6. And I went to see the doctor of philosophy / With a poster of Rasputin and a beer down to his knee

Indigo Girls—Closer to Fine

Charles and Chip are sitting around Skip’s office on a Saturday. Chip had some paperwork he needed to finish, so he invited Charles to drop over once he was finished and maybe play some basketball. The two are drinking Bud Lights, sitting at either end of Chip’s office couch. They can hear a pickup basketball game on the church’s court next to Chip’s office. For while they just drink and listen to the young men slinging good-humored insults at each other as they play.

“Reminds me of when we met,” Charles says. “You remember?”

“Do you think I’m senile? Of course I do, it was only a year ago.”

“I’d just moved into my apartment and was out walking, getting the lay of the land”

“And probably looking for a different kind of lay,” Chip says, leering. “Know whatImean, know whatImean, nudge nudge, wink wink?

“I get your subtle innuendo,” Charles says, rolling his eyes.

“In your endo, bucko!”

“Anyway, you were having a pickup game and needed another player. I ran back to my place, changed, and then we whomped the holy hell outta that other team.”

“You were a monster on the boards, that much is true. But it was my outside shooting that made the difference.”

“No, I think it was you grabbing the jersey of that hotshot, knocking the ball away to me and my subsequent layup that made the difference, you unethical piece of humus.”

Chip puts on a wounded look and says, “Little ole me? Why I never!” Chip bats his eyes like a southern belle.

Charles ignores him. “Then we came in here after, got beers from the fridge and shot the shit for like four hours. I gotta say, though, initially I was shocked at your language. Why it almost gave me the vapors.”

Chip leans over and lets out a massive, musical fart.

“That’s what I’m talking about! I never met a holy man who swears like a sailor, let alone farts so unabashedly!”

“I remember it like it was 13 months ago . . .” Chip says, smiling. “Obviously, I think I should speak the vernacular, to remain closer to my flock. Doesn’t bother you, does it?”

“Me? No. I like plain speak.”

“Well, speaking of ethics . . .”

“Wait, what?” Charles says. “When were we speaking of ethics?”

Chip says. “You know, last week. We never finished that conversation.”

“Hell, I thought we were finished the moment you said you didn’t think there could be ethics without religion.”

Chip says, “You blockhead, you know full well that I did not say that, nor do I think that. What I do think is that the subject is much broader than most people, especially conservative people, believe. For example, when I was in divinity school, I took an ethics class. We talked at length about the concept of an ethical life and how to lead it, as well as how to encourage others to do so. We all showed up for the final on a fine spring day. Birds tweeting outside the open windows. Breezes blowing dogwood petals. A perfect day. Out the window, we could see the building’s janitor sweeping the petals off the sidewalk.

“My general tendency, by the way, in dealing with the people who serve us in our everyday lives, is to get to know them and to talk with them about their lives. There’s many a waitress across the South who has poured out her life story to me because I took an interest.”

“I’ll just bet,” Charles says. “Are there also any little Chips scattered about the South?” Chip just ignores him.

“So, anyway, on the day of the final, everyone’s in their seats expecting the professor to distribute a thick sheaf of exam questions to each of us. But instead, he passed up and down the rows and placed a single sheet of blank paper in front of each student.

“My classmates exchanged puzzled looks. Was this to be an essay test? What were we to do with these sheets? The professor returned to the front of the room and said, ‘OK. There’s only one question on this final. If you get it right, you get an A. If not, you fail.’ Well, we were all pretty shocked and worried by this. The professor continued, ‘The question is: What is the name of the janitor?’

“My classmates gaped in horror. I, on the other hand, wrote down ‘Monde Green,’ stood up, delivered my paper to the professor and left with every eye in the room following me. I not only knew Monde’s name, I knew he had three young kids and a wife who had a bum leg, and thus had a devil of a time looking after her kids. I knew he drove a beat-up Pontiac, and that he often stopped off at the bar on his way home on Friday nights. So, that’s the foundation of ethics: Treat others as you would be treated—the Golden Rule. Most of your conservatives don’t get this, no matter how piously they declare that all would be better if the country ‘returned’ to its Christian roots.”

Charles burps and says, “I can actually get behind that. In fact, I’m in violent agreement with you on this point.” Chip offers his beer bottle for a clink and drink. “So, did the professor flunk everybody else?”

“Nah. He just pulled out the mother of all ball-breaker final exams and told the class to think about how much easier their lives would be if they only would live ethics instead of just talking and reading about it. Most of them escaped the course with a gentleman’s—and gentlewoman’s because there were four women in the class—C.”

“Hah! Serves ‘em right. But when we talked about this before, you and I seemed to disagree. You seemed all dogmatic about following Christ’s teachings and living a rigorous life bound to the Bible.”

“Part of that was you and your preconceived notions about what I believe, and part of it was that I was baiting you a bit, just to see how you’d react.”

“So how is that ethical?” Charles is mildly pissed, but mostly perplexed.

“It is ethical to play the devil’s advocate to enlighten a student.” Chip sticks his tongue out at Charles who leans over and tries to grab it.

“You rank bastard! Mr. I’m Holier Than Thou, Esquire!”

Chip just snickers and drinks his beer. “Oh,” he says, “that reminds me of a favorite koan: A novice was trying to fix a broken computer by turning the power off and on. The Master, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: ‘You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong.’ The Master turned the machine off and on. The machine worked.

“So ends today’s lesson,” Chip says. Charles groans and rolls his eyes. “Oh, brother! I like the koan, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ much better.”

“That has an easy answer,” Chip says, pulling off one flipflop and clapping his hand against the sole of his bare foot.

“Oh, that’s good!” Charles says. “This novice is enlightened!”

Chip chuckles in delight and says, “Back to what we were talking about. You’ve made it clear you have no use for religion. What about philosophy?”

Charles replies, “Generally, a branch of religion, even when practiced by atheists. A different type of organized belief structure, but one just as prone to dogma and rigidity.” Charles reaches down to the side of the couch, pulls his longneck beer up off the floor, and takes a swig. “I just can’t accept these systems, these arbitrary systems, that enforce beliefs, demand obedience, and then fail utterly to inspire goodness, or even enforce goodness in their followers, or, for Chrissakes, at the very least prevent devastating evilness, like your basic Crusades or Inquisition and such.”

Chip tilts back his beer, swallows ostentatiously and says, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath, Chucker! Just look at the alternative: A society with no moral underpinning can’t hope to survive, much less be better off, as you seem to think. Humans need rules to live by.”

Charles blows a mournful note across his bottle top. “What do morals have to do with religion? Or philosophy, for that matter. That’s another thing that kills me. Where do religions get off claiming a monopoly on ethics and morality? Why can there be no moral choice besides theirs? It’s just so hypocritical!” Charles slams his beer back down on the floor and grabs his head with both hands.

He continues, “It just makes me crazy! I mean, can a philandering preacher—like, say, that holier than thou Family Values asshole from Colorado years ago, the one with the male prosty on the side, what was his name . . . Haggard or something? Ted Haggard. How could a dickhead like him have anything to say to his flock about morals, or the blueprint for life? Idiot preachers who can’t keep their dicks in their pants are so hypocritical, it makes me want to scream. Fucking Jimmy Swaggart, for crying out loud. Ach! I mean just look, look at this list I printed out from Wikipedia. It’s not even close to a complete list of evangelist scum involved in scandals.” Charles rummages in the folder he keeps his book notes in and thrusts a page at Chip. The page is filled, front and back, with evangelists’ names.

Chip scans the documents. “Crap,” he says. “I haven’t heard of a lot of these. A. A. Allen? There’s even the odd female, like Aimee Semple McPherson. Ooo, I like this guy’s name, Apollo Quiboloy. But you’ve got some sincere evangelists in here, like Billy Graham.”

“Yeah, they’re not all crooks, but most of them use the same fire and brimstone and ‘give me money for salvation’ techniques. Some are self-righteous bandits, like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart. Others are perhaps more dangerous, because they were after political influence, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But I think they’re all despicable.”

Chip finishes looking at the list, sniffs, and hands it back. “Dude, Ted Haggard’s and Jimmy Swaggart’s and a lot of these people’s churches are non-denominational. They’re not part of any organized religion. They’re free ballin’. I agree there’s some swine in the non-denominational evangelical ‘churches.’” As usual, Chip supplies the air quotes.

“So, you’re just glad they’re not Methodists, huh? Give me a fucking break.” Charles gets up and starts to pace. “It just proves my point about the dangers of religion. Any crackpot, even a mediocre science fiction writer or a loony guy from Ohio, can create a religion and be the authority, and start telling people how to live their lives, while they fatten their coffers.”

“Well, if you want me to say just following a religion or being a member of a church can’t prevent sin, I will. But that seems pretty obvious. Religions exist to inspire people to live better, more-moral lives and to avoid sin.”

Charles sits back on the edge of the couch, leaning over with his elbows on his knees. His whole body is tense. “But where do they get off insisting that their way is the absolute truth? I’m definitely not an advocate of situational morality, but I’m also not comfortable with the idea of absolute right and wrong dictated by holier-than-thou-types. How can a pope, who decides to speak ex cathedra, be any more infallible than he is when speaking ex officio, or in normal discourse? And if you examine these pronouncements, it’s clear they aren’t any different from what the pope thinks in the normal course of events.”

Chip spreads his hands and shrugs. “Don’t ask me; I’m a Methodist. We got rid of the damn popes ages ago.”

“Well bully for you! But to continue for just a little longer on the Catholic church, add to the ex-cathedra nonsense the fact that there are so many layers of truth in infallible teachings. There’s ecumenical council infallibility, pope infallibility—as when a couple of them declared immaculate conception and the assumption of Mary as church dogma. There’s explicit and implied infallibility. And don’t get me started on the saints. Omigod, what a political cluster fuck beatification and canonization is, with the whole manufactured miracle stuff.”

“Beloved, this is why there are Protestants. Exactly why. And why United Methodists view saints as sanctified members of the universal church to be celebrated for their lives and works, but not worshiped or treated as conduits to God.”

“Well, that certainly seems like a more rational approach. But even Methodists believe in inspiration, as in the Latin inspire, and that the Bible was inspired by God. And that God helped men select which books would be in the Bible, right? Divine assistance and inspiration as determined by fallible men, that doesn’t seem likely to me to produce truth. Just look at Leviticus!”

Charles takes a sip of his beer. “But don’t get me wrong. I believe in inspiration. I do believe in some unseen magnificence that can break through and touch our lives. I don’t think the fucking Pope has a monopoly on truth, nor do I believe any religion is even close to an authority on the subject. The Pope and all the religious figureheads are human beings, and will always be fallible, and subject to the restrictions and complications of their personalities.”

Charles takes another long drink of his beer. Chip just sits calmly, sure that his friend will continue his rant.

“And, not to go off on a tangent, but the whole idea of the personality of God just seems to me to be so wrong. I have a really hard time ascribing a humanoid personality to whatever it is that is responsible for our existence and our inspiration.”

Charles sets his beer down on the floor and crumples back onto the couch. “Think about it. A real, personal god, a male, of course, feeling human emotions like wrath and love. A jealous god of the Old Testament, prescribing crap like dietary laws and prohibiting masturbation and such, all that Leviticus stuff, letting your hair become unkempt or eating fat. A god who plays mind games with Abraham to see if the guy would really kill his own son. That god seems like a real eccentric crank to me. And, really, what would God want with a personality in the first place? It would just get in the way. A personality, to me, implies imperfection, flaws, variability, limitations. That’s why machines have no soul. Nothing can go wrong.” Chip sits back with a benevolent smile on his face as his friend gets more and more worked up.

Charles continues, “The idea of God with a human-like personality seems to me to be the ultimate blasphemy.” Charles is rolling the beer bottle between his hands as if rubbing a lamp. “Think of all that makes you you. The foibles and flaws. The limitations and the separation from others, the distinctness of your loneliness . . . Take those away, and what have you got? A meat-based thinking machine with maybe a little bit of inspiration. Certainly not a whole human being, a whole personality. It makes no sense for God to have a personality. Tell me. What are God’s foibles? What are his flaws?”

Chip has tired of Charles’s tirade and says, “Well, he certainly doesn’t lack a sense of humor. He made me funny-looking and you an ass.”

Charles grabs a Nerf basketball from beside him on the couch and whips it at Chip’s head. It bounces off and swishes through the nearby trash can basketball hoop. Chip crows, “You see? Kismet. He moves in mysterious ways! ‘Hello? God here. Just sayin’ hi.’”

Charles is not in the mood to laugh. “Oh, I don’t believe it. I’ve heard unbelievable stretches to find meaning in the meaningless before, but that is ridiculous.”

“Dude, lighten up! You’re going to blow a gasket here.”

But Charles is in not about to settle down. “You didn’t answer my question. Doesn’t the very idea that God has a personality seem preposterous to you? Wouldn’t that necessarily involve placing limits on an all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipotent deity?”

Chip retrieves the basketball and rockets it back at Charles, who ducks, spilling the dregs of his beer on his shorts and down his leg. “Crap,” says Charles. “Now look what you made me do!”

Chip laughs and says, “Like John Lee Hooker said, ‘Serves you right to suffer. Serves you right to be alone.’” He sits back down on the couch like a load of bricks. “The Lord works in mysterious ways, and now He made it look like you peed yourself like a scared little weenie boy. That’s your punishment for being uppity. How’s that for personality?”

“Oh, give me a break! You’re acting like a moron!” Realizing he may have gone too far, Charles looks apprehensively at Chip.

Chip, however, finds Charles’s rants more amusing than insulting. He is, however, sick of this one, so he says, “Awright, boy. Ah mus’ defend mah honor! Ah chellenge you to a duel. Jump shots at 20 feet. We’ll jest let the Gud Lawd decide. Whatchew gonna dew?”

“Umm, I’m going to wipe the court with you.”

“Waall, I reckon Ah’m jest gonna meck yew eet those werds, sport. After yew.” They jostle one another as they leave the office on the way to the basketball court.

The pickup game has broken up and a dozen or so young men, mostly Haitians, are hanging out lying on the grassy mound adjacent to the court. Several others are leaning on cars in the nearby parking lot, shooting the shit with the drivers. They all start poking each other, pointing and laughing to see two old guys take the court.

“Give ‘im hell, preacher!” one of them yells.

Chip beams at the young man and pounds his chest. He turns to Charles, who is dribbling the ball from hand to hand. “Oh, hey,” Chip says to Charles, “before we get started, let me tell you my favorite Catholic joke.”

“O, Lord, please prevent this horse’s ass from telling me any more jokes. Amen.” Charles tosses the ball to Chip who catches it with one hand and in a single motion puts up a set shot from 15 feet that swishes. The audience hoots and hollers.

“Hey, skinny dude! You in a world of hurt! Hope you don’t got money on this,” one yells as other young men start to gather around the court to watch the game.

Chip bows to the crowd, blows them a kiss, and says, “Now you all better be nice to my friend here, because I’m gonna wipe the court with him, and that’s enough punishment for one day.”

The crowd loves this and starts hollering, and laughing, and slapping five. One yells, “Yes, Reverend. We’ll be good,” which starts them again falling about with laughter.

“I’m counting on it—all week!” Chip replies, sweeping a pointing finger across the crowd, saying, “Alla yez!”

Chip then turns to Charles and continues, “No, you’re gonna love this joke, although now that I think of it, it’s pretty non-denominational.”

“Please,” Charles pleads. “No more!” He retrieves the ball and puts up a layup. The crowd yells in mock delight.

“Hey, you asked for it after that spew you made me listen to just now. You deserve this one, and it’s a long one, so pay attention. A new priest at his first mass is so nervous during the homily he can hardly speak. After mass, he asks the monsignor how he had done. The monsignor replies, ‘When I am worried about getting nervous on the pulpit, I put a glass of vodka next to the water glass. If I start to get nervous, I take a sip.’

“So, the next Sunday, the young priest takes the monsignor’s advice. At the beginning of the sermon, he gets nervous and takes a drink. He proceeds to talk up a storm. Upon returning to his office, he finds the following note on his door.

  • Sip the vodka, don’t gulp
  • There were 12 Disciples, not 10
  • Jesus was consecrated, not constipated
  • Jacob wagered his donkey, he did not bet his ass
  • We do not refer to Jesus Christ as the late J.C.
  • The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not referred to as Daddy, Junior, and Spook
  • When David was hit by a rock and knocked off his donkey, don’t say he was stoned off his ass
  • When Jesus broke the bread at the Last Supper, he said, ‘Take this and eat it, for it is my body.’ He did not say, ‘Eat me.’
  • Next Sunday there will be a taffy-pulling contest at St. Peter’s, not a peter-pulling contest at St. Taffy’s.”

Charles lets out an extended groan. “Please, please, I beg of you, no more!”

Chip just shakes his head like Jimmy Durante and says, “I gotta million of ‘em!”

After telling the joke, Chip notices a car pull up alongside the court. “Hold on a minute,” he tells Charles. “I’ll be right back.”

Chip walks over to the car and speaks to the driver. The driver hands Chip a package and takes off. Chip walks past Charles, saying, “Be right back.” He’s gone for two or three minutes and returns without the package.

“What was that all about?” Charles says.

“Just some church business. I need to deliver a package. Now watch me deliver this.” Chip is way outside the three-point line when he jumps and shoots. The ball rattles in and the crowd goes wild. “Thas the way, preach! You ready for the Heat!” Chip trots around the court with his arms outstretched like he had just won game seven of the finals.

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