Thursday, May 25, 2023

Sailing the High Seas

An old friend sent me an email a while ago. He was concerned:

“My daughter is going off to university next year, and she wants to take English Literature as her major! I’m worried about her: could you talk to her?”

I had to smile. Sure, I could talk to her. After all, I had been through all that, and I had survived just fine, thank you.

But why the panic?

I recalled that he is university educated himself, but in mathematical subjects. I suppose that somewhere along the line he’d picked up the idea that while maths might be a safe study for a Christian, the humanities might be unusually hostile to faith. I wondered what he thought of anthropology or the life sciences.

I also wondered what he thought of his daughter. Was she a strong Christian, or a weak one? Was she thoughtful in her faith, or na├»ve? Was she confident in what she had been taught, or was she shaky in her convictions? Did she have support from Christians, or was she sailing alone? I decided to wait to find out.

After all, Proverbs says, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”

Oh, the Humanities!

But I understood, too. It’s not wrong to say that the humanities can put a young Christian to the test. My first degree was English Lit., and I had indeed met many challenges to faith in that department: but it was those very challenges that had made me stronger.

In fact, it was the sceptical agnostic novelist, Thomas Hardy, that had given my first step toward the faith that had sustained me not just through four years of university, but through thirty years of life and through graduate school as well. You see, by learning about what other writers, artists and philosophers were offering, I was confirmed in my own conviction that the Christian perspective is the most reasonable, logical, defensible and comprehensive worldview available.

It all depends on how you take these things on. Studies in the humanities can be a threat to belief; but they can also be the gymnasium in which a muscular faith is built.

The Point, Writ Large

I was reminded of this recently when reading the autobiography of novelist Andrew Klavan, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ (2016). There I came across a passage in which Klavan summarizes what studying literature gave to him. At the time, he was not yet a Christian. By his own account, he was still in his callow and arrogant youth, contemptuous of education and convinced that nobody in the world was smarter than he was, or should be allowed to tell him anything. But it was systematically reading and studying the great ideas of others that eventually broke him of this folly.

He writes:

“I was coming to understand what an education was. To escape from the little island of the living. To know what thinking men and women have felt and seen and imagined through all the ages of the world. To meet my natural companions among the mighty dead. To walk with them in conversation. To know myself in them, through them. Because they are what we have become. Every blessing from soup bowls to salvation they discovered for us. Individuals just as real as you and me, they fought over each new idea and died to give life to the dreams we live in. Some of them — a lot of them — wasted their days following error down nowhere roads. Some hacked their way through jungles of suffering to collapse in view of some far-off golden city of the imagination. But all the thoughts we think — all the high towers of the mind’s citadel — were sculpted out of shapeless nothing through the watches of their uncertain nights. Every good thing we know would be lost to darkness, all unremembered, if each had not been preserved for us by some sinner with a pen.”

“Some sinner with a pen.” How many such “sinners” had I listened to, as they peddled their various philosophical wares? And yet, how many “sinners with a pen” had I also met struggling along the steep and thorny way to find God? Plenty of both, as I recall. And it had been very, very good for me. But that was because in all of my encounters, the Lord had been at my shoulder. He turns every challenge into a blessing, and every test of doubt into a strong muscle of faith.

There is nothing to fear if the Lord is with us: who will stand against us?

After all, with God on our side, who shall contend against us? As Isaiah boldly says, let them draw near and speak!

That is as true of the world of ideas as anywhere else.

Let Them Talk

Let them talk. Let them ALL talk. We shall only grow stronger, for all they can say. And we shall grow wiser by seeing into the hearts of all men and women, as they speak to us out of their hopes and dreams, their fears and anxieties, their wishes and their terrors … we shall learn what makes a man a man, and a woman a woman; about what makes a fool and a wise man, about what makes a sinner and a saint. So let the past speak, and let us listen with attentive ears. All will be well.

We can listen as sinners ourselves. Andrew Klavan says he did, and he says it still did him a world of good. But I think it is best we should listen as Christians, if we can: for only a Christian can fully understand what it is those voices are really saying … how every one of them strains to speak its longing or love, or venom and hatred, but all to but one ultimate hearer: the creator God himself.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that all literature, from the most precise political diatribe to the most passionate poem of love to a woman, is actually part of a continuous, sotto voce conversation between the human race and God.

“If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.”

I learned that line from the great 17th century poet John Donne. He wrote it first to a woman: but anyone who knows Donne’s poetry knows that thoughts of God were also never far from the tip of his pen. The two blend, because it’s actually not possible to have a really serious conversation without God.

After all, mere mortals perish. You can’t speak of eternity to someone who is not going to be there.

I would even argue that the great anti-God works were written to God. The God that Freud and Marx worked so hard to dismiss as a fiction, or against which Nietzsche so venomously raged, is actually ultimately honored by the passionate hatred with which they worked to attack him.

You don’t waste ammunition on an enemy you think is already dead.

What’s more, you always ramp up your attack to the level of your own terror. Listen carefully, and you can hear the anguish of the God-rejecting soul in every line of their screeds. “The wrath of man shall praise you …”

Fear Not

So I told my friend not to worry: I would be happy to meet his daughter and see where she was at.

As it turned out, she would do a year of Lit. studies, then transfer into a more maths-based program. No doubt her father heaved a sigh of relief when that happened. I can’t really tell you whether or not that was a good thing. It depends on her, really, and on whatever the Lord wants to do with her life.

For some of us, studying in the humanities is likely a very dangerous pastime; for others, it’s the very thing we need. But we all certainly DO need some Christians around who are not afraid to sail the high seas of human ideas. Their presence and work can be a help to others who, perhaps, do not; and their work can continue to be a great blessing in regard to the fields of Christian philosophy, apologetics and evangelism.

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