To the nth degree


To the nth degree.images-2

The question of what we believe and how we live has been at the center of my thinking for most of my life. The first serious paper I did in college had that at its core, and year after year, all the way into my PhD, that has continued to intrigue me, maybe even compel me. Not that I have ever put this together very well, frail man that I am, but the question has always drawn me in. I see that it matters, for integrity’s sake, for the kind of coherence which is at the heart of our humanity.

I thought of this again last night as I watched “Remembrance,” a Polish film set in the Holocaust years. Those who know me well will smile, knowing the long bad joke in our house between Meg and me. In the years when Blockbuster et. al. was the way to watch a movie-of-choice, more often than not I would bring home a Nazi-era film with German subtitles. Not so romantic, I guess, but I was always fascinated with the ways that ideas had legs—and she allowed my questions to become hers too, patient in her patience.

I suppose that some of it had to do with my father and his years in World War II, fighting the Nazis, and the little bit I understood as a boy about what those years meant in his life. In part we are all socially constructed, shaped by our centuries, our cultures, our communities, and our circumstances. But it was more than that too. As I moved from being a boy to being a man, and began traveling around the country and world, I began to understand that belief and behavior are twined together, mysteriously and profoundly– and that they worked back-and-forth on each other: beliefs were seen most clearly in behavior, but also that behavior affected belief, deeply.

I am sure that an important thread in this was my time at L’Abri, the little community in Europe committed to honest questions and honest answers. Like thousands of others in those years, I hitchhiked my way in, wanting to understand things about life and the world, sure that college wasn’t a very good place to find answers. Francis Schaeffer taught me that thinking ideas through to their logical conclusion mattered; in his own words, “to think through the logical conclusion of the presuppositions.” So if one says, “This is what I believe about…. x,y, or z,” then it matters to walk it on out, seeing where the ideas lead.

To the nth degree. And that is what has always drawn me to the Holocaust, and why, strange as it is with thousands of choices available on Netflix and iTunes, and Meg gone for the weekend, I chose to watch one more movie about the Nazis, with subtitles. “The mechanized, murderous 20th-century” was the way Walker Percy saw it, and a tragedy and horror it was; the Holocaust as we know it was only one of many holocausts, and not even the worst. Stalin killed scores of millions more than Hitler, and the stories just go on, rumbling through Cambodia, Chechnya, the Congo, Rwanda and more.

There is a hubris at the heart of it all, the vanity that some are more enlightened than others–in our so very Enlightened Age –so much so in fact that they have the right to determine who lives and who doesn’t. Intellectual hero that he is, hear Percy once again: “A person can get all A’s and still flunk life”– sometimes with tragic consequences for everyone else. That was Dostoevsky’s brilliant argument in Crime and Punishment, examining the human heart as he did, on the edge of the modern world as we were when he wrote his novel. And of course with its own heartache, offered with the sad smile of Woody Allen, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” makes the same argument a hundred years later in film. If we say we believe this, then pressed through to the logical conclusion of the presuppositions, this is where it takes us.

Which, I am sure, is why I watched “Remembrance” last night, the very tender story it is of a young couple meeting in a concentration camp, escaping with heart-pounding drama, running across Poland for their very lives, the heartbreak of separation, and the poignant and tearful discovery years later that they both made it out and are alive. The stories of those years are always different, as they must be and should be, but each time they are stories which explore belief and behavior, of what we say matters most and the ways that works out in life. That is what draws me– true for each of us personally, our beliefs and behaviors strangely woven together as they are, but also true publicly and politically—as true for Germans as for Germany, as true for Americans as for America.

What seems almost innocent to begin with very often becomes horrific before the day is done– which is why Schaeffer taught that thinking through the logical conclusion of the presuppositions matters. To the nth degree.

From the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture.

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