Louisville, February 2015

One of the things that used to be a regular part of my life and no longer is was driving for hours on end. There are many things one could dislike about it, but not everything. I’ve missed being able to do so.

Usually it includes a sunrise or a sunset or both. One can’t always be in view of such things, what with the times always alternating here in the northern hemisphere, and with schedules tending to remain unaffected. So it is good to see the colorations of skies and clouds. I remember the nearly numinous look of the windmills in Indiana one foggy morning, speeding along. The sun was shining through those great blades and the shadows were dragged through the fog like agile burdens as they rotated slowly. I enjoy these phenomena because I sense there is a meaning there, that these things gesture, waiting to be understood; and one feels one has come through an event. When the bright, fiery ball of the sun is a pinpoint on the farthest little mirror on the driver’s side, and a miniature landscape beckons, it is hard to keep one’s eye on the road, on the wonders of the other horizons, and on the flash of the sudden brakelights up ahead.

I like going fast and passing people. I like it once you know your car and can make the most of a corner. Not that I drive fast cars. I had a Hyundai Accent and didn’t figure out the pseudo (or is it semi?) manual gear shifting available, so it didn’t seem as powerful as my good Ford Focus. But you go through the heart of Cincinnati and there are plenty of corners, long bridges and traffic to make it interesting. I like to drive straight through cities, see what can be seen, pass through the structure of them as much as possible.

There is a meaning to going fast, to being alone in a car on the landscape, being far from your place and from people that you know. Driving is an errand into the wilderness, and some seek the wilderness. Roger Scruton somewhere remarks about that: that England is more of a kept, a shire kind of place, whereas this vast country is more rugged, untended, more of a place of wildernesses. We drive cars as much as we do because we’ve built the roads for it, but I also think we built the roads because we desire it: to go independently, to be in our wildernesses. Not all, but many. These wildernesses of the highway are pretty tame when it comes to figuring things out, but not entirely so. And there are the comforts of arriving which draw one forth, and make the enjoyment of the wait over long distances more complex.

I got there fine and quickly. They had a big hotel room for me, and I enjoyed it some as I walked around reading, but the tension of the test was foolishly upon me. I thought that perhaps I had been less than responsible in not compiling a huge list of details from the reading to review. So I spent the day going through things as much as possible, responsibly assimilating the not altogether congenial Mark Noll. After driving down, after getting up early, after working at Pelikan without a good deal of success, I put it down. I had the dread of the social gathering upon me.

One of the worst moments at Southern was the dessert reception in a conference room. I hate mingling because I’m shy and I don’t do small talk. They were playing the sounds of the shallow soul of evangelicalism in the background and I sat there with a sinking feeling wondering if this was where I really want to be. I think sometimes fundamentalists are right when they say that evangelicalism has more problems; it is fundamentalism spread thinner. I was faced with the real question: is this where I want to be?

I waited, put on a cheerful face, exchanged remarks with persons who were not looking to do more than exchange remarks. I was arrested eventually when heading toward the unappealing pies by one of the faculty. I still don’t remember his name, but he does Reformation studies and is kindly–I’d study whatever I had to with him right away. We exchanged remarks and even talked a bit. My impression of the faculty at Southern is very favorable: they pay attention, they can handle prolonged eye contact, they behave with intelligence. They even get around to humor, though for some reason did not appear to expect anything above the dullest, most obvious joke.

I’m living in the age of my life in which I’m appreciating the richness of human personalities more, it seems. I met one guy who was the model of absentmindedness, interested in early Baptist covenant theology. I liked that he was inelegant and unaffected, no forced laughter, no dull joking, no overattentive earnestness, a bit of confusion though not of a nervous sort. May he one day provide us with a clearer understanding of early Baptist covenant theology. I met an aggressive evidentialist and experienced a baffling conversation which was obviated by the vicissitudes of architecture. I met a preacher guy from Dallas all cheerfulness, dubiety about the cold, three pens uncapped and neatly laid beside his computer, bow tie. And my favorite was the guy taking the exam beside me: old Toshiba laptop, Vista, would not start without power, had to plug in a mouse–earnest, friendly, concerned about his interview. I liked him and I wish him well. I watched him walking slowly down the hall after his interview, dealing it seemed to me with discouragement as if it were something still too unfamiliar. I hope that if I make it, he does too.

Southern ratcheted up the tension in a passive-aggressive way. I was not thinking much of the events–thinking they were more of a making sure type of thing than a rigorous appraisal of who will or will not be in. And from the questions I got in the interview I still think that. Why then send an email a week before telling us they’ve been praying for us? It excites alarm, and it is bound to. Then the note sounded at the reception was: Relax, relax, relax . . . if you can. No kidding, and I don’t know if it is deliberate, subconscious, or just naive. Part of the explanation is that they actually have four responses to an applicant: 1 – you’re accepted, 2 – you’re accepted provisionally, and you’ll need to work like the dickens your first year, 3 – you can do a ThM for now and we’ll see about the PhD after that, and 4 – no dice.

Still, the effect overall was disquieting, except for actual interactions with the faculty. Another thing perhaps to say in their defense is that they offer a whole lot of programs. I think we had 60 people taking tests and interviewing. Out of those 60, only four of us were doing Church History, and I was the only one doing Early Church (or as they call it, and as I don’t like to call it, Patristics–what an odious locution, like metrics, or statistics). So there had to be some crowded programs, perhaps specially the NT and Biblical Studies.

I spend two hours most mornings just writing, and so I got my coffee and plugged in my computer–just in case–and once I got the questions got going like I was writing a blog. I can’t talk about the questions for obvious reasons, but I found the first one exactly my thing and the second a bit more challenging, a bit more thought provoking. I can say that whatever else is lacking at Southern Seminary, coffee is not. It is in abundant supply and easily obtainable. So during the test I had something outside of myself and congenial circumstances for it, and if I did badly on those essays then I alone am to blame. I question the organization of my second essay a little, and the content a little more, but in general I remain pleased.

That, I have found, can be misleading. Speaking of being misled, I had two slight misgivings interacting with the faculty at Southern: humor was either at a low tide or not much appreciated. Now I know that I don’t help people and often find that my wife interjects explanations with forced laughter when I endeavor to joke with people, with annoying solicitude (I’m not sure she’s right but I’m not sure I am either). Still, people with PhDs shouldn’t need any help. There were gleams in their eyes toward the end of some conversations, and that encouraged me. I really hope they’re not ponderous blokes, and I have good reason to think they’re not. The other thing was the wording of something: one director talked about how he felt something was God’s will, and I heard that like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. Is the use of the word ‘feel’ some king of modesty of approach, or a veil for ambiguity? Do the people in charge really wait for some sense from God about what to do? It is a big-tent kind of place, not like Reformed circles, and that can be refreshing, but it can be vague too. Then another prayed that I’d have a sense of leading and guidance during the interview. Is this the passive-aggressive thing? A sense? He was praying soberly, so I’m sure he meant it. Not that I was going to follow that red-herring of thought, or get caught up in examining myself for a sense of what was going on. I didn’t have a sense of leading and guidance during the interview, I’ll have you know. I myself was hoping that the Lord would grant me to answer candidly, discreetly, carefully, wisely and well. I trust I did, endeavoring not to impress them with myself, thinking in as clear and orderly a way as possible, trying to understand what they wanted from the question asked, sticking to the question and not belaboring the answer obsequiously. I think it very odd that some there proceed along lines of sensing and feeling, though; I did not expect it. I hope there’s some order behind it.

I understand that where you get a PhD is important because that’s the ambit where you probably end up. The question from the dessert reception is the question: Is this where I want to be? I have to think (unless I’m privileged with a sense of guidance!) carefully if I want to end up in those regions. When I left fundamentalism it was not to a wider world of evangelicalism, it was to the smaller world of the strictest Reformed Baptists. Granted, they can fellowship more widely, and judge in a more careful and principled way (nor do they ever talk about feeling God’s will, for heaven’s sake!). It is wider in some of its possibilities because they are principled about their associations, rather than intuitive. They reason among themselves, evaluate what the aims are, don’t judge arbitrarily, allow room for mistakes and exhibit the disorder of variety.

But if these guys at Southern are led, are we back to intuitive? If you have a good feeling about something, is it ok? Maybe they can explain to me how one tells between God and personal impulse, because I’d would like to find out. What there is is a world of wider associations, is room for discussion, the sense of the possibility for the question carefully to be considered, whether it actually is or not. In the OP you can question the literal reading of Genesis without being accused of favoring evolution, for example, and I welcome that.

One of the great things about Southern is that you constantly run into Tozer, which in Reformed circles does not happen that I know of. You’ll find the latest volume of Perkins on the shelves, and Tozer too, which is for me required breadth. They’re a bit more catholic than my experience outside of fundamentalism to date has been, and so am I if for no other reason than that I am a contrary person. It was interesting when I told them I am a Baptist for now, to have the ‘for now’ followed up. I’ve come a long, long way from where I started out, and because of that I guess I think of myself as still having a long way to go. If other people don’t have to go as long and start with the same amount of time, doesn’t it stand to reason that I should be prepared to keep on going? If your convictions are based on understanding, it stands to reason, specially if along the way there is a lot of misunderstanding you need to work through. There is were plenty of things in fundamentalism that were made to seem to matter; then you found out they don’t. What I wonder about Southern is how many of those things are there? And are there those that do which are not recognized? It is a place I haven’t really been to yet, I realize. And it was one of the observations the guy with a PhD from the U of Toronto, the most relentless in his questions, made: You really have come a long way, haven’t you?

Indeed. Maybe that’s why I like driving a car over the endless highways of the USA. You know what was great about those guys? They wrote with fountain pens. They wrote on paper, one with green ink and the other with purple, with interesting fountain pens, two out of three. I wish they had been a bit more civilized and offered tea, had us into an office with some personal touches, that kind of thing. I don’t know why Americans don’t think of that, don’t value it the way for example Colombians would. You can’t drink or smoke at Southern, and maybe that’s why: the teetotaler view of life has its own built in bleakness, going so far as to exclude even tea. (If I get accepted at WTS I’m going to go visit, and then we’ll see what they serve.) But there was nevertheless a warmth at Southern I appreciated, and a sense of contributing and aiming to contribute to the cause of Christ, a sense of being in earnest at least about the professors–which I hope is more than just a sense that I have. I think that would be one of the great things, to be able to be connected, to participate. It is what I am looking for. The real question is: in the world of American religion, can I? When asked why I wanted a PhD I answered it was that I needed help.

So why go for it in that world, at an evangelical seminary? It would have to be that I think I can live with the outcome, that I think they can help me, and would. And then perhaps I can cause another student to wonder, to encourage someone in their work with more than temporal attainments and ends, to work toward and with true and lasting things, to work among God’s people, elect for no obvious reason but nevertheless beloved. One of the bad things about traveling is that you do not feel at home. Southern has drafty buildings, they have a cafe that is as soulless as an airport, the friendliness there is genuine enough, but it isn’t the deep friendliness of where people know you–after all I was just visiting. This whole planet, though, is the place our exile now, and traveling reminds me of that. Southern reminded me of that. Even in the alien non-culture of evangelicalism we are exiles, and it reminds me I have a real home and why whatever changes the romantic is my temperament, for now. I wept on the road speeding out of Kentucky thinking that I have a proper country, I have a sure city and a true civilization: would that I were there, not driving through the wilderness! I have longed for it since I was first read the Chronicles of Narnia; but there is in this life only the longing, the flashes and glimmers of it distantly, the discipline of hope. There is no getting there by car, however much you drive. If I must wait, I can wait, and not in the bad way that I waited for that test. There is one thing really which the Lord at all times requires of us: we have to understand what faithfulness looks like in our context and keep trying. Perhaps that’s why he so much says we must watch and pray. It is not enough to wait, we have to wait well.

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6 thoughts on “Louisville, February 2015

  1. That’s what I think Sunday is for – to experience a merging of Heaven and Earth once in the week. To penetrate a little way into the veil. So it’s not all waiting.

    I wonder though, about your resistance to intuition. Not that I don’t get it. I also don’t trust the comfortable assumption that everyone is supposed to be “sensing” and “feeling” God’s will or direction, especially about life decisions. At the very least it infantilizes the child of God. But intuition seems different to me. If there is an eye of the spirit, there must be a spiritual way of knowing that corresponds to seeing. Not arguing your way there, but looking right at a thing and seeing what it is, spiritually, morally, or whatever. If you take that out of Narnia, there’s nothing left. The way Lewis uses “nasty” and “nice” just reeks of it.

    “Dubious about the cold” – hah, so Louisville. No one here quite believes that winter actually comes, and yet it has, twice, since we’ve moved here. The astonishment is a never-failing source of amusement. When it snowed a few inches a couple of weeks ago, they issued public service announcements warning everyone to stay in their homes if at all possible. I broke out my Wisconsin driving skills and went to the stores, found they were selling their stock off at prices born of desperation, and made a small killing. I bought 11 avocados, which I can never get enough of.

  2. Yes, I agree with what you say about intuition. You may have a point even in regards to what they meant, let us hope so. But clarified by understanding, communicable, at least by language of last resort like poetry, but suggestion.

  3. I think that’s right – intuition wants to be examined and completed by other ways of knowing and understanding. Of course, one never knows what especially holy people experience, but they don’t seem to describe it conventionally anyway.

    I’m interested in your phrase, “language of last resort like poetry.” There is something similar between poetic diction and how people talk about insight. Something is being said which is, as you say, communicable rather than expressible. Yet I feel that language is most itself as poetry, rather than being something desperate. And yet the way you arrive at it often works like a last resort… you have to rule out everything else in order to find the only possible wording that can be this poem. Is this what you mean?

  4. It is a phrase I borrow from Alan Grossman’s lectures on poetry. I don’t think desperation is in view, but an attempt to get out of language more than words can say.

  5. I had wondered about your whole attempt at getting in to Southern, if it would be the place you’d want to be. Your reminder of our pilgrimage lends a helpful persective. As one who both does not feel at home and also has far to travel, it is helpful to understand that assistance, perhaps from less than likely quarters, may to be found along the way.

  6. Southern wasn’t on my radar at all, but I thought it would be responsible to find out something about it. They keep telling me the most important thing is the guy you study with. The faculty seem helpful, approachable–at least during this event. I’m not the kind of person that can push his way in, I will take no for an answer, or just a gesture of rejection.

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