Art / School

If time is money, and money is money too, then college is ridiculously expensive. Because it takes both a ton of time and a ton of money. Let me show you:

Massachusetts ~ $26,106 in 2004-5 to $40,748 in 2014-15

Connecticut ~ $25,877 in 2004-5 to $40,017 in 2014-15

D.C. ~ $25,431 in 2004-5 to $39,609 in 2014-15

California ~ $24,708 in 2004-5 to $38,511 in 2014-15

Maryland ~ $23,956 in 2004-5 to $38,291 in 2014-15

[Tuition and Fees by Sector and State Over Time – Trends in Higher Education – The College Board]

These are the top five increases in tuition cost of private four-year American colleges over the past ten years. Just tuition––not to mention room or board or anything else. Home sweet California is only number four and it’s still seen a $14,000 increase since 2005. $40,000 per year is a lot––four years worth adds up to $160,000. Is an education worth all that? John Henry Newman didn’t have those kinds of prices to tremble under, but he did explore the value of the university. Specifically, he defended liberal education, often the kind that these private four-year colleges offer. Was his defense convincing? Why participate in a classical liberal education? Why even go to college, for that matter? Well, those are different questions.

Since the latter is broader, I’ll start there. Why college at all? There are plenty of reasons: because it’s what people do, because I want to acquire particular skills, because I want a degree that will get me to a certain place, because I want to learn to live independently, because I’m drawn to a particular place or program, because I’m looking for an experience, or maybe because I don’t know what I’m doing with my life (guilty as charged). These are just the first that come to mind––if you ask undergrads why they came to their school, I don’t doubt you’ll get any number of different answers, far more than these few possibilities. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of my peers came to college seeking certain skills or credentials for their future careers. I’m not the biggest fan of that reason for choosing college, but it seems to me that the various answers could all be good in various situations. Because of this, the question requires us as Christians to approach such decisions with Holy-Spirit-guided discernment.

But regarding the first question––why participate in a classical liberal education (like the one I’ve been partaking in)––Newman and I have much to say. There are a few main answers to the question, a few main reasons why classical liberal education is worthwhile.

The first is perhaps the most widely-appealing reason: usefulness. Liberal education, Newman argues, is highly practical––but not specifically practical. It gives someone the internal equipment to do any job excellently:

“…general culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study… the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer… or an engineer… but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings… with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger.”

(The Idea of a University, 118)

Liberal education makes the mind stronger, healthier. Newman talks often about this “culture”––he uses the agrarian word deliberately––we’re meant to think of growing, flourishing plant life, a fruitful crop. Culture of the mind produces a kind of versatility, a broadness of mentality that allows me to adapt to various environments and do many different kinds of work well.

This is the kind of growth that the great books program I’m in fosters. We’ve spent countless hours reading the classics, discussing them, and writing about them. How is that useful? Well, discussing lots of old books that often have only very distant bearing on today has really challenged me to listen. These are not instruction books––they are not giving me any information that appears immediately useful––and my peers discussing them with me are no experts. Most of our interpretations are usually lacking in lots. We often miss the mark. It’s been a challenge for me to consider the potential in what my peers observe and assert, how their thoughts may be more accurate than mine.

I came into college convinced that my particular framework for interpreting the world and the Bible and literature was the right one. I thought that any deviations from my views, any other possibilities that others might voice, were essentially misguided, often laughably so. But when you’re forced to listen to a diverse array of people talk about their interpretations and ideas for more than six hours a week––not to mention being confronted with the ideas of a brilliant author whose work has stood the test of time––you start to healthily question your own ideas. At least I did. And from that place of questioning I began to plant my old flags (or new ones I had developed from the questioning) deeper and firmer. That rootedness enabled me to start learning how to articulate my own values and beliefs and thoughts. Liberal education trained me to hold loosely the non-ultimate ideas and to hold fast the essential ones. It taught me to listen first and speak second.

Speaking of second, the second reason liberal education is worthwhile is contingent on the setting in which it takes place. Newman’s university was––and my own liberal education is––a communal endeavor. Newman makes clear that what he calls a ‘living education’ can only exist through community. He casts this vision epically:

“When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day. . . . I am but saying that that youthful community will constitute a whole, it will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition.” (Idea of University, 105-106)

Verbosity aside, Newman has a point: young people coming together to learn under the guidance of teachers will also learn from each other, perhaps in a richer, more dynamic, longer-lasting way. While I don’t remember even close to half the lectures I’ve heard at college (and I’ve heard some pretty fantastic ones), I won’t forget the ways my peers have taught me––their stimulating influence has become ingrained in my mind and heart, shaping me intellectually and personally, even spiritually.

The third reason is perhaps the hardest for many of us to consider legitimate. Newman, however, definitively names it one of the pillars of the university:

“Knowledge is capable of being its own end. . . . further advantages accrue to us and redound to others by its possession… but, independent of these, we are satisfying a directneed of our nature in it very acquisition… Knowledge… is valuable for what its very presence in us does for us after the manner of a habit, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end.” (The Idea of a University, 78-79)

He asserts that knowledge is valuable in and of itself. This idea is not a particularly strong selling point for southern Californians I know, maybe not even for many Americans in general. But, to generalize even further, it might just be a human thing. There don’t seem to be too many things people do for their own sake: food, friendship, painting, music. I’m sure there are more, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the things we generally tend to think of as ends in themselves could be counted on one hand. And Newman’s saying knowledge is one of them. It’s valuable, and not because it helps you do something else or because it gets you anything––it does get you lots of things and helps you do much more than you’d be able to do without it, but that’s not what makes it good. It’s inherently good. Intrinsically valuable. Why pursue knowledge? Well, why play a song? It satisfies an innate human need that nothing else does.

I mentioned that this might be the hardest of the reasons for us to accept. Part of this may have to do with southern Californian culture––I think we tend to gravitate to things that serve ends we think are worthwhile. Maybe this is even true of western culture at large. To put it crudely, we like things that get us what we want. And we may not put a lot of stock in knowledge if it was useless. Since it’s not, we do put some stock in it. But if we do this, we’re still missing what Newman highlights as the primary worth of knowledge––its ‘useless’ goodness, its value in and of itself. If we put stock in knowledge because it gets us other things, we’re not viewing it rightly, according to Newman––we’re not seeing it as an end worth pursuing for its own sake.

I wonder whether this takes the kind of simple, intuitive understanding that can’t be taught. Here’s where I’ll hypothesize. Recognizing knowledge’s inherent worth may not be something we can be taught. Just based on my own experience, I think it may be the kind of truth that has to be felt. I can verbally assent to its truth, but ascribing certain words to it is mere expression––I want to say that the substance is my excitement about it. I just want knowledge. Why? Because it’s good. I’m sure there are arguments for the idea that knowledge is a good in and of itself, but Newman simply asserts this is the case more than he provides rational arguments for why it is. And I approach it similarly in my own scholarship: I don’t know how to explain that knowledge is good in and of itself or why it’s an end worth pursuing for its own sake, but my guts and bones tell me so.

Knowledge, for Newman (especially the liberal kind), is not a means to an end––but it also kind of is. At least, it’s a means to an end in the same way that art is a means to an end. Hear Newman’s metaphor:

“Why do you take such pains with your garden…? You see to your walks and turf and shrubberies… not as if you meant to make an orchard of the one, or corn or pasture land of the other, but because there is a special beauty in all that is goodly in wood, water, plain, and slope, brought all together by art into one shape, and grouped into one whole. Your cities are beautiful, your palaces, your public buildings, your territorial mansions, your churches; and their beauty leads to nothing beyond itself. . . . in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection, of the intellect.” (The Idea of a University, 90)

So it’s not only knowledge that’s intrinsically good––it’s beauty of intellect too. But the way to a beautiful intellect is the path of knowledge. Except that, even to say that acquiring knowledge is “the way to” intellectual beauty might be misleading––for Newman, the two might even be the same thing. Why seek knowledge? Well, why tend a garden?

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On Articulacy

What do you do when you feel the ground crumbling out from under your feet? I’ve felt this way quite a bit lately. T.S. Eliot has helped me. Please bear with this more literary and personal blog.

selections of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

“Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .

Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’

Let us go and make our visit.

. . . .

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

. . . .

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair––

. . .

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

. . . .

And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it towards some overwhelming question. . .

And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor––

And this, and so much more?––

It is impossible to say just what I mean!”

Prufrock wrestles with many things––the reader gets to feel these conflicting feelings and thoughts along with the narrator. There is an overwhelming question being led up to, an overwhelming question that he dearly wishes to avoid being asked. I think he does not want it because he cannot bear to answer it. Either that, or he does not want to be asked it because he knows he cannot answer it, or at least cannot answer it well.

Next his hesitation is expressed––and immediately his self-assurances that there will be time, time enough to prepare to meet other faces, time to make decisions and revise them, all the time in the world. Perhaps he thinks there is time enough to figure out how to say what he wants to say, or adequate time to say and re-say it enough to make it adequately express what he wants to express, perhaps to make himself able to answer the overwhelming question.

He starts asking himself if he dares, dares to go back the way he has come, dares to speak to the women in the room he refers to, dares to start a conversation. For him, this is like daring to disturb the universe. This wondering whether he dares such a feat is immediately followed by a self-assurance that there will be time, in a minute. But he recognizes that this self-assurance that there will be time will itself be undone, because the window of opportunity will close with time passing on.

The poem continues with a revelation from Prufrock: he was scared and missed his opportunity to speak, lost his chance to act. The rest is questioning whether it would have even been worthwhile after all. And one of the recurring reasons he keeps feeling burdened by is his own inability to express what he wants to. For him, it’s like squeezing the universe into a ball––how feasible is that? The reader is smacked directly with the feeling in Prufrock’s final frustrated exclamation: it’s impossible to say what he means. The expression of impossibility, however, does not mean resignation––on the contrary, Prufrock is frantic, perhaps even desperate, to get out of the wordlessness he finds he has sunk into. He can’t express himself and he can’t escape it but he wants to get out of it with all of his being. This feeling changes later for Eliot:

East Coker 

V

“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years––

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres––

Trying to learn how to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate––but there is not competition––

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Instead of wordlessness being an inescapable horror, some kind of prison in which we’re trapped, lacking speech is more peaceful—or at least not worth our desperation. Instead of kicking and screaming for his inarticulacy to be heard, like Prufrock does, the narrator of East Coker is reconciled to his inability to express. For him, there’s nothing frantic about it—no need to fight, no need to rage. This resignation exists in the midst of a sense of inadequacy: there are other men who have conquered in ways he does not aspire to, men who have already made the conquests that can be made. What is there left to discover? Nothing, it seems. What is there left to fight for? Well, there we have a goal: he strives to regain what has been lost. Is he hopeful about his inarticulacy? The narrator does not express strong hope, nor anything like a resolution. Rather, he questions whether there really was ever any competition at all, whether it was ever legitimate to compare himself to the men who conquered—maybe it wasn’t, maybe it isn’t. He starts to approach the struggle with neither hope nor desperation, instead asserting that the trying is all that really matters, all that we should be concerned with. The conquests of others, the feeling of inability to articulate words when we want to and how we want to—all of that is not our business. Our business is to try.

Why bother with all this close reading of difficult modern poetry? My one word answer would be this: articulacy. Over the past few years I’ve often been at a loss for words: I longed to be reunited with people I loved, I felt the pain of severed ties that once were strong, I buckled under fears and doubts and seemingly unanswerable questions. And it’s never been a contented loss for words—it’s been a longing, sometimes almost a rage for description, occasioned by my choking inability to put speech my feelings. I’m wracked with doubt and fear and grief and desire—there are things I just couldn’t go without saying if I wasn’t forced to leave them be. But I am forced to go without saying them—forced to go on without being able to put words to them by virtue of my own inarticulacy.

This sense of inability grows the closer I get to the end of this semester. This mainly hurts because I’m finishing the classics program I’ve been engrained in, raised in, nourished in since I set foot on my college campus. All of my classes and many of my responsibilities have changed drastically from semester to semester—but amidst the fluctuations I’ve been discussing books with the same group of people almost every week since two and half years ago. Next week I’ll have my last discussion with them ever. I’ll finish my credits for the program and leave behind the constancy I’ve enjoyed since day one of college. My summer plans are uncertain. My dear friends are graduating and leaving me in a matter of weeks. And my idea of what I’ll do after graduating in December is hazy at my best moments. I don’t know what will happen or what I should, can, or will do—and it often freaks me out. I don’t know how I ought to feel, or how I can best seize the time I have left. The pangs and cries my heart beats out are incoherent, imprecise—and how can I make them clear? And the questions reverberating around my mind about what comes next in my life seem unanswerable—how can I decide?

Thanks be to God for T.S. Eliot. He reminds me that he too struggled and strove to speak, often without success. He reminds me that that’s not the point—that it’s not a game to win or lose. He reminds me that the imprecision remains. And the main thing he reminds me is that I can try—try to speak, try to step, and see where the words and the roads lead. Each new effort is a new failure—but at least it’s one failure closer to articulacy.

Knowledge As Trust

Everything you think you have done is an illusion. Your will is a fond figment of your imagination, your decisions, direct results of your environment. Maybe you’re part of the Matrix. Marx thought as much:

“Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will, whose essential content is determined by the material conditions of existence of your class” (The Communist Manifesto, 21).

These words were written over a century ago, but they describe the world we live in today. The “material conditions” of our environment are the ultimate reality, according to this view. Everything real is material. So who do we turn to for reliable answers? Theologians? Pastors? Philosophers? No––we look to the guys who study materials, usually raw materials like rocks or cells or plants. Scientists are our gurus, the wise men who we seek if we want to find out the truth––they are the ones who really know things about the real world. It’s a question of knowledge primarily, and, by extension, a question of authority. Knowledge can be firsthand––observed or experienced directly by me––or secondhand––received from someone else who has gained knowledge either directly or secondhand themselves. The first we usually just call eyewitness experience or something along those lines. The second we call trust, taking something on authority.

The spread of the naturalistic worldview Marx held has long since reshaped the western conception of how we can know truth. Today, our framework is generally what his was: things discoverable by scientific research and experiment can be truly known––things not scientifically measurable are essentially subjective opinion. I think there’s a problem with this understanding of knowledge. And it’s not logical consistency that’s the problem: if there really is nothing beyond what we can see and touch and measure, then it makes sense to think that truth can only be found by studying natural phenomena directly. I think the problem is that there is something––a lot of somethings, actually––beyond what we can see and touch and measure.

But even if the natural world is not the only sphere that exists, it is still real––which means the natural sciences can give us true knowledge about reality. The question is not whether we should trust science at all, but whether it should be the only thing we trust, like Marx did. Generally speaking, it seems to be the only source of knowledge we westerners trust. If your worldview is naturalistic, this stance makes sense. But my concern is that I see Christians thinking this way––which doesn’t make sense. Or at least shouldn’t. Christianity is not a naturalistic worldview: we believe in God, the Father everlasting, a non-material, non-scientifically-measurable person. It makes no sense for us to only trust science to tell us truth about reality. We have other, some would say higher, sources of authority––other ways of apprehending truth about reality––because Christianity says reality is not limited to natural phenomena. Last year a Christian musician made some comments on authoritative sources of knowledge:

“…not too many people today are going around arguing that God is a geologic entity that lives in the sky that created a flat square of land surrounded by ocean with heaven above us and Sheol below us… Why not? BECAUSE SCIENCE SHOWED US THAT THIS IS NOT POSSIBLE. So we rightfully re-read and re-interpret the Bible, just as people have done for thousands of years.” (I’m With You, Michael Gungor, 8/6/14)

He’s arguing against a hypothetical hyper-literal hermeneutic. The interesting part is how he affirms reinterpreting Scripture based on what science reveals. This kind of thinking seems to prioritize scientific authority over Scriptural authority. Instead of arguing from Scripture we are to argue from evidence found in natural phenomena. I think to do so is to prize one too much over the other. We should certainly recognize the truth to be discovered by scientific inquiry––we believe that nature attests to the higher, deeper reality we affirm as Christians. But what is revealed in the natural world should never authoritatively trump the written words revealing truth about both the natural and the spiritual world.

The question gets complicated, though, when we’re talking about which authority we should take when it comes to knowing about natural phenomena: should we take scientific authority, whose domain it is to deal with nature, or Scriptural authority, whose domain it is to deal with… what exactly? Does Scripture deal solely with the spiritual? Ought we trust Scripture to tell us truth about the natural world more than we trust science to do so? The study of natural phenomena, while informed by Scripture, is probably not the main kind of knowledge Scripture is concerned with. So Gungor’s distinction is understandable––Scripture is not a collection of scientific data, per se, and we should interpret each book with its individual genre as well as the context of the whole Bible in mind. This can be a slippery slope, though: if we invalidate the historicity of the Genesis origins account, for instance, our theology will be thrown out of whack. Science can tell us directly and explicitly about natural phenomena, but only Scripture can tell us that directly and explicitly about God and his works. And the creation of the universe is a very special work of God, its theological significance rooted in historical facts.

It makes sense to trust that God’s explicit words to us in his special revelation will tell us more truth about reality than what we seek to discover on our own resources (granted, the resources God gave us to do so––like the ability to do scientific inquiry). Why? Because reality is not only material conditions. It makes sense to look to the author of Scripture for the most definitive, reliable knowledge about reality because he is also the author of all reality––he spoke it all into existence, speaks it all together for sustained existence, and will speak it all anew one day. It’s his direct Word we Christians should trust above all other sources of knowledge––his Word is the ultimate authority on reality.

Recess Rules and Poetry

3/21-29/15

Have you ever tasted and seen the astounding joy of a swing set? Or felt the harrowing thrill of plunging down a tube slide? Unless it’s a blindingly bright day, semi-darkness swallows you for a few seconds as you spiral down and down, feeling the electricity building from your friction. Or, if it’s an open slide, you get a royal view of the park or your backyard before gliding gently to earth. Florence Joyner park had a towering open air spiral slide from the top of which you could survey most of the main playground like a king. Although it didn’t have walls or fences dividing it from the rest of the park, it was never hard to tell where the sand pits ended and the picnic area began. This is just like Christian ethics, according to Chesterton. Leave it to Chesterton to connect Christian doctrine and playgrounds:

“…the view that priests darken and embitter the world. I look at the world and simply discover that they don’t. Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.” (145) 

We Christians might be tempted to think of rules as roofs: they protect us from certain large rocks or cold rains that might befall us if we ventured out from under them. We Christians might be tempted to think of moral rectitude as shelter. We fear that if we broke the walls around Chesterton’s island, we would fall off the cliff to our demise. And the fear is justified. I won’t have casual sex outside of marriage to avoid STDs; I won’t get drunk so I don’t hurt anyone I love or kill my brain cells faster; I’ll be kind to my housemate so we can get along and live together easier. It seems that we generally understand sin to have consequences and thus might be tempted to avoid it like we would the flu––because it would be bad for us.

[A side note: I have been discouraged from sinning by many chapel talks and sermons for the reason that sin hurts people. Now I definitely do not want to hurt people, and avoiding the damages (foreseen or unforeseen) of sin to my own and others’ lives is even a good reason to flee from sin and fight it. But shouldn’t the main reason we seek to obey God and avoid sin––the main reason we want to live within the walls of the playground––be that we fear and love God for himself, not merely because we want to avoid the troublesome consequences accompanying sin? Are we merely trying to dodge sin to escape its dangerous results instead of seeking to be holy as he is holy? Christian morality is not primarily about avoiding pain, even the pain that goes along with sin––everyone is averse to pain. Only God’s people, however––whom he has redeemed and on whose hearts he has engraved a new and old commandment––seek to follow his rules because it is he who made them, seek to live within his playground because he made it for us. It’s about him, not avoiding pain.]

Sin hurts us––granted. But Chesterton says something more here: not only would we fall off the cliff if we broke down the wall, but our childlike delight of dance and song that the wall made possible would be lost––the wonderful magic of the playground would be shattered. And we, having realized it, would lose all eagerness for play, instead cowering in fear of the sharp fall of the cliff’s edge and the infinite horizon of water beyond. What would seem to give us greater freedom (the elimination of limitations) actually scares us. While we had walls, we had specificity and direction––just the right amount of freedom––quite as much as we could manage and enjoy. We hadn’t even yet explored all the possibilities of that playground when its walls were leveled and its delights scattered. Not only does breaking the walls and going beyond them (sin) hurt us, but the very desire to break those walls is contrary to our internal constitution. We are designed in such a way that when those walls are broken down, we no longer know what to do with ourselves. The impulse is inconsistent with our nature.

A recent Newsweek article discussed how the legal age for receiving euthanasia has been decreased (to 16-year-olds independently, 12-15-year-olds with parental consent) in the Netherlands:

‘Ross cites theologian Theo Boer of the Theological University in Kampen and in the Netherlands. He said, “I like autonomy very much. . . . But it seems to have overruled other values, like solidarity, patience, making the best of things. The risk now is that people no longer search for a way to endure their suffering. Killing yourself is the end of autonomy.”’

This story was one of the most disturbing and tragic news pieces I’ve heard. But it’s hard to argue with Boer’s assessment: if you pursue personal autonomy so ardently that you kill yourself, haven’t you lost the goal you were aiming for? When the focus shifts from enjoying the clearly delineated playground to wanting my own personal freedom on my own terms, I want to break through the walls of the playground at any cost––even the cost of losing my life over the cliff and, with it, any further opportunities for personal freedom.

The desire to break down the walls of Christian morality is ultimately self-contradictory––the thing I’m trying to gain by breaking them down is inappropriate to my nature and will ultimately destroy me. Human beings cannot enjoy unlimited personal autonomy because we are not unlimited or autonomous. What we can enjoy is a specific life limited by Christian morality. Since our lives are necessarily limited by our very nature, we will end up choosing specific limitations––and it just so happens that the ones delineated by Christianity are the most suited to our flourishing.

Something I’ve learned in one of my creative writing classes this semester is that writing poetry is not as much unlimited freestyle as I thought before––in fact, the best poems often have undergone not only serious revision but have also been formed by the most stringent restrictions. Intensely specific structure creates the circumstances in which a poet forms beautiful verse. It’s the same thing with morality. The moral constraints of Christianity should be seen not as burdensome but as freeing––not as the doldrums of a research paper but as the delight of poetry. Human flourishing, rich and pleasant life, takes place only within boundaries––the boundaries of moral law (in this case the law formed by the commandments of the LORD and of his Christ)––or as Chesterton might put it, under the mysterious ordinances of the king of elfland.

On Reading Christianly

3/28/15

Has time ever felt like a bullet train with bad brakes? This sensation slammed into me towards the end of January. I had spent a good chunk of my Christmas break reading for my interterm study abroad trip, and then spent most of January taking the trip. It was wonderful, don’t get me wrong––but it didn’t exactly feel like a break. I landed in CA with a measly three days to spare before the spring semester started––and those three days were occupied by more school reading. I got back on a Thursday and had to read Proverbs by the following Tuesday and Darwin’s Origin of Species by Wednesday. You could say I was pressed for time––not to mention trying to recover from spending two weeks in a different time zone. Darwin was the one who suffered. I ended up blazing through him and his incredibly detailed and complex case for natural selection.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do. It’s not ideal, but the work gets done. Sort of. There was a problem with the way I read Darwin, and it wasn’t primarily the speed at which I digested his theory. My time crunch contributed to a mindset of over-reductionism, even to the point of limiting what I would see in the book to things I was already looking for. I had this same issue when I read Marx’ Communist Manifesto the following week: instead of working to understand what he was saying, I came into the reading wanting mainly just to identify the problems in his argument. My mind was already closed to the possibility of Marx saying anything good or true. This is a bad, even an unchristian way to read.

Why? Mainly because reading like this hardly even qualifies as reading. Reading is listening––to a speaker who is just absent or dead. Listening means putting my own thoughts on hold so I can attend to the thoughts expressed by another person. Listening demands focus on another person––it is impossible to do for someone absorbed with their own thoughts and concerns. But shouldn’t we have solid stances on important issues like the origin of living organisms and what is a good form of government? Absolutely. Listening does not mean agreeing with––in fact, I often discover that, when I hear someone out, I find myself on opposite sides of the fence with them, or at different ends of the field. I actually only discover that when I hear people out. Listening does not mean condoning either. It is, rather, the prerequisite for condemning a viewpoint or idea as false or faulty––I cannot judge an opinion, a position, or a worldview to be wrong unless I understand it.

That’s all just common sense, not even considering reading from a Christian worldview. But I think Christianity colors the reader’s lens in an important way: it makes good reading, particularly good reading of Darwin and Marx, an act of faith. These guys assumed stuff that is flat out contrary to a biblical worldview. They purported a cold, hopeless vision of the world that I, 1) find depressing and, 2) believe is a load of lies. But that doesn’t mean I should not listen to them. And in listening to them, I am going out on a limb––listening to them is trusting that when I am genuinely seeking truth, God will reward me with it. His Spirit is stronger than the machinations of Karl Marx, and he will guide me into all truth. If I truly believe that, I can read the ideas of men like Darwin and Marx––and the ideas of anyone and everyone, for that matter, no matter their beliefs––without fear.

Faith Feels

(3/14/15, 1:56pm)

There’s a sense in which some of us have lost our grip on what faith is. I experienced the youth-hood of my Christian life in a strongly Bible-emphasizing non-denominational church. When I think of faith, I think of its description from Romans as the agent by which we partake in justification and sanctification, the transfer of trust to Christ for God to view us as righteous. I still believe this definition is essential for us to grasp––if we don’t understand this and, as a result, don’t have this faith, we have missed the boat. Without this specific belief in Jesus, we cannot be saved. But when it comes to living out the Christian life, do we know what role faith plays?

I recollect struggling through this in high school as a young Christian: I would ask what my mindset should be as I sought to grow in Christ, wondering how faith fit together with obedience. Sometimes I was told faith was the whole thing and operating on anything more than faith was self-righteousness. Other times I was completely left in the dark on faith’s role in daily Christian living. Often, however, I personally felt strongly that faith was essential for living for Christ day-in and day-out. But I wasn’t sure what to do with this feeling. Faith in Christ applies salvation to us––and after that it’s just some sort of process of obedience or something to grow, right?

Yes and no. Kierkegaard helps reorient our thinking about faith. Two passages from the beginning of Fear and Trembling provide a helpful perspective shift.

The first sets the tone for his project in the book, which is more or less to explore what faith consists of, what it requires of us. Responding to the idea of his time that faith was something to be moved past, he describes an unsophisticated man preoccupied with the ordeal of Abraham: “What he yearned for was to accompany them on the three-day journey, when Abraham rode with grief before him and Isaac by his side. . . . what occupied him was not the finely wrought fabric of imagination, but the shudder of thought” (44). Kierkegaard’s focus could hardly be further from the realm of mere theoretical understanding or abstraction. He wants to get at the shudder of thought that convulsed through Abraham as he chose to kill his only beloved son––the convulsion of faith.

The second addresses what Kierkegaard believes to be the main problem of his day: “Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further. . . . In those old days it was different. For then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks. When the old campaigner approached the end, had fought the good fight, and kept his faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten the fear and trembling that disciplined his youth and which, although the grown man mastered it, no man altogether outgrows” (42). Now, he may not be directly addressing people of the church, but, considering my experience, the critique could still apply. Who thinks of faith as a lifelong journey, a long and arduous climb rather than a one-time apprehension? Who even thinks of faith in a primarily experiential way? Do we think faith is something to be had once and for all, not to be worried about after first becoming a Christian? I think most of us Christians know we need faith to be saved, but some of us never think of it in terms of daily individual experience. What would it look like and feel like to have faith in making a business transaction or asking someone on a date or deciding what to do with your last summer before graduation?

I’m not saying we need to change our understanding of what faith is, but it might do us good to try approaching faith from different angles, to try looking at it through different lenses. Could it be equally helpful, or perhaps even more helpful, to further focus our discipleship and conversations, to emphasize concrete examples––women and men like Abraham who wrestled through life in faith––rather than trying to apply the definition of faith directly to our lives? Speaking of which, how ought we balance our time and energy between seeking to nail down definitions of doctrines and seeking to apply doctrines to our lives? Obviously a sound understanding of faith is a prerequisite for living out faith––but perhaps Kierkegaard is onto something in his emphasis on individual human experience. What do you think faith is? How do you feel faith playing out in your individual Christian life? When it comes to doctrines, Kierkegaard helps keep us from losing our grip on concrete individual experience in the abstract. Know what you believe, yes, and feel the shudder and fix your eyes.

The Start…

. . . of something new. I’m starting this platform for a school project but it will by no means be so limited––in the long term, I anticipate using it for little short of anything and everything that passes through my mind and is worth saying publicly. I’m very open to ideas of things to do with it! Looking forward to communicating with you all!