Monday 1 October 2012

Message from the President

One of the seminars I am teaching for ICS this Fall deals with the form of history keeping, of storytelling, that is culturally prominent today and goes under the name of genealogy and goes back to the caustic pen of Friedrich Nietzsche. I am also forging ahead with a book on Thomas Aquinas. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast in style of writing and thinking than these two.

Nietzsche is ever working to provoke confrontation with his reader, in which the reader will be compelled to have at one and the same time equal and opposite responses. She is to respond with horror/delight in a single contradictory movement of mind, heart and body. His style is avidly sarcastic and crudely vivid. His sentences are filled with images, evocative metaphors, oracular statements that seem to suggest whole universes of meaning just below the literal surface. His texts brood and attack, and do so, again, all at the same time. In its way, a Nietzschean text is like the “Leviathan” rollercoaster at Canada’s Wonderland. If one isn’t scared off by the colossus one is set to challenge (surely recklessly!), why then one undergoes an experience of abject abasement that is at the same time giddily exhilarating. One is left shaking from an extravagant highball of fear and adrenalin-fueled euphoria; one knows for a passing instant the sensation: “ALIVE!”

Thomas Aquinas by contrast rarely raises his writerly voice. His passion is ever understated. There is a reason for this reticence. His texts are to be instruments of a community of scholars. They are designed to support such community and so work to invite the reader’s willing cooperation. In this invitation to cooperation Aquinas trusts his readers in ways that Nietzsche does not. Nietzsche treats his readers as hostile witness to be shoved and cajoled, mocked and unmasked until they get angry and engage. The contrast extends to the writing. Aquinas works coolly using simple logical scaffolding to bring you on board intellectually. His texts work to build a structure and movement of thought expansive enough to include any thought you were likely to have ever had, especially that was available to you from the past in your education and participation in contemporary culture (if you lived in his thirteenth century) so that you would see your thoughts placed within that structure and moving toward the transformative ends the text invited you to consider. Logical fit clearly signalled in prefaces—that is how Thomas worked. Not confrontation but cooperation.

And yet there is a surprising connection between Nietzsche and Aquinas. They both make much of delight. For Nietzsche, successful texts must delight, not just horrify. Delight and the places of delight in human living are key markers in recovering the animality that is part and parcel of being human, of accepting the human condition and its particular opportunities for exaltation. His delights are obviously not going to be Aquinas’s, who is interested in the expansion and divine exaltation of the human condition we are offered when invited to be(come) God’s friends. Nevertheless, for Aquinas too, delight is hermeneutically important. One understands the sort of life led by paying attention to what delights a person. Does he delight in inquiring into and coming into the truth? Does this delight form the centre of his concrete living? Well then he is living a contemplative life. Does she delight in helping others, in working with mind and hand so as to ease burdens, protect the weak, and so on? Does such delight provide her the centre for her concrete living? Why, then, she is living the active life. Does she delight in the terror unleashed by the fury of her anger? Does nurturing that anger, stoking it higher and higher mark out the driving passion of his life (for whatever reason)? Then one lives an angry life; one is an angry person. And so on. Delight can lead to flourishing human living or to disastrous human living. But delight, for Thomas too, is the key to understanding the pattern of our living as persons and groups.

It seems to me that the importance accorded delight in these ever so different thinkers points to something of use when thinking about the vocation of Christian scholar, here too at ICS. Delight should also be an important marker for Christian scholarship. It should be a characteristic of Christian scholarship and of the scholarly communities that Christian communities found and maintain in order to pursue Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship should be a delight for Christian scholars, both as object and as aim. We should be delighted to interact with Christian scholarship from whatever source. We should be delighted just as much to encounter whatever is true and helpful from whatever source, even from Nietzsche, despite his contempt for the sense of the world he identified with Christ and his followers. Delight should accompany the work Christian scholars produce. It should take up its abode deep within their own breasts in gratitude for the privilege of such productions. Delight should also live in the hearts of those whose lives come to be enriched by the work of Christian scholars and Christian scholarly communities. The Psalmist knew a thing or two about delight in the service of Yahweh in the community of Yahweh’s people; quite as much as he knew about lament. It is my prayer this month that ICS in its work, in its service, in the totality of its life, in the lives of all who make up its community, will be marked by the huge delight that beckons all who have been called to think and write and, well, live in every imaginable way in this God’s world. I invite all who care about ICS to join me in that prayer.

For the President,

Bob Sweetman