I still don’t know how to answer when people ask me, “How was Harvard?” So what follows will my attempt at working it out. Bear with me.
I think I have to start with structuralism. We’re big on structuralism at Harvard, and frankly, it provides a lot of insight into the racism wreaking havoc in our country, particularly its schools and universities. Entire systems have been built up with the intent of improving the lot of certain groups, and implicit within that is the denigration of other groups–not always actively or consciously done by the groups in power, but that doesn’t excuse the crime. The work now being done to unravel those structures and provide an equitable playing field is not always done sensitively or well (which of itself provides insight into the contemporary mindset–what it’s trying to achieve, what it’s trying to atone for. Not that I necessarily know how to do it better though!) but it is work that needs to be done, and work that implicates Christians.
Structuralism – I think – also applies to one’s actual structures of thought–the epistemological processes, rooted in our experiences and identities, by which we make sense of the world.
It started with my Philosophy of Education class, taught by a scrappy, razor-sharp New Englander. Throughout the semester we always (ALWAYS!) came back to the concept that we are getting closer and closer to truth through convergences of thought, and though we probably can’t ever get to absolute truth we can trust the process of asking questions (or learning) to keep us on the right path.
Thing is, she took that concept as a first-order principle. To question it would be like questioning that you breath oxygen. It in itself is just not a thing you question.
So if you come from a perspective where it isn’t a first-order principle you get into what I’m calling language issues.
I don’t have it all sorted out, but basically, my hang-up with the idea is what I’m calling directionality. I can back the convergence of truth idea, but how do you know which way is up and which way is down? How can we know we’re on the right path? How can we know if we are ever wrong?
My professor was always a bit biting, but she answered with admirable honesty that those are questions without answers – at least for now. Religion – where I found my answers – was fine for those who were into it, but she personally saw it as a sort of cop out (I’m extrapolating here; she didn’t actually say that.)
After I finally understood that (poor woman. We both irritated each other, I think), I began seeing that same sort of uneasy boundary between the realms of religion and knowledge everywhere. Basically, I realized I could depend on any one there to defend my rights of religion and freedom of speech – but that generosity would not extend to actual engagement with the stuff of my beliefs.
It is really important to me to stress that everyone I met at Harvard was wonderfully kind and intelligent. I never felt any friction over my faith. But as my friend Alex put it, “it’s in the air.”
He’s right, and I think the reason for that is has to do with the ways in which we understand reality.
It is hard for me to embody the immensity of how my faith moves my learning, but on some level I’ve come to realize that I need to stop shoving it into the little boxes of human rationality. Faith is not a product of human understanding. If the Bible doesn’t apologize for being Divine –if in fact the entire Gospel is built upon Divine Wisdom, and not human–then I have no business apologizing for it either (1 Corinthians 1:18). In the words of the formidable Marilynne Robinson, “…there is no justification for applying the test of common sense to what the religious must assume are reality’s deeper structures, the orders and affinities that make human wisdom in its larger sense efficacious, beautiful, vital, and full of satisfactions” (“Proofs,” from The Givenness of Things, p. 156).
If we take faith (or at least, one facet of it) to be a response to the divine work in us, then we have to look at how it affects our inner workings, not just the content of what we believe. How it shifts perspectives, so that I can be fully aware of how and why Christianity is so different from alternative worldviews, and still be so bowled over by the lovely Truth of it that I have to examine every new experience and idea in its light. Its light!
I so love all the Biblical language about God being like light. I truly believe it. He is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).
That is the basis of my epistemology, my philosophy of learning. I remember the jolt I felt when I realized in high school that that was the heart of my desire to study Modernist literature–my heart, and my justification wrapped into one. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
When I realized what that verse meant was that Christ has gone into the darkest places and come out through them alive, and himself, I was–am!–struck dumb by the implications. By doing that, Christ gave the dark places value. Not the frivolous monetary associations we place on the word today (oh the tragedy of an ever-evolving language!) but rare, precious, dearly-bought and validated, real redemption.
It changes everything. Dark places are everywhere, literal and metaphorical, physical and emotional, internal and external. But look at it from the point of view of the light. Why would He sully himself with a desolate humanity? Why would He enter into our suffering? Why would He make us this way, and not perfect the way He wants us to be?
And when the light is a Person.
I won’t quote T.S. Eliot, I won’t, but oh, love.
It changes everything, and there is my metaphysics. Just by virtue of His coming down, the darkness is never absolute. And you know what? By His light you can see what He came down to save.
And so for me learning–literature, the humanities, philosophy, the arts–has become my means of following the light. And there’s so much light everywhere. Everywhere you look, there’s more grace to discover, if you want to see it.
You’d be right to remind me that I started out talking about structures of racism. How, Mary Sue, can you hold a world with such ugly problems in tandem with the idealized worldview you’ve just articulated?
It’s never that we are excused from working to fix those problems. Ever. Grace, as a professor once told me, does not excuse effort. The thing is, grace transforms that effort so that we are no longer working to correct insurmountable-seeming ugly problems like racism and human trafficking and more, that start with human evil and end with human limits. Grace makes the hard and bloody work about finding the light instead, the countless places and ways of seeing that God shows Himself through, and clearing the darkness around them, and finding that it was just our eyes closed. That our hearts need to be transformed, if we are to fix our problems. That reality is much bigger than we thought, and that God loves us so very much it makes our hearts ache.
Aaah, there’s so much beauty in the way of things. Pt. 2 to follow soon. And, I bet, Pt 3!