Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Quotes from William James' "Is Life Worth Living?"

These passages come from the closing sections of a speech by William James

James speaks of the most essential aspect of our being, which he says is that region within "where we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and fears." "Here," he says, "is our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things; and compared with these concrete movements of our soul all abstract statements and scientific arguments - the veto, for example, that the strict positivist pronounces upon our faith - sound to us like mere chatterings of the teeth. For here possibilities, not finished facts, are the realities with which we have to actively deal . . . "

"I confess that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any one of us may make to the religious appeal. God himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight - as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears. For such a half-wild, half-saved universe our nature is adapted.. . .

"These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The scientific proof that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of being which that expression may serve to symbolize) is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour . . . may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here declined to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: 'Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there."

William James, "Is Life Worth Living?" Address at Harvard University from 1895.

Remembering Seminary

Yesterday, I started thinking about Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA where I attended during 1984-87 and finished the M.Div. degree. I was remembering my professors and classmates, and started looking on the internet to see if I could find anybody.

I have returned to Columbia three times since graduation, and each time has meant a lot to me. There is something about that place that remains holy to me - formative, ground-breaking - something that I can't get behind. Sue and I moved to Decatur when we had been married six months, found jobs at a daycare center with me as cook, van driver, after school care for 1st/2nd graders; Sue as 3-4 year old class teacher. I worked there for nine months, then started seminary. And, seminary started with Greek School. I am probably one of the few seminary students who has ever loved Greek School, but I did. I wanted to be able to read the New Testament in the original language, and pretty soon I could. It opened things up in a way I couldn't have imagined.

At Columbia, I became a father (we have a great picture of little Jimmy wearing my cap at graduation), was introduced to Liberation Theology, Black Theology, devout Christians who were politically liberal; and, I was introduced to inner-city Atlanta from John-Hope Housing Project to the Grady Hospital amputee ward. I remember when I looked at the chart for my first patient for whom I was to serve as chaplain. It read: "HIV positive. Beware of contact." It was 1985, and none of us had really heard of A.I.D.S.

Among many of the crucial areas of history, theology, and experience I was introduced to, I was also introduced to myself. We had two classes in which it was very hard to avoid some self disclosure. PN 111, and the hospital chaplaincy class where you had to present verbatims before the class of your sessions with patients. The whole point of presenting your conversations with patients is for the class to help you see where you are in these conversations and how who you are influences and perhaps limits your ability to be with other people as a pastor/counselor. If you have never done this before with an experienced group leader (therapist), you probably can't understand too well how intense this verbatim process is!

Holy shit! When you start dealing with other people's diseases, impending deaths, family crises, there are certain issues you will avoid, because - truth is, you are avoiding these issues in your life because of your own personal history. And, how you use religious speech - either to open up the truth or avoid it - is very telling.

Columbia, for me, was and remains a very holy place. If I were to talk about who I am and how I got to be who I am, I couldn't leave Columbia out for very long. And, I especially remember my teacher and advisor, Dr. Charles Cousar, Professor of New Testament. He was and remains a quiet but passionate man, a kind and strong man, a just and funny man. One day in Greek School, there he was teaching as usual, when all of the sudden one of our more talkative students started complementing him on what a great job he was doing teaching. Apparently (it was the one day of class I missed that summer!) the student was really laying it on thick, when all the sudden the class noticed that Dr. Cousar was climbing up onto his desk, and as he got on top he said: "Boy, it's getting deep in here (referring to the bullshit); I was afraid I might drown!"

I'm told that the class broke up so loud in laughter that they could never collectively recover themselves, and the class was cut short.

Of course, you had to be there, I'm told. Because Dr. Cousar was that way: he communicated largely by the way he said things; by the expressions on his face. I can see the huge smile he had on as he mounted the desk. He came and preached when I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in South Carolina in August of 1989.

He also heard me out as I wondered out loud in his office about how the powerful language and meaning we were getting from Paul's letters was just completely transformed to bullshit by the time it gets to the pulpit of our churches. He also stood next to me with homeless people at Central Presbyterian Church looking as much at home with them as he did with students - the same non-presuming presence that brought life and hope and sanity whereever he was.

Just some memories I was having yesterday and now today.