“Nothin’ Left to Lose” — Perhaps Everything!

Thoughts for Earth Day 2014

In Kris Kristofferson’s poignant song, “Me and Bobbie Magee,” there is the haunting line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Let me transpose the idea: “Freedom’s just another word for everythin’ left to lose.” By itself, the line “nothin’ left to lose” is metaphysically incorrect, although it has its truth in human experience. The universe, if created by God, is not a “sound and fury signifying nothing.” If God created the universe out of nothing, then the universe signifies everything that God intends. A thing is wonderful when it is significant, revealing purpose metaphorically and analogically. There is no wonder in the insignificant, and thus no purpose. In a metaphorical universe, there is nothing insignificant. If the universe is not created by God, if the universe is not a metaphor analogically expressive of the fullness of meaning, then, indeed, there is “nothin’ left to lose” because there was nothing there to gain in the first place, and everything signifies nothing. There is nothing to imagine that would not be merely “imaginary.” This latter insight is close to the heart of Buddhism.

Sebago Lake, Saint Joseph's College of Maine

Sebago Lake, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

No one deserves a star or merits a sunset. The universe, if created by God, is a vast metaphor saying that it is God’s gift. It has been said, very cynically, that “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” And such a person will have nothing to be thankful for. Chesterton wrote in his St. Francis, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.”

There is a tendency when speaking of metaphors to say that something is a “mere” metaphor. But if God created the universe, then it is no “mere” metaphor. The Catholic analogical imagination imagines that everything speaks of God and everything is a gift of God. If God saw that everything was good, then human beings must see everything as a gift, a gift for which human beings are responsible and accountable. This gift deserves our gratitude, a gratitude that can be put into environmental action. Gratitude may be the “real skill” with which Thomas Berry hopes “to raise the sails and to catch the power of the wind as it passes by.”

Since Fall, 2001, our College has offered the course, “Ecology and the Environmental Challenge,” required of all the students of the Sebago Lake Program. The course is a teaching challenge not just for the professors, but also for the whole College community. It is not just about self-preservation. We need to go much further. As Pope John Paul II stated, “An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others and for the earth . . . A true education in responsibility entails a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behavior.”

I would add that a genuine conversion of imagination, one consonant with the Catholic imagination, is needed if we are going, as a College, to contribute solutions for our environmental crisis. A universe that is good, that is filled with real things that are good, and that speaks of God, surrounds us. If it is so, we are indebted to God for it, an infinite debt that can only be repaid by an everlasting hymn of gratitude. Dante Gabriel Rosetti said somewhere that “the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” Every Earth Day, we should remind ourselves that our “Attainable/Sustainable” efforts need to be grounded in the deepest Catholic identity of the Mission of the College. Gratitude is a greater motive for environmental action than self-preservation. In Chesterton’s words, all “goods look better when they look like gifts.”

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Resurrection by NesterovChrist is risen! He is risen, indeed!

If there is any doubt about the veracity of that acclamation, the “indeed” removes it.

In contemporary academia, awash in moral relativism, the emphasis often is placed on skepticism at the expense of certainty – that is, the divorce of reason from faith. True intellectual engagement, however, need sacrifice neither questioning nor certainties. Faith and reason can and ought to live together in a wonderful and lively union.

When I was in graduate school, I participated in a student forum. It was a diverse group: a few Protestant ministers and a mix of Catholic lay and religious. The faculty mentor was a nominal Christian who described the Scriptures as something scholars must “push up against.” We had a meeting during Holy Week on how to preach on the “resurrection” (quotation marks intentional). One of the students said that if she were to preach an Easter sermon, it would be on the passage in John 20 in which, after the resurrection, Mary “recognizes” Jesus in the gardener. The theme, she said, is that the importance of Easter is that Mary experienced the resurrection, and not that it happened as a matter of fact. Implicit in this statement is that the resurrection may not have happened in-deed. Christ is risen! He is risen, in my experience! Surprisingly, my forum group thought this was a good idea, and anyone who disagreed with this notion kept quiet for fear of embarrassment at being a believer.

A faith that becomes subjective and privatized lacks true transformative power. It is a vanity that leads to despair when the bloom of youth and vigor fail. As Saint Paul preached to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain; your faith also is vain” (1Cor. 15:14). Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to the contrary:

Christ has been raised, and because of this, so also shall we: Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? … But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive… 

1 Corinthians 15:12, 20-22

And what will Christ’s resurrection mean? Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
          “O Death, where is your victory?
           O Death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
                                                                                                        1 Corinthians 15: 51-57

Every Easter for close to twenty years now, I think back to that forum, and how thankful I am to have had other wonderful faculty mentors who were great scholars and believers in the resurrection, and how grateful I am to be teaching at a Catholic college that marries faith and reason in a wonderful and lively exchange.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Patricia Ireland is the Director of Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.