(re)Imagine Understanding

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Luke 14:25-33

In the above scripture reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus continues his outline of the character of discipleship needed for the new kingdom he is inaugurating. From the outset, Jesus wants his disciples to know into what they are getting themselves. Jesus wants his disciples to understand that following him into this new kingdom will be costly, costing Jesus his life and, them, their very assumptions about life. Captured in that shocking declaration that discipleship requires a hating of “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself,” Jesus sets his followers up for the radical work expected to define this new kingdom.

But, really, does Jesus believe that being a disciple necessitates hating all that we are taught to hold dear? Does discipleship really demand, as Jesus later puts it, giving up all our possessions?

The answer to these questions seems to be both “yes” and “no.”

Let me explain. First, the “no.”

Jesus is not, through Luke’s narrative, expecting that in the moment of hearing Jesus’ call that would-be disciples suddenly abandon what they are doing, where they live, and all that they own to begin a peripatetic journey to some anticipated but unseen future.

Discipleship is a little more calculated than that.

Rather, what Luke seems to be outlining through Jesus’ jarring characterization of discipleship is that discipleship, to be effective, first requires a letting go, a releasing of control and certainty, exchanging control and certainty for dependence and humility. In other words, discipleship is first and foremost a letting go of assumptions about the world, our place in it, and our convictions about it. Our beloved family and friends, our prized possessions, and what both categories represent for us become the symbolic substance of our lives that must—without question—be subject to redefinition and to potential abandonment if the radical kingdom Jesus is proclaiming is to be manifest in material, concrete ways in our lives.

So, yes, Jesus does expect that the life of faith will involve the giving up of social and material certainties. This abandonment allows us to become dependent and necessitates our reevaluating all our certainties and convictions about life, death, community, family, generosity, tolerance, acceptance, meaning, divinity, holiness, and truth . . . to name but a few of the uncritically assumed certainties that often define our daily lives.

The life of faith in Jesus’ articulation through Luke’s gospel, to be actualized, requires a transition from uncritical assumptions to critically embraced habits of life defined not by certainty of conviction but by a willful commitment to shared exploration and kingdom building.

It is in this transition that the work of faith and the work of a liberal arts college converge.

The liberal arts are about shaking each of us awake (through overlapping and distinct disciplines) from our often inherited, numbing, uncritical assumptions about the world, our place in it, and our convictions about it. Faith, spirituality has a fundamental role in this awakening educational enterprise because a critically engaged faith taps into those deep recesses of our souls, granting access to otherwise barricaded, hallowed margins of our lives and to convictions often beyond the reach of purely intellectual critical engagement yet margins that exercise immense importance for our convictions and behaviors.

And, more than a vehicle for access, rigorously engaged faith and spirituality are vital partners in liberal arts education because such faith and spirituality not only invite the totality of the self into the education process but such rigorously engaged faith and spirituality operate with similar means and anticipate a similar end.

Faith and education require a meticulous examination and possible abandonment of one set of convictions for another, an examination and abandonment with the potential to lead to the radical transformation of self and society. Such an examination, we see in Luke’s writing, begins not as an intellectual exercise but as a relational one. Significant reappraisal of the world and ourselves may only be achieved within a context where independent certainty is replaced by dependent support found in a community of fellow travelers possessing a willful commitment to the value of such shared exploration.

I am by no means the first person to make this a connection. Nearly one thousand years ago, Anselm—the Archbishop of Canterbury—offered a similar observation when he said, “Faith seeks understanding. I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” In other words, a liberal arts education starts not as an intellectual realignment but as a social one, an entering into a community of trust, affording us the space and time to question, test, and reincorporate assumptions that may be joined by new and sometimes confounding sets of knowledge. Faith (or trust) in and with a community of fellow travelers provides the system and security necessary to explore and engage in understanding.

However, not to discredit more than a thousand years of inherited wisdom on the connection between faith and education, I have added a short addendum to Anselm’s maxim, a complementing addendum that moves his conviction from how knowledge is acquired to how that knowledge is actualized in material ways. For more than four years, my amended version of Anselm’s maxim has accompanied all my emails out of The Office of Religious Life, a maxim reading “where faith seeking understanding connects with life.” That is to say, I am trying to create a place where all three, i.e., faith, understanding, and life) converge, emerge, and flourish.

In my estimation, the life of faith and the life of understanding appear to have their greatest potency when linked with habits that infiltrate into our daily lives, habits that change our communities, the world, and us. Such radical intellectual, social, and personal transformation seems to lie at the heart of discipleship and a liberal arts education, an inherent link I hope our work through Religious Life and the College as a whole broadens and deeps over the coming academic year.

Keep traveling together, asking challenging questions, and changing the world.

See you along the way.

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