Anything I Want to Be?

Share:

You Can Be Anything You Want to Be
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

The Nonsensical

Taken literally, this popular word of encouragement would be ridiculous. If I had wanted to become an opera singer, could I have done so through persistence? I can’t carry a tune, and worse, I don’t usually even hear myself singing off key. I wonder whether I even hear all the music other people hear. Could there be a musical equivalent of partial color blindness? To believe I could have become an opera singer or any kind of singer would have required severe delusion. Maybe I should have wanted to play football in the NFL or basketball in the NBA. Why should I let factors such as size and insufficient athleticism stop me, if after all, I could be anything I wanted to be?

The Helpful

In reasonable usage, the saying is meant to lift imposed restrictions and break through unnecessary barriers. “A girl can’t be an engineer.” “A woman can’t become president of the United States.” “A black girl can’t become a ballet dancer (this bias featured in one episode of the television series, “Fame”). Many barriers have been breached already, but a breached wall does not let through everyone who wishes to pass and could pass through it but for artificially imposed restrictions. Because some have pioneered does not guarantee that many others are not impeded still. The true import of the saying is to tell the person she or he has the right to pursue any (legal) goal she or he is able to pursue when freed from the unreasonable restrictions of societal prejudice, parental authoritarianism, religious regulation, or unjust laws.

Girls don’t climb trees (even though many do). Men don’t wash dishes (even though many do). I recall reading somewhere that during the apartheid years in South Africa, white students had a difficult time earning money to help pay for a university education because the jobs available to students in other countries were closed to them because they were white and those jobs were considered beneath their status. For them, prejudice backfired, but the real issue was the limiting of non-white South Africans to those menial, poorly paid jobs. If a white student couldn’t clean floors or tables, neither could a black or “colored” person qualify for jobs restricted to white South Africans.

So, the helpful word in the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is its call to freedom and dignity. You are not born to be a slave to repressive forces; neither are you restricted to whatever other people decide you must be. With commitment and diligence, you may become who and what you can be, according to your capabilities and your own preferences, or at least you have the right to try.

The Blaming

If it is taken to be true that I can be anything I want to be if only I apply myself thoroughly and persistently, am I not thereby condemned for my failures, no matter their causes? More broadly, if groups of people within a prosperous society fail to prosper, are they not thereby proved to be lazy, shiftless, and of no account? More broadly still, can we not suppose that all earth’s poor are self-made failures? If it is true that anyone can be anything she or he wants to be, then nothing external can stop us – no oppression, discrimination, cruelty, deprivation, or violence – but only our own lack of ambition.

Here the saying that can be inspirational becomes, instead, a judgment of the successful upon the unsuccessful, the rich upon the poor, the happy upon the miserable. It says to them, “Don’t complain! Whatever is holding you back from success is your own fault! No one can keep you down but you yourself. You are a loser of your own making.”

Like other maxims of the rich and powerful, this one is a convenient lie designed to make privilege appear to be self-propelled attainment and greed appear to be virtue. Many of the accepted beliefs in prosperous societies, including their religious beliefs, have been developed to favor those enjoying privilege, prestige, and power and to maintain the status quo by keeping the repressed in their assigned places.

For Me

Because of the faith commitment that has claimed me from childhood and been renewed repeatedly throughout my life, my question about my future could never be simply, “Who do I want to be, and what do I want to do with the life given to me?” but rather, “Who am I called to be and become, and what am I called to seek and to do?” It would be pretentious and self-deceiving to say my own desires have had nothing to with my life-answers to those questions, as it would be silly to suggest my capabilities and limitations played no part. There has been no blueprint for my personhood or road map for my seeking, learning, failing, succeeding, floundering, and advancing along the winding path.

Because biblically and for me truly, life is relational, the questions of who to be and what to do have never been allowed an isolated, individualized answer. I am or have been many people to various others: son, brother, classmate, husband, father, friend, pastor, student, stranger, opponent, colleague, neighbor, fellow, and so on. All by myself without even memory of relatedness to other people, I would no one and nothing I wanted to be, but that truth applies to all of us whether we know it or not. Biblical understanding of faith promotes relational concerns to the forefront of aspirations for self and life.

Have I always wanted to be who I was and what I am? No, and neither have I always held unqualified gratitude for what I have believed myself called to do. I wonder if anyone of us truly and without reservation likes himself or herself. I cannot even imagine being thoroughly satisfied with who I have become so far and what I have done with the time, life, friendship, abilities, experiences, and love I have been given. The notion of having no regrets is lost on me.

Vocation

In Christian church history, vocation came to mean a special religious calling away from the world, apart from the people (the laity). Biblically, however, to be chosen means to be called out by God from the people, the many, for the purpose of service to the people. Even a king is a shepherd, called to take care of the people and see to justice and compassion that faithfully represent God’s own justice and compassion. Being a prophet came to mean, for the great prophets, being called to live in sympathetic vibration of the soul with God’s pathos – God’s intense and vital love for the people and the creation – while, at the same time empathizing with the people and standing with them and for them before God.

Martin Luther protested the division between the vocations (priests and nuns) and the laity. He insisted that all Christians are called so that all can and should see and live their lives as vocations. Here the word vocation is not limited to a trade, art, or profession – to a job – but defines a whole life lived as a person called by Christ to follow him for the sake of the world and its people whatever the job, marital status, ability, disability, or path. Here life is a gift given with each breath but also a calling renewed each new day.

In practice, however, the idea of a calling or vacation can be degraded right back to prescribed duty, place, and station. The whole idea of the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is to break the restrictions imposed upon a person by society, parents, custom, or religion. So, for the one who believes herself (or himself) called to follow and to serve, becoming who I am to be is not just a struggle between ego and calling but a three-way struggle among ego, suppression of the self, and calling.

Because life is relational, maturing happens in continuous tension between the need for personal freedom and the need for acceptance by others and belonging with them. Vocation or calling adds a vertical dimension to this tension, but I think it is a serious mistake to imagine that the vertical (between God and the self) eliminates the tension between freedom and belonging, as though God dictated my choices and told me which way to go at every turn. I hear people declare, “God told me to do such and such,” and I fear that such passing upward of all human responsibility provides a dangerous opening for magical thinking and self-deception. The so-called prosperity gospel plays upon just such thinking and self-deception, does it not?

Conclusion

The saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” clearly should not be taken literally and simplistically. I could not have become an opera singer or a pro athlete. Plus, there are always trade-offs. Could I become a good, published writer? Maybe, but only with a lot of work in isolation from other people. Am I willing to give up much of life’s interaction to strive to show something of life with words (not just tell about it)? In the tensions and choices of living, almost every gain has a corresponding loss.

To me, the saying functions best as a hammer to break chains or a pry bar to open boxes of confinement into which people have been placed. It protests confinement and restriction, opening new possibilities. As such, it can do good.

Danger comes from self-delusion or just selfishness. Life is not given to me so I can be all about what I want. Having it all, as people say of supposed success, is a trap in which the self is snared by taking all to itself. The greater harm is done by blaming the repressed for their own repression. We’ve heard more lately of this vicious nonsense: only weak women get abused. Once again, insult is added to injury as the powerful dismiss the protests of the victimized.

For the Christian I must add that following Jesus Christ does not excuse me from making choices, struggling with responsibilities, and thinking for myself. There is a big difference between thinking for myself and thinking only of myself. Unthinking faith is a contradiction in terms. As Augustine declared and the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall insists, belief seeks understanding. I must put my trust in Christ, but I may not pass off to him my responsibility for myself, my life, and my service.

The helpful force of the saying seems to me now especially important for girls who much too long and far too imperiously have been told what they must (and must not) do and who they may be. Not only girls but especially girls. Not only the young but especially the young. Not only people in minorities but they especially.

[References available for Heschel, Hall, and the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (biblical Hebrew word for “chosen”).  The footnotes didn’t move well from WordPerfect to WordPress.]

Circumstances Don’t Matter?

Share:

It’s Not Your Circumstances that Matter
But What You Do with Them
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

The Potentially Helpful

In my ragged copy of a 1969 book, Journey to Freedom, I find a quote from Tennessee Williams’s, Camino Real, in which one character (Quixote) tells another (Kilroy), “Don’t! Pity! Your! Self! The wounds . . . the many offenses our egos have to endure being housed in bodies that age and hearts that grow tired, are better accepted with a tolerant smile . . . Otherwise what you become is a bag full of curdled cream – leche male, we call it – attractive to nobody, least of all to yourself! Have you any plans?” Kilroy answers, “Well I was thinking of going on from here.” Quixote responds, “Good! Come with me!” (Dowdey, 25,26)

The idea is at least as old as Stoicism: don’t let anything that happens outside you touch and hurt your soul. The common versions might be expressed as, “Don’t let life get you down,” and, “Your life is what you make of it.”

Surely self-pity is a trap – in John Bunyon’s allegorical terms (The Pilgrim’s Progress), a “slough of despond” that, as we say, bogs us down. As long as we remain stuck in this bog of self-pity, we go nowhere. So, very often in life, what we do with our present circumstances determines whether we go on from there.

Bravado’s overblown version of the indomitable human spirit finds voice in William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus.”

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The call to rise above our circumstances and live again with courage can, indeed, be inspirational and may even be just what we need to hear from ourselves at certain dark times in our lives. Self-pity is a bog, and it will in time repulse other people, even friends, pushing them away from the one wallowing in that bog. We do need to go on from here, wherever here may be when we get stuck, but I do not believe we need to go on unmoved, untouched, unhurt. Self-protection, self-insulation, can become as dangerous as self-pity.

The Personal Danger: Hardening

Part of Paul Simon’s lyrics for the song, “I Am a Rock”:

I’ve built walls
A fortress, steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
And I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

. . .
And a rock feel no pain
And an island never cries.

If I won’t let myself feel my own feelings, how will I empathize with anyone else? If I try to make myself emotionally invulnerable, how can I allow myself to be loved? If I won’t acknowledge my own pain, how will I not become hardhearted and perhaps even cruel?

As we mature, we undergo of necessity a certain degree of hardening. We dare not allow every little slight, injury, or unfairness to get us down. It is neither wise nor safe to go out into the world looking wounded, both because the jackals will move in upon us and because friends will move away from us.

Compassion (suffering with another person enough to be moved to care about that person’s plight) requires vulnerability and the strength to allow myself to be so moved, but how much vulnerability is enough and how much would be too much? In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses a Semitic expression that translates literally as something like, “What to you and to me?” (John 2). The idea is that for another individual’s problem to become mine, there must be some relational context that draws us together in the matter. Otherwise, the problem as presented may be none of my business, which is not the same as saying, “I don’t care,” but does recognize that I am not responsible for solving that problem. I find this expression helpful for guarding against being drawn into others’ relational conflicts in which I have no rightful part. Of course, there may also be good reasons for me to accept that I really do have a responsibility within the matter, but the question, “What to you and to me?” asks what those reasons are. For example, a man demands that Jesus tell his (the man’s) brother to share with him properly the inheritance from their father. Jesus asks the man who made him an arbiter between the two brothers, then tells him he would do well to make his priority reconciling with his bother. The relationship has greater value than the money or property, and Jesus will not insert himself into their family dispute.

If, however, I decide that outward circumstances really do not matter to human happiness and should not affect the soul, then I make myself as nearly as possible invulnerable to other people’s sufferings as well as to my own. In so doing, I am making myself less and less human. I develop a “get over it” attitude toward grief. I dismiss concern about injustices. If necessary for self-protection, I blame people for their sufferings: “No one else does anything to you, except as you do it to yourself by allowing them to trouble you.” So the abused and exploited, the many victims of human cruelty or random misfortune have our self-righteous condemnation of their unhappiness added to their pain.

Social Consequences

If everyone is responsible for his/her own life and happiness, then what place remains for concern about social injustices? Are human systems exempt from the demands of justice? If circumstances don’t matter, what need is there to improve them? Let everyone take care of himself (traditionally women have been expected and forced to accept their circumstances as dictated to them, even as divinely ordained).

Two great lies buttress this hands-off attitude. The first is the lie that we are individuals with no crucial relatedness to each other, that relationships are optional, that one’s life and self are completely one’s own. The second is that prevailing social structures and hierarchies are somehow natural and proper. The truth is that the poverty of many greatly benefits the relatively few who prosper from it, and social hierarchies are enforced to maintain and increase that benefit for the relatively few. Most of us who call ourselves middle class can maintain that status only because poorer people suffer to provide us with goods we otherwise could not afford. Until we recognize our interrelatedness and interdependence, we will continue to live in a world of so-called winners and losers, and the losers will continue to suffer for the benefit of the winners while being blamed for their own misery and the futility of their efforts. For this reason, charitable giving (while better than not giving) serves to blind us to inequities and shield the conscience from the unfairness of “the way things are” while stroking the egos of those with money to spare.

For this reason, also, we love the exceptional, the one who makes it up out of poverty, despite discrimination and the systemic heel on his or her neck. “See!” we tell ourselves, “that one did it, and so what excuse have the rest?” From the back of my mind echoes Buffy Sainte-Marie’s question, “Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you?” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”).

Conclusion

Is there a conclusion? I suspect that in one way or another we must, each and all, transcend our circumstances. Can the well-off rise above their prosperity to recognize their privilege and so arrive at the possibility of redemption? Can the crushed rise up with hope above their pain and bitterness? Can the grief-stricken go forward in hope without denying their love and the pain it will suffer as long as they live? Can I tell myself not to get bogged down in self-pity without turning and oppressing others with my platitudes about their happiness being their own responsibility and no one else’s?

Abraham Heschel told us the world does not need more people who love justice – the great and wonderful ideal of justice – but more who cannot abide the injustices done to others. Circumstances do indeed matter, and I really don’t believe we should make peace with evil, personal or social. It should matter that a child has cancer. It should disrupt our happiness that a girl is told she cannot become what she could be, all because she is not a boy. It should grieve us that so many women find expression of a truth of their lives in the “Me too” movement. It should trouble us that people have to insist, against the prevailing attitudes, that “black lives matter.” Circumstances do indeed matter!

We do not need to shield ourselves from grief by denying love. We do not need to minimize our love of life when faced with our own mortality more immanently than we expected. We do not need to put on a happy face. I have known couples who desperately needed to talk with other about their griefs, fears, and losses but, instead, protected each other by keeping silence about impending death until one was gone.

Self-pity is a bog we must escape and keep escaping. And denial of our feelings, needs, and disappointments is a fortress-prison we must escape also. Either trap keeps us from each other, from life, and from honesty with ourselves.

 

Some Thoughts on Being Human

Share:

To be human is not merely to exist and possess the peculiar features of humankind — the large brain, opposable thumb, power of speech, and capability of reflection on the meaning of our existence — but to be commanded to become what Another wants us to be. We are not simply made or born human but commanded to take part in our own becoming human.(1) Jesus summed up God’s commandments by pairing the two greatest: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Everything Jesus wants taught and understood about the commanded life of God’s people hangs from the pegs of these two great commandments, and any obedience not derived from love for God and love for the other person who is our neighbor is false obedience and does not serve God’s desire for human life.

God’s commands create. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God calls into being what was not. Light, however, obeys God’s command simply by doing what light does. It shines, illumines, and travels really, really fast. Light never thinks: “I’m sick and tired of doing the same day after day, and so I’m going to strike out on my own and do what I want. I’m the fastest thing around. Why should I keep doing somebody else’s bidding? It’s my life, and I’ll do it my way.” Light lacks both intelligence and that most dangerous of God’s gifts to us which we call the will. Light does not truly obey God because light cannot choose to disobey.

God comes to us, not with power to coerce, but with vulnerable compassion.

We can disobey and defy God. But God does not want obedience for its own sake. God does not make us slaves. Jesus counts it as success when he can tell his disciples they are no longer his servants but his friends because they know his mind and share his purpose willingly. God comes to us, not with power to coerce, but with vulnerable compassion. That’s why Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish philosopher and teacher who describes human being as commanded life, warns us, “. . . when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”(2)

What does it mean to love God, whom we cannot see or touch, prove to our skeptical friends, or prove to ourselves in the dark nights of our doubts, fears, and disappointments? How can we love God?

Continue reading →

Search Me

Share:

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? 22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. 23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:21-24 NRSV)

As I have said already, people who believe the Bible presents to us the truth of God nevertheless read two different Bibles, by which I mean they read the same Bible in two radically different ways which produce divergent and often clashing witnesses to the faith.  Some read what I call the vindictive Bible, others the salvific Bible.  The two contain the same books, same verses, and same words, although the two groups of readers may select different passages to keep rereading to bolster and guide their faith.  That, after decades of studying the Bible, I am compelled to read it as salvific should be no secret to those who read this blog or those who heard me preach during my forty years of pastoral ministry – compelled and not merely persuaded, because I read the entire Bible through the lens of the gospel, the good news announcement, of Jesus.

Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

Whoa, what is this?  Are we not hearing the very kind of religious passions that drive zealots to cruelty, torture, murder, terrorism, warfare, and genocide?  Do these two verses from Psalm 139 not express in self-congratulating tones the sentiments of religious bigotry?  We have stained human history red with the blood of piety’s victims killed without remorse because they had been named by the faithful as enemies of God.  Just what every religion needs: more “perfect hatred” to teach its own children and inflict upon our strife-torn world!  Would we not do better to edit such evil-sounding verses out of our bibles so they can add no more stinking fuel to the fires of bigotry and hatred?  No, we need to keep and strive to understand them, for they offer us a kind of mirror into which we need to look and see ourselves.

I suspect that many who come to faith and then keep growing in it so that faith becomes the impelling force in their lives must pass through a phase of zealotry in some degree.  From early childhood, we define ourselves, not only by who we are and with whom we belong, but also by who we are not and with whom we do not belong.  We identify insiders (people like us, our kind) and outsiders (people not like us, not our kind), and both the positive and the negative shape us.  Negative self-identification forms prejudices but also protects our values and sometimes keeps us safe, especially when we are children.  Admittedly, this process is dangerous to the human soul and the human community but also necessary and, even if not absolutely necessary, inevitable.  The question soon becomes, however, “What is my attitude toward those who are what – because of my beliefs, commitments, and values – I choose not be?”  That question may lead to another: “Are they truly so different from me as I imagine them?”  And so on: “What do we share as human beings?” and, “Who are they to God?”  As empathy develops (if it is permitted to develop), so does compassion.  If empathy does not develop, contempt will grow where compassion rightfully belongs, and those who stay religious will imagine the people for whom they feel contempt to be God’s enemies.  Then, to guard themselves from guilt, the religious may choose to imagine, “If they will only repent and change their ways (and perhaps even their identities), they will become like us (our in-group), and I will accept them because then God will accept them.”  This feigned mercy is a self-delusion that pretends to grace without compassion, for compassion requires entering with respect and sympathy into another’s suffering and in some sense sharing in it.  Compassion does not say, “Become as I am, and then I will respect you and accept our shared humanity,” but moves to stand with the other before God and says, “Have mercy on us.”

What do we do with that zealous phase of hating God’s enemies?  It would be too easy because too right too soon to quote Jesus’ telling us to love our enemies and pray for those who despise and even harm us.  We’ll get there, I hope, but neither easily nor quickly.  In a matter so visceral and so interwoven into our very identities as persons, quick-and-easy must surely mean superficial and false.

The great Jewish philosopher and teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said that the world does not need more people who love justice as a concept, an ideal, but remain conveniently undisturbed by the specific injustices done to other people as long as those injustices do not touch them or those they love.  He declared, very helpfully I find, that we need more people who cannot abide those specific injustices done to others.  So, we need to hate what is hurtful, and in that sense we need to “hate” (oppose, choose against, rather than tolerate) those doing the harm to the vulnerable and likely unpopular.  Biblically, “hate” and “love” can be words used to express choices against or for someone or something in a specific context, rather than deep-seated and enduring emotional ill will toward some person or group.

Empathy and its resulting compassion, if allowed, will lead us toward the intolerance for injustices done to others for which Heschel calls.  I believe compassion will lead us also toward the deliberate actions of love for our enemies to which Jesus calls.  We will learn to pray for people even as we oppose their unjust, exploitive actions.  We will continue to oppose them, but our opposition will evolve into a different spirit far less prone to self-righteousness and cruelty.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked [hurtful] way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

For me, this closing prayer points toward the redemption of the zeal that would take pride in hating, especially when I follow the alternative translation where the NRSV uses “wicked” but notes the word can also mean “hurtful.”  I much prefer hurtful because it is more clearly relational and, therefore, truer to the biblical way of thinking, speaking, and regarding life.

As it is true that I cannot fully know the mind of God (surely the understatement of the day!), it is true also that I cannot fully know my own thoughts, motives, and will.  I judge myself wrongly, so that I am ready and willing to take pride in what should shame me and just as ready to take the speck out of the other person’s eye while ignoring the log in my own, or I may be ready to blame myself where God does not blame me.  I need this kind of prayer and its attitude, and I dare not presume that simply praying it will be enough, as though the devotional act would shield me magically from presumption and spiritual arrogance.  For throughout this life, I see myself only as in a mirror darkly (I Corinthians 13:12).  But I am fully known – known through and through by the God who will not leave me even if I run and try to hide, the God who will go with me wherever I wander or get dragged, the God who won’t stop caring until I let myself be loved.

What Does It Matter Anyway?

Share:

I have been posting about the relation between justice and equality.  Why do I care what people think about that relation, and why should anybody else care?  Aristotle, Harry Potter (Joanne Rowling, actually), Martha Nussbaum, and Moses?  Good grief, who’s next?

Justice is a lofty ideal, and it would be strange indeed to hear anyone seeking a position of leadership in the United States speak against the ideal of justice.  What I hope I have been able to point out, however, is that there is not agreement on what justice involves in theory or practice.

The biblical view of justice involves fairness but with a compelling bias toward the poor and disadvantaged in the society.  Biblical justice does not merely measure or balance; it rolls up its sleeves and gives compassionate help to the deprived, with special care not to trample on their dignity, not to shame them.  The aristocratic ideal of justice, in which the more important people rightly receive the larger shares, stands diametrically opposed to the biblical view.

An observation I have long found most helpful comes from the Jewish philosopher and teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel in his work, The Prophets.  Heschel insists we human beings and our societies do not need more people who extol the lofty ideal of justice but, rather, more who refuse to abide the injustices done to others.  Praise justice all day every day, and you offer the world hot air.  Make yourself care about the wrongs done to the vulnerable and the sufferings inflicted upon them and keep caring and unite with others who care, and you can make justice happen for those who need it most.

Without empathy and compassion, justice does not happen.  Without respect for the human dignity of those whose dignity and worth are being denied, what passes for justice is little more than the conceit of those who have done very well reaching down to do a bit of good for the poor unfortunates – or as they are now being labeled, the lazy and dependent who will not take personal responsibility for their own well-being.

A teacher is invited to participate in an education round-table discussion by a presidential candidate.  He, the candidate, spells out his views on what’s wrong with America’s public schools and his desired means for making teachers and administrators accountable.  The teacher, imagining she has been invited to discuss education issues, says she can answer each of the candidate’s points.  He replies that he has not asked her a question.  End of discussion.  Clearly, her thoughts do not matter because she is only, well, a school teacher and a female one at that.

The Aristocratic view of justice as proportional, meaning the more important people receive justice only when they are given more respect, more regard, more wealth, and much more say than the rest of us can be proudly and confidently dismissive of the thoughts, needs, sufferings, and hopes of the lesser people.  And it is.  It is dismissive.  That’s the way of “proper pride.”  It’s the way of people who really do think they are more important and more deserving than others.  Give them deference, and they may toss you some charity; it makes them feel good to be charitable, and it makes them look good, too.

Reason and Faith Together

Share:

Our age is one in which usefulness is thought to be the chief merit of nature; in which the attainment of power, the utilization of resources is taken to be the chief purpose of man in God’s creation.

On some days, I think the greatest challenge for faith is to re-humanize us. Abraham Heschel, who wrote the thoughts on our age quoted above (God in Search of Man), summons us to return to awareness of the grandeur of the world around us. If we can answer that call, maybe we can also rediscover something of the wonder within us, the wonder we are in the midst of God’s creation. But do we even know what Heschel means by grandeur? Do I?

Everything these days is “awesome!” Do we know how awe feels? In common usage, something is awesome merely by exceeding that to which we have already grown quickly accustomed. A video game becomes awesome by attaining new levels of blood and gore, a movie by spectacular special effects, an online comment by smacking down the opponent spectacularly (which may mean no more than rudely and crudely, with no special insight). It seems awesome has come to mean spectacular, and so grandeur is reduced to spectacle that surprises or startles.

Continue reading →

Planting Stones

Share:

The following excerpt comes from the opening of Abraham J. Heschel’s book, God in Search of Man: a Philosophy of Judaism (published 1955), in the first section of chapter 1, called, “To Recover the Questions”:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.

Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions. The moment it becomes oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in.
. . .

There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.

Continue reading →