Fire and light at heart of the universe. That, said Hans Urs von Balthasar, is the point of studying theology; to behold the glory that burns – sweet beauty, given Love – at core of existence. To know, as fully as we in our frailty and hunger can, the God who imagined and made this world. To study the one whose image we bear, whose mind is the source of our language and imagination. And from that knowing, to form the practices and doctrines of our faith.
I had no idea how much I would love the study of theology. With my literary background, my love of story, the bent toward the imaginative rather than the (necessarily) the academic, I looked at this stint in theology as something to inform my writing. A year in which to ask the hard questions I’ve been hoarding about church, get a bit more doctrinally centered, get my church fathers straight. But certainly not as a long-term or vocational investment.
I find that to study theology is a homecoming for my mind. I think I’ve been circling these concepts in my writing and thought for years, but somehow thought that the academic pursuit of them would leave me parched in heart. I’ve encountered systematic theology before in a way that left no open doors for questions, for paradox, for the tension that has to attend the human knowledge of the divine. It was presented as something apart, the scientific observation of a faith I only knew how to affirm and live from the interior and sometimes inarticulate depths of my heart.
Perhaps, in coming here to study, I was a little afraid that official theology might dim a little of my love, dull my wonder, heighten my doubt.
I was wrong. In the past two months, I’ve immersed myself in the servant songs of Isaiah 40-55 and come up against a love both mighty, and willing to suffer that astounds me in its splendor. I’ve wrestled with different concepts of atonement in a class on doctrine (a class that began with a lecture on the metaphoric nature of language), and in them seen the different aspects of my own desire, my own need for justice or love fleshed out, and I’ve fought to perceive the right way in which to understand the God who gave his life even unto death. I’ve begun to study what it means to view the world in a sacramental way, and how that might influence the embodiment of my faith as I give it form and order, something that more fully engages my self and life than simple intellectual or moral assent.
Every line of what I have read in the study of theology, every idea encountered has directly influenced the faith I live in the now. I talk with new friends, scan the faces (each with a story and culture, a language their own) at my table and I ponder what it means to love someone outside of myself. Ponder what it means to love as the Trinity does in its eternal, given and received affection. I hear the cries of prophets when I glance at headlines. I confront my own frustrations with what seems harsh or oblique in Scripture and realize the half heresies I’ve half believed.
And I walk in the fields, oh, my lovely old meadows at back of the Parks, and the words of Isaiah thrum through my mind. I see this ever-changing earth and put out my hand to receive the sacramental beauty it offers, the glimpse of something that gestures to the great imagination behind its being. I receive, in a way I never have before, each goodness as tethered to the heart of God.
As the months pass here, I hope to write more about the different things I’m learning in some depth. I want to delve here into the language of redemption in Isaiah, or discuss the finer points of Christology, or sketch the way that string theory interacts with a religious view of the origin of life. For now though, I have to share a moment from this morning.
I was out for my usual walk and found a sunrise that seemed made to picture the “fire and light at heart of the universe.” Perhaps it came to me like that because my mind has been so shaped by what I’ve studied. Perhaps I perceived the beauty more keenly because I have thought so deeply about its source in the past days. Regardless, those fifteen minutes of golden light were pure gift, a space of eternity expanding within the air of time so that I found an exultation that seemed not to fit within mere minutes. I felt I witnessed a glimpse of what I study to find and I think it will keep me studying for years to come.
As I walked, I remembered the words I had read just the day before in Isaiah . With them, and a glimpse of the splendor, I leave you.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.
For you will go out with joy,
And be led forth with peace;
The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,
And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up,
And instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up,
And it will be a memorial to the Lord,
For an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.
The day crept in dim and low and misty this morning. I took a long walk and found cobwebs draped merrily over every available leaf, each strand starred with dew. Today is a reading day, and I have hours to go before I sleep. I’m hoping for a writing day soon, but these past weeks have been wild, and I haven’t yet managed to cull the thoughts waiting for this space. There’s so much I want to share: to be here is to be feasted, daily, and I keep wanting to pass on the delight. So, though I don’t have time today for much contemplation, here’s a book review I wrote for a formative assignment. I share it mainly because I am deeply intrigued by the author, a theologian who focused strongly on the beautiful, and I think perhaps many who read here would find delight in his work. I’m captivated by his fervor to describe the beauty of God, by his view of the Creed as an outworking of Love. So, read the review, but I hope it leads you to the book, and on to other excellent explorations. And may your day, misty like mine, or bright in the waning of autumn, be blessed.
Credo: A Review
Reflecting on the line in the Apostle’s Creed affirming belief in the “communion of the saints, “ Hans Urs von Balthasar described the saints as “open treasure-houses accessible to all, like flowing fountains at which everyone can drink.” In Credo, a slim book of pithy reflections on the lines of the Apostles’ Creed, von Balthasar embodied the generosity he described. Written near the end of his life, Credo is a series of brief meditations offering an invitation to the treasure house of insight gathered over the author’s lifelong study of Scripture, theology, and doctrine.
An eminent theologian, described by his mentor Henri de Lubac as perhaps “the most cultivated man of his time,”von Balthasar was one of the most influential Catholic intellectuals and theologians of the twentieth century. Author of over a hundred books, founder of a lay community, friend and interlocutor of the influential Karl Barth, von Balthasar is perhaps most famous for his sixteen-volume treatise of systematic theology. He was a theologian concerned to engage redemptively with the questions of modernity while simultaneously casting a new vision of theology centered on the transcendent ideas of truth, goodness, and beauty.
In light of these momentous and verbose achievements, Credo first strikes the reader with its brief simplicity. While much of von Balthasar’s work could certainly be described as an open treasure house of theological knowledge, Credo is more intimate; the invitation to an inmost room where the real treasure is kept. This simple volume of reflective, vivid, often lyrical prose reads as a collection of the author’s key thoughts, gem-like insights culled from decades of theological study. In presenting them near the end of his life, in words accessible to a wide readership, one feels that von Balthasar is returning to essentials, affirming and presenting the seeded truth from which his great theologies grew.
In content, Credo is a collection of meditations upon each article of the Apostle’s Creed. At times an imperfect work, with sections of varied pace, length, and tone, Credo can strike the reader as a collection of random and somewhat disconnected observations tacked on to the articles of the Creed. But as von Balthasar writes in his opening line, “everything manifold stems from something simple,” and this is profoundly true of his own thought, something an attentive reader perceives and appreciates by the close of the book.
Stratford Caldecott, a recent Catholic writer, observed that to von Balthasar, “theology is supposed to be the study of the fire and light that burn at the centre of the world.” This holds true in Credo, for in his opening lines, von Balthasar makes it clear that the light at center of the universe is love. The “manifold” contemplations in Credo all stem directly from “the fact that the one God is, in his essence, love and surrender.” This early statement of his central idea sets the theme and tone for the rest of Credo’s meditations, each exploring exactly how that love is worked out in various aspects of creedal truth and human experience.
Several key themes may be identified within the text, ideas to which the author often returns. These include the concept of self-giving, the true nature of freedom, the way that love transforms death, and the way that love gives meaning to suffering. Each theme ultimately reflects how these various truths and experiences lead the human heart back to its divine source.
At times, the theologian is evident as von Balthasar argues for a particular interpretation of the Virgin birth (“Born of the Virgin Mary… here we have a great theater of war…”) or explains creation as gift from God to God (“From the viewpoint of the Father, in order to glorify the beloved Son; from the viewpoint of the loving Son, in order to lay everything at the Father’s feet.”). From lyrical statements regarding the Trinity’s self-giving love (“Herein lies the most unfathomable aspect of the Mystery of God: that what is absolutely primal is no statically self-contained and comprehensible reality, but one that exists solely in dispensing itself…”) he easily transitions to informative, directive comments on his incarnation (“…but at Christmas, the Old Covenant and its expectations pass over into the quite different fulfillment of the New…). He is personal and informal, both teacher and pastor, and often, father to his reader.
His parental tone is strongest in his passages on suffering. Cognizant of the era in which he writes, he references recent events, aware that the beauty of Love so central to his theology might be obscured for his reader by pain. Henri de Lubac says of him that, “sensitive to man’s Angst, he emerges from it in faith.” Aware of how doubt unravels faith, von Balthasar ties creed to culture by describing the way in which “suffering… remains in God’s keeping, and is, in God, in a mysterious way, fruitful…”
Passages like the above illustrate the deeply pastoral tone of Credo, one reminiscent of that used by the Beloved Disciple in 1 John, addressing his readers as “little children.” The meditations, while certainly instructive, are not primarily apologetic or doctrinal arguments. Rather, they are explanations, clarifications, and expositions that untangle the complications of theology for any reader intent upon living the creed. Credo is also similar to 1 John in its aim to reveal a God whose essence is love. To read it is to glimpse that love through von Balthasar’s eyes, and even in some way, to inhabit it.
For the essence of Credo is something that both eludes and transcends a catalogue of its theological content.
In his essay Meditation In a Toolshed, the writer C.S. Lewis described two different ways of knowing reality by picturing a man standing in a darkened tool shed with a beam of light coming in over the door. The view to be had by looking at the beam describes the scientist’s insight gained by standing apart from the thing observed. The other view, and its corresponding knowledge, is that of the man who steps into the sunlight, looking along the beam into the green, bright world outside. This is the knowledge of lovers, children, and mystics, a knowing communicated by experience.
In Credo, von Balthasar writes from within the light.
The poignancy of Credo lies in the fact that its author has not only studied, but lived the creed. He knows its truth in bone and breath as well as mind. His insights are those gained by a lifetime of, not merely observing Love with the scientific eye of theology, but stepping into its light, allowing its glory to suffuse his inner being. In an early essay titled “Theology and Sanctity,” Von Balthasar wrote of the importance of “kneeling theology,” his concept for a life of study rooted in a life of prayer, and that fundamental orientation of self shines through. Credo is, at least in part, contemplative vision that comes to the reader in bold, bright strokes of spiritual vibrancy.
This is where the book is at its best, when Von Balthasar looks along the beam to the green world beyond this one where the sun of a glorious Beloved lights the whole universe. In Credo, von Balthasar invites us into the Creed as into a world, a world whose air will quicken our own dying souls with the oxygen of eternity.
As the author himself states near the end of Credo “for anyone who is permitted to step out of his or her own narrow and finalized life, and into this life of God’s it seems as if vast spaces are opened up before one, taking one’s breath away.” In his many books of theology, von Balthasar strove to outline and describe the vast and beautiful life of God. In Credo, he evokes it, inviting his reader to join him in the light, to walk in the way of the creed, enter its world, and discover the “adventures of creative, imaginative love.”
His promise if we do?
“Life in God becomes an absolute miracle.”
(All the quotes taken from: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Credo, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990))
There are walks. The daily, good kind you take for health and hard breath and the swift, quick lengthening of leg. And there are rambles. The kind you plan for a late afternoon, brisk and bright, not so businesslike that the beauty of the earth leans back from your speed, but still marked by the set intent of exercise or the benefits of the fresh, free air.
And then there are wanderings. The ambles you take when you had no plan for a walk, the kind that come when you glimpse the toss of burnished leaves against incoming storm and know that in one more day the gold will be gone. The kind that come when a line of rose light breathes up the underbelly of an evening cloudbank and you know you must run to catch something precious, something that will fade and never come again.
That was the kind of walk I found late Saturday afternoon when the high wind and the shivering trees, all ashimmer in their worn splendor, shook me awake, sang me to my feet and drew me into the long paths of the park nearby. I strode hard, the strike of each foot joyous because that wind was woven of coming cold and honeyed light and the fire of dying leaves. It was the kind of day you wish you could somehow imbibe, like wine sipped velvet or golden from a glass, a day to be tasted and savored, to warm every atom of blood and soul.
I made it over the bridge toward the back and into open meadow. My feet sloshed through mud with the giant trees and their spare, balding limbs all restless overhead and the rumor of a western-coming storm in a whisper through the grass at their feet. I reached the right angle turn to the next meadow and found a scene that halted my feet, and drew breath, heart, and eye into an instant of concentrated beholding.
In this age of Instagram, the all-too-easy impulse was to pull out my phone, put a screen between myself and that scene and let it, with a bit of filtering, stand in for what ought to be my song, what ought to be an outspoken cry half of desire, half joy, and woven all through with something very much like grief. I reached for the phone, but I halted. I let my breath slow. And set my mind instead to the task of telling. I set eye to watching and head to choosing the fit words to gesture in bright strokes toward the beauty I saw, because such splendor demanded a whole and present self. To articulate the splendor was a kind of praise.
The hour was late, the light low, a storm in slow dark drift across the fields. But the gold of the fading day sped up the grass just inches ahead of the darkness. The sun was fierce. There was no gentleness in its raging against the dying of the light as it soaked the soil and leaves, steeped the air in a pale, spiced sheen, and left this walker with the sense that I walked, adrift, in light. The wind made an undulation like ocean waves of the sunset, ebb and flow of earth’s great, heaved breaths, with great black flocks of graceful birds tossed in its capers. The birds neither fought nor flew, but simply dove and spun as the wind willed, stark, black, graceful shapes flung in profile across the wedge of an almost-full moon already pearl bright in the high, blue sky.
And as I watched, I knew myself the still point in that spinning world. I felt the world as a turning that never halts, made of season and storm and sky and light in unrelenting rhythm. Never have I been so keenly aware of the forward drive of the earth. And thus, its fleet, unresting grace. The beauty of the day was beyond my grasp even as it touched my hand. I put out my sight to catch it, and already knew it gone. On and on it drove, like a dancer in a whirl it couldn’t stop.
And abruptly, loving the beauty, I wanted to make it stop. I wanted to get that moment firmly in my hands, to hold light and dark and storm and gold in the human grip of my need to get a hold on time and so get the future within my grasp. My own life felt too much like that day, too tied to the vivid, spinning earth, a forward energy I cannot stop or stay, my heartbeat and breath relentlessly driving me on each second to ends and selves I cannot begin to imagine. I feel bewildered by the march of life of late. I revel in it but cannot stay. I can’t catch up. I can’t get on my feet, can’t accomplish all I dream, love all I see, pray, give, make, write, when time drags me so relentlessly on. I live with a constant perturbation at my inability to get my hands round time and wrestle it to my will. And for an instant, I was very aware of the shadows gathering at my back.
But standing there in the bright, gold chill, I remembered a class on Church doctrine that week. They say that doctrine is dry stuff. At least, so I’ve often been told. But I listen in my classes with bated breath. To hear the tenets of my faith teased out, made plain, to deepen every single theological word I know with fresh insight is to feel my capacity for belief quite doubled. The class I recalled was on the Trinity.
By lesson’s end that day my brain was alight with a freshened vision of the God who is Love in a kind of circled dance between Beloveds. A God who is, in his essence, community. A God who is in his essence, motion. The motion of love ever given, ever received, a circle of ceaseless, unhalting, eternal affection. I used to think that if I could look up into the heavens, somehow “see” God, I would see a static single figure on a throne. Still. Motionless. Immoveable. And of course, there’s an aspect of truth in that concept. But in that class on Trinity, a new image came blazing into my mind and I imagined myself looking up to the ultimate point of being to find it a moving circle of Love. And if the core of Reality is love given and received, then the core of all existence is a kind of dance. A circle. An onward rush of Love’s ceaseless motion.
In that Love we live and move and have our being. And that is the Love come down into time, into my windswept moment, my swift, insecure life, a love come down to die to draw me back into His dance.
For it’s death I fear in the season’s change and savoring the shadows there, I knew it. In a fallen world, the onward rush of time leads inevitably to human decline and my frail, faltering self, young as I am, feels the chill of that end reaching back to me within the onward march of time. The years pass more swiftly even the little older I get. I understand that I may not reach the dreams I desire, may not complete the ideals of work or love or creativity I bear. The change of the seasons now marks more clearly what I have not accomplished than what I have, and worse, reveals my weakness. Each change presents me with the loss of what I thought I would be, and so, amidst the beauty, I begin to be afraid.
For loss marches toward me. I look at those autumn fields and know that winter comes next, for the earth… and perhaps for myself.
But hush, my soul. Hush swift, beating heart and anxious mind there in the ripened beauty of the windy autumn fields. For Love has come into the circle of time and taken it back into his own eternal dance. The world does turn ever on. The seasons are a dance like the Love in whose imagination they began. My own heartbeat, my breath, my morphing thoughts reflect the onward push of Divine affection moving out and forward, giving, making, offering itself anew. But when the motion of time became a shattered, broken thing, cut off from the life of God, ending in withered death, Love came down and died. And when Love came back alive, time was taken back into his dance and now in every heart that chooses Love, time marches, not to death, but back into the circle that began it. The end of my life is not in the loss of all the dreams I bore, but in their final expression, beyond what I, seeing only the limits of time, can imagine.
In Love, nothing is lost. Beauty abides, and nothing will die in earnest that is taken up into Love’s ever-given, never-ending life. Here, in the time-marked earth, I yet stand by faith within eternal Love, and the motion around me is not to be feared, but met with a growing, chosen hope. Onward the days rush, onward the years, onward my changing self amidst the changing face of the earth. But Love’s forward motion began us, and Love’s death redeemed us, and Love’s great pulsing life has taken us into itself and someday, the last winter will fade, the last night end. But the dance will never cease; on Love goes making us all anew, weaving us into His great, given life.
Dark pooled at my feet. The light died. But above me the moon was a wedge of brilliance in the sky and the stars were already alight.
There was an open air market last weekend in a slim little street about two minutes walk from my hall. White tents were wedged between old stone walls, with rickety tables perched shakily on the cobbles beneath, all piled with a wealth of local culinary and artistic wonders. The sky was awash in that high, pale sapphire of autumn with a rush of sunlight pouring cool and quick and fresh through the streets and crimsoned leaves. I tromped through it all on my morning walk and felt my inmost self wake, stretch, and quicken with the color and scent and fleet-foot wind.
An hour’s stroll midst the tents (combined with a crazy hunt for a cash machine) left me laden with fresh, seeded bread, a week’s worth of the best feta I have yet tasted, olives galore, and some baklava for tea. But I also cradled two jolly little mugs. Crafted by a local potter, one a rich, sea green and the other a smoky blue, they caught my eye the moment I spotted them waiting for me in their small, hobbitish way, with their delicate handles and sea-toned hues. For a month, I had been searching for just such a pair of mugs and the crown of that dappled day was to wrap them up and take them home.
I got them back to my fourth floor room, tucked the food away, and almost solemnly placed those two small mugs on the tea shelf I had waiting. I stood back. Glanced about my tiny space with its spare furniture and yellow-toned walls and crooked tiles by the tiny sink. A month ago this room had seemed to me spare and a little barren. Let’s be honest, student rooms often are. In my various adventures, I have encountered quite a few spaces like this one; walls battered with years of student occupation, the desk with a weary sag, the paint a bit faded, the furniture worn.
There’s always a moment on the first day when this overwhelms me. Exhaustion kicks in, and the older I get, with my high ideals for life and beauty, the harder these moments become, when the absence – not just of family – but of order and art and color and cheer, sets a hollow, worried ache in my throat. It’s easy to let it simmer and grow into a hot mess of homesick desire or doubt of myself and my crazy life choices. It’s harder, but one of the best skills I’ve learned, to let that ache drive me to make home afresh in the unformed, unfilled spaces of a new life. In the beginning…. God created. And at every new juncture I find that in his grace, I too can call life from whatever void I find. In every new room, I can create a small world that reflects the beauty I know in his love.
That is, after all, what humans were meant to do in the first place. For most of my life, I’ve known the ringing words of the creation mandate in Genesis: “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” And for most of my life, I’ve understood that mandate as a broad, general command regarding agriculture and civilization and child bearing and big, human ideals that well, maybe one day I’ll embody more or less. But as I have moved and explored and struggled to live God’s kingdom amidst unsettled days in a broken world, I’ve found that creation mandate to be something much more “down to earth.” The more I mull it, the more I encounter it as a challenge that invades the most ordinary of days.
The truth is that every day here on earth is a space waiting to be ordered. Every friendship is unformed ground waiting to be sown with love. Every child is a heart to be nourished, a mind to be formed. Every new room or house or moment is an empty space waiting for God to be made incarnate within it. The days we are given within this fallen world, the people we love, the work we do, are the tiny voids into which we speak creative life in the image of God. So I came to this little room four weeks ago, and knew it as my given space, my own corner of earth to nurture and nourish and order and rule, expressing in every particular the goodness of my God.
I rearranged every single piece of furniture so the room now cradles the light from the single window. I hunted down a Pre-Raphaelite poster, unrolled “The Song of the Lark” that I brought from home, and found a book of William Morris pattern postcards to line my walls. I stalked the charity shops until I found the one with numerous baskets on the cheap; I got a few old books, found a few old pots for flowers, and set out the teacup and tray and pictures I brought from home. I tweaked and sang and played classical music as I worked, and the only thing missing until last weekend was two mugs for tea, two cups representing the fact that whatever beauty I make here I deeply desire to share.
My sea-toned mugs were a crown and completion to my work because they enable me now to offer this small world in love.
In the end, my work in this tiny world of a room is my tribute to the Love that makes his home in me and so makes me at home in every place I sojourn. I work in the creative power of a new kingdom come, the one in which God himself takes up the trust we broke. The more I study the life of Christ, the more I see how Jesus took that ancient mandate on himself, completing and renewing the work we humans were crafted to accomplish. He comes among his people with healing in his hands, with laughter on his tongue, with life in his fingers. He orders, he fills, he brings that flourishing we long have desired. Where Jesus is, there is joy. There is new wine, and stories, and tales of wedding feasts. Life is quickened, feasts are laid, and old bones healed when Christ is present. For the quicksilver rumor of “the kingdom come” is the invitation not merely to salvation but to everything we always hoped the world would be.
Oh, I know its not here yet, but every act of ordering, creation, and love gestures to the world to come. Every table set and door opened and room turned from barrenness to beauty is an affirmation of all we believe to be true about the one day happy ending of the world. And you know, if there’s one thing I’ve seen in all these years of wandering, it’s this: where there is beauty, the life of Christ is plain. In countries where communism decimated the art and culture of a people, beauty speaks of a rich, ordering, newly creative God. Where isolation and autonomy are strong, a home just as strong in food and fellowship incarnates the God whose love is with us. Where distraction, despair, and anxiety are rampant, a space of cultivated quiet becomes a refuge in which people hear, sometimes for the first time, the still small voice of God.
So my room is ordered. My sea green mug and her smoky blue twin await a knock on the door. And here, for a fleeting moment, the world is as it was meant to be and the kingdom comes.
I found a slim, battered, brick-red little book by Thomas Merton in the Wycliffe Library yesterday. For an hour on this hushed Sunday morning, I’ve pondered his words in the grey dawn light that pools and shimmers in the room around me. The light makes this small square room a still, expectant space. The words do the same for my inmost self:
Our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us. We cannot go to heaven to find Him… He comes down from heaven and finds us. He looks at us from the depths of His own infinite actuality, which is everywhere, and His seeing us gives us a superior reality in which we also discover Him… (from Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation)
Those words widen the space and hush of my heart so that the Psalm I’m reading now is like a note of music struck in a great, echoing depth. God “finds” me in his given Word, it speaks like a shout or song into the silence of my waiting heart, and tells me who I am, each sentence blending fresh with the one before, a woven splendor of insight like music pushing against the boundaries of my heart as His life finds and fills me:
Who is the man who fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way he should choose His soul will abide in prosperity… The secret of the Lord is for those who fear Him… (Psalm
What does it mean to know the “secret of the Lord,” and how may I live out this music, the knowledge of being found by God that fills my soul? These are the musings I found on this still, bright Sabbath morning, the ones I’m about to take out into the open benevolence of God’s autumn fresh fields, and the ones I’m tossing your way, in hope that a little of this bright silence, this vibrant, melodious quiet will find you too.
The lower common room of Wycliffe Hall was abuzz with students. Voices thrummed through the high, bright space of the ground floor room as rain gathered out the window and seats were snatched. Our orientation program was well under way, but the next few sessions were of especial importance; the kind with information to set a new student on her feet, point out the mountain road of study, and tell her exactly how to walk. I sat, pen at the ready in a restless hover over my blank notebook page (I still haven’t learned to take effective notes on a laptop), heartbeat a little fast.
To be a student in Oxford is to accept a flung challenge. Yes, you do have to jump through numerous hoops and answer many questions and do your best to sound intelligent, well-bred, articulate, and humble all at once to even get a chance at the challenge. But once you’re here, every thread of brain tightens, muscles tense, soul and heart grow taut with the sense that much is expected of those who come. Maybe it’s partly my own inner perfectionist, the girl who cannot stand to fail, that goads me with this forward motion, but the expectation of that day and of those around me was tangible. I was ready to write down every jot of library info, college standards, house rules, and tutorial expectations.
So when a tall, kindly tutor rose with a swift smile and a quick welcome, I was a little surprised at his ease. He had us laughing within a minute, and told us that what he wanted to talk about was what our thinking ought to be while we were here. Not merely how to footnote, but how to be faithful. I settled back in my seat. My fingers eased in their grip on the pen. I had expected solemnity and loads of directives. Instead, over the next half hour of Rev’d Dr. James Robson’s talk, I found a buoyancy of heart that grew with each point he made. For what he presented were seven ideas describing just what the point of all our study and reading and thought ought to be. Amidst the clamor of my arrival, when the larger point of my work here could have been obscured by details, or fear, Dr. Robson cast a visional framework that renewed not just my faith, but my sense of purpose in the mountains of work ahead.
So I couldn’t resist sharing his major points with you, because I think there are countless ways in which these principles could be applied. To cultural engagement. To childhood education. To mentoring. To formation of soul and self. To formation of church, or mission. We need thoughtful roadmaps like these to help us envision what we desire as we study, teach, read, and then create from all we have gathered along the way. Without further ado, Dr. Robson’s seven values (Dr. Robson very kindly gave me permission to use his material here; his points are in bold with the notes I jotted in italic bold, and my thoughts from that day are in italics). Our thinking ought to be:
- Informed :: The aim is to dispel ignorance. To know what we know with great depth and intricacy, whether that is the nature of God or the function of language. To read, question, and wrestle with those who have gone deep in thought before us, and to then form our own beliefs in conversation with them. I’m reminded here of how language expands our consciousness. How each word, thought, or imagined figure enriches the inner soil from which our belief, creativity, and selfhood grows. To learn, to read, to be informed is to widen the horizon of spiritual imagination. In learning, we become more than we were before, and our capacity to give expands as well. What a privilege, then, to learn, and what a gift.
- Humble :: We see in part, each limited by his or her own point of view. We see one aspect of the world, one facet of the cut, shimmering diamond of reality. We must value what we know, yes, but recognize its limitation. We must always be willing to question, or expand our ideas based on the challenge of Scripture. I’ve only been here a week and already I have heard so many stories, heard so many passionate ideas stated, and formed new friendships with people from vastly differing cultures and histories. My concept of the world has expanded. I am keenly aware of both my own unique story, and the fact that it is one of countless histories adding to the great Story of God. In that context, there is no room for pride of place.
- Critical :: Is this right? God gave us minds to discern between the good and the bad, the true and the false. Our learning is meant to strengthen us in this endeavor, so that we can ask the questions that must be asked about soul and mind, Church and culture. We ask for evidence, we read vigorously, we think with rigor. I feel often paralyzed by the plethora of choices, opinions, and beliefs encountered in the space of a day. This particular value is a tonic to me; an assurance that with Scripture, study, and careful thought, I am fully able to discern what is right, what is good, and what that knowledge requires of me. Life’s more simple than it seems when a cool mind and a peaceful heart are in place.
- Analytical :: Here, we practice the discipline of logical thinking. We learn to ask the questions that get to the pith of the matter. We learn to discern what is truly being stated, asked, or assumed in the thoughts of others. This, after my various spates as a student mentor, strikes me hard. One thing I had to learn in mentoring others was that often, the question verbalized wasn’t really the question being asked. To discern what truly is at stake, to ask the kind of questions that lay open the heart of a matter is a discipline I’ve had to learn with much last minute prayer. Of course, academically, this value is straightforward, more about intellectual clarity. Clarity of thought. And brevity. Those will take some work!
- Independent :: We are self-starting, self-driven educators who take ownership of our learning. Part of this is a resistance to herd-like thinking. We think in community, certainly, but we think independently as well, willing to question instead of simply assume. And this is why I’m at Oxford. “Think of yourself,” said a new friend here, a little ahead of me on the same course,” as a scholar in training. You’re just a ways back from the great ones, but you’re on the same path. And you have to do the same work with the same integrity if you want to follow them.” Hard work, that, the discipline of setting essay schedules for myself, doing the extra bit of research I really could skip, answering the question fully instead of in part. But an honor too. To be trusted to learn, to do work worthy of a tutor’s time. And then to take that learning, apply the same independence and give it back in a meaningful way to the world. Beautiful challenge.
- Integrative :: Our learning must rightly enrich our actions. Theological study must enrich and further our discipleship. Otherwise, it is a useless endeavor. Oh, this beauty-loving, life-making girl loves this. Our contemplations must find meaningful, embodied expression. To hold knowledge apart, in an isolated box in our minds, is to make it meaningless. It must be applied, lived, incarnated into every aspect of the lives we live here, the loves we give, the legacies we are building. If what I learn about the Old Testament prophets doesn’t teach me how to tell the truth in my own time, how to love the people God is calling to himself, then the hours I spent upon it were worthless. If church doctrine classes don’t equip me to speak, in the language and metaphor of my own time, the living language of Christ, then I have learnt nothing at all. This learning must be a part of “life and life to the full,” life rich in the beauty and quickened light of Christ.
- Faithful :: We learn in order to know the living God. Michael Lloyd, the principal here at Wycliffe, in a talk given just before this one, commented (I don’t have notes so I’m paraphrasing) that theological study is, at base, the study of Love. In that light, I understand every jot of my pen here, every page of old text read, every essay eeked out in the wee sma’s as a journey deep into Love. And a rigorous training that will give me the mental acuity, the written and verbal fluency to make Love plain in my time.
So, friends. There you have it! I’m working on a C.S. Lewis essay today. I just finished Till We Have Faces, and now I need to form coherent thoughts about it. So for now, I take my leave. Over and out from Oxford.
Wycliffe Hall, from the back.