Jun 21, 2024

the how and the why, part 3

Part 1 and Part 2 in this series.

In Wendell Berry’s incomparable novel Jayber Crow, an exchange happens between the young Jayber, then at a religious college, and a professor named Dr. Ardmire. Jayber had been laboring under the impression that maybe he was called into religious ministry full time, but while in school, he loses this call. He goes to Ardmire to talk it out:

“So, I said, “I reckon it all comes down to this, how can I preach if I don’t have any answers?”

“Yes, Mr. Crow,” he said. “How can you?” He was not one of your frying-size chickens.

“I don’t believe I can,” I said, and I felt my skin turn cold, for I had not even thought that until then.

He said, “No, I don’t believe you can.” And we sat there and looked at each other again while he waited for me to see the next thing, so he wouldn’t have to tell me: I oughtn’t to waste any time resigning my scholarship and leaving Pigeonville. I saw it soon enough.

I said, “Well,” for now I was ashamed, “I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”

“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

This dialogue is the bit we’re all supposed to wonder at — the mystery of any one life and how it adds up, the idea that our story and its purpose are probably not calculable. Our lives exceed our grasp and maybe indeed our time on the planet. But the memorable line for me happens just after this exchange: Jayber, filled with gratitude, “turned around. I was going to thank him, but he had gone back to his book.”

The professor had gone back to his book! No mystical mood hung in the air. No prolonged and meaningful parting ensues. For Professor Ardmire, a conversation with a young person about the nature of ultimate things was important but also ordinary, not exceptional.

It has taken thirty years away from college for me to fully appreciate that I had this same ordinariness at Wheaton. First-order questions were on the table. They were everyday matters in the classroom and in the offices of my professors, regular fare on a Tuesday: What is life about? What is goodness and wisdom? Is there a God? Is one’s life one’s own, or does it belong to some larger tapestry? And some of this ordinariness played out in Wheaton’s core curriculum, which required some basics in theology and Biblical studies for all students. I would most certainly have avoided those classes if given the choice, but a couple of the books I read in them have been some of the most lasting and formative of my life.

Wheaton shaped some of my friends into full-time ministers. Others it helped leave Christianity behind, not in spite of its structure, but because of it. If you insist on first-order questions in a community, young people will arrive at all kinds of places in their search for truth — in their short four years in one direction, and in ten years hence somewhere else, and in another twenty years, perhaps somewhere else again. But the insistence on the seriousness of the questions — the affirmation to young people that their late-night existential conundrums are real and necessary — was paramount on our (flawed, very human) campus.

Theology, unsurprisingly, was a required subject in America’s oldest and still-prestigious universities. Theology and philosophy’s first-order concerns as core curricula have been largely replaced by broader (and dwindling) humanities requirements as the standard college containers for existential questions about life lived well, with lots of choice and variation in place of shared experiences. For a long time, I thought this switch worked just fine. But a side comment from the critic Becca Rothfeld helped me remember what matters about theology and philosophy: they are the prescriptive disciplines, where truth claims are on offer, where evaluation and judgment are central, instead of dodging the hard stuff by the distancing effects of historicizing and contextualizing. The social sciences are descriptive in nature, says Rothfeld, which is as it should be. But that descriptive approach has come to dominate the way the humanities proceed. Students are asked: What was the historical understanding of the ideas in the Tao Te Ching? but rarely pushed, in a sustained and comparative way, to consider: Are you persuaded by these ideas? Are there tools for living in this text? Does the prescription hold? Add this to the we think about power shortcuts in many domains — where politics has acquired the status of metaphysics — and we have a lot of students looking for big ideas, transcendence, and purpose, and not finding them on campuses.

My friend Sandra and I took a long road trip last summer, and she told me a story I’d never heard before. We were at Wheaton together, and she was one of the people whose faith, having been shepherded for her in k-12 Christian schools all the way through Wheaton, added up to far more questions than answers. This was troubling to her, finishing on such wobbly ground.* Friends encouraged her to write to a much-loved theology professor and ask for advice. She had never taken his classes, but she did so in confidence. In a letter, by mail. You don’t know me, but I’m in trouble. Can you help? He wrote her back, including with his response a copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning(!) and a book on the practice of prayer. Those books sat unread for years on her shelves, but the whole gesture she never forgot. It helped her find faith again after a long time. But even if it hadn’t: A teacher agreed that her questions were real, and serious, and conjoined to others’ questions. That’s what you want, right? Learned adults in the room as companions for the really big stuff?

With my own kids, I’m looking at core curricula with strong humanities, especially because they’re history lovers. But I’m also looking especially for universities where the prescriptive disciplines are robust and shared across campus. They’re out there — sometimes in the formal curriculum, and sometimes in adjacent spaces. We’ll get to that next time.

*For what it’s worth, I tell my students that ending college with far more questions than answers is a success story.

Part 1 on formation is here and Part 2 on readiness is here.