Dear Professor James: A century has passed since you delivered the 20 Gifford Lectures on natural religion at Edinburgh, and published them as The Varieties of Religious Experience. We are celebrating this occasion, my students and I, and your friends around the world, as the 100th birthday of the greatest modern book on personal religion.
It’s going to be a long Advent. We stepped into the deep violet darkness and have been on the alert ever since, not only for the coming of our Savior, but also for further assaults from our largely unseen enemies. Two mysterious objects thus appear on the same radar screen: the mystery of redemption and the mystery of evil, both pushing our powers of analysis beyond their limits.
When the new war has become an old war, and a new world has emerged from it, what will the religious landscape look like? “There are no atheists in foxholes,” a young friend reminds me, “and now the whole world is a foxhole.” Admittedly this is an exaggeration.
One Saturday morning when there was a brief lull in our domestic hubbub, I asked our 13-year-old son John what he considered to be the most important things in life. He instantly presented me with an itemized list:
• To make sure that you and everyone else have a good time
And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested (1 Chron.
By a coincidence that must strike a chord in the hearts of all who long for Christian unity, Easter Sunday falls on the same day this year for Christians of both East and West. It’s a good time to be reading The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, the Orthodox émigré theologian who died in 1983 at the age of 62.
There’s a rumor going around about heaven. It’s been bruited about by well-known theologians, sharp-tongued satirists and social critics (Mark Twain among others), but it’s not really a very subtle point: The life of eternal blessedness sounds boring. My five-year-old son Andy voiced this concern early one morning while he was bouncing on the bed where I was trying to sleep.
Not long ago I went to visit my mother at a busy New York hospital where she was recovering from heart-valve surgery. The elevators were so crowded that I had to go down to the basement to claim a place for the trip up to the sixth-floor coronary care unit. At each floor the doors opened in front of identical signs: “No cell phones.
I live in a city of candles. At one end of Main Street, there’s a little jewel box of a shop that sells pure beeswax candles along with aromatherapy supplies, bath salts and hand-milled soaps that promise to impart an aura of serenity to the mundane affairs of the daily toilet. A few doors down, perfumed candles fill the New Age bookstore with the scent of generic spirituality.
Five-year-old Andy is in the shower looking for ways to use an entire bottle of blue, no-tears Aussie shampoo (the kind with the kangaroo on the bottle) without washing his hair. “I’m getting clean for Easter!” he calls out.
A few months ago I had a visit from the college-age daughter of a friend of mine. The young woman, an exceptionally gifted linguist, had developed an interest in religion and philosophy. What books, she asked, would combine her longstanding love of Latin and Greek with her newfound desire to plumb the mysteries of the cosmos?
Andy, five years old, is standing on his chair at the dinner table and using his fork to make the sign of the cross. Having coated his spaghetti with grated cheese until it is a lovely paste, he is now draping a strand over his ear. From where I sit, I can see piles of junk mail on the radiator and peeling linoleum in the kitchen.
I first heard the Lord’s Prayer in Mexico, during a family trip when I was 11 years old. I strayed from the Oaxaca market square, where my parents were bargaining over black pottery, and slipped into an old stone church, cool and dark. There were clusters of women in lace mantillas, and one or two solitary old men. Some were silent.
Are we there yet?” my son Andy cries just as we are pulling out of the driveway. “Are we there yet?’ when we drive up to the McDonald’s take-away window. “Are we there yet?” when we stop at a traffic light. No, not yet. Unable to grasp any estimate I might give him (is an hour short? is a day long?), he fusses, then falls asleep, only to wake up surprised upon our arrival.
Is it dangerous to dwell upon heaven? Many of the world’s great religious teachers seem to have thought so. Confucius told his disciples to pay respect to the spirits, but keep them at a distance; it was the will of heaven, he believed, that we keep our eyes trained on earth.