. You may have heard of Reddit’s famous—or infamous—AMA’s, or “Ask Me Anything” forums in which major public figures and celebrities subject themselves willingly to a barrage of questions from a live audience that can sometimes number in the millions.

But Reddit is actually a private corporation worth an estimated $500 million with stock owned by a strange mix of people. And it just went through a huge international scandal that ended in the toppling of a controversial CEO. A popular public employee was fired for an undisclosed reason. With cries of foul, the online juggernaut that is reddit voluntarily shut down in protest. Millions of users joined the protest and a staggering 200,000 people signed a petition demanding the resignation of the CEO.

You might be asking at this point what possible connection reddit has with higher education? There is no intention here to promote reddit in any way. Even though the most popular forums relate to science, gaming and movies (and actually have passable levels of accountability), there are forums for groups I dare not mention here from hate speech to plain sicko garbage. Volunteers do all the moderating on the forums, so the interaction is at best a mixed bag. In fact, an attempt to clean up some of the garbage led to First Amendment outrage and contributed to the recent removal of the CEO after the uprising of an online mob.

Here’s the connection: reddit may very well represent the increasingly democratic and libertarian future of the Internet, and therefore, in no small measure, a significant part of the world in which our graduates will be living and working. It’s a world that is frequently unaccountable, given to extreme mob reactions, psychological abuse and character assassination for laughs; anyone can broadcast whatever they want at any time of the day or night with little fear of consequence – other than an up or down vote, a gasp or a coarse laugh. It’s like the world of Judges in the Old Testament where “everyone did that which was right in their own eyes.”

I’m not trying to overstate the case. One could readily say it’s not as bad as all that, and they might be strictly correct. Regardless, reddit displays the unblushing world of tarnished ethics and values into which our students are now graduating. There is in the average experience of our students a level of sheer baseness most of us growing up never had to confront. Grossness, by which I mean submission to baser appetites, was something Baby Boomers were at pains to keep locked away. Grossness has become commonplace. Some young students are more flinty and jaded than the most cynical among their instructors. But none of us is immune to constantly cycling horror–one case in point being the recent “auto-play” video posted online by the Roanoke news crew murderer.

This is not to preach hell fire and damnation on the Internet. It can be a wonderful thing and its good uses are almost limitless. But the wild extremes of the Internet highlight the critical point here. How can we imagine that our primary work as educators in this kind of world is to teach students merely how to sort the right widgets in the right boxes? How dare we limit our instruction to technique when the world’s great need is for people who can act with integrity, civility and charity? Yes, we do need people who can perform their jobs well, but in the environment confronting us today we need people who can do their jobs with the kind of grace, truth and professionalism that comes only from a reliable internal compass.

We need people who do not merely reflect their times. We need people who redeem their times. But redemption is hard, sacrificial, patient work done with meekness of spirit, disciplined strength of will, love for one’s neighbor (loveable or not) and courage born of hope that enables one to be a light in the darkness. In case you didn’t recognize them, these are basic moral and spiritual virtues. And we, as a university, are uniquely positioned to help meet this crucial need by planting and cultivating these virtues among our students. Our Core Values, the Integration of Faith and Vocation through ethical action, redemptive service and responsible citizenship are the outward expressions of the very kinds of virtues we hope to cultivate.

Where do we begin? Here’s the good news: The virtues and values we care so much about are not the province of any single discipline or degree. And, after conversations with similarly placed educators in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve come to believe that one of the best ways we can bring these values home to our students is for us to be willing to treat them as the multifaceted gems that they are.

What would such an approach look like? First of all, no discipline at our institution is devoid or divorced from a sense of value, a hierarchy of what is important in life, an idea of what matters and how we should apply these aspects to life. Numbers can teach us about integrity. Medicine can teach us about charity. Counseling can teach us about empathy. Business can teach us the virtues of trust and fairness. Language and the Arts can teach us the power of symbols in bringing ideas to life and in drawing us toward that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.

In drawing our attention on a possible shortcoming, I don’t want to suggest that we are failing to get the job done. I’m very proud to be dean of a college where I know the faculty and staff give so much of themselves. I am aware of the difficulties a lot of our people face every day, many of which are not directly related to the job; they’re just part of this thing we call life. But we come to our classrooms day after day and face the task of imparting something meaningful to these young people no matter what’s going on elsewhere, and so many times they have little or no idea that there’s a bigger life outside the classroom for the person standing at the front of the room. They don’t know about the child that threw up at 2 am last night. They don’t know when we or someone close to us is in great physical pain. They don’t know about the life circumstances that keep us awake at night. That’s because we cover the scrapes on our elbows and leave the anxieties tucked away and somehow find a way to smile at those sleep-deprived faces. These students think their problems are big—and sometimes they really are. But we believe with them and pray with them and encourage them even when our problems are just as big or bigger. It humbles me to be a part of such a family. And on behalf of the thousands who have shuffled in and out of these classrooms with little knowledge of the underlying personal sacrifice, I offer a heartfelt, “Thank you!”

Even with that, I think there’s a way in which we may be selling ourselves short, maybe hiding our candle under a bushel. We are sitting on an incredible treasure but we satisfy ourselves with a few flecks of gold dust in the daily and weekly grind of teaching and grading.

Allow me to ask a question. How can we realistically expect our students to bring these values and virtues and knowledge and skills and vocation—all this stuff—to a fine point of comprehension if we aren’t doing it ourselves? In other words, how can we get our students to link the pieces of this grand puzzle if we are sitting comfortably in our own limited spheres of endeavor with little or no reference to one another? We are expecting our students to synthesize across disciplines when we ourselves practice avoidance of other disciplines. How can we expect our students to carry ideas from one class to the next, making all the key connections, if our ideological culture places little value on this very kind of exchange?

If we value integrative learning enough to see it become reality, then we need to begin integrating ourselves. As this institution has grown, as faculties have enlarged and disciplines have been added, we’ve become a nice archipelago of relatively isolated entities. Yes, we maintain some wonderful friendships across disciplines, but we’ve only ever just touched the surface of what we could do here. We’ve caught glimpses of it from time to time, and we’ve even begun to do some really great stuff in colloquiums, symposiums and other forums. Those efforts are certainly to be commended and supported.

But what I’m getting at is more fundamental. Before we start implementing a possible series of formal structures, what I would like to encourage and facilitate in the next two semesters is conversation: simple friendly interaction. Let me emphasize that while formal structures are a worthy goal, what we need is talk at a basic level. This can be as simple as people across disciplines breaking bread together. Faculty could visit classes from other disciplines. It can be, and maybe needs to be, as simple as grabbing coffee on campus or in town. The hardest part will consist in making time for conversations. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but I really do think it will be worth it.

Later, let’s talk about more formal structures–interdisciplinary teaching, guest lectures, summer faculty workshops, etc. But let’s be sure to look at ideas that emerge from conversations rather than doing it the other way around.

Also, I would like for our college meeting sessions to be more truly deliberative. I sense that a lot of people in our midst have some really valid and valuable things to say from which we might all benefit and I would love to give us the chance to voice those things.

My personal hero Phillip Melanchthon, reformer and scholar of the 16th Century, ended his orations with, “I have spoken.” So that’s how I’ll end now. Let’s start talking to each other now.

Sunrise

Earthen Vessels

[Faculty Chapel – August 15, 2013]

IMG_6672I’m sure you are aware that asking an introspective person to deliver a few minutes of reflection is like asking a shopper at the Mall of America to limit themselves to the Sunglasses Hut….

I will do my best to stick to the hut.

As I was reflecting on this reflection, I pondered the many angles from which I might “self-reveal.” That’s always a thrill for introverted types.

But I decided to forego the narrative approach in favor of something I hope is equally relevant. So I won’t be sculpting images from the marble of my life experience as a Navy kid who grew up in an isolationist, end-times sect in the lowlands of southeastern Virginia. And I’ll leave untouched my time in the wastelands of ministerial endeavor both in the U.S. and abroad—a sojourn that left my wife Leslie and me all but shipwrecked on a nether backwater of the American Dreamscape. If you want those riveting stories, feel free to take me to lunch sometime.

Instead I want to talk about Lee University—Lee College when I came in 1995. The year holds quite a bit of nostalgia for me, and not just because our only begotten son Nicholas was born just after May graduation of that first year. The fact is, I’m still in touch with many of the members of my first class of graduating seniors. They’re all now lawyers, pharmacists, pastors, homemakers, small business owners and teachers, even college professors. A few of them have children that have graduated high school, so, yes, I have passed that milestone, thank you very much.

2 Corinthians 4:7, says, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” Forgive the archaic use of the King James. In this case, the old KJV flows off the tongue better than other translations. We are “earthen vessels,” a better term in my view than “jars of clay.” It’s just that the word “jar” makes me think of “jarring,” or “Mason jars” or Jar Jar Binks. The image I get of a jar of clay is of a finished product sitting on a dusty shelf. “Earthen vessel” on the other hand seems to evoke all at once the materials of creation, the creative act itself and a highly useful created product.

I think the earthen vessel image serves as a great metaphor for my nearly two decades of experience at Lee University. While none of us is a finished product, certainly the thousands of young people with whom we come into contact every semester are maybe a little less “finished” and are in the business of molding and reshaping their lives to become better vessels. That much is obvious.

IMG_5275It’s the “earthen” part that I want to dwell on here, or what we might refer to as the “mundane” if we want to Latinize the word. It’s exactly the mundane – those daily activities that rarely rise to the level of other people’s notice – that have made working here at Lee University so very different … and such a rewarding experience.

I’ll never forget in my first year when I was a freshman sponsor of the yearbook. I remember wedging my way into Donna Summerlin’s car on top of a few hundred yearbooks that she and I had laboriously stuffed into mailer envelopes. We hauled them over to the post office and tossed them into the uncomplaining and seemingly insatiable mail slot. And then we ran back to campus and filled the car again—and again.

Then there was the time we moved the yearbook office to 4th Floor Walker–a step ahead of the bulldozers elsewhere on campus–and Joel Kailing and I, with a long chain of happy student volunteers, hauled several dozen heavy boxes full of yearbooks from the box truck in the front circle parking lot, around the back of Walker, all the way up the fire escape, through the corridors and into the offices. And as we finished, somewhat worse for wear, Joel Kailing said to me, “This isn’t the sort of thing that shows up on your PAR.”

Obviously some of these stories are a bit richer in the telling than in the actual experiences, such as the one where, after staying up until 2 am on a Sunday night to get the Collegian finished by deadline, I had to run back to campus at 6 am the next Wednesday to pull all the papers from all the stands on campus and destroy them because somehow a student comment had snuck into the copy declaring that the best thing that could happen to then president Clinton was for him to be assassinated. (We didn’t want a visit from the Secret Service).

Admittedly some of these experiences are a little less mundane than others. I have ridden with students on trains, planes, automobiles, trolleys, trams, buggies, ferries, ships, canoes and jungle rafts to take them to places where they could engage a broad spectrum of cities, cultures, histories, service opportunities, scholarship, conversations … even the occasional drive-in movie.  With them I have run pell-mell through torrential rains at 18,000 feet among the llamas of the Andes and been equally soaked to the skin among the black cabs of Oxford, England. Here on campus and abroad I have heard their hopes, their dreams, their passions, their disappointments, their fears, their glorious discoveries, their hard-won triumphs, and yes, their failures and defeats. I’ve been to their graduations, of course, but also to their birthday parties, weddings and other celebrations. I’ve been to a few funerals….

Earthen vessels, shaped by their time here, with us and among us.

IMG_0614And the truly amazing thing for me is that with each little piece of earth that I have had any part in spackling into their lives, I find that I have been molded as well. And for a person whose relational strengths are, according to Gallup anyway, at the bottom of the scale, I treasure these connections more than I can express.

But this picture would be terribly incomplete without expanding on the contribution of my colleagues, a couple of whom I’ve already mentioned. Whether it’s a conversation about students with Cliff Schimmels in the baseball bleachers or a random chat with Charles Beach in a forgotten upper corner of the Walker Building, I’ve had a chance to connect in a personal way with the genuine heart of Lee University, that element the students always rave about when they take the NSSE survey: a faculty and staff that has always ardently bought into the mission of this place, that cares about the well being of the people with whom they serve and that rarely thinks of what they do here as simply a job.

With these colleagues I’ve had remarkable experiences, experiences of a nature I can’t imagine I could have had any other place. I’ve dodged teargas and trigger-happy cattle farmers in Ecuador alongside José Minay. I’ve engaged filmmakers of the Chinese Cultural Revolution with Xiaoxing Yu in Beijing. I’ve enjoyed the recitations of Lear, Hamlet and Caesar’s ghost in Montgomery, Alabama with Susan Rogers. I’ve swapped family stories with Evaline Echols on a long car ride in Nowhere Special, Tennessee. I’ve done a lap around the Circus Maximus in Rome with Randy Wood and I’ve made peace between screaming guides in Bruges, Belgium alongside John Simmons. I’ve gotten lost in a boggy forest outside of Cambridge, England with Eric Moyen. I’ve searched for catfish po’boys in New Orleans with Jayson Van Hook. I’ve escaped Alcatraz with Ron Gilbert and Jeff Salyer. And at the front desk of a hotel in Mexico City I discovered to my dismay along with Jason Ward that our considerable combined Spanish language vocabularies did not include the words for “clogged toilet.”

These are just the highlights.

I know this all sounds as though I’ve been lying about being an introvert. Maybe I’m just a shy social butterfly after all. But these experiences—even the Mexican stand off—I wouldn’t trade for anything. To you, today, all I can give is the lightest touch of things that carry with them stories that are far richer in detail. Each story has become another piece of me as I’ve been fashioned in this place by … well, by you people. And each piece reflects the extraordinary nature of what it means to be entrusted with the equally extraordinary task we have here.

Now I don’t want to unduly romanticize things. None of us is strictly the amalgamation of the events in our lives. Nor are we exclusively the product of our choices. We have a thing for cause and effect in the construction of our narratives, but life tends to be a little messier. We are each a jumble of convictions and contradictions, which is what makes us more earthen than something more refined, “…that the excellency may be of God and not of us.” In putting this reflection together, I realized with gratitude that I owe my students and my friends here an enormous debt that I can only ever begin to repay.

IMG_2577I’m glad that I came to Lee at a time when conventional boundaries between sectors and populations were a lot less formal and maybe less intimidating. I think that’s part of what has made it possible for me to squeeze so much from my time here. I would encourage everyone this year to dare to leap across some of the formal disciplinary divides between us. See what you can find on the other side. You might be surprised.

You might even be changed.

Earthen vessels. Let’s be careful with these fragile things. But let’s have fun being a part of this amazing creative process.

Thanks and have a great year.

The Problem of Conversion

ChurchToday, April 24, marks the 36th year of my “conversion.” The nomenclature seems grandiose upon reflection. This is not merely because one might regard with suspicion the transforming power of the prayer of a 14-year-old in the dead of night (surely the Divine prefers the oracles of rugged saints, suffering martyrs and innocent children). Add to that the prayer of a boy with no sense of faith, no inkling of the real world and no genuine sense of reality itself. One is  likely to see more mockery than miracle. At the time I was captive to an isolationist, eschatological sect–my life’s circumstances did not tend toward sanity then or even later.

And though my memory preserves the moment as a defining crisis, a brilliant flash in an otherwise dark and terrible decade, I no longer see it as THE moment that evangelical Christian traditions hold aloft as essential to the faith narrative. In fact, candor compels me to regard the episode as only one of many boiling points in an inimitable alchemical process whereby leaden doubt is remade into golden belief not once but many times over.

The latest biography of CS Lewis by Alister McGrath makes reference to a recent tempest in a teapot over the date of Lewis’ conversion. Turns out, in fact, that Lewis got it wrong in his own autobiography. The evidence is pretty solid, and perhaps all it goes to show is that for Jack Lewis the faith journey was far more important than the alleged starting point.

But something did happen for me in the wee hours of April 24, 1977. I recall the sensations very vividly, like Augustine does his open book in the Confessions, and I cherish the exquisitely beautiful moment of gestalt clarity–nothing like Lewis’ romantic, longing Sehnsucht,  much more like that point in The Matrix when Neo sees the program code flowing around him and makes the speeding bullets fall to the ground. (I don’t refer to any sense of the supernaturally heroic there, more to the sense of comprehension of how the world works). It was as if I had punched through the crust of subjectivity and somehow glimpsed quiddity itself. I am aware that to make the claim for such an achievement is beyond outrageous. Obviously that particular impossibility did not happen.

But again, Something did happen. And regardless of whether the experience was entirely self-generated and contained, or the product of a string of illusions (I can argue substantively otherwise, but won’t here), the result was both a revelation and a conversion of sorts.

Conversion to what? That has been the question of the following 36 years. Originally it was resignation to theism, an extra-rational embracing of a Divine presence. By extra-rational I mean that, after a bruising bout with atheism, I had already come to reject it, but had vehemently opposed theism as the alternative, almost purely on personal and emotional grounds. On that particular day in 1977, I took what was both an intellectual and emotional step through an open door I had avoided and accepted that theism was not merely legitimate. It was fact. And I felt strongly (and still do) that I connected with Divinity itself. Today I would say that I became aware of the Divinity that was always there much the way Molière’s bourgeois gentleman discovered he had been speaking prose all his life.

MausoleumBut such a “conversion” is little more than academic. We are wont, in Christian circles, to make much of that first step, and maybe that’s as it should be. But that’s all it is. One step. At most we might say it amounts to landing on a pretty beach from which point one must now navigate a mountain, as in Dante’s Purgatorio. Sadly, some traditions make so much of the beach “landing” that they feel the quest is done. Hymns have been dedicated to it. Countless sermonic laurels  festoon the width and breadth of it. We have constructed a massive ritual structure to celebrating on that beach.

What if this first step is not quite a genuine conversion? Augustine recognized this in that he dates his own true conversion in the Confessions not from the time he came to believe in God and started going to church (he had those bases covered early on) but from the moment he decided to take the Divine claims on his life seriously, claims that radically altered his life choices. Here is an altogether different quality of conversion than the dramatic moment at the foot of the cross in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The teachings of Christ often indicate that there are really only two faiths among us–the Worship of the Self and the Worship of the Other. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself,” and, “For whoever wills to save his life shall lose it, and whoever may lose his life for my sake shall find it,” are just two examples from scores where Christ directs people away from selfistic predilections and toward Other-centered thoughts and behaviors. In some cases, as in Matthew 22, the love for God is closely affiliated with love for neighbor. The Lord’s Prayer is yet another example, “forgive us … as we forgive those who….” In the apostolic epistles following the Gospels this thread of loving others, of focusing beyond one’s self, is closely allied to the more transcendant love of the Divine (see the epistles of James and John especially).

Here’s the snag. The problem of true conversion for the American Christian is that moving beyond the beachhead of belief and on up the mountain towards a truly transcendant faith is rapidly eclipsed by deeply held individualistic cultural claims that have the ring of religious truth. In fact, many of those claims–such as rights to liberty and happiness, entitlements to ownership, delirious promises of wealth and prosperity, the right to fair treatment in private and public, the well-oiled American Dream itself–are regularly preached from well-respected pulpits across the nation as nothing less than sacred trusts. They are preached even more religiously in American film, television, music, advertising and the burgeoning world of independently produced Internet entertainment.

Since ancient times in both Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions and then in early Christian traditions, one of the clearest indicators of a life that was neither Divinely nor Others inclined was the inability to control the appetites. Simply put, the tendency to focus on one’s appetites, passions and desires indicates a preoccupation with the self to the detriment of others. In Christian medieval teaching and literature, as well as in the elaborate art of the cathedrals, passion or appetite-driven tendencies found expression as animalistic metaphors–wolves, dogs, swine, bulls, etc. Creatures such as centaurs and minotaurs were seen as expressive of these inclinations among humans and were viewed as unrepentant, fallen and hell-bound.

The American psyche as displayed in popular entertainment of so many varieties is the psyche of  medieval half-human, half-creature hybrids like the Medusa. Yet elevation of this psyche to protected status in so many contemporary church traditions (implicitly if not explicitly) steals away the voice of the Holy Spirit that might lead to a transcendant mountain conversion and replaces it with the siren call of self-fulfillment, fantasy and personal dreams of success across increasingly shorter time frames – “immediate results guaranteed!”

Cato urges Dante forward
Cato urges Dante forward

Perhaps most frightening of all is that some wonderfully ethical people who choose not to follow the Mardi Gras parade through the American Christian Quarter are derided and vilified, painted with epithets that seek to marginalize them, treated basically the same as Christ and his disciples were treated by the religious in their time. (I don’t want to imply that I include myself among the persecuted. I, like Saul, am probably still holding people’s coats while the Stephens are being stoned by the brethren). I’m not going to name any names here because the debate would descend into particulars and I don’t want to go there just yet.

Nevertheless, I know a growing number of people who, in their rejection of American Christianity are actually embracing Christ in his true nature; they just aren’t aware that the loving spirit prompting them is actually Divine and they have nothing to fear from the man from Nazareth. I have a feeling that in time they will come to recognize the silent stranger in their midst for who he is.

In Dante’s Purgatory, Cato (the author’s conception of a pagan  whose heart was so pure God couldn’t but let him occupy the first rung of the ladder outside of hell) has a special task. He is there to get the new arrivals off the beautiful beach at the base of the mountain and on their way up the difficult, labor intensive path to Paradise in which the various sins of the self are purged one by one. I have a great fondness for this particular chapter of the Purgatorio. On this anniversary of my own beachhead, I for one am hoping dearly that I’ve made a little progress up that hill.

Networked Personas, Catfish and Other Illusions

“Your Catfish Friend” by Richard Brautigan

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.”

Manti Teo - (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Manti Teo – (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

As Congreve said, “”Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” No rage is more pure than the rage of one who has been taken in and knows it. And when woman scorned is a major media outlet, woe be unto the object of the fury.

The saga of Manti Teo, erstwhile Heisman contender from the University of Notre Dame, is not merely instructive. It fairly screams for sermonic adaptation. Here be dreams within dreams within dreams. We only thought Inception was fiction. Turns out it’s as true as true can be—or as true as anyone can weave a web of comfortably lovely untruths.

And to celebrate the achievement, we get to bandy a newly adapted word—from that most respectable of all bottom feeders, the catfish. The catfish is the new Eve of the Fallen Eden, the new Pandora of the celebrated Box, the new Jezebel to be thrown down from the window and torn apart by the dogs of public discourse.

The “new” term, which has evolved into the rarified advanced word-form of noun/verb, owes its origin to Nev and Ariel Shulman and their friend Henry Joost who created what is probably a faux-documentary, Catfish (2010), based on Nev’s “personal” experience. He “met” a person online and discovered over time that the person was faking parts of her networked identity. He decided to follow up anyway and plunge through the maze of conflicting messages to get to the bottom of who this person really was, though–given the nature of the film–all that is in doubt. Critics allege the film is too neatly packaged to be showing actual events. As a work, it may fall into the same genre as Exit Through the Gift Shop, another piece that mingles truth with dark irony to pack a message alongside an artistic prank (not quite as onerous as a hoax). Schulman has parlayed his work into an ongoing MTV series with the same name as his film that explores other incidents of “catfishing,” or being duped by a false online persona.

Another layer of irony is that the story about catfish and cod as told in the “documentary” is specious at best. As a boy living in the bottomlands of southeast Virginia, I pulled my share of non-predatory catfish from muddy freshwater creeks. In a funny twist, the story may actually derive from a book of sermon illustrations. As any good preacher knows, these lovely little gems are not always to be trusted. Regardless of the source, anyone who knows fish or fishing could tell you the story smells, well, you know. And this detail lends yet another touch of farcical comedy to the development of what is about to be a very common verb.

All recriminations aside, call this catfish Lenny Kekua in a fish story that grows more bizarre with the telling. If you don’t know the Manti Teo scandal, read about it here. Turns out the Lenny Kekua who died never actually lived, at least not in the flesh. Several major media outlets, including ESPN, were duped by the story that the star athlete was spending all his spare time on the phone with his dying love Lenny, all conveniently during the lead up to Heisman voting. It was a made-for-television drama that got made for television several times over by those who followed MT with great interest. MT apparently learned at some point that Lenny didn’t actually exist, that she was the creation of someone’s twisted imagination, that she was a special online plant who blossomed, lived a very short life and died a beautifully tragic death, all of which just happened to enhance and embellish the true-life story of the star athlete. Only it was all a lie. What we don’t know, and what is still unraveling, is how much and exactly when MT knew what we all know now.

Lars and the Real Girl
Lars and the Real Girl

The story is a strange confluence of S1m0ne (’02) and Lars and the Real Girl (’07)—the one movie about a digitally manufactured actress pushed on the public, the other about a desperately lonely man who is unaware that his girlfriend is a life-size doll.

Manti Teo, if he was truly duped (which many doubt) might be granted some slack here. Apparently the phenomenon of being “catfished” by a manufactured online persona isn’t that unusual. And it’s not as if the lines of personal identity haven’t already become blurred by technology anyway.

Who among us doesn’t want to be viewed in a positive light? We are all of us festooned with managed imagery every day, costuming ourselves for each role we play. Even the “genuine” among us who say they are declining to present a facade are, by their self-selection, presenting a carefully crafted image using loudly muted tones.

But the online Presence in which we are all granted an Avatar to stand in for our already altered selves, takes the notion of image management to a whole new level. The gamey face I see in the mirror upon waking may be beautiful in the sight of God but is clearly unfit for Facebook. In fact, I can carefully control those bits and angles of me that people see. I can make of myself a sort of digital commodity and the people who constitute the audience for all of my socially networked connections (including Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and Pinterest and all the burgeoning legion of networking choices) create for me the illusion of a platform upon which I am perpetually posited. The imaginary crowd that “follows” me shares its love with comments, likes and favorites. If I am the rhetorical sort, I can scatter the seedlings of my thoughts upon the masses. If I am the emotionally needy sort, I can phish in any number of assorted ways for a cyberhug from my hundreds of besties. If I want to convert my audience of “friends” into a starter market for my wares, I need only self-advertise and create “pages” to be “liked.” It’s all about empowerment, right? And it has nothing at all to do with the marketing schemes of the people who were so obliging as to provide us with such platforms out of the sheer kindness of their hearts.

Are we all just a little catfishy? Are we all Lenny Kekua?

channelcatfish2

I don’t think so. At the risk of throwing the first stone, the ethical landscape has not really altered with the rise of all these new windows through which we can see and be seen. What has altered is the scope of opportunity, the target rich environment and the ridiculous ease with which one can deceive and be deceived. A lie by any other name is still a lie. And, as the high drama of the last couple of weeks has indicated, the fallout can be as radioactive as ever.

The moral, of course, is to have a care. Online environments are becoming increasingly accepting and even encouraging to catfish, many of whom believe they are just having a bit of fun. Anonymous pranskerism can be a heady rush for pimply geeks in their pajamas. But if we aren’t careful, this emerging brand of psychological vandalism may be the next common counseling concern as the victims line up for help.

The Greater Miracle

Image
Adoration of the Magi by Giotto di Bondone, c.1306

Feast of Epiphany, January 6

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany remembering the story of the Magi visiting the Christ child shortly after his birth. It marks the official end of the “Christmas” season in many church traditions (the 12th Day of Christmas). As expected, the gold, frankincense and myrrh get our attention in this story–and the Star. Planetariums around the country have been doing good business by explaining how the Star might really have happened at around the time of Christ’s birth.

I grew up in a religious tradition high on “signs and wonders.” The attitude was characterized less by an openness to the miraculous than by the expectation that it should be a regular feature of life. If you could not regularly testify to extraordinary things in your life then you were one of those members set apart by the quiet, sympathetic shaking of elders’ heads.  Your life did not have the evidence of Divine sizzle. You were evidently not entirely right with God.

The problem with the focus on the spectacular is that it drives one to disregard the mundane, to develop a distorted view of reality that defines a miracle within narrow confines answering to our demanding expectations. We thereby forget that the mundane, the ordinary, is a wonderfully miraculous place. We miss the Messianic principle entirely.

My upbringing damned me to many years of requiring a sign from God to settle the issue of Divine existence. Where, I begged, was my Star?

How God must have laughed.

It was a while before I saw it. But I finally did. Now, I see my Star every time I look up. It’s one of the millions that fleck the heavens every night. In fact, I can pick a different one each time if I want to. It took a long time to embrace the idea that ordinary reality IS the mark of the Divine. Only my internally composed alternate reality is devoid of Divinity, of the miraculous, of the true wonder of the Magi. Like Milton’s Satan in Hell, only my defiant mini-verse has a starless sky.

The Epiphany is less about the Star and the treasures given to the Child. It’s about answering the question: what do we do with this reality-crashing being? Herod recognized it right away, understood the full implications of the Birth. He knew better than anyone else that even the alleged legendary birth of a prophesied child meant the end of his carefully constructed and protected world. He responded n the same way most of the rest of us do in the same circumstances—he did everything he could to eliminate the threat.

Like Herod, we spend a lot of time and energy protecting our preferred mini-verses. Most of our anxieties come from threats to it. And the threats are very real—grave illnesses, deaths, births, marriages, divorces, financial issues, career changes, relational shifts as people step in and out of our dance line.

The Greater Miracle is the Epiphany that even when my own mini-verse doesn’t seem to be faring so well, the larger, ordinary reality has not ceased to be full of wonder, magic and miracle. Ordinary reality is saturated with intentional Mind and Presence. We don’t know how it all works, but it’s actually better to acknowledge our limitations—not in passive resignation, but in a willingness to be a creative and active part of the Mystery.

And naturally, these words are far easier to write than to enact, as C.S. Lewis learned when friends needled him with quotes from The Problem of Pain. But the miracle of Theophany is to be found in the Ordinary … if we can only see it there.

The Believing Skeptic II: This Glorious Bubble of Being

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” John Milton, Paradise Lost

Neo probes the mirror.

The scene in the sci-fi flick The Matrix that sent a chill down my spine is the one where the protagonist Neo, having taken the “red pill,” pokes his finger into the mirror. The silvering sticks to his finger, then flows onto his hand, then spreads over his arm and eventually rushes down his screaming throat, signaling his jolting escape from an artificial existence and his rebirth into the world of reality.

How do we know the world around us is real? In the movie, the Matrix is a carefully constructed computerized reality into which the entire human race—with the exception of a few enlightened rebels—have been inserted since birth. While the idea seems far-fetched, might I suggest that each one of us lives in his or her own Matrix, his or her own heavily constructed reality?

Please don’t recoil from your screen just yet.

Of course there is a world “out there,” but here’s the catch: each of us only intersects with it from within a self-contained, semi-transparent bubble whose inner surface reflects back at us, like Neo’s mirror. The interesting part is that we ourselves are only secondarily responsible for the construction of these bubbles. Others—in fact, generations of others—have done most of the hard work of construction and over many centuries. But to the degree that we contribute, we lace into the inner surface of the bubble our own self-awareness, our interpretations and a near-constant valorizing of everything that touches the outer skin of our bubble.

“Valorizing” refers the relative value we place on the things out there with which we intersect. We do this all the time without being fully aware that it’s happening. As you are reading this, you are doing it this very second. Everything that comes our way passes some sort of interior test of value—does it mean anything to me? Is it important to me? Do I find this interesting? Do I find this useful? Do I find this good? Do I find this entertaining? Do I find this worthy of my attention, affection or desire?

William Blake’s “Dreamer”

An enormous amount of stimuli confront our bubble screens on a daily basis and a surprisingly low amount of those stimuli actually pass through the surface to make an impression on conscious thinking and interacting. On the other hand, an enormous amount of leftover stimuli filters through to the subconscious instead, were it lies in a great slagheap of impressions and non-sifted information that drifts into conscious thought every now and again. Much of it clutters our dreams.

But those things that actually pass through to conscious thought and interaction share some kind of exceptional quality that makes us take special notice of them. That level of worthiness is largely an internal determination based on many preferential factors that may or may not have anything to do with what we publicly declare is important. In other words, what we truly value and what we say we value may not be the same thing. In some cases, they might actually be polar opposites. And if there are such valorizing discrepancies (I suspect there are a lot more of these than many of us are either aware of or willing to admit) then there will also be dissonance in our reception of thoughts and ideas.

[I’m awkwardly aware that the last sentence should be the subject of another essay, but for now let’s leave it happily undeveloped.]

Back to bubbles. Is there an “objective” reality? Of course there is. There is certainly something out there that we touch, taste, hear, smell and see. And there are Others, those beings whom we encounter (provided everyone is not merely a figment of my imagination, which would be cool, but calamitous). And there’s a world of ideas and abstractions that have some sort of ethereal existence in minds and hearts. We go on about these abstractions, like love and liberty and loneliness, or create Objects inspired by them from which Meaning is supposed to emerge and merge.

However, none of us—emphasize NONE of us—knows anything outside the spheres that surround us. Our actual sum of knowledge is only as large as the exposure of the surface area of personal experience and interactivity—that includes everything read, heard, seen or absorbed in other ways. Certainly our spheres often intersect, sometimes with very large numbers of other people’s spheres and thereby give the impression that our shared knowledge is somehow Vast to the point of Absolute. But no matter how extensive the human network might be, or how far it stretches into the past, even the collected pool of this shared material is desperately limited stuff, and if only we had the courage and humility to admit to the limitation, we would probably get along with others a lot better than we do.

You might say this outlook on things is hopelessly postmodern and deconstructionist. First of all, I deplore the term “postmodern.” There is no more limp-wristed nomenclature than that which gains its essence from direct reference to what it is not. By this same rule, the United States would be called “The Post-Colonial Nation.” The Cosmos would be the Once-Chaotic. The New York Yankees would be The Not-Highlanders-Anymore.

While I would seriously hesitate to coin a term for an entire age, I would say that the sphere-approach to knowledge, which is nothing new, is merely “perspectival” and therefore accurately reflects the limited experience of individuals in the created order of things. Nor is it deconstructionist in any way. Rather, it bespeaks the intense, continuous creativity of the sentient person.

This very creativity is both blessing and curse in the world of our limited knowledge bubbles. Spend a few minutes reading the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” Sometimes the force of an imaginative creation is so powerful it overtakes and overrules what our sensibilities (including common sense) would tell us is real. Ever find yourself behaving along the lines of a terrible misapprehension? When this is the order of the day, hour and minute for someone, we call it insanity (from the Latin for “unwhole.”) But we all know people whom we would not call insane who yet seem to behave according to their own highly idiosyncratic version of things. If we are honest, we are all probably a little insane from time to time.

Much more could be said of our spheroid (or choose your own geometric shape) existence, but I only wanted to lodge the point before getting to the heart of things. I’ll expound on the implications further both sooner and later, but it’s an important step to make prior to taking others.

In the meantime, I will blow some more vapor against my own bubble skin and write a word or two with my finger on the mirrored wall.

The Grand Illusion: Confessions of a Believing Skeptic I

[Note: The following is the first installment of what I hope will be many that might, at some point, lead to a book. I feel as I approach my half-century mark in a couple of weeks that it’s time for me to start recording some of the ideas (heresies?) I have been mulling for the past, well, almost 50 years. My work makes it difficult for me to do this regularly, but I hope to make short-form contributions on an almost weekly basis to keep things moving. Feedback and dialectic are always welcome of course. While none of these ideas are new, they have the virtue and/or misfortune of having gone through the gristmill of my life rather than someone else’s.]

Everything is Magic

I am writing this in a state of turbulence—turbulence at about 37,000 feet over Gila Bend in Arizona. That by itself is an astonishing fact—not that I am actually writing, but that I can do it sitting comfortably, albeit a little cramped in economy seating, on a very large piece of aerodynamically shaped metal and fiberglass. Were I to try to explain this amazing feat in a phone conversation to Galileo Galilei, were such a thing even possible, the conversation would go something like this:

Me: Please speak to the metal rectangle with the small images flashing on its surface.

Gal: Speak to the rectangle…

Me: Yes, you’re doing fine. You can hear my voice coming from the rectangle.

Galileo with a smart phone (from an Icelandic ad)

Gal: How is this possible? Are you a spirit trapped within this glass and metal device?

Me: No. I’m a man like you. This device is a mechanized ear that catches the sounds I make, just as your ear does, and then produces them faithfully again with sounds that closely mirror my voice. All from a great distance.

Gal: But that is not possible. That would be magic!

Me: No, not at all. It’s science, dude.

Gal: But where are you? I can’t see you. Are you close by?

Me: No, sir. I’m on a flying contraption.

Gal: A flying contraption. Like Aladdin?

Me: Not exactly. This contraption has a very powerful means of propulsion using combustible chemicals in a controlled burn. It makes it possible for an object borne up on air to move forward at rapid speeds.

Gal: A burning carpet?

Me: We call it an airplane. It’s made mostly of lightweight metals, but actually weighs quite a few tons.

Gal: And it flies? I am doing calculations right now. One can drop a cannon ball from the Tower of Pisa, but surely one cannot make a cannon fly, even if it has wings!

Me: Trust me, Mister G. With the right amount of thrust and velocity and the proper ratio of deftly shaped wing surface and span to mass, we could launch St. Peters into the air. It’s all science, I tell you.

Gal: Like Archimedes and the Earth, big lever and all that, si, si. So…you are flying. How high did you say you were flying? Above the treetops like the sparrows? (Snickers)

Me: A little higher. I’m currently traveling 250 times faster than the fastest horse at an altitude two times higher than the highest cloud.

Gal: [Silence]

Me: Uh, Galileo, old friend. You there?

Gal: I’m here.

Me: It’s all science. Really.

Gal: I believe you.

Me: Really?

Gal: I believe you are a either a lunatic or a spy sent by the Vatican to entrap me. I am putting down the rectangle now and I’m going to the chapel to say some prayers. Now please leave me alone.

Me: Just press the red button on the glass….

Gal: When you fall from the sky, as you surely must, please steer clear of Pisa. That tower is very fragile.

Surely we would conclude that if it were only possible to give the Florentine scientist adequate information, he would come along nicely and admit that he over-reacted just a bit. In time, he would not only be boarding the next available airplane, he would probably sign up for skydiving lessons. But that doesn’t change the fact that the feat I have achieved of sitting inside a fire-breathing piece of hollow aluminum six miles off the ground hurtling along at a speed that will take me 2000 miles in a mere four hours is, well, nothing short of miraculous.

But is it really a miracle?

Image from http://www.freakingnews.com/Nostradamus-Prophecies-Pictures–2707.asp

Of course not, the physicists say. It’s just science–totally plausible and explainable science. We know and understand all the rules that make such things possible. They aren’t even secret. We aren’t druids who keep their knowledge hidden from the masses, sharing it only with the sacred few. We aren’t alchemists hiding behind alembics and clouds of thick green smoke. We are honest practitioners who know how things work and we follow the rules to make them do what we know they can do. It’s that simple.

But is it that simple? Is it ever that simple?

Logical leaps are simple. Nearly blind acceptance is simple. Sitting down on this unholy flying contraption and engaging in the ludicrous act of fastening my seatbelt is simple. But guess what? Never make the mistake of thinking that the ability to do so is not magic. Because it is.

It’s all magic. And believing in it enough to place our fates at the mercy of this magic is nothing more or less than faith. And we are all brimming with faith, overflowing with it, saturated with it—every last one of us, from the most sparkly-eyed, trusting, drooling infant to the most skeptical, atheistic university professor —we are all of us exercising faith in the magic of the world around us.

In the time it took me to write this brief introduction, pausing, mind you, to eat a turkey sandwich with some airline pretzels and wash it all down three plastic cups of water, I flew on my magic tube from Palm Springs, California, to Tucumcari, Arizona. I am that amazing.

(Check here for the Icelandic ad featuring Galileo on the phone).