About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reading by the light of the divine spark -- Leonard Cohen, Shalom.

Today Leonard Cohen is gone.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, in the last few years I found myself drawn to his life and work. The man lived at a rhythm that deeply resonates with me. Cohen seems to have found some sort of sustainable equipoise, a stance between morality and spirit, a balance within uncertainty, and a marriage between reason, Judaism , and Buddhism that draws me in. There is something here I need to take on board in some way.  Perhaps you will find something there too. 
Goodnight, sensei. 
I'll start with his poem/song "Anthem" -- 'forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." 
It is, I believe, evocative of an old Jewish creation story (also found in Quaker belief, I think) that posits the existence of a divine light in all things, revealed to us not in spite of our imperfections, but because of them.  The story comes from a 16th century rabbi, Isaac Luria.  
The powerful thing about it for me -- an agnostic -- is that it isn't simply a cosmology, an attempt to explain the existence of the universe and the human race.  Rather, it imbricates human beings directly into the divine project as actors, by calling upon us to seek out the divine light in all things and all acts, and to engage in tikkun olam, the mending and repair of the world.  There is no end to this process, and no reward really (no heaven, hell, etc).  It is, rather, our telos.  It is how we are to write the book of our common lives.
As Wallace Stevens once wrote, "the imperfect is our paradise."  Interestingly, Pope Francis expressed a similar sense a year or so ago, though obviously giving expression to a different faith tradition.  In an interview, Francis posited the blessedness of imperfection and uncertainty:
In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.
Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing … We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.
Don't look for perfection, measure ourselves and others by it, or expect it.  It is in the imperfect where we find the divine light -- or love, if you prefer.  As Cohen puts it, "every heart to love will come, like a refugee."



Ralph Carpenter said...

nice post

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