Ready, Set, ...Write!

I can't.  I'm too tired.  I have nothing to say.  No, as usual, that's not quite true.  Thanks to the reading I've been doing these past four or so weeks, I have much, too much to say.  If only I knew where to start.  If only.

I am tired.  Truly.  It's the second week of term, and I'm teaching a wholly new course on education in the Middle Ages.  I know, I know, it was the Dark Ages, they didn't have any education.  Which, of course, isn't true.  They had loads.  Only--and here's the embarrassing thing--even we medievalists don't spend enough time thinking about what medieval people (i.e. school children) learned in school.  In particular, we don't spend enough time thinking about grammar.  And logic.  And rhetoric.  A.k.a. the trivium.

I know I don't.  I'm embarrassed that my Latin isn't stronger than it is.  Even after almost a full year of working on my translation of John of Garland.  Still I have so much to learn.  And not just new vocabulary (which John is full of).  Technicalities of meter.  And synonyms.  And tropes.  And, you know, things.  I don't even have the vocabulary yet to talk about the things I don't know.  And I've been reading Latin for how many decades?  I'm worse than the scholars of thirteenth-century Paris whom Henri d'Andeli skitted in his Battle of the Seven Arts--which, come to think of it, ironically, he wrote in French--for not studying Grammar.  At least they knew Logic and Rhetoric.  Sort of.  We assume.  Henri says they were more worried about trying to make money than sense, but at least they had read Aristotle.  I've only read bits.

I wish that I could go back to school and learn everything all over again.  How to write without freaking out about what I am going to say.  How to study without thinking I need to do everything perfectly right off the bat.  How to accept criticism as a way of improving my work.  How to learn.  Something, anything.  How to sit down long enough with a problem to get inside of it, not just wanting to know the answer by looking in the back of the book.  That's me: I cheat.  I look in the back.  To see how many pages there are still to read.  To check whether there is anything coming that I really need to know.  To test myself to see if I've gotten the right answer.  Because, after all, it's all about getting the right answer.  Isn't it?

But what answer is right?  I have been totally destabilized in the past week or so reading my colleague Brad Gregory's new book.  Indeed, if he's right (and I think he is), we have all been barking up the wrong tree for decades (nay, centuries), proving something that never existed in the first place.  The triumph of secular modernity, the absolute freedom of the individual, toleration and choice as the ground of freedom, the separation of "religion" and state: all unintended consequences of the destabilization of Christianity during the so-called Reformation with consequences that we ourselves do not (yet) fully appreciate.  It's a mind-blowing argument if, like me, you've spent your life trying to understand why every book on religion you've ever read wants nothing more than to prove that here, at long last, we've found the origins of true interiority, of a true, unmediated experience of God.  And then you learn that that is because it is simply a product of our modern obsession with separating "religion" out from our public, political life so as to avoid the kinds of clashes that wracked Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   

No, that's not quite it.  Brad's argument is difficult to summarize.  Because, you see, it touches on everything, all at once: science, philosophy, reason, religion, economics, consumption, education, secularization, politics.  Everything.  And then turns it upside down.  Much as the Reformation (albeit, unintentionally) did with the grounds of Christian society.  So that now we can have politicians like Mitt Romney claiming that it is unChristian to worry about massive disparities in wealth or about ways in which to help the poor.  Only in America.  (Because, frankly, in Europe, they gave up being Christian after World War II.  Or thereabouts.  Brad has something to say about that, too.  It has to do with the churches in Europe being so closely allied with their governments.  Which, in fact, ours are, too, but in a different way.  It's complicated.  Read chapter 3.)  And then there's the reasons we can have the kind of vapid non-arguments that we do in the public sphere, with everyone insisting that he has the right to believe whatever he wants to because there are no grounds upon which we can actually base our belief other than reason (which, as Brad shows, is nowhere near as definitive as the philosophers would have it, quite the reverse; that's chapter 2) or choice ("I want it, so it must be right"; chapter 5).

People in the Middle Ages (oh, those ever-so-dark "Middle Ages") knew better.  At least, that seems to be what Brad is saying (he hedges, not wanting to sound too nostalgic).  Certainly, they believed in an ethics grounded on virtue, not just choice (chapter 4).  And they believed in sources of wisdom other than reason (chapters 1 and 2).  Like, for example, Scripture.  Or tradition.  Or (heaven help us) God.  I suspect Brad is going to be criticized, by medievalists more than any one, for being a bit nostalgic here.  Although, as a Christian and a medievalist, I am, of course, delighted.  Bring back the Age of Faith!  Bring back a world in which life had a purpose and meaning other than dying as old as possible while staying as "young" as possible so as to accumulate the most toys!  (I paraphrase.)  I wish that I felt smart enough right now to do his argument justice, I know you are going to be anxious about everything that I've just said and want to tell me how Brad has gotten it wrong.  (I know this because my son and husband have every time I've tried to tell them something about his argument.  "Reductive" is the word I've heard most.)  But I know, too, that I need to find some way to express what I've learned from him because it affects everything that I think about why I study the past. 

Okay, so this is a start.  I've written a couple of paragraphs.  But they seem so lame.  I feel just like Logic's pupil who doesn't know "the presents nor the preterits," nor any of Grammar's intricacies and so cannot even deliver his message, because "he had dwelt on them but little [and] had not learned thoroughly."  Because, you see, I know all of this, all of the things that Brad has written about--but not in detail.  Not in a way that I could actually present the argument that he has made myself; I just agree with it, but I can't work with it.  Not yet.  And, yes, I'm scared to try.  Even now.  Even after years of blogging to help me get over my writer's block, months of doing my translation, weeks of patiently revising my article on prayer (that one that I sent out for review this past autumn and which, wonderful to report, is going to be published!).  Because I do have things that I want to say, but I'm scared.  Of getting the answer wrong?  Yes, in part.  But more (and I wonder how colleagues like Brad have the courage) of saying something that will really get people's attention because it goes against the things that they reflexively believe.

Oh, dear.  Now we're getting close to the bone.  (Are you still with me here?  I know, this has been pretty long-winded.)  What is it that I want to say?  Ahem.  Well.  For starters.  Um.  That theology matters.  Yes, that's one thing.  That having a community of believers matters (a.k.a. "organized religion").  Yes, that's another.  That a "religion" made up of whatever bits of New Age "spiritual practices" one feels most comfortable with is hardly a religion at all (now I'm paraphrasing David Bentley Hart).  Yes, that should get some people going.  Goodness, I'm sweating here.  Maybe that will have to do for now.  Um.

I wish I could swallow fire and become the writer that I imagine I could be.  If only I actually believed....


  1. Is it bad that I scrolled down in the middle of reading this to see how many paragraphs were left?
    Anyway, all I can say is that it is and is going to be okay. I wish I could truly understand myself the many times I've reminded myself of this fact, but stuff is hard. Discipline is hard. Keeping yourself from looking in the back of the book is hard. Praying, really praying- not just muttering words to yourself and bowing repetitively while thinking about whatever superficial nonsense it is young whippersnappers are thinking about these days- but really, honest-to-God (ha!) praying and thinking in a disciplined fashion is really, really, really hard. Especially doing so on time. When you're in the middle of an episode of Buffy. Fencing, though, as I've learned, is a great way to practice. Having the mental and emotional discipline to make your body and mind do things they'd really rather not do is also very hard, but I find that sometimes putting things in terms of the strip often simplifies things for me. So that's my unsolicited two cents but I don't really know what I'm talking about anyhow.

  2. Scroll away! It's no worse than checking how many pages there are in a book!

    Yes, prayer is hard, discipline is hard. But it is also easy. The hard part is allowing yourself to do it, if that makes sense.

    And you always know what you're talking about! : )


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