Author Archives: Laura A. Smit

About Laura A. Smit

Teaching theology in the academy and the church

“Where God’s Glory Flashes”

In the back of The Oxford Book of Carols, there are a few carols for seasons other than Christmas.  My favorite of these is called “White Lent.”  It is six stanzas long, set to the familiar Christmas tune ANGEVIN, known to most of us as “O Leave Your Sheep.”  The third stanza goes like this: 

To bow the head
In sackcloth and in ashes,
 
Or rend the soul,
 
Such grief is not Lent’s goal;
 
But to be led
To where God’s glory flashes,
 
His beauty to come nigh,
To fly, to fly,
 
To fly where truth and light do lie.

I first came upon this carol more than 20 years ago, and I am still pondering the connection between the discipline of Lent and arriving “where God’s glory flashes” so that I can come near to His beauty. 

The promise of being led to this place could be understood in two ways.  Perhaps the carol means that, even as we practice the disciplines of renunciation, we encounter God’s glory.  Or perhaps the carol means that Lent prepares us to see God’s glory when we come upon it at Easter, that Easter is the goal of Lent.  I wish that I could believe the first – that even in the midst of the most ascetic practices, I should expect encounters with glory – but that hasn’t been my experience of life.  Surrender and pain are not always or even usually accompanied immediately by visions of truth and light.  The second way of reading this text makes better sense to me: there are seasons of glory that we pass through in this life, but we can easily miss the glory if we haven’t been training to see it.  Without training, we won’t be able to “come nigh” the glory because it will be too bright for us to bear.  So I take it that the carol is saying Lent offers such training, that it increases our capacity for experiencing God’s glory.

The season of Lent is framed by the memory of two events that reveal the flashing beauty of Jesus: the transfiguration (celebrated on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) and the resurrection.  All of the confession and self-denial of Lent is set between these two events, and it is only the glorious, shining, beautiful revelation of Jesus in His fullness that makes any sense of our little sacrifices.  We certainly know that we do not give up chocolate or television in order to earn God’s favor.  Rather, if we choose to surrender things during Lent, it should be in order to make more space for an experience of the truth, the light, and the beauty of Jesus during the season of Easter.

In Acts 2, Peter preaches the very first Christian sermon.  He takes as his text Psalm 16, which he then applies to Jesus’ death, descent, and resurrection.  This path of dying, descending, and then rising is, according to Peter, what the Psalmist means by “the path of life,” a path that ends in “fullness of joy” and “pleasure forevermore.”  The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to walk the first part of that path, or – better – to participate in Jesus’ walking of the path, just as in our baptism we participate in his dying.  But our baptism is also a sharing in his rising, and the longest part of the path of life is not spent in dying; it is spent rising into joy and pleasure.  Easter is the point of Lent, the goal of Lent, which is why the season of Easter is intentionally longer than the season of Lent.  This signifies that our time of sacrifice is a “slight momentary affliction … preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Not all churches make it obvious that Easter is longer than Lent.  We don’t tend to celebrate Easter for its full 50 days.  Whereas the observance of Lent is increasingly popular with Protestant congregations, an intense observance of Easter is not so common.  But this is an odd situation.  When Lent is more interesting to us than Easter, when it requires more of our attention and more of our energy, when there are more special events planned during Lent than during Easter, when we reduce Easter to one day while we recognize the whole Lenten season – something is backwards.

Is it possible to make the celebration of Easter more extensive, more comprehensive, and more intimately present than the observance of Lent?  Perhaps we should start a practice of observing the Great Fifty Days of Easter by promising to experience something beautiful every day, or by resolving to spend at least a few minutes every day experiencing God’s joy.  Perhaps we should read three psalms every day during Eastertide, and thereby experience the whole journey of the psalter, culminating in those great psalms of exaltation and praise.  Perhaps we should promise to spend some time outdoors every day during Eastertide, enjoying the beauty of the creation and looking for signs of God’s glory.        

Here’s the last stanza of the carol “White Lent.”

Then shall your light

Break forth as doth the morning;

Your health shall spring,

The friends you make shall bring

God’s glory bright,

Your way through life adorning

And love shall be the prize.

Arise, arise,

Arise! and make a paradise!

That’s a destination we cannot reach on our own, but it is the destination Jesus secures for us in his resurrection.  He has gone before us and invites us to follow on the path of life. 

 


Christian Liberal Arts Education

In his poem “Praise”, George Herbert speaks of God’s design for human beings.

Of all the creatures both in sea and land

Only to man Thou hast made known Thy ways,

And put the pen alone into his hand,

And made him secretary of Thy praise.

According to Herbert, this secretarial work is priestly, because the praise is offered on behalf of the rest of the creation, which is mute and so incapable of praising without help.

Man is the world’s high priest: he doth present

The sacrifice for all; while they below

Unto the service mutter an assent,

Such as springs use that fall, and winds that blow.

Therefore, Herbert says, when we “refrain” from praising God, we not only withhold the praises that we owe to Him, but we also rob the creation of its ability to praise its Creator, making us guilty of “a world of sin” in one act of reticence. 

Herbert didn’t invent the idea that human beings are made to be priests for the world.  It is an idea found in the first chapters of Genesis, where we learn about the creation of human beings.  Adam and Eve are made to fill a mediatorial function in the world.  They are the ones who stand between, being made both of the dust of the earth and also of God’s own breath.  They are created to represent God’s helping presence to one another and to the world, which they can do both because they have God’s breath within them and also because, unlike God, they are consubstantial with the world, being bone and flesh.  They are also created to lift up the praise of the creation to God.  That side of the priestly equation requires acts of attention: noticing, knowing, and naming.  It requires seeing and loving the creation for its own sake, not as something to be dominated or transformed, but something to be nurtured, stewarded, and loved.  It requires bringing each fellow creature into the light of loving attention, so that its praise of God can be recognized and so that God can be praised for it. 

A liberal arts education is about that sort of seeing and loving; it is about paying attention, noticing, knowing, and naming.  Whereas professional programs train students to produce and to work, the liberal arts train students in living as full human beings, in freedom and leisure, worshipping, glorifying and enjoying God.  A liberal arts education is precisely about knowing things just because they are worth knowing, understanding the world just because it is worth understanding.  A liberal arts education helps us become the sort of people who can be priests to the world.    

A liberal arts education is naturally grounded in language: in reading, writing, and speaking, traditionally cultivated through the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Already in Eden, Adam’s first priestly act was to name the world around him.  Language was the first mark differentiating those made in God’s image from those who were not.  For us, as fallen creatures, our only hope of fulfilling our priestly calling is through participation in the life and mind of Jesus, who is the Word made flesh and our great High Priest.  It is not an accident that Jesus has both those titles: He is our High Priest because He is the Word by whom we were created.  He is the one who will give to each of us our true name, the one who calls us by that name and summons us to our true identity.  He is the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and understanding, so that when the Spirit leads us into all truth we are led to union with Jesus.  The heart of priestly work is not pain, blood, and sacrifice – though as a result of the fall it required that shape for a time.  The heart of priestly work is twofold: bringing God’s blessing to the world, which Jesus does as Immanuel, the revelation of God’s glory, and offering the world back to God in thanksgiving and praise, which Jesus does as bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, the one like us in every way but sin.  Augustine was one of the great rhetoricians of his day, but when he was converted to Christianity he discovered that his ability to manipulate language was a hollow game unless he submitted that ability to the lordship of the One who is the source of language, the Word Himself.  Within Christian tradition, the study of language culminates in the study of theology grounded in Scripture, the normative written Word.  It is in the written Word that we encounter the Word made flesh, so as to be transformed into His likeness, from one degree of glory to another.

The liberal arts also include disciplines that extend knowledge beyond language.  Traditionally this is the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.  In our world of ever-expanding knowledge, other disciplines may be added to the list.  The mark of a liberal arts education is not so much a particular set of disciplines to be mastered as it is the attitude brought to their study.  A liberal approach to education sees learning as autotelic.  Learning is a good in itself.  It is in itself an act of love and praise that needs no further justification or product.  This doesn’t mean that productive learning is bad.  It’s a good thing to make the world safer, healthier, more just, and more ordered.  But those approaches must be secondary, things we do in order to make space for the quintessentially human action of knowing in order to know. 

Our society teaches us that the order should be the other way around.  That leisure must serve work.  That the liberal arts must serve utilitarian knowledge.  That rest must serve labor.  As if the reason for our life is production.  As if our value as human beings is measured by how much we can make or do.  As if times of rest and leisure and freedom are only valuable if they make us better workers.  But this way of understanding human life is a lie, and Christian higher education must offer an alternative vision.  The purpose of our life is to rest in God, to glorify Him and to enjoy Him forever.  The work we do must be in service of that rest.  The production in which we engage must be in service of times of leisure, which make possible acts of priestly knowing, the offering of praise and prayer, and the celebration of worship. 

A Christian liberal arts education is necessarily connected with virtue.  It is not enough to learn arithmetic, or rhetoric, or music.  These things must be learned in a way that fosters truth and virtue.  The knowledge that we acquire is not to be external only, but rather something that we internalize and that then transforms us into virtuous people living in harmony with God’s design for humanity.  Traditionally the virtue that is shaped by this sort of knowing is magnanimity, about which I wrote last month.  This is the virtue that C. S. Lewis identifies as central to education in his book The Abolition of Man.  Magnanimity is the integrating virtue that unites intellect and appetite.  It is the virtue of disciplined, stable, ordered emotion or desire.  A liberal arts education is intended to result in the development of this faculty of trained emotion, disciplined desire.  Our desires are trained by means of the imagination, which Lewis calls “the organ of meaning.”  Our intellect is the organ of truth, but truth needs to be imaginatively appropriated in order to control our appetites and actions.  A liberal arts education that lacks this emphasis on virtue will produce only clever people who are good at manipulating words, who appreciate the finer things of life, and are uninterested in being productive.  A Christian liberal arts education must focus on the transformation of students into magnanimous people via the imaginative appropriation of truth.


Stalky and Company

When I got home from work this evening, I had a long to-do list.  This semester doesn’t include a lot of free time, and even though most days begin early and are very full of work, I’ve been needing to get more work done in the evening.  That was the plan for today as well, but I made the mistake of picking up a book.  Not just any book, but an old favorite: Stalky and Company by Kipling.  I expect I’m not the only person who finds it difficult to put a story down once I’ve started.  So I spent the entire evening reading this great Kipling story, getting no work done at all, but finishing the book.  It was lovely.

Why would this story about boys at school training to be soldiers be one of my favorite books?  When I first read it, which must have been 9th or 10th grade, I just thought it was hilarious.  The chapter about the dead cat was one of the funniest things I’d ever read.  I still think it’s funny, but it’s also touching in a way that I didn’t understand when I was young.  Perhaps I felt it, though I couldn’t talk about it.

The last time I read Stalky was after I had just re-read the Harry Potter books and found that they kept reminding me of this earlier school story.  Both Stalky and Harry are training for war, and both learn their most powerful lessons by rebelling against their teachers, rather than by submitting to them.  One way that the two stories differ is that Stalky is heavily autobiographical, without disguise.  There are three heroes – Beetle (who is based on Kipling himself as a young man) and his friends Stalky and M’Turk, both of whom are based on real people who wrote books in their turn, reflecting on their schooldays.  All three characters are very bright, though in different ways.  Stalky is good at math and at tactics; he generally takes the lead in the trio’s adventures, and at the end of the book we hear about his military career as continuing to follow this pattern.  M’Turk is the aesthetician who reads Ruskin for fun, who is responsible for decorating the boys’ study, and who is capable of talking to local landowners as a peer.  Beetle reads Browning and writes humorous poetry, edits the school newspaper and aspires to a career as a writer.  These are not students who rebel because they’re stupid.  They’re students who rebel because they’re smart.

So is that truthful?  Is rebellion a mark of intelligence?  Does rebellion lead to maturation and learning?  As a teacher, I don’t want to believe that my students learn their best lessons by rebelling against me, though when they do rebel I tend not to worry too much.  I know that rebellion is often not about me at all and that it can sometimes lead to knowledge.  But if that’s the only path to knowledge, then my job is sort of a joke.  My own experience of learning gives me examples of learning via submission as well as learning via rebellion.

There are only two teachers in Stalky who really teach: the Chaplain and the Head.  Those two teachers display wisdom, restraint, and trust in their students, and they’re rewarded by receiving trust in return.  The other teachers find their students mysterious and are focused on enforcing rules, on catching misbehavior; they are wonderful examples of what not to do and what not to be.  Yet Kipling prefaces the book with his poem in praise of teachers: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”  In the context of the book, it is a remarkably gentle poem, recognizing the worth of these men who have given their lives to teaching, even if that teaching didn’t always lead to the intended outcomes, recognizing that we learn more than we know from our teachers and can only evaluate how much we’ve been taught from the distance of years.


Thinking about the Liberal Arts

I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations lately about the value of the liberal arts, which is why I paid attention when I saw this scene from The Big Bang Theory in a recent re-run. Sheldon’s attitude is alive and well where I live. And despite the humor of this scene, in real life it’s not terribly funny.

The liberal arts are by definition non-productive. These are things we study simply because they are worth knowing, because knowing things like these is our calling as human beings. There are many other worthwhile approaches to study. It is a good thing to study in order to make the world a better place, to cure disease, to alleviate poverty, or to govern justly. But those are all secondary tasks that must be done in order to make space for our primary tasks as human beings: knowing, naming, offering, praising, worshipping…. These are acts that are done freely, liberally, for their own sake.


Meeting Jesus at His Table

I have a new post about the nature of thesacrament at the ECO blog

 

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HPPC’s Vote Today on Joining ECO

The following is now posted under “News” on the website of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, Dallas (hppc.org).
Welcome to ECO, friends.

HPPC Votes to Change to New Presbyterian Denomination
October 27, 2013
Thank you to everyone who attended today’s Congregational and Corporate Meeting today at Highland Park Presbyterian Church. Today our church voted to end the HPPC’s voluntary relationship with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by a vote of 89 percent in favor. The congregation also voted by 89 percent to join a new Presbyterian denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. This has been an historic day in the life of Highland Park Presbyterian Church.

The other two major motions were also adopted decisively.

“By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them,” said Rev. Joe Rightmyer, Interim Senior Pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church. “With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us.”

“We are thankful that thousands in our congregation have attended informational meetings, church-family gatherings, round table discussions and prayer times,” said Monty Montgomery, elder and co-moderator of the Session-Appointed Discernment Coordinating Committee. “We’ve been impressed with the way the people have engaged and they’ve asked questions — good questions that help make genuine discernment possible.”

“Regardless of how you voted today, we look forward to moving together in Christ,” said Rev. Rightmyer.

Go to the church site for voting results.


Signs of Fall

Signs of Fall

at St Peter’s, Leuven