683 Hauerwas: Hanging onto hope in the face of evil

Looking back through Stanley Hauerwas’ life—as he does in his new memoir “Hannah’s Child”—the great theologian has been prodding us to rethink our values and our communities in light of our faith for more than 30 years. Two of his books from the 1980s, “A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic ” and “The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer In Christian Ethics,” still inspire and provoke readers. In this 4th and final part of our conversation with Stanley, we’ve chosen to recommend a 1990 book, “God, Medicine and Suffering,” because it wrestles with the burning question of “evil.” We recently featured Cathleen Falsani, whose new book celebrates the Coen Brothers’ movies. Falsani writes about their latest film, “A Serious Man,” in light of the urgent interest in the problem of “evil”: Why is it evil so relentless? Why can’t we conquer it? Why does God allow evil to exist?

Pt 4, Stanley Hauerwas on ‘God, Medicine and Suffering’

DAVID: The last thing we’ll talk about is your prophetic work in the face of evil. And I say it that way—“in the face of evil”—because you are fearlessly confronting it in the hope of faith. You’re not trying to explain evil away. This is a startlingly different response to what’s often called “the problem of evil” or sometimes “theodicy.” Your book, “God, Medicine, and Suffering,” was published partly as a response to Rabbi Kushner’s very popular book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In your view, Kushner gave people poor advice. We shouldn’t even be asking a question like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Am I right about what you’re saying?

STANLEY: Yes, absolutely right. That’s what I’m saying. The original title of my book was going to be, “Naming the Silences,” and I still like that title. My publisher Eerdmans thought that was a bit obscure for a title. I am trying to focus on the so-called problem of evil. Basically, the approach to this problem that is called “theodicy” goes hand in hand with the assumption that what people really believe in is not God anymore—but humans. People really believe in humanity as the center of the universe. If we keep God around, it’s just as an insurance policy.

DAVID: You’re arguing that this whole effort to “explain away” evil is really a tragic excuse—a way of continuing to believe in God’s protecting power. You say this really is discounting faith.

STANLEY: In this way of thinking, humans really do become the center of the universe, not God. So you start asking questions like this one, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The assumption there is that we’re good people and we’re the very center of the universe, not God.

I don’t see how people who were brought up on the Psalms can think like that! The Psalms are extended training in recognition that God is God—and we are not. Suffering doesn’t need explanation. It needs our presence. It needs the presence of other human beings who are not afraid of the sufferer. That’s the kind of perspective I was developing in that book.

DAVID: This may sound a little abstract, but these challenges are right there in our daily life—every day in the headlines. How do we respond to shocking evil? How do we respond to suffering? We published an interview with Cathleen Falsani about her research into the Coen Brothers’ movies. We talked about their latest movie, “A Serious Man,” and we got counter arguments, especially from pastors, about “A Serious Man.” I must have heard from a dozen clergy who hated the idea of that movie. One major reason is that it ends like the Book of Job with a huge whirlwind, a tornado in the movie, coming toward a public school just about to wipe out a schoolyard full of children. You’re saying: We don’t need to explain away the tragedy of the tornado.

STANLEY: Right. You don’t need to explain away the whirlwind. The very notion of an explanation is a problem. Trying to come up with an explanation means: I’ve got this figured out. I’m in control.

I say: Forget that! That kind of thinking will lead you straight to Hell and you will, along the way, impose unbelievable suffering on others all in the name of trying to explain suffering away. We Christians should have a very different stance toward this. The great poem at the end of the book of Job, where God talks to Job, is as a way of saying to humans: Look, you think you get to play the game and, if you do something bad, then I have to punish you. But that’s not the way I play the game. How can you think of Creation and see it all as somehow meaning that I’m under obligation to punish you if you do something wrong. That’s not the kind of God I am.

DAVID: You’re talking about something that’s sooo hard for pastors and teachers and caregivers and parents. There’s such a desire to explain evil away. We want to make people feel better, right?

STANLEY: This is difficult. This challenges head on our popular idea, these days, that God really is made in our own image. Of course you can understand that response from clergy. I’m giving the commencement address at Eastern Mennonite University and my title is “Speaking Christian.” I’m arguing we have to start speaking Christian again. Our language as Christians oftentimes is shaped by sentimental presuppositions that are not disciplined by the gospels. Want to see this happening? Go to a home where someone has died unexpectedly and the temptation is to use this grammar: “Well they’re in a better place now.” You’ll hear people say that, won’t you?

DAVID: Sure. We want to help. It’s sooo tempting to say that.

STANLEY: I say: Never say that! Never. God is not a place. The very idea that you comfort one another with that kind of language, that just—that just betrays what it means to be a part of the communion of saints! I say: Atheism is not our problem today. If only we can produce some interesting atheists, which we obviously can, then that’s not a problem at all. The big problem is we’re not interesting as believers. We’re sinking into the worst forms of boring and misguided sentimentality.

DAVID: Well, I certainly agree with you that we’re entering a time of post-denominational mish-mash of spiritual influences. Here’s one example: In spiritual terms, the single most interesting group of Americans today is called “None”—those millions of people who now answer, “None,” when pollsters ask for their religious affiliation. They haven’t left religious faith, necessarily. Many of them are just picking out the beliefs that make sense to them—and see no reason to give a religious affiliation.

STANLEY: That’s a real problem. If the breaking down of denominational traditions were a part of a rediscovery of faithfulness to the gospel—and if it was helping us to rediscover that our unity is more profound than our differences—then it might be good. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think with the breaking down of denominational identities, we’re really trying to emphasize our own individualism. Now, I don’t think there’s anything so crucial about our denominational distinctiveness. To a certain extent, that distinctiveness really was all about just trying to get our share of the market. But forming ourselves through a tradition is absolutely crucial. We have to learn that we don’t just get to make Christianity up. I think a lot of people who are calling themselves post-denominational think they get to make up Christianity. That’s not what I teach.

I’m a Book of Common Prayer Christian and I believe we do not get to make it up. My task in this life is to learn how to pray these prayers I am given in the Book of Common Prayer. If we start from scratch as individuals, there’s not enough defense left against narcissism. There’s a lot of that temptation in nondenominational churches.

DAVID: Thank you for talking with us about these very difficult issues. I think it’s one of the greatest affirmations we find in your approach to faith. You see these hard truths—and you don’t try to explain them away—yet you’re hopeful. Is that fair to say? You’re hopeful?

STANLEY: Despair is a vice for Christians so, of course, I’m hopeful. It is a theological obligation given cross and resurrection to believe that God has never given up on the world and God will continue not to give up on the world. I don’t have a lot of hope about the future of mainline American protestant Christianity, but that’s not despair. I assume God will raise up Christians from the stones, if need be. And, if not here, then somewhere else in the world.

I find being a Christian just makes you so joyful—and joy and hope are closely connected—and this gives us a way to go on. Hope is putting one foot in front of the other and I intend to continue doing that. I find being a Christian is such a complex and wonderful way to live.

You can order “God, Medicine, and Suffering” from Amazon.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com)

642 Joan Konner invites us on adventure beyond journalism and religion into …

ou read that right: NOTHING
    Joan Konner is inviting us on a tour of what poet Shel Silverstein used to call: “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”

    Joan is one of our most respected journalists—as Dean Emerita of the Columbia Journalism School and a longtime producer of Bill Moyers documentaries. Right now, like all journalists, she is standing at the end of a sidewalk, watching her beloved profession crumbling in front of her—and hoping that creative new forms materialize ahead. She’s also interested in the voids beyond what our language and our religious faiths can express.
    She wants more people to become aware of the vast body of reflections on “Nothing.” And at the same time, she has created a book about this Nothing in a new-style format that she calls a “sound-byte library.” She’s standing at the end of the sidewalk of 20th Century journalism—casting her new style of book into the undefined nothingness of this 21st Century.
    Sound just a little too abstract?
    Well, get a load of this book! If you enjoy Buddhist Koans (logic puzzles designed to bust the mind free of our normal daily patterns of thinking), then you’ll enjoy her 300-page collection of bits and pieces on Nothing from a whole host of thinkers.
    Among the hundreds of references here are thoughts by Douglas Adams (of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Woody Guthrie, Pope John XXIII, theologian Paul Tillich, J.R.R. Tolkien, Bill Waterson (of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame), Elie Wiesel and W.B. Yeats.
    This is a wonderful little (it’s a pocket-sized hardback) guidebook to these incredibly anxiety-producing times in which we live! When we think we’ve reached a point where familiar old forms are falling away—and we see a yawning void of Nothing ahead? Well, that’s where the fun truly begins, Joan argues.
    “Nothing is where knowing stops. And starts!” she writes in her introduction. “What Nothing should not be is a Dead End of thinking. Nothing is the other half of Being, of the paradox we call reality. Irrational? Naturally.”
    That’s the adult version of where Shel Silverstein took us as kids. With Joan in your pocket, you’ll feel honored to be standing at that precipice with giants.
    Order “You Don’t Have to Be Buddhist to Know Nothing: An Illustrious Collection of Thoughts on Naught,” by Joan Konner, from Amazon.

Highlights of Conversation with Joan Konner on
“You Don’t Have to Be Buddhist to Know Nothing”

    DAVID: You call this book’s format “a sound-byte library.” You’re famous, Joan, for your television productions with Bill Moyers, so I understand the “sound byte” reference. But tell us more about this concept?
JOAN: I do hope that more people recognize that this is an important format and that it is journalistic. What I’m trying to create, over time, is a sound-byte library of important ideas. I’m collecting and preserving and organizing them so they’re accessible to people.
DAVID: Well, we truly are ready for new forms. No question, we’re at a precipice in American print media. Newspapers are crumbling all around us. Book publishers and bookstores are going through a painful transformation. We really need to devote our collective energy to preserving the best of our culture in collections that will survive this transformation.
Are you surprised by how fast this is all moving?
JOAN: We were all taken by surprise, especially those who are running newspapers and are scrambling to try to survive. The process began with cost cutting, even before this economic crunch brought about by the Web.
This change already was happening in the 1990s, even before the Web hit full force. Then, once the Web hit, it meant a faster diminishment and devaluation of the print product for newspapers.
DAVID: It’s not entirely clear to me from your book where you stand personally—although obviously you’re very interested in these challenging ideas in philosophy and religion in your new book. What can you tell us about your own religious orientation?

JOAN: I’m exploring the inner landscape. That’s my agenda and I think it’s part of the religious agenda, too. I see myself as a journalist if anything.
I don’t call myself an agnostic but I do recognize that I will never know. As I explore this field, this beat of ideas, it takes me into what is sometimes called the spiritual landscape. After 45 years in journalism, at this point in my life I’m interested No. 1 in pursuing ideas and No. 2 exploring the inner landscape. Other people may describe it in different ways, but that’s how I prefer to say it.
This exploration does take you into your own belief system, if you have one. I respect many of the religious traditions. I think that insight, experience and wisdom are present in religious traditions. I myself was born Jewish and I have great respect for that, but if you ask me to name what I’ve learned the most from—and what seems to guide my own behavior now—I say I’m a “Trans-Zen-Jewish-Quak-alist.” By that I’m referring to the Transcendentalism, Zen Buddhism, Judaism and Quaker traditions that inform my actions in the world.
DAVID: I like the way you approach these questions. One of the most important interviews we’ve published in the past few months was with Samir Selmanovic, an author and activist based in New York City who says that all religious traditions—including atheism—need to be a part of our community.
JOAN: Yes, I would acknowledge the importance of that full spectrum with one qualification and that’s: life affirming. If I have any bias in my religious belief, it’s toward affirming life, because that’s all we have. Some people have carried religion into areas that are not life affirming anymore.
DAVID: You’re not talking about “pro life” issues here, are you?
JOAN: No, I’m not referring to that term. I’m talking about a definition of “life affirming” that sees a pattern connecting life and nature and science and even religion in a positive way. There are positive and negative forces out there. The killing of life, as in the actions of a suicide bomber in the hope of a better life after this world, is not acceptable to me.


DAVID: Another important writer we just welcomed into this online magazine was Jacob Needleman, who wrote a landmark book back in the 1970s about the emergence of Eastern religions in California at that time. He’s still writing and just published his memoir, which we recommended to readers, too.
You quote Needleman in your book: “America is the land of zero. Start from zero, we start from nothing. That’s the ideal of America.”
You’ve lived through this same era of our history and, like Needleman, you’ve been a close observer of what’s unfolded. Are you surprised by what you’ve seen?
JOAN: I can’t say I foresaw where we are today, but I did report on some of this as it unfolded and I experienced it.
This seeking we’ve experienced started as a challenge to Western values, materialistic values. Those materialistic values grew into what we now call consumerism. And this seeking often was an integration of Eastern thought into Western culture as a different way of being in the world.
People were learning from another tradition that had been introduced into our culture in quite a different way. They were experiencing this through meditation or spiritual practice without a religious institution behind it.
I served for a long time, about 10 years, with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which works to introduce contemplative practice into our world. That was not a religious organization although it had at its root the Filet Mignon of all religious practice: contemplation. You might call that prayer or meditation or centering prayer as some Christians practice it.
I can’t say that I’m surprised that there is this growing movement against the materialistic traditions of Western cultures. But, this takes us into even thornier areas. We are bucking a scientific tradition on which our Western tradition is built. It’s logical and provable and physical. But what people were exploring in the 1970s was their inner freedom to choose alternatives from other traditions. This led to a clash of values. It was acknowledging that there was something beyond our world—something “other.”


DAVID: Now, for Jacob Needleman, his gateway into this mysterious “other”—this larger spiritual realm—was through his exploration of the ancient religious texts. He began teaching in San Francisco as a religious skeptic, but his immersion in these ancient texts seemed to wake up his spiritual awareness.
JOAN: That’s a connection that’s hard for me to make. The power of the texts is in the beauty of the expression and the knowledge in the words.
But here’s the other side of the coin: Our vocabulary literally contradicts the infinite. That’s what vocabulary does. A word contains a thought or an idea, so while I think of the beauty of the text in earthly terms—our own vocabulary—I think the power of the text can point the direction and when the text runs out, then symbols start to point the direction as you find in Jung’s work, let’s say. And then you come to a certain point where Nothing is known.
At the end of the power of text, we’ve reached the beginning of something. I’m not talking here as a scholar. I’m a researcher and I’m a journalist. But I am interested in these people who we might call mystics who reach a point beyond which we don’t know. It’s like a horizon point where things converge. Call it a zero point.
People may imagine their own beliefs into this point and that might take the form of a literal God or it might take the form of George Lukas’ Force. You can imagine into that zero point, but basically we don’t know. Our words don’t work there. Has some text tried to capture it? Yes, I think this is what my book is trying to do.
Nothing is really a difficult subject. When I start talking about Nothing, my own friends sometimes look at me like deer in the headlights not knowing what I’m talking about. Yet, as I’ve shown in this book, there is a great body of literature that addresses this awareness of Nothing.


DAVID: Yes, there are many who have touched on this puzzling concept down through the millennia—you even quote Jeremiah on your first page, talking about “void” thousands of years ago.
When I think about the limitation of language you’re raising, I remember the Zen monk well over 1,000 years ago who was famous for tearing up Sutras to encourage a more immediate encounter with Buddhism. Words got in the way for this Zen master.
JOAN: Right. Right. Sometimes symbols are the most expressive. One of the most expressive Eastern symbols for me is the Tao. The combination of the light and the dark and the paradox in the symbol—I don’t want to go into talking about all of those traditions here—but that symbol has great meaning for me in terms of Nothing.
DAVID: Well, we may have lost some readers along the way with the abstractions of this interview and perhaps with some of the references we’ve made here. So, I want to make sure we end by emphasizing how much fun this book represents.
I mean: real fun. There’s amusing and very thoughtful stuff here.
You’ll find this from Tennessee Williams: “A vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”
Pope John XXIII is here: “The feelings of my smallness and my nothingness always kept me good company.” What a great line to capture his disarming humility!
You even quote A.A. Milne’s Pooh talking with Christopher Robin, who tells Pooh that he loves doing “Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing?” Pooh asks. And there’s an exchange between them that made me smile to remember it. Then, Christopher Robin finally says:
“It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
Of course, you’re not alone in recognizing the spiritual insights of Milne and his characters.

JOAN: There is fun in this. Nothing has its depressive side to it, but there’s also a lovely side to Nothing as well. Buddhist thought posits that Nothing is love and light, when you erase all boundaries and transcend into this world of Nirvana. It’s love and light. So you have these polarities from Sartre to Buddha.
Once you’ve concentrated on Nothing for a couple of hours, you’ll wind up laughing. There are lots of jokes you can make about this. Seinfeld certainly did.
This book has a playful organization to it. That’s my intent. The form is more important than you might realize just opening the book and seeing that it’s a collection of quotes.
Today, we communicate and think in short form. Television started this process, but the Internet is pushing it even further. So, this collection of quotes is a very carefully researched, checked and planned collection of quotes that is part of what I hope will become a journalistic sound-byte history of ideas.
That’s my passion—to play with this as an artist might. My own inner sense is that books like this are verbal collages.
I wish some publisher with real force in the marketplace would get behind this idea and see that there’s real value in this kind of sound-byte library dedicated to the preservation of perennial ideas in accessible form.
There are so many important ideas that can be gathered in this form simply by doing the careful research and creative work of assembling them.
This really is journalism to me. We must find new ways to explore and write about our inner landscape.

    CLICK HERE to order “You Don’t Have to Be Buddhist to Know Nothing: An Illustrious Collection of Thoughts on Naught,” by Joan Konner, from Amazon.




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012: And Now, A Word from the Skeptics

ow far does our circle of religious diversity extend?
Already at ReadTheSpirit, we’ve talked about an enormous spectrum of religious traditions and we’re just getting to know each other. So, this is a good time to point out that our circle also welcomes skeptics, as long as they’re comfortable with our guidelines of “curious and respectful” conversation.
I know that this issue of enlarging our circle is important, because of a nationwide online forum that I hosted this spring for Wired Magazine and the New York University School of Journalism, underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation among other groups.
The dozens of men and women who volunteered to spend six weeks talking with me about spirituality included a couple of atheists and their input was vital. They kept us honest about our assumptions. And they’re a part of our American family with moral and ethical values that run as deep as anyone else.
There were a couple of moments, during the six weeks, when atheists and evangelicals expressed anxiety to me that our circle would not hold together. I assured them that it would with “curiosity and respect.” It turned out that our circle not only held together, but the resulting report from our group was widely praised.

Here at ReadTheSpirit, we know that most of our readers are people of faith, but let’s devote today’s story to saluting the skeptics among us.
Now, we’re all familiar with the take-no-prisoners, baseball-bat-to-the-forehead voices of neo-atheists like Sam Harris, who is popping up everywhere in media these days. Christopher Hitchens is another writer who brings sophisticated scholarship to the discussion, but also prefers to slam faith in the forehead with a Louisville Slugger.
Both are popular writers and I admire much of Hitchens’ other work, but frankly their atheist books just don’t interest me. They’re not entirely accurate and they’re so strident in their tone that it’s clear neither writer is really interested in a discussion with us.

    Today, I want to salute three recent books about skepticism that I consider models on this theme and I heartily recommend all three to you, because they’re not books you’re likely to stumble across in your stroll through Borders or Barnes and Noble. (I know; I check their display tables regularly to see what they think is hot.)

First is a book destined to become a classic.
That’s a strong phrase and I don’t use lightly. I’m talking about evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson’s “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.” I’ve read this book twice myself and urge church discussion groups who are looking for a good book on eco-theology to buy copies of Wilson’s book.
(Note to readers: Please, if you click on titles or covers in our articles, you’ll jump to our Amazon-related store. There, you’ll find additional reviews. Plus, if you purchase through our site, a small portion of what you buy supports our work here. Among the projects on our agenda is a free study guide to Wilson’s book that I’m writing and that we’ll post later this fall. So, please -– support our work.)
“The Creation” is not only a model of persuasive writing about the transcendent values related to Nature – but it’s also a model of bridge-building literature.
Wilson is one of the leading scientific voices of this era and, when he contemplates faith, he is not exactly an atheist. He has described himself as a “deist” or a “humanist,” but clearly he’s a skeptic when it comes to faith.

Nevertheless, in “The Creation” he writes an eloquent series of arguments about how humans – whatever our religious beliefs may be – share a timeless concern for the planet.
When it comes to the debate over caring for the natural world, Wilson says, the current ecological threats are far too grave to continue debating the religious beliefs behind our values. There’s no time left for such debates, Wilson argues. Rather, he says, let’s fly white flags over our religious arguments and get to work on preserving our world.
“You and I are both humanists in the broadest sense: human welfare is at the center of our thought,” Wilson writes in the book, directly addressing us as people of faith. “What are we to do? Forget the differences, I say. Meet on common ground. … My guess is that you and I are about equally ethical, patriotic and altruistic.”
We agree with Wilson, here at ReadTheSpirit. We need to build community around this issue more than we need to sort out every conflicting issue in our ecotheology.

  Second is a book that’s not likely to hang around stores as long as Wilson’s book, but it’s a bright spark in religious publishing at the moment, “I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist’s Eyes.”
This is a memoir by Hemant Mehta, the young atheist who made front-page headlines in 2006 by sort of putting his soul up for auction on eBay. Actually, he put his time on the auction block. As an atheist, he offered to let a high bidder send him to church. An evangelist finally paid about $500, which Mehta donated to a nonprofit group. His assignment from the high bidder was to tour a number of churches and report his findings.

This year, his findings turned into a must-read memoir. In fact, if you doubt my recommendation, the red-hot young evangelist Rob Bell wrote the Foreward for Mehta’s book, urging Christians to read it. “Prophets can come from the most unexpected places, can’t they?” Bell writes.
For instance, one of the places Mehta visits is the Vatican of evangelical megachurches: Willow Creek. Rather than convincing this skeptic to drop to his knees, Mehta explains to readers quite thoughtfully why the Willow Creek sermon on “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” completely misfired with a newcomer like himself.
This is another book that is great for groups, but, be careful with this one! If you assign a couple of dozen committed members of your congregation to read this book, they’re likely to turn into a committee to make some long-overdue changes.

Finally, there’s a book about “Doubting Thomas” that I have enjoyed and many people of faith may enjoy as well, although it’s challenging enough in its dense style of biblical analysis that it may not appeal to most parish discussion groups.
Glenn W. Most, an internationally respected scholar in Greek literature and social thought at the University of Chicago, wrote this book as a gift to his students, he tells us. He wanted to demonstrate how a scholar can unfold layers of an ancient text and compare it with other texts to discern new meanings for our lives today.
Dr. Most is not a skeptic himself. He describes himself as a Christian, but his basic argument about Thomas and his famous request to actually touch the risen Christ is a timeless story about the nature of skepticism and faith.
Here’s a sample of how Dr. Most plays with the text in the midst of his book, teasing out of the text some intriguing new ways to think about Thomas – and our own lives.
Thomas “doubts so that he may come to believe and … believes so that he may make us believe too. Thomas is like us, because he doubts but is then convinced; but he is unlike us, because he was able to see Jesus whereas we can only hear about him. Hence Thomas is greater than we are, for he was one of Jesus’ disciples, was particularly attached to him, and was important enough for Jesus to return only in order to convince him; but we are potentially greater than Thomas, for he was only capable of believing what he saw, whereas we shall be able to believe even without seeing.”
There’s a lot more to this exploration of the most famous biblical skeptic, makng Dr. Most’s book a good choice for personal Bible study as well as fresh reflection on faith – and disbelief.

COME BACK TOMORROW for a Test-Yourself Quiz on The Songs Our Spirits Sing!
See how you fare with our 10 questions and then share the quiz with a friend.
AND — come back WEDNESDAY for our Conversation With Marcus Borg, all about Christmas!
And THURSDAY? We’ll delve into our religious affection for … Murder Mysteries!

Share your viewpoint with us, please, in this same curious-respectful way. Click Here to email me, David Crumm, or leave a Comment for all of our readers on our site.