- I spent a lot of time in undergrad complaining about social justice warriors because I was defensive about the importance of liberal arts learning. I resented social justice warriors because they refused to listen when I said Shakespeare is worth reading. And I resented how they would castigate any would-be scholar who chose to imitate Mary, who sat at the feet of the Rabbi, rather than busying herself with the servile arts – instrumental work which, unlike contemplation, is not done for its own sake. From my perspective, the aims of liberal arts education – still so important to me – seemed to them not dissimilar to perfume recklessly poured out on feet. I heard them as I heard the voice of Judas saying, “put a price on what is priceless, and give the proceeds to the poor.”
- My alma mater is filled with “lefty evangelicals” who quickly deconstruct the youth group style faith they enter with as freshman, particularly if they major in theology’s bastard brother, biblical studies. In the honors college however, we prided ourselves on our more intellectually robust trajectories away from the non-denominational and towards more established traditions. Unlike the lefty evangelicals in the broader university context, many of us honors students converted first to phenomenology, and then, by extension, to Catholicism. We talked about Being qua Being and felt snobbish toward those who haven’t read Mark Noll’s The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind and must therefore still be enclosed in the scandal of being evangelical and thoughtless. “Ah yes,” we said to ourselves, “here is yet another evangelical SJW who reads Rachel Held Evans, becomes too invested in partisan politics (i.e., buys the paperback copy of the Mueller Report), and in ten years will move to the suburbs and probably won’t attend church.”
- After Rachel Held Evans died, I watched as hundreds of people on Twitter shared their stories about how Evans helped them stay in the church, how Evans inspired them to go to seminary, how Evans made them feel loved when family and friends had abandoned them. I wish now that I had respected her more when she came to speak at my school.
- I am devoted to liberal arts education. In some ways, I’m more faithful to it than I am to my religion. In college, it was a mark of pride that my political theory reading group met on Wednesdays during Chapel. Why sing the same trite chorus a thousand different times when you could read Burke’s reflections on the French Revolution? The liberal arts is a way of life, or “a habit of being” to use O’Connor’s phrase in a context she did not intend. I tell people that seminar style conversation around close readings of texts is like a drug. I’m addicted. I’m currently reading Baldwin with friends all across the country and one who is in Portugal. We meet together on Sunday afternoons on Zoom. Often our conversation continues for two or more hours. Because of Covid, I haven’t been to Mass in months.
- I recently revisited Plato’s cave with some friends. And I’m tormented by two questions. The first is this: who was the first to leave the cave and how were they freed? And the second question: after being freed from the shadows and chains and abiding in the presence of the glorious light, why go back in the cave to free others?
- I’m thinking about Dante, midway through his life’s journey, and lost in the dark wood. Dante can’t free himself. His epistemology isn’t good enough. His reason can’t save him. All the theory in the world can’t set him free. He is lost.
- “If you studied classical theology like I have,” I smirk as I mentally castigate the thoughtless, evangelical social justice warrior, “you would understand the doctrine of prevenient grace which states that since our will is in bondage to sin as our natural predicament, God’s grace must therefore precede our conversion, activating our desire for God, prompting us to seek God in the first place.” Of course, the question of how to affirm a natural desire for God while avoiding the Pelagian heresy that denies the necessity and role of prevenient grace is rather tricky. But if you get teleological – by which I mean if you consider the ultimate purpose that fills and so fulfills us – you can say, “grace perfects nature” and leave it at that. But anyway, that’s what the university should be teaching you, rather than the bullet list on why Donald Trump is like Adolf Hitler.
- Maybe it’s prevenient grace that is responsible for that first Platonic ascent, activating the desires of that first prisoner to throw off the chains, turn from the shadows, and embrace the light. And grace, too, might be a tentative answer to that second question; why the return to the cave? Perhaps it’s the nature of this grace that moves St. Lucy to intercede before Our Lady on Dante’s behalf while he is trapped in the darkened wood.
- I’ve spent my whole life as a black student in white spaces. And I’ve learned to do my own research on my own time about my own heritage and the questions of justice that have tormented my own people. In white class, I talked about The True, The Good, and The Beautiful. On my own, I read about redlining, gerrymandering, and the fetishization and demonization of the black male body as forbidden, dangerous, and oversexed. I spent so much time as an undergrad feeling defensively antagonistic toward social justice warriors, maybe because they punctured the neat division I had made for myself between white class and black independent study, between white-sourced theories of disinterested beauty and the concrete work of black liberation. We never really talked about race in our Justice and The Common Good honors class. My social justice warrior friends are the ones getting tear-gassed by the police.
- I’ve come to believe that the promise of liberal learning is freedom. Plato’s “cave analogy” is about the graced process of liberating others from their chains. More precisely, Plato’s cave analogy is about helping others to liberate themselves from their own epistemic blindness. Every Platonic dialogue is about liberation, conversion, and freedom, and any “Great Books” program that doesn’t ultimately see itself as in service to both liberation and contemplation is merely perpetuating the shadows on the cave wall.
Pray for the souls of the faithfully departed.
Pray for George Floyd.
Pray for Rachel Held Evans.
Pray for all the souls of those taken from us before their time.
Pray also for peace in our day and for our time.
St. Lucy, pray for us, oh please, please, pray for us, that we may be illumined by the light.