Saturday, December 31, 2016

God in Search of Man: Experiencing Wonder in an Age of Indifference

As I sit and look out the window of my study, a blue sky beckons beyond the trees, their naked branches reaching upward as if calling to a hidden God. The green moss glides halfway up the trunk of the tallest tree in my sight and extends beyond the roof and chimney of the house upon whose land it has rooted. A still breeze causes the evergreens below to bristle. I am momentarily filled with wonder, amazed that on such a small and insignificant plot of land – a third of an acre is visible through my study window – there exists such a complex ecological oasis of life, plants, trees, dirt and grass, insects and birds, small mammals, everything existing in perfect harmony with the natural universe. A quiet peace descends over me.

With each passing year, memories of life at a younger age drift further into the distance. Some come easily. I can remember still, as a seven year-old boy, walking with my sister to the public library up the steep hill on Parry Drive in Moorestown, New Jersey, with no understanding of where life would take me, but believing even then that the world was full of wonder and fascination. I remember at age nine throwing a rubber ball against the brick chimney on the side of our house, betraying my parents’ wishes as I practiced fielding ground balls, trying desperately not to throw wildly and risk fracturing a bordering shingle. I remember as a teenager playing touch football with neighborhood friends at the ballfields of the local middle school, experiencing the freedom of the sun and fresh air on my young face as I dodged defenders and intercepted opposing passes. They are memories of an ordinary life in an ordinary town. Never certain of my purpose in life, insecure about my place in the world, and yet living each day with a profound sense of gratitude and good fortune.

As I grew older, I began to value the gift of education and thought, absorbing books and newspapers to help me better understand the world around me, its history and trends, its people and places. I pursued a career in law, created a family and developed a life, always uncertain of my destiny and conscious of my insignificance. For I am but one person among billions, living on a small planet in a vast galaxy that is, in the end, but a tiny fragment among many existing galaxies, planetary constellations, and solid masses of matter that exist beyond our present capacity to imagine and know. 

The world is at once beautiful and grand, frightening and scary, full of grace and wonder and acts of barbaric cruelty. As I continue on the journey of life, trying to do my best as a man fulfilling the roles of husband and father, citizen and co-worker, fellow traveler on the Spaceship Earth, I wonder still what it all means. And yet, I am constantly reminded of what a blessing it is to be alive, to have experienced the love I share with Andrea, to watch my children grow into kind, caring, thoughtful adults, and to be blessed with the gift of life and health in a world that does not always dispense fairly such gifts.

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Readers of this blog know that I have at times struggled with questions about God and faith and the meaning of our existence. These days, I have more questions than answers and doubt the certainty and exclusivity of much of what passes for religious doctrine. I believe the vast majority of self-identified religious people have misread, misinterpreted, and misapplied the Scriptural pretexts of their own faith traditions, or are otherwise simplistic and misguided in their unquestioning acceptance or rejection of religion. But I have always believed in a God, an ultimate Creator, however irrational that may seem to some. I realize that God’s presence is impossible to prove or discern, and that, if God does exist, he or she has bestowed humanity with free will, including the freedom to protect or destroy the planet, to act with love and compassion or to inflict indescribable cruelty on our fellow human beings. Anyone who takes time to read the daily papers knows that as a species we are not faring well.

It would be easy in modern times to reject completely the notion of God, or to conclude that God’s existence is irrelevant. Life will go on as we have always known it, and we will either save the world or destroy the world without God’s involvement. Still, I refuse to conclude that God, or some form of higher power, is completely absent from our lives. I continue to believe that which I wrote in October 2009 (In Defense of God: Faith in an Age of Unbelief):
. . . [W]hen I walk among the stars; when I stare at the moon on a warm summer evening; when I acknowledge the beautiful life presence of my two daughters, I experience God’s presence. When I observe the joy in a young child's heart over the embrace of a grandparent; when I watch the trees sway back and forth on a breezy fall day, and feel the moistness of the ocean at my feet; when I experience all of these things, and the multitude of ordinary everyday events, I see, first-hand, evidence of God’s existence.
Although I may not have realized it then, my notion of God’s presence as expressed above is not dissimilar from what had been expressed far more poetically and effectively by Abraham Joshua Heschel throughout the course of his life. It may be why Heschel’s writings continue to touch me, for his writings describe the ineffable and affirm the presence of God in a world in which God often appears absent.

In God in Search of Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), Heschel wrote that “awareness of the divine begins with wonder” and is “a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.” Heschel believed that a world without wonder is a world closed off to the presence of God. For it is this sense of wonder that allows us to recognize we are not alone. “You and I have not invented the grandeur of the sky nor endowed man with the mystery of birth and death,” wrote Heschel. “We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it.”

Heschel took the Bible seriously but not literally. He believed, as do I, that religion and science are entirely compatible, that scientific knowledge “extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge.” Heschel welcomed the interplay between science and faith and acknowledged that “the sense of wonder and transcendence . . . must not be a substitute for analysis where analysis is possible; it must not stifle doubt where doubt is legitimate.”

As an observant Jew, Heschel believed with certainty in the existence of God. But he acknowledged that, for most of humanity and throughout most of history, God’s presence has been hidden and actively concealed. He believed, however, that if we are open to the majestic splendor of the universe and the mystery of creation, and if we are willing to look beyond our sense of self, we are capable of experiencing the reality of a transcendent God.

I recently finished reading a wonderful and insightful book by Rabbi Shai Held, Co-Founder of Mechon Hadar, a Jewish educational institution in New York, where he also directs the Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas. In Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (Indiana University Press, 2013), Held explains that Heschel sought “to remind his readers that buried deep within them was the possibility of a wholly different orientation to the world, one rooted in wonder and amazement rather than callousness and indifference.” A sense of wonder, Held notes, was for Heschel:
…the very antithesis of “taking things for granted.” A sense of perpetual surprise yields the realization that the world as a whole, and my life within it, did not have to be. They are not brute facts but rather gifts bestowed. To cultivate a sense of wonder, then, is to instill in myself the knowledge, at once cognitive and experiential, that I am not the author of my own life or of the world that I inhabit. I am, most fundamentally, not a creator of life, but a recipient thereof.
The question for Heschel was what to do with the sense of wonder, awe, and mystery that so defines our lives. Underlying his theology was the belief that God had entered into a covenant with humanity and that, as a result, something was asked of us. As human beings, we are naturally driven to focus on our individual needs, to acquire, to enjoy, and to possess. But the spiritual side of humanity provides a “will to serve higher ends” that transcends our needs. “The grand purpose of religion,” Heschel contended, is that “man is able to surpass himself.”

Heschel feared that the collapse of wonder, from self-centeredness, greed, cynicism, or indifference, has perilous consequences for the world and for humanity. Having witnessed in his lifetime the cruelty of Auschwitz and tragedy of Hiroshima, Heschel believed that only through a moral and spiritual reawakening could the world overcome its indifference to human suffering. One need only look at what is happening in the world today, with countless acts of violence and terrorism, millions of refugees fleeing their homelands, much of the world’s population living in squalor, and a mostly indifferent world turning away in apathy, to conclude that much of the world has lost its sense of wonder and the grace that accompanies it.

As Rabbi Held notes, Heschel sought to remind the world that “we matter not because of how much we can acquire, but because of how deeply we are able to give.” Real freedom, according to Heschel, is found not in the power of self-assertion, but in the power to rise above it. To respond to God is to bring an end to callousness and indifference. It is why Heschel in his time spoke so powerfully against the Vietnam War, fought for the rights of Soviet Jews, opposed bigotry and prejudice, and marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King in favor of civil rights.

If Heschel were alive today, I have no doubt he would raise his voice in opposition to the world’s indifference to Syrian refugees and the destruction of Aleppo; against the rising influence of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in Western countries; and against the callousness of the world’s institutions toward the suffering of our most vulnerable populations.

As another year comes to an end and a new year is upon us, my hope for the world is that we open ourselves to the wonder of the universe, the mystery of life, and the possibility of a God that seeks human partners to spread love and compassion and defeat hatred and indifference. We must acknowledge that only humanity can pursue peace, protect the environment, and save us from ourselves. Only humanity can make a better world.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The President as Role Model: The Legacy of Barack Hussein Obama

I'm inspired by the people I meet in my travels--hearing their stories, seeing the hardships they overcome, their fundamental optimism and decency. I'm inspired by the love people have for their children. And I'm inspired by my own children, how full they make my heart. They make me want to work to make the world a little bit better. And they make me want to be a better man. – Barack Obama
As we approach the end of Barack Obama’s tenure as the 44th President of the United States, I have reflected upon what the past eight years has meant to the United States, the world, and to me personally. I cannot speak for others, though I know there are millions of Americans who feel, as I do, deeply connected to President Obama and grateful for his leadership and the example he set in office. For many African Americans, President Obama will rightfully be a source of great pride and inspiration for generations to come. For me and many Democrats over the age of 50, Obama is the first president since John F. Kennedy to inspire a poetic sense of idealism and an aspirational sense of service.

I am aware that not everyone shares my admiration and respect for this president. But even for those Americans not enamored of President Obama and who opposed his every action, I believe that history and the passage of time will solidify this president as a man of character, decency, compassion, and wisdom. For those are the traits I have witnessed since he took the oath of office on January 20, 2009.

As the leader of the free world, Obama represented everything good and decent about America. As president, he was a consistently inspiring public speaker, a thoughtful man of ideas, a serious man with a good sense of humor; an intellectual, a policy wonk, by his own admission a bit of a nerd, a techie who understood the dynamics of world economic trends and quietly led us into the digital age. He restored dignity to the nation’s highest elected office and led a scandal-free administration. He elevated our national discourse on public affairs. He maintained his composure through some extremely difficult times. And he was the coolest, hippest president ever.

His accomplishments while in office are impressive. Although he inherited one of the worst financial crises in American history, he saved the U.S. economy from a second Great Depression. He restored stability to the financial markets, pushed through a massive stimulus bill, and saved the American auto industry from collapse. He guided the nation through a massive recession and helped turn devastating and record-breaking job losses into 74 months of consecutive job growth. He achieved the lowest unemployment rate since the late 1960s without a resurgence of inflation. And though middle class wages remained stagnant for much of his presidency, there are today 18 million fewer people without health insurance, a much improved housing market, a downward trend in deficit spending, a booming stock market, record breaking corporate profits, and a much improved economic outlook.

He advanced civil rights for gay people by allowing gays to serve openly in the military. He was the first president to actively support marriage equality, which is now the law of the land. On matters of race, some believe Obama underplayed his hand and often ignored some of the racial wounds and divisions that continue to haunt us. But as the nation’s first black president, he has mostly led by example, through the love and respect he displays regularly for his wife and children and the diversity of his appointments to his administration. His meditation on civil rights in Selma in 2015 and his rendition of Amazing Grace at the funeral of the slain black church goers in Charleston, South Carolina, were among his best rhetorical moments. And his reflective, compassionate addresses to the nation following the tragic mass shootings in Arizona and Newtown helped soothe a grieving nation.  

He was the most environmentally conscious president in history. Through his successful negotiation of the Paris Climate Accord, in which the world’s biggest polluters, including China, agreed to take serious action against climate change, he established the United States as a world leader in defense of the planet’s future. He took bold action on fuel efficiency and planted the seeds for reduced U.S. reliance on fossil fuels. Aided by market forces, America’s dependence on foreign oil is down 60% from when he first took office. He has greatly expanded America’s use of wind and solar power, and begun to phase out our reliance on coal burning, acid-rain-causing power plants.

He advanced the cause of peaceful diplomacy while protecting American interests abroad. He ended the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and initiated the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. He gave the order that killed bin Laden. His administration’s successful negotiation of the Iran Nuclear Deal and efforts to expand trade and improve relations with the countries of Asia and the Pacific, have greatly improved our standing in the world. And he restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, a long overdue move with historic implications.

To be fair, Obama’s foreign policy record is not entirely rosy or error-free. His handling of the Arab Spring, his hesitancy in Libya and Syria, and his inability to make any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, have been blemishes on a foreign policy that, while minimizing major blunders, has sometimes led from behind. And his expanded use of drone warfare to kill suspected terrorists abroad raises many troubling concerns under U.S. Constitutional and international law, and may have created more future terrorists than it killed. But as noted by author and former foreign correspondent James Mann, “Obama will be viewed as the first president to take seriously the notion that the dominant role America has played in the world both after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War cannot be maintained over the long term. In that sense, he was ahead of his time.”

Apart from the stimulus bill, the Affordable Care Act remains his most significant legislative achievement. For most of the 20th Century, U.S. Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton tried and failed to enact some form of national health care. Whatever the future of Obamacare, and whatever its shortcomings (and there are many), as the first president in American history to succeed in enacting a comprehensive health care law, he moved us decisively toward universal health care. It remains to be seen if Trump and the Republicans will repeal and replace Obamacare, but whatever they do, Obamacare’s key provisions – preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, allowing parents to maintain coverage for their children to age 26, the use of insurance exchanges, and expanded eligibility under Medicaid – are likely to remain.

When Obama ran for the White House, he did not want simply to be a good president, but a transformative one. Hope and change were his calling cards. He wished to fundamentally alter the way politics worked and believed he could unite a deeply divided nation. He called upon Americans to erase the false dichotomy between “red” states and “blue” states and to instead see America at its best, as a people united, a multi-cultural mosaic of races, ethnicities, and faiths bound together by one flag, one Constitution, and a sense of the common good.

Eight years later, the lack of civility in our politics and the entrenched divisions in U.S. society are among Obama’s biggest disappointments. There are global forces at work in the world today that no one person or leader can control or counteract. The resurgence of the populist right and nationalism in Europe, Latin America, and the United States are forces too large for even an aspirational leader like President Obama to overcome. I do not blame Obama for this reality. It is not his fault – division and opposition, organized Republican efforts to defeat his every achievement in the hopes of making him a “one-term president” was the clearly delineated strategy of the Republican leadership in Congress. Combined with the rise of the Tea Party and the increasingly Balkanized media in which everyone’s thought processes are reinforced and further inflamed, Obama’s vision of a “united states of America” seems na├»ve in retrospect.

But I think that history will look kindly on the Obama Era, and that many of the people who opposed him these past eight years will someday come to appreciate his seriousness of purpose and the dignified manner in which he performed the duties of his Office.

History will not record Obama as a transformative president in the same manner as Franklin Roosevelt (on the left) or Ronald Reagan (on the right); for they changed the way Americans viewed the role of the federal government and their relationship to it. But Obama’s presidency was transformative in another sense. His very presence in office for eight years and the manner in which he and his family conducted themselves were culturally transformative. Think of the millions of young Americans, children and teenagers, who came of age with a dignified, good looking, graceful black First Family in the White House. To younger Americans, who are already more open to differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, and lifestyles, having a black family living in the White House was the most natural thing in the world. It is difficult to underestimate the long-term impact that will have. And Obama connected with younger people. He understood them and knew how to communicate with them; he understood their comedy and late night talk shows, their podcasts, their music, and their uses of social media.

I especially admire the heartfelt thoughtfulness displayed by Obama in one-on-one interviews. In September 2015, Obama participated in a lengthy two-part conversation with author Marilynne Robinson in The New York Review of Books, in which they discussed religion, philosophy, literature and history. It was an extraordinarily candid and intellectual conversation not regularly witnessed from an American politician. And he has had similar conversations with a number of journalists, hosts of podcasts, and authors. He is equally adept at discussing music and sports, and he is genuinely funny. Andrea and I looked forward every year to watching (on C-SPAN no less) his appearances at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. His comedic timing and execution of a good joke is unmatched by past American presidents.

I am deeply concerned that the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the White House risks undoing many of President Obama’s accomplishments and much of his legacy. It is difficult to imagine a more radical shift in direction than Barack Obama to Donald Trump. For those on the Left who bemoaned Obama’s shortcomings, his failure to close Guantanamo or to seriously address rising income inequality, the next four years will make you wish for Obama’s pragmatic liberalism. For those on the Right who value character and dignified behavior in our public officials, you should already be missing the current President, who for eight years has been a model of dignity, an exemplary father and husband, a role model for our youth and a source of inspiration for anyone willing to listen.

Someday we will look back on the Obama years and recall a president who acted with grace and poise in extremely difficult circumstances, who withstood insults and disrespect, and was opposed and ridiculed by the opposition and in the right-wing and conservative press (and by certain segments of the left), and handled all of it with extraordinary composure and goodwill. I will miss President Obama in the White House, not simply because he was a good president whom I trusted to act in America’s best interests, but also because he inspired me to be a better citizen, a better man and a better father, and because he made me feel good about America.

We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense. – President Barack Obama—September 6, 2012