freely adapted from a class in Moral Philosophy at New College Franklin
We have looked, today, at a remarkable pre-Christian insight into the problem of divine unity, an insight which recognized the seeming conflict of demands upon the Godhead (the demands of justice and mercy, of wisdom and power), an insight which somehow culminated in an anticipation, however imperfectly, of the crucified and pierced son of God.
In light of Aeschylus’ (and in some sense the world’s) intuition, it seems fitting to recall that Christ is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). The entire creation has been structured in light of and in the hope of this redemption. For this reason, the cross and the Trinity are unerringly, if mysteriously testified to by all.
So we would be justified in remarking that not merely every writer, but every man and every reality, reflects Christ in some manner, however broken, however twisted.
If “Christ plays in a ten thousand places” and is to be found in even the most confusing texts written by the most confounded of us, if he is the Word of words without which not a word is uttered, what then is our intellectual posture to the world as Christians?
What attitude of intellect is appropriate for us?
Do we not already know the conclusion of every tale, the outcome of every science, the solution to every problem? Having seen the end, may we not set our books down once and for all, and simply give summary to Grand Finale?
What need have we of reading on? What use further study?
Perhaps, our work is not in figuring out the end of things, but rather is a kind of practice in wick trimming which prepares us to see that end more clearly (Matt. 25:1-13).
It is one thing to know that all truth is God’s truth; it is yet another to experimentally discover this truth for oneself, to be able to say with Simeon, “my eyes have seen Your salvation” (Luke 2:30).
And this is the work, the discovery which we must not shortcut.
We do not enter into our work if what we do amounts to a mere baptism of secular material, or to the ratification of superficial presuppositions.
The Christian intellectual project means being committed to finding God’s truth really to be true.
The integrity of this way of life requires a humble submission to reality, to the nuts and bolts, the grease and elements of the creation, by means of all the appropriate practices and habits that are placed at our disposal. We must not shrink from the dirty work–for such is the work of man.
There He is!
In one sense, all that we do is simply point Him out to one another.
“There He is.”
“Did you see Him?”
“…Wait…there He is again!”
Christian intellectual work is simply a commitment to mature in this habit of recognition and discovery, to decrease so that He might increase, until He is all, and found to be in all.
If we are to discover Christ, we must come to see Him! That is, we must truly discover Him and not merely pretend to (or assume we have already sufficiently done so).
The success of such an enterprise is marked by its ability to steer clear of its Scylla and Charybdis, sloth and prideful-naivete.
In sloth, one might relent, waving the hand as if to say, “Oh, He is in there somewhere.”
But who is satisfied with such a discovery, certainly not a parent looking for a lost child at a department store. Certainly, not our own hearts which long for Christ.
Another enemy of the Christian intellectual project is pride. Sloth scorns the work, but pride thinks the work is finished when it has yet to truly begin. When we search for Christ in this manner, we mistakenly assume we know what we are looking for. We treat the creation and God’s presence as a kind of Where’s Waldo project.
Do we really know what we are looking for?
Only in faith and humility can we admit how lost we often feel ourselves to be. Only in faith do we ever fully articulate the manner in which Christ seems to be absent.
Do we really know what we are to be looking for? How well do we know the One for whom we are looking? Do we know how to look for Him?
What I am suggesting is simply this:
Some questions can never satisfactorily be answered from without. Certain answers can only be known experimentally, that is in our living out the questions.¹
In some sense, the Christian intellectual life amounts to asking, “Do I know Christ? Do I know this to be His world?”
There is a certain kind of life which is the only satisfactory answer to these kinds of questions.
The Privilege of the Pursuit
A Christian truly does stand in a privileged position.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe (Heb. 1:1-2).
We have come to know One who is the pattern by which all things are patterned. Yet, our true privilege should be understood as that of discovery, rather than that of comprehension.
We must take care in this intellectual project, lest we commit a naive and poor form of reductive eisegesis.
Before we set about enlightening the rest of the world, or perfecting neglected fields of study, we first must come to deeply believe that it is not our business to put Christ into the World.
The creator is already present and his manner of creation often proclaims this better than any human words.
Our work is that of revelation–of unveiling. It is therefore a participation in God’s work.
If he is God, that is, the God of the bible through whom, in whom, for whom all things are made, He is already here, already at work, already present to the realities of culture, history, of society, and scientific enterprise everywhere.
We cannot come as if from above to make Christ known. Rather it is stooping to the earth, perhaps kissing it with our lips as does Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov, that we begin to truly discover His presence.
The story of the the peace child, of saving face, of Prometheus Bound, of all biological, cultural, metaphysical, and historical reality is marked by Christ, both in his felt absence and his longed for presence, in his hidden nearness, and in a harmony which echos in various and sundry strains throughout the heights and depths.
The Christ of the creation, the Lord who loved the world and willed it to be, is not satisfied in merely covering it over with his image. He is not satisfied in some awful pre-Babel unity of voice, but in the new or renewed music of Pentecost which must rise up from within.
Therefore, ours is the work of prophecy, of naming all that which begs to be truly named. But this prophetic enterprise is perhaps carried out most perfectly by those who have devoted themselves to the process of discovery. This is perhaps done best by those who are something very much like, dare I say, students or disciples.
We therefore have the task before us of prophetic study! The mere fact of our Christianity does not permit us to sidestep this work.
Yes, in some very radical sense, the truth of which Aeschylus speaks is known better by even the simplest Christian child than by Aeschylus himself.
But this does not mean, any one Christian knows what it is Aeschylus has said!
And until we begin to know this, to become familiar with the flesh and bones, the life, the contours of the world, or at least some part of it, until we cease looking at the caricatures and abstractions of our own imaginations, we cannot discover Christ anywhere, and we must not expect to be able to do so for others.
The Christian intellectual strives to know the objects of his study in such a manner that he is again and again seeing them for the first time, until the day that all false abstraction and speculation are forever banished.
We do not misread a text if we seek the face of Christ in it, but we must not assume we have finished, when we have really just begun.
Such a naive form of Christian intellectualism amounts to a kind of hubris and is no little temptation for a people to whom the Truth has been revealed.
The Christian intellectual project can now be summarized:
In reliance upon God and his Word, in faithful, prayerful attention to the realities of the creation, to the objects and subjects of our studies, by taking hold of the tools, habits, and practices of the intellectual life, the Christian works diligently in the hope of one day discovering that we have been looking all along into something like a human face.
Again, I wish to warn against the pseudo intellectual project, which is sadly often mistaken for the real thing. For this reason I have laid stress on the word ”discover’. The true work is always that of discovery and not that of superimposition.
Shall we discover Christ and know the joy of finding him? Or, shall we merely meet with our own opinions? Shall we find the world growing larger or smaller? Shall we find that He is truly a redeemer who has come to fulfill, or only one Who has comes to abolish?
He who reads a book or studies the world in a superficial manner, so as to discover only what he already know to be there, will grow weary of his work and weary with the world. He will become frustrated with irregularity, disgusted with complexity and obscurity, and will be impatient with what does not conform to some limited vision of the whole.
Such a student will find his work not only tedious, but pointless. He will become incapable of performing the true task. He will sadly, miss out on the possibility of discovering what he knows! There is no less a punishment for those who show a lack of care in loving. Carelessness in love means forgoing the privilege of learning to love!
It is the student of biology who faithfully evaluates results and test conditions, who allows the realities and true tests of her subject to guide her…
It is the student of Latin poetry who submit himself to a study of meter, to the tedium of syntax and forms…
It is the student who surrenders to the full calling of the work, who has hope of seeing what many have longed to see.
And it is only such a one, one who has seen, who can help others to see for themselves.
¹Adapted from Simone Weil’s essay Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies