Recently it was revealed that Yale will no longer offer its widely popular, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present”. Yale’s “celebrated” professor of art, Vincent Scully has taught it “for decades”, and – perhaps, predictably — the chair of the department argued that the focus of the course was “too white, too European, too male” and “too ‘problematic’”.
So, it is being shelved in favor of a class with a “global” theme, that will take into account “questions of gender, class and ‘race’” and – to round out numerous other concerns, art’s “relationship with climate change” which “will be a ‘key theme’”. In response, the article featured in The Wall Street Journal that announced the changes, offered a fairly familiar complaint about the decline of education at Yale and the inevitable contradictions in Yale’s rather inconsistent efforts to purge its history of courses and famous people from the past who fail to live up to the social standards of the day, including the university’s namesake, Elihu Yale.
In the oppositional and poisonous social environment in which we live – that one might rightly call an age of rage – it is difficult to believe that anyone can chart a way forward that offers a more constructive approach to the conversation about the curriculum of higher education. The position taken in The Wall Street Journal, rightly complains about the disappearance of courses like the one taught by Scully. The columnist is understandably troubled by the impossibility of covering the material on which it is focused in a single semester, and he rightly wonders out loud about the impossibility of constructing a course that is finally about art of any kind, once a variety of other social concerns are taken into account.
At the same time, the changes contemplated by the University are based upon an equally compelling set of reasons. Understandably, faculties that can now contemplate the ways in which presumption and colonialism narrowed not just our exposure to art, but our canons of beauty hope to make changes. They are committed to offering courses that expose students to a wider range of artistic achievement, and they are looking for ways to address the imbalance that has driven a variety of voices to the margins of our consciousness.
Both sides have a point. But the debate over curricular decisions is bedeviled by a calculation in which, if one side wins, the other side must lose. Both sides also offer equally unpalatable alternatives. Those who lobby against the changes, rob the curriculum of the rich discovery that lies in breaking with a Euro-centric or western definition of art, which – by the way – suppresses the diverse and not-really-western influences that gave shape to that tradition. Those who lobby for the changes lump the great diversity of artistic expression into an identarian campaign that cannot possibly do justice to the art itself or to the rich communal dynamics that give shape to it.
Looking for a way forward in this age of rage, game theorist Jamie Wheal argues that the problem with debates like the one at Yale is the zero-sum game behind the conversation. Each side is bent on driving the other side from the playing field. Neither side will accommodate the views of the other, and, as a result, the curriculum that emerges will be truncated. According to Wheal, the only alternative is to play an “infinite game” – a game that invites everyone to play, that remains open to new players, that finds a means of insuring that the game continues, and that is finally more inclusive in its results.As far as it goes, he makes an important point. The problem for his analysis, however, is that he lacks a larger religious or philosophical commitment that could provide a warrant for his analysis. So, the only argument for the infinite game that he can make is a pragmatic one. So, he prioritizes a “global-centric” vision, hoping to identify a concern that transcends the zero-sum game.
In a secular setting, this is as much as one can hope for and – thankfully – the pragmatic case is compelling. There is nothing to be gained by building a cultural conversation enthralled to the same dynamics that landed us this impasse in the first place. Whether one talks about the dimensions of that game that expresses an openness to voices that have slipped to the margin and new voices that are just now emerging – or one talks about conserving the contributions that have already been given attention – the infinite and global game is a maximalist approach. It adds, rather than subtracts and makes room for diverse communities and their stories.
By contrast, for Christians the logical focus for the infinite game is theocentric. Taking seriously the conviction that we are all made in the image of God, the theocentric approach challenges the zero-sum game at the level of its core assumptions. The theocentrist argues that such games do not just rob us of global diversity, they distort and attenuate what we can learn about God and – because we are made in the image of God – about one another and ourselves. The theocentrist also knows that in an age of rage, no matter who wins, everyone is impoverished and that ultimately we not only wound others, we wound ourselves. As such, for Christians, the importance of the infinite game is not just rooted in its likely results, but in our very nature.
It is difficult to make this argument in secular settings, but the theocentric perspective offers an important vantage point from which Christians can navigate the politicized crosscurrents of cultural debates over a variety of issues, including the shape of the modern curriculum. Instead of being pressed to choose sides and join in the zero-sum game, Christians can offer an alternative perspective that promotes listening, dialogue, and creative solutions that amplify our understanding of one another, rather than limit it. Occupying that space in public discourse, Christians can and should witness to a different way of navigating differences and the inherited challenges that accompany the zero-sum games of both the past and the present.
Judging from what I have seen in social media, however, a difficult task remains: Convincing Christians to resist the temptation to play the zero-sum game.
No less than anyone else, in the age of rage Christians are drawn to zero-sum games and the formation of like-minded tribes. The self-righteous certainty and instant affirmation that such tribal behavior offers is powerfully attractive and visible everywhere. Meaning, significance, and belonging are forged instantly. For Christians to make a contribution to God’s infinite game, we will need to resist the false promises of that game, and turn instead, to the patient advocacy for holistic, creative solutions in the knowledge that we are all made in the image of God.
That will not be easy. Fundamentalists of both the left and right will ignore or reject those efforts. They will argue that it betrays the orthodoxies of their respective camps, and both will argue that a theocentric agenda fails to take “the current crisis” seriously. But God’s infinite game has always drawn that kind of criticism and this should not surprise or discourage us.
[This article is the first in a trilogy and what will follow is a biblical and theological rationale for playing God’s Infinite Game]