Wednesday, December 31, 2014

good shepherd

When Mary birthed Jesus, 'twas in a cow's stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all . .
. . If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing . .
. . He surely could've it had it, 'cause he was the king.

-- Appalachian carol

God, endow the king with your own justice,
his royal person with your righteousness . .
. . For he will rescue the needy who appeal for help,
the distressed who have no protector.

-- Psalm 72  

We can't remember which central American country this créche comes from, but every year we struggle to separate the kings from the shepherds. They all have fancy hats and carry something in their right hands (an expensive gift or a lantern?) But this guy, we're fairly sure, is a shepherd -- he bears the crook in his left hand. The mystery of the créche is the yielding of one power to another, of might to apparent impotence. Kings bow to a squalling blob of protoplasm, born to poor people of a despised race in an obscure corner of empire. Shepherds and beasts are the watching courtiers. The trumpet of incarnation is the lowing of a cow.

"Your rod and your staff, they comfort me," sang the psalmist, likening the divine auditor of his song to a shepherd. The people who assembled the scriptures were city dwellers, who had come a long way from the tending of flocks; but they kept the pastoral imagery alive as a discipline on the powers to whom they appealed. The shoot of Jesse, the heir of David whose arrival Israel awaited as national savior, would be strong enough to overthrow the conquerors but tender enough to take care of those who could not save themselves -- a good shepherd, who would leave the ninety-nine in their safety to seek out and save the lost sheep. They trusted, hoped he would forestall the abuse of power, the nickel-and-diming of farmers to less-than-subsistence day-labor, the extraction of wealth by elites for profitable trade with the goyim. And when they imagined God, the author of such authority, they hoped he would put his thumb on the scales of justice for those who could not throw the weight of wealth.

The Day of the Lord, the arrival of the Divine Domain, was always to be a day of reversal. Congratulations to the poor, for they are the heirs, but to hell with you rich, who already have your compensation. Change your minds, said the prophets, because the kingdom is closing in. The people against whom the game is rigged, the people who haven't a chance, are about to get their chance, and you addicts of their degradation will feel withdrawal pangs of your privilege.

No matter how much they had picked, it wasn't enough.

-- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings*

Most of the world's hymns to hard work and its moral value are written by people who have no idea what hard work is. The wealthy dream they are not debtors, and we of the middle class claim the right to whistle while we work, either for work's compensation or for its intrinsic delight. But there is work that kills and pays so little that it can never ennoble the worker. Some work pays so little that it won't in the long run keep the worker alive. We hear a lot of songs today about the beauty and saving power of family life, but a family can't thrive on terror and turmoil.

Keeping peace therefore is the crucial task of legitimate power, and there is no peace without justice. In my city and in others, we are questioning our peacekeepers; and they shout back that those who question are murderers. There are some who can't control their rages but have learned to hide them behind a badge. There are some who can't see a dark skin without seeing monstrosity and threat, and they clothe their blindness in a coat of blue. These few wolves are the enemies of many good shepherds, destroyers of their work and of the flock; so why do the shepherds protect the wolves?

Our mayor has spoken in public the words that parents say to young black men: bear in mind the baseless suspicion and ancient anger that may at any moment light on you. And a past mayor has said the present mayor must apologize for creating a climate of distrust. But the distrust already exists. If the mayor of old times doesn't know this, he doesn't know any black people. Or he isn't listening to them. Or worse, they are hiding the truth from him and we must ask why; the willfully ignorant are responsible for what they don't know.

We've all got to grow up, and that includes policemen. They are licensed to be good shepherds. A good shepherd is, among other things, an adult.

The word is out, and there can be no peace until we all address it. No compromises please. Not on this. Compromise can only bring us phoney peace.

*Maya Angelou (New York: Ballantine, 2009), p. 8.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

grubby arithmetic

He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. .  . . The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.

-- A Christmas Carol

The history of the world, my sweet,
Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat.

-- Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd

There's been no time. There aren't many presents under the tree. There's no hearth except the high-definition one I can play on the television. There's no chimney and no snow, only a dreary rain. The tree itself is true to memory, delivered to this fifth floor apartment by Fedex and planted in two gallons of tap water. The red and white lights, the collection of museum store stars and snowflakes and angels, with a few items left unbroken from childhood and youth, yield double reality: it is this year, but also every year into the past as far back as I remember. We are keeping Christmas, though it eludes us. They've told me since I was tiny that the Prince of Peace is coming. Exactly what does Peace look like?  And who gets to speak for it?

A few weeks ago, on November 22, I wrote, "The New Jerusalem is Egypt transformed, hearts broken and born again under divine sovereignty." That's what I said. What the sam hill did I mean? Something like this I guess: when the good guys win and justice rolls down like waters, we'll know it because wolves and lambs are lying down together. We can't send the lambs somewhere else to become someone else's wolves. So if the predators and the prey are now secure with each other, that can only be because they are no longer wolves and lambs.

To put it bluntly, we have to share and be happy about it. Those of us who once had most of the good stuff must live with a smaller percentage. Those who were once deprived of their share will accept their proportion of what had been denied. This is so simple it's terrifying. It's grade school arithmetic, a zero sum game. When has this ever happened?

Christians, or anyone studying the life of Yeshua, would say they know at least one example. But look what happened to him. Some say he now rules a kingdom not of this world. Justice however, if it lives anywhere, dwells on this side of the river. It's a this-wordly concern. And in this world the powerful do not give generally away their power.

We may ease the pain, and hide the zero sum, with a promise of prosperity. With more stuff to share, the masters whisper to each other, we can keep our larger portion while the poor rejoice at marginal improvements. And it's true that when all our tribes do better, hatreds go into remission; but in times of calamity the poisons burst out again, the poor fearing that the little they have will be taken away, the rich fearing a turn of fortune's wheel.

The myth of opportunity is another opiate. It's not so bad to be poor, said Horatio Alger, if by hard work and character you can become rich. Why don't you wretches just turn over a new leaf like Ragged Dick? they say, and try to grow up 'spectable? Trouble is, the powerful are always pulling up the ladder while they counsel patience.

So prosperity and mobility, when they are not lies, can only be means to the end, which is the sharing of stuff and the power to get it. Sooner or later we have to do some grubby arithmetic.

African-Americans are roughly one seventh of the American population. In a just America therefore they will have about one seventh of the good stuff -- and only one seventh of the bad. One seventh is fourteen percent. For most of our history America assigned them a different number -- zero percent of the good stuff. How many black people could go to our school, buy a house in our neighborhood, sit down in our restaurant, get medical treatment in our hospital? None.

So if we wake up one morning and discover that one out of seven millionaires, one out of seven CEO's, one out of seven congresspersons, one out of seven presidents, one out of seven homeowners, one out of seven police officers, are black; if we also see that only one out of seven poor people, only one out of seven prisoners, only one out of seven crime victims, only one out of seven unemployed, only one out of seven shot to death by policemen, are black, then we'll have to admit that America has become more just.

But this figure of arithmetical proportion, this meme called "looking like America," won't travel to every micro-climate. Shall we close Morehouse College and Fisk University? Shall we ration the black content of the NBA? Shall we picket the African Methodist Episcopal Church until their membership looks like America? People who look like me have no authority to make such decisions: we may theorize that in a better world these institutions would not have been necessary; but they were necessary because of our sins, and they are a part of what my brothers and sisters tell us is the black experience.

Justice is not a plantation. I have no license to command the choices of free people from the veranda of my wisdom. Free people sometimes do things I don't understand. Sometimes they do things I don't like. Sometimes sitting next to me is not their highest priority. So what do white liberals really want? what do we think we mean when we talk about justice? What will America look like if the good guys win? We must interrogate our poetry. This kind of thinking is not fun. It's not high rhetoric or differential calculus.

America transformed will not in every place, every time and sample, "look like America." It will remain granular.

If we "allow" (lacking authority to disallow) some schools, sports leagues, fan clubs, professional associations, arts companies and churches to remain predominantly black, then we must own the arithmetical consequences. Students at Morehouse or Fisk do not attend the now integrated universities that seek them out. Basketball stars are not playing soccer or going to medical school. Members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church are not Christian Scientists, Episcopalians or Unitarians. To say this is not ideology. It's just grubby arithmetic.

As long as there are black churches, it follows as the night the day (or as four follows two plus two) there will be white churches. A black church is not a Black Panther church, and a white church is not a White Supremacist church, but every successful enterprise finds its public, and learns what it must do to serve that public. Every successful enterprise also discovers what it doesn't have to do.

America's black churches are a living repository of endurance and resistance by a group of Americans much sinned against, a living memorial of the hymnody and poetry, theology and oratory that has brought them thus far on the way. Can we be surprised that many of our black siblings find comfort there? Theirs is a kind of history I have not directly experienced; I can visit, admire and respect it, but it is not my home, nor is it intended to be. There are some black Americans who are not comfortable there, and some of them come to us.

Unitarian Universalist churches are living repositories of another history. There's no utility in shame about the difference. If I give all my goods to the poor and die for racial justice tomorrow, it will not buy me the family history of an African-American. We too have songs of justice, and an oratory, theology and poetry, born on another terrain. This difference does not make me an enemy. My social location is not a sin. My song doesn't have to be everyone's lullaby.

And if a person who looks like me feels that justice requires before everything else the integration of Sunday morning, then the most direct action that person can take is to join a black church. My father, a high-critical scholar of the New Testament, did precisely that; an African Methodist Episcopal church in the North End of Hartford took him as an associate pastor for his last seven years of ministry. I notice however that Unitarians Universalists do not join black churches, and I take this to mean that the statistical integration of Sunday morning is not our highest priority. 

Perhaps true diversity means not that every cell of the American organism will look the same, but that America will contain different kinds of people and different kinds of groups of people, conversing and contending by proper rules of agitation and competition. Perhaps justice means first and foremost that everybody has a fair choice to get what they want, and that all are protected from the unfair interference of others. Perhaps we should be judged not by the precise demographics of our assemblies but by their solidarity, or alliance, or assistance, or fellowship with the oppressed -- whatever awkward term we use to describe the participation of mostly white folks in the struggle to distribute powers that have been denied to others. The transcendence of grubby arithmetic comes not from longing to be what we are not, but from the leverage of what we are. Let us be useful. Our true diversity lies on the other side of usefulness.

Usefulness is the backhand meaning of "white privilege." A privileged person is a person who can make things happen. If we are privileged, we have the power to make someone happy, to make their condition light and pleasurable, Isaiah's power to bind up the broken-hearted. So what shall we do with this power? Fling it to wolves? Apologize and flagellate?

If I am free, that is not the problem; the problem is that others are not. The Unitarian spiritual voyager Ebenezer Scrooge discovers his ministry just in time. He doesn't enlist in the throng of London's beggars, but assumes the proper use of his power. He learns to go out of the counting-house. That's where we keep Christmas, and where we do the work of it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

ham sandwich

A grand jury could indict a ham sandwich.

-- Sol Wachtler

You can indict a ham sandwich. I know this to be true. I've seen it happen. I colluded with the process.

Seven years ago I served on a federal grand jury. It lasted a month. We heard forty or so charges. We approved them all. Not once did we fail to indict.

Before the grand jury there was no defense. The prosecutor presented the evidence for "Probable Cause." You couldn't challenge their statement. You couldn't raise alternative interpretations. You couldn't speak up for the circumstances of the defendant; you couldn't hear from the defendant; after all, as the prosecutors said, the person wasn't yet actually a defendant. To indict is not to convict, they said. This person will have their day in court, they said, and then at trial they can raise all the concerns that you good people are raising now. Don't worry about the effect of your actions. It will all come out well in the end.

Yeah right. Few of them will ever get a trial. They can't afford it. Not many of them will be picked up pro bono by a competent lawyer. They'll cop a plea, confess to something they did or didn't do, without a briefing on the indelible consequences of that plea, because they have no other choice; so they'll do anything to avoid the trial. They'll testify against someone else, the bigger fish, and be left on the trash heap.

Forty or so charges came before us, and we indicted every person charged. You could tell that a few of those people were felons, and one was running an industrial scale marijuana farm. Many of them had committed the deadly crime of returning to the United States after being deported. Seven or eight had, at the instigation of pals or a pimp or a boyfriend, moved a package from one place to another, a package containing just ever so slightly too much weed. We indicted them all, in twenty minutes or at most an hour.

Now I would view that work in a very different way.

So now I know for sure that you can indict a ham sandwich. Unless the ham sandwich is a white police officer.

And now I'm marveling at the special grand jury, with its very special process, called into being around that police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That grand jury has made a decision, and their decision will be announced in a few minutes. I will finish writing this before their decision is announced.

But now, before we hear what they have done under direction of a reluctant prosecutor, I remember that I know what a grand jury is, and this was very different.

The person who would be charged, (that person who is "not yet a defendant" and may never be one), got to speak his piece to the grand jury. The prosecutor has not even recommended a charge. All interpretations of the evidence have been presented -- all the ways in which the person suspected might not actually have done the things of which he might be charged. In other words, it's a trial, though we have not been told so -- a trial with no prosecutor. The implication would be that the jurors are pressed to look for the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a standard vastly higher than the routine standard of probable cause to bring a charge. That's why it's taken so long. The people I indicted seven years ago got twenty minutes. Darren Wilson got three months to make it go away.

Maybe there's a better way to indict people than grand juries. If so, tell me what it is. But this was called a grand jury, and given that I know what a grand jury is, I cannot fail to see that some people get very special ones. I hope that what it looks like is not what it is. I won't know until the decision is announced, and it hasn't been announced yet.

This is what it looks like. It looks like the killer of an unarmed jaywalker has special protections, provided he has a badge and a European heritage. If that isn't true, if that isn't what the prosecutor meant to say, he should have done things differently. Now we'll see. I'm waiting.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

tumblin' down

. . And the walls come a-tumblin’ down . .

-- African-American spiritual

We’re on our way to Canaan, to the New Jerusalem.

-- European-American spiritual

When justice rolls down like waters, I ask myself, when tyrants and bullies are overthrown and the good guys win, what will the world look like? We think we know, but we don't. We don't know because we think we know. We work with tropes, linguistic models of transformation, but we need to interrogate those models. My love is like a red red rose, but she will not appreciate it if I spray her with pesticide or prune her in the winter. Lions might some day lie down with lambs, but will the lambs then sleep well, or should they? We must search our poems of liberation for their actual consequences. There is a boundary beyond which we cannot press our metaphors. As we stand at that boundary, our imperfection of purpose is exposed.

This kind of thinking is not fun. It’s about metrics rather than proclamation, statistics not rhetoric, prose not verse. Or rather, it’s like telling your dream to the analyst, both of you knowing that the dream is already in its Secondary Revision, and now you’re aware that the walls of the room didn’t meet in the corners, and you can’t actually fly. So now in our mortality, our limitation of strength and stamina, and in the face of history’s unfathomable creativity for violence, by what standard shall we measure our hoped-for resolution of American original sin?

The book of Exodus became a world-wide trope of liberation. Enslaved people, the story says, must walk out of the enslaver's authority. Moses, supported by accelerating divine violence, convinces the Pharoah of Egypt to "let my people go." The enslaved Hebrews cross the sea, vacating the place where their labor had been stolen. Then Moses learns what his real problem is: his own people would rather eat from the stewpots of Egypt than face the wilderness. So begins the forty years of wandering, in which the covenant between God and the chosen people is redefined. The generation of escape, including Moses, will die before the Israelites come into their Promise. What precisely is that Promise?

I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation. But we have got to remember now that Joshua still had a job to do.

-- Barack Obama at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, on March 4, 2007

Dr. King said the night before he died that he had gone to the mountain-top and “seen the Promised Land,” but by casting himself as Moses he assigned the realization of promise to another generation, a “Joshua generation.” Barack Obama, in his progress toward presidency, flirted with the role of Joshua.

But the Joshua-trope has not taken hold, and not merely because black liberation is incomplete. It fails because it is unsuitable. Joshua's "job" is not to liberate but to exterminate. He leads us not into right relation with the oppressor but into violence toward the innocent. Instead of establishing justice in the land of their oppression, the Israelites inflict new injustice on people in another land who had done them no harm. The lightning war of Joshua has served as a manual for the advance of Europeans into the American West (“empty” except for Indians), for the trek of the Boer Piet Retief into the interior of South Africa (“empty” except for Zulu and Xhosa), and models the expansion of Germany into Lebensraum (“empty” except for racially inferior Slavs). "You must doom them to destruction," says Yahweh to his shock troops, "Grant them no terms, and give them no quarter" (Deut. 7:1-2, Tanakh).* No people standing in the way of the formerly oppressed wants to be designated as Canaanites. The often-sung Battle of Jericho, whose walls came a-tumblin' down, is no more a freedom-fight than was Wounded Knee. The Osage Indian theologian Robert Allen Warrior warns us that "Yahweh the deliverer became Yahweh the conqueror."**

"Thank God it never happened," said my Old Testament professor, and many a rabbi joins in the sentiment with a sigh of relief. Neither archaeology nor the deuteronomic history as a whole support the violent boast of Joshua's book. Those pesky Kenites and Kenizzites and Kadmonites and Hittites and Jebusites, not to mention the Philistines, were not exterminated. They survived to trouble the kingdom for the rest of its existence.

And even if the story were true, it would still be unsuitable. Our formerly enslaved brothers and sisters did not walk out and go elsewhere, as many a white supremacist hoped they would, but stayed here to claim their freedom among us. And that's why their liberation still lingers. There was no getting rid of our scarlet letters. The Pharoah and those he enslaved must figure out how to live together.

Every American should thank God that Joshua was not our general, and the Civil Rights Campaign was in no way like the book that bears his name. White Pharoahs didn't get to export their sins and inflict the consequences elsewhere. We stole the land of Indians and the labor of Africans, and now we must live with those we stole from, and they must live with us. It has taken, and will continue to take, some reckoning and repentance, some forgiveness and restitution. The true Land of Promise, the land where we hope to live in peace, is the very land where this story started. The New Jerusalem is Egypt transformed, with hearts broken and born again under divine sovereignty.

*Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to The Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 285.

**"Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians," Christianity in Crisis, 49 (September 11, 1989): 261-265

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

strange martyr

We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.

-- Archibald MacLeish

Colleagues of mine who come from the St. Louis area think that tomorrow will see an announcement concerning the possible indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown to death on August 9.  Some sources are saying that he will be cleared of any charges.


For Michael Brown, Strange Martyr

We don’t know what you died for.
We don’t know what you lived for.
We don’t know what you were doing.
You weren’t carrying a placard.
You weren’t carrying a weapon.
You weren’t trying to become a public figure.

Now in death you are a public figure,
Your death is a placard, but blank.
We only know what you were not doing:
You weren’t committing a capital crime.

What you were doing is yet to appear.
In fullness of time something will happen,
And what happens will fill the placard.
The sentence hung on you from birth,
Strange fruit of the guilty tree, spelled out,
Falls ripe on the hot center stripe.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

negative work

Murder your darlings.

-- Arthur Quiller-Couch, "On Style," Cambridge lectures 1914

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

-- attr. Michelangelo

When I worked in an art called theatre, I would pray please god don't send me on stage with any nice guys. Let me go into action with the shameless: you can count on them to do what's necessary at the moment it must be done.

Artists may be kind, but Art is cruel. Writing is cruel, if you're doing it for the writing. Writing is rewriting, they all say. The ancient advice from writers to those who would be is to kill babies. Put your beauty on the page and rip its heart out.

It's negative work, like sculpture. There's a pile of words and concealed in it is something worth reading. So hack off the blubber.  Excise everything you can and what's left, if it still breathes, is what you just realized you meant to say.

It's like music - if you're going to get there you have to get there now. Don't justify yourself - it makes you late. The right note at the wrong time is a wreck, and the right word at the wrong time is a disgrace: there you are with your dozen roses and she's run off with the other guy. So don't waste time.

No mercy. No reverence for good intentions, for what's expected, or what you think may be expected, or what you thought you meant to do. No compassion for stragglers; explanation only makes your journey more obscure. You might get lost. You might get hurt. You might die. But if you miss the tide, your voyage sticks in shallows and in miseries.

I do this for the writing.

That sounds pompous.

The actor Peter Siragusa, with whom I once worked, protested the thought that his career was an obscure one. "Obscure! I'll have to climb several rungs up the ladder before I'll deserve to be called 'obscure'!"

So I, who toil in what hardly measures up to "obscurity," say merely as a fact that I do this for the writing. That is the hygiene here practiced. I don't do this to save the world, to satisfy an entrance requirement, to win the approval of a committee or to complete a curriculum.

I hack away at my pile of words until it looks like something has been found in it alive and then, if god gives me good sense on that day, I quit. It's bloody work, a butchery to which I am addicted. I throw away mounds of flesh. I love throwing things away: it feels like victory.

There are other things to write for than writing, but if you're writing for the writing, you do things that you might not otherwise do.

First rule: brevity is, as a tedious fool once said, the soul of wit. So if you can take out a sentence, a phrase, a word, a letter without the house of cards collapsing - you should take it out. All that other stuff, all that explanation and explication and illustration and deprecation, was just getting in the way.

Second rule: the thing has more power than the idea. A proverb says the "pen is mightier than the sword," and that's better writing than "ideas can bring down governments."

Third rule: action takes precedence over abstraction.  "We shook hands" is better than "we made peace."

If you follow these rules religiously, you risk a certain divergence from the truth. Depending on the situation, that divergence may be more important or less so, it's for you to judge. But you must also decide what you mean by truth. If you write for the sake of writing, then it's the truth of writing that is of greatest price. Writing's truth is not what it says but what it does. There never was a Pequod or an Ishmael, but the tale he told to Melville has not finished its run.

I've dramatized myself again, so let me make it clear that I'm a purveyor of small fry and shall not hoist any white whales from my abbatoir. This is just a game I play and need to play, and every now and then I'm informed there are a few others willing to follow along.

Some friends suggest an alternative to the questions I posed last week, and I am flattered by their attention. I proposed that the one and only religious question is: "what is worth dying for?" They would prefer "what is worth living for?" It's hard to argue against them.

I had posed myself, for the sake of writing, a cruel assignment - naming a single question. It's like an assignment I used to give to theatre students: in one sentence (not a compound sentence) what happens in this play? this scene? All sorts of things could be said to happen in for instance Hamlet, but what are you going to make happen? Choose and you have a chance to be remembered - or you can be kind to everybody and wallow in oatmeal.

Both of the questions I posed imply other questions, and those questions could have been the basis of a conversation.

I said that the one and only scientific question is: "how do things generally work?" But the best answers to that question lead us to another question often asked of scientists - "how did it all begin?" It's not possible these days to speak deeply of how things generally work without telling the origin story called Big Bang, and that is what Tyson does. Science of the present day speaks about the general laws only with reference to a singular event, a miracle if you will -- though Dr. Broun apparently can't see the miracle in it. The greatest mystery of all, before which Tyson avowedly flummoxes, is "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

And it's hard to answer the religious question of "what is worth dying for?" without entering the companion question of what one lives for. They're not quite the same question but can often stand in for each other. If you were to get up from your chair this moment and keel over dead, without knowing what hit you, you would have died for exactly what you lived for. For some this may be an appalling thought, and we all know some people for whom the thought is not as appalling as it should be. Though for others of us this would be a fortunate outcome, most would serve themselves well by considering the sum total of their lives at regular intervals: if I died right now, what would I have died for? Making death present to ourselves, as Dr. Johnson reminded us, is a strong way to concentrate the mental and moral faculties. It is possible, by thought and criticism and courage, to die for something other than what one lived for, or to change the composition of one's living.

As a rhetorician I preferred the more shocking question. Asking people to think about their dying concentrates the mind. Perhaps that is why our late most famous minister Forrest Church used to say that "religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." Perhaps that very concentration of the heart and mind, that particular way each of us tightens the breath and the sphincter, is our faith.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

two questions

I have felt/A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts.

-- William Wordsworth, 1798

What I’ve come to learn is that [the Bible is] the manufacturer’s handbook.

-- Rep. Paul Broun, September 27, 2012*

There is only one scientific question: how do things generally work? If you are addressing this question you are doing science. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing science. This goes for you and me, for fundamentalist ministers, for popes and presidents, and it also goes for scientists.

There is only one religious question: what is worth dying for? If you are addressing this question you are doing religion. If you are asking or answering any other question you are not doing religion. This goes for you and me, for scientists and philosophers, and it also goes for popes and prophets and fundamentalist preachers.

No one works on either of these questions all the time, because there are plenty of other good questions to be asked and answered, but everyone works on each question some of the time. But you can't do both at once because they are different questions, different as oil and water that cannot mix. If Neil deGrasse Tyson rhapsodizes on the awesome magnitude of space/time, revealing what makes him tick and displaying his intuition of the sacred, he has for that moment stopped being a scientist. If Dr. Broun insists that all the major scientific theories are "lies from the pit of hell," and treats the scripture as a textbook of cosmology, he has for that moment stopped being a man of faith.

Science is not about awe, and religion is not about the facts. Science is about generalities, but religion is about singularities. The product of science is expressed in laws, but the product of faith is expressed in miracles. They have nothing to say to each other.

The laws of science, i. e., Newton's Laws of Motion, or Einstein's Laws of General and Special Relativity, or the octaves and chords of the Periodic Table, are not human laws. Copernicus did not compel the earth to travel around the sun, Newton did not order every action to produce an equal and opposite reaction, and Freud did not command the Unconscious to direct our conscious decisions. So-called laws of nature express regularities. They tell us how the world generally works. It is not scientists who speak such laws but Cosmos itself, answering to those questions that scientists call experiments.

Now as every stockbroker tells us, we cannot prove, by proclamation or deduction, that the cosmos will do tomorrow what it has done till now. We can be pretty darn sure that the sun will come up again tomorrow, but we acquire that assurance by affirming the regularity of the world, that if we do this kind of thing, then a certain kind of that will follow. A scientist may be wonder-struck at what he learns, but his job is to demystify the world, and he had better get on with it. He picks out the pattern in what we thought was chaotic. He makes the unconscious conscious, the unpredictable predictable, the random lawful. Otherwise he is a failure.

Miracles, i. e., the Resurrection of an executed prophet, or the peaceful collapse of a violent empire, or the recovery of an addict, or the making of a way where there is no way, or the reconciliation of lifelong enemies, are not lawful; they are exceptions to laws. They are the things that no one can see coming. No one thought that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley would make peace; no one thought that gay people would win the right to marry each other; no one thought a president of color could be elected; almost no one thought that people would walk on the moon -- not until these things happened.  They are things to be marveled at -- miracula.

After miracles happen, science may try to rationalize the singularity, by making new and larger laws that include it. Sometimes science succeeds. Sometimes not. With success comes demystification: a former miracle becomes the newest predictable event. With failure comes skepticism: we don't expect the thing to happen again -- or perhaps we don't expect that it happened even the first time.

If tomorrow morning the science page of the New York Times reports that a prophet, using only his words, turned certain containers of water into containers of wine, the event so described would be a miracle. But it would not end science. Nor would it prove that God exists. It would prove only what we already know: stuff happens that we have no way of expecting. But science is not about that stuff. Science is about all that other stuff that we can learn to predict. And its task is to show us how to predict things we formerly had no way of predicting.

If the New York Times reported transformation of water into wine by fiat, then on the very next morning a new research project would begin, whose goal would be to determine how, by a hitherto unknown process, water can be so altered. When we have our science hats on we expect that, sooner or later, if enough resources are provided, the project will succeed, and new larger laws of nature will be discovered. Perhaps we can industrialize the process, making vineyards unnecessary -- though there will always be those old farts who still savor miracles, clinging to the notion that there is no substitutute for terroir. And perhaps there is no substitute. It's been said that most people blindfolded can't distinguish red from white; but even if that's true do we really want to get all our wine from test tubes, forgetting what earth is for, to whom we shall return whether we are familiar with our mother or not?

I have a recurring dream that looks a bit like Tyson's voyage amidst iridescent vortices of space and time.** Like him I look through the portal of a space-ship, and I marvel at the awful beauty of what I am privileged to behold. Then I think of how far I have come from the earth, a very particular place, a New England village with trees that arch over the street, Victorian homes and a meeting-house on the square with white pillars and green shutters, a high spire and clear windows through which truth can shine. How long ago and far away. How many doors I have shut behind me, when the music grew sour, to enter different rooms with a different face and a bigger ensemble and a greater hope, one door after another. I realize that they were one-way doors; the portal of this cockpit behind me is sealed. There is no going back, only forward amidst strange splendor, and I long instead to put another log on the fire, don my slippers and sip my single-malt in an ancient parlor now forbidden by a flaming sword.

The sadness of fundamentalists, or of politicians who troll for votes by pretending to be fundamentalists, is that neither the scientific question nor the religious one is adequate in itself for life. Though I am reasonably healthy for a man of my age, I have on three occasions rejected, with the help of medical science, nature's plan for my death. And my friend has come through a greater trial than any of mine, with a vision of recovery before him confirmed by the fallible predictability of "best practice." If Dr. Broun's spouse or child gets cancer or a rotten appendix, I will not condemn him for praying; but I know damn well that before he prays he will recommend his loved one to medical science, though the scripture of science proceeds, he says, from hell-mouth. But he does not really believe that science emerges from hell-mouth: when life is on the line he will entreat the scorned goddess to work a miracle for him.

So there are two possibilities about the congressman's character. He is perhaps an outright liar, swindling those who hate the mind. Or with slender knowledge of himself he may really think he believes what he said, ignorant of his own ultimate concern. When he takes his scripture for a science text, he mixes what God has set apart, offending both science and his faith. Let us pray for his soul.

I have plenty to confess myself, but I'm pretty damn sure I know the difference between my sixteen-year Bushmill's Irish, aged as they assure me in three woods, and my Laphroig triple wood Scotch. Pretty sure. Really. I'd know it blind-folded.

*Liberty Baptist Church, Hartwell, Georgia

**Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos, Fox Television Network