A Way of Seeing

My way of listening and seeing is profoundly shaped by Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg, the late Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and author of An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, and Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry, completed following Zuurdeeg’s untimely death by his colleague and friend, Esther Cornelius Swenson, my undergraduate college professor.

They were those rare Christian philosopher-theologians whose work crossed the solid line between the philosophical rigors of empiricism and linguistic analysis, on the one hand, and the depths of existentialists Sartre, Heidegger, Camus, and Marcel and their precursors Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard.

Every day I start out with a fresh-brewed cup of coffee and read the newspaper. What a way to start a day!!! “Don’t give me no bad news, no bad news, no bad news!” But most of the news what’s printed is just that: bad news.

But good news reporting is a thing of joy and a call for celebration. My heroes include muckrakers like A.J. Muste, reporters like Edward R. Murrow, Harrison Salisbury, Daniel Schorr, Bill Moyers, Paul Krugman, and the comedians whose irreverent and sometimes coarse humor exposes the absurd and helps us laugh when we would cry: Jon Stuart, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Steven Colbert.

I come at the news from a different angle than professional journalism or comedy. My ears are tuned by Willem Zuurdeeg, Esther Swenson, other beloved teachers at Maryville College, McCormick Theological Seminary, and Harvard Divinity School; the people of the congregations and campuses where I have been privileged to minister, and the criminal defense clients of the Legal Rights Center, Inc. where Dostoevsky’s world of Crime and Punishment, Dom Sebastian Moore’s The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger, and Jesus’ Beatitudes and parables helped me to hear a deeper Voice than the cries that sometimes drove them and their defense lawyers to despair.

I have always had the sense of living at the edge of existence. From the edge I listen for the spoken and unspoken convictions “where ignorant armies clash by night” (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach“) to win our minds and hearts, the wars between and among ideologies, ideals, prejudices, states, nations, political parties, religions, economic convictions that shape us for good or for ill.

Lately I have been drawn back to Gabriel Marcel’s The Mystery of Being and Homo Viator to which Dr. Swenson introduced me in college but which were then beyond my experience or interest. Many years later, I find myself more and more at home in the mystery of being itself. I resonate with William Sloan Coffin’s reflection in his last years of life following a stroke.

There is a Zen paradox whereby we may lack everything yet want for nothing. the reason is that peace, that is, deep inner peace, comes not with meeting our desires but in releasing ourselves from their power.  I find such peace is increasingly mine. It’s not that I feel I’m withdrawing from the world, only that I am present in a different way. I’m less intentional than “attentional.” I’m more and more attentive to family and friends and to nature’s beauty. Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more serene, grateful for God’s gift of life. For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, “I can no other answer make than thanks, thanks, and ever thanks.”

19 thoughts on “A Way of Seeing

  1. Gordon, we’ve never met but I’ve known of you through various conversations with others from MC over the years…I am pleased to find your comments and thoughts on Esther Swenson Stine, the most challenging and brightest spot in my own educational experience…as well as her work with her mentor…the inclusion of the cover of his book…she would be so delighted to see it yet mentioned and described here. Esther and I later became friends when I was at Teachers College of Columbia University working on a doctorate on religion and education and she was working at 475 Riverside aka “the god box.” We had shared lunches and conversations on park benches and other local spots along Riverside Park. She had an intellectual and personal sharpness I have never seen in another…a pristine clarity and compassion…and patience that still moves me…always will. I was with her through the last days…the struggles she dealt with in having thyroid cancer (connected probably with early radiation given to her for an adolescent complexion). I spoke at her memorial service at 475….told the crowd there how important she was in her professorial work at MC…she remains profoundly important to me now, as well..so finding your work and words about her are refreshing and renewing.

    I add as a postscript that I was a roommate of Faith’s at MC as well. I was so very sorry to hear of Phil’s passing…and have done so much reflecting on him..whom I did not know but whom I now appreciate more deeply given your tribute and thoughtful personal words about him. I’ve also subscribed to your blog/notes, so just wanted to say thank you for sharing this part of yourself and your reflections….peace.. all good wishes….Lois Grinstead Patton class of ’66…

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    • Lois, seeing your comment just made my day because of the deep, abiding ties with Esther (best teacher I ever had) and with Faith (and Phil). The fall after graduation a package arrived at McCormick Theological Seminary from Esther. She had mailed the draft of “Man Before Chaos” for comment. I was dumbfounded, and, truth be told, she greatly overestimated my ability to understand it at the time, let alone comment intelligently. Later Esther and I were together at Stony Point, invited by the GA to discuss liberation theology. I think it was 1980 when I was at The College of Wooster, the year after attending the post-Puebla conference at the seminary in Matanzas, Cuba. I had also lived in Czechoslovakia the summer of 1966 because of my interest in Christian-Marxist dialogue and the All Christian Peace Conference. Anyway, Charles West was part of the Stoney Point gathering. I objected to something he was saying. When I did, Esther weighed in immediately – we were on the same page on western imperialism and the church’s complicity in maintaining the conditions of economic injustice – wealth inequality and poverty. I never knew of her last days and your sharing means the world to me. We should find a way to stay in touch. Esther would smile!

      Faith and Phil are our closest friends in the Twin Cities. Phil’s illness was a shock and a progressive descent into the hell of medical unclarity, and finally interventions that were destined to fail. By last Sunday Faith and the boys made the right decision to let him go.

      Have you read Being Mortal? I have it on order from the library. I’m increasingly convinced that so much of what we’re seeing in this culture (and others) is the denial of death, the fatal attempt to stave off or escape our finitude and mortality.

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      • Hi Gordon,
        Ive realized through our brief conversation how much I have wished for a way to talk about Esther as well as another friend you may know of.Bill Laws.. A moderator of GA …someone i introduced Esther to.. They started a brief but meaningful conversation /correspondence with one another on the challenges both faced professionally and personally as life moved on. I met Bill on his return from a very busy year after GA …when Angela Davis had been affirmed by GA…My ex and i had moved to Bloomington Ind where he began a PhD program in speech communication and i had accepted a position at First Presbyterian of Cols Ind as minister to children.. Bill was sr pastor and Jerry Kearns (!) was associate there… Many stories to tell about that church and time.

        I’ve spent my career as a university press publisher since those days…making myself an insider/outsider .. My dissertation was on Simone Weil. The “outsider par excellance.” So i resonate to your own comments in that vein.My brief time at Princeton Seminary gave me an opportunitity to hear Bishop Pike in person… Speaking on the signifigance of his clerical garb for 1.75 hrs as the congregation of the Eoiscopal Church and I sat in rapt attn… So i am interested in keeping in touch and conversation … To hear of more of yr own experiences and insights… Journey….Bill would say.

        In her 475 office Esther had a large puzzle of the Buddha on the wall behind her desk…she commuted from Stamford Ct on metro north each day…always with that thoughtful countenance and attentiveness. I believe she is smiling.
        Shalom,
        Lois

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      • Gordon, glad to stay in touch…the response i wrote you last night was lost or did not post … The ongoing technological struggles…makes me think of J Ellul… Ill try again when i have more than an iphone to navigate. Good wishes!

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      • Hi, Lois,

        So glad to hear from you again. I, too, have hoped for conversation with another who was as influenced by Esther as I am. Unfortunately, the Anaconda Public Library, half an hour from the St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel manse where we’re staying until July 16, is the necessary connection with wi-fi! Sorry to be short. Suffice to say, I look forward to being in touch again soon. I met Bill only once. Angela Davis was the speaker at my son Douglas’s Baccalaureate Service at Vassar! BTW, the little church that Anne Lamott credits with saving her life from despair and self-destruction (St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Marin City, CA) originated the Angela Davis Defense Fund. It was “the little old ladies” (isn’t it almost always so!) at St. Andrew’s who decided Sister Angela needed support for her legal defense, whether guilty or innocent!

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  2. Hi Gordon,
    I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday, if my celestial calculations are right. Hope you are well. Love seeing your blog. Let’s connect.
    Ed Clarke

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  3. I stumbled onto your website after Googling for more information about the truckers who helped save the despondent man from jumping on I-94 (I am a truck driver).

    Not only do I very much like what you have to say but also how you say it. Thank you so very much for sweetening my day.

    Laurel Simpson
    P.S. I passed your website along to our son in Alaska. ( :

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    • Laurel, So glad you stumbled over here and that you liked what your found. Thank you for taking time to post the comment and for passing along to your son. Come around again when you’re googling for something. You never know 🙂 Gordon

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