Walden on the Rocks

Thoreau believed that we, like Nature itself, can renew ourselves “completely each day.”

This is an essay by the Chilean-Ameican writer Ariel Dorfman found in the latest NYReview of Books.  It treads the shores of Cape Cod, strewn with the bodies of shipwrecked Irish immigrants.


The bodies are strewn everywhere along the beach. Burials are complicated because nobody knows the names of the dead—mostly women and children fleeing famine and poverty, trying to reach the land of plenty that has been promised to them but finding, instead, an early end in turbulent waters. Spectators gape at the debris from the recent shipwreck “cracked up like an eggshell on the rocks,” while others go about their business.

“In the very midst of the crowd about this wreck,” writes an eyewitness to the aftermath of the disaster, “there were men with carts busily collecting seaweed which the storm had cast up, and conveying it beyond the reach of the tide, though they were often obliged to separate fragments of clothing from it.”

This scene of devastation and indifference seems torn from the latest headlines or photos from around the world, just one more group of refugees appearing fleetingly on our screens and in our consideration. In fact, the victims of this particular wreckage were 140 Irish immigrants who perished when the St. John, the ship upon which they had sailed to “the New World, as Columbus and the Pilgrims did,” crashed on the shores of Cape Cod during a huge storm in October 1849. The eyewitness referred to above, without whom we might not remember the incident at all, was none other than Henry David Thoreau.

It is not that story of bereavement on the shore that first comes to mind when thinking about Thoreau today. This year’s articles, exhibits, commemorative stamps and the like to mark the bicentennial of his birth have focused, rightly, on a life dedicated to nature in its multiple and luminous forms, and his ground-breaking call to civil disobedience. But it is worth turning our attention as well to that lesser known experience of his on Cape Cod, the calamity he witnessed such a long time ago that nevertheless feels so sadly contemporary. Thoreau issues a challenge to us over the chasm of time and we would do well to listen to him.

What strikes me most today is how Thoreau understood and demarcated the moral dilemma posed by anyone confronting a catastrophe such as the sinking of the St. John. He contemplates the workers who, with “no human interest in the matter,” go on with their everyday lives: “Drown who might, they did not forget that this weed was a valuable manure. This shipwreck had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society.” And he notes that, for an old man who, along with his son, was carting “the wrecked weed” to his barnyard, “those bodies were… but other weeds which the tide cast up, but which were of no use to him.”

Thoreau is not judgmental about this attitude, perhaps because it strangely mirrors his own dispassionate detachment. With the eloquence typical of his discussions of his own mental meanderings and contradictions, Thoreau explains the reason for his emotional distance: “If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more,” adding that rather than “all the graveyards together… it is the individual and private that demands our sympathy.”

It is an uncomfortable observation, all the more so for being undeniable. In this year alone, the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, innumerable migrants continue to die without most of us in the West having any idea about the contours of those lives, their identities, dreams, faces. Who knows anything about the hundreds of unheralded Mexican and Central American migrants who have died anonymously this year trying to cross the desert which, like a vast dry perilous ocean, separates Mexico from the United States? Or about the Rohingya who have recently been consumed by the Bay of Bengal as they attempted to escape the massacres in Myanmar? Are we in the privileged West not equally ignorant of the lives and deaths of almost three thousand migrants from Africa and the Middle East who have perished at sea in search of sanctuary in Europe, one hundred of them in the last few days alone, including twenty-six Nigerian women, most of them underage, who may have been raped before they drowned?

Could it not be said of them, as Thoreau wrote of the Irish corpses he contemplated, “Why care for these dead bodies? They really have no friends but the worms or fishes.”

We are faced today, as we will unfortunately be tomorrow, with the same ethical quandary that Thoreau formulated so elegantly but was unable to resolve: How can we breach the gap in empathy that resurfaces every time we are bombarded with news and images of corpses on the shore or in the desert or under the ruins of a city, so many bodies blurring into one another that we cannot meaningfully process the fact of their deaths?

One way of counteracting that “collapse of compassion,” as psychologists call it, is to take a route that Thoreau did not follow. He ascribed the fate of those corpses to the workings of Nature, avoiding any mention of the “visible vibration in the fabric of society” that led those families to flee their homeland. He does not address (either here or elsewhere in his work) the famine that drove so many starving inhabitants of Ireland to emigrate, a famine that was man-made and not at all due to “the law of Nature.” The potato blight that compelled those Irish families to mount perilous boats was exacerbated by social and economic afflictions: exploitation by absentee landlords; land tenancy that favored grazing over crops and made farmers dependent on one vulnerable strain of potatoes; the export, by Ireland’s colonial government, of enormous amounts of food at the very moment when the people of that island were starving.

Today, if each of us cannot fully bring into our hearts all the faraway fatalities we see on the news, we can at least try to acknowledge and understand the causes of such cataclysms, a necessary step toward preventing further carnage. Civil wars, poverty, political repression, droughts, and pollution are ordained not by Nature but by Man. In fact, it is our human ravaging of Nature, the very depredations that Thoreau most dreaded—“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste to the sky as well as the earth”—that is so often the source of the conflicts and scarcity that have pushed many millions to search for salvation in foreign lands. A desperate quest destined only to get worse: the International Organization for Migration reports estimate of between 25 million and 1 billion additional refugees created by man-made climate change by 2050.

If Thoreau did not analyze the storm of social ills behind the tragic shipwreck he was witnessing with the perceptiveness and patience he lent to his descriptions of trees and flowers and streams, he does provide a model of what needs to be done when we feel helpless and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the horrors that assail us daily. He would urge us, in these times when the Earth he venerated is so assaulted and pillaged, when communities have been destroyed and their residents forced to flee, that we heed his call, in “Civil Disobedience” (1849), or nonviolent resistance to oppression. He might say to us now, as he said to his fellow citizens then, that it is “not too soon for honest men to rebel.”

Thoreau practiced what he preached. Opposing what he deemed the two evils of his day, slavery and the Mexican-American War (waged, he believed, as an imperial project to expand the territory for slavery), he refused to pay his taxes, preferring to be jailed. It was this stance that prompted him to write the essay “Civil Disobedience,” which was to inspire Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. The latter echoed Thoreau in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

It is true that most of us possess neither the courage nor the stamina to undergo such drastic penalties. That does not mean, however, that we are condemned to lead “lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Thoreau does not demand that everyone display a taste for martyrdom. On the contrary, two hundred years after his birth, he has gentle advice for his readers, suggesting how each of us might build a legacy of creative protest: “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once done well is done forever.”

Thoreau believed that we, like Nature itself, can renew ourselves “completely each day.” If we listen to his voice intensely and deliberately, perhaps we can be encouraged, each of us on our own terms, to discover that small way to contribute to a different sort of society. Because those bodies scattered upon the sand and the sea that Thoreau saw—a vista obscenely repeated in our time—are, if we dare to look deep into the canvas of our imagination, harbingers of the communal fate that is in store for the ship of humanity as it heads toward the rocks. They are a warning to us to act now, to sing the song that is still in us, before it is too late to prevent the wreck that awaits us all on this damaged planet. And with no Thoreau left on the beach to tell our tale.

November 29, 2017, 12:40 pm


Some of you will know that I too, EM, am fascinated with the passage Dorfman frames from Thoreau’s book Cape Cod. In Excursions with Thoreau (Bloomsbury), p. 90, I write:

Finding nature accepting deaths in due course releases Thoreau from the sense that his losses are uniquely his to endure or protest alone. “Every part of Nature teaches that the passing away of one life is the making room for another.”[1]  It’s striking that Thoreau makes this entry on the first page of his newborn Journal. For him, from the start, the crack of dawn cuts through lingering darks. There’s nothing dejected in Thoreau’s raising a cairn to Margret Fuller by the surf off Fire Island where she drowned and was ravaged by sharks. [The search for Fuller gets lifted from his Journal into his book, Cape Cod, without mentioning his earlier mission to recover her body.] Here is the passage — I’d call it majestic in its affirmative mourning:
I expected that I should have to look very narrowly at the sand to find so small an object, but so completely smooth and bare was the beach . . . that when I was half a mile distant the insignificant stick or sliver which marked the spot looked like a broken spar in the sand. There lay the relics [Fuller’s bones] in a certain state, rendered perfectly inoffensive to both bodily and spiritual eye by the surrounding scenery, a slight inequality in the sweep of the shore . . . It was as conspicuous on that sandy plain as if a generation had labored to pile up a cairn  . . . It reigned over the shore. That dead body possessed the shore as no living one could.[2]
[1] Journal, Oct. 24, 1837, p.  3.
[2] Cape Cod, p. 123.   The roots of this passage appear in Journal Oct 31, 1850, p. 80.




Good Humor


“There’s a crack in everything” – Leonard Cohen – “that’s how the light gets in.” In dark times, we crave light. Where is the light coming in?  In friendship and music, in Sunday fellowship and worship. In love. In family and in good days by the Bay. A crack of light puts us in good humor. That’s no laughing matter.

For a moment or longer it saves us from drowning. There’s an alarming list of realities that can drown us. The world is dark, but not without cracks — not without joy and smiles, mindful self-compassion, songs and sonatas, Otto’s new shoes and little Eunice’s smile. These are respite from the dark.  

Late night political parodies lighten spirits. We need to fight for health care and also practice love and good humor. Our Sundays invoke Biblical themes, and I’ve wondered if the Good Book is only somber. A friend answered conclusively. There is wonderful comedy in the tale of Jonah being swallowed by a Whale — and then mercifully spit out. God growing Jonah a tree to get him some shade is somber-free, silly.

Jesus cures a man’s blindness – a serious thing. But he rubs the poor man’s eyes with mud and spit.  Why not just cure with a wave of the hand?  Any miracle puts on a show, but this mud and spit business is extreme. The added touch gives us breathing room.  

Am I irreverent?  Matthew 25, our reading for today, makes me smile. It’s bizarre. The core is serious, of course. The passage to Heaven is like a wedding where things might – and do – get unhinged. Will I be prepared, like the five wise bridesmaids? Or unprepared, like the foolish ones? But the wider setting is something else.   

The groom is late — the bride, nowhere to be found. What kind of wedding is that? The bridesmaids fall asleep. A bad sign. It’s dark when they awake. Half of them forget to bring oil for their lamps. Worse, bride, family, and friends, all fail to show. The groom is heard in the dark — then he disappears . . . did he forget HIS light? and reappears. Cat and mouse. It’s utter confusion, overall, a disaster. Getting to heaven is as rough as getting through this wedding – or as getting a camel through the eye of a needle!

Of course, humorless scholars might protest. Back in the day weddings always began well after midnight. Bride, groom, and guests were always in hiding, and typically lost their way. Back in the day, mud and spit were common home remedy for blindness.  But while scholars dig, thinking of Jonah or of this botched wedding can lighten my load. These moments are good for the soul.

To be only anxious or melancholy is disaster.  It’s true, sadness and mourning keep our loved ones present — And good humor keeps loves present, too. Gospels bring good news, bring joy into sadness. They let light come through the cracks. 

It takes skill to sense when and how to laugh and when to be outraged. There’s plenty to grieve and be angry about. But too much melancholy leaves us ineffective, angry, vengeful. Good humor is agile and lets in the light.

 A Woman’s Protest Rock Group, Pussy Riot, from Russia, was jailed for two years by Mr. Putin.  MSNBC just interviewed a leader visiting Manhattan. With a laugh she tells Laurence O’Donnell that on her return to Russia she’ll continue protesting. The prospect of more jail doesn’t faze her. What inspires her good natured courage? Believe it or not, she says she’s inspired and takes courage from American protesters of ’68, her favorite year in history. She lionizes the Yippees — Jerry Rubin and others who protested with zany stunts. She said that even in jail, she laughed. She beams a slant of light.

 In the search for survivors after 911 one rescue worker was unusually popular. Teams were picking through rubble looking for survivors. They knew that at any moment it all might shift, trapping them or worse. This charismatic worker had a loud, irreverent sense of humor. He was a stream of jokes and off-color remarks. The darkness needed to be humanized. He knew how to do it.

The dark Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, gives us a knight and his squire returning from a crusade through plague and disaster. The knight is heroically morbid and plays chess with death. The squire is good humored and brings us wit, liveliness, and neighborly care. They run into a young woman about to be burned at the stake. The knight broods over fate; the squire offers her water. They come upon a sleeping man by the path. Jens approaches to ask directions. He tries shaking the sleeper awake.  Pulling back a blanket, he startles. It’s a skull with eye-sockets empty.   

The Knight asks, “What did he say?”

Jens: “Nothing.” 

— “Was he mute?” 

— “No, in fact he was quite eloquent.” 

— “Oh?”

— “Yes, quite eloquent. The trouble is that what he had to say was . . . most depressing!”

The squire’s sardonic response lightens an otherwise ghoulish scene.

Good humor embodies joyous communion. Dante’s great poem, The Divine Comedy, includes the hell of crucifixion and the promise of endless joy and communion.  Comedy, here, is the good humor of holding hands at a happy wedding, where each is wedded to all, and all are wedded to Christ and the Father. Comedy is the communion of an infinitely extended happy family. Melancholy is left behind; we relish each other’s embrace. We anticipate the Gospel promise of timeless communion in moments of good humor, new birth, fellow-feeling, and wedding feasts.  It’s never too late.

I’m grateful for zany David Letterman. He’s no Dante but he’s a rescue worker in the rubble of a White House collapsed. He writes “If this guy was running Dairy Queen, he’d be gone.” To smile is to shift from the half-life of melancholy bitterness to the full-life of gratitude and good cheer. In song, laughter, and good humor, we’re born-again.

Especially in dark times, we relish the light of friendship and music, of Sunday fellowship, love, and family — and good days by the Bay. Good humor is serious business.  Let’s seek the cracks that let the light get in.




Lifting the burden of unbelief


I awoke with a sense of relief. A load had lifted. Was I tending toward spiritual sprightliness? But alas, what really had happened?

Yesterday was All Saints Day, or Day of the Dead. During this Sunday the church community is invited to step forward, if they wish, to light a small candle near the altar in memory of someone recently dead. I surprised myself, rising without premeditation to light a candle for Michael Bachem, who died roughly a year ago. It was also support for his wife, my friend – and like Michael, a soulmate. She’s part of my Portland family.

Saturday I was reading an essay by a philosopher I deeply admire, Kelly Dean Jolley, on Liturgy – not a theme I’d expect from a philosopher. He writes wonderfully about Wittgenstein and Thoreau and occasionally about Eastern Orthodoxy. The essay untied a knot of issues for me.

In Liturgical moments, he wrote, we are called individually and collectively to respond from the heart with shared words that are addressed to each other and also to a presence beyond — hovering behind the organ pipes, during the prelude, behind the pulpit, descending through stained glass windows or down from the ceiling arches, from anywhere the holy of holies might dwell.


 After church my little family of five gathered at Snow Squall for late brunch – an easy transitional (and by now, traditional) ceremony of communion and thanksgiving, complete with mimosas and eggs-on-toast. It’s ceremonial, and nearly Liturgical: we are present to each other and present to ourselves one by one inwardly, and open to a hovering love and goodness. I’d add “justice,” but focus on justice too easily leads to more injustice and melancholy than we want at our table.

 Love and goodness are often implicit in our conversations, embodied in the to-and-fro flow of heartfelt words and openhearted listening. We’re a family at peace in active listening and responsiveness to each other.

The Liturgical bread-breaking, wine-sipping, candle-lighting space of the church is transported lock-stock-and-barrel to our meals and then further outward to the wider community of neighbors and acquaintances, whether or not they’re local churchgoers, with whom we share neighbor-respect and love. Brunch is a transitional service half way to home. This immersion in Liturgical Reality, in its Lived-Reality, is totally new to me.  I’m quite startled that I’m in the midst of it all.

As if responsive to my transition, The Washington Post asks, “Love thy Neighbor?”  It asks this in light of a suburbanite’s tackling Senator Rand Paul on his front lawn. And the Post answers, “It’s not as strong as it used to be!” The suburbs are unburdening themselves of neighbor-love while I find myself unburdening myself of skepticism about neighbor love here in Portland.  

I let skepticism go without adding any new attestation of non-skeptical belief. Instead, I find myself attaining whole-heartedness and light-heartedness in simple things. My Sunday epiphany was lighting a candle to the dead. This lifted my unbelief about that Liturgical gesture. Now I seem to have slipped toward a congregational neighbor-love that spills out from my church. Liturgical space drifts like a cloud beyond the choirs, pulpits, and arched ceilings where it begins. It marks communion with others that defeats loneliness and persistently heavy hearts.


I doubt belief or unbelief (faith or unfaith) is a crystal-clear all-or-nothing issue. I’d rather say, for me, that it’s distributed across areas of activity and concern, sometimes stronger, sometimes, weaker — everything from lighting candles to chatting over coffee to giving talks or sermons from the pulpit, and on to smiling at neighborhood strangers or speaking with them.  

When a provoking Fundamentalist or MegaChurcher asks if I’m a believer, I’ll retort with an immediate, “No!” (meaning, “not your God or Liturgy”) and I won’t bother to elaborate. Among zealous skeptics I’ll often refer passionately to Alyosha Karamazov, defending his belief. If friends from my church ask me, I’ll pause, wondering where to begin.

 In my 20’s I came to see that Alyosha and the Elder, Zossima – two of Dostoevsky’s near-saints — were far better than the skeptical, even murderous, brother, Ivan. And these believers were miles better than their father, a garbage-dump. But Alyosha and Zossima are literary figures. Do they bear on my own spiritual floundering?

I soon learned to answer Ivan’s jaded objections to his little brother’s “naïve” Christian belief. I came to see that Ivan’s brilliant story of the Grand Inquisitor, who confronts and arrests Christ, is an unintended defense of Christ — not a defense of the Spanish Inquisition. In seeing Christ embrace the Inquisitor who would burn him, I became a disciple. But then I wondered how Ivan, an atheist, could have invented this sublime and troubling fable. And without formal conversion could I really believe in Christ, not just Dostoevsky’s literary Christ?

These affinities for religious writers and figures, in my writing and teaching, meant that it became easier to accept the everyday religious life of my friends. By my 50’s, one or two were ordained ministers. I was not a skeptical and cruel Ivan (as I could have been in adolescence) but I was far from holding the gravitas of Zossima or Alyosha. I found Kierkegaard an enormously sympathetic thinker. I didn’t know any Megachurchers or Fundamentalists so I didn’t have to be an adamant skeptic. I was partially unburdened of disbelief.

My minister-friends, to my liking, ran against the grain of all-too-human common secular and anti-religious predilections. They knew I responded to spiritual cues from Kierkegaard and Thoreau, from the Whirlwind’s Voice in Job, and from the Christ who confronts the Grand Inquisitor. The Bible was central for them but none were thumpers or proselytizers. They saw no threat in my portion of unbelief. It wasn’t noted. Even if our communion was not Liturgical, we shared Christian neighborliness and sensitivity to Creation and respect for the history of Christian belief. But the ideas of communion, neighborliness, or Liturgy were not forefront for me yet.


 I could say that I believe in the God of Alyosha but not of Joseph Smith, that I believe in the God of Job but not in the God of his friends, that I believe in Quaker Silence and Gregorian Chant and in the God of Glory Bach addresses in his St Mathew Passion.   I can work from the bottom up, finding an experiential basis for the presence of the Divine. “Voila! Wow! Let’s start with that infant’s smile, or the grandeur of the sea!” Experience can be exquisite and exclamatory. In contrast, I feel very uncomfortable working top down from a thesis that God exists — with these attributes and intentions, and not those. I’d reject taking God as an explanatory hypothesis.  I’d begin with the tangible, the tactile — with poetic-religious evocations of the effects this God seems to have on my immersions in everyday life. When you ask me, “Do you believe in neighbor-love?” or “Do you believe that Bach’s St. Matthew is Liturgy?” the questions open toward friendly and fruitful probing. They don’t encourage quick retorts. The issue of God or belief should be invitational, not the presumption of a “Yes-or-No” option-box to check.

I love art and music, Rembrandt and Bach, but that’s a shallow confession if I can’t say what sort of music or art, which portraits of Rembrandt, which parts of which Bach Prelude I love. The more I can follow up, the less shallow my attestation of love. If I believe, I need to say what sort of Christianity, what sort of Liturgy, what sort of God. I’ll vouch for the God of Psalms (most of the time), but avoid the God who stalks Moses and wants to kill him. I don’t want an explanation of God’s desire to kill – that’s beyond excuse.


Appeals and responses in Liturgical space – hearing the appeal of the candle and answering it through lighting it — take place in conversational space. We live, move, and have our being in listening, responsive, conversational space. Even quite silent gestures and actions are interpersonal and conversational.

We are to some extent rational and knowing, political and religious, passionate and death-tending animals. But these stretches of our existence play out in the give-and-take of tacit or explicit conversational responsiveness.

We listen and respond to starry nights. We smile with smiling children. We are attracted or repelled by rumors of war or whispers from the Divine. Actions and passions are crucial. These too are interpersonal and communicative. In solitude we are in subdued inner conversations with ourselves and our settings. Even the primal “brute struggle for survival” is not just power versus power. It occurs within conversational dynamics: “It’s you or me, brother!” “I’d rather kill, and die a soldier, than starve.” “Save your family first!”

An exclamatory interpersonal response is as fundamental as an explanatory one — in fact, it’s more fundamental. We exclaim that we fear or are in love, are attracted or repulsed. Explanation is for a quiet hour apart from the immediacy of exclamatory response. An address arrives from the world. I have a startle response to it, or a subdued acknowledgement of it. Then, sometimes, I wonder what has just happened and I crave an explanation. Or else I might continue to bask in the excitement of a startling sunset or kiss or cadence. But whatever draws my attention and elicits exclamations: Think of that! What’s going on!  Where did you come from! puts the explanation-train in motion. Or I’m content to just bask.

I need to leave the urgency of explanations to get back to living and a cup of coffee, or a remembered kiss. Of course we might start explaining in the casual way we start cross-word puzzles, as a distracting pastime. But it seems enough to stick to explaining what elicits a degree of exclamation. And exclamations easily survive, and should survive, explanations – which have to stop sometime. After I’ve “explained” Bach I should still be moved by him, beyond all explanation. And if exclamatory, “wow-reactions” or sublime-responsive living in an inexplicable world is indeed worthwhile, then it’s worthwhile listening for more than explanations.

 In Liturgical space I speak words of Liturgy and mean them. I can say “Shana Tova” during Rosh Hashanah, or the Days of Awe, or say “Lila tov” for “Good night.” I shift from initial mimicking sounds to uttering sounds with sense for me and others I address. With time I’ll know when I mean words from the heart, rather than only repeating conventional jabber. I might say “For thine is the kingdom and power forever” merely to show my knowledge of a text rather than to enter the Liturgical space in a dance of praise to a presence who listens, well beyond my ken.

 If I utter the words of the prayer, “Mother-Father, hallowed be thy name” do I feel the resonance of “mother-father” deep within – or is this like singing German lieder, where I let the words flow out, however beautifully, in great ignorance of their full meaning? (I can make them moments in a musical phrase without making them moments of inter-personal rapport.)

      There’s a wonderful moment in the film version of Brideshead Revisited when a crass outsider meets those from the family estate to ask for the daughter’s hand – no doubt wanting to marry her for her riches as much as her beauty. He learns that as Roman Catholics the Brideshead family will not abide marriage to a non-Catholic. Impatiently, he asks, “Well, what do I have to say?” – as if rattling off a formula will make him an instant Roman Catholic. Surely, words of belief count only when declared in Liturgical space, attuned to the resonances of Liturgy.


My penchant for disbelief never interfered with my singing religious music – Bach’s passions, protestant hymns, weekly choir anthems. In fact, I had a musical- religious meltdown decades ago in the midst of singing Bach’s St. Mathew.

I was onstage as the tenor-evangelist utters Jesus’ cry, “My Lord, my Lord, why has thou forsaken me?” and gives up the ghost. The stage and audience fall motionless, silent. Death is present. The reverential silence lasts and lasts. The conductor is stock still. I shook, stifling tears. At last the chorus enters pianissimo. “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden . . .” After three measures I can crawl in. That moment left a lasting crack in my unbelief.

Before falling in love with Maggie Smith, I disbelieved there could be spunk or beauty or attractiveness in age. Growing up I had no encounters with lovable, quirky, elderly relatives or neighbors – only cranky or quiet ones. My ageism festered undetected. It was a burden that continued to seal me off from wise elders, the beauty of canes, or the loveliness of smiles creased with age. It’s now crystal clear that neighbor-love means unburdening myself of disbelief in the loveableness of my neighbor, of whatever age. Maggie Smiths and Candles for the Dead and Infant Smiles are now in a Liturgical space previously inhabited only by Bach Passions. And there is still much ignorance and disbelief to dismantle.


We get to faith or belief – if we do – by this or that belief, perhaps, or by this or that encounter. Some just follow the footsteps of their mothers, fathers, and relatives. They’re born into it and live happily ever-after. Some suffer through divorce from an inherited marriage and move only cautiously toward a new tradition or belief. Some shop. Endlessly. Some are foxhole or crisis converts.  My path is not exactly any one of these. Perhaps all paths are unique. I’ve moved toward belief by learning what it is to embrace, and be embraced by, Liturgical space. And by unburdening myself of obstacles.

In youth I absorbed a kind of cocky anti-authoritarianism (not entirely a bad thing). Emerson intoned, “He would be a man (– let’s add, or a woman) must be a non-conformist.” That was my mantra. Even in high school, Thoreau was a hero because he was anti-slavery, anti-bourgeois consumerism and avoided Concord’s well-heeled churchgoers. He preferred tribal Native-American Liturgical space, and the crazy Liturgical call and response of loons across the pond. And as I came to teach Kierkegaard and Tillich and Marcel in the University, I could maintain an anti-authoritarian, anti-zealot stance while teaching unmistakably religious thinkers sympathetically. In their own time they were religious outsiders.

 In college suspicion of Liturgy fell in with suspicion of reigning politics, racism, and war-mongering. What escaped suspicion, and deserved unstinting belief, was Blue Grass, Socialism, Death of God Theology, Dylan — and the Yippee dogma of Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” We had to bend as our bodies entered fortydom and more. We had to unburden ourselves of disbelief in the middle-aged or middle-classed. The moneyed classes remained off the map.

Unbelief happens outside Liturgical space.  Politics ought to be the communion of the city or polis, with a mildly Liturgical space emergent at inaugurations and perhaps in grieving the dead. But politics is more a hopefully civilized, negotiated struggle for power than any call and response in Liturgical space. There is little room for song or communion, heart-to-heart action or deep listening.

If everyday life has become largely politics, including the politics of workplace and even of family life, there will be little place for faith or belief. For me, sensing Liturgical space, the space of spirit, is the richest way for me to understand and enact the heavens and vows of communion, good-will, mutual blessing, kind-heartedness, that are at the heart of Christian faith.

To enter belief through Liturgical space sidesteps the trap of holding to a set of assertions or cognitive theses, say about God’s attributes, the beginning of the cosmos, or eternal life. Clutched tightly in hand, these theses are recited by rote or held at an examiner’s distance for revision or critique. They are far outside the Liturgical space that offers rich portions of bracing and consoling religious life – singing, candle lighting, praying, weeping at funerals – portions waiting our gentle embrace.


The unexamined life is not worth living. As a philosopher, you’d expect me to say this. But we also need a life centered in and radiating out from mutual embrace. We need – I need — a life of candles for the dead and blessings for the new-born, of giving alms for the needy and sharing good humor with the neighbor, of grieving great loss. I need the gifts of Liturgical life invading secular life at least some of the time. And I trust that in some subtle, unprovable, unarguable sense, life gives the values that are the ultimate measure of any life I could call my own.  




Let the Mystery Be


We live and die in mysteries. They surround and infuse us. The banjo sings “Let the mystery be!  Probably good advice.  But I’m going to examine the mysteries anyway.   

There are morning ones: a morning glory on my path to the bay, a ferry plying the blue, the sheen where the bay meets the sky. I pause — and let them sink in. They pull at my soul. Small boats resist departing tide. Early sunlight catches furled sails. These give goose-bumps. I start my morning walk with goose-bump receptivity.  In these moments of minor glory, mysteries come alive. — Gifts from I know not where: gifts of themselves — awakenings, illuminations.

From reveries on the Prom I turn up Congress toward Hill Top Coffee where my cappuccino’s ready. Cafés and caffeine sped up the French Enlightenment you know.

 A more intellectual mystery than my morning’s sacred, visceral intrusions is cosmos — holistic connections. A child in Sudan is scooped up from disaster by an adopting family in Montreal. Despite chaos, things link: a child is picked up, earth ties into sky, squirrels consort with nuts. Bach links to Blue Grass. At the Big Bang or Birth, disconnect begins. But we have memory and yearn for the atom in me to connect to the atom in you.

No Thing is an Island, Entire of Itself. Cosmos is habitat for humanity. It’s where we live and move and have our being. Mystery type two: Cosmos

From reveries over-looking the bay to coffee I circle home. In my study, I reach for Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The title signals an austere type of mystery, the mystery of being itself — of my being here, of things being here (rather than not). The bottom line is Being, not Nothing. But it’s a mystery why there’s cosmos rather than void, fullness rather than nothingness. Mystery type three: Being.

Being is like God just being there.  In faith, always there. In doubt, not obviously there. In tragedy God seems to have deserted us. There’s Haiti and massacre in Las Vegas. Here’s Shakespeare (Richard II):

of comfort let no man speak: Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; Make dust our paper — and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

Massacre slaps mystery away. Slaps being and God away.

Reality has many faces, not all of them bright, not all of them dark. In dark reality, music can lift us. Yo Yo Ma played a pint sized cello at seven in the White House for President Kennedy. Such class and decorum!!

Reality has many faces.  Of music – and carnage. A good friend from this congregation writes: Through mystery we sense a glory in things despite all their ambiguity. The rose is really beautiful even though it pricked my finger and in a few days will be wilted.”  There’s glory in the rose, in the cosmos, in Being — and in God.  God, like Being, is a mystery, and absorbs dissonance. Pain, evil and absence invade.

We live in difficult reality. . . . with rainy eyesWrite sorrow on the bosom of the earth. Perhaps the greatest mystery – a fourth level, as I see it — is the uncanny transitions we make from sorrow or boundless despair to faith, to sunrise and glory. It’s unfathomable – to me — that we don’t – most of us — get stuck more often in the dark that’s always lurking — or just inescapably there.

Renewal of lost mysteries is possible. This morning I saw a Monarch butterfly, common in my childhood — less so now. A pest in my back yard, Black Swallowwort. It threatens Monarchs. If I pull it up and bag the pods I make things easier for Monarch mysteries.

 In Genesis, God gives us life, light, humankind, the mysteries of blooms and Monarchs, of Cosmos and Being. They’re offered not as cognitive certainties but as goose bump inescapabilities.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Psalm 19. 

God and Her glory are mysteries. Writing out our word God, Jews often type “G D” – the dash a refusal to spell out the mystery. Let it be. Muslims refuse portraits of the divine.

Humor turns me from pain. I asked a friend, Does God laugh in the Bible? She twinkles. “Well, it shows God isn’t Jewish.” There’s a Yiddish quip: Men scheme God laughs.  Men explain — God laughs at the silly efforts. Let the mystery be!  Theologians can wise-crack. What did God do before starting creation? His students asked Luther this. My friend tells me that Luther shot back, “God made Hell — for you who ask such questions!

Mystery — whether of the rose, the cosmos, Being, or God — is essential for meaning. It informs our loves, attachments and passions. But the blessings of mystery can be troubling. There are mysteries close to the heart: love and attraction, smiles and silence; heaven and hell. Dickinson sings mystery: Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.

The smile of a child is unmixed. But our emotional lives are tangled — smiles and shutters, laughter and bursts . . . from the 32nd floor. We live in difficult, troubled realities.

The heart can be vexed, both happy and miserable. Barack Obama said that leaving off Malia at Harvard was like open heart surgery. He loved and hated her departure. Dickinson wrote him a line: “Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell. We don’t know what we have till it’s gone. Parting boggles the heart or breaks it. It’s a mystery of a dark sort, a dissonance underlying the rose softly singing. 

To be human is to be attached to family, place, friends, fellow worshipers. When strong attachments are weakened it hurts. With weak connections, parting is uneventful. When attachments are strong, parting is heaven and hell.

Can joy at Christ-risen simply wipe out the pain of Christ-tortured?  The soul, the cosmos, is vexed. Talk of graves; and with rainy eyes, Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth. Barren sorrow is not the last word, nor is death in Sandy Hook. But I don’t understand my mysterious transitions from hopelessness to hope, from despair to faith.  Mysteries of lilies or cosmos, of souls or God, or the transitions from hopelessness to hope these give me heart. But how I’m given heart is a mystery.

Christianity is as complex, contradictory, multi-faceted and mysterious as the hearts that act on its precepts and half-comprehend its narratives. We wrestle and lurch and find comfort with a narrative that swings from joy to disaster to joy and try to make sense of it all. The Gospel is good news — and it’s vexed news of partings, telling us all we know of heaven — and all we need of hell. Men and women dodge, explain, analyze — and so abandon the lifeboats: abandon faith, mystery, glory. God’s amused.  She smiles and wishes we’d just let the mysteries be – sad or happy as they may be.                             





Imagination as Strong as Knowledge

Human forms of feeling, objects of human attraction, our reactions constituted in art, are as universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics. This is the writer’s faith . . .                                                     — Stanley Cavell  [The Senses of Walden, 102]

Cavell also announces that not only categories (like causality) but also — and this is a surprise —  images carry the weight of the a priori :

our images . . . of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, . . . of freezing and melting and moulting, of birds and squirrels and snakes and frogs, of houses and bodies of water and words, . . . are as a priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world.[1]

Putting two and two together, it seems Cavell is willing to grant to Kant’s productive Imagination a power and authority in “world-shaping” no less active and legitimate than Kant’s Understanding in its exercise of  authority  in “world-shaping.”   Understanding prepares us for knowledge of the world filtered by categories like causality.  Kant grants a  necessity to the categories like causality that underlie our grasp of the world that physics and the sciences and lawyers negotiate.  Cavell will grant a necessity no less crucial than the necessity of “causality” —  shall we call it aesthetic or poetic necessity? — to  the images underlying our grasp of the world of artists immersed in their art, or of Thoreau immersed in his seeing a reflection of a Maker in the waters of Walden Pond.  A moment of wonder-apprehension is delivered (when it is) as a moment of poetic [or poetic-religious] necessity held in Imagination; a moment of factual apprehension is delivered (when it is) as  a moment of necessity held in the the storehouse of Knowledge.

If I follow, then the poet’s reality can be just as powerful and real as the physicist’s reality.  Good news for a religiously poetic writer like Thoreau (and so many others).

[1] Cavell, Senses of Walden, 101.

Religion vs Philosophy

Gary Gutting has been doing a series of thoughtful interviews with academic philosophers on the topic of religion.  They’ve been appearing over the months in the N. Y. Times “Opinionator” column.  He’s now brought them to a close by interviewing himself on the outcome  or upshot of these polite ‘confrontations’ between belief and unbelief, agnosticism and atheism, rational grounds for being a believer, and groundless belief, and so forth.  Although I found some of the exchanges over the months quite interesting, I’m overall disappointed — disappointed because the questions asked and answered so seldom touched what has always seemed to me to be the living springs of faith (and disbelief).

Gary conceded, more or less, that the arguments back and forth about evil, rationality of hypotheses, burden of proof, evidence for theism, etc were inconclusive.  But it seemed to leave believers and unbelievers and agnostics at the end of the evening  just shrugging their shoulders, as if to say, “Well, I guess to each his own; we did our best to present our views; but it seems we just talk past each other. What more is there to say?”

Over forty years  ago  in a series of essays collected as a dissertation in the sub-field “philosophy of religion” I tried to evoke the heart of what I called a religious sensibility — the sensibility of believing characters in The Brothers Karamazov and their differences from the disbelievers, say on  matters of love and violence, acknowledgment of another and dismissal of another, — the sensibility of Job amidst his devastation and its difference from the sensibility evinced after his encounter with the Whirlwind — the sense of enveloping mood or attunement surrounding an Iris Murdoch character as she shifts from seeing nothing but the negative in a daughter-in-law to seeing in her something rather precious, or at least not repulsive — the difference in sensibility between a Christ who would kiss the Grand Inquisitor who imprisons him and the Cardinal, the Inquisitor, who is about to burn him, — the difference between a church using fear and theater to keep all its subjects in line and a saint who would free a follower from subservience or servility.

These sorts of differences between those we could call believers and non-believers (and the infinite number of shades of belief-unbelief between extremes) — these matters never surfaced — or hardly ever did  — in the dozen or so interviews Gary Gutting conducted.  I had the feeling that if I were in fact interested as a philosopher in religion, I was not interested in what any of these philosophers thought should be the targets of discussion — and they would no doubt be quite puzzled at why I was doing what I was doing, writing the books I did, teaching the classes the way I taught them.  Was I a bone fide philosopher — with these off-beat or eccentric fascinations and absorptions?  I must say, parenthetically, that I am very grateful that Gary Gutting, as editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, has not only solicited reviews from me, but published flattering reviews of my work, and has a very capacious,’catholic’ view of philosophy.  So at some level he knows that what I do is not inscrutable, is somewhere in the ball park where philosophy and religion (and literature) meet and compete and share bread and beer.

Nevertheless, as Gary Gutting’s interviews came to a close, I had this rather lonely feeling that my excitement about Thoreau’s religious sensibility — or Kierkegaard’s or Dostoevsky’s, Wittgenstein’s or Simone Weil’s, Iris Murdoch’s or Richard Rorty’s or William James’s  — was not even on the map. These interviewed philosophers  didn’t argue that the sort of expositions and evocations of religion I’d  find in texts of these writers and then write about were off the mark, or wrong headed or needed amendment this way or that.  My pleas and evocations would be so far beneath the radar as to be invisible.

Weil and Murdoch and Wittgenstein and Dostoevsky take up religion and philosophy as their daily bread but arguments for this position or that are not loudly front and center for them, nor is practice (which turns out to be the fall back for Gutting and others).  They seem to add as a footnote to their inconclusive discussions, the thought that  “. . . since the rationality or otherwise of belief is not getting us anywhere, maybe practice, not belief is the centerpiece of a religious orientation.  But since practice is just what we do [chant the prayer three times rather than 300 times, drink wine at the rail (or don’t), eat pork on Friday (or don’t)]  — what are we as philosophers to say about that?!?”

As I talk about the deep religious sensibility of Kierkegaard and Thoreau, Ibsen or Rilke, I look neither at practice (as a set of inherited routines or communal expectations of proper observance) nor at belief (about which we can argue pro and con for this statement or doctrine or that one, for this theory or that).

But I’ll leave for another post an example of where I DO think, as a philosopher, I have something to say about religion, where there are ever so many rich streams to fish, ever so many revelations to absorb — that is, I’ll take time to say something about religious sensibilities, about the various, complex, often conflicted sensibilities of Thoreau or Nietzsche, Weil or Arendt, Basho or Emily Dickinson.