Zürich by Foot



Clear strides in all and new directions;

Crisp air in fresh draughts;

Cold winters, warm summers, perfection:

Could it be closer?


I feel it on brückes and on strasses

I hear a still call

I look forward, up, with new glasses

I sense it stand tall


‘Have you forgotten,’ it asks, ‘your past?

How Zwingli stood strong?

Have you known yourself, Grossmünster height?

Hurry not, be still


Take what is good and what is bad too

In steady Swiss stride.

Meandering is good for the soul–

It lets the call wake


Awaken anew, alpenstock heart

Ascend to new peaks

Ascribe to the alps due reverence

Arise on fresh feet


By mountain paths you found the dawning

Before you sailed forth

Beyond your rooted climbing wonder

Because you wend back


The alpen call, a distant echo

The last Swiss sound sensed

The longing soul for vale, lake, mountain

The foot journey home


The Long Dark Night of Waiting is (Not) Over at Last

In the words of Han Solo, “I hate long waits.” My past 4.5 months, in some ways, felt like a long wait. I knew that I was graduating college in December, and there were countless moments throughout the Fall semester when I felt ready to be done. It’s not because I was bored of or fed up with the work I was doing. I love school. I wrote poetry for homework and got paid for helping peers improve their writing, both of which bring me deep satisfaction. Need I say more?

Actually, loving school is the main reason the past four months sometimes felt like a frustrating or tedious wait. I felt like I was getting gypped: starting a new school year like I had done for the previous three years, and only getting four months—only half a school year. I ended the summer feeling too close to post-grad life for comfort, but my final semester partly meant that instead of being ripped off—a sharp but quick sting—the band-aid of studenthood would be torn away slowly, a drawn-out reopening of a wound that hadn’t yet fully healed. I wasn’t being given either one final school year to enjoy or one swift plunge into post-grad life—I had to walk through half of one before slowly dipping into the other. In that sense, the whole semester was a four-month-long wait.

Not that I actually felt or gave off this much emotional neediness throughout the semester—like I said, it was a blast. These thoughts of anticipation, of frustration with the present deferment, mercifully only came in spurts. And they’re not the main thing I want to focus on in this post. I want to focus on one thing they helped me with spiritually and what that thing means for Christians.

That thing is what I’ll call Christian Hope, what I would like to assert is the appropriate response to Advent and the virtue demanded by (or, perhaps a better phrase for it, most consistent with) Christmas. I think there are two main sides of Christian Hope, and Christmas emphatically calls for both. The first is the celebration appropriate to victory. The second is the restless anticipation appropriate to siege. A lyric from an original Christmas carol by my church’s worship pastor helpfully, succinctly captures the first and, for me, strongly provokes the second. Here is the line: “The long dark night of waiting is over at last.”

This lyric is more or less directly adapted from Isaiah 9:2-7, zoning in on verse two, which reads, “The people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; / those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness / on them has light shone.” You know, the prophetic passage other than “The virgin shall be with child…” most quoted at Christmas? The one Handel wrote that amazingly beautiful song to in his Messiah? The “For unto us a child is born” passage. The song which my worship pastor wrote is appropriately titled, “So Much Joy.” This is appropriate because the entirety of Isaiah 9:2-7 is essentially a bold, triumphal battle song:

…you have increased [the nation’s] joy; they rejoice before you… as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult

and every garment rolled in blood

will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Yes, I’m a sucker for block quotes. But I want to draw attention to the content and form of this prophecy. It is poetic in form—a song. It is triumphant—even militarily so—in content. The coming of Messiah is a victory to be celebrated as much as the spoils of war, as much as liberty from oppressive regimes. The coming of Messiah ought to be celebrated because his coming ushers in a good, peaceful, powerful, wise, fatherly government—the kingdom of a good king. And not one who can be corrupted into a tyrant or one who will eventually die and take his goodness away with him—rather, an eternal kingdom. (Sound anything like “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” [1 Pet. 1:4] or “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” [Heb. 11:16]?)

In light of Isaiah 9:2-7, it is appropriate and true to excitedly proclaim that “The long dark night of waiting is over at last!” Jesus did come, and in so coming enfleshed the necessary conditions for human reconciliation with God. The long wait was over—a child was born, a son was given, Messiah arrived. According to Luke, there was at least one person (besides the angels and Mary) who rejoiced at Messiah’s arrival (another block quote—#sorrynotsorry). The few verses Luke gives him—much like the lyric my worship pastor wrote—straddle the line between the first and second sides of Christian Hope:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. . . . he took [baby Jesus] up in his arms and blessed God and said,

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation…” (Luke 2:25-26, 28-30)

I think the phrase “the consolation of Israel” pretty much perfectly articulates the reality of the Incarnation: it connotes relief after a long period of waiting, but can also be taken as not completely final, as penultimate, as relief for the purpose of enabling you to carry on. In Greek the word “consolation” is paraklêsin, which I’m 95% sure is where we get the word Paraclete, used of the Holy Spirit alongside descriptors like Comforter and Helper. The “comfort” of Israel. Simeon had lived the vast majority of his life in the absence of this consolation, but he was waiting for it—not blindly, but with the certainty given to him by God’s word that he would see it with his own eyes. He lived confident of his hope coming to fruition.

Then he saw that fruition with his own eyes and cradled it with his own hands. The result? Perfect contentment, the foundation of joyous celebration. Simeon was happy. You know how your friend will see his favorite band in concert live, then meet them afterwards, and, once he’s done fanboying, walk away from the House of Blues exclaiming that his life is complete? He is likely exaggerating. Simeon wasn’t exaggerating though: he literally knew from a divine vision that once he saw the Messiah, his life was complete. Simeon was so happy that could die in perfect peace. For him, the long dark night of waiting was over at last.

But for the majority of his life, this was not the case: for years and years, Simeon lived in the long dark night of waiting. He waited through it. He trusted the word of God confirmed to him by the Holy Spirit and kept waiting. I bet it took patience. I bet he was tempted to doubt the promise of the word when year after year passed by without Messiah’s appearing. We Christians are in almost the same exact position. The Christ has come, ushering in consolation by grace through faith. But he has come and gone: he’s not here anymore, not teaching, not healing, not—in any immediate, physical sense—ruling. I look back on the past year in national and global news alone, and in a very real sense I cannot bring myself to sing “the long dark night of waiting is over at last” because I feel like I’m awake in the middle of the night.

This is where the second side of Christian Hope comes in: patient, brave, persistent, hopeful, eager waiting. I’m going to commit a venial crime and quote someone completely out of context (or maybe it’s not venial because it’s Marilynne Robinson, but I’m doing it anyway). She potently puts words to a central pressure of waiting:

I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected—an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. . . . the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind. (Housekeeping)

There’s both an infuriation and a thrill to waiting. Most of us have probably experienced it: the reply to a certain text message, the reception of a job application, the answer to a vulnerable question. It could come at any moment, and it may not come for days (or weeks or months or at all). As Christians, we know the second arrival of Messiah approaches, or—as it is put in Scripture often—is “at hand.” It is promised, but we know nothing of when it will be accomplished. We can only live as if he will come—as if he is coming—if we believe his promise, if we “walk by faith, not by sight.”

What has invigorated me with hope and motivated me in my current period of waiting (to hear back on job applications) is self-reminders. When prospective employers don’t reply to me immediately, I’ll remind myself of truths pertaining to jobs—that applications take time to review, that there could be innumerable factors for delay. And I’ll remind myself that if this job doesn’t pan out, there are others I can push towards. Waiting for the Second Advent can, I think, be motivated in similar ways. Because the things that are eternal—things like the inauguration of the long-expected Messiah’s kingdom, the banishing of the long dark night of waiting with glorious dawn—are unseen, my rehearsing them in words has helped me make them tangible. Because what I tangibly see all around me every day—what feels most immediate and real—are a bunch of transient things, it’s spiritually helpful to remind myself of the eternal things. As my friend and I concluded in a conversation the other day, we ought to talk to ourselves like David did in the Psalms and to keep reminding ourselves of eternal, true things. Verbally articulating the true promises of God in his Word, even if only to myself—and certainly to other people—makes them tangible. And living as if they were to be fulfilled tonight makes them feel as real as my looming student loans.

Seeing the unseen now from afar, feeling the eternal as immediate—I think that’s what Christian Hope is all about. There’s a good hymn (a Christmas carol actually) that accomplishes this far better than I can. That’s where I’d like to end:

Come, thou long expected Jesus,

born to set thy people free;

from our fears and sins release us,

let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation,

hope of all the earth thou art;

dear desire of every nation,

joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child and yet a king,

born to reign in us forever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

By thine own eternal Spirit

rule in all our hearts alone;

by thine all sufficient merit,

raise us to thy glorious throne.

Land of the Free, Home of the Pluralists

[7/7/15 ~ a reflection on The 4th of July]

I’m taking an American Literature class right now, in which I just read about the first public birth pangs of abolitionism in the US. These sparks of anti-slavery fire were accompanied by the fight for women’s suffrage, the first public demonstrations of American feminism. Abolitionism and feminism reared their heads around the same time. Many feminists had fierce abolitionist convictions as well. This is likely part of the reason why slaves were freed before women got the right to vote. Many of these strongly pro-abolition feminists were willing to lay down a dear political, social, and moral value for the sake of something they valued even more than women’s rights: human rights. They sacrificed a value close to their hearts for the achievement of another which they thought was even greater.

This sacrificing of one strongly-held individual value for a different, common one illustrates what I think I am most grateful for (at least right now, in my 22nd year living here) about the USA: Pluralism. Other fundamental values close to my heart that accompany this one are Tolerance, Compromise, Civility, Conversation. The T and three Cs. All under the umbrella of good communication. The fourth C. I’m so grateful for the fact that we are free not only to vote for the governmental candidates we think most suitable for office, but also to voice publicly our thoughts, opinions, and convictions. This is what the nation was founded on. From the start, we’ve been a motley bunch of dissenters, often passionately at odds with each other. From the start, the only way forward was compromise: some people getting some of what they wanted and others having to tolerate some of what they didn’t want. Always after deliberation and discussion.

Instead of having one man make all the decisions (alone or with counsel––a monarchy) or even having a small, elite group of individuals call the shots (an oligarchy), we have historically thrived under a plenitude of governors. Our nation was born, in part, from the desire to build and sustain a space for the diverse, disagreeing many to gather and make decisions about what would be best for the most people. We’ve wanted to not just coexist but to commune and collaborate, to flourish alongside people who believe and value different things than we do.

I love this because it’s essentially the same principle that applies to any and all human relationships––just on a massive scale. Genuine, healthy, thriving relationship requires good communication, which entails the civility to listen to different viewpoints, the willingness to engage in discussion, the honesty to disagree, and the perspective to compromise for the common good. All of these qualities could describe a good marriage, solid family bonds, or a flourishing friendship. Or the commitment to pluralism close to the heart of the USA.

Good communication does not mean adopting the ideas or values being shoved at you by others with different viewpoints––it means remaining respectful and open to conversation, even when others are not. Good communication also does not mean lashing back with the first words that come to mind when faced with people who voice different views (even different worldviews) from yours––even when they insensitively insist their views are undeniable truths. Good communication is one of the main ideas this country was founded on, but good communication is not like autopilot. If we do not deliberately endeavor to keep the pluralist faith by actively and intentionally holding ourselves to the strenuous standard of clear, caring communication, we fail to do our duty to America.

Weakness as Strength

If there’s any big thing I’ve been learning about this year, I’ve been learning about love. Well, actually, I’ve been learning about weakness. But they might usually be one thing, the one way I’ve felt more and more strongly called to live. The person I’ve read this semester who talks most frequently and explicitly about weakness is Friedrich Nietzsche. He pointedly states his mind about weakness in The Genealogy of Morals:

“When the oppressed, downtrodden, outraged exhort one another with the vengeful cunning of impotence: ‘let us be different from the evil, namely good! And he is good who does not outrage, who harms nobody, who does not attack, who does not requite, who leaves revenge to God, who keeps himself hidden as we do, who avoids evil and desires little from life, like us, the patient, humble, and just’ –– this, listened to calmly and without previous bias, really amounts to no more than: ‘we weak ones are, after all, weak; it would be good if we did nothing for which we are not strong enough’; but this dry matter of fact, this prudence of the lowest order which even insects possess (posing as dead, when in great danger, so as not to do ‘too much’), has, thanks to counterfeit and self-deception of impotence, clad itself in the ostentatious garb of the virtue of quiet, calm resignation, just as if the weakness of the weak –– that is to say, their essence, their effects, their sole ineluctable, irremovable reality –– were a voluntary achievement, willed, chosen, a deed, a meritous act.”

This strain of thought shows itself again and again throughout the Genealogy. He cannot stand what he sees as the twisted deceptiveness of Christianity. If anything from the book is clear, it’s that Nietzsche is not happy with Christians. As seen above, he asserts that expressions of Christian faith like non-retaliation, deference, and submission to suffering are pathetic. He sees them as devoid of any substantial desire for life and equatable to the self-protective instinct of insect. Only, it’s all actually far worse than the insects’ instincts, because the people who live like this pretend they’re living virtuously, pretend they’re better than their strong oppressors. Nietzsche accuses Christians of deception, of hiding their disgustingly pathetic and weak selves behind a charade of virtue and strength. (Ouch.)

I haven’t heard anyone make that same argument against Christians recently, but I think the question of weakness is still a live one: is weakness always necessarily a fact, or can it be a choice? Nietzsche’s accusing Christians of lying. He’s saying that Christians deceitfully claim their weakness is a choice––that in reality their weakness is a matter of fact which they can do nothing to escape. My response to this is to draw attention to Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus makes the answer clear: even without counting his choice to leave his Godhead and become part of creation, he himself was a man who chose weakness. He chose to suffer false accusations, hatred, humiliation, flogging, and a torturous, shameful death. He chose to submit to all of that, fully able to escape it if he had so pleased.

So Nietzsche’s wrong about whether weakness can be a choice. But I don’t think he’s wrong about noticing that Christians seem weak. This seems especially true of martyrs, perhaps the people who most demonstrably prove the sincerity of their faith––they prove it by abiding peaceably even death. Passive––which, fittingly enough, comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to suffer’ (passio)––seems like another apt adjective for martyrs: they don’t seem to show any strength. They seem deferential to a fault, letting anyone and everyone walk all over them without once standing up or showing strength.

But the book of Revelation has a different way of phrasing it: “they have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). What martyrs do is called ‘conquering.’ A demonstration of weakness is named a culminating act of strength. And the means by which this weak-looking strength is carried out is even stranger: Lamb’s blood and testimonial word. Hardly the weapons I would pick for a firefight. The final oddity of this description is in its final verb, which––instead of being passive in any way, like martyrs seem to be––is active: “they loved not their lives.” It rings with the sound of choice––

A choice to die, the choice characterizing Jesus’ call to follow him. The thing about Nietzsche’s conqueror is that he thirsts vigorously for immediate, pleasurable, dominating life––life that rules and rejoices in itself. The martyrs thirst for life too––the eternal kind, the kind that’s not immediate, the kind that relinquishes its desire to rule and rejoices in someone else. The martyrs thirst for this eternal life so much that they choose not to love their time-bound lives. With this love-altering thirst, they are free from the greatest fear that plagues humanity––the fear of losing our lives. And because they are free, they are strong. However weak they appear, the martyrs have already overcome the strongest foe: they don’t fear death. They are conquerors.

What if we’re not martyrs? What if we don’t face the opportunity to die literally for our king? Jesus answered that question too: “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23). You can’t die both literally and daily. You can only die literally once, and daily means more than once. So the call on us who believe and live to tell the tale is the same as the call on those who believe and die for it: love not your lives even unto death. For the martyrs, even unto literal death––for the rest of us, even unto metaphorical death. We’re all called to die––definitely to die to ourselves, maybe to die literally. Dying to ourselves means doing exactly what Jesus did: emptying ourselves, lowering ourselves, being weak. This weakness, the weakness of self-death, is the strongest strength.

Connecting Ourselves to Death

We live in an age of magic. I’m a wizard. I can talk to Skopjans from Laguna Niguel with no effort. I can instantaneously send my thoughts across distances my ancestors would never have dreamed to cross in their entire lives. I can examine images of the most distant celestial bodies known to man from my bedroom. I can capture my portrait and alter my own appearance with a few flicks of my fingers. It’s uncanny to consider. Our time is a time of marvels. But has this wizardry blessed or cursed us? What effect has it had on humanity as a whole? My answer to that is another question: what do 19th-century Russia and Facebook have in common? Dostoevsky. Bear with his thickness for a moment and it’ll make more sense:

“The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: ‘You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them’––this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display.”

(The Brothers Karamazov 313-314)

Here Father Zosima, the mentor of the main character in Brothers Karamazov, is sharing the burden of his heart, the major problem with Russia in the late 1800s––isolation. People are believing that they should try to get whatever they think they need at the moment. The rich have increasingly greater accessibility to their pleasures, and the poor have increasingly strong motivations to believe they should follow in the self-serving footsteps of the rich. The rich’s luxurious lifestyle isolates them and breeds envy in the poor––which tends, in turn, to isolate them as well. The promises of modernization to unite all people of the world––the speedier communication of the telegraph and the virtual elimination of distance by the train––are empty, Zosima warns. In fact, they’re worse: they accomplish the opposite of what they claim to do. Increased ‘communication’ increases people’s ‘needs’ and multiplies the avenues by which these ‘needs’ can be immediately and individually satisfied––it decreases brotherly communion. It doesn’t meet needs––it creates them. The end result, he laments, is a self-propagating, increasing cycle of envy, pleasure-chasing, and self-exaltation.

Clearly Dostoevsky is critiquing the culture of his own time and place. And we may not be living in an age of increasing modernization, but we’re certainly living in an age of increasing technological advancement and exponentially expanding ‘connectedness.’ Consider social media alone, for instance. Mark Zuckerberg, the starter of perhaps the largest network in history, recently said, “In our effort to connect the whole world with Internet.org, we’ve been working on ways to beam internet to people from the sky.” (The picture above shows an internet balloon designed for this purpose.) Connect the whole world––that’s what’s being attempted. As of April 22, 2015, Facebook had 1.44 billion monthly active users. That’s more than one out of every seven people in the world. One out of seven. Magic. Kind of scary.

Maybe Americans today aren’t struggling through a class divide with serious isolating ramifications. But from the studies I’ve heard of, the ‘connection’ offered by communication technology isn’t bolstering community for us. It often seems like it’s hardly meeting needs at all. Internet advertising blasts us day in and day out with ‘needs’ we never knew we had before––while simultaneously making the satisfaction of those ‘needs’ accessible with the click of a finger. Be it the temptation of excessive online shopping, the appealing vegetative state of binge-watching media, or the twistedness of the pornography industry, the internet has bred more than its share of ills.

And notice how its evils themselves do nothing good for community––they are aimed at appealing to the part of us that wants what we want when we want it in whatever way we want it. We, we, we––us, us, us––I, I, I. There’s self-service aimed at self-satisfaction––individuals solitarily seeking their own selfish cravings. Isolation. Even amongst my own social circles, our smart phones are like whirlpools, dragging our eyes down into cyber voids and away from meeting each other’s eyes.

But I’m not saying we should trash our communication technology or dump the internet (not that we could anyway)––I’m a firm believer that it can be a force for good as well as for ill. I couldn’t write this post without the internet, for instance. And as I’ve been typing this, I’ve been messaging my brother who I rarely see (and who happens to be 400 miles away at the moment). With negligible effort, we can enjoy the subordinate good of each other’s words from opposite ends of the state. Speaking of subordinate goods, I can keep friendships formed on the other side of the globe, or ask my parents for advice when I’m away. I’m not complaining about that––that’s fantastic! It’s magic in the most wonderful sense of the word. At the same time, interpersonal communication is cheapened when it’s digitized. The delightfully irreducible nuances of in-person talk are reduced to pixels or sounds. Letters (even in digital form) may just be the second best thing to face-to-face conversation, but I believe most firmly that nothing can replace in-person relationship.

Granted––I’d like to establish a vigorous doubt that anything we could do with communication technology or social media can bring us out of isolation. But I also want to posit that ultimately not even face-to-face interaction can de-isolate us (though I’m sure it’s necessary). OK, then what can? I just asked my friend about this as we walked. We had a 20-minute conversation on it, and as we wrapped up our walk he voiced what I think must be the answer. I’m convinced that the gospel alone can bring us out of our isolation. My hypothesis is that our isolation ultimately comes from the self-worship of our sinful condition, what has been called incurvature (bent-inward-ness). The gospel calls us to die to ourselves and worship someone else. Only a meta-narrative that centers on someone other than me can save me out of myself––and the gospel is exactly this. It demands a life that consists of me dying and Jesus directing, a life defined by bringing the good news of love and reunion to my isolated brothers and sisters. Its end is the death of what leads to our death––isolation from each other and from God. The end of the gospel is the ultimate reunion, the union of human with human with God.

So ‘connecting’ clearly isn’t enough. Even getting everyone in the world on the same magic (a.k.a. online) network would not save us from isolation. Whether it’s Dostoevsky’s “transmitting thoughts through the air” or Zuckerberg’s “to beam internet to people from the sky”––which sound uncannily similar, now that I think about it––‘connecting’ will not bring us out of inward-bent selves, which is what we need to escape isolation. Only adoption into the divine universal family––often referred to throughout history as the holy catholic (universal) church––only answering the call to take up our cross and die and follow Jesus can provide us with the power to escape our incurved, self-isolating selves. We don’t need ‘connection’––we need love.

On Precision in Language

“The sick are man’s greatest danger; not the evil, not the ‘beasts of prey.’ Those who’re failures from the start, downtrodden, crushed––it is they, the weakest, who must undermine life among men, who call into question and poison most dangerously our trust in life, in man, and in ourselves.” (The Genealogy of Morals 122)

Do you picture gas chambers? Systematic elimination? The devaluation of the old, the mortally diseased, the stragglers, those of a certain race? Does this not echo with Nazi Germany’s holocaust philosophy? It is ‘weakness’ that must be stamped out––evil isn’t even part of the conversation. I don’t know whether Nietzsche directly influenced Nazism, but who would be surprised if this kind of rhetoric shaped Hitler’s ideology?

Not to hold Nietzsche accountable for the atrocities of Nazism. Words often get misconstrued, misheard, misappropriated. People misquote Saint Francis all the time, for instance. And Nazism’s central symbol was a re-appropriation of an ancient Sanskrit cross. I often selectively listen to others’ words and sometimes take their statements out of context to show something I don’t like about them. Indeed, much of the miscommunication that has happened in my life has been caused by indefinite language. Often I and those around me are simply unwilling to put in the effort needed to express ourselves clearly and coherently.

Other times, I and those around me are simply unaware of how potent our words are, how significant their implications could be. Lewis starts off his essay The Abolition of Man by highlighting one such instance of imprecision––in an English grammar book of all places. He references two authors who, in their textbook, presume to undertake a task different from grammatical instruction. They claim that statements of value are subjective statements about personal feelings, ultimately devoid of any objective meaning: “‘This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings’” (2-3). Lewis takes issue with them on several accounts. For one, they’re failing to fulfill their goal of teaching English by secretly inculcating values. And their language is loaded.

Lewis’ main concern is the tendency of their argument about values:

“I am not concerned with what they desired but with the effect their book will certainly have on the schoolboy’s mind. . . . they have not said that judgments of value are unimportant. Their words are that we ‘appear to be saying something very important’ when in reality we are ‘only saying something about our own feelings’. No schoolboy will be able to resist the suggestion brought to bear upon him by that word only. I do not mean, of course, that he will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius is that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.” (4-5)

Lewis is concerned less with what they’re saying at face value than with the drift, the tendency, the implications of their words. But he’s also pretty much just semantically meddling with them––not only with the general gist of what they said, but with the specific phrasing and word choice. Why? Because their word choice, he predicts, will have immense internal repercussions in the minds of the students reading the book. The specific words have specific and serious effects, altering the students’ ideas without the students even being aware of what’s being done to them. Lewis fears that the authors’ words inculcate new assumptions into the young readers’ minds. Assumptions are dangers because they frame conversations before anyone says a word––assumptions pre-determine people’s ideas, often without their knowledge.

There are two things I take from this. 1) Words carry assumptions, be they inaccurate or true. Words are these kind of intrinsically neutral things that are fraught with potential––the potential for deception, for falsehood, for truth, for guidance, for love. They can be the vehicles that transmit assumptions. 2) Words carry meaning far beyond their explicit and direct definitions, beyond what they say at face value. This is Lewis’ issue with the English grammar authors: they don’t say that values are subjective and thus unimportant, but their words tend towards the point that values are subjective and thus unimportant. Many words together mean more than the sum of their parts.

A professor of mine recently asked me, while helping me prepare for a poetry discussion, “What is the poem saying that’s not on the page?” This same question can be asked of anything we write or speak. What are we saying beyond the words coming out of our mouths? What’s the drift of our voiced thoughts? The risks of miscommunication can be avoided sometimes by precision in language. Ultimately, however, the only way to ensure our words do not tend towards a bad end––to avoid planting bad assumptions in people or conveying detrimental ideas––is to work on our insides. Jesus put it simply: “out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). And what comes from our hearts is dangerous. Solomon tells us that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Our words and their tendency come kicking and screaming––with the power to kill and enliven––out of our hearts.

Lewis points out that those writing the English grammar textbooks fail to give their subjects the honor of freedom––whether deliberately or unintentionally, they slip assumptions into the students’ malleable minds without warning. It would be better to give the students awareness, to let them choose for themselves which ideas they’ll embrace as foundational and which kinds of thoughts they will form their frames of reference with. In an age when words (through communication technology and cyberspace) are literally thrown around everywhere at all times, being as precise as we can with our words will help us use words in a way that gives others freedom. Precise word usage could be a pathway to love.

How to Not Get On With Life

Unlike high school, lots of people are super stoked about being at my college. Like high school, some don’t want to be here. Many of these are seniors who were ready to be done after the first week of the semester. I’m in a class with a lot of seniors. The atmosphere is different. Perhaps once these men and women were prime students, finishing assignments early and maintaining perfect attendance. Now they’re like restless old men in rocking chairs, tired of their old house and itching for a change of scenery.

So this class already isn’t the most stimulating or motivating environment. One day, my teacher’s role question was for us to voice one complaint about life at the moment. It was mostly asked in good fun, but I was left with a few less than encouraging impressions. 1) It’s incredibly easy, almost effortless, for everyone to voice bitterness about something; 2) Everything said seems vulnerably honest, so the bitterness is real; 3) Everyone seems to have painful, hard, bleak lives; 4) Why do we even come to class? what could we do about any of this anyway?

I felt intensively skeptical of life once the clock struck 1:15 and we headed out. I began getting in a mood I’ve known before. In such skepticism, I question why I bother doing what I do, doubt whether ordinarily exciting things are actually worthwhile, and generally feel the world pressing on my weak shoulders with the threat of crushing me. I didn’t realize the real threat to me––and to my checked-out senior classmates: pessimism. Chesterton warns of it with signature wit:

“this is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. . . . But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before eh begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.” (Orthodoxy 66-67)

This false position of life/world critic is different from that of my classmates who don’t want to be at school––they chose to come to the school we all go to. They pay multiple thousands of dollars each semester to go here. They’re entitled to be critical of the educational experience they chose for themselves (though sometimes the pointedness and frequency of their criticism makes me wonder why they stick around). Not so for us simply as humans in the world––we did not choose this country but were chosen by it, born into it. We belong to our motherland, whether we like it or not.

Speaking of liking, have you ever noticed how people often criticize things or other people they like, professing to help the object of criticism? Chesterton thinks they’re a little less than honest:

“What is the matter with the pessimist? I think it can be stated by saying that he is the cosmic anti-patriot. And what is the matter with the anti-patriot? I think it can be stated, without undue bitterness, by saying that he is the candid friend. And what is the matter with the candid friend? There we strike the rock of real life and immutable human nature.

I venture to say that what is bad in the candid friend is simply that he is not candid. He is keeping something back––his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. . . . he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge which was allowed him to strengthen the army, to discourage people from joining it. . . . The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises––he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things.” (Orthodoxy 68-69)

It’s like what we’ve turned honesty into. The phrase, “I’ll be honest,” has been sapped of delight and turned into an irksome warning: complaint ahead. Sure, our criticisms can be heartfelt––but that doesn’t mean we have to bleed a perfectly descriptive phrase of all potential joy. What if people started saying “I’ll be honest” before announcing engagement to marriage?

The problem with pessimists is that they don’t love the world they critique. They don’t really hate it either. Both love and hatred are forms of caring. The problem with pessimists is that they don’t really care. They’re not willing to do anything about, well, anything. They see the evils of life and refuse to be troubled enough to address any of them. I do this. I call it apathy or callousness, but it’s the same indifference––it’s an unwillingness to join the battle for my motherland. Laziness? Sloth? Selfishness? The root of pessimism is a sort of hollow feeling towards life––an emptiness of passion. Chesterton identifies what the solution might look like:

“We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment. . . . No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? . . . . [we want to be] ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.” (Orthodoxy 72)

The antithesis of the pessimist’s contentment is compassion––the feeling that drives you to try to redeem what seems like a lost cause. In the New Testament, the gospel writer describes Jesus’ compassion on the crowds with the Greek word for bowels. I’ve heard it’s the same case in Hebrew. Compassion is when you feel something in your guts––the reaction antithetical to the dispassionate critique of the pessimist.

I’ve had it articulated lately that discovering the truth of the world pushes us frantically towards one of two responses: either a cold refusal to care or a warmth of heart, a suffering. Truth either hardens people or softens them––makes them either pessimists or compassionate––turns them into either critics or caregivers. Notice how compassion does not come from childish naivety––it is a response to bumping into the truth. Compassion, I think, is a decision to feel the probably painful weight of the truth you know. Knowing the truth of the world’s twistedness––or, for that matter, a friend’s brokenness––and still caring, to the point that you want to do something to help, to heal––that is compassion.

And this is our deeper desire. Instead of complaining we want to conquer. Instead of liking mildly we want to love fiercely––to be boiled into action instead of aired into complacency. The answer to the aimlessness of pessimism is to be upset with the world, to resolve not get on with life.