These are photos of two pages of an Independence Day prayer service program at a church in a small Virginia town. It was all very moving that they would pray in this way, and that this is probably replicated in different ways but same substance throughout the land's places of faith.
Upstairs in the office of Bethel A.M.E. Church, located several blocks from recent rioting, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake waits for a Tuesday news conference to begin. She vents about the self-destructive nature of the violence — attacks on businesses that were hard to attract to low-income neighborhoods — and the sad irony that many of the places targeted were frequented by Freddie Gray. She rehearses for me the difficult choices involved in an appropriate but not overmilitarized police response. Pressures come from every side. The Maryland government, she says, denies needed education funding while watching over her shoulder on law and order. The schools were closed that day, in part because teachers were refusing to come to work.
Down in the sanctuary, to the accompaniment of helicopter noise and sirens, Christian and Jewish leaders announce an effort to help feed poor children who won’t be getting meals at school that day. Bethel’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Frank Reid III, adds a mild corrective for the mayor, who is standing beside him. Early in the crisis, Rawlings-Blake (D) had referred to those involved in violence as “thugs.” “There are no thugs in Baltimore,” says Reid. “There are abused children” who “become abusers.”
After the news conference ends, I sit with Reid in the front pew. Now 63, he has seen or participated in almost every stage of the civil rights struggle, becoming one of the most respected religious figures in Baltimore and an important leader of the broader movement.
Reid is tired from the exertions of the late night before. After Gray’s funeral Monday at New Shiloh Baptist Church, hundreds of pastors marched in the midst of violence, in what Reid called “a demonstration of love and fearlessness.” Returning to the church, religious leaders held a two-hour dialogue with gang leaders.
“One young man said to me, ‘You Frank Reid. My grandma made me go to your church when I was little.’ I felt like a failure. How did I let this brother get away? But then it hit me. He remembered, and it was a positive memory.” Reid continues: “There is an opening in many young lives. There is an opportunity to touch a new generation — not to use them for church purposes but to empower them to fulfill their purpose in life. That’s exciting. Is it dangerous? What isn’t dangerous?”
This is one of the most distinctive contributions of faith-based institutions to discussions on poverty and crime. Their vision of social healing is required to include the victimizers as well, who will remain in communities, or return from prison, after the cameras leave. “Everyone should have a second chance, even a third chance,” says Reid.
He locates the Baltimore violence in a broader context, quoting sociologist Robert Putnam on a growing “opportunity gap” in American life. “When the opportunity gap gets as vast as it is,” Reid says, “it is filled with frustration, fear, powerlessness.” Reid is hoping for political leaders with the ambition of Lyndon Johnson “on the big issues of education, housing and the redistribution of wealth.” But he is not hopeful about the state of American politics. “Left and right have put on blinders and ear plugs. They are not listening to each other. Everything reaffirms a preexisting policy position.” Public discourse, he says, has become “violence without a gun.”
Reid, in obvious frustration, raises some uncomfortable questions. “If the marchers here had gone to the Inner Harbor, would we have seen that looting? The police would have prevented it.” The Inner Harbor is the tourist district. Some communities seem more expendable than others.
And Reid poses “a question for the black community.” “Do we now have a black political class,” he asks, “out of contact with the personal needs of the people they serve? In the white community, there is an attitude of ‘you people.’ Is there a ‘you people’ idea in the black political class? I don’t know.”
Our conversation loops back to hope. “We need to turn to each other, not on each other,” he says. “A moment can become a tipping point, and it doesn’t always tip to the negative. The funeral yesterday was a positive tipping point, a foundation for the future. Romans Chapter 8 says that creation is moaning, groaning, giving birth. What we are seeing in urban neighborhoods is groaning and pain. If we stay focused, we can give birth to something positive and powerful.”
Why so many empty church pews? Here’s what money, sex, divorce and TV are doing to American religion - Washington Post, March 26
By W. Bradford Wilcox
America’s churches are in trouble, and they are in trouble in communities that arguably need them the most.
One of the tragic tales told by Harvard scholar Robert Putnam in his important new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” is that America’s churches have grown weakest in some of the communities that need them most: poor and working-class communities across the country. The way he puts it, our nation’s churches, synagogues and mosques give children a sense of meaning, belonging and purpose — in a word, hope — that allows them to steer clear of trouble, from drugs to delinquency, and toward a bright and better future, warmer family relationships and significantly higher odds of attending college.
The tragedy is that even though religious involvement “makes a bigger difference in the lives of poor kids than rich kids,” Putnam writes, involvement is dropping off fastest among children from the least privileged background, as the figure below indicates.
The picture of religion painted by Putnam, a political scientist and the foremost scholar of American civic life, is part of a broader canvass in his book showing that kid-friendly institutions — not just churches, but also strong families and strong schools — are withering, but almost entirely in less-affluent communities. American children from better-educated and more affluent homes enjoy decent access to churches, families and schools, which lifts their odds of realizing the American Dream, even as kids from less-privileged homes are increasingly disconnected from these key institutions, making the American Dream that much more difficult for them to pursue.
Why is it that the country is witnessing not only a religious decline, but one that is concentrated among its most vulnerable men, women and children? Four factors stand out in understanding the emptying out of the pews in working-class and poor communities across the United States: money, TV, sex and divorce.
In “Our Kids,” Putnam assigns much of the blame for the unraveling of America’s religious, communal and familial fabric to shift from an industrial to an information economy. The 1970s saw declines in employment for less-educated men, divergent incomes for college-educated and less-educated men, and a “breathtaking increase in inequality” — all of which left college-educated families and their communities with more financial resources, and poor and working-class communities with fewer resources. The figure below, taken from Nicholas Eberstadt’s essay on men’s employment, shows that work dropped precipitously for men in the 1970s.
A key reason that working-class men are now less likely to attend church is that they cannot access the kind of stable, good-paying jobs that sustain a “decent” lifestyle and stable, married family life — two key ingredients associated with churchgoing in America.
But the retreat from religion stems from much more than money, my research (with colleagues) suggests. Consider, as the figure below shows, that dramatic declines in religious attendance began in the 1960s,well before the economic factors stressed by Putnam kicked in a decade later.
The timing of religious declines — paralleled and reinforced by the retreatfrom marriage that also began in the 1960s, leaving more and more kids in single-parent homes — suggests that America’s religious and familial capital was suffering well before the economic shocks of the 1970s.
The rise of television
Ironically, one of the best guides to the non-economic factors driving the nation’s retreat from religion is none other than… Robert Putnam. In his 2000 blockbuster, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” he pointed to the growing popularity of TV over the past five decades as a major “ringleader” behind declining rates of civic engagement, including religious attendance. Television and the pop culture encouraged “lethargy and passivity” and “materialist values,” which are both in tension with a vibrant religious life.
What Putnam largely overlooked in the “Bowling Alone” discussion of TV, however, was the class angle: Television viewing was (and is) dramatically higher among working-class and poor Americans. The growing presence and power of TV, then, could have taken a large toll on churches serving less-affluent Americans.
Sex, culture wars and divorce
In another book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” Putnam and David Campbell chronicled the immediate and long-term religious fallout connected to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s — from the sexual revolution to the divorce revolution.
In the immediate wake of the sexual revolution, many young adults steered clear of churchgoing, sensing a tension between their own experiences with “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and traditional religious life. In more recent years, the culture wars that emerged from the 1960s — over sex, abortion and gay marriage — have left many young adults viewing religion as an intolerant force they want nothing to do with: In Putnam and Campbell’s words, many “[young] Americans came to view religion… as judgmental, hypocritical, and too political.”
But, again, Putnam and Campbell miss the class angle. The divorce revolution has had a particularly devastating toll on lower-income family life and relationships. Not only was divorce higher among working-class and poor families in the wake of the divorce revolution, but the children of divorce have proven less likely to attend church than their peers from intact families.
The tumult in families during the past four decades helps account for the growing detachment of working-class Americans from churches, my research suggests. The legacy of the divorce revolution has fueled a pervasive “crisis of trust” in working-class relationships, as David and Amber Lapp have noted, that corrodes young adults’ faith in people, marriage and other institutions — including the church. The family fallout, then, of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s seems to have significantly damaged the vitality of religious life in poor and working-class communities across America.
The fragility of contemporary religious life in working-class and poor communities in America is rooted not only in the “economic hammer blows” dealt to communities by the new economy, but also in the technological and cultural changes that have undercut the virtues, values and institutions that sustain churches, synagogues and mosques — including strong and stable marriages and families.
Efforts to revive religious life in our nation’s most vulnerable communities must not only address the declining economic prospects of working-class and poor young adults, but also seek ways to revive the relational climates in these communities. Holistic approaches are the best way to bridge the religious divide now separating “our kids” when it comes to connecting them to the social and spiritual goods associated with religious life in America.
W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, is the co-author of Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Twentysomething Marriage. Wilcox also serves as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.
Dean Hess, Preacher and Fighter Pilot, Dies at 97
By SAM ROBERTS
MARCH 7, 2015
Dean Hess, a flying preacher who unwittingly bombed a German orphanage during World War II and six years later helped rescue hundreds of Korean foundlings endangered by Communist troops converging on Seoul, died on Monday at his home in Huber Heights, Ohio, near Dayton. He was 97.
His death, after a short illness, was confirmed by his son Lawrence.
As a young minister of the Disciples of Christ Church, Mr. Hess preached his first sermon at 16 and flew a Piper Cub as he hopscotched from parish to parish in the Midwest. But after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he decided to enlist in the Aviation Cadet Program.
The church elders were incredulous. But he recalled telling them: “If we believe our cause is just and necessary, how in all conscience can I ask others to protect it — and me — while I keep clean of the gory mess of war?”
His wartime exploits — he flew more than 300 combat missions over Europe and Korea and retired as a lieutenant colonel — were immortalized in an autobiography, “Battle Hymn,” and a movie of the same name. (“Wing and a Prayer” was taken.) He was played by Rock Hudson.
In World War II, Col. Hess unwittingly bombed an orphanage. CreditU.S. Air ForceHe was also a consultant to the film and, for the airborne scenes, flew the plane at the center of the story: an F-51 bearing the number 18 and, on the engine cowling, Korean characters that translated as “By faith I fly.”
After enlisting, he was sent to France in 1944 and flew 63 combat missions there for the Army Air Forces. On one, he wrote in “Battle Hymn,” he was strafing railroad yards at Kaiserslautern, Germany, when a 1,000-pound bomb he had dropped overshot its target and struck a brick apartment building. Dozens were killed.
“A little hole appeared in the wall from the penetration of the bomb casing, and a moment later the insides of the building spilled out,” he wrote.
Sometime later, driving a jeep through Kaiserslautern, he learned that the blackened shell of the building that his bomb had destroyed had been an orphanage and a school for hundreds of children of local war workers. He tried not to look.
“But it seemed to stare at me like some malevolent eye,” he wrote. “I wondered if beneath the piles of bricks a few small bodies still lay, as yet undiscovered.”
After the war, he earned a master’s degree in European history at Ohio University and was working on his doctorate at Ohio State in 1948 when the military recalled him. (By then the Army Air Forces had become the Air Force, a separate branch.)
He was deployed to Korea, ostensibly to train the fledgling South Korean Air Force, but there was no keeping him out of combat — or from intervening to provide relief for starving and homeless children orphaned by the war.
According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Colonel Hess; Lt. Col. Russell L. Blaisdell, a command chaplain; Staff Sgt. Merle Strang; and other Fifth Air Force airmen and Korean social workers started what they called Operation Kiddy Car.
They rounded up orphans in Seoul, found them shelter and medical care, and collected contributions of food, clothing and cash. After commandeering 16 C-54 transports, they evacuated the children from Incheon to Jeju, an island off the southern Korean coast where Colonel Hess helped establish an orphanage.
President Syngman Rhee of South Korea awarded him a medal in 1951. Colonel Hess later donated the proceeds from the book and film to support a second orphanage near Seoul and adopted a 5-year-old Korean girl in 1960.
A reporter for The Air Force Times once conjectured that Operation Kiddy Car represented atonement of sorts for the accidental bombing in Germany.
“I do not know,” Colonel Hess said. Of course, anyone would be sympathetic to the plight of children, he said, but added, “At the time of the bombing, it seemed like just another mission, accomplished with a degree of success because at least one bomb had found its intended target in the railroad yard.”
As he flew back to France from Kaiserslautern, he recalled, he wondered whether he had killed anyone, but was more concerned about whether he had fulfilled his mission. “If I was suffering,” he wrote, “it was in some remote and subconscious part of my mind; for when I became a combatant, it was with the full knowledge that I had to accept killing in behalf of the way of life I had sworn to protect.”
Dean Elmer Hess was born on Dec. 6, 1917, in Marietta, Ohio. His father, Lemuel, was the city government’s electrician. His mother, the former Florence Miller, was a homemaker. Mr. Hess was a graduate of Marietta College.
After returning from Korea, Colonel Hess served in recruiting and public affairs roles until he retired from the Air Force in 1969. He later taught high school economics, history and psychology in Ohio. He never returned to the ministry. Besides his son Lawrence, he is survived by two other sons, Edward and Ronald; a daughter, Marilyn Hess; seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Mary Lorentz, died in 1996.
Lawrence Hess said his father had grown up wanting to be a pastor. According to an article in Life magazine in 1957, when the film “Battle Hymn” was released, Colonel Hess once said his life so far — it was not even half over — had been a confluence of flying and faith.
“Flight brought me many times closer to God,” he said.
By RACHEL FEINTZEIG
Feb. 24, 2015 7:39 p.m. ET
Travelzoo Inc. ’s 438 employees spend their days trying to find customers a good deal on flight and hotel packages. To hear managers describe their work in meetings, however, booking a customer on a cheap trip to the Caribbean can serve a higher purpose: helping someone get over the death of a loved one or meet a future spouse.
“If we all traveled, there would be significantly more peace on Earth,” Travelzoo Chief Executive Chris Loughlin said he has told employees.
Can a job just be a job? Not anymore.
Faced with a cadre of young workers who say they want to make a difference in addition to a paycheck, employers are trying to inject meaning into the daily grind, connecting profit-driven endeavors to grand consequences for mankind.
In part, professionals are demanding more meaning from their careers because work simply takes up more of life than before, thanks to longer hours, competitive pressures and technological tethers of the modern job. Meanwhile, traditional sources of meaning and purpose, such as religion, have receded in many corners of the country.
Companies have long cited lofty mission statements as proof they have concerns beyond the bottom line, and in the past decade tech firms like Google Inc. attracted some of the economy’s brightest workers by inviting recruits to come and change the world by writing lines of code or managing projects.
Now, nearly every product or service from motorcycles to Big Macs seems capable of transforming humanity, at least according to some corporations. The words “mission,” “higher purpose,” “change the world” or “changing the world” were mentioned on earnings calls, in investor meetings and industry conferences 3,243 times in 2014, up from 2,318 five years ago, according to a Factiva search.
A Kohl’s Corp. executive said at an investor conference last year that if the retailer’s associates “can truly relate their work to some higher purpose,” they will sell more sweaters and handbags.
And at a Harley-Davidson Motor Co. investor event in 2013, the company’s marketing chief said “there is a higher purpose to the Harley-Davidson brand that is more than motorcycles.”
Meaning and purpose is a “fallow asset” that firms can tap to boost staff loyalty and engagement, said Bruce Pfau, who oversees consulting giant KPMG’s human-resources department in the U.S.
That firm is trying to imbue accounting with world-changing sweep, launching a campaign to boost employee retention and outside recruiting that highlights the broader purpose of number-crunching for major corporations.
The initiative kicked off with a video featuring company leaders that boasts of the firm’s hand in the election of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa, the launch of NASA’s first space station and the release of Iranian hostages in 1981.
“We can see ourselves as bricklayers or cathedral builders,” said Global Chairman John Veihmeyer in the video. The company held a contest for U.S. employees to share stories and design digital posters touting the bigger impact of their jobs, and it netted 42,000 submissions.
In an interview, Mr. Veihmeyer said it can be tougher to convince an auditor of his or her higher purpose—“helping to sustain confidence in the capital markets”—compared with, say, the meaning a doctor feels when caring for patients.
Siobhan Kiernan, a KPMG manager, acknowledged that she’s not a brain surgeon or a scientist. But she is helping some of those people do their taxes.
“I can take the worry of doing their tax returns off their mind,” she said, explaining a poster she made for the contest that reads “I support advancements in medicine.”
Plenty of employees are fine with being a cog rather than a cathedral builder. About one-third of individuals feel their work is a calling, according to Amy Wrzesniewski, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management.
Those who can connect their work to a higher purpose—whether they are a janitor or a banker—tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, put in longer hours and rack up fewer absences, according to Ms. Wrzesniewski’s research.
But for the two-thirds who view their job as a paycheck or a necessary rung on the corporate ladder, campaigns around meaning can highlight the fact that those workers don’t derive deep meaning from work, Ms. Wrzesniewski said.
“It’s trying to put lipstick on the pig,” she added.
One KPMG tax employee based in Philadelphia, speaking anonymously to avoid offending his bosses, described the video as “over the top,” and said it got him thinking about the lack of meaning in his day job. The campaign and poster contest prompted questions like, “If I want to really make a change, why would I sit here?” he said, adding that it reinforced his hunch that he would have to leave the company to really do good in the world.
An October survey by the company found that employees whose managers talked about KPMG’s impact on society were 42.4% more likely to describe the firm as a great place to work. Of those with managers who talked up meaning, 68% indicated they rarely think about looking for a new job outside KPMG; that share fell to 38% for employees whose managers didn’t discuss meaning.
Juniper Networks Inc. has spent much of the past year cutting costs, laying off workers and fending off activist shareholders. Two days after announcing a fourth-quarter loss, managers at the technology company gathered hundreds of employees in a massive tent it calls the “aspiration dome.”
“Certainly, we build awesome routers and switches,” CEO Rami Rahim said at the Jan. 29 meeting, according to transcript excerpts provided by the company. “But what we are doing really is enabling researchers to find cures for deadly diseases. We are enabling scientists to bring clean tech energies that make this planet a better place. We are bringing education to Third World countries.”
The company has asked 500 of its most connected employees—workers identified by peers as being trusted helpers and confidantes—to meet with groups of 20 to 25 colleagues about the company’s mission. Afterward, the “connectors” share tidbits of the conversations on Juniper’s internal social network, said Chris Ernst, a company executive.
“When you have 9,000 people who are committed to something much bigger than themselves, they’re going to get through lots of ups and downs,” Mr. Ernst said.
A shared sense of purpose motivates and unites the employees scattered at Travelzoo’s offices around the world, according to Mr. Loughlin, who said its deals have brought joy to an ill customer and preserved hospitality industry jobs during the economic crash. Employees recently produced a video in which workers’ testimonials about being part of something greater than themselves are set over swells of electronic music.
Still, Mr. Loughlin said a top employee recently told him that she doesn’t come to work to have fun.
“For her, it’s a job,” he said. “Not everyone wants to change the world.”
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at email@example.com
By WILLIAM A. GALSTON
Feb. 24, 2015 6:46 p.m. ET
‘I do not believe that the president loves America,” former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said last week. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me.”
If love for Rudy Giuliani were a true test of love for this country, a rapidly declining share of Americans would pass. Nonetheless, in the least artful and most irresponsible way possible, Mr. Giuliani managed to raise a genuinely significant question: What does it mean to love one’s country?
This much is clear: It doesn’t mean never criticizing one’s country. We all know the ending of U.S. naval hero Stephen Decatur ’s famous toast in 1816: “Our country, right or wrong.” But we often overlook the obvious: Decatur was acknowledging that his beloved country from time to time might be in the wrong. In the 1870s, Sen. Carl Schurz spelled out the full meaning of Decatur’s words: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” To set one’s country right, one must state the wrong—and then act to correct it.
As is often the case, Edmund Burke said it best: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” To the extent that our country’s beauty is flawed, we strengthen that love by working to remove its blemishes.
Love of country does require partiality, however. It would be more than odd for parents to say that they love their children but love their neighbor’s children just as much. Either they are not telling the truth, or the emotion they feel for their children is not love as ordinarily understood. In the same way, we do not love our country if we care about it neither more nor less than other countries.
It is in this context that the running debate about American “exceptionalism” should be placed. If our country doesn’t stand above others, the proponents of the exceptionalist thesis ask, then how can we set it above others in our affections?
But transpose this seemingly plausible claim to the family. Does this special love we feel for our own children depend on their superiority to other children? Must they be smarter, better looking, more accomplished, or of better character than others for us to love them above all others?
Of course not. We love them as we do because they are ours. We have a unique bond with them. In most cases they are literally flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood. When children are adopted, parents declare their intention to create through commitment the bonds of nature.
To be sure, it is hard to prevent love from shading over into a kind of boastfulness. Parents brag about their children—pardonably, at least within limits. Citizens inevitably move from love of country because it is their own to assertions of national superiority. Sometimes these claims are warranted. But beyond their due bounds, they become arrogant and dangerous.
In the Bible, God warns his chosen people through the prophet Amos not to expect special treatment: “To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt; but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” By the same token, no one is exempt from judgment—or punishment. Israel surely was not.
The Hebrew prophets are the classic examples of what the political theorist Michael Walzer calls “connected criticism.” This is criticism from inside a tradition, not outside, moved not by malice but by special affection for the object of criticism. Its objective is Burke’s: to make a lovely country lovelier still. In that spirit, Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to Americans not to live up to others’ standards, but to their own, set forth in the Declaration of Independence and nourished by the Bible. In that same spirit, on the first day of his presidency, Bill Clinton declared his conviction that “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
Presidents cannot be prophets. If they err, it must be on their country’s side. Still, America’s leaders on occasion have underscored the country’s misdeeds. Five years after Congress passed a bill declaring the treatment of Japanese during World War II to have been a “fundamental injustice,” President Clinton in 1993 issued a formal apology on behalf of the American people. That act did not weaken the country; it strengthened it.
And let us not forget: As the Civil War moved toward its conclusion, America’s greatest president delivered America’s greatest speech, daring to ask whether that bloody fratricidal struggle represented God’s judgment on our country—North and South alike—for the sin of slavery. In so doing, President Lincoln set in motion a process that, however delayed, eventually made America a fairer and stronger nation.
So let us consign Rudy Giuliani’s remarks to their richly deserved oblivion and get on with the serious business of improving our country.
A Place in the Classroom for Faith
A college president asks: Why are students today so uncomfortable talking about religious experience?
By MICHAEL S. ROTH
Feb. 20, 2015 7:13 p.m. ET
It happens every year. In teaching my humanities class, I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about the immortality of the soul or salvation, and suddenly my normally loquacious undergraduates start staring down intently at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with an answer: predestination, faith not works, etc.
But if I go on to ask them how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their notes. They look anywhere but at me, for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In this intellectual history class, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when the topic of religious feeling and experience comes up, they would obviously just prefer that I move on to another subject.
Why is it so hard for my very smart students to make this leap—not the leap of faith but the leap of historical imagination? I’m not trying to make a religious believer out of anybody, but I do want my students to have a nuanced sense of how ideas of knowledge, politics and ethics have been intertwined with religious faith and practice.
Given my reading list, I often ask these questions about Christian traditions, inviting students to step into the shoes of thinkers who were trying to walk with Jesus. I realize that more than a few of my undergraduates are Christians who might readily speak to this experience in another setting. But in the classroom, they are uncomfortable speaking out. So I carry on awkwardly as best I can: a secular Jew trying to get his students to empathize with Christian sensibilities.
In recent years, I myself have become more accustomed to the awkwardness of my secular engagement with religious practice. After the death of my father, I sought out a place where I could say Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer. According to tradition, you don’t say this prayer alone; there should be at least 10. I stumbled upon a small, eclectic group that met early in the morning for a lay service (no rabbi). I could say the prayer with them, and eventually I would stay on for study sessions. Why was this atheist praying and studying? It’s about participation, I told myself. And that was enough.
The people with whom I said my prayer became part of my life. Prayer was like study—or was it the other way around? Studying with them wouldn’t mean I was abandoning my own secular worldview, I thought. I was learning about a tradition in which I’d been raised but had only dimly apprehended. I mostly ignored the question of belief; learning was enough.
The classroom is another kind of participation. As a historian, I want my students to learn concrete things about major events and daily life in the past, but I also want them to go beyond the facts and try to imagine how it felt to be at a certain time and place; I want them to participate imaginatively in the past while recognizing that this creative act can never be accomplished fully. When we read great books together, I want them to understand why an author made certain choices, how the arguments were first received and how they might be relevant to us today.
When we exercise historical imagination about secular topics, we have an easier time accepting the possibility that we might be wrong, that new evidence might change our minds. Religious questions seem to cut more deeply, arousing…well, some fear and trembling.
So why not just stick to the facts and timelines? Why not just show what is right and wrong in the work of the authors we read? After all, aren’t we now in a position to know the truth about many of the things that they could only guess at? Today we even know what parts of the brain light up when someone prays—or asks questions about prayer!
Those are the kind of objections I get from bright, confident undergraduates, and I try to show them that the questions asked by the philosophers, writers and artists we study have not been settled. Our job in the classroom isn’t to arrive at some definitive historical or philosophical truth about the past but to learn from exercising our intellect and imagination. The books we read together raise issues that challenge our assumptions, calling into doubt what many of us usually take for granted. The questions in these texts are ones to be wrestled with, not answered once and for all.
At Torah study, we begin with a blessing that echoes the commandment to wrestle with the biblical texts. We pledge ourselves not to memorize or obey but to engage with what we read. That’s what I want to offer my students, the opportunity to wrestle with basic questions of love and judgment, justice and violence, grace and forgiveness. What they believe is none of my business, but I do want them to have a sense of what it’s like to be absorbed in robust traditions, including religious ones.
That would be enough.
—Mr. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”
The Wall Street Journal
By E. Wesley Ely
Feb. 19, 2015
When his wife’s scream from the next room awakened him, Ford Callis leapt bolt upright out of bed. Then he fell, his left eye smashing the edge of the bed stand. As he hit the ground, the air gushed out of his lungs. Mr. Callis, who is 94, listened intently to the noise-monitor in the dark for any clues from his demented wife, Daisy, in the next room. He could hear his own heart throbbing, he would later tell me, but nothing more. He tried unsuccessfully to crawl to her.
The bleeding laceration on his eye, and his new shoulder and chest injuries, reminded him of the time 60 years ago that he’d been injured and trapped in a foxhole in the French Alps, a member of the famed World War II Lost Battalion. Rescue came then, and it would come now, since the morning phone call from his daughter had gone unanswered as he lay stranded on the floor hours later peering at the sunrise through the window.
Later that day Mr. Callis ended up on our ICU service. Lying helplessly on the floor after his fall, he had developed enough muscle breakdown on what he called the “death crawl” toward his wife that his kidneys shut down from toxic injury. He also developed a bleeding stress ulcer and a new blood clot in his left leg, all of which made for complicated medical circumstances that nearly ended his life.
Yet Mr. Callis kept asking only: “When can I return home to care for Daisy? She’s waiting for me in Ridgetop”—in the rustic house in Tennessee she bought 71 years ago with savings from her job as a riveter making planes during the war.
In the hospital our team of white coats swooped in to “save” Mr. Callis. Yet we later learned from what he told us that his real rescue, the one that mattered most, had occurred on a much higher plane, through a sacramental promise made many decades earlier.
The story began before he became a soldier, when he was 20, and he and Daisy had married. Shortly thereafter, he went through military training and shipped off to Naples, Italy, with the 36th Infantry. The company made its way to the Vosges Mountains of the French Alps, where the Germans surrounded them and began starving them out. Following failed rescue attempts by the two other battalions of the 36th Infantry, they became known as the Lost Battalion. After eight days without food and water and stuck in foxholes drinking from a pond and eating worms, they were liberated by the 442nd Regiment of Nisei Japanese-Americans.
And now, decades later, Mr. Callis was determined to rescue Daisy. Sporting a black eye but smiling from his ICU bed, he said: “Doctor, I need you to get me home to my wife as soon as possible.” His dutiful daughter stopped staring at the blood dripping into his IV and said, “Yep, that’s his main mission in life, and he refuses to fail.”
Through marriage, it became clear, Mr. Callis had undergone the type of indelible change in a soul that no personal injury or earthly event can undo. “Having someone believe in me and waiting for me back home, that is what gives me purpose. I am more than myself because of our marriage,” he said, expressing his hope that people not give up on marriage even when the sparks of romance seem distant.
All this brought to mind the words of the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he wrote from a Nazi prison to his niece before her wedding: “Marriage is more than your love for each other. . . . In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed in a post of responsibility toward the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office.”
The story of Ford and Daisy generated lots of discussion on hospital rounds that day. Theirs was not a tale of military or medical rescue, as exciting and perhaps technically interesting as those were. It was one of marital rescue. This covenant has liberated their souls and given them a higher purpose. Each of us that day, married or not, caught a glimpse of where our true north lies and a reminder of when we are at our best—in serving another.
Mr. Callis eventually regained color and strength, and on the morning of his hospital discharge he once more explained, “You know, it takes three people to stay married: Daisy, me and God. This is not just a civil agreement; we are one.” It was a beautiful echo another line in Bonhoeffer’s letter to his niece: “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”
Dr. Ely is a professor of medicine and critical care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Chris Stevenson investigates the indispensability of faith to the American experiment of self-government.