Tag Archives: Harry Blamires

NEW YEAR’S REFLECTIONS ON LIVING “IN TIME”

ball-drop

Another year is coming to an end, and that always leads me to think about how short life is. Does that strike you as morbid? I used to be self-conscious about this preoccupation—it’s occurred to me that I don’t get invited to a lot of New Year’s Eve parties—but I’m past that now. I think the Scripture is pretty clear that reminding ourselves of the brevity of life is something we need to do regularly. It’s a practice that can help us to follow Christ more faithfully—provided that we respond to the reminder rightly.

But did you know that reminding ourselves of the brevity of life can also help us to be better historians? As a Christian historian, it delights me to see that an awareness that we live “in time” is crucial both to thinking Christianly and to thinking historically.

As I’ve argued before on this blog, we err when we define “Christian history” by its focus, making it synonymous with the history of Christianity—the study of Christian individuals, ideas, and institutions throughout the past. We also miss the mark when we define it by its conclusions. This has been one of the worst mistakes of the advocates of the Christian America thesis. Countless well meaning (but untrained) pastors and pundits have insisted that any authentically “Christian” history of the United States will determine that the United States was founded as a Christian nation by Christian statesmen guided by Christian principles. They condemn any interpretation that questions the determining influence of Christian belief as “secular,” “liberal,” “politically correct,” “revisionist,” or in some other way hostile to Christianity.

I want to suggest instead that Christian history is distinguished by the way of thinking that underlies it. In his book The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires defined thinking “Christianly” as a way of thinking that “accepts all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God.” I’ll probably spend the rest of my life wrestling with what this requires of us, but here is what I think it means for the Christian student of history. Our study of the past will be but a subset of our larger call to “love the Lord with all our minds.” Our motive will be to understand God, ourselves, and the world more rightly, to the glory of God, the blessing of our neighbors, and the sanctification of our souls. Our approach will be to bring a Scriptural lens to bear on our contemplation of the past, keeping in mind all that the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of God and the nature and predicament of humankind.

This is where the brevity of life comes in. Both thinking Christianly and thinking historically requires us to be constantly mindful that we live in time.

So what does it mean to live “in time” as a Christian? I think it begins by daily reminding ourselves of one of the undeniable truths of Scripture: our lives are short. The Bible underscores few truths as monotonously. “Our days on earth are a shadow,” Job’s friend Bildad tells Job (Job 8:9). “My life is a breath,” Job agrees (Job 7:7). David likens our lives to a “passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14). Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers and fades (Isaiah 40:7-8).

These aren’t exhortations to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” They are meant to admonish us–to spur us to wisdom, not fatalism. The psalmist makes this explicit in the 90th Psalm when he prays that God would “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, New King James version). To “number our days” means to remember that our days are numbered. They are depressingly few, even for the most long-lived among us. The Good News Translation is easier to follow here. It reads: “Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.” Part of growing in Christian wisdom, it would seem, involves reminding ourselves that our lives are fleeting.

American culture, unfortunately, does much to obscure that truth. Compared with the rest of the world, most American Christians live in great material comfort, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. The culture as a whole facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We agree not to discuss death, we hide the lingering aged in institutions, and we expend billions to look younger than we are.

Madison Avenue and Hollywood perpetuates this deceit, glorifying youth and ignoring the aged except for the occasional mirage of a seventy-year-old action hero aided by Botox and stunt doubles. If you need further proof that our culture flees from the truth of Psalm 90:12, just think about what will happen in Times Square tomorrow evening as the clock strikes twelve. Of all the days of the year, New Year’s Eve is the one on which Americans most pointedly acknowledge the passage of time. We have chosen to do so with fireworks and champagne and confetti.

In his wonderful little book Three Philosophies of Life, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft sums up the message of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes in this way: Everything that we do to fill our days with meaning of our own making boils down to a desperate effort to distract our attention from the emptiness and vanity of life “under the sun.” Our pursuits of pleasure, power, property, importance—they all “come down in the end to a forgetting, a diversion, a cover-up.” Isn’t that what we see in the televised spectacles on New Year’s Eve?

For the Christian, being mindful that we live in time means not running away from the truth that our lives are short, but rather letting it wash over us until we feel the full weight of discontentment that it brings. According to Kreeft, “Our desire for eternity, our divine discontent with time, is hope’s messenger,” a reminder that we were created for more than this time-bound life, fashioned by our timeless God with an eye to a timeless eternity. Being mindful that we live in time should heighten our longing for heaven. In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken goes so far as to identify the “timelessness to come” as one of the glories of heaven.

If faithful Christian discipleship requires a mindfulness that we live in time, so does sound historical thinking. To begin with, one of the most important motives for studying the past is the same basic Scriptural truth that inspired the psalmist to ask God to “teach us to number our days.” Put simply, we study the past because life is short.

Although Job’s friends weren’t noted for their wisdom, Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite conveyed this truth as eloquently as anyone I know of. In perhaps the only useful advice Bildad gave his beleaguered friend, he encouraged Job not to limit his quest for understanding to conversations with the living. “Inquire please of the former age,” Bildad counseled Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9a).

As Bildad understood, with brevity of life comes lack of perspective and narrowness of vision—born yesterday, we know nothing. As Christians, we combat that limitation first of all by searching the scriptures, God’s time-transcending revelation that abides forever. But we also benefit by studying the history that God has sovereignly ordained. At its best, the study of the past helps us to see our own day with new eyes and offers perspectives that transcend the brevity of our own brief sojourn on earth.

In sum, an awareness that we live in time is essential to any meaningful appreciation of history. It is also the foundation of what historians like to call historical consciousness. If there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time. The person who has developed a historical consciousness understands this. He or she would never try to understand individuals from the past while wrenching them from their historical context.

But the person with true historical consciousness doesn’t merely apply this sensitivity to figures from the past. Our lives are just as profoundly influenced by what has gone before us. To quote Christian historian Margaret Bendroth, “People from the past were not the only ones operating within a cultural context–we have one, too. Just like them we cannot imagine life any other way than it is: everyone assumes that ‘what is’ is what was meant to be.” None of us is impervious to the influences of time and place, and being mindful of that is essential to thinking historically.

So where does this leave us? We live in time. Our culture does all that it can to obscure this. The psalmist exhorts us to remember it, and history teaches us that it is true.

May God bless you in 2017.

WHY I LOVE WHEATON COLLEGE—PART ONE

Wheaton College's Blanchard Hall

Wheaton College’s Blanchard Hall

These are difficult days at Wheaton College, dark, discouraging days. A storm broke over our heads last December. It erupted when our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, posted comments online that some readers interpreted as equating Islam and Christianity. It intensified when the college’s administration first suspended Dr. Hawkins, then announced that it would seek to dismiss her from the faculty. Perhaps an end is now in sight. Over the weekend the administration announced that it was withdrawing its request to terminate Dr. Hawkins and then disclosed that Hawkins and the administration had mutually agreed to “part ways.” How these steps will be received—what they will mean to faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the larger world—is an open question.

What is certain is that the controversy has exacted a heavy toll. For the past two months we’ve been besieged left and right. Liberal detractors have denounced Wheaton’s fundamentalism and Islamophobia, even as conservative critics lamented the school’s surrender to theological liberalism and political correctness. “Woe to you when all men think well of you,” Jesus said. At least we don’t have to worry about that.

Just as sloshing a coffee cup reveals what’s inside it, the stress and strain of the controversy has shown the world the truth behind our admissions brochures. We’re a fallen institution staffed by fallen men and women. More precisely, we’re sinners—to use an unpopular term—and I’m the chief of them. As a recent speaker on our campus put it, it’s wholly fallacious to think that we’re in the business of receiving innocent Christian teenagers (they’re not) with the goal of preserving their innocence (we can’t). Instead, we’re a community committed to joining a two-thousand-year-old conversation about the meaning of the claim that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Together, we explore the implications of that declaration, both for our innermost selves and for the way that we engage the world. Yes, we are fallen, but our calling is high and wonderful, and the opportunity to pursue it is unspeakably precious.

That is why I love Wheaton College.

I don’t love it because it’s perfect. (See above.) And I’m not saying that I love it at this moment in order to make a point about who’s been right in the current controversy. I’m making this declaration—I feel compelled to make it—because I’m sick at heart and I’ll burst if I stay silent. Too much recent criticism of the college goes beyond the matter at hand to call into question Christian education more generally. In reply, I want to follow the example of generations of evangelicals before me and share my testimony. I use the term advisedly. What follows isn’t a systematic argument about the pros and cons of Christian education. I’m just going to testify to my experience. You can make of it what you will.

You should know that my perceptions of Wheaton College are inseparable from the twenty-two years that I spent at the University of Washington before coming here. William Faulkner is famous for observing that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” More poetically, in Intruder in the Dust, one of Faulkner’s characters explains, “It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.” Faulkner meant that we never meet the present in pristine purity. The past is ever with us, shaping who we are, what we notice, how we see. Surely my story bears this out. Every day that I come to work, I see and feel and experience Wheaton in the light of my time in the secular Academy. How could it be otherwise? It was in the secular Academy that I first learned to think, to research, to teach and to write. It was there that my sense of vocation was originally conceived and nurtured. And it was there, above all, that I developed a longing for a kind of education that the secular Academy could never deliver.

The University of Washington's "Cathedral of Learning," Suzallo Library. I had a private study on the library's fifth floor.

The University of Washington’s “Cathedral of Learning,” Suzallo Library. I had a private study on the library’s fifth floor.

As I reflect on it, my time at the University of Washington divides neatly into two periods. The first was the tenure-track years, when my highest priority was not to think about my job but to keep my job. If you’re not familiar with the process, most colleges and universities give their new full-time faculty six years or so to earn tenure, and if they fall short of the institution’s standards, they’re sent packing. You’ll probably think that’s more than generous if you earn your living in the business world, where employees are regularly fired or laid off with short notice. The difference is that in the academic world—in large part because of the tenure system—job turnover and new job creation is minimal. Professors who are denied tenure rarely find other academic positions. You don’t start over at another school. You start over in another line of work. And if you’ve already spent six to eight years (or more) toiling on a Ph.D. and another six years of 60-70-hour work weeks as an assistant professor, you can understandably conclude that you’ve just wasted a good part of your life. The stakes are enormous, and that has a way of keeping you focused.

At the time, I would have described these years primarily in terms of their intensity. Now, I remember them more as a period of sleepwalking and inertia. With little self-awareness, I jumped onto the academic treadmill and did what the Academy asked of me. It wasn’t unpleasant. I benefited from UW’s exceptional resources, worked with bright students, and learned from supportive colleagues. And if you had asked me during those years, I would have said that I was being faithful to my calling as a Christian university professor. I was teaching a college Sunday School class, occasionally witnessing to unbelieving students, and (as a good Southern Baptist) saying “no” to wine at faculty parties. Above all, I was pursuing excellence in my field, loving God with my mind by pressing toward the prize of tenure, promotion, and professional recognition.

Or so I thought. And then I got tenure.

Isn’t it funny how God can expose the emptiness of our ambitions by fulfilling them? In the spring of 1994 I received two momentous pieces of mail almost simultaneously, and in tandem they changed the direction of my life. First, I received an advance copy of my first book, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press. It was pretty typical of first books that begin life as doctoral dissertations. It was deeply researched but narrowly focused. Specialists praised it—it won two professional book prizes—but almost no one else could understand it or desired to. Worse, there were no eternal issues in its pages, no engagement with Permanent Things, no grappling with questions of importance to my local church or to the broader community of faith. It was of the Academy, to the Academy, and for the Academy.

And the Academy, for its part, said “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your lord.” That same week I received formal notification from the UW trustees that I had been promoted and granted tenure. The real decision on my tenure application had been made much earlier—once Cambridge had offered me a book contract the outcome was certain—but there was still something symbolically jarring about receiving the book and the promotion letter in the same week. I weighed these two “successes,” figuratively holding one in each hand and reflecting on what my university chose to value and reward. What I felt wasn’t elation, or affirmation or gratification, but a profound sense of emptiness. I was thirty-three years old, at the salary I was earning I knew I would have to work until I died, and I couldn’t imagine being able to continue for much longer.

Humanly speaking, I was experiencing what academics know as the post-tenure letdown. It’s so common that it’s become a cliché, so I don’t pretend for a moment that my experience was unique. But I believe that God used this time of discouragement and searching to help me think critically and deeply—really for the first time—about the pluralistic multiversity of which I was a part. I began to read—more enthusiastically than systematically—about the relationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the nature of true education. And as I did so, I began to see the university with new eyes. Then I began to see myself with new eyes, as I realized how effectively the Academy had shaped me into its mold.

Peter Kreeft writes that our culture wants us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of This World.” Through years of osmosis, I had come to be a well-adjusted citizen of the Academy. It didn’t strike me as odd that the university had no cohering vision, that it denied the unity of truth, that it sought to expand knowledge while ignoring wisdom. I swallowed the Academy’s claim that it was ideologically neutral. Most troubling, I accepted as natural its compartmentalization of religious belief, with the attendant assumption that we can understand vast domains of human experience without reference to God.

I began to see these things, little by little, in the years following my promotion and tenure. This wasn’t a Damascus Road experience—no scales suddenly fell from eyes. It was more like coming out of anesthesia, a gradual awakening to reality. And like a patient just out of surgery, my discomfort increased as the anesthesia wore off.  As I began to see my surroundings differently, I also began to experience what Harry Blamires called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”

My Christian friends in Seattle regularly assumed that life was hard for a Christian professor in a place like the University of Washington, and they were right, but not for the reasons they supposed. They imagined that the environment was openly hostile to believers and figured that I must be the target of ostracism or even persecution. That was never my experience. Oh, there were continual reminders that I wasn’t in church: the student government association distributing “condom grams” in honor of Valentine’s Day, drag queens performing in the library courtyard (for course credit, no less), the school newspaper proclaiming “Jesus Should Have Been Aborted,” the department colleague who was a transvestite, to mention a few.

Such things were disturbing, but it’s not like I’d been unaware of them earlier. What distressed me far more were the limitations that I faced in the classroom. I hadn’t felt them when I first arrived at UW fresh from grad school. My primary goal was to help students understand the past on its own terms and largely for its own sake. And because they typically came to the university with pretty simplistic historical views, I would inevitably explode many myths that they harbored and complicate their understanding both of the past itself and of the craft of the historian. In the process, I was quick to assure them, I would also teach them critical thinking skills that would help them land good-paying jobs at Boeing or Microsoft or Amazon.

And then my sense of vocation began to change, in large part because of the reading I was doing about the nature of true education. I came to believe that my highest goal was not to help my students make a better living, but to help them wrestle with what it means to live well. I came to believe that authentic education is not the same thing as vocational training (important though that is), that it is a transformative experience that changes who we are. And as I began to take that goal seriously, I began to struggle with an ever increasing sense of futility.

In his 1947 meditation The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote that “the pressing educational need of the moment” was not primarily to debunk our students’ unsubstantiated convictions. “The task of the modern educator,” Lewis maintained, “is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Lewis’s challenge both inspired and depressed me. Every day I taught students who had learned at the university that it was not necessary to have a consistent philosophy of life, that rationality was a “western construction,” that ideas were merely “convenient perceptions” and moral claims only rationalizations for self-interest. And because of the authoritative rules of the secular Academy, when those students came into my classes, I was free to pose religious questions to them but never answer them authoritatively. I was allowed to introduce religious perspectives to them but never endorse one above the rest. I could demonstrate the contradictions of particular belief systems but never proclaim the good news of a consistent alternative. In sum, if I was going to irrigate deserts at UW, I would have to do so without ever testifying to the “the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13).

This was frustrating, as well as profoundly alienating. I never really felt alone as a Christian in the secular university until I began to try to think like one. As I did, I came to see myself, as Blamires put it, as “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.” And so, by the year 2000, I had begun to pray for an opportunity to teach in a different setting built on a firmer foundation. A decade later, God answered that prayer.

I’ll be back with Part Two in a few days.

Wheaton I

ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT

Last week I asked for your prayers for Wheaton as the College seeks a resolution to the heart-wrenching controversy swirling around our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Several of you have contacted me privately to say that you are praying, and speaking for the whole campus community, we are grateful. For now, the firestorm continues, exacerbated by an often misinformed media and by a cacophony of voices certain that they know exactly what has transpired and who is to blame.

Some of the criticism directed at the college comes from concerned Christians who believe in Christian education but disagree with how the controversy over Dr. Hawkins’ public statements has been handled. Much of it, however, comes from secular critics who believe “Christian education” is an oxymoron. From this perspective, the current controversy merely highlights the utter incompatibility of academic freedom and Christian conviction.

Last week my friend and colleague, Dr. Timothy Larsen, responded to such views in a thoughtful essay for CNN.com, and I highly recommend it. In his plea to “Let Wheaton and Other Christian Colleges be Christian,” Larsen reminded us all that “Wheaton College is a covenant community” in which faculty “voluntarily allow our beliefs and practices to be held to account by the standards of this community.” Secular critics, Larsen acknowledges, will conclude that this “prohibits academic freedom and thus disqualifies us from being a genuine institution of higher education.”

But “it feels differently from the inside,” Larsen observes. He goes on:

The vast majority of the professors Wheaton hires come either straight from a Ph.D. program at a major, secular school or from teaching at a secular university. Again and again they revel in the luxurious, newfound academic freedom that Wheaton has granted them: For the first time in their careers they can think aloud in the classroom about the meaning of life and the nature of the human condition without worrying about being accused of violating the separation of church and state or transgressing the taboo against allowing spiritual reflections to wander into a conversation about death or ethics or hope.

I am one of the professors Larsen is describing. I have previously written at length on this blog about my experiences in both secular and religious academic contexts, essays sparked by University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Conn’s crusade against religious institutions of higher learning. (See here, here, and here.)  Perhaps this much is worth repeating:

My professional life has been framed by two very different institutions. For the first twenty-two years of my academic career, I taught at the University of Washington in Seattle. In many ways, my time there was a blessing. The UW is an elite academic institution with an extraordinary faculty and world-class resources. During my time there it boasted five Nobel Prize winners, one of the largest libraries in North America, and was ranked by the Economist as one of the top twenty public universities in the world.

I also made several good friends at UW and benefited from a number of genuinely kind colleagues who took sincere interest in my wellbeing, both personal and professional. Finally, I should acknowledge that I flourished there professionally—in certain respects. I was awarded tenure, rose in rank from assistant to associate to full professor, won the university’s distinguished teaching award, and was accorded a prestigious endowed chair in U. S. history.

And yet while I was experiencing a certain measure of professional success, my soul was always deeply divided. I can best describe the alienation I felt by quoting from Harry Blamires, one of the last students of C. S. Lewis. In his book The Christian Mind, Blamires wrote hauntingly of “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Describing my life at UW, Blamires described his own experience as a Christian in the secular academy as akin to being “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.”

That is eventually how I came to think of my time at UW. For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts. Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden. There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity. After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided larger questions about our collective mission and purpose. As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

When it came to matters of faith, the university’s unwritten policy was a variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It celebrated racial and ethnic diversity relentlessly but was never all that enthusiastic about a genuine diversity of worldviews, at least among the faculty and in the curriculum. If you espoused a vague “spirituality” that made no demands on anyone–or better yet, seemed to reinforce the standard liberal positions of the political Left–all well and good. Otherwise, it was best to remember that religious belief was a private matter that was irrelevant to our teaching and our scholarship.

For twenty-two years I accommodated my sense of calling to this secular dogma, bracketing my faith and limiting explicit Christian expressions and Christian reflections to private conversations with students who sought me out. In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer writes movingly about the costs of such segmentation. Vocation is a calling to a way of life more than to a sphere of life. “Divided no more!” is Palmer’s rallying cry.

If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton five and a half years ago, these are the words that first come to mind–divided no more. Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here. But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.

ON LIVING IN TIME

ball-drop

Another year is coming to an end, and that always leads me to think about how short life is. Can you relate to that? Or am I the kind of person you try to stay away from at New Year’s Eve parties? As a rule, I try to make my posts to this blog at least semi-polished essays, but right now I just want to think out loud with you. What follows are a few scattered reflections about the passage of time and how living “in time” is crucial to thinking both Christianly and historically.

As I’ve argued on more than one occasion on this blog, I am convinced that we too often have a misguided and superficial understanding of “Christian history.” We err when we define it by its focus, making Christian history synonymous with the history of Christianity, the study of Christian individuals, ideas, and institutions throughout the past.

We’re even more off the mark when we define Christian history by its conclusions. This has been one of the worst mistakes of the advocates of the Christian America thesis. Countless well meaning (but untrained) pastors and pundits have insisted that any authentically “Christian” history of the United States will determine that the United States was founded as a Christian nation by Christian statesmen guided by Christian principles. They condemn any interpretation that questions the determining influence of Christian belief as “secular,” “liberal,” “politically correct,” “revisionist,” or in some other way hostile to Christianity.

I propose instead that what best defines Christian history—history that is substantively Christian—is the way of thinking that underlies it.  My colleagues and I often talk about the “habits of mind” that we are seeking to inculcate in our students, and we are convinced that if these are genuinely Christian, the history that results—whatever its focus or conclusions—will be so as well. In his book The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires defined thinking “Christianly” as a way of thinking that “accepts all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God.”

I’ll probably spend the rest of my life wrestling with what this requires of us, but here is what I think it means for the Christian student of history. Our study will be but a subset of our larger call to “love the Lord with all our minds.” We will bring a Scriptural lens to bear on our contemplation of the past, keeping in mind all that the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of God and the nature and predicament of humankind. Our motive will be to understand God, ourselves, and the world more rightly, to the glory of God, the blessing of our neighbors, and the sanctification of our souls.

Over the course of his distinguished career, the late philosopher Dr. Arthur Holmes admonished thousands of Wheaton College students that “All truth is God’s truth.” I also find myself meditating on these words as I think about the concept of Christian history, for I have been repeatedly struck by how the habits of mind that are vital to sound historical thinking are also Christian virtues.

The study of history is an inescapably moral pursuit, although not in the way that we often think. History is disfigured when it becomes a kind of Sunday School lesson for adults, a backdrop for superficial moralizing. History is ennobled when we determine to make ourselves vulnerable to the past, figuratively resurrecting the dead and allowing their words and actions to speak to us, even “to put our own lives to the test.”

But doing the latter successfully requires that we apply several Christian practices:

  • hospitality, as we seek conversation with figures from the past;
  • considering others as more important than ourselves, as we invite them to speak first while we listen;
  • humility, as we acknowledge the brevity of our own lives and our need for the breadth of perspective that history affords;
  • charity, as we remind ourselves that the apparent contradictions we perceive in others may have more to do with our own blind spots than with those of our subjects; and
  • love, as we consciously ask ourselves what the golden rule requires of us in our encounter with “neighbors” long since passed.

This New Year’s Eve, however, I am newly struck by an even more basic overlap between the practices to which the Christian is called and those which are essential to sound historical thinking. This commonality is so foundational, so fundamental, that we can easily overlook it: both thinking Christianly and thinking historically requires us to be constantly mindful that we live in time.

What does it mean to live “in time” as a Christian? I think it begins by daily reminding ourselves of one of the undeniable truths of Scripture: our lives are short. The Bible underscores few truths as repeatedly—even monotonously—as this one. “Our days on earth are a shadow,” Job’s friend Bildad tells Job (Job 8:9). “My life is a breath,” Job agrees (Job 7:7). David likens our lives to a “passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14). Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers and fades (Isaiah 40:7-8).

These aren’t exhortations to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” They are meant to admonish us–to spur us to wisdom, not fatalism. The psalmist makes this explicit in the 90th Psalm when he prays that God would “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, New King James version). To “number our days” means to remember that our days are numbered, i.e., finite.   The Good News Translation is easier to follow here.  It reads: “Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.” Part of growing in Christian wisdom, it would seem, involves reminding ourselves that our lives are fleeting.

American culture, unfortunately, does much to obscure that truth. Compared with the rest of the world, most American Christians live in great material comfort, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. The culture as a whole facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We tacitly agree not to discuss death, hiding away the lingering aged and expending our energies in a quest for perpetual youth.

Madison Avenue and Hollywood perpetuates this deceit, glorifying youth and ignoring the aged except for the occasional mirage of a seventy-year-old action hero aided by Botox and stunt doubles. If you need further proof that our culture flees from the truth of Psalm 90:12, just think about what will happen in Times Square this evening as the clock strikes twelve. Of all the days of the year, New Year’s Eve is the one on which Americans most pointedly acknowledge the passage of time.  We have chosen to do so with fireworks and champagne and confetti.

In his wonderful little book Three Philosophies of Life, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft sums up the message of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes in this way: Everything that we do to fill our days with meaning of our own making boils down to a desperate effort to distract our attention from the emptiness and vanity of life “under the sun.” Our pursuits of pleasure, power, property, importance—they all “come down in the end to a forgetting, a diversion, a cover-up.” Isn’t that what we see in the televised spectacles on New Year’s Eve?

For the Christian, being mindful that we live in time means not running away from the truth that our lives are short, but rather letting it wash over us until we feel the full weight of discontentment that it brings.  According to Kreeft, “Our desire for eternity, our divine discontent with time, is hope’s messenger,” a reminder that we were created for more than this time-bound life, fashioned by our timeless God with an eye to a timeless eternity.  Being mindful that we live in time should heighten our longing for heaven.  In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken goes so far as to identify the “timelessness to come” as one of the glories of heaven.

If faithful Christian discipleship requires a mindfulness that we live in time, so does sound historical thinking.   To begin with, one of the most important motives for studying the past is the same basic Scriptural truth that inspired the psalmist to ask God to “teach us to number our days.”  Put simply, we study the past because life is short.

Although Job’s friends weren’t noted for their wisdom, Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite conveyed this truth as eloquently as anyone I know of.  In perhaps the only useful advice Bildad gave his beleaguered friend, he encouraged Job not to limit his quest for understanding to conversations with the living. “Inquire please of the former age,” Bildad counseled Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9a).

As Bildad understood, with brevity of life comes lack of perspective and narrowness of vision—born yesterday, we know nothing. As Christians, we combat that limitation first of all by searching the scriptures, God’s time-transcending revelation that abides forever. But we also benefit by studying the history that God has sovereignly ordained. At its best, the study of the past helps us to see our own day with new eyes and offers perspectives that transcend the brevity of our own brief sojourn on earth.

In sum, an awareness that we live in time is essential to any meaningful appreciation of history.  It is also the foundation of what historians like to call historical consciousness.   If there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.  The person who has developed a historical consciousness understands this.  He or she would never try to understand individuals from the past while wrenching them from their historical context.

But the person with true historical consciousness doesn’t merely apply this sensitivity to figures from the past.  Our lives, too, are profoundly influenced by what has gone before us.  To quote Christian historian Margaret Bendroth, “People from the past were not the only ones operating within a cultural context–we have one, too. Just like them we cannot imagine life any other way than it is: everyone assumes that ‘what is’ is what was meant to be.”  In sum, none of us is impervious to the influences of time and place, and being mindful of that is essential to thinking historically.

So where does this leave us?  We live in time.  Our culture does all that it can to obscure this.  The psalmist exhorts us to remember it, and history teaches us that it is true.

May God bless you in 2015.

 

The Church and the Christian Scholar: A Tribute to a Friend

A good friend of mine had a heart attack two days ago.  For twenty-one years James Felak and I were colleagues in the History Department at the University of Washington.  For most of that time, James was my only close Christian friend in a research institution that boasted some three thousand full-time faculty members.  I haven’t been able to talk to James yet, but my understanding is that his prognosis is encouraging.  Yesterday he asked for coffee and a laptop, and I count that a good sign, if more than a little premature.

Two posts ago I began a series of reflections on “The Church and the Christian Scholar.”  In that context, I want to pay tribute to James publicly, for he has both encouraged and challenged me greatly over the years as I have tried to figure out what it means to be a Christian scholar.  The Scripture calls believers to “walk worthy of the calling” with which we have been called, but it does not call us to walk alone.  In James, I encountered another Christian scholar willing to walk alongside me, and I will be forever grateful.

James joined the UW faculty the year after I did, and we eventually became fast friends.  I remember distinctly the first time we really connected.  A few months after James’s arrival, Seattle was hit by a freak snow storm.  (It rarely snows there, and large accumulations are almost unheard of.)  I had walked to the graduate library after lunch on a cool, damp, overcast day, which is another way of saying that it was a typical winter afternoon in the Pacific Northwest.  After six hours of reading microfilm, I came out to find that there was already 8-9 inches of snow on the ground, the public bus system on which I depended was  effectively shut down, and I had no way of getting to my home some thirteen miles from campus.  Expecting to spend the night in my office, I went to the student center to grab dinner before the grill closed, and there I happened upon James, who was doing course prep at one of the tables there.  I knew that James lived a couple of miles away and regularly walked to work, and so I asked if I could sleep on his couch for the night.  He readily agreed.

I’ll never forget the trek to his house that followed.  Neither of us was dressed for snow, which was by now up to our shins.  We were walking in regular street shoes and thin jackets, the wind was howling, the snow seemed to be coming almost horizontally–so thick that we could hardly see–and what was most bizarre of all, the entire sky was repeatedly illuminated with truly awe-inspiring flashes of lightning.  I was miserable, weary, and more than a little distracted by the prospect of being electrocuted in a blizzard.

But not James.  James was energized by the opportunity to talk about ideas–his lifelong passion–and talk he did.  Although the wind and thunder were often so loud that he had to shout into my ear, James excitedly shared his views on Communism, socialism, Christianity, the Cold War, East European history, and the conjugation of Hungarian verbs.  I was simultaneously flabbergasted and enthralled.  We have been friends ever since.

The conversations that followed over the years were less memorable but more meaningful.  As we discovered our common faith, the focus of our discussions centered more and more on the question of calling, and in particular what it meant for us to labor faithfully in the academic contexts in which God had placed us.  These conversations were inspiring and revitalizing, and I could have them with no one else.

Most of the Christian scholars I know laboring at secular colleges and universities feel profoundly alone.  At work, they are surrounded by co-workers who cannot relate to their faith, who may even equate Christianity with superstition and ignorance.  In their churches, they are often surrounded by fellow believers who cannot relate to their vocation, who may even doubt whether  genuine Christians exist within the Academy.   As a result, they are soon worn down by what the late Harry Blamires called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”

God used James to spare me from such loneliness.  Over scores of brown-bag lunches, James loved me by listening.  G. K. Chesterton once warned that “thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.”   James’ friendship kept me from thinking in isolation, and it probably also pulled me back from any number of idiotic conclusions.   (I know that he thinks so, at any rate.)

Along the way, James challenged me in a number of specific ways.  First, he called me to take seriously the wisdom of Christian writers over the centuries.  Ironic for a historian, there was an element of “historylessness” (to quote sociologist Sydney Mead) in my approach to the faith.  Like most American evangelicals, I paid attention to the history of the early church as revealed in the New Testament, but once I finished the book of Revelation I jumped to C. S. Lewis and Billy Graham.  James invited me to meet with him regularly to discuss various Christian works, and the first suggestion on his list was the Confessions of St. Augustine, a sixteen-hundred-year-old work of startling contemporary relevance.

Second, James pushed me to broaden my scholarship with an eye to finding points of intersection with the interests of Christians outside the Academy.  The son of a mechanic and the product of a western Pennsylvania steel town, James has unbounded appreciation for the life of the mind.  In a way that I found bracing, however, he also scorned intellectual pretension and rejected the common academic view of scholarship as a closed conversation for privileged professors to have among themselves.  The latter was a view I had unconsciously embraced myself, and James tried to show me this by teasing me, which is his default way of relating to almost everyone.  (I lost track of the number of times he shared the eulogy he planned to deliver at my funeral.  It involved the audience wailing in grief as he read from my curriculum vitae.)

Finally, and most importantly, James encouraged me to believe that I had something to say to the church that was worth saying, that God could use me, as a scholar, to bless other believers.  The encouragement was priceless.  I wrote James just as soon as I heard a rumor that he was in the hospital, and I heard back from him literally in the midst of writing this post.  Not surprisingly, the e-mail was short.  “I’m alive–getting discharged today,” he began.  James went on to relate how the main artery to his heart had been 95% blocked, and that the attack that he suffered is the kind cardiologists refer to as “the widowmaker.”  “For years I’ve been afraid of living too long,” he confessed, “now I have the opposite concern.”  And then in the very next sentence, so characteristically encouraging and selfless, “I finished your book–fantastic job.”

Thank you, James.  Thank you, Lord.