What is more…

an excercise in getting to the point

Tag: Happiness

My Life’s Place…

I’ve been reading some Wendell Berry again since school ended and I think its good for my soul. This little passage struck me. It reminded me of the importance of belonging somewhere, of claiming a place as one’s own and loving it. Like many grad students, I feel very uprooted and wish I could find somewhere like this–not a small Kentucky town per se, but rather a place in which I belonged and could love.

“I was making myself at home. In the dark way of the world I had come to what would be my life’s place, though I could not yet know the life I would live in it. Jarrat Coulter would become my second father-in-law, and Burley would then be my uncle, though I would not so much as lay eyes on Nathan for more than three years. I had come unknowing into what Burley would have called the ‘membership’ of my life. I was becoming a member of Port William.

Port William in fact and mystery, in the light and in the dark–even the name is a stumper. Why in the world would you build a town on top of a hill, or anyhow a ridge, half a mile from the river, and call it a port?

Anybody who lives in Port William is apt to hear that question enough to get used to it. Ben Feltner, Virgil’s grandfather, always gave the same answer: ‘They didn’t know where the river was going to run when they built Port William.’

He meant, I guess, that Port William has always been, and maybe too that it will always be. I think so. You could say that Port William has never been the same place two minutes together. But I think any way it has ever been it will always be. It is an immortal place. Some day there will be a new heaven and a new earth and a new Port William coming down from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband, and whoever has known her before will know her then.

Writing about Port William to Virgil in his absence and distance, I realized that the story of even so small a place can never be completely told and can never be finished. It is eternal, always here and now, and going on forever.”

-Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter (42-3)


Semester in Review…

I went to bed last night at 7:30pm. That was after taking a nap yesterday afternoon from 3:30-4:30 pm. I believe that my body is in Recovery Mode after an intense week of writing final papers (55 pages and a take-home final!). Not only that, I believe my body is in Recovery Mode after what was, perhaps, the hardest semester of my life. Nevertheless, the exhaustion I feel is like the exhaustion at the end of a good work-out or a competitive game of basketball; not like the exhaustion of being tossed overboard and swimming for dear life. There is a sense of accomplishment and growth, and for that I am truly thankful.

Two classes in particular have challenged me this semester, though in different ways.

The first was Ethics and the Problem of Evil. From the beginning, the professor made it clear that it was not going to be a Theodicy class [i.e. how to justify God in light of the existence of evil]. Rather, it was an ethics class, meaning that our main objective would be to think about how we ought to respond to evil in practical ways. That being said, it quickly became apparent that there is a constant tension between practical responses to evil and theoretical concepts about evil. Our view of who God is and what the world in which we live is really like, affects the way we respond to evil and suffering. But! to think and wonder about God and the world in a detached way [i.e. from the relative safety and comfort of a seminary classroom] tends not to lead to a sufficiently deep description of the very real ambiguities that evil and suffering occasion. In the end, every attempt to “answer the problem of evil” with a tidy system did not do justice to reality and left one [me] feeling unsatisfied. And yet, and yet… one cannot simply avoid the problem altogether. The problem of evil, it seems, from an intellectual point of view is un-answerable. From a faith point of view, however, the most satisfying approaches we covered were the ones that were utterly realistic about the existence of evil and suffering, yet somehow found a way to confess the goodness of God in the midst of it [I’m thinking, especially, here of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s short-classic Lament for a Son].

The oddest thing that I found while taking this class, was that everywhere I turned, in all of my other classes, the subject material overlapped considerably. Recently, it dawned on me that there is a very simple reason for this. So much of what is done in theology and philosophy is an extended reflection on the following fact: life is often unimaginably difficult. There is a reason that the Bible calls Satan “the prince of this world” (John 12:31). If we take the time to be honest, and reflect upon the suffering all around us, and within our own lives (not something that I am very good at… optimism is far safer), we will see that something is terribly wrong. Thank God, however, that is not all there is to that verse: “the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (vv 21-22). After a semester of wrestling with the objections to the [all too easy] answers to the [all to often wrong] questions about evil and suffering, I am left with two things: hope and the conviction that hope is more important than answers.

The other class that challenged me was The Theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Before I took the class, all that I knew about him was that Wikipedia said he was the “Father of Modern Protestant Theology” and that Karl Barth tried “to overturn his influence.” Given the way that St. Karl seems to be venerated here at PTS, I was sure that this class would teach me how to dissect Schleiermacher’s harmful theology, showing particularly how far we have come since he messed up Protestantism during the Enlightenment. Much to my surprise (and probably chagrin) the professor (a renowned Barth scholar) taught Schleiermacher with grace and respect, never critiquing him based on criteria that were alien to Schleiermacher’s day, and more often than not, finding some way to affirm and even appropriate Schleiermacher’s intentions and instincts in a generous fashion. While I doubt that Schleiermacher will ever become a central figure or influence in my own theology [although who knows?], what I learned most in this class was not contained in the books we read. All semester I have described the task of reading and understanding Schleiermacher as “wrestling with a big-hairy monster.” Every time you think you have a handle on him, he breaks free and shows you that you do not. He will not be tamed by simple explanations or surface-level reading. But I am only stronger for having tried, and will only be made stronger the more that I do so. I suppose this is the case with any theologian worth his/her salt. They must be taken on their own terms. We must allow them to challenge our own presuppositions. Otherwise the playing field is not even and the game is pointless. The more honestly, vulnerably, and winsomely we play the game, however, the more God may use others to press us farther up and further in.

All in all, this has been the hardest, and best, semester of my life. The hardest part about it was the difficulty of the subject matter and the isolating nature of the work [lots of research in the library, not so much time to hang out with friends and wife]. The best parts, on the other hand, were the lessons learned about honesty and vulnerability, and the great conversations with classmates generated by the challenging material.

At this point I am almost half-way done with my seminary career. And while it has by no means been easy [especially the living in Jersey part], life is a gift, and today it feels that way. The words of Sheldon Vanauken come to mind: “If its half as good as the half we’ve known, heres hail to the rest of the road”

Batter My Heart…


BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

The language of Donne’s Holy Sonnet No. 14 is disarming. Donne deals with the anguish of loving God, yet being bound to sin. To do so he uses graphic, violent language: “break,” “batter,” “o’erthrow,” “imprison,” “ravish.” This language is juxtaposed with the language of redemption: “mend,” “make me new,” “free,” “chaste,” and “love.”

In my Ethics and the Problem of Evil class this week, this poem caused quite a stir. The class seemed to be divided into three camps. (1) Those who thought the language was inappropriate when used of God, completely irrelevant for pastoral settings and/or just plain shocking. (2) Those who defended Donne’s language and sought to explain what he was trying to say, and (3) Those who were shocked and yet intrigued, who were divided inwardly and reserved judgment

I am currently writing a short paper arguing for my own reaction (which you will have to read to know). In the meantime, however, I would love to hear from anyone out there who may happen to read this entry. What do you think about Donne’s poem? What was your initial gut response? Or, what can this poem teach us about life with God?

What Makes Us Happy?

“The job isn’t conforming. It isn’t keeping up with the Jones’. It is playing and working and loving; and loving is probably the most important. Happiness is love, full stop.” Dr. Valliant

Watch this 7 Minute Video…
Dr. Valliant


Read the full article…

         What does it mean to live well? Aristotle said that everything we do is for the purpose of some good end. The highest good end, the one which is never achieved for the sake of another, higher end, is happiness. For Aristotle, the way to happiness was to live a life in accordance with our rationality, avoiding extremes and following the “Golden Mean.”

         Since 1937, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been attempting to answer the same question, albeit in a more scientific way. Beginning in the early 1940’s the study began following 248 “well-adjusted” Harvard sophomore men, evaluating them psychologically, physically, emotionally, intellectually, and from every other possible angle you can imagine. The premise for the study was the conviction that “dividing the body up into symptoms and diseases – and viewing it through the lenses of a hundred micro-specialties – could never shed light on the urgent questions of how, on the whole, to live well.” While during the early years, some of the researchers and investors became disenchanted with the lack of immediate results, eventually they came to find that “longitudinal studies, like wines, improve with age.”

      For the past 42 years, Dr. Valliant has been the chief researcher, and storyteller of these 249 “Brothers Karamazovs,” each man’s story resembling a complex russian novel. What has he found? Well, says Valliant (quoting William Blake) “Joy and woe are woven fine.” He found that many of the men from the study achieved greatly (one was John F. Kennedy) and many of the men suffered from mental illness (and those two things are not mutually exclusive). He found that “under the tweed jackets of these Harvard elites beat troubled hearts.”  He found that some who showed the most promise, crashed the hardest. He found that some things mattered much (defense mechanisms, smoking and drinking, and exercise) while others mattered less (cholesterol levels and social ease).

      In the end, though, what mattered the most is relationships, “warm relationships.” Happiness at 80 years, is best characterized by the relationships one has. Real happiness is the dirty laundry room after the kids and grandkids have been playing and gardening together. “Happiness is love, full stop.” This is a far cry from Aristotle’s Golden Mean.

      If we are made in God’s image, and “God is love” (1 John 4:8) certainly part of what that means is that we are most fully who we are created to be when we are loving those around us.  So I ask myself. What am I doing today that is harmful to the relationships in my life that are most important? What am I doing to nurture these relationships – with my friends, my parents, my wife, my God – and what am I doing only for myself? I do not want to be the type of person who is old, grumpy, and alone. How about you?