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.



Dante 2

Oh. That’s right: I’m rather competent at some things. I forget even the feel of it in the middle of the shiver and snap of suffering – and of my memories of suffering. I lose the quiet assurance of strength gently used. And the inner mystery of both living equally real under the same skin was not lost on me as I raised my hand to emphasize a theological idea – the same hand that has marked the other arm with scars. The same hand that carefully marks pages with notes; the one that slid a knife across my throat.

I can almost hear it in my own voice, like some scar living in the sound of elegance matched with pain. I am able to speak very beautifully. I know. And I know what it is like to scream, hands over ears, unable to tell the difference between then and now.

There was a stillness, though, this time. The steadiness itself more real. It wasn’t lost on me as I spent time with some of my favorite scholars, listening to papers, avoiding papers, giving my own paper. (Theologians like papers.) I liked my paper, mostly. I thought it worked. A good beginning for a much bigger thing. A book. I actually liked my own damn paper and I wanted other scholars to hear it, to help me with it.

Some of it employed trauma as a metaphor. I explained it to fellow scholars, describing but never referencing an experience that of course I know all too well. Still, only small tokens of its elements arrived in the context of ideas much larger. Plural and in their place. Helping rather than hurting. Not like trauma usually is, looming and omnipresent as on a bad morning after nightmares, or in the middle of a triggered dissociative moment. Sure, later that night I heard a goddamn beep – I hate them so much – innocent in an ice cream shop. And instantly I vanished to awful places and I did not like it one bit. Sure, that happened. But I remembered the softness of the strength from before and held on to it.

Sometimes the very hard things are one voice among many and it is simply miraculous. I cannot help but smile – even at contradictions. I am a perfectly capable scholar and I speak well and I’m a little broken in the mind – the mind that works wonderfully and does not. As if the word and could mean a redemption of some kind. It does, though. Sometimes the trauma and its kin, those awful places etched in neurons and nerves, are not the only sound in my head. And the gathered choir makes meaning of unspeakable other things, even meaning without them.

My hands shook a little since my medicine still gives them tremors. I felt annoyed and sure my audience could see it, and that they’d interpret it as nerves. But I was fine, dammit. In fact, I thought I was good. My two favorite scholars really liked it and that seems perfect to me. A place among many. Or two.

I’m grateful to be able to hear more than one tone of feeling – even if the hearing isn’t always there. I like being able to listen and remember. Really remember what someone else has said. I have been to unspeakably dark places, but there are many more.

And probably tomorrow I’ll brood and struggle all over again. We can be in more than one place at the same time, I suppose.

Distracted. And not at all.

There are three lies that I tell in all of my courses. One of them is that I am easily distracted.

I am not, at all, distractible. Certainly not in the manner I feign in the classroom. I have other problems and such, but being abruptly and entirely obsessed with the feral cats that haunt campus is not one of them. Nor is my attention broken by the sudden mention of any pop star I loathe. (I might in fact hate them all. But, recently, at the mention of Katy Perry, I narrowed my eyes and hissed, “Teenage Dream.”) I am neither random nor arbitrary, nor all that susceptible to being swayed away from what I had planned for the day’s lesson.

When I was a little kid, I remember sitting up at night, listening to the quiet thump of my own heart, wondering how it kept me alive. I wondered about everything. I still do. Always with determined scrutiny of every angle, entirely unwilling to respond to the sound of my own name unless I thought I could safely put aside the puzzle for later. My sister says I “research the shit out of things.” (Her words. We shared a room. I can’t remember if I woke her up to ask her about death. I probably did.) I was an intense child. I remain an intense adult.

So, I am not distractible. But I pretend to be, all the time, in the classroom. I will stop, suddenly, and wonder aloud about something I have remembered. I will reach sideways into the universe of pop culture, often deliberately misunderstanding it, to draw out strange analogies. To provoke irritation. To incite laughter. To enjoy confusion.

I will even complain that I am distracted, and stand in front of my students as I straighten all the tendons in my diminutive frame, glancing around the room as if searching through a clearing for a lost conceptual thread.

But I am never. We are always arriving where I prefer. Every twisting thicket somehow always leads to just the corner of the forest I had marked on the map. I laugh to my students as if surprised, but in fact not surprised at all.

Why do I lie? Because my “distraction” is really immersion in things, awareness of and delight in details. Authentic theology – or, dare I say, authentic spirituality – is really a deep attachment to the mystery in everything. I have no idea how to teach that, except I know that it is necessary to thinking seriously. Nor do I know how to surface the thorny matter of faith without a goofy grin and some gentle sleight-of-hand that turns the eyes away from threat and toward joy. Learning is a riot, I tell my students. It’s fun and it’s work. It’s hilarious and it’s sadIt’s wonderful.

Learning is attachment to things that is willing to let them go so that they might be given back again. No one has ever learned anything that didn’t need to be relinquished and relearned. No one has ever ceased an education. Play means willingness to let something go to see what might happen, and work means willingness to follow it to the end. I’ve never had a thought I could hold onto. That’s the fun of it, though. Never holding still.

I suppose I could cleanly argue a position. Certainly I know how to corner someone until they feel compelled start calling me names. I am able to ask a question and entirely dismantle another person.

But will either of us have learned anything? Perhaps a fact or three. But nothing so exhilarating as the thrill at everything.

So I am perfectly willing to wander where my students lead, fully aware that all roads lead us back to what is beautiful. (“We will arrive where we started,” says T.S. Eliot, “and know the place for the first time.”) I play a bit distracted, when really I am listening to the sound of their hearts. A small question, a peculiar detail, a stubbornly interposed reading from a dead Christian… All things that turn the eyes away from threat and toward joy.