Committed to the Details

One commitment that pretty much has to be particular…

So, as mentioned in my previous post, I had the pleasure of spending last weekend at a graduate conference put on by the Berkeley Institute. The conversations and content were quite rich, and so I imagine that this will be the first post of several on the topic. The theme of the conference was “What is good work?” However, the question that held strongest sway in the panels, talks, and conversations was a bit more specific; namely, “What does it mean to undertake academic work when you have antecedent value commitments?” The vast majority of attendees and presenters at the conference were Christian, but it remained an open point of discussion how much the conference wanted to speak of this question of “antecedent value commitments” in religious—and specifically Christian—terms.  The overall milieu of the conference could perhaps be best described as crypto-Christian.

I greatly respect the Institute’s decision to sustain the tension between Commitment, conceived abstractly, and commitments, the nitty-gritty details of each individual’s particular convictions. After all, the Berkeley Institute aims to serve the larger Berkeley community by creating a space for dialogue and by attempting to broaden academe’s conceptions of what “counts” as knowledge. The conference attendees also represented a broad swath of Christianity, including the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions, though the distinctive nature of these traditions figured somewhat less into the conversations at the conference. I imagine that this was because most of us worked in departments where we were one of the few—or the only—active religious practitioners; as a result, merely being around folks who were in the same boat as us felt like discovering we weren’t the last dodo. At the same time, there’s no doubt that our particular religious traditions affected the precise nature of our commitments and, as a result, the nature of the work that we were pursuing.

One of us, one of us…

But at what point in a conversation is it useful to start saying things like “As a Christian,” “As a Catholic,” or “In my tradition”? At what point does it become necessary to acknowledge differences as well as similarities? Perhaps most importantly, what’s the cost of this type of acknowledgement or its absence? Part of the value of a tradition is that it generates a sort of “thick” culture to incubate art, thought, and experience—which necessarily loses some of that thickness as it becomes more diverse and pluralistic. At the same time, the fact that nearly all of the conference attendees worked within secular academia—a de facto rejection of the academic “Benedict Option” provided by religious educational institutions—suggested that we all found benefits in the broader conversations that could occur within the “thin” but rigorous disciplinary structures of our respective fields.

I can’t imagine living out my own commitments without regular immersion in Catholicism in all of its particular richness, whether that immersion comes through reading, meeting with other Catholics, or simply incorporating Catholic prayer practices into my daily life. However, I’ve benefited tremendously from the opportunity to talk with Christians from other traditions about their own commitments. Perhaps most notably, I drew tremendous strength and encouragement from watching a Muslim couple in my department live out their religious convictions in a very careful, courageous, and charitable way that enlivened their academic work and their relationships with their non-Muslim friends. When their academic careers took them to a new locale—and I was so struck by their absence—I finally understood the degree of support that their presence had provided for me. The differences between our beliefs didn’t keep me from drawing great inspiration from their lives, but I think that this inspiration did rely on the particularity of their own commitments. They weren’t simply committed to “doing the right thing” or “serving God,” they were committed to doing those things from within a complex and demanding tradition that affected all areas of their life. At the same time, it was necessary for me to generalize from their situation to my own and such a generalization was only possible because there were experiences that we shared in common simply by being religious folk in a heavily secular environment. Indeed, it was rare for us to have discussions that went into great detail about either of our traditions and it’s unclear whether such a sustained underscoring of our differences would have proved beneficial to either of us.

I don’t know if there’s a perfect “formula” for how and when commitments should be understood and discussed more generally or more particularly. However, I found at the conference this weekend that having to stop and ask myself questions like “How should I speak in this context?”, ” Should I mention that I’m coming to Issue X as a Catholic?”,  or “Should I use religious language when describing my understanding of my role as an academic?” really helped me to work through this at a local level.

The question of how to negotiate this type of dialogue is, of course, of deep import in ecumenical discussions and especially within those in which we aim to move beyond a mere recognition of the commitments of the other to a true position of unity. Pope Francis’s recent address to a charismatic Christian conference demonstrates beautifully what that kind of dialogue might look like and how its first overtures must proceed from a recognition of our shared commitments. I also cannot help but be reminded of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. It’s an amazing passage because it takes Christian unity seriously precisely by not diminishing the extent of Christianity’s present divisions. It succeeds in recognizing the importance of sincere, particular, exclusive commitments even as it also envisions a space for dialogue:

I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may have to wait in the hall for a considerable time […] above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move more towards this? […]’

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.


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