St. Augustine’s Journey Toward God

Garry Wills has a new book out on St. Augustine.  It is entitled Augustine’s “Confessions”: A Biography (Princeton University Press).  From what I can tell, Wills is trying to rescue the Confessions from scholars who seem to think that the book is about a saint’s struggle with lust.  More than a autobiography, Wills suggests that the Confessions are best understood as Augustine’s reflections on his journey toward God.  As Wills writes in an excerpted passage of the book published on the website of The New Statesman:

If Confessions is not an autobiography, what is it (aside from its overall framework as a prayer)? It relives the drama of sin and salvation, in the form of a journey towards God. It stands closer to The Pilgrim’s Progress, or even to the Divine Comedy, than to Rousseau’s Confessions. It is a theological construct of a highly symbolic sort.

I am not sure what is new about this interpretation.  I think that this is the way many Christians have always read the Confessions.


Courtney Weller on Lent

A nice reflection from a former student:

This year for Lent I’ve decided to not give up chocolate (since I don’t eat it as much as I use to, and frankly I’m not that strong this year 😉 ) and decided to give up some self-destructive habits, and pick up some others.

My main discipline this Lenten season is going to be trying *really* *really* hard to follow the 10 Commandments. I started reading this book about someone who followed the Bible literally for a year, and one of the hardest things for him was following the 10 Commandments. It takes discipline of mind as well as action, and frankly it’s quite difficult. Part of this journey will be to further study the Ten Commandments and look into the theological explanations, unpacking what we really have to gain by following these requests. So far (yes, the day after Lent began) this has been a major failing point. Ponder for yourself how often you really honor your mother and your father, how often you use the Lord’s name in vain, without the meaning it deserves, how often we lie, or don’t tell the whole truth, how often we COVET. So much. So very much. We’re a society built on coveting, yes?

Along with the Ten Commandments, I’ve decided to re-start my desire to use better language (I state it this way to not sound as guilty). But this doesn’t just eliminate swearing, but to improve my vocabulary. To craft my language to honor the God of creativity, the God who gives us language. Perhaps I’ll try to pick up another language during this time, but that would be a side project.

My final Lenten discipline this year will be to only drink water. Partially this is for health reasons, as I don’t need to drink sweet tea or soda or delicious fruity beverages. But my hope is that, along with the health benefits, I will be reminded every time I realize I can’t have that coffee (boy, was that a rude awakening this morning) or the occasional treat of delicious, beautiful, wonderful sweet tea, that I drink water, the means of which I have received Christ. So, it’s really a memory device. Only drink water, and remember my baptism. Remember what Lent is all about.

Do you do anything for Lent? Why or why not, and if so, what are your disciplines this Lenten season? 

Faith and Leadership Interview with George Marsden

Marsden reflects on Christian education, Jonathan Edwards, and Reformed spirituality.  Here is a taste:

Q: It seems that institutions driven by an explicit confessional Christian commitment provide reasons for being that are stronger than simply training people to make money.

That’s certainly true. A few years ago the retiring academic dean at Harvard, Harry Lewis, wrote a book called “Excellence Without a Soul,” talking about why he saw Harvard education as becoming empty, because it’s too much driven by immediate vocational interests, and competing interests and vocational interests of faculty; no one is thinking about holistic education.

Whereas higher education in the more evangelical frame has been driven by a vision of Christians as having a cultural task as well as evangelistic tasks, the idea that there should be an infusion of Christian principles throughout everything people do in their lives. It provides a coherence that a lot of people are seeing as lacking in the educational mainstream.

That has something to do with these schools doing relatively well with respect to growth in the last 15 years or so. Even though it costs a lot to send people to those institutions, parents and students recognize you’re getting the kind of education that people have traditionally imagined college should be about, that has some direction to it, some coherence to it. It’s not just a cafeteria of odd things that you might be interested in studying.

Jim Wallis: An Attack on the Soul of a Nation

Jim Wallis offers a much needed reflection on the meaning of the Gabrielle Gifford shooting in Arizona this weekend.  Here is a taste:

This horrible tragedy must now become an important American moment. And, it is our job to make sure it does not just become another quickly forgotten event. As the county sheriff in charge of the criminal scene in Tucson said on Saturday, this must be an occasion for national “soul searching.” Part of the tragedy is that while this shooting has shaken the communities Gabby is a part of — Arizona and Washington, D.C. — violent tragedies like this are far too common in our country and our world. When a shooting would occur in the neighborhood of Columbia Heights, in which I lived for 30 years, we would always look towards bringing the individual or individuals who committed the act to justice. But we never stopped there. We always asked: What is our role in this?

A central calling for Christians is to be peacemakers. Peace, we understand, is not simply the absence of current conflict, but the presence of a just community. In the midst of tragedy and violence, I believe this means every Christian must ask themselves: “How am I responsible?” What more can we do to bring peace to this world as the Prince of Peace has called us to do? What are the situations and environments that allow this kind of hate and violence to grow? How can I not only stop conflict, but also be a part of bringing about a just community that displays the positive presence of peace?

As many have already said, we must honor this tragic event and Gabby’s national service by reflecting deeply on how we speak to and about one another, and how we create environments that help peace grow, or allow violence and hatred to enter. Many of us who would never consider violence of the fist have been guilty of violence in our hearts and with our tongues. We need to be able to relate to others with whom we disagree on important issues without calling them evil. The words we say fall upon the balanced and unbalanced, stable and unstable, the well-grounded and the unhinged, alike.

Money is Highly Dangerous to Your Spiritual Health

I usually don’t post spiritual exhortations like this at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but this one hit me between the eyes so I am going to address it here.  It comes from Patrick Michael, a professor at the Irish Bible Institute in Dublin.  It was written for Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed.  Here is a taste:

I’ve been thinking a bit about money recently, not least prompted by Ireland’s recent financial apocalypse that current and future generations will be paying off for years to come.
My proposal for this guest post (thanks for the invite Scot) is that we (western Christians) have, by and large, read the Bible in a way that neuters much of what Scripture says about money…

The Bible has an astonishing amount to say about money. Yes, some of it is comforting to Westerners – it seems to legitimate private property, affirm personal responsibility and (within limits) views prosperity as valid fruit of hard work and a sign of God’s blessing.

But the vast majority of the Bible’s teaching on money should make us very wary indeed of all that money brings.  I suggest that in both in the Old and New Testaments the overwhelming message is this:

Money is highly dangerous to your spiritual health

Repeatedly the Bible links money with spiritually destructive attitudes and actions such as:

  • greed with exploitation and injustice (Amos 8:4-6);
  • wealth with pride (Ezek. 28:4-5);
  • covetousness with destroyed relationships (Exod. 20:17);
  • desire for more with discontent (Heb. 13:5-6);
  • riches with an utter inability to enter the kingdom of God (Mt. 19:6-24);
  • lust for more with selfishness and futility of life (Eph. 4:17-19; 2 Tim 3:1-5);
  • the love of money as a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10);
  • having plenty with spiritual peril (Lk. 12:13-21).

Jesus says “You cannot serve both God and money” (Lk. 16:13) and “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk. 12:34). His words should make his followers highly cautious and self-critical in their use of and attitudes to money. Yet we tend to filter them out.

When it comes to money, are we so deeply shaped by our consumerist, individualist and capitalist culture that we take it as a given – a natural ‘good’, a blessing from God and a fruit of our hard work? We earn it, handle it, borrow it, spend it, save it and give some of it away – but, if you are like me, we rarely really think about it beyond the desire to have a bit more. And we certainly don’t think of it as spiritually dangerous….

Read the the rest here.

Leigh Eric Schmidt on Ira Craddock

Over at Flunking Sainthood, editor extraordinaire Jana Riess interviews Havard historian Leigh Eric Schmidt about his new book Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman.

Here is a taste:

You’ve had some wonderfully quirky scholarly interests in your career, everything from Christmas to ventriloquism. How did you first learn about Ida Craddock? What made you decide to devote a book to her?

Several years ago I wrote a book on the making of American spirituality and came across her in that research. She seemed like an archetypal religious seeker and would have fit quite well in that story. Her papers, though, were off at Southern Illinois University, and I never got a chance to go there until shortly after Restless Souls was done. When I saw the Craddock papers–the wealth of letters, her diary of mystical experiences, the unpublished book manuscripts–I instantly thought that hers was a story worth telling, that recovering her life from the censors, medical psychologists, lawyers, and judges offered a rare chance to hear again the suppressed voice of a one of Comstock’s targets. I also glimpsed in her story an opportunity to see the sweeping cultural conflicts of the day–ones that still shadow us in debates about religious freedom, evangelical politics, sex, and civil liberties–in a grain of sand.

Stanley Hauerwas: Advice to Christians On Their Way to College

From the current issue of First Things:

To be a student is a calling. Your parents are setting up accounts to pay the bills, or you are scraping together your own resources and taking out loans, or a scholarship is making college possible. Whatever the practical source, the end result is the same. You are privileged to enter a time—four years!—during which your main job is to listen to lectures, attend seminars, go to labs, and read books.

It is an extraordinary gift. In a world of deep injustice and violence, a people exists that thinks some can be given time to study. We need you to take seriously the calling that is yours by virtue of going to college. You may well be thinking, “What is he thinking? I’m just beginning my freshman year. I’m not being called to be a student. None of my peers thinks he or she is called to be a student. They’re going to college because it prepares you for life. I’m going to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than I’d have if I didn’t go to college. It’s not a calling.”

But you are a Christian. This means you cannot go to college just to get a better job. These days, people talk about college as an investment because they think of education as a bank account: You deposit the knowledge and expertise you’ve earned, and when it comes time to get a job, you make a withdrawal, putting all that stuff on a résumé and making money off the investment of your four years. Christians need jobs just like anybody else, but the years you spend as an undergraduate are like everything else in your life. They’re not yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s…

History and Spiritual Transformation

Here is an excerpt of a short talk I gave today to the faculty of the Messiah College School of Humanities. Readers of this blog will probably find some familiar themes here.

An encounter with the past in all of its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives. Such an encounter teaches us empathy, humility, selflessness, and hospitality. By studying history we learn to listen to voices that differ from our own. We lay aside our moral condemnation about a person, idea, or event from the past in order to understand it. This is the essence of intellectual hospitality. The act of interpreting a primary source with students becomes the equivalent of inviting a person from the past into our classroom. By taking the time to listen to people from a “foreign country” we rid ourselves of the selfish quest to make the past serve our needs. The study of the past reminds us that we are not autonomous individuals, but part of a human story that is larger than ourselves. Sam Wineburg sums it up well:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image. Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born. History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

Are we willing to allow history to “educate” us—to lead us outward?

Wineburg’s reference to theology is worth further exploration. In his book, A Theology of Public Life, Charles Mathewes argues that Christians today are afflicted by the sin of escapism—the desire to flee from God and each other. God wants us to turn toward Him, but he also wants us to turn toward each other. In the process of loving our neighbor—for Mathewes such a practice goes to the heart of civic life—we grow as Christians. “Through the virtues’ cultivation through engagement with public life,” Mathewes writes, “the souls of Christians may be purified in and through their public engagements….”

What if we viewed the study of the past as a form of public engagement? Even if the person we engage is dead, we can still enter into a conversation with the sources that he or she has left behind. In a passage strikingly familiar to Wineburg’s thoughts on the discipline of history, Mathewes argues that when we encounter people in all their strangeness we

find ourselves decentered, we find that we are no longer the main object of our purposes, but participate in something not primarily our own. This confession then, is itself a turning to the other, not in the interests of mutual narcissism, which makes the other only a consolidation prize for having to be already ourselves—but as an openness to transforming and being transformed by the other.

If we take seriously the Judeo-Christian concept of the Imago Dei—the notion that all human beings are created in the image of God—then we should also take seriously the idea that those who lived in the past were also created in God’s image. The very act of studying humanity—past or present—can be what Mathewes calls an “exploration into God, a mode inquiring God….” An encounter with the past thus becomes an act of spiritual devotion. This kind of encounter “provides more than enough opportunities for humility and penance, recognition of one’s sin and the sins of others, and a deepening appreciation of the terrible awe-fulness of God’s providential governing of the world. Indeed, involvement in public life today may itself increasingly need some such ascetical discipline.”

Praying Before Class

I usually do not pray before I begin my classes. But as a professor at a Christian college, I know that many of my colleagues do. Frankly, I have never thought very deeply about the relationship between public prayer before classes and the pursuit of learning. But after reading this piece by Richard Mouw at the Duke Divinity School blog, I think I need to give this more thought. Here is a taste:

I started thinking more seriously about this subject of prayer and learning when I read Mark Schwehn’s 1993 book “Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.” Schwehn makes the case that academic communities of the past were undergirded by such “spiritual” virtues as humility, faith, self-denial and love. These qualities — absolutely essential for maintaining academic community — were intentionally sustained in the past by liturgical practices and symbol systems that are intimately intertwined with religious convictions. The Western academy emerged out of worshipping communities, after all. And, as Schwehn boldly states his case, “the continued vitality [of academic life today] would seem to be in some jeopardy under wholly secular auspices.” Schwehn suggests much of the academy today is “living off a kind of borrowed fund of moral capital.” For example, to the degree that the virtues that are crucial for a sense of communal academic trust are still present in the broader academy, they are drawing on resources from past spiritual practices that are no longer seen as necessary to the intellectual quest.

Do any of you professors out there say a prayer before class? Or have you ever had a professor who prays before class?

Julian of Norwich

We don’t do a great deal of medieval history here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but every now and then a book from another historical era catches my attention.

I want to call your attention to Amy Frykholm’s Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. I have a special affinity for this book because I had the privilege of hearing Amy talk about it last January at the winter meeting of the Louisville Institute.

While you are awaiting for your copy of the book to arrive from Amazon, check out this Books and Culture podcast. My only issue with the podcast is that it spends a lot of time on Julian of Norwich and not enough time on Frykholm’s very interesting approach to Julian’s biography.

The Democratization of the Contemplative Life

In today’s New York Times column Ross Douthat writes:

Mysticism is dying, and taking true religion with it. Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent. This, at least, is the stern message of Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in the latest issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith. Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.

Douthat partially disagrees with Johnson. Mysticism and religious contemplation have not disappeared, they have been democratized and “taken mass market.” The religious options in our consumer society are endless. Dabbling in various religious experiences has become a sort of middle-class hobby. Yet Douthat, like Johnson, thinks that this might be a problem.

And yet Johnson may be right that something important is being lost as well. By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.
Douthat reminds us that most great mystics worked within a specific religious tradition.

He concludes:

Most religious believers will never be great mystics, of course, and the American way of faith is kinder than many earlier eras to those of us who won’t. But maybe it’s become too kind, and too accommodating. Even ordinary belief — the kind that seeks epiphanies between deadlines, and struggles even with the meager self-discipline required to get through Lent — depends on extraordinary examples, whether they’re embedded in our communities or cloistered in the great silence of a monastery. Without them, faith can become just another form of worldliness, therapeutic rather than transcendent, and shorn of any claim to stand in judgment over our everyday choices and concerns.

A few good words for those of us observing Lent.