“We believe that each man must find the truth
that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.”
Yesterday I spent three hours with 12 young men and women who have come to Washington for the year. In the rhythms of my life, I have tethered myself to Monday mornings for the class, “Learning to Read the Word and the World at the Same Time.” Most weeks I ask them to read a book, and then write an essay on it, which they read aloud in class. As they are beyond their university years, and are getting graduate school credit, I teach it as a seminar, so it is very interactive.
A week ago we read two books: “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr, and “Eat This Book” by Eugene Peterson. Both address the perennial challenge of learning to learn, but from very different places. Carr’s subtitle is, “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” and is a thoughtful, probing, nuanced look at the personal and social consequences of learning to learn on a screen, hyper-linking our way through life and the world. Intriguingly and importantly, his title is indicative of his assessment. Peterson, on the other hand, sets forth lectio divina, the ancient practice of the Church as a way of reading the Bible that is profoundly personal, taking it into our deepest selves. I wanted the Fellows to wrestle with the tension of the two books. What do they say to each other? What do they say to us?
This week they read “The True Story of the Whole World” by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, and then an essay by Tom Wolfe, “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.” The heart of the assignment was to reflect on the narratives which shape our lives. Which will it be? Is there one that is truer to our experience as human beings? to our longings as human beings? The beginning-to-end, creation-to-consummation account of human life under the sun, of the Bible, or the story of the evolutionary materialism of E.O. Wilson in his book, “Consilience,” who argues that we are our DNA, first and last.
If the latter is true, as Wolfe puts it, “The fix is in. The wiring is all done. And don’t blame me… because I’m not responsible.” My soul has just died. In the other vision, responsibility is written into its very meaning. As Vaclav Havel argued so persuasively, “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” In the Hebrew and Christian story, the very heart of our humanity is our responsibility; we are able to respond, responsible.
The stark conclusion of the determinists of this life and world, whether their “karma” is pantheistic or materialistic, is always one more version of Lady Gaga’s “born this way.” I am my DNA. The fix is in. The wiring is done. So don’t blame me. As B.F. Skinner said a generation ago, prophetically and presciently– Enlightenment people that we now are –we are “beyond freedom and dignity.” And so responsibility is a fiction. Grow up. Get used to it.
I put the poetry of Steve Turner onto the white board, and had it ripple through our conversation. A contemporary “Creed,” it is the confession of faith of those who imagine themselves able to narrate their own universe. In a world where fate is the first and last reality, and therefore where karma rules, “reality will adapt accordingly…. history will alter…. the universe will readjust.”
Who are we? What kind of world do we live in? What does it mean to be human? These are always the most perennial questions for human beings anywhere and everywhere– and how we answer them has consequences, for us and for history.
(For many years I taught at the American Studies Program on Capitol Hill, and had a lot of grading to do. Sometimes I would go to the National Gallery of Art, and sit in this atrium, spending hours reading papers.)