An Overview of My Philosophy of Teaching

Frederick Buechner referred to a calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In this sense, I have felt called to college teaching, particularly in Psychology and at a community college. For all that this has meant, I feel profoundly thankful.

Parker Palmer’s book “The Courage to Teach” probably has influenced by philosophy of teaching more than anything else. Perhaps what most has influenced me in Palmer’s thinking is his understanding of “subject-centered education,” at the center of which belongs, what he calls, “great things.” By this, Palmer means “the subjects around which the circle of seekers has always gathered – not the disciplines that study these subjects, not the texts that talk about them, not the theories that explain them, but the things themselves.” He believes, as I do, that putting these subjects, as much as possible, into the center of a class holds the key to making all other learning outcomes more possible. When there is a focus on “great things,” there is a natural urge to ask and discuss meaningful questions. Critical thinking becomes necessary and valuable, as we seek to understand. In this context, knowledge of what is known in a discipline becomes particularly welcome. Application becomes especially desirable.

When I think of my overall subject area, Psychology, the “great things” that I most want to feature in my courses tend to concern human beings, their behavior, and its’ causes. There are a variety of ways in which I have attempted to center courses around these subjects. Specifically, I often rely on teaching strategies that feature cases and their behavior, leading me to incorporate experiential activities, demonstrations, stories, interview projects, panel discussions, case analyses, and service learning into my courses. Because of my interest in social issues and justice, many of these cases are selected because they are vulnerable to suffering or prejudice. In this, I am guided by the thinking of Nicholas Wolsterstorff, who believes that “the purpose of colleges and universities is to present students with the face of suffering, and then convey that they can do something about it.” Controversies, “big” questions, and even research studies similarly can be used to bring attention to “great things,” particularly when they relate to students’ interests. Finally, there are times when it seems much more powerful to witness behavior and its history on site. This has led me to feature study abroad opportunities and field trips in my work in recent years.

In all of this, I hope to fulfill the dream of William Butler Yeats when he suggests that “education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”

It is a common source of joking and teasing in my relationships with collaborators and family that I am paid for this work. More than anything else, it has been a joy and privilege.

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My Response to Death

“One of the profoundest features of the Christian and Jewish way of being-in-the-world and being-in-history is remembering. . . We are to hold the past in remembrance and not let it slide away. For in history we find God.” (Nicholas Wolsterstorff, “Lament for a Son”)

When I was very young, I was what most people would call a “mama’s boy.” I have very fond memories going to elementary school with my mom (she volunteered a lot in my school), and returning home during the day to have lunch with her (we lived only a few blocks away). I remember hanging out with her as she prepared meals, getting haircuts from her, playing cribbage, delivering newspapers around town, and cuddling with her while we watched movies. My friends thought she was a “cool” mom, and she took pride in “mothering” them in one way or another.

When I was 11 or 12, I remember something being wrong. It was Christmas Eve and our family went on a sudden trip to a Doctor’s office in another town. Later, I found out that my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t really know what that meant, but eventually, it led her to lose all her hair and a lot of her strength. She didn’t want anyone to feel pity for her, and she didn’t want me to see her in her weakness, so she tried to keep this to herself. When I was 14, she died.

I remember the feeling of darkness and isolation on the day of the funeral. The parish priest was a close friend and he tried to lighten the mood during his sermon, but mostly, I felt sad and confused. I cried during the sermon and at the time of burial. Later, I remember delivering newspapers one day without my mom and it suddenly came to me how much I missed her, and I cried. People later said that they wondered about why I didn’t express more emotion, which made me feel like I wasn’t coping in the “right way” and probably made me feel even more awkward about it all. I was just trying to get through it and understand. I didn’t feel the need to share.

Coping with Loss

I suppose I’ve always struggled with being vulnerable, within myself and particularly around others. Maybe because of some of the feedback I received, I long have wondered whether I coped with my mom’s death in an unhealthy manner, maybe helping to explain some of the struggles I’ve had in my adult life.

These concerns made me all the more sensitive to my response to my dad’s death last year. For various reasons, this death was less traumatic to me (I was older, he was older, and it wasn’t a surprise). Still, my dad’s death did trigger a similar set of struggles and questions in me. Something that I am learning is that people respond to death differently, and that this is okay.

Soon after the passing of my dad, a friend passed along an article written by Kelly Wilson that has come to be very important to me. In many ways, the insights in the article have provided a structure for me to think about how to cope with loss. In particular, I resonate with Wilson when he writes:

“I find myself wondering about people reading this right now. Do you know about things fallen? About things irrevocably lost? I wonder if you would be willing to stop a moment to acknowledge that loss, to know its face when you see it. If you could grow something new and beautiful from that loss, that could honor what has fallen, what might that be?”

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I am working to better acknowledge my true feelings about difficult life experiences such as the death of my mom and dad. My tendency is to think, instead of to feel, and to look toward the future, instead of the past. This is not all bad, I believe, and I will engage in this kind of response below, in fact. However, I also have come to appreciate the wisdom of C. S. Lewis’s reflection about his response to his wife’s death, in his book, “A Grief Observed:”

“Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as thought I shall feel less? Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not to be pain?”

It also seems important for me to remember and honor my mom and dad, to “grow something new and beautiful” in the space of my loss. It has been difficult for me to know how to adequately do so, but I am trying. I think this post is one attempt, and there are others that I feel good about as well, such as remembering my mom and dad as I do things I would have done with them, including playing cribbage on the same cribbage board we played on when I was young and going out for a Lenten fish fry with my brother and my family. I am learning the sacredness of the gravesite, a place “where an important part of our lives lies buried,” as William Kent Krueger writes in “Ordinary Grace,” and I hope to acknowledge this more often in the years ahead.

Responding to Mystery

Probably the most difficult part about death for me personally has been how unknowable it is. There are different elements to this unknowability. Frederick Bauerschmidt writes in his book “Why the Mystics Matter Now” that:

“Perhaps it is because death involves a massive ‘undoing’ of the self. Death involves a ‘disspiriting’ and decomposition of the body in which the fundamental structures of our lives as living beings break down. . . The unthinkableness of death indicates [that] in some sense death remains profoundly unnatural to us. . . Perhaps death is unthinkable because it would force us to think of ourselves as ultimately, finally, completely without control.”

Maybe because of these difficulties, the responses to death that most have resonated with me acknowledge its mysteries. After all, we cannot know death until we have experienced it for ourselves. For example, I love what Parker Palmer writes in this meditation:

“What I know for sure is this: We come from mystery and we return to mystery. I arrived here with no bad memories of wherever I’d come from, so I have no good reason to fear the place to which I’ll return.”

In some ways, this is comforting to me because it seems so indisputable. We all have this experience of coming from the unknown, and it is helpful for me to think that, in some way or other, it is to this same unknown to which we will return. C. S. Lewis similarly writes about his wife’s realization, as she was dying, that she was going “alone into the Alone.” I ask myself something similar when I ponder whether I can trust the unknown and the Unknowable. One of the pressing questions on my heart about all of this, in other words, is whether Mystery is trustworthy. In the end, I believe that it is.

In fact, much of this points to a deep longing I have for Something into which I can place my trust and hope, Something that transcends life and overcomes death. Reflecting on the life and thought of Thomas Merton, Bauerschmidt addresses this in the following way:

“When we look in faith and hope, we can see something else, something no less dark, but something that can be trusted. We see the “you” to whom Merton addresses his prayer, the God to whom he confesses his lostness. This is not a god that lifts me out of our world and gives me an all-seeing view of the journey ahead. Rather God, for Merton, is the one whom I trust while still in darkness. God is the one who is ‘ever with me,’ not only in the darkness, but as the darkness, for what ultimately makes my life incomprehensible to me is that, at its root, it is a gift given by the God that no human mind can grasp. God is dark to me because I cannot imagine one who would ‘never leave me to face my perils alone.’. . . It is not the shadowy darkness of death, the darkness of light blocked, but the darkness of a light so vast that we are blinded, and so must trust that light to lead us on the path.”

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke similarly imbues death and life with sacred significance, ultimately connected with a Divine source, when he writes:

“As swiftly as the world is changing,                                                                                                     like racing clouds,                                                                                                                                   all that is finished                                                                                                                                   falls home to the ancient source.

Above the change and the loss,                                                                                                           farther and freer,                                                                                                                                     your singing continues,                                                                                                                       god of the lyre.

How can we embrace our sorrows                                                                                                       or learn how to love,                                                                                                                                 or see what we lose

when we die? Only your song                                                                                                               over the earth                                                                                                                                           honors our life and makes it holy.”

Making Life Meaningful

Much of the above suggests that part of what makes death important is in how it clarifies life. This is demonstrated in one of my favorite movie clips of all time, from the movie, “Braveheart:”

Rabbi Harold Kushner makes a similar case in his book, “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough,” arguing that many of our difficulties with death actually aren’t as much about death as about life. That is, we often are afraid of death because we are uncertain about what to do to make our lives meaningful. He writes:

“What are the things you absolutely must have and do so that you can feel that you have lived your life and not wasted it?”

This line of questions completely resonates with me. Much of my life is oriented around trying to discern what constitutes my mission in life, what I want to happen next in my life, and what I am called to do and be. Although I often don’t know the answers to these questions at any given time, orienting my life around them as much as I do has been tremendously helpful over the years, as answers do eventually “bubble up” to guide me. I don’t think I would have thought as seriously about them if I hadn’t had the experience of my mom’s death, in particular, when I was fairly young. In other words, death has taught me to “number my days,” as Psalm 90 encourages.

One particular way in which I have found meaning through death is to recognize the importance of acknowledging the suffering of others, particularly when their loved ones die. When my wife and I have suffered over the years, it has been the surprising gestures of kindness, often from people from which we would have never expected to receive anything, that have provided us with the glimpses of grace that have really helped to sustain us with goodness. When I am in doubt about whether or not to acknowledge someone’s suffering, this has taught me to error on the side of “showing up” in a meaningful and appropriate way.

Finally, in the grand scheme of everything, death has put life into a bigger perspective for me. As Parker Palmer continues in the reflection I mentioned above, “standing closer to the reality of death awakens my awe at the gift of life.”

In light of death, it is particularly important for me to be thankful for every day that I have, every amount of health that I possess, every person who graces my life. This is because any one of these can be lost at a moment’s notice. Not everyone experiences the blessings that I do, and the only appropriate response really is thanks. The life that all of us have truly is a gift, and I believe we all are called to “pass this forward” by bringing gifts of generosity to others. In this, death truly is one of the best teachers for how to live life well now.

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A Reflection on Extreme Prejudice and Violence

In the past several months, it has been difficult to scan through news without reading about some horrific incidence of international violence. An image that recently has haunted me is one of 21 Coptic Christians about to be beheaded by masked members of ISIS in Egypt. Such incidents leave me with a sense of helplessness, as I know I am basically powerless to do anything that could directly help. Yet, reflecting on incidents of violence elsewhere has made me more sensitive to processes that relate to prejudice and violence around and within me. Here there seems to be more opportunity for control.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the number of hate groups in the United States has increased by 56% since 2000. Related to this but more common to everyday experience are pervasive stereotypes in which members of a group are judged to be “bad” in some way because of their group membership. For instance, floating around in many people’s minds are prejudgments about members of religious groups such as “all Atheists are angry,” “all Christians are anti-gay/lesbian,” and “all Muslims are dangerous.” When there are pervasive negative associations with members of groups such as this, misunderstanding, segregation, self-fulfilling prophecies, and even acts of violence become more possible.

It has taken me years to learn what seems completely obvious to many others; that is, that there is diversity within any group and that each individual carries a mix of good and bad. Part of my story is that I was raised in a small, homogenous community in rural Minnesota where, as a child, I didn’t realize that others existed who were not German Catholic. In fact, I clearly remember the surprise that I experienced when my dad explained to me that Lutherans exist! One of the most important aspects for me attending various public schools was the opportunity to become acquainted with people who are different from me. This has helped me to learn the values of pluralism, something I increasingly have come to appreciate is not as possible in other parts of the world.

As a psychologist interested in issues of religious prejudice and violence, it seems to me that the processes I went through may contain seeds of hope more generally. Considerable psychological research shows that contact with members of different groups – or, better yet, friendship across group lines – is one of the best ways to promote the shared sense of humanity that is so important to promoting peaceful and effective relations. For example, in a classic study, researchers showed that encouraging competition across groups in a boys’ summer camp increased conflict, but that this conflict could be eased by having campers work together on projects where they needed to pool resources (such as moving a stalled truck). In another study, scientists found that prejudice could be reduced in the classroom by assigning students from different backgrounds to projects that depended on mutual cooperation. Other research demonstrates that the stress hormones that are released at first when interacting with someone from a different background decrease substantially after having talked about meaningful topics for three 45-minute sessions.

One of the great problems in reducing prejudice and violence, then, is getting those people who otherwise would not be acquainted with others from different groups to have these kinds of experiences. For instance, how do we nurture collaborations across religious lines, racial groups, sexual proclivities, and political orientations so that individuals get to really know each other as fellow humans? Often times, well-intended programs designed to teach or encourage pluralism “preach to the choir” and do not reach those most isolated.

Public education may be one of the best opportunities we have to help people to form attitudes and habits that decrease prejudice and violence. Students from different backgrounds can be put into situations where they must work together toward common goals. They can be exposed to people from different backgrounds where such backgrounds are underrepresented in their communities. I recognize that public school teachers have a lot “on their plates;” to me, this demonstrates just how valuable they are to our communities. However, as someone who teaches in a public college, I find the prospect of using my classroom as a mechanism for promoting peace to be extremely meaningful and hopeful. As Nelson Mandela once said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

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Listening to Your Life

I don’t think I’ve ever been told by two respected mentors, independently of each other, to read an author. Yet, this has been true for me this year in the case of Frederick Buechner. I’ve been reflecting all summer on Buechner’s daily meditations. This is an unusual blog post, but I want to list my favorite Buechner quotes below, without much commentary. Really I want to have these for my reference, but I may as well share them. Readers of my blog are likely to benefit from them as well. 

Much of Buechner’s writings can be summarized in this first quotation:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” 

This is elaborated below in different domains…

1. A Doorway Opens.

“At its heart, I think, religion is mystical. Moses went whith his flocks in Midian, Buddha under the Bo tree, Jesus up to his knees in the waters of the Jordan; each of them responds to something for which words like shalom, oneness, God even, are only pallid, alphabetic souvenirs. ‘I have seen things,’ Aquinas told a friend, ‘that makes all my writings seem like straw.’ Religion as institution, as ethics, as dogma, as social action – all of this comes later and in the long run maybe counts for less. Religions start, as Frost said poems do, with a lump in the throat, to put it mildly, or with the bush going up in flames, the rain of flowers, the dove coming down out of the sky.”

2. Hidden Gifts.

“Which of us can look at our own religion or lack of it without seeing in it the elements of wish fulfillment? Which of us can look back at our own lives without seeing in them the role of blind chance or dumb luck? But faith, says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,’ and looking back at those distant years I chose not to deny, either, the compelling sense of an unseen giver and a series of hidden gifts as not only another part of their reality, but the deepest part of all.”

3. God.

“There must be a God because (a) since the beginning of history the most variegated majority of people have intermittently believed there was; (b) it is hard to consider the vast and complex structure of the universe in general and of the human mind in particular without considering the possibility that they issued from some ultimate source, itself vast, complex, and somehow mindful; (c) built into the very being of even the most primitive man there seems to be a profound psychophysical need or hunger for something like truth, goodness, love, and – under one alias or another – for God himself; and (d) every age and culture has produced mystics who have experienced a Reality beyond reality and have come back using different words and images but obviously and without collusion describing with awed adoration the same Indescribability.

Statements of this sort and others like them have been advanced for thousands of years as proofs of the existence of God. A twelve-year-old child can see that no one of them is watertight. And even all of them taken together won’t convince anybody unless his predisposition to be convinced outweights his predisposition not to be.

It is as impossible to prove or disprove that God exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about him as it is to prove or disprove that Goodness exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about what is good…

All-wise. All-powerful. All-loving. All-knowing. We bore both God and ourselves to death with our chatter. God cannot be expressed but only experienced.”

4. The Sound of God’s Voice.

“I believe that we know much about about God than we admit that we know, than perhaps we altogether know that we know. God speaks to us, I would say, much more often than we realize or than we choose to realize. Before the sunsets every evening, he speaks to each of us in an intensely personal and unmistakable way. His message is not written out in starlight, which in the long run would make no difference; rather it is written out for each of us in the humdrum, helter-skelter events of each day. It is a message that in the long run might just make all the difference.

Who knows what he will say to me today or to you today or into the midst of what kind of unlikely moment he will choose to say it. Not knowing is what makes today a holy mystery as every day is a holy mystery. But I believe that there are some things that by and large God is always saying to each of us. Each of us, for instance, carries around inside, I believe, a certain emptiness – a sense that something is missing, a restlessness, the deep feeling that somehow all is not right inside his skin. . . Part of the inner world of everyone is this sense of emptiness, unease, incompleteness, and I believe that this in itself is a word from God, that this is the sound that God’s voice makes in a world that has explained him away. In such a world, I suspect that maybe God speaks to us most clearly through his silence, his absence, so that we know him best through our missing him.

But he also speaks to us about ourselves, about what he wants us to do and what he wants us to become; and this is the area where I believe that we know so much more about him than we admit even to ourselves, where people hear God speak even if they do not believe in him. A face comes toward us down the street. Do we raise our eyes or do we keep them lowered, passing by in silence? Somebody says something about somebody else, and what he says happens to be not only cruel but also funny, and everybody laughs. Do we laugh, too, or do we speak the truth?. . . Sometimes when we are alone, thoughts come swarming into our heads like bees – some of them destructive, ugly, self-defeating thoughts, some of them creative and glad. Which thoughts do we choose to think then, as much as we have the choice? Will we be brave today or a coward today? Not in some big way probably but in some little foolish way, yet brave still. Will we be honest today or a liar?. . . Will we be a friend or cold as ice today?

All the absurd little meetings, decisions, inner skirmishes that go to make up our days. It all adds up to very little, and yet it all adds up to very much. Our days are full of nonsense, and yet not, because it is precisely into the nonsense of our days that God speaks to us words of great significance – not words that are written in the stars but words that are written into the raw stuff and nonsense of our days, which are not nonsense just because God speaks into the midst of them. All the words that he says, to each of us differently, are ‘be brave, be merciful, feed my lambs, press on toward the goal.'”

5. Vocation.

“It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

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Educating the Struggling

It has long been known that American students, on average, tend to perform worse on international tests of achievement than students in other developed countries. In a recent article in the Star Tribune (“Finland not an apt mold for U.S. schools”), Robert Shumer notes that when the poorest schools are removed from these analyses, American schools perform the best in the world. He concludes, “all things considered, perhaps the U.S. education system is actually doing well.” Although he makes a valid point, no attempt is made to explain or propose solutions for those who most struggle, disproportionately the poor. 

Newly published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may help. In this landmark study, 11,320 cadets enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point rated their reasons for being there. One set of motives was “internal.” With these motives, the rewards of an activity follow naturally from engaging in the activity. For example, a cadet who wants to be trained as a leader in the military would naturally do so in the process of being a student at West Point. Another set of motives was “instrumental.” These motives provide a means to some other end, such as a good job after graduation. Results showed that the more that cadets endorsed internal motives for attending West Point, the more likely they were to receive early recommendations for promotion and the more likely they were to re-enlist after their years of mandatory service were complete. Maybe more surprisingly, the more that cadets endorsed instrumental motives, the worse they did on every measure being studied.

Obviously, there are many differences between the challenges faced by West Point cadets and average American students. However, the processes that explain achievement may be very similar. In both cases, there are desirable external consequences that ultimately follow successful completion of school, such as greater likelihood of career success and a good salary. Those who do well are less likely to become preoccupied with external consequences such as these, however, instead focusing on internal motives. More than likely, this means that they will not stop at the minimum amount of work required to earn an external incentive. Because they are more likely to experience rewards that come directly from tasks themselves, internally motivated individuals are more likely to spend more time on them, building skills, and ultimately achieving more.

Unfortunately, however, it seems that the encouragement many struggling students receive is to learn for instrumental reasons, not internal ones. Parents, teachers, and administrators often seek to motivate struggling students, in particular, to study so that they can get good grades, get into a good program, eventually make good money, and maybe lift themselves out of poverty. Former Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak and current Executive Director of Generation Next, a Minneapolis organization that seeks to close the achievement gap, for instance, has publically emphasized the importance of helping poorer kids get an education so that they can get good jobs. Although surely well-intentioned, emphasizing instrumental motives for learning ironically may undermine students’ long-term motivation and achievement. Rarely is there a message that struggling students would do well to learn because learning is intrinsically interesting or meaningful. Strangely enough, only when instrumental consequences are minimized in people’s minds are they most likely to be ultimately realized.

There are many factors that are likely to influence student achievement, ranging from biological factors to students’ attention to detail to various cultural and familial factors. In the end, however, only when individuals identify that they are curious, engaged, lifelong learners will they ever be able to achieve well in any meaningful long-term way. The earlier and more consistently our young people are encouraged to appreciate that learning can be internally rewarding, the better.

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Christianity and the Holocaust

“We must sometimes meditate on the events of the history of our time and try to penetrate their terrible significance. . . [Someone] who has meditated on the Passion of Christ but who has not meditated on the extermination camps of Dachau and Auschwitz has not yet fully entered into the experience of Christianity in our time.” (Thomas Merton)

Although we often have heard the maxim to “never forget,” remembering the Holocaust often is difficult, maybe especially for Christians. Most have learned some of the agonizing history of the Holocaust, that approximately 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 others (including Roma / Sinti, political opponents, gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and disabled persons) were systematically murdered. Most probably have not meditated on this in the way that Merton suggests, however. The numbers are so staggering that we often forget that those killed were people like us – moms, dads, sisters, brothers, and grandparents. Furthermore, approximately 1 in 4 of those killed in the Holocaust were infants and children. Perhaps more difficult for some Christians is to reconcile the connection between the Holocaust and the church. In fact, as religious studies Professor and Presbyterian minister Stephen Hayes puts it, “although Christian anti-Judaism did not by itself make the Holocaust possible. . . [it] could not have occurred without Christianity.”

The seeds for the Holocaust lay in a long history of anti-Semitism, some of which had clear origins in the Christian church. Soon after Christ was crucified, some inaccurately blamed Jews. Perhaps the most blatant and hurtful comments were made by Martin Luther in his book “Against the Jews and Their Lies,” in which he gives “sincere advice” to Christians including calls to “set their synagogues and schools on fire.” Luther’s motivation may be even more striking: “This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians.” Such sentiments often were quoted and circulated in Nazi Germany as rationale for the Holocaust.

Indeed, it is important to remember that the Holocaust sprang from a predominantly Christian part of the world. Perpetrators typically were members of the Christian church, then dominant in Europe. In fact, Holocaust historian Doris Bergen notes that approximately 95% of Germans at that time were baptized and contributing church members. Many who declared Jesus as “Lord and Savior” were personally involved in the killings. For example, Hermann Göring, Hitler’s appointed successor and the person who initiated meetings to reach a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem,” was raised in a church and continued to be involved in religious activities throughout his life. In addition, churches willingly provided documentation (for example, baptismal and marriage records) to those who wished to establish Aryan bloodlines.

This raises many disturbing and challenging questions. For example, how could the Christian church contribute attitudes and actions that led to mass murder, particularly toward those with whom so much spiritual history is shared? How does the church fail to inoculate people against prejudice, indeed perhaps sometimes even promoting it? What responsibility do Christians have to stand up for people who have beliefs and backgrounds that are not shared? Finally, what should it mean to be a post-Holocaust Christian today?

Shortly after the Holocaust, psychologist Gordon Allport tried to make sense of his observation that religious people sometimes seem to be among those most prejudiced and hateful. Allport speculated that these individuals often may take an “extrinsic” approach to faith, often seeking some secondary gain from religious activities (for example, social approval, self-justification). In contrast, however, Allport observed that others may reveal an “intrinsic” faith, sincerely believing and practicing what they have been taught. In short, whereas extrinsically religious people use their faith, Allport said, intrinsically religious people live it. Considerable social science now supports this basic idea: The more extrinsically a person approaches their religion, the more prejudice they show; the more intrinsically they do, the less prejudice. Perhaps, then, many of the “Christians” involved in the Holocaust displayed less sincere commitment, involving themselves in church activities but never internalizing the teachings. Of course, we all are a product of mixed motives and desires. Perhaps the lesson that comes from this is to take the process of conversion more seriously.

Another significant problem that may contribute to prejudice and hatred is the all-too-human tendency to distinguish members of our community as being better than those on the “outside,” sometimes to the point of dehumanizing the “others.” Given the passion Christians can have for their convictions and mission, it surely is tempting to elevate the church and its members, debasing those who are different. For example, in his book, “Against the Jews and Their Lies,” Luther struggles with how some Jews resisted converting to Christianity, ultimately referring to Jews as “venomous”, “great vermin,” and “a den of devils.” When large numbers of people are separated into categories of “us” and “them” in such ways, mass prejudice and hatred become a real possibility. In this regard, the church would do well to heed the words of Stephen Smith, co-founder and Director of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre in the United Kingdom: “When I talk of ‘them,’ ‘the Jews,’ ‘their’ suffering, ‘their’ burden, ‘their’ experience, I reinforce the divide and recommit all Jews everywhere to the status of the ‘other…’ They are a part of us; not as Christians, but… as a part of a shared humanity.” Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan suggests the same (Luke 10:25-37).

A final problem is the very common tendency to passively “stand by” in the presence of evil. For example, leaders in both the Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches generally did very little to resist the Nazi regime. Many other Christian bystanders did not protest when Jews were mistreated. If the Christian church had uniformly stood up for justice, particularly during the early years of the Holocaust, the plight of Europe’s Jews likely would be significantly different.

There are social forces that help to explain this bystander response. Individuals tend to diffuse responsibility to others in such situations, for instance. Yet, it is possible to resist such pressures and to be actively defiant during such times. Dietrich Bonhoeffer inspires many Christians because of his example in doing exactly this during the Holocaust, eventually costing him his life. Many lesser known Christians also rescued Jews. Some reasons are instructive, and include having a close relationship with someone in need of help, seeking to obey Biblical teachings about compassion and, in a dramatic reversal of traditional anti-Semitism, feeling a spiritual kinship with those of Jewish faith. A different kind of example comes from the response of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust, who consistently spoke against the evils of the Nazi regime, resisted enlisting in Hitler’s army, and defied giving the Hitler salute. When instructed to stop their missionary work, they continued. Significant Nazi resources had to be directed to address this movement, and many were killed as a result. However, the group’s response points to the significant difference a small and otherwise powerless group of people can make in the face of evil.

In conclusion, the history of the relationship between the church and the Holocaust teaches Christians many lessons about having a faith that is deeply internalized and vibrantly lived. It cautions against self-absorption, pride, prejudice, and hatred. It inspires awareness of apathy, and encourages involvement in matters of justice and compassion, particularly toward those most vulnerable. Overall, the Holocaust should provoke deep reflection among Christians about what it really means to be a follower of the Prince of Peace today. As noted by Stephen Smith: “After the Shoah, it is no longer acceptable to call yourself a Christian. Now you must prove it.”

For more information:

Rittner, C., Smith, S. D., & Steinfeldt, I. (Eds.) (2000). The Holocaust and the Christian World. New York, NY: Continuum.

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My Sacred Journey

Life consists of stories. By this, I don’t mean that we all read stories or watch stories or hear stories, but rather that we live stories. More than likely, we don’t live a single story either; instead, we integrate different stories, mostly based on our experiences with life, which typically are disparate.

Dan McAdams, a professor at Northwestern University, has scientifically studied stories, or life narratives, as he sometimes puts it, more than anyone. According to McAdams, a life story includes a reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future. It includes a cast of characters, key experiences, and unifying threads. A critical assumption of narrative theory and narrative therapy is that the stories that most dominant our thought lives typically are the stories that most shape our destinies. If we somehow change our dominant internal stories, our lives change.

It is profound to reflect on the stories that most influence our lives. One story that has altered me is a story of death. When my mom died of breast cancer when I was 14, I coped poorly. For various reasons, I didn’t grieve honestly. However, these things have ways of resurfacing, and the upshot for me has been that I have been preoccupied with health, illness, and death during most of my adult life. The consequences have been both good (for example, helping me to appreciate life, have motivation to live fully now, and have a realistic view of death) and bad (for example, being anxious about health conditions and my own death). A second prominent story in my life has come from a humanistic worldview that emphasizes respect and care for humans without any accompanying religious or spiritual worldview. Many of my best friends are non-religious humanists, and some are the most admirable people I know. Taken together, these two storylines often have contributed to a sense of anxiety and despair, as they both suggest that life on earth is all there is. A third prominent story in my life comes from American culture. The story here is of people seeking to attain worth through standing out, relative to others, typically though achievement. I have proactively sought some of this story through psychology and self-help materials, both of which emphasize individuality. This story has motivated me to “be all I can be,” but also has led me to believe, in some ways, that my life lacks meaning unless it achieves something significant.

It is in this context that I read with astonishment Frederick Buechner’s book “The Sacred Journey.” Some of Buechner’s introductory lines help to explain:

“My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all. For the reader. . . it is like looking through someone else’s photograph album. What holds you, if nothing else, is the possibility that somewhere among all these shots of people you never knew and places you never saw, you may come across something or someone you recognize. In fact. . . even in a stranger’s album, there is always the possibility that as the pages flip by, on one of them you may even catch a glimpse of yourself. Even if both of these fail, there is still a third possibility which is perhaps the happiest of them all, and that is that once I have put away my album for good, you may in the privacy of the heart take out the album of your own life and search it for the people and places you have loved and learned from yourself, and for those moments in the past – many of them half forgotten – through which you glimpsed, however dimly and fleetingly, the sacredness of your own journey.”

Below I seek this third possibility.

Buechner writes about childhood in ways that bring back to me many otherwise long-lost memories of my own childhood. He writes that “it is by its content rather than by its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity – happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort.” More specifically, I deeply resonate with Buechner’s description of the child’s cast of life characters:

“. . . the people I knew as a child – my parents and grandparents, my brother, the nurses who came and went, the teachers and friends, the characters in books. . . I saw them all in much the same way as boundless. It never crossed my mind that there had been a time before they were or that there would ever come a time when they would be no longer. They were the Atlases who held the world on their shoulders – held my world anyway, held me – and their heads towered above the clouds.”

This definitely seems true in my life story. There were Atlases in my life – my mom, dad, and brother; a parish priest who basically was a father figure in my life; friends and their parents; teachers and coaches, etc. When I was young, their presence in my life was taken for granted. Now, I cannot conceive of how I would be now should any one of them not been there.

Of course, childhood only can last so long, and Buechner convincingly ties this to the time that it becomes clear that the Atlases of our lives are limited, that they die, or perhaps that they are fallible. In Buechner’s life, the exact moment this shifted was at the time of his father’s sudden death. He writes:

“From that moment to this I have ridden on time’s back as a man rides a horse, knowing fully that the day will come when my ride will end and my time will end and all that I am and all that I have will end with them. . . When somebody you love dies. . . it is like when your house burns down; it isn’t for years that you realize the full extent of your loss. For me it was longer than for most, if indeed I have realized it fully even yet, and in the meanwhile the loss came to get buried so deep in me that after a time I scarcely ever took it out to look at it at all, let alone to speak of it.”

As I mentioned above, this fits my experience almost perfectly. In some ways, this could leave one in anxiety or despair. However, Buechner then moves to a third potential season of life that has the potential to heal and restore hope.

Buechner begins an account of this potential last phase of life by noting that he had a “compelling sense” of an unseen giver.” This sense led him to a search that has the potential to change life, as it provides a story that eclipses all other stories. As he writes:

“Each must say for himself what he searches for, and there will be as many answers as there are searchers, but perhaps there are certain general answers that will do for us all. We search for a self to be. We search for other selves to love. We search for work to do. And since even when to one degree or another we find these things, we find also that there is still something crucial missing which we have not found, we search for that unfound thing too, even though we do not know its name or where it is to be found or even if it is to be found at all.”

Buechner elaborates on this latter point:

“It seems to me now that power from beyond time was working to achieve its own aim through my aimless life in time as it works through the lives of all of us and all our times. . . [W]hat I developed. . . was a sense of plot and, beyond that, a sense that perhaps life itself has a plot – that the events of our lives, random and witless as they generally seem, have a shape and direction of their own, [and] are seeking to show us something, lead us somewhere.”

With Buechner, “I choose to believe that, from beyond time, a saving mystery breaks into our time at odd and unforeseeable moments, and as I approach the end of this account. . . it is a few of those moments that I mainly want to describe.” For me personally, I sensed grace when my mom and dad took care of me when I was little and when a parish priest in my hometown befriended me and cared for me after my mom died. Grace was present when friends entered my life who encouraged me to set goals for my life and do something with my gifts. There was grace in the Professors who nurtured my intellect and supported me as I pursued an education. Grace was in my various mentors who came into my life to help me to learn about myself and how to live well. My wife has been full of grace for years in providing me with a stable relationship that has anchored me. Finally, I have found grace in a church home that has surpassed my expectations with role models and friends who have helped me to realize what it means to be fully alive. Maybe more than all of this, I share with Buechner a sense of grace that transcends what I can sense. Specifically, it is in the grace of God that I seek to find myself in a story of redemption, hope, and purpose that becomes the defining story of my life.

Buechner has the last word on this:

“. . . There can be no real joy for anybody until there is joy finally for us all. . . true peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle. To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake – even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death – that little by little we start to come alive. . . God knows I have never been any good at following the road it pointed me to, but at least, by grace, I glimpsed the road and saw that it is the only one worth travelling.”

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