Retrospect at 40, part two
  • Friday, July 5, 2013

Cæli enarrant

Dropped into the sprawling scenery of the rural Midwest, Northfield, Minnesota, and its colleges cut an idealized figure of the handsome small town, perfect for peaceful and sustained inquiry, and this was what drew me. Still outfitted in Timberland boots and red City Year jacket, the uniform of a social justice warrior, I was at first disappointed by what I considered St. Olaf’s soft-pedaled classicism and staid conformism. At least, all those conservative suburbanites seemed deaf to the cries of the poor. But I had yet to face properly the hiddenness of virtue, and the universal depth of human self-deception. Augustine and his heirs would help.

The immediate challenge, and painful curriculum, involved breaking the habit of my own mind-numbing pop-cultural presentism and breathless politics in order to learn to think and write reasonably and well. Mercifully, we were blessed with extraordinary professors who returned all of our many papers covered in red ink, through at least the sophomore year. A five-course Great Books-style sequence across two years proved especially fundamental. We started with Homer and comparable ancients, moved to Jews and Christians (incorporating both testaments of the Bible and critical commentary of a varied sort), and mapped the rest — medieval, Reformation, modern — from there, tracking and testing developments at each stage against discursive predecessors, piecing the story together. The itinerary proved enormously challenging, especially at the start — wrestling with old writers and ideas at a considerable cultural remove, often dressed in a daunting lexicon borne by a seemingly gothic syntax, subordinate clauses heaped one upon the other, far worse than this sentence here — and then increasingly gripping, and finally transformative.

Finally also because of the contrast of these courses with most of the others we took in English, history, philosophy, and anthropology, which were mainly modern and political, with considerable existential purchase but little or no metaphysical or religious interest. Looking back, I’m grateful for it all — for the American Studies major I picked up on the front end, and for the religion major on the back end, following a wide reading of the history of Western thought and a decent understanding of especially the 20th century’s secular standouts, including A.J. Ayer, Hemingway and Woolf, Heidegger and Primo Levi, Rorty and Chomsky, with feminist, Latin American, and broadly liberationist layers running alongside.

By God’s grace I integrated it all in the company of large-hearted friends given to a communal learning style — in my case a generally leftish lot, idealistic and uncynical if ironical, eager to seize the educational opportunity at hand. We took courses together and talked the books through, in and around dating relationships, familial struggles, good food, and lots of great music. Jeffrey Eugenides perfectly captures the fertility of this stage in the luminescent first chapter of his Marriage Plot: rapid intellectual and spiritual development, amid intense friendships and loves. And, just as with one of his main characters, our exposure to especially Nietzschean currents proved pivotal in clarifying our choice of something more wholesome and generally life-giving. St. Olaf ’s culture remained broadly Christian, if recently or temporarily lapsed in many instances; a more full-blown bacchanalia could no doubt be found on the campus of our cross-town rival, Carleton. At the same time, by the early 1990s the cultural-political erosion of consensus about method had reached a nadir across the humanities, and the Christian roots of many schools, including St. Olaf, were increasingly covered over, with some activists seeking to cut them off entirely in the name of progressive inclusion. This very fact — for the conflicts were revelatory of widespread divisions, settled ahistoricism, and disintegrating identity — helped me and several others to unveil, confront, and renounce the “culture of narcissism” in a kind of Alasdair MacIntyre/Robert Bellah tag team, with a broad Catholicism waiting in the wings, and prayer beckoning with increasing urgency.

Karl Barth’s either/or — the gospel or nihilism — seemed spot on, and we opted for a dawning sense of the goodness of creation and the likelihood of grace, thence the necessity of Jesus Christ and the freedom of repentance, supported by the depth and breadth of Christian thought as an attractive expositor of these. One or two holy or otherwise faithful or kind Christians provided further, incarnated witness in support of the proposal.

The soundtrack at this stage, while realizing previous gains, proceeded more concertedly into the engine room of 1970s soul and its kin, which genre rather insinuates a reoriented lingua franca for those with ears to hear — less pop cultural per se and more scriptural, joining the stream of the great conversation. “Nothing is new / they say / under the sun,” sings the guest vocalist to begin the apparently christological “Life is Anew” on Santana’s fabulous jazz-funk-fusion Borboletta, which we played in its entirety over and over, especially of a sunny morning over politics and pancakes and lots of coffee on the second floor of that old house where my buddy Derek lived. Somewhere around this time, brother ceased serving as a term of occasionally affected art and became something more like a native tongue, adopted as the best, ordinary term of address for a male friend, and possibly even for an acquaintance or the proverbial man on the street.

In this way, social justice in a communitarian mode plus great books ordered to a theological end led to ecclesiology — the Church — thence God, or vice versa. Cornel West, meet Stanley Hauerwas’s Aristotle; Nicholas Wolterstorff, meet George Lindbeck’s Aquinas. My teachers, Edmund Santurri and Douglas Schuurman, supervised the critical interruption with classical tools and texts of analysis, and then political theology in a mostly reformational mode. Robert Jenson and Bruce Marshall provided a proximate traditionary grammar in an “evangelical and catholic” key, rooted in a way of life. Jens, for instance, sang full-throatedly in the choir and lectored with captivating skill at the Episcopal parish, while turning out great books; Essays in Theology of Culture was my entry point, which I read on its appearance. And Marshall helped outfit the journey to Yale Divinity School by serving as a kind of coach in the habits of scholastic asceticism over a number of years, mostly by his own example of close and pious reading, seeking traditional answers, joined to a sacramental seriousness, not least about the perhaps impossibly divided Church.

I applied to Yale but built in a gap year with a view to practicing prayer in the company of fellow pilgrims and accountable to them. Dad tipped me off about a Church of England-based ecumenical community in London and I leapt at the opportunity to pursue spiritual maturity (the Lord gave the growth) for eight months with earnest evangelicals and charismatics. We observed a locally confected liturgy for Morning Prayer, bathed in the renewal music of the ’70s and ’80s. I fought it at first, and then settled in with love and gratitude, and meanwhile read lots of theology and palled around with a high church Lutheran ecumenist and an Italian philosopher retrieving Locke on tolerance: a feast, spiritual and intellectual. Nearby St. Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, T.S. Eliot’s longtime parish, served the main course on Sundays with gusto.

The community packed me off with moving prayers, and the Anglican priest-warden pressed a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Fern-Seed and Elephants into my hand, expressing his hope that I wouldn’t lose my faith amid academic study of theology. I believe I assured him that I would not.

Christopher Wells

Image of Steensland Library, St. Olaf College, by Calebrw (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons


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