(This is the second of a two-part series. To read part 1, click here.)
Before I ruminate on the greatness of this idea, let us consider two things. First, God did not invade Palestinian history so that the rest of future humanity could pretend it doesn’t have one. God became a very particular kind of Jewish man, and his empathies bore out the very wellspring of godly emotion as he wept for the stubborn city of Jerusalem. “Behold, I make all things new,” says Jesus, and he does not accomplish this from some sort-of historical Switzerland. Despite modernity’s commitment otherwise, the Church’s transformation of this or any country will not come from our being more holy than he “who was tempted in every way.” Naked retreat from history is a denial of place and Providence.
Secondly, reading is an appreciation of one of our cultural artifacts: books. It is a synthesis of several of our God-given faculties, and right expression of our ontology as humans—we were made temporal beings every bit as much as we were made biological beings. We were made rational beings even as we were made spiritual beings. Part of our participation with our historical constitution comes with the understanding of all (at least as much as possible) that has shaped the moment in which we find ourselves, books being the preeminent way in which that takes place. Part of our heritage was contributed by ancient philosophers, some by the Apostles, some by medieval scholastics, and some most recently by scientists—all of whom wrote. For some of us, it has taken thirty years just to figure out just a few things that happened before we were born. We did not find those few things at the bottom of a test tube.
Books defy Switzerland. Books defy isolation and the loneliness of novelty. But what of faith?
Faith motivated by love does not seek the good of winning arguments or of understanding cultural ancestry through dishonest means. An argument or position apparently won on screen as a result of crafty editing, is not a position honestly won or defended. Nor is the victory of Christian ideas over, say, a sadly misrepresented Darwinism, basis for a parade. Aggression is not a replacement for reflection, and the fact that the female mantis eats the head of the male just before mating does not demonstrate that our supposed erudition should do the same. Reading has a crucial habit at this juncture—it’s called humility. Our Lord did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself to a place of identification with many an erroneous opinion and lifestyle. A few of the freedoms of Deity were suspended to take on flesh. Our own identification with those who shape our cultural inheritance must follow the same pattern. There must be a suspension—even if momentary—of our position if we are ever to think upon the conviction of another. This is the surrender in imaginative love, and is a key feature of the deepest possible practices of reading. Faith is the component that keeps the foot from stumbling either into pride or despair, two of the most common and unfortunate outcomes of education.
So what have we to fear? The divergent views of pagans and of unbelief in some ways cost our Lord his life, but in so doing he saved the world. Error is a form of suffering, and while our Lord is Truth, he never avoided the suffering that comes from the ignorance or aberration around him. Imaginative love is ready to consider the possibility that I could have become or thought like someone other than the person I have, by God’s grace, come to be. Imaginative love stands willing to affirm the good or rightly thought, and to bear up under the suffering that comes from both incidental and intentional delusion. This kind of thinking is far different than the speculative or experimental opinions that demonstrate the insincerity of the modern academy. We are not listing “alternatives” for the students to “give their opinion on.” Our life of the mind is closer to the spiritual discipline of meditation upon the inseparability of humanity, history, thought, and theology.
Faith is not the avoidance of rationality; it is the humbling of rationality. The Academy of Classical Christian Studies will read the Greats, but we will do so with an imagination that remembers it cannot create light or love; rather, it can merely place itself in the pathway of its beam and stand ready to reflect it.