Recently I spent a couple hours in a Google Hangout with several people in Chicago, taking part in a dissertation proposal meeting, hoping on hope that one day a PhD will be granted for the completion of good work well done. I was asked to participate because the student has drawn on ideas I have written about; simply said, the focus of her work for the degree has been the focus of my work.
At one point, her dissertation advisor commented that something she had written showed “conceptual congruity,” an image that intrigued me. For most my life I have been drawn to the vision of coherence, believing in the deepest possible way that that is the truest truth of the universe. There is an intended seamlessness to human life under the sun. If we have eyes to see, there is congruity, and our task is to make sense of what is there. Life is meant to be coherent.
But of course we don’t experience it that way. All day long we live with incongruity and incoherence, with fragmentation across the whole of life. In families, among friends and neighbors, socially, politically, economically, between nations, and most tragically, in our very souls.
We long for something more– with all of creation, we groan.
On the plane this morning I read an essay by Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in which he reflected on the possibility of “a continuous harmony.” I’ve read most of what he’s written a couple of times, but I think this is one of his best. The subtitle of the book is “Essays Cultural and Agricultural,” a relationship worthy of our attention. Not surprisingly, he argues that we miss something crucial to our humanity– to our understanding of culture and of our cultural responsibility as human beings –when we lose contact with farms and forests, because it is there where it is more possible to see “a continuous harmony.” Sun, soil, water. Spring, summer, fall, winter.
For the land to flourish, human beings must remember to remember their rootedness in the humus; in fact our responsibility is to steward the continuous harmony that is meant to be. When we forget, assuming that it doesn’t really matter anyway, we flounder, and nothing works well for anyone and anything. Pastures and meadows, yes. Streams and rivers, yes. But economies too, local and global– and cities and societies as well. All of life, for everyone everywhere. His argument is more complex, but I won’t say more here.
So, two mornings…. conceptual congruity and continuous harmony. Years ago a mentor persuaded me that the best thinking– careful, critical thinking at its most skilled –assumes coherence. Rather than accepting fragmentation as normative, we should do the harder work of discovering and discerning the integral character of life and learning– and “integral” of course assumes coherence. The task becomes not so much “integrating” this-with-that, belief with behavior, ideas with life, but rather praying and thinking and working our way towards life as it’s supposed to be, and in a profound way, is.
The issue then becomes having eyes that see– and seeing is never morally neutral. Always and everywhere it is morally directive, shaping our vision of what is real and true and right. And that’s as true of the most ordinary things in your life and mine, as it is of PhD dissertations.
(Photo of the Great Smokies, the Snowbird Mountain Lodge in North Carolina, taken a week ago.)