What Does COVID-19 Mean for Chesterton House?
This is not without a deep, shared lament, as we understand that our public events and facilities are spaces of community, thought-exchange, and spiritual vitality for many. Chesterton House staff and students continue to exercise our imaginations about how we might practice necessary social distancing while maintaining our pursuit of spiritual formation, Christian thought, rhythmed lives, and belonging.
- We continue to minister to 20 students who have stayed in our living-learning community across 3 different houses, helping them to craft new rituals of social distancing, safety, and care for our neighbors,
- We have transitioned our weekly gatherings to virtual platforms, offering spiritual formation and pastoral care to students connected to the ministry,
- We have co-sponsored 3 virtual Veritas Forums, such as this one on Lament, Beauty, and Creativity with Mako Fujimura, Lecrae, and Alissa Wilkinson,
- And we are connecting students with Christian faculty who can help them to think critically and make sense of what is happening around them, including a virtual lecture and Q&A with Dr. Praveen Sethupathy on how to believe in both God and science as we process what the coronavirus means for us.
In her NYT article, I Miss Singing at Church, Tish Harrison Warren named:
“We must embrace social distancing, for as long is as needed, to protect our health care system and the very real, fleshy bodies of millions of people. But we also need to collectively notice that something profound is lost by having to interact with the world and our neighbors in mostly disembodied, digital ways. This is something to lament and to grieve. And like all grief, it exposes the value and glory of the thing that was lost.”
Glory to God that Chesterton House’s physical presence is such that its absence is felt. As we look forward to this strange and challenging season, we also look back in remembrance, marked by gratitude for all the Lord has done. And we persevere in our calling to empower more faithful living in the Cornell community.
Scroll down to “Stay Connected” to subscribe to our newsletter and be a part of our virtual community in this season.
By Justin McGeary
Who am I?
A question never asked in a vacuum, this one will have new force for the thousands of students packing up and leaving family, friends, and home this month to live and study at a university.
The question will appear or be felt everywhere—in the mind, in the classroom, in the heart, in the cafeteria, in the choices, in the parties. The answers once assumed or understood as coming from parents, friends or the pulpit will be questioned. College life is an identity crisis in the truest sense of the word—a critical time.
Who am I?
In his introductory chapter “From Self to Person—Some Preliminary Thoughts” of the book Figures in the Carpet, Wilfred McClay sets forth two ways to answer the question: one is either a self or a person.
“Our age, of course, speaks of selves,” he observes matter-of-factly. What is a “self”?
“The self is… changeable and contingent and interior…[and] tied to a romantic and subjective view of the isolated and autonomous individual… The self is a moveable and malleable target, one that adapts to changing circumstances, revising its constitution repeatedly over the course of an individual life, taking on strikingly different colorations at different times.”
This self is defined in isolation from others, independent and introspective, but above all, ever-changing. For as exotic as it sounds, and though not the word on the street, the conception of an individual as a mere “self” is arguably the assumption found on the TV and the movies we watch, sold in the stores where we shop, and assumed in the academies where we study.
There is nothing deeper than the constantly changing surface, nothing providing continuity or depth, and for McClay a chameleon “self” is ultimately “unreachable”–and this means, essentially, a hollow answer to the question, or a perpetual identity crisis as the answer shifts as the self changes. And while perhaps entertaining on TV, it does not describe what we hope for in a best friend.
Who am I?
McClay prefers the answer: a person.
“It is the person, not the self, that is not only the home address of our consciousness, but the nexus of our social relations, the chief object of our society’s legal protections, the bearer of its political rights, and the communicant in its religious life. To put it another way, it is the person, not the self, whose nature is inextricably bound up in the web of obligations and duties that characterize our actual lives in history, in human society—child, parent, sibling, spouse, associate, friend, and citizen—the positions in which we find ourselves functioning both as agents and acted-upon.”
A human being is socially, politically, and religiously rooted. We exist in a “web of obligations” and relationships, and we might add, callings (though McClay would not reduce a person to only this “web of obligations”). This description lacks the limitless freedom of the self, but is more substantive. A person lives in relation to others and is known in relation; a self stands alone.
The challenge of the university years, especially the first, is that one feels more like an isolated self than a relationally rooted person. Once dropped off in the dorm room, all the previous relations, callings and obligations seem to fade and there exists an opportunity to remake one’s self. It is unlike anything before in life.
Who am I?
McClay’s description of the person fits well with what theologian John Calvin wrote about “the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Of these two facets of knowledge he writes, “[W]hich one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern… it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.”
How we answer the question of identity depends on how we answer the more basic question, “Who is God?” Anthropology and theology are inextricably linked. We are human persons, and human persons are known and understood in relation to divine persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But this question of identity is often asked from only one side of Calvin’s equation, the human side, or with assumptions of the “self”’ in view rather than a “person.” How we answer the question, “Who am I?,” depends simultaneously on how we answer the question, “Who is God?” 
In view of the challenges and opportunities facing the incoming students at the university, Chesterton House aims to ask both questions—“Who am I?” and “Who is God?” As a Christian study center and residential community, Chesterton House believes that learning, growing, and knowing occur in life together. So, we aim to connect students with the Christian intellectual riches of the past in order to robustly address the perennial questions. Thereby, the identity crisis will not be wasted.
 For some wonderful essays on this topic see Personal Identity in Theological Perspective edited by Lints, Horton and Talbot (Eerdmans 2006).
This piece is contributed by Gary Villa, Spiritual Director of the Chesterton House.
On a shelf in my bedroom sits a broken pastel blue-and-yellow-colored egg shell , the remnants of the first gift I ever gave my wife, Kira. Shortly after she came to faith, we colored Easter eggs together at her kitchen table. I made a small gift to her of my “art”, an egg with crudely drawn sun, moon and stars. It was kept whole for years, through 3 apartment changes and into our current home. Finally broken by the curious hands of our first son, we keep what remains as a tangible reminder of that early date and the beginning of our love.
As I sometimes lead post-dinner conversations in the Chesterton House residential communities, I often look for ways to provoke the students to tell each other more of their own stories, who they are and what brought them here to this place. One of my favorite ways of doing this is inviting them to bring an object of their own to the table as a kind of show-and-tell. Somehow it is easier to talk about yourself when you’re holding a purple plush eggplant or a camera or a favorite pen. The items are as varied and different as our residents.
In the lovely first chapter of John’s gospel, the apostle describes Jesus as the creator of all things. But he uses an unusual term: the “Word” or put another way, the self-expression of God. John says that all things (!) were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made (John 1:3, ESV). How beautiful! There is nothing you can find that is not in some way tinged with the marks of God’s self-expression to us. His nature, his character, his power are somehow woven into the stuff of our lives, even in this sin-broken world.
Because of this we can have not just permission, but freedom and joy as we work in whatever field we find ourselves in. If “all that is” is somehow the product of God’s self-expression, we can be confident that something of Him can be known in any field of study or work. All our work – mathematics, art, science, engineering – becomes a theological endeavor. We learn of God as we learn of his world. And, what’s more, all of our work also then becomes doxological for us as well – an act of worship. We can with joy respond to God in worship as our knowledge of him grows and deepens through our vocation. The cosmos is God’s show-and-tell to us.
Of course, like the egg shell I gave my wife, the cosmos is broken. The earth that was given to us to rule and care for was just as broken by Adam’s sin as we are. It, too, is tainted everywhere by sin’s rule and effects. But Paul tells us that the gospel is good news not just for humanity, but for all of creation. The same Jesus who created all things for himself (Colossians 1:16) reconciled all things to himself by the blood of his cross (1:20). The redemptive sweep of the gospel is cosmic, not just personal.
The vision is compelling: the earth, the universe – all that God has made exists not merely as a backdrop for humanity but as a good thing in itself. God declared it to be good at creation and reconciled it to Himself at the cross. For this reason, we are free to declare vocations of every kind not only good, but Christian. Science, education, agriculture, engineering, health – these are all Christian vocations. These are things that God cares about. It is our privilege to work – wherever God has called us – to His glory and as a demonstration of His intentions for the world.
Gary Villa, a staff member of New Life Presbyterian Church, serves part time as the Spiritual Director of Chesterton House. Gary earned his BA in International Ministries from the Moody Bible Institute in 1996, and later obtained his MA in Interdisciplinary Studies (church history/spiritual formation) from Wheaton College in 2006. His interests include baseball, poetry, jazz, and gluten-free baked goods. Gary and his wife Kira, a doctoral student in Applied Economics at Cornell, have one son, Aidan.
The following reflection is from the late Fr. Bob Smith, a good friend to all of us at Chesterton House.
Two weeks ago, after the 9:30 PM Mass in Sage Chapel, I had an experience that has made me reflect on one of the major challenges to healthy human and spiritual development in student life at Cornell. The incident was trivial, but its implications are not. I was at the door of the Chapel, saying goodbye to students leaving the Mass, when I realized that some cards announcing an important event happening during the week were not being distributed. I asked four students in a row to stay a few minutes to help me pass out the cards. All four immediately said “No” and kept walking away. We had just prayed the Mass together, the request would take about two minutes or less, and their immediate, unreflective reaction was to refuse because they had no time.
I’ve been thinking since that night about the Cornell default position of “NO” to almost any request for time beyond that which a student has not already allocated to some specific use. There is a culture of hard work and commitment to excellence in study and creative work that is one of Cornell’s most admirable aspects. There is also a kind of idolizing of that commitment that produces spiritually dangerous imbalances in students’ decisions about the use of their time, and about the parts of themselves that they neglect because of an obsessive concentration on the demands of work.
The word ‘idol’, though strong, does capture some of the implications of Cornell students’ thinking about the demands on their time made by their work: it plays the role of a kind of God to which they owe absolute obeisance and fromwhich they expect a sort of salvation. Few students would readily think of their image of the demands of their work as a temptation, but an excessive pursuit of excellence in some field can be as spiritually dangerous as any obviously degrading indulgence.
I would like to make a modest proposal. I suggest that every student decide each Sunday on one hour each day (Monday to Friday) during which Cornell does not own you, one hour set aside for the sake of some part of yourself that does not have to do with your studies, exams or class projects. One could do almost anything during that time so long as what you do expresses some real and important part of yourself. And the hour should be deliberately set aside and marked out–a kind of symbolic acknowledgment that, as a human person, each of us transcends even the most important particular task or role. None of us, of course, works all the time. We all idle away an hour or more every day, but this ‘sabbath’ hour would not be only a kind of relaxation, but rather an exercise of freedom.
What would Cornell be like if this ‘sabbath’ hour were to become as much a tradition here in the life of students as the obsession with the demands of work? Would the default and self-protective “No”, gradually become a community and personally life enhancing “Yes”? What do you think?
Just out from InterVarsity Press, and making a big splash, is Andy Crouch’s (Cornell ’90) Culture Making. We’ll have our own review of the book posted here shortly, but in the meantime here are a few items of interest:
To see even more, InterVarsity Press has made several chapters of the book available online.
Alernatively, you can watch Andy explain the thesis of the book in a video clip on YouTube.
Gideon Strauss of the Work Research Foundation gives the book a rave review in Books & Culture.
John Seel provides a more critical review at Ransom Fellowship.
There’s lots more on the website Culture-Making.com.
Of course, you can become a fan of Culture Making on Facebook.
Last but not least, you buy a copy at our favorite bookstore–Hearts and Minds Books.
I just returned from Envision: The Gospel, Politics, and the Future. The conference was a mixed bag; there were some very good talks and presentations, and there were some of the other kind. Lisa Sharon Harper of New York Faith and Justice gave a terrific and inspirational talk entitled “Theology of Shalom,” including a short theatrical reading vividly depicting the poisonous effects of the Fall. In the beginning, all things were good–not just in the Platonic sense of goodness, but in a more Hebraic, relational sense of holding together in perfect harmony. In the beginning, there was Shalom. Harper recast the biblical motif of Creation, Fall, Redemption as Shalom, Shalom lost, Shalom Regained.
In the panel that followed, Bart Campolo said something to the effect that he used to believe “all that shalom stuff,” but now that he lives among children who are born into the world disadvantaged and die before they ever have much opportunity in life, he doesn’t really buy it anymore. Simply put, he said, “my theology did not survive my experience.”
For the record, I am a strong believer in learning from experience (I worked in the field of Experiential Learning for twenty years), and yes–I have experienced the disillusionment that comes from unsuccessfully trying to help those with great needs. But as philosophers have noted almost since the beginning of time, the danger of giving experience too privileged a place in one’s epistemology is subjectivism. Miroslav Volf, another panelist, responded to Campolo by saying in effect that there are more constructive and subtle ways of making sense out of one’s experience than simply jettisoning the wisdom of Scripture and tradition. I begin with the assumption, Volf said, that the church with its 2000 years of accumulated wisdom is smarter than I am. Hear, hear!
The conference speakers were largely activists–folks like Campolo who live sacrificially in the service of others. Activists have a special place in the Christian tradition. The God of the Bible is not merely transcendent, like the impersonal God of so many traditions or the indifferent watchmaker of the deists. The God of the Bible is rather the God who acts. He is on the move. In the defining event of the Hebrew Scriptures, his people follow him through the wilderness. In the New Testament, Jesus says over and over “Follow me.” There is in Scripture an affirmation of human agency and action in the world, with no small emphasis on service to the poor.
As someone who lives in an academic community relatively removed from urban ills, I need activists in my life. Nevertheless, when I hear activists “normalizing” their particular calling, and privileging doing over being, I am reminded that action and activity need to be grounded in a larger vision. Such emphasis on social action, we might say, needs a dose of contemplative correction. Toward that end, here is a bit of wisdom from contemplatives of diverse backgrounds . . .
The nature writer John Burroughs once wrote:
I have gone a-fishing while others were struggling and groaning and losing their souls in the great social or political or business maelstrom. I know too I have gone a-fishing while others have labored in the slums and given their lives to the betterment of their fellows. But I have been a good fisherman, and I should have made a poor reformer. . . . My strength is my calm, my serenity.
Burroughs is (here) perhaps too opposed to activism and reform; vision without action is mere mysticism. But he does capture the notion that not all have the same calling. Somewhat more subtle is Edward Abbey’s famous “One last paragraph of advice.” Abbey, a student of Wallace Stegner’s, was an environmental activist and writer. He was, however, an activist who understood that activism leads to burn out if it is not grounded in something greater than itself.
One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am–a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.
Here (as elsewhere) Abbey demonizes rather than loves his enemies. In any case, the insight that comes through these passages is that reform work, by nature of it being a means to an end, inherently runs the risk not only of burnout but “loss of soul.” What is needed to balance the reform instinct, then, is something that is an end in itself. To Abbey and Burroughs this is fishing and hunting. To the Christian, of course, it is worship. Abbey’s quote has always reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s line that captures all of this more wisely and succinctly still: “A man can’t be always be defending the truth; there must be a time for him to feed on it.” (It should also be noted that in Lewis’s “sacramental mysticism,” worship would be understood broadly so as to include, rather than exclude, things like fishing and hunting.)
What to make of Campolo’s battle scars and disillusionment with the theology of shalom?
At the end of the last chapter of Orthodoxy, commonly considered his best book, Chesterton writes that the very ground for his faith is that the tradition he embraces is wiser than he is. Citing celibacy as a church teaching that he does not naturally understand, Chesterton writes, “This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.” And so “I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the church right; or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal.” Chesterton, like Coleridge before him, would put reason in its place. As Coleridge put it, “Scripture is like the sun, while reason is like the moon.” As with Volf, then, Chesterton and Coleridge alike would have us distrust our disillisionment.
Activists tend to be impatient. That is not all bad; we ought to be impatient with injustice. But that impatience needs to be grounded in a vision of human flourishing that sustains the activist’s labor. Although God at times works more slowly–more patiently–than we would wish, the Scriptural vision of Shalom Regained is a compelling example of such a vision. The confession Our World Belongs to God strikes the balance well:
With tempered impatience,
eager to see injustice ended,
we expect the Day of the Lord.
And we are confident
that the light which shines in the present darkness (1 Cor. 15)
will fill the earth when Christ appears.
Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev. 22:20)
Our world belongs to you.
The recent conference on The Opening of the Evangelical Mind, convened by sociologist Peter Berger, was outstanding. More on that soon.
Among his many memorable formulations, Berger sometimes says that India is the most religious country in the world, Sweden is the least religious, and the United States is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. This gap between the secular cultural elite and popular religious sentiment is illustrated nicely by yesterday’s New York Times review of “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything,” a new Veggie Tales feature film.
The reviewer is utterly dismissive. Meanwhile, every single reader review posted in the first 24 hours differs sharply with the reviewer.
“My kids didn’t watch Veggie Tales because of the faith-and-values plot lines,” one reader writes. “They watched them because they’re funny as hell.” As several readers pointed out, the reviewer reveals his ignorance by suggesting that the film appropriates the Pirate theme from Johnny Depp, when in fact the Veggie Tales Pirates debuted in 1999, years before Pirates of the Caribbean. One reader speculated that the review must be a hoax or a farce–after all, “no reviewer could actuallly be so colossally ignorant of a movie.”
I suspect it is only a matter of time until other readers point out that the reviewers’ dismissive description of the plot as “boilerplate” suggests that the genre of hero quests, popular since time immemorial, has somehow suddenly run its course. In any case, if the first 24 hours are any indication, comments may continue to pile up until there is enough material for an enterprising graduate student to write a dissertation on Berger’s theory about cultural elites and popular religion at the turn of the twenty-first century. Another reader writes: “Is [the reviewer] really that jaded that he needs to give a crappy review to a children’s cartoon just because he’s got an apparent issue with faith-based anything?” And another: “I think the Times needs to focus its efforts on being even more contemptuous of the faithful and ‘middle America.’ I’ve begun to enjoy the feeling of them sneering down at me–sort of in the same way I enjoyed passing my last kidney stone.”
Perhaps the readers who sums up the collective sentiment best quotes the head Pirate: “You just em don’t/em get it.”
I have not seen the film. I do not know if it is important or amusing. But the exchange in the Times is certainly both.
Classes are over, the university has held its annual advent service, and I am headed to Boston for a conference entitled The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.
Our 2007 annual report is now posted. In the report I mention meeting one year ago with a couple that supports Chesterton House, sharing with them the idea for a conference, and together with them making it happen just six months later. Ministry should never be formulaic, but it does have essential ingredients–including vision, patronage, and prayer.
We are reminded at this time of year of our dependence on both your prayer and your patronage. As I think you will see from the report, we do a lot with the resources we have, making for a good “return” on gifts given to Chesterton House. Will you join us and our mission of promoting Christian learning at Cornell by supporting us this month? See three easy ways to give for more information. And, of course, don’t forget to order one or more copies of “Heaven in a Nightclub”!
Many thanks. And during this season of gift-giving, many blessings in anticipation of the greatest of all gifts–the Christ child.