A Conversation with John Walter Lewis

Man of Vision

“What is God? For me, God is a collective humility. I know there’s a remarkable cosmos out there.”

John Lewis is a 20-year resident of Rockland, originally from Texas. He did undergraduate study work on environmental and civil engineering at Rice University, followed by three years in the US Marine Corps. He studied law at Yale University and medicine at the University of Texas, with a residency at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church.

Recently, engineer, doctor, lawyer, clergyman and philosopher John Lewis talked and chuckled—often with his tongue firmly held in his cheek—with Associate Publisher Mary Barstow.

Mary: Okay, hello John Lewis.

John: That’s not my full name. I’ve got a middle name.

Mary: You do?

John: You want it?

Mary: I do.

John: John Walter Lewis

Mary: John Walter Lewis? Good day. Now, you moved here 20 years ago from Texas. Why?

John: The short answer is that my older boy moved here after the Navy. He was working for Outward Bound on Hurricane Island. We were going to help them with a little house or something, because his wife was pregnant. We came up Christmas of ’98, I guess. By the time they found a little house and we worked on it, we decided to stay here. Then my younger daughter came to Camden and practiced medicine for a while.

Mary: I understand you’re a veteran.

John: I was in the Marine Corps for three years after college, and then I went back to grad school and then the med school and other stuff. Why do you want me in your magazine?

Mary: Because people we trust have come to us with the idea.

John: Well, that makes me nervous.

Mary: Don’t be nervous. I’m as gentle as can be. So you joined the Marines right after college?

John: Yeah, because I was on a Navy scholarship. I had a three-year obligation after college, so I did that.

Mary: Are you currently a practicing doctor?

John: I turned my license in about six or eight months ago. I finally retired totally. I was teaching in Houston and seeing patients one or two days a week here in Maine.

Mary: Your specialty?

John: Ophthalmology … I was a man of vision.

Mary: Funny. That’s funny! And how do you find Maine, after living other places?

John: Well, you come up Route 95 … and there it is. I mean, it’s …

Mary: I can see this is going to be tough.

John: How do I find Maine?

Mary: Yes, what do you think of Maine? A lot different from Texas?

John: Well, I went to law school in Connecticut when I was in my mid 40s. I told people I was 50-years-old before I found out that Yankee was a whole word, that it didn’t necessarily get you into fights.

Mary: And you’ve been an engineer, and a doctor, and a lawyer?

John: Kind of.

Mary: Kind of?

John: I had real bad career planning. That’s why I’m worried about being interviewed, because you could make me sound like a real fool.

Mary: You seem very intelligent to me.

John: You can’t tell from what I’ve said so far.

Mary: Where in Connecticut did you go to law school? For how long?

John: Outside of New Haven about three years.

Mary: And then you went back to Texas? You decided that you cared more about medicine than you did law … is that correct?

John: No. It was easier to make a living doing it, because I’d done it for a long time. I went back to Houston and I had a law job, but I also was teaching at the med school there and I went back and started working on a doctorate in religious studies.

Mary: Really?

John: Yeah, I didn’t wind up getting the doctorate, but I got interested in getting ordained. I can’t say that medicine was the center of my life or anything. I like it. I like teaching. But yeah, I got interested in the nature of professions, and I did surgery, but I was also interested in how professions were different from other businesses and how to define quality and stuff like that. So it’s a bunch of fuzzy stuff.

Mary: And you are an ordained minister?

John: I’m an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church.

I wanted to do that because in law school, I had really bright, sweet friends who thought they were too smart to deal with spiritual things, and I wanted to have a credential so I could talk to people about what you didn’t have to do to take spiritual stuff seriously.

Yeah. My real interest is talking to people who don’t go to church. I don’t go to church much either, but I wanted to talk to people about spiritual things without having it sound like it’s just my weird personal opinion.

Mary: You’ve had a lot of education.

John: My first two degrees were in engineering.

Mary: I think you’ve been a professional student, that’s what I think.

John: But remember … you don’t get paid for that.

Mary: No, you don’t.

John: I worry. I have friends that I’ve met everywhere who have stuck with one thing and gotten really good at it. I have friends in the Marine Corps who retired 30 years ago as generals and bird colonels. I have friends that I went to med school with who have retired and bought small countries in South America. And I was 25 years older than my friends in law school. But they’re starting to retire, and have done a whole lot. I’m still not real sure. Well, I know what I’m not going to do, because I’m so old now that I can’t do anything new.

Mary: Now, that’s just not true.

John: Well, I can study American Sign Language or Spanish or something, but I’m not going to get fluent in them.

Mary: Well, remember Grandma Moses? There’s a lot of things you could do.

John: Well, I’m doing my needlepoint, and I do the occasional pottery throwing or something. It’s an interesting time of life, but I don’t know what to say about it.

Mary: Can I ask how old you are?

John: 83.

Mary: You have had an incredible quest for knowledge. Is there anything you wish to study that you haven’t yet?

John: Oh, I wish I’d learned music. But I can tell you, it’s never been a quest for knowledge. What I most want to do is not tell anything. I don’t want to be caught telling people something that I find out is wrong. I grew up in a world of racial stuff, segregation. It was a little town in East Texas, and I spent a lot of time trying to get over the stuff that I now know is wrong.

My daughter gave me—now this is a story I don’t think you could possibly fit this in, so I feel safe telling it—for Christmas, my daughter gave me a subscription to this thing called Storyworks. The deal is that every Monday, you get a teaser line that you’re supposed to write something for, so at the end of the year, my daughter will have 52 little vignettes I’ve written, and they’ll put in a book for the kids.

Mary: Wonderful idea!

John: The first one was what my dad was like when I was a boy, and what the ’60s were like … blah, blah, blah. The one I got this morning was, “What in your life has strengthened your faith?”

You can’t possibly get there from this. But the thing that immediately came to mind was, this was a thing that gave me real faith was totally losing it—was finding when I was in grad school the first time, and understanding existentialism and totally losing any belief I had about what was right and wrong. and figuring out that I had to figure it out for myself.

I’m basically an iconoclast, and I have to prove to myself things that I believe. I don’t like bitching about things from the outside, and I had some real reasons not to like doctors. I can criticize medicine, but I do it from the inside. I obviously didn’t like lawyers, so I went to law school, and I love the law. And I loved the Marine Corps and I love politics and the church. But all these institutions have really admirable cores and reasons to exist. Societies can’t exist without professions, but organizations can really screw up the core reason for the existence. How are you going to write about that?

Mary: Well, I tend to strongly agree with you. I’ve always said there’s nothing wrong with religion, but man has done a hell of a job on it. You know?

John: That’s right.

Mary: It’s people’s narcissistic nature to want everything their way, without knowledge of what’s right for the whole.

John: Yep. My granddaddy was a shoe cobbler in McKinney, Texas. He had a shoe shop in front of the chicken house in his side yard, and it was called “John J. Lee’s Live and Let Live Shoe Shop.” It was just very plain. Basically, he would just leave people alone and be good.

Mary: Boy, you are an interesting character …

John: Well, maybe I’m just BS-ing you. So what are you going to write about so far?

Mary: Well, I want to write about how you have a clear understanding that people can find their truth. They don’t have to become a bunch of lemmings.

John: Yep.

Mary: You got married. Children?

John: I have four children, a stepdaughter and we have 13 grandkids collectively.

Mary: That’s wonderful!

John: In November will be the first time I’ll be a great grandparent, and I just finished a cradle for her.

Mary: So you do a lot of woodworking, as well?

John: Not a lot. Yeah, l do some. I don’t do a lot of anything.

Mary: With your religious education, what are you most surprised about?

John: Well, I was asked a couple of weeks ago what kind of kid was I? I was sickeningly good. I believed all the stuff my parents and my church and my teachers taught me. As a result, I made really good grades, because I wasn’t creative, and I could say what I was supposed to say.

I was in this little high school, a sophomore. And our basketball coach, who was not any great scholar, mentioned the word evolution. So I went to look it up, to the Carnegie Library, and found out it was supposed to be controversial. So I went to ask the smartest person I knew, who was the Baptist preacher. He told me I couldn’t think about it.

Mary: Now you’re a scientist and a clergyman. So do you believe in evolution.

John: Yeah. [He chuckles]

Mary: Don’t laugh at me!

John: Who doesn’t believe in it?

Mary: Well, I believe in evolution. I just believe that it started from somewhere …

John: Do you believe that bacteria get resistant to antibiotics?

Mary: Yes, I do.

John: Do you think poodles are different from great Pyrenees?

Mary: I’ve never thought about that.

John: Do you think apples are better than they were 200 years ago?

Mary: No.

John: Sure they are. You can get great big fat red ones, and little bitty sour green ones.

Mary: Well, no. I think man has created a different product from that.

John: We haven’t created anything.

Mary: So you think that these apples are affected by the fertilizer and the nutrients that they’re using?

John: You ever think how hard it would be to make a grape if they didn’t just grow? Or to manufacturer a banana? We can play with nature and influence it, but we can’t make a dog.

Mary: Right. We can’t do that. So, do you believe in evolution? You do believe in God.

John: Tell me what you mean by God.

Mary: Do you believe there’s something about the world that was created by something else other than evolution? Some force we call God?

John: Some guy says, “I don’t believe in God.” I say, “Well, which God are you talking about?” And he tells me what he thinks God is. And I might say, “I don’t believe in that God, either.”

There’s a story I brought from Houston. There’s this mythical old black guy, the font of all wisdom, named Floyd. And Floyd’s deal was that the first thing you needed to know about God is that you ain’t him. For me, religion is a collective humility. I know I cannot understand anything. I know that the questions about the cosmos and time and the beginning and all that are so much bigger than will fit in my brain.

What is God? For me, God is a collective humility. I know there’s a remarkable cosmos out there.

But the anthropomorphic being that talks English to me? I don’t know. I used to talk to my students in Houston that I would teach about hematology, or about different parts of the body. And I’d talk about the little white cells running around in my blood stream who live for four or five days … whose job it is to find bacteria and eat them up and save me. I depend on them, but they have no idea of music or colors or whether I’m in love with somebody or doing my work. What do they know about me? Nothing. The cells in my eyes that let me see, do not see light. They react to photons, but they have no understanding of light. So that’s the relationship I have to the cosmos. It is so much bigger that anything I can understand.

After all, humankind has only lasted for an instant in terms of cosmic time.

So the question for today is why is my faith so good? Because I got rid of all the old stuff and I had to go to the Bishop when I decided I wanted to get ordained, and I talked about all this, and yeah, I got a rock-solid faith … but it’s not doctrinal.

Mary: Okay, I have a big question for you.

John: Yes?

Mary: In fifth grade science class I was taught that you can’t destroy energy.

John: You can transform it.

Mary: You can transform it, but you can’t get rid of it, and our bodies are full of energy. So what happens to the energy when we die?

John: So you come in and the room’s bright light, and you flipped this wall switch off, and where did all that light go?

Mary: I don’t know.

John: That’s a good answer. I used to tell my students that best three words in English are “I love you,” and the second best words are “I don’t know.”

What do you want to know? What’s going to happen when we die?

Mary: No. We are full of energy. Where does it go when we die? Does it go into another person? Does it just fly in the air?

John: I’ve told people I didn’t learn to read until I was in the Marine Corps, and I remember when I was in flight school in Pensacola, I read a book called The Golden Bough, which is like an anthropology of religion. It was very funny, but the picture I got out of this book was it’s in the stone age and we’re in a cave and the old chief is dying and his sons are around wanting to know “what do we do with our lives now?” and “what’s really important?”

The chief says, “What’s really important is not how many saber-toothed tigers you’ve killed or how many women you’ve had or how many stones you have around your neck or whatever. He says, you know those moments when the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you just feel, damn, I want to feel that some more? You ever have a feeling like that?

Mary: I have.

John: Yeah, and I call those God moments. And the chief says what you want to do is live so that you maximize those moments of joy. And it’s not fun. It’s joy! And the philosophers I’ve run across say things like these moments happen only when you forget the fiction that you exist independently!

You can’t be selfish and feel that way.

You feel that way when you hug a baby or watch a sunrise or have a pee when you really have to go. It’s moments when you just are there and you feel like you’re at one with everything else.

That’s what I like talking about.

Mary: Do you believe there is an afterlife?

John: Is life going to go on after me? I just can’t imagine that all of y’all are going to exist when I’m dead. I can imagine other people dying, but I can’t imagine that the light would turn out on me and y’all would keep going.

Is that what you asked? Or were you asking was I going to hell?

Mary: No!

John: What did you ask?

Mary: You’re a man of science, yet you’re a man of great faith and sometimes those don’t go together so well. I want to know what you think?

John: Tell me what you think faith is.

Mary: I think faith is belief, strong belief.

John: So these are the questions. Every Wednesday, for years, I was doing a Bible study, and I think I’m a heretic, but they listen to me. I grew up thinking that faith was that all stuff like virgin birth and resurrection and the decrees.

But my faith now is that this dude Jesus really said a lot of impractical stuff. Turn the other cheek … sell your goods to give them to the poor … share your coat … greater love hath no man than to give up his life for his neighbor. Well, that sounds like crazy bullshit. I mean, who can believe that?

Well, my faith is that he meant it, and that means I’m not near as good as I’ll be because I don’t want to do that stuff, but here’s my core philosophy and you can write this down, but then it’ll make you look crazy.

I think that all life—except people—whether it’s butterflies or pecan trees or whatever, has to feed themselves and all that, but they have to live for the next generation, and if I had finished my dissertation to get a PhD, it would have been about the biological necessity for altruistic behavior; that all life, except people, sacrifices for the next generation; and that all parents sacrifice for the next generation, and the oldest profession is parenting and it comes with a promise, a pledge to sacrifice my welfare for the next generation.

You got that part, but I think we have evolved our sense of reason way beyond what is practical.

So a hummingbird knows that it’s got to feed itself and feed its babies. We have hypertrophied this sense of reason. Is it reasonable to sacrifice your welfare for another creature, and it doesn’t make any sense, but it feels right. Those moments, those God moments we talked about when we forget the bullshit that we exist independently and just live, you get joy from taking care of somebody else … for sacrificing.

It makes no sense and I think that’s where religion comes from.

That is my faith, and I said there was a time when I lost all of my faith, and when I got there, there was no reason. It wasn’t necessarily better to feed a baby than to kick an old man to death, and why is something good and something else not. And I had my faith is that being good is good and sacrificing for other people is a good thing, but I don’t want to do it because it’s not logical.

You get all that down?

Mary: I did. And I want you to know that you make me cry.

John: It’s been a long time since I’ve made a girl cry. And I haven’t told you a damn thing you can put in your magazine.

Mary: Oh, I’ve got a lot. I do.

John: You’re going to have to make it up.

Mary: No, I don’t. You’re thoughtful. You don’t strike me as someone that’s going to just take someone’s word for something.

John: That’s probably true. I also cause trouble. My mind is slipping.

Mary: It’s not slipping. It’s great. Your mind is great.

John: Tell me what you’re going to write about me.

Mary: Well, you’re a man of vision. You are.

John: I told you I was a man of vision.

Mary: Well, you’re right. I knew I heard that somewhere.

John: I’ve often thought that the whole world is divided into people who think they’re right.

Mary: Do you write, John?

John: I’ve got a lot of books I’ve written … all except for the paperwork part of it.

Mary: I’d love you to consider writing some of your thoughts.

John: I’ve got one of the books I haven’t put on paper yet. It’s called God Bear in Me. It’s about my dog Bear. I had this dog, it was a stray dog, and anyway, I brought him in and I love words. I love etymology. And I was sitting at my desk typing and always had the collegiate dictionary on the floor next to me. And Bear was there, licking my dictionary. And well, I’m thinking I love Bear. And Bear loves me. That’s for sure. And Bear has no idea of what the dictionary means. I mean maybe it smells like me, or I don’t know, he wants to eat the damn book a little bit, but I’m sitting and I’m thinking Bear is old, crippled up, and hairy and fat, and we love each other. And that’s all.

That’s probably the way God thinks about me—John’s old, and crippled up, hairy and fat, and we love each other. But the words don’t mean a damn thing. I mean, words mean different things to different people.

“Those moments, those God moments we talked about, when we forget the bullshit that we exist independently and just live, you get joy from taking care of somebody else…for sacrificing.”

It’s like, you’re asking about God or life after death or faith, you have to tell me what you’re trying to say before I can respond. If you say “I’m green,” that means inexperienced or that you’re painted, or, I don’t know, immature? Or a word like “normal” can either mean perpendicular or one molecular weight solution … or “not crazy.”

There’s a phrase I learned that people tend to eat the menu rather than the hamburger, that we label each other as things and stop thinking about each other.

So you’re going to have a picture of me back on my porch, surrounded by wild grapevines?

Mary: If there’s one passion in my life it’s grapevines. I don’t even know why.

John: There are not many grapes this year for a change. I don’t know why. I love them though.

Mary: I have one last question for you. Do you think man causes global warming?

John: Do I think there’s global warming? Yes, I do.

Mary: That’s not what I asked you.

John: Why do we have petroleum and natural gas? Where’d it come from?

It is energy from the sun that was stored up in the form of either algae or dinosaurs or whatever. So we’ve got all this stuff underground that represents energy that’s been stored up over billions of years, right?

And we’ve burned about half of it in 100 years. So we’ve taken 200 million years worth of sunlight and put it back into our atmosphere in 100 years. And now we should be surprised that it’s warmer?

Mary: No. That makes sense.

John: I think we have to trust people who do scientific thinking for a living

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