This past weekend I hosted a book table for the Cornerstone University Society for Philosophy. I like philosophy but I have to say this group really stretched my thinking. One reason is because it was tied to the “politics of discipleship” and so the discussion of politics was very prominent and this is an area that I’ve not explored very much. Wendell Berry was a favorite among the group as was, to my surprise, Karl Marx. There was a lot of discussion about “the empire” which I’m still not sure I know what they were referring to but whatever it is it wasn’t a good thing. Workshops with titles like “The Unethical Dimensions of Capitalism: A Call for Kingdom Ethics” and “Resisting Empire Through the Restoration of the Multitude” intrigued me but I was unable to attend them. I did catch the final plenary session which was on “Anarchist Philosophy and Christian Law” which I found fascinating and ruffled lots of my conservative feathers. But I was grateful for the lecture and it left me with much to think about. The highlight of the conference for me came oddly enough in the closing comments by the President of the Society, Dean Dettloff. It was not a highlight because the conference was coming to a close but with the challenge that Dean gave to those who attended. Dean is a coworker of mine but our shifts don’t often overlap by much so I don’t know him as well as I’d like. This weekend gave me a whole new impression of Dean and I must say I was very impressed. I asked him if I could post some of his closing comments here and he graciously agreed. If the attendees of the conference take heed to these sage remarks by a young Kierkegaardian then much will come of these two days.
Thankfully, I am comfortable saying our conference has been able to interact with both of these questions quite tangibly. We have made several descriptions, and we have even been so bold as to offer a few prescriptions. All of these things are admirable, and we should be proud of and content with our work. But because I am a Kierkegaardian, I must admit that I find contentment to be one of the most dangerous states a human soul can find itself in. This is not to say that we cannot be contented, but, ironically, that such a state should eventually fill us with fear and trembling, as this contentment makes it quite easy to gain the whole world while losing our souls. Thus, on the chance that there are any in this room, myself included, who are beginning to feel contented at the fruits of our labors, I will explain a clear and present danger from the hand of our brother, Søren Kierkegaard. He writes:
“Christianity cannot be proclaimed by talking – but by acting. Nothing is more dangerous than to have a bunch of high-flying feelings and exalted resolutions go off in the direction of merely eloquent speaking. The whole thing then becomes an intoxication, and the deception is that it becomes a glowing mood and that they say, “He is so sincere!” – alas, yes, in the sense of the mood of the moment.
Preaching by means of action is more like a fast, and therefore the audience does not flock to it. Such preaching is almost boring, and what is boring is that it promptly makes an issue of doing something about it. [Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations, The Plough Publishing House, 2011, 350]
I do not intend, by mention of these words, to suggest that we have already fallen into the intoxicating deception of which Kierkegaard speaks. I do, however, wish to bring to light a situation that I think often occurs in contexts such as ours yet goes uncommented on for a number of reasons. If we leave this conference with mutual pats on the back, congratulating and thanking one another, showering each other with deserved praises, yet we do nothing—if this happens, then we have failed in the uttermost sense.
If this happens, then we will not have proclaimed Christianity here. We will have proclaimed something else entirely—perhaps some interesting philosophy, perhaps a few good questions, perhaps some enjoyable rhetoric. But in all of this, we will have shamed the apostle Paul and our brother Kierkegaard. We will have preached ourselves, and not Christ Jesus as Lord, nor ourselves as servants for his sake. We will have been lost in the mood of the moment. This need not necessarily be the case, however. Indeed, two ways lay before us, and this is surely an either/or question—either the way of intoxication or the way of action.
Yesterday, both Dr. Smith and Dr. Walsh were asked essentially the same question—this is all well and good, but where is the monastery? Where is the remixed church of Colossi? I suspect more of these questions have been asked since then, and this is encouraging, for it shows that our hearts are not seeking intoxication. But this conference truly is a case where existence will precede essence; we will not be able to judge the success or failure of this conference for quite some time. We will be convicted (if we choose to accept the righteous haunting of the Holy Ghost) by the question of which path this conference is leading us down. It will only be after a long and continued wrestling with the words and ideas shared here that we will be able to make a confident analysis of our humble efforts. And after such a wrestling, if there is an end to the wrestling, there will be only two available conclusions to choose from: intoxication or action.
But perhaps I am too apocalyptic. Indeed, these remarks are more than a few steps removed from the jovial and tension-easing postscript of last night. Surely at least a few of you are disappointed, and I would be lying if I said I did not wish to entertain again with these remarks, rather than present preaching that may seem more like a fast, preaching that is almost boring in making an issue of doing something about it. But nonetheless, this is precisely the only way to end a conference regarding “the politics of discipleship,” for contemporary politics are far too overrun with serious issues that have not received serious attention for me to revert back to the position of the humorist. No, tonight calls for something more serious—the ending of this conference is not its closure, but rather its opening, an attempt to make the event a womb of actions and not a grave of theory.
Let me be clear here: I am not so foolish as to presume that leaving tonight will culminate in the establishment of a new homeless shelter or soup kitchen overnight, as such things do not typically work out this way (though one might still reasonably ask why this is the case). I am, however, so foolish as to presume that this community of gathered friends might actually embody the realities we have tried to speak into existence in order to replace the realities we have tried to speak against. Yes, I am so naïve as to think that when I looked onto the crowd last night I saw not a group of mere intellectuals but a group of friends—of sisters and brothers—who sought another world, who conceived of themselves as ambassadors from a foreign land.
I truly do think that it is possible that this group might move to action, and not intoxication. And I believe, paradoxically, that such an action will be simultaneously already and not yet—here and now, yet waiting to be realized. I believe we must leave this building with an apocalyptic sensibility, and simultaneously “put [our] faith in the two inches of hummus/that will build under the tree/every thousand years.” [Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.]
Though I found stuff that I disagreed with here and there and many of the issues were new to me, I found a group of students who were struggling to integrate a genuine and meaningful Christianity into their politcs of discipleship. They wanted a safe place to voice thier views, their concerns, their ideas and dreams. The ideas must now go beyond the walls of Cornerstone and find soil to grow and bring forth fruit which will honor our Lord. Many Kudos to Dean, Jazz and the other officers of Cornerstone University Society for Philosophy for a great conference. May this be the first of many, many more and I would be delighted to do your book table next year.