Tasting Life Twice

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The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery

A few years ago, I attended a conference where one of the speakers noted that someone living in 1905 would have more in common with Moses the patriarch than with someone living in our own time.  There have been so many sweeping changes in such a relatively short time that the past seems too distant to yield any valuable contributions to the present day. 

During my university studies, I would face this matter practically every day. On one side of College Avenue, I was involved in a campus ministry that emphasized returning to “New Testament Christianity”.  In fact, the ministry grew out of the historic Restoration Movement which sought to return the Church to its simple, first-century character. The idea was that the farther we get away from the origins of this great thing, the more corrupt or distorted it becomes.  When I crossed the street for my classes at Mizzou, the belief was reversed: the past was held suspect and the modern was privileged.  The idea was that our expanding knowledge and our newer cosmologies required that we also outgrow antiquated worldviews and have a more modern notion of God, sex, the human person, fill in the blank. 

image Early in the Christmas break I finally got around to reading New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery by Anthony Grafton.  It had been on my short list for the last two years.  The author explores how intellectual history changed in the wake of the European discovery of the “new world”.  Prior to that, people still held that authority principally resided in the ancient books.  For example, to discern the pattern of the heavens, you read Aristotle.  To make sense of the world that existed within the human body beneath the skin, you read the physician Galen.   For centuries, the assumption for many, if not most, was that a “complete and accurate body of knowledge already existed.”

Grafton shows how with new world exploration and the rise of scientific inquiry, scholars had to revise inherited paradigms, if not abandon them altogether.  In the new world after Columbus,

“the ancient texts continued to be read, translated, and admired, to provide the model genres for ambitious modern writers: epic, history, tragedy.  And belief in progress would not become universal in the West for a very long time; not even in the Enlightenment would it find universal assent…Those who knew the ancient world best – the professional scholars – took the side of the Modern in the Battle, arguing that the ancients had in fact known far less than moderns about nature, the surface of the world, and much else.  New standards of arguments – based, supposedly, on ‘facts’ rather than mere texts – played a larger and larger role in many fields.

The book is a tour de force as it relates to intellectual history, scholastic methodology, cartography and the nature of cultural encounter.  And it provides a wonderful background to our current debates about curriculum (see the recent New York Times article on making college relevant) and how the past should resource the present in areas of religious belief, social values and new technologies.  Highly recommended. 


The End of Suffering, Scott Cairns

My friend Scott Cairns has authored a new book entitled The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain. Its sudden appearance in the mail was timely: I had just been reading about the “protest theism” of writers like Twain and Melville and was preparing for the funeral of one of my uncles.

image The small book is a long essay which considers the purpose of suffering in its capacity to awaken us to certain realities; namely, the illusion of control, the grace of having the self “stripped away”, the gift of being alive to God and alive to life and the beauty of a heart that is turned toward others. Scott borrows from the wisdom of poets and ascetics to discover what can be learned in the land of suffering. He gives special attention to the insights of Elder Zosimas in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. For the past fifteen years, Scott has been in the habit of rereading the book at the end of the school year. He writes,

Generally, in late May, when administrative and teaching duties have concluded for the year and university life is winding down for the summer, I take up that weighty Russian novel for another go. For the most part, I manage to move through it steadily enough, except for the several passages having to do with Elder Zosimas, where I prefer to proceed slowly, deliberately, with increased attention to every word, and ever on the lookout for further illuminating connotation.” (47)

This practice caught my eye as I spent a semester studying The Brothers Karamazov under the tutelage of Eugene Peterson at Regent College. I did a guided study on the pastoral life and the practice of spiritual direction. One of Dostoevsky’s central characters, the Father Zosimas, received much of our attention. In his chapter on “Complicity”, Scott mentions the wisdom of Zosimas as it concerns our common humanity and shared culpability:

There is only one salvation for you,” he says to his gathered brotherhood: “take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friends, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.” (60)

Even as Scott lays out what is wrong with the world, he ends his essay by probing the mystery of God’s way of being in the world, a presence that is life-giving, recovering bodies and repairing persons. He writes,

The God-created world is an exceedingly wild place. Its weathers and its very makeup – its famously cranky geology – remain notoriously unpredictable. Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad. And even setting aside the simply bad, there is also no shortage of downright evil, from which the good do not appear to be uniformly protected…

What kind of God is this?

Whether or not you think the world was initially created as the shaky sphere is is – a notoriously unstable crust skidding over a roiling swirl of molten rock – there’s no arguing that it isn’t something of a crapshoot now. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, famine, flood – take your pick. And lest we forget the human hand in our crapshoot’s wealth of crap, we must remember to add to that wild mix our own pathological history of aggression, murder, war, and genocide.

And where, exactly, is our God in all of this?

Well, the story goes that He has descended into the very thick of it.

The story goes that He remains in the very thick of it.” (108).

Cairns book is also a descent into the thick of it. His reflections on the purpose of suffering in helping us to become fully human call to mind what fellow writer Anne Lamott has described as the writer’s task:

The writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words; not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues (Bird by Bird).

Scott has done his job.  The End of Suffering is an honest look at the unbearable and unspeakable stuff.  Thankfully, though, it is more than that.  It a hopeful song with some soul in it – or perhaps even better, some Body. 

Paraclete Press, 144 pages, August 2009

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