About Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson is an English Teacher. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Wheaton College, M.A. in Journalism from the University of Missouri, and M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John's College. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, Image, The Christian Century, and Christian Scholar's Review.

John Henry Newman on original sin

My theology students are currently studying theological anthropology. Here is a breathtaking excerpt from John Henry Newman’s spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua (1865), on original sin, a doctrine he establishes as “fact” by reflecting on the moral ambiguity and intellectual incoherence of the world:

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,” — all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. [. . .] If there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.


Litany of Penitence

When I attended an Ash Wednesday service at my local parish, the celebrant led the people in the Book of Common Prayer’s “Litany of Penitence,” which I have personalized for devotional use during Lent.

Most holy and merciful Father:
I confess to you,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that I have sinned by my own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what I have done, and by what I have left undone.

I have not loved you with my whole heart, and mind, and
strength. I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I
have not forgiven others, as I have been forgiven.
Have mercy on me, Lord.

I have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served me.
I have not been true to the mind of Christ. I have grieved
your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on me, Lord.

I confess to you, Lord, all my past unfaithfulness: the
pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of my life,
I confess to you, Lord.

My self-indulgent appetites and ways, and my exploitation
of other people,
I confess to you, Lord.

My anger at my own frustration, and my envy of those
more fortunate than myself,
I confess to you, Lord.

My intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and
my dishonesty in daily life and work,
I confess to you, Lord.

My negligence in prayer and worship, and my failure to
commend the faith that is in me,
I confess to you, Lord.

Accept my repentance, Lord, for the wrongs I have done:
for my blindness to human need and suffering, and
indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept my repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward my
neighbors, and for my prejudice and contempt toward those
who differ from me,
Accept my repentance, Lord.

For my waste and pollution of your creation, and my lack of
concern for those who come after me,
Accept my repentance, Lord.

Restore me, good Lord, and let your anger depart from me;
Favorably hear me, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in me the work of your salvation,
That I may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son my Lord,
Bring me with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

“Pietà” by R. S. Thomas


Pietà of Tubądzin (circa 1450)

When I read Jay Parini’s excellent biography, Robert Frost: A Life, he included this unforgettable quotation by Frost:

It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound, that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It has not to wait the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but that we knew at sight that we never could forget it. There was a barb to it and a toxin that we owned at once.

As soon as I read “Pietà” from the Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, I took “an immortal wound, that [I] will never get over.”


Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene.

And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.

Thomas has lodged this poem inside me to stay. In a single indelible moment, he captures the entire purpose of the Incarnation, bringing together the cradle of Advent and the cross of Lent: Jesus was born to die, and all creation witnessed the Christ-event but none more affectionately and agonizingly than his mother. Mary was the cradle at the birth and death of her son. Cosmic harmony is at work as the wooden cross “aches for the Body” of the woodworker: his crucifixion begins to liberate creation, which “has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22).

Dwell incessantly on the Cross

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,
but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling
block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. (1 Cor. 1:22-23)

Lent is almost upon us. For my theology class, students read Robert Webber’s chapter on Lent in Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. He uses an arresting epigraph from John Chrysostom (AD 347-407):

Although we praise our common Lord for all kinds of reasons, we praise and glorify him above all for the cross. [Paul] passes over everything else that Christ did for our advantage and consolation and dwells incessantly on the cross. The proof of God’s love for us, he says, is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Then in the following sentence he gives us the highest ground for hope: If, when we were alienated from God, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son, how much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!

Generally speaking, Protestants tend to be Easter Christians, emphasizing the untenanted cross, while Catholics tend to be Good Friday Christians, emphasizing the crucifix. Orthodox Christianity holds both to be true. There is no Easter rejoicing without Good Friday sorrow, no resurrection without death. Chrysostom’s quotation reinforces why I chose the motto of this blog — Optimum est semper in cruce meditari [“How wholesome it is, always, to meditate on the Cross of Christ”] — from St. Bonaventure’s Good Friday sermon.

Should we explain evil?

Should we explain evil? Some have tried.

  • Immaturity: Irenaeus of Lyons said evil originates from the immature stage of humans at creation. He wrote: “Humanity was a child; and its mind was not yet fully mature; and thus humanity was easily led astray by the deceiver.”
  • Necessary evil: Origen and Calvin said evil is necessary for God’s purposes. Origen wrote: “God does not create evil; still, he does not prevent it when it is shown by others, although he could do so. But he uses both evil and those who show it for necessary purposes. For through those in whom there is evil, he brings distinction and testing to those who strive for the glory of virtue. Virtue, if unopposed, would not shine out nor become more glorious by being tested. Virtue is not virtue if it be untested and unexamined.” Following this trajectory, Calvin wrote: “There is no random power or agency or motion in God’s creatures, who are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens [including, presumably, evil] except that which he has knowingly and willingly decreed.”
  • Privation theory of evil: Augustine of Hippo and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio said evil originates from a defective movement of the human will. Augustine wrote: “The movement of turning away, which we admit is sin, is a defective movement; and defect comes from nothing.” Following this trajectory, Bonaventure wrote: “Sin is not any kind of essence but a defect and corruption by which the mode, species and order of the created will are corrupted. Hence the corruption of sin is opposed to good itself. It has no existence except in the good.”

Of the views above, I reject immaturity because God “created man [and woman] in his own image,” “blessed them,” and pronounced everything that he made “very good” (Gen. 1:26-31). I also reject necessary evil because it calls into question the power, justice, and benevolence of God. God has no business with evil, owing to his holiness. Therefore, I am the most sympathetic to the privation theory of evil because it holds that evil is not a positive entity, although it is weak to address the psychological and phenomenological affects of evil. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart makes some important qualifications to this theory:

Christian thought has traditionally, of necessity, defined evil as a privation of the good, possessing no essence or nature of its own, a purely parasitic corruption of reality; hence it can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness. Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God has no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent — though immeasurably more vile — is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.

Hart goes on to reject theodicy, which is a theoretical justification of God’s goodness in the presence of evil in the world. John Milton famously undertakes the project of theodicy in his epic poem Paradise Lost:

What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal providence
And justify the ways of God to men.

Can any finite creature justify the ways of an infinite God to men? What the Lord declares to the prophet Isaiah sounds like a resounding “No”:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8-9)

Why are we tempted by theodicy? I suspect it is to console ourselves with what is inconsolable, to explain what is inexplicable. Theodicy, it seems, is a fool’s errand. Our challenge is to endure the senselessness of evil with faith, hope, and love.

In December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami caused terrible ruin and loss of life in many coastal regions of southwest Asia. Reflecting on this event, Hart gives me  permission to stop trying to explain why evil may exist and instead love what God loves and hate what God hates (Prov. 6:16-19; Prov. 8:13; Ps. 97:10). What follows is some of the most inspired theological writing that I have ever read because it rings of truth:

I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation and visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity. […]

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

This is a principled refusal to explain evil.

Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman

Where he probably goes wrong, mused the engineer sleepily,
is in the extremity of his alternatives: God and not-God,
getting under women’s dresses and blowing your brains out.
Whereas and in fact my problem is how to live from one
ordinary minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.
Has this not been the case with all “religious” people?

As one of our nation’s greatest satirists, “[Walker] Percy is a writer with a message, concerned to convey a vision,” claims scholar Ralph C. Wood in The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. “His fiction makes a withering critique of what is spiritually inane about contemporary American life, even as it also hints at a way beyond our current malaise. Yet Percy remains an artist rather than a preacher. His Catholic existentialism is couched in literary terms that appeal to the imagination more than the will. Though Percy may seek to revolutionize our way of seeing, he leaves to the church the task of proclaiming and enacting the Gospel of the world’s salvation.”

Having previously read The Moviegoer (1962), a winner of the National Book Award, I desire to further explore his fiction, even though “Walker Percy is kinda like an IPA (India Pale Ale) — an acquired taste,” as my friend Bryce quips. We are undertaking two novels that are connected by the same protagonist.

The Last Gentleman (1966)
Will Barrett is the last gentleman, a twenty-five year old wanderer from the South living in New York City with no plans for the future and detached from his past. The purchase of a telescope one summer day changes his life — for while searching for an elusive peregrine falcon in Central Park, Will accidentally spots a beautiful young woman and falls in love with her. And so begins his quest for home, identity, and the meaning of contemporary life.

The Second Coming (1980)
Will Barrett, a lonely widower, suffers from a depression so severe that he decides he doesn’t want to continue living. But then he meets Allison, a mental hospital escapee making a new life for herself, living alone in a greenhouse. What follows is by turns touching and zany, tragic and comic, as Will goes in search of proof of God and winds up finding much more.

For The Last Gentleman, I formulated questions for each chapter that are designed to provoke contemplation and conversation. Lacking chapter titles, I wrote my own within brackets below, focusing on the important locales in the story with the exception of the third chapter, which narrates Will Barrett’s transportation from the North to the South. I am intrigued that the hero’s story begins in a park and ends in a desert, as if it is a microcosm of the biblical story about our human parents, who, suddenly thrown out of a garden and into the wilderness, gained “the possibility of a happy, useful life” through “astonishment” at their true condition (385, 389).

Last GentlemanChapter 1 [Central Park]

With a background of Princeton University and the U.S. Army, Will Barrett is a Southern misfit in New York City, who rents a room at the Y.M.C.A., works as a humidification engineer at Macy’s, serves as “a companion to lonely and unhappy adolescents” (19), and regularly visits a psychoanalyst, who thinks he suffers from an “identity crisis” (39).

Particular: Will Barrett spends his inheritance money on a costly telescope. From his vigil in Central Park, he watches the world through “the brilliant theater of its lenses” (5). The narrator says: “Often nowadays people do not know what to do and so live out their lives as if they were waiting for some sign or other” (6). If Will uses the telescope to wait for some sign, how would he know if what he sees is truly a sign?

Universal: What is the relationship between existential disorientation and signs?

To explore this question, consider the following:

  • The etymological origin of sign comes from a Latin word that means “mark” or “token.”
  • The primary denotation of sign is “an object, quality, or event whose presence or occurrence indicates the probable presence or occurrence of something else.”
  • Before Jesus heals an official’s son, he says to the father: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:46-54). Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees who demand signs: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:1-4). On his second coming, Jesus warns his disciples: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:23-24).

Chapter 2 [Hospital]

After the “chance event” of sighting of a girl through his telescope and falling in love, Will follows her companion to a hospital, where he meets the Vaught family, who will change the rest of his life (3, 7).

Particular: Will Barrett suffers from a “nervous condition” with symptoms that include bouts of déjà vu, “spells of amnesia,” and occasional lapses into fugue states (11-12). What does this nervous condition reveal about his spiritual predicament, and how does it affect his vision of the world? Consider specific examples, such as the hallucination at Nedick’s corner (44-46), the three-month hospitalization for amnesia (56-57), the blackout on the subway ride with Kitty (68-74), the wrong train from Pennsylvania Station (89-91), or the déjà vu of summertime in Central Park (98-101).

Universal: How are body, mind, and spirit related? Do some people feign sickness for the sake of receiving love and attention?

Chapter 3 [Trav-L-Aire]

This chapter records Will Barrett’s adventure on the road from New York City to the Golden Isles of Georgia, where he further enmeshes himself in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Vaught, their children, Kitty and Jamie, and their daughter-in-law, Rita.

Particular: Will has two salient exchanges with Kitty about love, one on “Folly Beach in old Carolina in the moonlight” (164-168) and the other in the camper during a storm (174-180). Kitty awakens Will to the various roles he may play in their relationship: “boyfriend and girlfriend, lover and father” (167); fornicator to a whore (178-179), gentleman to a lady (179-180). How do these roles induce a “values crisis” for Will (135-136)?

Universal: What roles are fitting and ill-fitting to romantic love?

Chapter 4 [Castle]

Having returned to his native South, as a companion and tutor to the infirm Jamie, Will Barrett resides with the Vaughts at their “castle fronting on a golf links” (189).

Particular: Early in the novel, we are told about an “alarming symptom” of Will: “He felt bad when other people felt good and good when they felt bad” (22). While this symptom appears in various places (46, 174), it is nowhere more obvious than when this Southerner returns to the South:

The South he came home to was different from the South he had left. It was happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic and Republican.

The happiness and serenity of the South disconcerted him. He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt so bad. True, there was a happiness in the North. That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied that he was unhappy. And certainly the North was victorious. It had never lost a war. But Northerners had turned morose in their victory. They were solitary and shut-off to themselves and he, the engineer, had got used to living among them. Their cities, rich and busy as they were, nevertheless looked bombed out. And his own happiness had come from being onto the unhappiness beneath their happiness. It was possible for him to be at home in the North because the North was homeless. There are many things worse than being homeless in a homeless place — in fact, this is one condition of being at home, if you are yourself homeless. For example, it is much worse to be homeless and then go home where everyone is at home and then still be homeless. The South was at home. Therefore his homelessness was much worse in the South because he had expected to find himself at home there. (185-186)

How much of Will’s unhappiness is related to dislocation?

Universal: What does it mean for a person to be “at home”?

Chapter 5 [Guest Ranch]

Leaving Kitty behind with the promise of marriage, Will Barrett travels through the South to the desert of northern New Mexico in order to fulfill his pledge to take care of Jamie, who has joined his dissolute brother, Sutter.

This final chapter offers the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional dividend after a somewhat tedious investment throughout the novel. Until this chapter, I questioned whether I even liked The Last Gentleman. It seemed to be the story of a nobody going nowhere. Will’s epiphany in the desert is deeply gratifying because the reader waits and waits for an epiphany, assuming it will never come. And then it does — unexpectedly, movingly. Just when I doubted the coherence of the story, the last chapter pulls everything together, which not only reflects the author’s design but, on a larger scale, providential care through the confused details of our lives. When the Catholic priest holds Jamie’s hand on his deathbed, he promises him that he will be with “our Blessed Lord and Savior” and “Our Lady,” petitioning him: “Then I ask you to pray to them for me and for your brother here and for your friend who loves you.” At this point, I cried with an immediate realization about the story’s hero: Will Barrett only recovers his health by loving a diseased and dying boy. Love heals.

I have two main inquiries. Here is the first.

Particular: Death haunts this chapter in a skull on the armoire of the Barrett family house (343-344), in raptures about suicide in Sutter’s notebook (344-346, 372-373), in the sick body of Jamie (362), and in “Sutter’s antics with the pistol” (387). Mindful that the story ends with the sacrament of baptism, a symbolic action of death and life (Romans 6:3-5), how does Sutter’s claim in his notebook — “the certain availability of death is the very condition of recovering oneself” (372) — apply to Jamie, Will, and Sutter?

Universal: How is death — not fornication — “the sole channel to the real” (372)?

Here is the second inquiry.

Particular: The novel begins with Will Barrett picking up a telescope and ends with him putting it down.

Dark fell suddenly and the stars came out. They drew in and in half an hour hung as large and low as yellow lamps at a garden party. Suddenly remembering his telescope, he fetched it from the cabin and clamped it to the door of the cab like a malt tray. Now spying the square of Pegasus, he focused on a smudge in the tail and there it was, the great cold fire of Andromeda, as big as a Catherine wheel, as slow and silent in its turning, stopped as tumult seen from far away. He shivered. I’m through with telescopes, he thought, and the vasty galaxies. What do I need with Andromeda? What I need is my Bama bride and my cozy camper, a match struck and the butane lit and a friendly square of light cast upon the neighbor earth, and a hot cup of Luzianne between us against the desert cold, and a warm bed and there lie dreaming in one another’s arms while old Andromeda leans through the night. (357-358)

Once lost in the cosmos but now found in the desert, Will retires his telescope because, it seems, he no longer waits for a sign, which, ironically, puts him in the same company as Sutter (377-378). Remembering that his analyst suggests the telescope could be “the magical means” for becoming a “seer” or “see-er,” how might we interpret Will’s decisive action (37)?

Universal: Should we wait for a sign?


At the end of the novel, I returned to the beginning again, which includes two epigraphs that provoke more questions.

If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.
— Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Questions: How is self-forgetfulness related to human dignity? Will Barrett involuntarily forgets himself because of his amnesia and fugue states, but does he learn to voluntarily forget himself? If so, when? And what is significant about those circumstances?

. . . We know now that the modern world is coming to an end . . . at the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap the benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies . . . Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another . . . the world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean.
— Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World

Questions: How is The Last Gentleman a story about the “love which flows from one lonely person to another”?


Silo mentality

MSNBC and FOX.jpg

I love this New Yorker cartoon, where a husband and wife watch the news on a serpentine sofa, absorbed in their respective media silos. MSNBC and FOX News exist for the confirmation bias of their viewers: current events are framed to confirm preexisting beliefs, facts bend to ideology, and reality gets lost in the midst. No wonder civil discourse becomes nearly impossible today.

Here’s a way to start breaking out of the silo mentality*: read Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

* Or, if you’re more ambitious, read Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Poetics, St. Augustine’s City of God, Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on Law (Summa Theologica, Questions 90-97), The Federalist Papers, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, and Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations and The Ways of Judgment. 

One book for every life

In Katharine Smyth’s new book, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, which is part memoir and part literary criticism, she writes:

Perhaps there is one book for every life.

One book with the power to reflect and illuminate that life; one book that will forever inform how we navigate the little strip of time we are given, while also helping us to clarify and catch hold of its most vital moments. For me, that book is To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf’s novel about her parents, Julia and Leslie Stephen, who died when Virginia was thirteen and twenty-two, respectively. First published in 1927, it tells the story of the Ramseys, a family of ten who, along with an assorted group of friends, spends the summer on a remote island in the Hebrides. Tells the story of the Ramsays? I should rephrase: To the Lighthouse tells the story of everything. 

QUESTION: What is the book for your life, the one with “the power to reflect and illuminate” it, one that will forever inform how you “navigate the little strip of time [you] are given, while also helping [you] to clarify and catch hold of its most vital moments”?

On how the mind is shaped by what you notice and how to define “success”

This morning I listened to the On Being podcast with host Krista Tippett. Her guest was Maria Popova, who Tippett calls a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age.” Popova is the creator of Brain Pickings, “an inquiry into what it means to live a decent, substantive, rewarding life, and a record of [her] own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — drawn from [her] extended marginalia on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought and feeling.”

I am going to share two excerpts. The first concerns the knowing subject (humans) and the known object (the world).

Popova: We never see the world exactly as it is. We see it as we hope it will be or we fear it might be. And we spend our lives going through a sort of modified stages of grief about that realization. We deny it, and then we argue with it, and we despair over it. But eventually — and this is my belief — we come to see it, not as despairing, but as vitalizing.

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. I think it was William James who said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shaped my mind.” In choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world, our inner world, our outer world, which is really the only one we’ll ever know. And to me, that’s the substance of the spiritual journey. That’s not an exasperating idea but an infinitely emboldening one. It’s taken me many years to come to that without resistance.

The quotation from William James stuck out to me, and explains why I am a teacher. The source is The Principles of Psychology:

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my sense which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground — intelligible perspective, in a word.

As a teacher, I have agreed to attend to works of the imagination (literature) and intellect (theology). My mind is shaped by noticing items of delight and wisdom. How many people can say that about their work? If I were in the commercial world rather than the educational one, I shudder to think how my mind would be shaped by noticing items in the market.

The second excerpt I want to share concerns definition of “success” that runs counter to its usual monetization:

Tippett:  If I ask you how you measure success, like, in any given day, what comes to mind?

Popova: Once again, I am going to side with Thoreau. He said something like: ‘If the day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers, it’s more elastic and more starry and more immortal, that is your success.’ For me, that’s pretty much it: waking up and being excited and curiously restless to face the day ahead, and being very present with that day, and then going to bed feeling like it actually happened, that the day was lived.

I welcome Thoreau’s vision of success as joyful living, which reminds me about the purpose of the Incarnation, as Jesus said: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). I think success is waking up, keenly aware that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is [his] faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  If I get to the end of the day, and my soul can honestly say, “The Lord was my portion,” then my day was full (3:24).

QUESTIONS: What have you agreed to attend to? What items do you habitually notice that shape your mind? How do you measure success?

An honest greeting

Hello.jpgAt my church, we are encouraged to wear name tags during the service to connect with each other. When I saw this New Yorker cartoon, I thought the man’s self-identification has theological significance for the church, which is really a hospital for the wrecked. Recall what Jesus said to the scribes of the Pharisees, who, conveniently overlooking their own condition, judged the company he kept with tax collectors and sinners: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).