Scholarly Ambition

The Leeds Library

If there is anything that I chomp at the bit over, it is scholarship. I want to learn, to write. And I’m bored easily, so sitting still with the knowledge I do have leaves me impatient and restless. I’ve been reading a colleague’s work. It makes me so happy.

My poor students are subjected to my restlessness. I assign them books I want to read in my work. I’m always changing the books when I teach a course again. I never offer them something at their actual reading level. “It’s important to get used to not understanding everything and still reading,” I insist. We read Irenaeus, Michael Gorman, Max Scheler, Basil the Great. I’ve learned to pare down the length of the reading unto strategic minimalism so they don’t get overwhelmed. However much that slows our pace, I don’t particularly care. I want them to walk with me through live questions. It is for their sake, but I doubt I’d be so damn determined if I didn’t need it so much too.

We have no teaching or research assistance at a place like this. Every year, some senior walks through my door asking me a question. (Why is it always a senior?) We talk about it. Then I ask, “Do you want to study this with me?” And we do. I pull out articles, excerpt from books. We talk about them. I’ve helped students study philosophies of time, of mind; Max Scheler; music.

They could ask me to study the death of God and I’d eagerly agree.

I’ve told my classes, with every seriousness, that they have inspired and are helping me to write my next book. (So ambitious, another book.) One that will attempt to understand what it means for Christianity to be a tradition. A tradition that encounters a world it has never yet faced. This strange world, California, and its profound post-Christianity. To have known Christianity and to leave it aside: Christianity has never known such a challenge. How can the Church be herself, yet flexible enough to greet the newness of her situation?

So I play them music. Lots of music. I am convinced music is a key answer, offers itself up as a fertile analogy. I’m not about to insist theology must become music. We need to learn from it so that theology might understand itself better. As the Fathers borrowed from Plato, so I want to borrow from music. (And everything else.)

What Hans Urs von Balthasar wanted theological aesthetics to be was an absolutely serious form of theology. He thought of beauty as that necessary quality of the real without which theology would only narrow and harm itself. Beauty does something. It opens doors that otherwise wouldn’t even be seen.

I am weary of “theological aesthetics” that spend themselves in pretty comparisons between theology and the arts. “Look here: theology and the arts are kin!” Yes, they are. And so what? I could do much of what is currently done in the field – my field – with “pure” philosophy, especially phenomenology. Where is beauty doing what the logic of the truth and the desire for the good cannot? It is no wonder that theological aesthetics threatens to be a corner of theology that speaks only to itself. Those elsewhere need not attend to the voices if, really, they offer nothing.

I want a theological aesthetics that does something. I think music shows us something everything else can at best only gesture toward. I want to explain this.

And why the hell do I think I can offer such an explanation? I’m not sure I do. I only speak with the assurance that it must be done. Someone must do it. I’ll at least be willing to fail. I’ll have to learn music, but I find myself oddly unfazed by the task. Maybe I refuse to comprehend it, or ache so deeply to be challenged that I’ve found something just impossible enough to soothe.

Imagine such a heart, though. The one that won’t accept a lesser demand. It is hard not be impatient and restless. Lonely to always lead with expertise.

Lonely to always be explaining simple, simple things. Of course I must; of course it’s good. My faculty colleagues don’t know what an ecumenical council is and it is good that they do now. But there’s a certain sadness in it, too. The fissure at the very center of my book: how to hold the depths when barely at the margins. How to understand what it is to watch my beloved Church in some way die, living only with the hope of the resurrection.

She does die. What else is it to watch the Brothers literally die away, or to be the only Catholic in a room? Conscripting Catholics – as I was, in a way – is but a superficial stemming of blood. Catholics will still experience the questions. What is it to mourn these deaths? To wonder how to love as they are endured? To care about how to keep the earth prepared for when the seed finishes dying, then presses through, alive?

I suppose it is this: what’s it mean for a note to endure while it dies?

Without f*cking Hegel, or Heidegger, or Rilke. (Well. Maybe Rilke.)

I want to know. Brother Charles told me I have a voracious appetite. I do. I like that. Plus “voracious” always reminds me of velociraptors for some reason. They’re even better.

I want to be able to write. I am, naturally, and there’s more freedom for it than people might think. Still, there is that awful solitude. I’m not yet sure how to integrate it into my experience as a scholar. I do not persist under the illusion that it would be all that different at some other institution. “Humans is humans,” I like to tell my students. (I torture the English so they remember it.) There’d be more time for writing at another place. That’s assured. But it’s really the solitude of inhabiting the massive unknown of the Catholic Church that hurts. Not the time. (Sometimes the time.)

And I do worry that my ambition will be interpreted as eagerness to leave. I don’t want that for more than one reason, most of all because it isn’t true.

I simply don’t know what to do with how it feels to be where I am sometimes. I don’t know how to describe the hurt in softly explaining that there have been more than three popes since the opening of the 20th century. It’s not a pain at their ignorance – well, sometimes it is – so much as it is a pain of distance. Of not sharing the very small things. The details that are a way of life. I work always to make them known, but I think I get to say that it can be exhausting and solitary. It’s true.

I worry that it’s the secret curse of ambition. Of wanting too much. And of bearing a melancholy, reflective disposition.

I don’t really know what I’m after here, or what to do. It is true that I’d never write as much from St. Mary’s. It would be a sacrifice for my students, and a freely offered one. I’m not quite sure it’s that. I’m early in my career, a young scholar. There’s immense vulnerability in it. Doors may or may not open depending on what I do. And I don’t know, always. What to do. And who around me could I ask? It makes me grateful for the spaces I am allowed simply to exist as myself rather than some kind of constant educationally Catholic presence. I haven’t yet figured out how to hold all that together, to understand the plenitude of being along with the pieces of my life that inevitably lack.

It’s a human problem, really. A problem stitched into being human. That’s not an answer, and it doesn’t soothe. It expands and shares it, is all. This thing I’m trying to say.

Humans is humans.


On being a professor at a small college.

“Welcome to our fancy committee meeting at our famous institution, everyone. Where do we throw our money next?” – how I imagine the meetings go at research-1 universities

I have been at Saint Mary’s all of two years, but it took me about two weeks of being here to figure out that most of our faculty are quite talented, could move on to anywhere, and chose not to. They chose this place and these students. They’re not “stuck” at all.

That was the rumor. In grad school. That professors who never left the small place where they began either weren’t talented enough or somehow got too distracted. No professor I knew said that outright. (Okay, a few did.) Mostly the impression was given through career advice that included, “You’ll start off at a small place. Then you can move on.”

Meanwhile, at an actual small place, all kinds of perfectly skilled people didn’t want to move on. I’m sure our location in California helps, but if that were the only thing Saint Mary’s had going for it, we would have significantly more faculty transitions than we do.

I always wonder why.

My faculty elders feel a certain ownership of the place, have thrown in their lots with it. They complain about how certain things are not as good as the old days, and it warms me up inside because it means they care about being something specific. No one who doesn’t care tells stories of lament.

There is definitely a certain type of academic who finds their way to a place like this. Someone who cares in certain ways. Without realizing it, departments seem to select a kind of temperament: an academic willing to care passionately about students, a sociable and interactive sort, a scholar with genuine people skills (so rare!). Someone who doesn’t need a million things and accolades to be happy. Not that every professor is universally gifted at all those traits. I am profoundly shy, for example. It is simply that as a faculty, we’re far more articulate and friendly than many academics I’ve known. I wouldn’t go so far as to call us “cuddly”… But kind of, yes.

Or I’m projecting that onto us. I’m definitely a softy, and students definitely like to tackle me with hugs to watch me scowl and pretend I hate everything.

Students expect a certain degree of attention, interaction, and involvement from their professors. Unless the professor is willing to intimidate them away – some do, and I kind of admire them – students want a chance to write multiple drafts of a paper to feel prepared. They are significantly more willing to walk into an office and speak with their professor. They are accustomed to running into professors on campus – where is there to hide anyway? Indeed, so many faculty are willing to give the time that students assume it’s standard. They can be so aggravatingly entitled sometimes. Students who transfer in sometimes become resentful and assure the others that faculty are not nearly as available elsewhere.

You’ve got to have an ease with and affection for students if you want to survive at a place like this. They’re literally in our faces, bumping into us in hallways.

We have no freaking space. Our library is small. Faculty regularly share offices – including senior faculty. We have the one cafeteria, mildly expanded over time. It reminds me of Hogwarts by its size and age, the long tables and the old art. Somehow three thousand undergraduate students wander around our campus anyway.

The place is like a small town. It has all the strengths and weaknesses a small town has. Most people know most people, nobody much minds sharing except for when they don’t, and we have our own little internal language. Rumors abound swiftly and insanely. Once my students watched me give a paper in which I challenged a nun’s theology. That quickly became the time Professor Carpenter totally destroyed a nun. And I swear the next time a student tells me what all the other TRS 097 classes are doing, I’m failing that student. Maybe all of them.

“My friend, in her class they get to bring their Bibles to the exam. And notes.”

“That’s nice.”

“They have to memorize dates, though.”

“Hmm. Interesting, huh? How you don’t have to do that.”

We’re not the best at everything. As a college, I mean. Nobody can pretend we’re the most amazing ever and strut around like an idiot peacock, fancy and preening. But there’s sincere pride in a long history of excellent education, a long history of being very good against all kinds of odds. We typically punch above our weight, though unevenly. Pretty much everything in Performing Arts literally kicks the world’s ass right now. And I want to steal science’s best students into theology. Or at least borrow them for a minor, dammit.

We cost too much. Faculty have the heart to actively worry about it.

We discuss the classroom all the time. Faculty regularly trade successes and failure, everyone trying to figure out what the hell our students know and don’t know. Or why they do the things they do. We do all the grading, and I can never decide if I’m proud of that or if I want to burn everything and give everyone a B. Sometimes I wish I had a Teaching Assistant/Slave to do all that while I do something fancy and scholarly. Still, I like the blue collar academic chip on my shoulder that I get to carry around.

I doubt that at many places other than this I could be so open about struggling with mental illness, and still feel valued and safe. No one wants to drop me from the tenure line. My work for the college is very good, if I may say so myself, and while this is a community that can be as inhumanly academic as any other, for the most part it’s human too. They let me be imperfect and yet very good at my job. I also highly doubt that at many places I could lose my cool at a very, very important committee meeting in front of my own provost and live to tell the tale. And even be appreciated for it.

That still bewilders me.

Scholars can be vindictive and manipulative as hell. You have no idea. I’m telling you, you have no idea. It can be all Game of Thrones in the Academy. I don’t know why I haven’t been punished more for refusing to play the game. I suspect part of it is my damn soft and sincere affection for human beings. Somehow I get away with being pals with departments that have no love for each other. I also suspect it’s something about the place.

Sometimes I think I’m beginning to understand why people would care enough to stay. Why they’d freely accept a situation that will make scholarship harder.

I have a colleague who is downright paranoid about the possibility that some other college will snatch me away. He mutters about it to himself almost anytime we talk. I just smile. It’s not as if some places haven’t begun to test the waters with me. It would be tricky to acknowledge more than that. All I know so far is that I start to think, “But would I see Brother Charles ever again? And what about Paul? And would the students be as irreverent? And there’s Michael, and…”

And everything that isn’t things and accolades. Everything that makes a college real.

So I just smile.

Allowing another’s faith to be.

By Andre Kohn

By Andre Kohn

We sat in a darkened church just before Easter Vigil. I was with a young family, good friends of mine. Their four-year-old girl twitched next to me, teetering toward an oddly polite version of desperately bored. I leaned back in the pew and cocked my head at her: “What do you think Jesus was like as a child?”

This particular child scowled at me, smooth face suddenly stark and stern. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I wonder about it,” I said, unfazed. “I think he played games, had fun. Like you.”

“I don’t know,” she said again, displeased with me. She hung on her mom as she watched me, one arm around her mother’s neck while she leaned her whole body weight in the other direction. This is simply what one does with moms.

I smiled, not quite sure what bothered her. Perhaps it was the impossibility of knowing concrete facts about Jesus’ childhood, or the lack of stories about it, or some kind of preternatural sensitivity to historical verisimilitudes, or that it was getting kind of late. I didn’t mind. I love talking to children about almost anything, especially religion. They really do think about things with all their hearts. And I really do take them very seriously.

“So,” I tried again, “What do you think Jesus was like as an adult?”

“I don’t know,” she groused, tone sharp. Her mother tenderly scolded her. This is not how one speaks to adults.

I raised my eyebrows. “Why do you think it’s so hard to know?”

The young girl twined her hands around her mother’s neck to leverage herself up over her mother’s lap. Her mother gently steered her daughter’s thin frame, folding her away from disaster without a second thought. The child released her mom and sat down – laid down, really – half on the pew, half on her mother’s lap. “I don’t know,” she said again, softer.

I waited.

“It’s just hard,” she said, staring at the ceiling of the church. “Jesus is pretend.”

Out of the girl’s line of sight, I saw her mother twitch at the words. She wants her daughter to know Jesus is real, wants this very much. And it is hard, answering a child’s questions about infinite things. It is hard, repeating the words we ourselves barely understand. How is one supposed to raise anyone among mysteries anyway?

I stared at the empty tabernacle – it was Easter Vigil, remember – and thought carefully over her words. This, especially, is what I love about other people. Trying to imagine what they mean on their own terms. I could see the young girl’s mother frowning, trying to think of what to say too. It’s hard, trying to know that.

“Yes,” I said after a moment. “Jesus is so hard to picture. We can’t see him, so we have to imagine him. So it’s like pretend.”

Her mom’s face lit up. “Yes, that’s right. But he’s always with us, too.”

The girl twisted around and crawled over her mother’s lap to slump against her dad at an awkward angle. She shifted immediately, back to using her mom as a swing set. I took this as agreement.

“He’s hard to picture,” the child said.

I grinned and folded my arms. “Yes, but in the Mass he’s very near to us. We meet him in the Eucharist. We get to see him.”

The little girl did not respond – too busy working on some new impossible way to sit – but I didn’t expect her to. Nor did I expect her to understand a word I’d said. It should be like that, I think. Or I should say that it is like that, the world we’re in: people saying things we don’t even realize we don’t understand. But that doesn’t mean the words don’t sit with us. Or that the strangeness of it doesn’t follow us. These ways of speaking, the ones we don’t get, are friends that walk with us in the dark. Right next to the words we do understand.

Because knowledge, real knowledge, has a certain infinity to it. And faith only makes it more infinite. This is why it is okay if someone doesn’t understand – as long as we never treat them like they never will. It’s why it’s okay that we also don’t know, can’t know – as long as we don’t act as if we never will.

God is the one who walks among the words we do and don’t understand.

On Power. Or: How To Teach Students By Persecuting Them

Dietrich von Hildebrand

Dietrich von Hildebrand

I prowled the classroom, glancing at my department chair, who was there to evaluate me. “Okay. So who’s going to stop me?” Dead silence from my students. I waited a beat, studying their faces. “What’s wrong?” After another stretch of quiet, a student offered me a hesitant, “We’re scared of you.”

I laughed. “Really? You know me by now. I’m a marshmallow. You’ll be okay, I promise. Now, try and stop me from torturing you!”

The task was both simple and complex: we had been reading Dietrich von Hildebrand’s memoirs of his intellectual and moral struggle against National Socialism in the 1920’s and 30’s (recently collected in My Battle Against Hitler), a struggle that eventually earned him a death sentence in absentia. Von Hildebrand was a Catholic philosopher who ended up at Fordham in New York, having escaped the Nazis. The task for them in the class was to use von Hildebrand to argue in response to me and my evil professor plans, a dim reflection of von Hildebrand’s situation. Thus they themselves faced a terrible imaginary fate. My malevolent scheme was to pretend that I was convinced one of them had stolen a copy of my exam, and that in a fit of rage I was determined to punish all of them for it or else have the guilty party confess. Everyone would fail unless I got my way or unless they endured a series of torturous assignments that might give them a better grade. Maybe. They couldn’t be sure.

All of this required them to be aware of what they had read (please, God) and to apply it to a new situation, which demands a deeper and more creative understanding. I knew this would be a challenge, and yet engaging in a way much more immediate to their own experiences. In the class before, they’d had trouble imagining Europe of the past. They couldn’t populate it with themes and places and faces.

I, being ever so wise as their observant and farsighted professor, figured out a way to help about ten minutes before class actually began. To be honest, it was a gamble. But I’ve never been able to refuse a chance at crashing hard and bursting into flames.

Right. And my boss was there. For a pre-tenure evaluation and write-up. So. Now was clearly the time to try something absolutely new.

And this new path required them to trust me. To imagine with me. To dare.

And they were afraid.

I could picture them standing at the edge of a pool, wearing floaties, shivering as I swam around and tried to get them to hop into the water. How were they supposed to know whether I’d drown them and laugh an evil laugh?

So I gently reassured them of my own past behavior, my consistent affection for them, and they began to speak. As we reviewed the easiest themes to find – inherent human dignity, being made in the image of God – I set myself to reinforcing their feelings of safety and support. Rather than playing it straight, I announced my evil self’s counter-arguments with dramatic and absurd unreality. I swiftly took up their side the moment they offered anything, and I helped them to expand their claims.

It is hard to play with ideas. There is such risk in it, especially with the unspoken power of the teacher present and expectant. Failing does not seem like an option, or at least not a good one. Thus I worked to show them that my own power over them was bent toward helping them, even while such power was explicitly on the table for our consideration.

We shuffled through von Hildebrand’s various illuminating themes, through his memories of the people he knew, the fellow Catholics who surrendered their minds to the thoughts of the day.

Aware that we had danced around the most obvious objections to the Nazis, I posed a further problem: the seniors, desperate to graduate and therefore not to fail, had formed a bloc of sympathizers. They worked to placate their depraved professor, had plans to blame someone for the stolen exam so they could be free. What, then, must the class do?

Von Hildebrand suddenly revealed himself to them as a careful dismantler of elusive rationalizations, as a man bent on unmasking lies. Beneath the stable face of National Socialism, even very early in its rise, he saw a terrifying and nihilistic will to power. He saw power without reason, without value. No value he could call real. Appeasing the beast meant offering one’s soul for consumption. Von Hildebrand couldn’t bear it, and indeed was driven from Germany because of his lectures.

The class could not safely appease their evil professor. It was clear, after all, that I wasn’t interested in them in the least. I gently assured them that I wasn’t, softened the fiction further with a small grin. Power in itself, power loved for itself, is insatiable and cruel.

At this a new silence arose. A fumbling awareness that there was a problem without a clear solution. I could see their minds racing, fighting to catch on something, anything.

I closed my eyes, lifted my chin. “I’m picturing… That everything is in black and white. Somehow. And we’re all in Victorian clothing for some reason. It’s grim.” I opened my eyes to laughter.

A student suddenly added, “And you’re wearing a hat.” Then another: “We’ve all got gloves on. And dark make-up.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I said, nodding. “Now that we’ve got it all pictured, let’s think again.”

I remember how terrifying a professor’s knowledge could be. How it seemed so vast and so unassailable. It loomed like some massive invisible mountain, glittering behind their eyes. Threat more than treasure.

So we worked together to unhinge the hungry teeth of amoral power.

A student began to insist that it was the imaginary TA who did everything. It wasn’t any of them. Just that crafty TA. She was sure of it. I liked that. It highlighted the arbitrariness of my fictional actions.

Luckily for me, or perhaps un-luckily, a student with whom I am very close decided to make an appearance. He sprints around on campus on a little scooter, as walking is difficult for him. He’s not at all in that class of mine. Grinning, he sped into the classroom and halted at my side.

“Alex!” I said without missing a beat. “We’re trying to figure out how to stop me from committing a terrible act of professor-ing against everyone in the class. Glad you’re here.” Alex nodded. I turned to the class. “The seniors have decided to offer up a sacrificial lamb to me, and I’ll subject that person to lectures on pythagorean number mysticism. Alex, you are that victim. You’re not even in the class.”

Giggles echoed in the room. Alex accepted his grim fate with brave grace. He kept trying to lie and say that he did it, that everything is okay now, and I kept telling him to stop it. He offered to take the punishment anyway. I scowled at him and said he was ruining everything.

Alternate realities have a way of battling each other in imaginary games. So, too, in the real world. We can sometimes see the world with vastly different imaginations. But those offered realities are not of equal value. Von Hildebrand insisted that National Socialism was a fiction, that it wasn’t even German, was laughably and ironically un-German. It wasn’t real. It could only pretend, and had to scream and punish to get others to follow along. There was no joy or play; there was no wide space made from values.

So we came to the profound crisis of von Hildebrand’s life. It wasn’t a crisis in the sense that he wasn’t sure what to do. He was very sure. He saw it clearly. He didn’t mind the cost, and his wife was at his side. It was a crisis because of what it revealed, what it unmasked. The terrible insight that offered the clear decision.

I know that underneath my gentleness there is a certain ferocity, and it surfaces in subtle and striking ways. Though diminutive and soft-spoken, I can command a classroom without raising my voice. I am fully able to intimidate. Students are aware, and seem sensitive to how I use the skill.

We talked, then, about poor Alex – who was not being helpful – and what really ought to be done, and what was really very wrong about my evil self. I had claimed that my actions were perfectly within my rights, even if I couldn’t be sure who had done what I said, even if I clearly didn’t mind accepting an accusation against a student who wasn’t in the class, even if I obviously cared nothing for the goodness their very existence demands of me. We’ve all heard stories of mean professors. My kind are famous for it. That’s what a real professor is: intellective command.

I leaned back against the board. “Is that really the case, class? Am I using my power, my very real power over you, in a way that a real professor should? No, not at all. Not in the slightest, famous stories and stereotypes be damned. I’m here to help you learn, and nothing I have done in this scenario has even remotely helped you learn anything. Perhaps you’ve learned to be afraid. What must we do as we watch Alex, as we are faced with a decision, as we are given an impossible choice between guilty freedom and our own suffering?”

I had them look at the page in which von Hildebrand recalls his response to a German census that forced its citizens to name whether they were Aryan or non-Aryan. Von Hildebrand was so furious and disgusted at the very question that he checked “non-Aryan.” The Third Reich was apoplectic, and it was good he was in Rome rather than in Germany then.

Quiet for a moment, I looked at my students. “Sometimes,” I said, voice low, “we must refuse the test itself. We must reject the very question, the very terms. ‘No, professor,’ you must say, though it might not end well. ‘You are not being a professor. We will not surrender one of us, and you must not, are never allowed, to hurt us simply because you can.’ Sometimes you’ve got to say No to the whole thing.”

I left my class with this thought, hoping that we had imagined ourselves into reality. Hoping that we had divested myself of power, and consecrated it back into my hands to be wielded for goodness and truth alone.

And, faced with a frightening impossible, would that we all had strength enough to refuse its terms.

Loving Dante.

sweet dee fire

I’m really worried about reading Dante’s Purgatorio with my college sophomores in Seminar. Worried, because I cannot be held responsible for what I do to people who hate Dante to my face. I might cry. Cry and lock them in a burning building.

Or send them on a scavenger hunt into the woods where they find themselves in a building that I set on fire.

Or strap them to a rocket that I launch into another rocket, and then the explosion would set a building on fire.

I am not permitted to speak in Seminar, save to facilitate conversation. There is to be no context, no prelude. The task for students is to read and discuss with one another on their own. This has me on tenterhooks. Already, there has been grousing. And I have behaved. Mostly. As Augustine and Hildegard von Bingen and Boetheius fall before my sophomores, unheard.

Sill, I cannot imagine what I will do if they hate this, really hate it, this wonderful work, which will reach us at the darkening edge of the long semester.

The Divine Comedy is an exquisite poem. A fierce drama. A fiction and a truth. It is a breathtaking meditation on suffering and mercy. It is a heartbreaking love story that closes having left behind its lovers. It is a journey between a student and his master, and both make way for someone else by the end. It is pagan and it is Christian; philosophy and theology; medieval and modern. There is something in Dante’s Commedia for everyone. And if my sophomores can’t find that something…

I will send them on a ship that will sail across the sea into a harbor, and in that harbor will be a foreign guide, and the guide will lead them into a building that I set on fire.

I love Dante’s poetry. I taught myself freaking Medieval Florentine just so I could hear the music of the words better. I’ve translated entire sections of the Commedia just to try. I wrote an entire damn book in which I deliberately wore the mask of Dante. In case it isn’t obvious, I’ll repeat that I really, really love Dante’s poetry. From the inside out, from the obscure works to the famous Divine Comedy.

If I knew the Bible half as well as I knew Dante, I’d be a real Christian.

So what will I do if my sophomores sneer at Dante?

I will give them a cute puppy who will lead them down a path into a field, toward a building with other puppies in it, and they will go inside looking for more puppies, but really it will be a recording, and me and the puppy will set the building on fire.

That’ll show them.


Picture originally from Flickr. All rights reserved to the original photographer.

Preparing for Divinization

“The Six Winged Seraph,” Mikhail Vrubel

“What is that word, salvation?” I ask my students consistently, without yet offering them an answer. Grinning like an idiot, and feigning a sort of ridiculous secretiveness. I haven’t wanted to say – not quite yet. (As if I could, as if any of us could, really understand.) And in any case, I am so very tired of the usual phrases.

Saved from Hell. From damnation. From sin. What do those words mean, and why is salvation all that interesting – if it’s just some kind of rescue mission? Perhaps I can be frightened into being good. But that’s a cruel goodness indeed: all shivering, bruised submission. And for what? Heaven? What on earth is that? We repeat it as if we know.

We need patience with these words, words used so often they’ve gone and died. We need a delicate attitude toward them, as if we’re holding cracked glass, so that they may yet reflect the history we insist on forgetting. “Don’t say it so quickly,” I tell my students. “Don’t say ‘salvation.’ We’ve hardly searched our hearts.”

The much more daring thing is to let go and let the old word live among the other words that have accompanied it. The sorrow over death, the ragged covenants. The promises and the losses. And the new life.

That is the word that is much more popular in the New Testament, the word that flares with the splendor of the Old: new life.

In fact, God gives us His own divine life. We partake in God – this is what the old Christians said, long ago. We are transfigured, made “like God,” who transfigures all things, so that He is all in all. This is what resurrection means. And that is the really daring thing: salvation is the offer of divine life. Not divinity – not in itself – but the total patterning of earthly existence according to the eternity of the Triune God.

Not a rescue mission. Not a threat. Not an exchange.

It – salvation, this word we repeat too much – is a resplendent offering of what is most intimate to God. For so long this is what Christians have believed, and what we so often forget. Salvation is the sharing in the life of God. “Divinization,” the old Christians called it. I will repeat it again, and let it sink in: Christ gives us participation in the very life of God.

It is so much more vital (do you see?) than the tired phrases we repeat to forget the astounding originary life of the One who reconciled all things to Himself. The earthly life that astounds by giving Divine Life.

Do not tell me Jesus saves. It is so much more. So much.

Let us wait a while, so we can know a little.

The Hardest of Teaching: Knowing When To…Not

Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky, “At School Doors”

College-level education is as filled with pedagogical discussions as any faculty office of any level. It is a major concern. And yet I think, beneath the jargon and the method, we need to remember something very important: knowing when to do nothing at all.

Often we think of what to do. Of what needs to be known. To be read. To be argued. To be imparted. And of course, there is no time for all of it.

And of course, they cannot read.

And they cannot write.

So many needs that cannot possibly be met by a single individual in a single semester. I don’t care how many learning objectives, readings, group activities, and assignments you map for me: it is not enough. It will never be enough. Nor will it make education come to be. There is too much at hand, even when all of the steps are followed perfectly.

I think the key to really excellent teaching isn’t so much in successfully reaching a goal as it is in patiently welcoming failure after failure. In grinning at a mess. In knowing, with humility and humor, that they will forget most of it. That it is not possible to give enough background. That they will turn complexity into simplicity. That I will misjudge the hour, the words, the moment. And still to know that this, too, is learning.

I cannot count the wrong-headed things I myself have thought and un-thought, given enough time. Cannot remember most of the lessons I received at any point in my life, though they spin together in the synapses of my mind. All the things I apprehended and misapprehended all at once: they rest there as a sort of living history. “Scaffolding” is an idea the educational psychologist Erik Erikson taught: the teacher needs to build in steps, and then pull the scaffolding away to allow the student to think. Well, time is also a scaffolding. Time is the necessary condition of all learning. Patience is the necessary generosity of an education.

It is important to know when to correct, and when to not. It is fundamental to know to when to step in, and when to permit a struggle. Every teacher must know when to speak and when to remain silent. When a question is better than an answer. And, sometimes, when nothing at all is sufficient – except time, and patience for time.

All of us exist in a sort of poverty. Empty-handed and hungry. If the teacher gives to the hungry student, then it is out of a shared poverty. Out of a disposition that teaches the student patience for the unknown, and impatience for more. The teacher, more than anything, must embody such a disposition. It cannot be taught. Only offered continually, patiently, gently. From one poor beggar to another.

Learning is lifelong. This is why, before and after everything, it has to be lived. Not merely taught.