Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric
California State University, Sacramento
I live in northern California, near one west coast epicenter of the 2020 pandemic—a once-in-every hundred-year-plague that we are all suffering through at the current moment. It knows no political, religious, or economic boundaries.
The present moment is like trying to find your way out of an enormous house of mirrors while being pursued by a madman with a flame thrower. There are at least as many false startles as there are actual encounters with danger, but the danger is very real, nonetheless. How should I respond?
The question is crucial, but I am afraid we are not very well equipped to answer it because answering it requires a quality of education that we are lacking. I want to think out loud a moment about what it means to be educated in a way that allows one to think clearly in a time of genuine danger and actual crisis.
We have heroic physicians and nurses as well as people studying disease and vaccinations. We need them, we should celebrate them as the gift they are, and Christians should pray for their successes and their protection. Their efforts will be the material powerhouse that will contain and beat-back the disease, if we listen to them. But as much as I do celebrate them and their skills, it is not their splendid sort of education I am thinking about, at present.
Education comes from the Latin educare which meant to rear a child, to bring them up, to train the instincts of their inner life. What one gave that child was doctrina: teachings that had proven their value over a long time and under a great variety of stresses. Education, then, is always indoctrination in the best possible sense of the word: it is to implant in the inner life of the young that which has been found worthwhile in navigating the complexity of life. Education is an act of love. It is spiritual direction.
All education is inescapably, inevitably, always, moral formation. Education teaches the student what to value and what to neglect. The present American educational system is permeated by two cooperative visions of value. The first is a Capitalist vision that reduces all community to consumerism and all meaning to market value. The second is an individualism that reduces all that is personal to politicized identity, and all that is humane to weaponized demographics. These two poisonous systems ignore everything that is meaningful about us, individually and in communion. For the moment, let us consider only the first of these false systems of value.
As an adversarial economic system, the Capitalist’s perspective might (or might not—Christians can disagree on this point) serve as one good way of organizing our commerce. But Christians must never take on the values of their economic preferences as a part of their spiritual worldview. The defining values of the secular marketplace will always be a foul substitute for the living formation of the Christian soul.
The value system of Capitalism, for example, crowns success as the highest good and it can be both transactional and savage in pursuit of that goal. When things are going well, at its very best, Capitalism might rise to the level of self-interested transaction: I will give something to you, but only if you give me something I value more.
But the Christian must never allow such merely human priorities to direct their choices. They must not be led by the World’s values or systems. Three attentive minutes in the presence of the Crucified is enough to clarify such confusions and gut Capitalism and all its priorities. The Cross is not a bridge to human success. It is a divine communion with human failure.
In times when things are not going well, Capitalism is even worse. Left to its own devices, it abandons even the pretense of transaction and becomes a savage circus, where the rich get richer at the cost of the poor and the powerful more powerful at the cost of the weak. The Christian must not side with the wealthy against the poor nor the powerful against the weak. Listen to the words of the first person who ever said yes to Jesus:
The Lord, she tells us, has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones…
and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51)
Those who say yes to the Christ have said yes to the poor and to the powerless, to the failing and to the failed, or they were only mouthing words and have said nothing meaningful at all.
Christians must inform their responses to both mundane and critical moments according to values that supersede the natural offerings of their culture—of the World. In imitation of their Lord, they should reject both transaction and savagery and work from a rule of charity.
Charity is never an arrogance and condescension that refuses to embrace natural truth. It listens to and learns from others who understand the situation. Nor is charity a self-humiliation that embraces naiveté and blind devotion to another. It exercises broad prudence and faith with understanding. Charity is a whole way of living, a complete, competent, balanced enactment of Christian doctrina.
How we have allowed ourselves to be educated will determine how well we respond to the present moment. And facing that response will require deep and uncomfortable reflection from all of us.
Now is the correct moment to reflect with brutal honesty on how we have been making our decisions; to consider what assumptions have crept unnoticed into the back of our minds and started lying to us about how to live well and what is important. That search will help us find our broken souls. And until we find those breaks, we will never seek to have them mended.