Think about it- a Conversation

I believe I can help those who want to think better, but—I need to say it before taking one more step—no, it’s not because I’m an academic. My fellow academics, taken as a group, are just as reluctant to engage in genuine reflection as the less highly educated person in the street. Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sorts of things that your professors like to hear.

~Alan Jacobs, How to Think (pp. 23-24)

I read this in bed a few weeks ago. Academics are not immune to peer pressure, Jacobs says. Over the next few days, similar ideas from a variety of authors floated to the surface of my mind. A kind of conversation emerged:

First voice, John Locke

Michael Shermer wrote for the Scientific American about speaking with narrow minded people. I considered here that his advice was sound, but his article seemed too lax on his own atheistic tribe. I brought in John Locke, who said we tend to think and argue in favor of our desires, rather than our reason.

Second voice, Allan Bloom

In what oddly became the most commonly visited post on this site, I reflected on Bernie Sanders’ popularity and his supporters use of the term ‘Revolution’. I mention Allan Bloom:

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

When we remove the voices that challenge us, we should beware the ecology of ideas we’re creating. Locke and Bloom reinforce Jacobs’ concern.

Third voice, Rosaria Butterfield

I remembered a counterpoint to Jacobs. Rosaria Butterfield, wrote on the benefit of university culture. Describing her entrance into the church after conversion:

I miss being in the company of risky and complex thinkers, people who are invested in our culture and who challenge me to think to the edges of my comfort zones. I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.

~Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, pg. 7

Butterfield argues that the Academy is a fitting place for the exchange of ideas. See how her statement echoes Bloom? There’s tyranny afoot when other perspectives are edged out. Jacobs, however, says there’s more insularity in the Academy than Butterield acknowledges. Professors aren’t immune to the peer pressure and temptations to desire Locke mentioned.

Maybe Butterfield is issuing a statement of faith in what the university should be.

Finale, Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford, the philosopher-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, agrees:

Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. Psychologists therefore would do well to ask whether “metacognition” (thinking critically about your own thinking) is at bottom a social phenomenon. It typically happens in conversation— not idle chitchat, but the kind that aims to get to the bottom of things. I call this an “art” because it requires both tact and doggedness. And I call it a moral accomplishment because to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love the truth more than you love your own current state of understanding. This is, of course, an unusual priority to have, which may help to account for the rarity of real mastery in any pursuit.

~Matthew Crawford, emphasis mine. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (p. 63).

Rare indeed. This is my favorite kind of reading. Continuing Crawford’s argument, guiding your books into a conversation is indispensable when learning to think. The kind of freedom that emerges is what a liberal arts education is all about. Think about it.

BL

The Sampler (3-31-20)

We have an Invisible Coat Rack at our church. People see it only when they need it. After they deposit their coat, the rack disappears. The coat is forgotten forever. The rack never has less than four coats at a time.

As I meander through books, magazines, and the vast expanse of the internet, I go back for the coats I left hanging for later. A well-written article is worth the effort. Assuming I have plenty of shallow stuff in my life, I look for things that are deep and demand another look. I graze to find things worth digesting.

I’m rarely able to give these things the attention they deserve at first glance, so I save them for times that I stop for reading and reflection. So, here’s the stuff I can’t let go. I’ll send posts like this with the following things in mind: articles, essays, blog posts, books, podcasts, sermons, lectures, and other tools or sites that I keep revisiting. What are you enjoying lately?

Articles

Cal Newport writes on the Deep Life, as good an argument as any for reading Digital Minimalism. I’m on my third trip through that book this year.

Seth Godin asks: Is everything is going to be okay? That depends.

Greg Morse of Desiring God compels me to sing my loved ones home.

Listen Up

I’ve been listening to a political podcast called The Argument. It has all the heat but plenty of light. Short, irenic debate amongst these New York Times writers: Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg, and David Leonhardt.

Books!

I’ve already mentioned Digital Minimalism, but an easy second is Made to Stick by the Brothers Heath. These guys are to writing what Anthony Fauci is to COVID-19. When they speak, you listen.

My Psalter for all occasions, I carry it with me wherever I go. Crossway knows how to creatively print Bibles:

IMG_20200328_163948

BL

Life has never been normal

Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal. 

~CS Lewis, Learning in Wartime

 

Pandemic Intensity

I re-injured my right hamstring on a glacial Tuesday evening while running almost two months ago. My recovery plan was regrettably clear: I had to shut everything down. Rest, no running, no stretching. I blush to remember how discouraged I was. That weekend, after a few feeble attempts at light jogging I accepted my fate. I brought my 22 mile per week regimen to a complete stop. Running had become key for me, so I warned my wife that my life would soon be falling apart. One reputable source suggested that I should avoid running for 8 weeks.

During an episode on dealing with injuries, Running Rogue host Chris McClung recommended looking to the broken training cycles as an opportunity to challenge myself. Every injury is a chance to anchor myself and gain new skills. He gave examples of famous athletes who made breakthroughs during injury cycles. He was urgent- don’t mope, don’t get complacent, don’t waste your injury.

I took this to heart. I started getting up at 4:30 am to make time to swim laps at my local YMCA. Realizing that I had no idea what I was doing did nothing to diminish my intensity. I spent my lunch breaks watching Youtube tutorials and learned how to breathe and to freestyle. I was baptized. My three lap near-death experiences became regular ½ mile workouts. That’s thirty-two laps, in case you were wondering. After a month, swimming laps restored the familiar rhythms of prayer and reflection. I also began walking two to three miles a day.

I began to observe that life is full of similar opportunities to pivot and I often waste them. Consider the current COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is facing their own private stash of anxieties. We can’t waste our God-given chance to see into the life of things.

I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Psalm 16:8

Instead of manically scanning the news for hourly (!) updates, we will say: “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.”

James K.A. Smith reminds us: “Your deepest desire is the one manifested by your daily life and habits.” What is your current crisis revealing about your deepest desires? Don’t go with the flow, don’t keep pace with social media. Don’t mope, don’t get complacent. Rather, with God-earnest intensity and prayer-saturated effort learn something new, read that book, get down on your knees and pray. Don’t waste your pandemic.

BL