Sunday, December 1, 2019

"Not sticks, but arrows"--a Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

(Preached December 1, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana)

+In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

As we begin our second Advent season together, it seems to me natural to think about the cycles of the year that bring us back to this point. Indeed, I believe we tend to do so at all the different forms of new year—here at Advent, at the civil New Year in January, at the beginning of a new school year, at our birthdays and anniversaries. All of these days, though more or less arbitrary in themselves, encourage us not only to think back and to look forward, but also to reflect on how the revolving year has brought us back around to the same place again. Back in the 60s, we had a Joni Mitchell song—one which seems to have been covered by nearly everybody else who could get to a microphone—on this very subject. The title of it is “The Circle Game,” and the chorus, which has one of those tunes that gets stuck in your head very easily, goes like this:
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time.
We can't return--we can only look
Behind from where we came,
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.
It’s not great poetry, I suppose, but people are still recording it. The thing is, though, even though Advent as a season is capable of giving us exactly this feeling about the “carousel of time,” the actual content of Advent is precisely the opposite. Advent is our regularly recurring, seasonally cycling, reminder that time is not in fact cyclical, that history does not recur, but rather is headed toward something—that it was headed to the birth, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the first instance, and that it is even now headed toward the great Day of the Lord and the recreation of the universe as the visible kingdom of God. As you may remember, the traditional themes of sermons for Advent were the Four Last Things—death, judgment, heaven and hell—and those are not exactly the set of ideas, it seems to me, that would lead us to think about time as just running pointlessly around in a big circle.
This idea that history is going somewhere, that it is moving toward a purpose, is one of the common elements of Judaism and Christianity and Islam, and so it is to some degree baked into the way that our Western world looks at things. Other world cultures have had other ideas. The great religions of India, to take just one contrasting example, start from an assumption that time itself does keep recurring in vast cycles, and that individuals are reincarnated even within each cycle. In one sense, the great impulse of some sorts of Hinduism and of Buddhism is to find a way out of that cycle of rebirth. For some schools of Hinduism like the one which produced the Hare Krishna movement, those folks we used to see in airports, the way out is to realize that the soul is one with god. If that is true, the theory goes, then the soul in the body is like a driver in a car. Thus the soul shouldn’t allow itself to be influenced by things that happen to the body, any more than a driver would limp because of a flat on her car. Buddhism, on the other hand, takes almost the opposite way out, saying that the self is only a passing phenomenon, like a whirlpool in a river, and that the way out of the cycles of time is to stop clinging to things and people in the world as if the self had a substantial existence.
Obviously, I am just sketching these other religions or philosophies in broad and general strokes: but even in these generalities, we see the radical difference from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim idea that there is a transcendent Creator, outside all things and above all being, who brings the universe into existence with a goal in mind. Indeed, more than that, these three religions of Abraham say that God creates the world with no lesser goal in mind than God himself. And I want to say a bit more just about that—about God as the goal of creation—but I need to back up a bit to a different theological question to get there.
One of the things that Jewish and Christian and Muslim thinkers spent a lot of time on in the Middle Ages (and today as well, for that matter) was the question of how God knows things. The Greeks and Romans had thought of their deities watching the events of human history as those events unfolded, like someone watching from a distance—through a telescope, they might have said, if they had had such things. But that sort of direct observation wouldn’t really work for the God of Abraham, who claims, after all, to know the future just as much as he knows the present and the past. After several further stages of development that we don’t need to get into, the 13th century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides taught that observation just isn’t a good analogy for God’s knowledge at all, because God knows the world as its creator before there even is something to be observed, the way a builder knows a house before it’s built, or a painter knows a painting before it’s painted. Following up on Maimonides, the Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas went on to say that even the analogy of God as an artistic creator still had a weakness.
Aquinas pointed out that the most important thing we want to say about God is that God is, even as the Holy Trinity, absolutely, transcendently, one. And, Aquinas went on, the more we stress God’s absolute simplicity, God’s perfect unity, the harder it is to say that God can really know anything but God’s own absolutely simple self. Philosophers and theologians had reached that conclusion before, but no one had ever been able to connect that line of reasoning with any of the arguments about God’s knowledge of the created world. Aquinas, though, makes a breakthrough. If, he says, God knows everything there is to know about God, then, among other things, God knows every single way in which God can be known and loved and worshipped by a creature. God knows all the ways that creatures might come to find their ultimate fulfillment in him. And God knows all of these various ways separately and in perfect detail—not just how archangels in general might come to know God, but how Michael’s experience of God would be different from Gabriel’s experience. And so, Aquinas says, knowing all the ways in which creatures could come to the knowledge and love of God, God creates some, or possibly all, of those creatures. Out of his own simple self-knowledge, God creates a universe of creatures which have the ability, each following its own individual path, to finally be gathered in worship around his throne of glory in heaven.
What that means in terms of Advent and the cycles of time is that history is not just headed toward something. It’s not just that the Universe somehow happens to be aimed at God, but rather that this exact Universe is created precisely because it is capable of being aimed at God. God chooses to create this Universe, and us in it, specifically because this Universe is, and we are, capable of knowing and loving God, in all of its, and of our, myriad ways.
And when we turned away from God, and marred the Universe itself by our disobedience, God did not simply reset the creation to its original conditions, but rather became incarnate as one of us. God took our nature up into the mysterious interior life of the Trinity, so that, having forfeited the ability to reach our natural goal on our own, we are brought to a higher goal in Christ. As I have said here before, Aquinas teaches that we are sticks by nature but that in Christ we become arrows, aimed at the golden dot in a target we could never have dreamed of reaching on our own.
Jesus Christ is, as the Book of Revelation says, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; and in him and through him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the eternal will of the Father, we alone of all creatures share in the knowledge and love and life of the Blessed Trinity. Through all the cycling years, this, and nothing less, is the goal of history and the purpose of the Universe. Amen.

--John Wm. Houghton

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Revised and Expanded!

One of my projects for retirement has been, or, rather, is, to revise my earlier writing and bring it out in digital editions. Publishing the novella Fortunate Empire, in the summer of 2017, was my attempt to learn the process; today, I'm happy to make available a Kindle version of Falconry and Other Poems--expanded from the original paperback with more poems, though I did leave out the handsome black and white photos from my John Burroughs School colleague William Ames Bascom, as I wasn't sure how well the digital version would display them. Here it is:

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Bear and Bunny

My Baccalaureate Address to the Hill School Class of 2018:

Bear and Bunny

If the adults in your life are like mine were—and I suspect that in this matter most parents or guardians are quite similar—you will someday find that they have kept stuck in a box someplace or on a shelf at the back of a closet somewhere any number of relics from by-then-forgotten episodes of your childhood. And when I say forgotten episodes, I mean forgotten by you: for your parents will surely have remembered them, even without looking back at the objects they’ve so carefully preserved.
So, as I say, at some point you will find these things. It might be anything, from baby shoes to your first tooth to a blue ribbon from a first grade science fair. One guy I knew in St. Louis kept his sons’ tonsils in a glass jar in a kitchen cupboard, but I assume he was a statistical outlier.
As you will have inferred, I am speaking from experience here. Indeed, I am speaking in a certain sense from triple experience, since I inherited one of these treasure troves from my grandmother and one from a doting great-aunt as well as the expected pile of things from my parents. But it’s that last collection, my parents’ own archive, that I have particularly in mind this morning: and especially out of that collection I have been thinking about these two carefully preserved relics from the Eisenhower administration. 
[[Here, I produced two stuffed animals from my childhood:]]

 I was apparently not a wildly creative child, at least in the early stages, and these two rediscovered old friends are simply named “Bear” and “Bunny.” I’ve brought them along because I want to talk about friendship, and particularly about friendships of our youth, friendships that, like Bear and Bunny, we may even lose track of for years at a time. I want to talk about these friendships particularly this morning because, while my parents could stuff these imaginary companions away in a box for me to discover later, no one can save our real relationships for us, no one can wrap them up in tissue paper until we want them later. That’s work we have to do for ourselves; it’s one of the first challenges of this process of adulting that you all are about to begin.
I have a psychologist friend—someone whom I’ve actually known since high school—who argues that for various technical psychological reasons the friends we make in our youth—our “first friends,” as he calls them—are qualitatively different from the friends we acquire later in life. And this is all the more the case when we make these friends in the relatively enclosed atmosphere of a boarding school, where our experiences are just that much more intense, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design. People who study these things say that sharing intense experiences—like battle or boot camp—produces a relationship they call “camaraderie.” Camaraderie doesn’t necessarily overlap with friendship: one article I read recently described the camaraderie between black marines and another member of their platoon who brought his Ku Klux Klan robes with him to basic training. But when camaraderie does coincide with friendship, and particularly when it overlaps with the uniquely powerful form of “first friendship,” it forms personal bonds that can seem incomprehensible to people who haven’t had the experience themselves.
School people have been saying this sort of thing for centuries, of course: here at The Hill, we talk, with a certain degree of exaggeration, about “ties that will never sever,” but I bet that a little bit of research at almost any other school would turn up something of the same sort. All these sentimental things are clichés, of course, but sometimes things are clichés precisely because they reflect deep-seated realities, inescapable workings of our minds and our hearts. I’m not saying, of course, that each of you has been, or will be, best friends with everyone else sitting in this room: schoolboy enemies are also a cliché, after all, and probably an equally valid one. There are, I admit, people I didn’t like fifty years ago at Culver that I probably wouldn’t like if I saw them again this morning as I walked out of the chapel—but I wish it weren’t so, and I certainly don’t think any of us need to be encouraged to hold grudges: that happens all too often without any help from me.
I do want to encourage you, though, to hold fast to these friends that you do see around you. I’m thinking, here, particularly, about what we might call the middle-term. In the really long term, looking ahead fifty years as I was just looking back, you won’t have any trouble appreciating the value of these friends you’re making now, if you do manage to keep them: half a century hence, you may have trouble recognizing them when you see them at reunions, but you’ll know very well how important they are to you, or, in the case of those who will have died, how important they were. Time will teach that lesson well enough.
On the other hand, in the really short term, you don’t need encouragement, either—the sentiments of this moment will, generally, carry you through. A couple of hours from now, with your clothes dripping pond-water and hearts dripping affection, and not a few eyes dripping tears, you will be hugging everyone who stands still long enough to fall into your cold and clammy embraces. [[The new graduates' jumping into the campus pond, called, perversely enough, "The Dell," is the customary conclusion of The Hill's commencement exercises.]] There’s not much need for positive reinforcement there, either.
In the middle range, though, most friendships, even these first-friendships with their deep and wide-spread roots, will benefit from some cultivation. The most obvious thing to say about that cultivation is that you should stay in touch; and that’s fair enough advice, even for you all, who are perhaps the most well-connected generation since people lived in villages so small that they thought marrying their second cousin was a wild and crazy way of bringing new blood into the family. But, honestly, while staying in touch is good and helpful, it’s not vital. One of the things people most often comment about their deepest friendships is that when they get back together again after a long separation, they can pick up their conversations right where they left off. So, being in touch, while obvious, isn’t absolutely necessary.
What is necessary, I suspect, is lowered expectations, at least in a practical sense. I’m putting it that way to be provocative, of course, but I do want to get at a serious point. One of my ethics students reminded me last year of a classic distinction between various kinds of friends: there are useful friends, pleasant friends, and then finally true friends, friends properly so-called. The fundamental difference between true friends and the other two kinds is that true friends are friends simply for their own sake. That is to say, when we have useful friends, the good will between us and them is based on the fact that there is something we can do for them and something they can do for us: that’s genuine good will, as far as it goes, but when the underlying transaction is finished, the friendship tends to fade away. And the same sort of thing is true with pleasant friends, except that the transaction is emotional, not physical or economic: we can exchange a genuine good will with people when we make each other happy, but, again, if making each other happy is all there is to it, the friendship will tend to go away when we stop finding each other clever or cheerful or attractive or amusing.
So when I advise you, for the middle term, to have low practical expectations of your Hill ties, what I mean is this: don’t reduce the true friendships you have made here to merely transactional ones: don’t drag these people you have known so well at such a crucial time in your lives down to the level of the merely useful and pleasant. That’s not to say that you may not, over the years, be able to help a friend out in some useful way—I have rented my house back in Culver to an old school friend on just a handshake for the last thirteen years, and couldn’t have asked for a better tenant, while the publisher of my two novels is a friend from both high school and college (which is the only reason they got published at all). So a true friendship may at some point turn out also to be useful: but if you expect it to be, you’re very much liable to reduce it to mere usefulness, and then to lose it when that moment of usefulness passes. And the same is true, of course, with respect to pleasure: true friends often entertain us and make us happy to be around them, but if we try to make the interchange of pleasure the basis of friendship, we risk losing—indeed, we almost certainly will lose—the true friendship that not only entertains us but also consoles us in our grief, celebrates our joys, and stands silently with us when we can’t bear anything other than the mere presence of another.
So, don’t expect utility, and don’t demand pleasure, from these first friendships that you have formed: welcome those things when you happen to get them over the decades, but don’t mistake them for the higher values of your unseverable ties. The goodwill between true friends is based, not on usefulness nor on pleasure, but on an appreciation for what is permanently, ultimately, good in each other: that’s what makes these friendships enduring.
Now, I have to consider at least one possible objection to what I’ve been saying: or, rather, an objection to my having said it. After my talk to the whole school earlier this spring on Lorenzo the Magnificent, someone got in touch with me to say that the talk was all right, but that I surely should have spent at least some of my time talking about the life of the mind. My correspondent argued that as someone with a decent education and an active career as a scholar, speaking, after all, in a school, I had missed a chance to commend the intellectual life to our community, ignoring the opportunity to remind us all of our place in an academic tradition that runs all the way back to Socrates meeting with his students in the Athenian grove of Academe.
And I suppose these remarks this morning are subject to that same criticism, that I have been talking too much about friendship and not enough about wisdom. Though, in my defense, I could quote Cicero, who wrote in his dialogue “On Friendship” that friendship is the second most important thing after Wisdom itself. He said:
For friendship is nothing else than an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection, and I am inclined to think that, with the exception of wisdom, no better thing has been given to humanity by the immortal gods.[1]
And, in fact, Cicero goes on to clarify that even wisdom is not better than friendship in some vague and general way: rather, wisdom is specifically better, precisely because we need wisdom to manage friendship. Obviously, evil people can, and often do, take advantage of their friends, but even good people will sometimes, with the best of intentions, ask friends things with which the friends ought not to agree. For example, in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, set in the time of King Henry the Eighth, the Duke of Norfolk tries to convince the central character, the famously wise Sir Thomas More, to sign a document approving of King Henry’s divorce and remarriage. Norfolk says,
I don't know if the marriage was lawful or not . . . but damn it, Thomas, look at these names. Why can't you do as I did and come with us for fellowship?
To which More replies:
And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience. . . and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Fellowship, or friendship, Bolt tells us, is no reason to disobey conscience, which is the moral aspect of wisdom: Like Cicero, Bolt says that it is the job of wisdom to restrain us when goodwill might otherwise drive us to folly.
So, yes, certainly, by all means, embrace the life of the mind, whether as scholars or simply as educated, curious, and humane citizens of your several nations and of the ever-more-closely tied together world. As the fourth chapter of the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible says, personifying Wisdom as God’s female agent in Creation:
7. Get wisdom,
   and whatever else you get, get insight. 
8. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
   she will honor you if you embrace her. 
9. She will place on your head a fair garland;
   she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.
Or, as our reading from the Gita this morning said, “Understand that which is to be known by respecting the wise and by asking proper questions”; or, again, as St. Paul put it, direct your minds toward whatsoever things are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.
But as you live out those rich, true, excellent intellectual lives, remember, too, this piece of advice from the sixth chapter of the apocryphal book of the Bible called Ecclesiasticus, also known as “The Wisdom of Sirach”:
14. Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
   whoever finds one has found a treasure.
15. Faithful friends are beyond price;
   no amount can balance their worth.
16. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
   and those who fear the Lord will find them.
The people sitting here with you today, I would suggest, are a shelter you already inhabit, a treasure you have already found, a medicine you have stored up against future need. The challenge is to keep them until, fifty years or more from now, you come back here, as worn and unrecognizable as Bear and Bunny, and sit down, perhaps even in these very pews, to be astonished all over again by the ties that bind you to these comrades and first friends.
---The Very Rev. John Wm. Houghton, Ph.D.,
Dean of the Alumni Chapel

Be Like Larry

My final regular school year Chapel Talk at The Hill School:

Be Like Larry

I suppose you’ll all remember that we had my official gushy sentimental good-bye Chapel Talk back in November, on Founders’ Day, when Ms. Lim directed that huge ensemble of singers and instrumentalists in a performance of “A Hill Anthem.” I listened to the piece again with pleasure the other day on YouTube ( ): Preparing it was, I know, a huge amount of work, and I’m still grateful to all of the participants for doing it.   
So, then, since all the mushy getting-ready-to-leave stuff is already out of the way, at this point I can do an everyday chapel talk, perhaps with extra added advice. In thinking about that everyday task, and about certain everyday requests for a shout-out, I eventually came to the conclusion that I basically had my choice of two Italians to discuss this morning. One would be my advisee, your President, and the other would be Lorenzo de’ Medici, a Renaissance ruler of Florence who died back in 1492, 526 years ago yesterday.
Naturally, I decided to go with the dead guy. So, since Lorenzo is the Italian form of “Lawrence,” the title of my talk is “Be like Larry”—and I do want to be clear that that’s not the same, God forbid, as “Be like a Larry.”
Now, when I say “be like Larry,” I also have to be clear to begin with that Lorenzo de’ Medici had a lot of characteristics that no-one would want you to copy. Being a ruler in Renaissance Italy wasn’t a whole lot less brutal than being a ruler in Game of Thrones (for instance, Machiavelli dedicated his famous book The Prince to Lorenzo’s grandson) and perhaps one of the nicest things you could say about Lorenzo was that he wasn’t always all that good at it. At one point, he managed to get the whole Republic of Florence excommunicated by the Pope, and he nearly caused the collapse of his family’s banking empire—though, on the other hand, as Wikipedia points out, he eventually got not only one of his sons but also a nephew elected to be Pope, and he did maintain the balance of power in Italy under a treaty that kept peace for his lifetime.
But after you take note of all of his negative qualities—and I haven’t even mentioned that in an age that idealized beauty he was also short and unattractive and badly needed a nose job—even after you take note of all those, there is still a lot to be said for Lorenzo. One of the reasons that the family banks got into trouble, apparently, was that he and his family gave away and paid in taxes for arts and civic projects in Florence 663,000 florins—almost half a billion dollars in current money. He founded what is still one of the world’s greatest libraries, with an invaluable collection of ancient manuscripts; he helped Leonardo da Vinci get the job that resulted in the painting of The Last Supper, and Michelangelo was his house guest for five solid years. He himself was one of the great poets of his generation, writing in both Italian and Latin. In brief, he was literally the kind of person they had in mind when they came up with the phrase “Renaissance Man.”
So, be like Lorenzo. If you happen to have a chance to found a library, take it: if you’re lucky enough to be able to give half-a-billion dollars to charity—and some of you may—then do it. Write great poetry, if you can: encourage the next Michelangelo, if you have the opportunity. All of those are worth doing, and indeed they are worth doing even on a small scale, if you can’t afford a grand one: giving one book to a library is still a good thing, and there are literally charities out there that do good work by getting half-a-dollar at a time, not half-a-billion. But: what I really want to push you toward isn’t just recreating those virtuous details of Lorenzo’s life, whether large scale or small.
In fact, what I actually want to hold out to you is not specifically anything about Lorenzo’s life, though that life clearly had something to do with it, but rather his nickname. Rulers attract all sorts of nicknames, of course, many of them less than complimentary. Lorenzo’s own father, for instance, has gone down in history with the medical epithet “Peter the Gouty,” while Lorenzo’s son, who succeeded him, was called “Peter the Unfortunate.” There was a King of France called “Louis the do-nothing,” and there was even an eighth-century Byzantine Emperor known as “Constantine the Poopy-christened,” because of an unfortunate accident during his infant baptism. So historical nicknames can be a little bit mean. The people of Florence, though, were looking to compliment Lorenzo when they gave him an epithet, and so, apparently even during his lifetime, he was known as “Lorenzo il Magnifico,” Lorenzo the Magnificent. So this is what I mean when I say “be like Larry”: be magnificent.
Be magnificent. Literally, the word “magnificent” means “doing great things,” and as I’ve said, if you have the opportunity to do great things on a scale that will benefit human civilization, as some of you in years to come may very well have,  then by all means do them. But the first great thing to which I want to urge you is closer to hand: the first step in personal magnificence, if I can put it that way, is something Damian mentioned in his excellent chapel talk last Friday. That first step is to be uncompromisingly yourself, to be the very best version of yourself that you can be, and nothing less than that.
To expand a little bit on what Damian said, this business of just being ourselves is a deep philosophical issue. When the ancient Greek philosophers talked about how something could become evil, they decided that an increase of evil was a loss of being, a kind of fading away, becoming more and more of a shadow rather than a really existing thing. (If you’re a Tolkien fan, by the way, that’s why the One Ring makes its wearer invisible: the Ring is infectiously evil, and it draws the wearer toward nothingness.)
Medieval philosophers, though, took that ancient idea a step further and said, well, but wait a minute, a thing can only be a good example of whatever it is. A good candy bar is good specifically as candy, and the candy bar is bad when it fails to measure up to the standard for that particular treat: and since the only possible standard for each one of us is to be our self, we turn toward evil whenever we give up the effort to be precisely and authentically who we really are, when we settle for being something other, or less, than our true selves.
To come at the same point about authenticity from another direction: on the gateway into the Oracle at Delphi (the place where ancient Greeks went to hear prophecies of the future), instead of posting a message about understanding the Oracle, the Greeks put the inscription “Gnothi Seauton,” which means “know yourself.” Their point was that if we don’t know ourselves, even a message from the gods won’t be able to help us.
It’s a lifetime’s work to know ourselves, but unless we do, we can’t make sense of anything else, and as we come to know the authentic self, it more and more lays a claim, even a demand, on us. To the degree that we know our authentic self, we’re lying to ourselves and others if we don’t also try to be it.
So, then, my first step toward personal magnificence is to find your authentic self and then be that person, in spite of everything. My second step is to be generous. Partly, I do mean being generous with money, like Lorenzo and his family’s half-billion bucks. I wrote a whole chapel talk on this subject of giving away money three years ago, so I am not going to repeat it all now, other than to encourage you to do what you can, even if it is small. Form a habit of giving away a percentage of your income now, and it will last you a lifetime. Round up the total when you give a tip: it will almost certainly mean more to your server than it does to you. Don’t tie yourself in knots about giving money to beggars and homeless people; give and don’t worry about it. C. S. Lewis once gave some cash to a beggar in Oxford, and as they went on, the person Lewis was walking with said, “Jack, that man is just going to spend that money on drinking.” “Strange,” Lewis said, “that’s just what I was going to do with it.”
Being generous with money is a virtue. But the real generosity I am thinking of, the generosity that helps to begin to constitute personal magnificence, goes beyond the financial. Beyond being generous with money, we need to be generous with other people, generous both in our judgment of them and in our presence with them. At the very minimum, in matters of judgment we can be generous enough to give other people the benefit of the doubt. We can start by assuming that their lives and their motives and their consciences are just as complicated and conflicted as our own. When we wonder why other people act so unreasonably, we can do well to remember how much of our own inner life doesn’t even make sense to us ourselves, and thus realize that it certainly wouldn’t do so to others.
And when I talk about being generous in our presence with others, I certainly don’t want to risk my lifetime membership in the International Association of Introverts. I am not even remotely interested in saying how much time we need to spend with others. But I do want to argue that when we do engage with others, we owe it to them to be fully engaged, in whatever our role may be. Different occasions and different relationships call for different sorts of presence, obviously: but I can’t stand at the altar and say Mass and be thinking about my grocery shopping instead of the congregation; or, to take another example, all of us know, whether we live up to it or not, that we get the most out of classes in which we are actively engaged, not simply passively present.
So, then, my first two steps are to be authentic and to be generous. These kinds of lists can go on and on, of course, but I mean to stop at three steps toward personal magnificence, and my third one is this: be true. I don’t particularly mean “true” in the logical sense, as when we say a statement is true because it corresponds with reality. The English word “true” didn’t develop that logical meaning until as recently as the thirteenth century: before that, “true” meant something about the person who was speaking, rather than about what they were saying. In English, originally, a statement was true because it came from someone whom you could trust, which is in fact a different form of the same word. What I am saying, then, is, be someone whom others can trust. Keep your word to them, keep their secrets for them, and be loyal. Here at The Hill and out in the world, show people that there is, back of each, the strength of all: now and for the rest of your lives, do what you can to create the ties that will never sever. That’s not to say that you won’t be betrayed, sometimes: indeed, most of us are, at one point or another, and it always hurts. But that’s still better than being the other guy, the one who can’t be trusted in the first place.
So, then, finally, here’s my completely unsentimental bottom line: You are people of amazing talent and outstanding opportunity. Indeed, except for pure political authority and piles of actual gold, all of you have more power at your fingertips than any Renaissance prince, Lorenzo de’ Medici included. You can travel farther in a day than he did in a lifetime, you have more information in your pocket than he could have had in a thousand libraries, and you, unlike him, will probably not die, of some undiagnosed intestinal ailment, at the age of 43. So I am not being completely rhetorical if I challenge you to be magnificent: Our everyday world is, after all, shot through with a magnificence Lorenzo could not have imagined. But I am even further from being rhetorical when I offer these three things as first steps for the rich lives that I know lie ahead of you: be authentic, be generous, and be true.

---The Very Rev. John Wm Houghton, Ph.D.,
Dean of the Alumni Chapel

Sunday, January 14, 2018

I had the honor of speaking this afternoon at the annual Pottstown Celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Hill has typically hosted this event every other year, but always in the Center for the Arts. This was the first time we have held the service in the Alumni Chapel.

Here's what I said:

My parents always remembered clearly where they had been when they heard the news from Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died. And like most people my own age, I remember where I was—in my fifth-grade teacher’s classroom—when we learned that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I don’t, however, remember where I was on Thursday night, April 4th, 1968; it was a school night, so at a few minutes after seven I was probably at home, and I suppose we would have heard of Dr. King’s death later that evening from Walter Cronkite, as we were not a Huntley-Brinkley family. Nor do I remember hearing Bobby Kennedy’s speech about Dr. King’s death, delivered that night in our own state capital of Indianapolis.
I do, however, remember going to school the next morning, Friday, at Culver Military Academy, the excellent private school in my home town, and discovering that Mr. Gordon Hough, our freshman English teacher, was still so shattered by the loss that he couldn’t pull himself together to do anything, but just sat there on his desk, and quietly sent us away.
I had a colleague once, though, who impressed me with a different memory of that week. He had been a choirboy at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul—the National Cathedral, in Washington, D.C.—and he remembered hearing Dr. King’s last sermon, delivered there on Sunday, March 31. The sermon was entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," and Dr. King took as his text, from the 16th Chapter of the Book of Revelation, "Behold I make all things new; former things are passed away." This was the sermon which Dr. King closed with the words that are now inscribed on his memorial in Washington, his declaration that “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
At the center of the sermon, it seems to me, at the heart of it, Dr. King talks about why he happened to be in Washington that Sunday in the first place. He was, of course, happy to preach in the great Cathedral: but Washington was very much on his mind at the time because, ever since the previous fall, he had been devoting his energies, and those of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to a major new project scheduled to begin in the spring of 1968. He called it the Poor  People’s Campaign. If you will allow me a rather long quotation, this is what he said to the cathedral congregation on that last Sunday morning of this life,
In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.
We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.
We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.
Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action. 
Many of Dr. King’s friends and allies in 1968 thought the Poor  People’s Campaign was a mistake, that he was losing his focus. Desegregation, voting rights, fair jury trials and similar issues had been Dr. King’s specialty and the main thrust of the SCLC; but on April 4, 1967, King had, in another powerful sermon at the equally famous Riverside Church in New York City, come out against the war in Vietnam, finding a connection between the Civil Rights movement and the Peace Movement that many other people just did not see. So when he began adding poverty to the mix in the fall of 1967, as the idea of the Poor  People’s Campaign began to grow, people told him that he was dividing his energies among three causes, and thereby weakening his support of all of them.
Dr. King was convinced, though, that these three causes were deeply and intrinsically related. Indeed, the National Cathedral sermon not only talks about the Poor  People’s Campaign but also firmly denounces the war in closely related terms, saying “It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.” And, in searing language that could have been written yesterday as easily as fifty years ago, he condemned racism that day as strongly as he ever had: again, quoting--
We are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.
Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt; even the church must share the guilt. 
So, then, whatever others may have thought, Dr. King on that last Sunday certainly felt that poverty and peace and racism were all parts of the same puzzle, all parts of the same fundamental challenge to America and indeed to the world.
Dr. King argues that poverty is a violation of human rights by appealing to the grand language of Mr. Jefferson’s declaration, that sweeping assertion of self-evident truths about unalienable rights that belong to individuals not as principles of government but as gifts of their Creator: “if a man doesn’t have a job or an income,” King says, “he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” And, as far as it goes, Dr. King’s interpretation is perfectly sound. But it does seem to me that he is ignoring another part of Mr. Jefferson’s thought, a part of Jefferson’s thought that shaped America far more profoundly than the soaring language of the Declaration—which is, after all, just a declaration and not the constitution or a law.
As the great American historian Edmund S. Morgan pointed out in his ground-breaking book American Slavery, American Freedom, back in 1975, Jefferson was, like so many of the Founding Fathers, a great student of ancient Rome, and the message, above all messages, that they took from that study was that Rome fell into tyranny because of the political power of the common people, the political power of the huge mob of Romans who had to be kept satisfied with bribes of cheap food and free entertainment—with bread and circuses, as the Romans would have said. Jefferson, Adams, Madison—the whole pack of them thought that poor people are, by their very nature, the enemies of the state, and they quite literally and specifically designed America to deny power to the poor. America is a republic, not a democracy, founded from the beginning on a deep fear of the poor and on an absolute terror of the enslaved—and all of this nation’s undemocratic features, and the cultural attitudes that result from them, are fundamental parts of the original plan to keep those groups in their place. Dr. King’s expansive reading of the declaration may make sense to us, but Jefferson would have rejected with horror the implication that the government should do something about poverty. Once a nation starts giving bread to its poor people, the Founding Fathers would have told us, the end is near.
So part of what I am saying is that Dr. King’s struggle continues today, fifty years later, because it is a struggle against ideas and attitudes that are more American than apple pie. I heard on the radio on Friday evening the honorable governor of Utah talking about imposing a work requirement for various sorts of poor relief, because people shouldn’t be “on the dole”—if you just take handouts, he said, you lose your self-respect. But this is nonsense. I stand here this afternoon with degrees from some of the best universities in this country, including both Harvard and Yale, and someplace in my attic I have the receipts to prove that whatever work I did to help pay for that education, and whatever loans I took out, were only teaspoons in the ocean compared to what it actually cost. And I don’t feel that all those scholarships reduced my self-respect. Not do I feel my self-respect slipping away when I drive on a free interstate highway or visit a free national park. And after shelling out a chunk of change for medical deductibles this week, I am certainly not going to lose any self-respect when I sign up for Medicare next June, assuming it’s still around by then. Nor, I think, do any major corporations lose self-respect when they line up for tax breaks and handouts at the public trough. What people like the honorable Governor really mean, though they may not even realize it themselves, is that “people who are not respectable in the first place lose self-respect if you give them free help.” And that’s what Jefferson would want the governor to think, because if we think like that we are less likely to give those people the help, the bread and circuses, that will, in the opinion of the Founders, undermine the Republic.

           So, then, part of what I am laying out here is a quibble with Dr. King about America’s deepest values, as represented by Jefferson and his colleagues, great men though they were; following Professor Morgan, I think Dr. King’s reading of their work is entirely too optimistic. But the other part of what I want to say is that Dr. King is surely, ultimately, right about the values to which he calls us. And to make that point, let me go back further in American history than Dr. King did, back almost another 150 years, back to the ship Arbella, which sailed from England on April 8, 1630, arriving in Massachusetts on June 12. The Puritan passengers of Arbella and its companion ships were to be the founders of the Massachusetts Bay colony, and their Governor was John Winthrop, who preached, while they were still at sea, a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity.” Presidents and politicians have often quoted the last lines of this sermon, where Winthrop applies to his new colony the words Jesus used to refer to the Church, “You shall be as a city set upon a hill.” But what the Presidents and the politicians leave out is the reason why: Winthrop doesn’t think the colonists will attract the attention of the world just because they have started a new colony. Not at all: they will attract attention because of the covenant they have made with themselves and with God. The message of the sermon is that the colony, like any place else, will certainly end up with both rich people and poor people: but unlike other places, the rich people of this colony will remember their covenant and will understand that it is their obligation to help the poor. Winthrop says “If thy brother be in want and thou canst help him, thou needst not make doubt of what thou shouldst do; if thou lovest God thou must help him.” Notice that there is no quibbling here about losing self-respect: Winthrop is brutally straightforward: “If your brother or sister needs help, and you can help, if you love God then you must help.” Speaking as he is to a Christian audience, Winthrop appeals to the idea of the Body of Christ, but as we have heard in this afternoon’s lessons, he could make equally good arguments from Jewish or from Muslim principles as well. This new colony, he says, has entered into a covenant with God, and one element of that covenant is that “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.” What the world will marvel at, in Winthrop’s opinion, is not the mere fact of a new colony, but the fact of a colony which dares to take seriously “the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.” America is not a city set upon a hill because Jefferson’s and Madison’s republic continues to creak undemocratically along: rather, it is a city set upon a hill because, and if, and when, and to the extent that, we see it as the basic covenant of our society that we are willing to abridge ourselves for the supply of others. If, fifty years after the death of Dr. King, and fifty years after Bobby Kennedy’s funeral procession passed through the People’s Campaign’s “Resurrection City” in Washington, D.C.; if now, at last, in defiance of President Jefferson and the governor of Utah, we can truly become a nation that, as a result of its fundamental covenant, sees the needy, sees its own immense wealth, and concludes that its duty is therefore to help the needy, then truly “we shall be as a city upon a hill, and the eyes of all people will be upon us.”

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

One of this summer's projects has been to turn a story I'd always meant to write into an e-book--more of an e-booklet, I suppose, since it's turned out to be a long-ish novella, rather than a novel properly so called.  I finished it last night (or early this morning), somewhat surprised to see that html skills I learned back in the 90's still came in handy. So it is now available from Amazon on Kindle:  Here's the blurb: "Fortunate the nation that grows by marriage rather than warfare," a proverb says. In an age still new to steam and steel, the fledgling empire of the World's Heart has long overlooked the ancient city of Leedeu, far off to the east on the other side of the globe. The Autarch's decision to dispatch the empire's heir apparent, incognito, to serve as the first official Legate to the city only highlights imperial ignorance of the older culture. Confronted as soon as they leave their ship by a series of seemingly random deaths which local authorities insistently downplay, the Legate and his staff face increasing complications as they labor to navigate shadowy factions that have been struggling against each other since before the earliest legends of the World's Heart. Ultimately, only the Prince's submersion in the city's grotesque rituals resolves the tensions his legation has caused."

Friday, April 28, 2017

A New Tolkien Essay

I was very pleased to hear yesterday evening that an essay I've been working on for a while has appeared in the Journal of Tolkien Research. I am on the board of JTR, so this could, admittedly, look a bit fishy, but we use blind peer review, so I'm taking legitimate pride in the piece. It's on-line here: