Michael Cromartie, the Island of Patmos, & Hope


I first met Michael Cromartie ten years ago at the Emerging Evangelical Intelligentsia Project Conference hosted by Peter Berger at Boston University. It was a remarkable gathering that included historians George Marsden and Mark Noll, philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, sociologists Nancy Ammerman and Michael Lindsay, and legal scholars Bill Stuntz and David Skeel among many others. When Mike spoke, I was reminded of the old Sesame Street refrain “One of these things is not like the others.” Mike was scholarly but not a professor. He had several published volumes to his name, but as an editor rather than an author. As a speaker, he was insightful and funny.

Cromartie passed away on August 28th, and initial assessments of his contribution to religion and public life are rightly rolling in from a wide array of folk:

This summer, my wife Julie and I had the serendipitous privilege of spending ten days with Mike and his wonderful wife Jenny as members of a tour group visiting biblical sites in Greece, including Athens, Corinth, Phillipi, and Thessolonica. Upon arrival it was clear that Mike was frail, his body already ravaged by years of cancer. If he turned sideways in a crowd you could lose him.

But he was still a ball of fire. On the island of Patmos, after visiting the cave where John is believed to have received his revelation recorded in last book of the Christian Scriptures, we headed up to the Monastery of St. John. It was a steep hike, and arguably Mike had no business being there. But he was not one to argue with. Especially for him, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and he was not going to miss it. With the companionship and patient encouragement of Jenny—and the tour group’s doctor—he made it up and eventually back down. Although he retired early that evening, the next day he could be seen banana boating!

Stomach cancer apparently does no favors to one’s appetite, and at meals Mike struggled to eat. He was also almost comically uninterested in matters medical. Thank God for Jenny, who was always at his side, answering questions others had about his cancer that he couldn’t answer for himself, all the while encouraging him to get as much protein as possible. Mike’s mouth was so fully engaged in lively conversation that one wonders how he ever made time to eat. Whether the topic was religion and public life or anything to do with basketball, his table was sure to have the liveliest of exchanges.

Mike was opinionated but humble. When I challenged him on his critical assessment of a mutual colleague, he stopped talking for a while and just listened. Later he thanked me—“I needed to hear that,” he said. If one of the hazards of spending a lot of time with really smart people is that you might become like them in their insistence on being correct, Mike was a rare and refreshing exception.

The Faith Angle Forum, which introduced mainstream journalists to religious ideas and scholars they might otherwise be tempted to dismiss or deride, was the brainchild of Mike’s professional life. “A number of religion reporters have told me that Mike was their ‘go-to’ person for perspective and quotable comments on evangelicalism,” Rich Mouw wrote to me. “He had genuine friendships across the political spectrum, and was gifted at bringing together people who disagreed, simply to have a productive conversation. In these engagements, he clearly was not advancing a particular agenda, but rather doing his part to create spaces for mutually respecting civil discourse.” The forums were always fascinating, and included Cornell graduates and Chesterton House advisors Elaine Howard Ecklund and Ard Louis. The byproducts of Mike’s efforts include many interesting pieces such as David Brooks’ feature on John Stott. In a manner that mirrors the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who by nature calls attention to Another, Mike spent his life humbly pointing people to the good work of others.

In addition to the great personal loss to so many friends and family, Mike’s passing raises a question: What is the future of the project to which he devoted his prodigious energy? I refer here not just to the Faith Angle Forum, but to the forum’s mission—the development and promotion of thoughtful Christian faith, which of course is also the mission of Chesterton House.

The Emerging Evangelical Intelligentsia Project seems to have fizzled without much to show for it, and many of the aforementioned scholars—whom James Turner once called the “evangelical mafia”—are now retired. Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals closed in 2014, and Books & Culture, the flagship publication of the movement, has just folded. Patronage for these sorts of projects also seems to have dried up. Later this month some of the folks associated with the movement will gather for a conference entitled “The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections upon the Past, Prospects for the Future.” The not so subtle subtext of the conference is “Is there a future?” Simply put, the trends are not encouraging.

All of which brings me back to Patmos. The trends in John’s time also were not encouraging. He wrote from prison to his fellow believers who were victims of real persecution, including at times death by burning, crucifixion, or worse. And yet the Book of Revelation is a manifesto for hope.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”  And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.  The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. (Rev. 21: 1-7)

Even and perhaps especially when there is little reason for optimism, we have plenty of reason for hope. The resurrection of Jesus, as wonderful as it was, anticipated an even greater restoration of all things that is yet to come!

Mike understood all this. He was not discouraged. His laugh endured even when his appetite did not. He knew of the New Jerusalem. In his final days, Jenny reports, he was reading (and highlighting!) an essay by Jonathan Edwards on heaven—a place where there will be no more crying or pain, where Jenny’s tears will be wiped away, and where, at a banquet table, he again will eat and drink with fullness of appetite.

Extending the Cosmic Symphony


In April 2002, the Center for Christian Study at the University of Virginia, which many of us fondly refer to as the mother ship of the Christian Study Center movement, held a conference entitled “Music & the Spheres”—a clever mash-up of Shakespeare’s “the music of the spheres” and Abraham Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty.

Having just founded Chesterton House two years earlier, I thought this a useful conference to attend. For several reasons, the weekend event also proved memorable—the speakers and performing artists wowed the crowd, the vision of “voicing creation’s praise” in all that we do came across powerfully, and, because Chesterton House had no budget whatsoever at the time, I was sleeping in my car.

Philosopher-pianist Bill Edgar and theologian-pianist Jeremy Begbie each delivered mesmerizing musically illustrated keynote addresses, the likes of which I had never before heard. Five years later we hosted Edgar and his trio’s vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd for the “Heaven in a Nightclub” concert in New York City, and around that same time we took a vanload of students to the International Arts Movement (IAM) conference, also in New York City, in part to hear Begbie. One of those students started a blog inspired by Begbie’s keynote, and another has gone on to study with him (see Stephanie’s published interview with Begbie, “Minister of Music.”)

Begbie and Edgar are the sort of Christian scholars whose work Chesterton House exists to promote, and our residents recently read and discussed Begbie’s Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music. Making music, Begbie emphasizes, begins not with expression but with discovery—with paying attention to the way the world is. The counterpoint of Bach, for example, though inventive, is rooted in acoustical realities. Music thus suggests an alternative to both modern and postmodern ways of thinking about creativity. Whereas “the impulse of modernity has been to dominate nature” and “the inclination of postmodernity is to say that our evaluation of nature is entirely a matter of human choice,” musicianship consists largely of adapting and conforming to pre-existing realities.

Begbie’s methodology is fascinating, because he asks not only what faith teaches us about music, but what music teaches us about faith. Consider, for example, the issue of freedom. In contrast to the modern view of freedom as choice or absence of restraint, a Christian view of freedom rather suggests “human flourishing is found in a responsible relation to constraints.” This is illustrated equally well by composers who have attempted to ignore constraints without much success, such as Schoenberg and Boulez, as well as by blues pianists for whom improvisation effectively builds upon a chord pattern that is already given. (Elsewhere Begbie writes of the “jazz-factor” of creation—“that spontaneous element in the world and in human life that reaches its apogee in the unforced, unpredictable creativity of Jesus Christ.”)

His point is that what we find to be true in music—that “structure enables freedom”—is true of life in the world more generally. “For the Christian, to be free is not fundamentally to enjoy some supposedly blank space before us, or to increase options, but to be at peace with God and one another and thus at home in a God-given world.” Doctrine and discipline, Chesterton once said, “may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.”

All of this has profound implications for how we live, and not least of all for relationships. The modern view of freedom is a “model of mutual exclusion—‘the more of me, the less of you.’” In this view, God’s sovereignty poses a threat to human freedom. “Much modern atheism and contemporary suspicion of Christianity,” Begbie writes, “has been driven by just such an assumption—there must be hardly a single college campus in North America or Europe where this belief will not be regularly met.”

Music, however, subverts this assumption. “We recall one string setting off another string; the more the lower string sounds, the more the upper string sounds in its distinctiveness, the more it vibrates in the way it was created to vibrate. Such is the nature of the freedom God grants: the more God is involved in our lives, the freer we shall be, liberated to be the distinctive persons we were created to be.” I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s realization that when Charles Williams died, Lewis had less, not more, of their mutual friend J.R.R. Tolkien, because Williams brought out a side of Tolkien that nobody else did.

The cosmos is a symphony and Christians are “polyphonic people” who find unity amidst real diversity. At Pentecost, the Spirit worked in people who were closed to each other due to differences in culture, language, or race, and opened them to one another by opening them to Jesus Christ and God the Father. Those present “tuned in to one another” without having their uniqueness erased. Again, the Christian way is presented as a third way: “In Pentecostal polyphony…both the suffocating individualism of modernism and the erasure of personal uniqueness of postmodernism are overcome. … I discover who I am in koinonia.

As Psalm 19 makes clear, creation itself is called to sing God’s praise. Our calling, in turn, is “to make music in the midst of creation’s own music, to voice creation’s praise. Our privilege is to extend and elaborate the praise that creation already offers to the Creator.” And again: “In the midst of this breathtaking praise of creation, the speechless paean of the cosmos to its Creator, the Christian faith dares to affirm that a creature, Homo sapiens, is given a singular calling: not simply to acknowledge the cosmic symphony, but also to enable, articulate, and extend it in fresh ways.” At their best, musicians do not merely lead us in singing on Sunday mornings; through their exploration and development of the rich but latent potentialities of the world in which we live, they model the way we all may do something similar, no matter our discipline or field. In that sense, they are most truly “worship leaders.”

We are delighted to be hosting both Jeremy Begbie and Ruth Naomi Floyd this weekend. We are grateful to all the local churches that support Chesterton House and help make events like this possible through their co-sponsorship. We are grateful also for the in-kind support of Flora Rose House and Alice Cook House, where Begbie and Floyd respectively will be hosted as scholars-in-residence and will give additional talks.

Please join us Friday and/or Saturday evening. Begbie’s address will be livestreamed. Floyd will be joined by pianist Aaron Graves and special guest Joe Salzano on sax. Both of these musically illustrated lectures are sure to wow the crowds and, more importantly, to voice creation’s praise! 

Beyond Overwhelmed


G.K. Chesterton once provocatively quipped, “It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” C.S. Lewis, explaining his “tendency to use images like play and dance for the highest things,” similarly stated “I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labor, … certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous.”

I was reminded of these clever quotes upon reading Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time (Sarah Crichton, 2014). Schulte provides an excellent overview and diagnosis of our current dysfunctional relationship to time—a sort of 21st century updating of Staffan Linder’s The Harried Leisure Class (Columbia, 1970). She describes (post)modern time as “confetti time,” or “one big chaotic burst of exploding slivers, bits, and scraps.” That’s apt; technology indeed has chopped our days—and nights—into increasingly narrower slices.

Although Shulte provides some wonderful practical advice, which is great so far as it goes, I wonder how close she is getting to the root of the matter. The problem is not just that we don’t have enough open spaces in our schedule to focus, concentrate, or meditate. There is also the qualitative problem that time has become less significant, in the literal sense of not signifying anything beyond itself.

Which brings me back to Chesterton and Lewis, for whom time had a “sacramental” dimension. According to thinkers going all the way back to Augustine, sacramental time intersects and transforms secular time. Charles Taylor takes up the theme in A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007): “‘Secular’ time is what to us is ordinary time, indeed, to us it’s just time, period. One thing happens after another, and when something is past, it’s past.” (The root of ‘secular’ is ‘saeculum,’ a long period of time roughly equivalent to a person’s age span; hence economists sometimes speak of ‘secular stagnation.’) But religious traditions often conceive of time as having a vertical as well as a horizontal dimension—kairos as well as chronos. In the Christian tradition, for example, the Incarnation of Christ constitutes a ‘temporalization of the eternal.’ Thus, as Hans Boersma once put it, “time participates in the eternity of God’s life, and it is this participation that is able to gather past, present, and future together into one.” Liturgy in general and the Eucharist in particular tell the story of the world from creation to consummation, and situate worshippers as actors within that story.

To Chesterton and Lewis, thinking of time as sacramental dignified play. Why? Because work is characterized by wages—by what one is owed—and can therefore provide no analogy to grace, which is God’s unmerited favor. In this way of thinking, the freedom of play and leisure provides a better analogy of grace, or even of heaven.

Perhaps, then, in addition to all the reasons Schulte cites, one of the reasons we struggle with working such long hours is that we have forgotten the significance of play.

 . . . . .

Longer versions of this essay were given as keynote addresses in June 2016 at the Christian Society of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies annual conference and the 15th anniversary of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville. The text of the former was published as “Labor, Leisure, and Liberty,” Christian Scholars’ Review XLVI:1, Fall 2016, and the audio of the latter may be found HERE.


David Brooks, Peter Pan, & Louie Rudin (1952-2015)


In a memorable Op-Ed piece (“The Moral Bucket List”), David Brooks ruminated on what he calls ‘the eulogy virtues,’ which he contrasts with ‘the resume virtues.’

“About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.” 

I used this column to address our graduating seniors one year ago (“Embrace Place”), and President David Skorton used it in last month’s Cornell commencement address. I found myself turning back to it this week because of Louie.

Louie Rudin, Chesterton House Property Manager in residence, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, June 7th, not long after his 63rd birthday. He was found in his room by some of the other Chesterton House residents on their way to church.

– – – – – 

Louie was a lively presence, exuding contagious joy and laughter. He served on Young Life staff since graduating from Cornell almost 40 years ago, and though Young Life was the perfect vehicle for his skills and interests, his service to others was never merely a function of his job. He simply loved young people. And he modeled a way of being young at heart that marveled people half his age. 

Louie led many young people to faith in Christ, and discipled and encouraged many more. In addition to his impact on youth, Louie was also a fixture on the Cornell and Ithaca College campuses for over a generation. To say he had a positive impact on a lot of people would be a gross understatement. He was always available, always interruptible. He touched many, many, many lives, and he will continue to serve as an inspiration for all who were privileged to know him. 

– – – – – 

Louie had a vast repertoire of stories from his many kooky capers. I have a story of my own about Louie—one that speaks volumes about his character. 

When Louie applied to be a chaplain at Cornell (which is not a job, but an affiliation granted to many persons from all religions), his application was denied. I served on the committee that made the determination. I didn’t agree with the decision but got outvoted. Although the stated reason for the determination was that Young Life is focused on high school youth rather than college students, it was also abundantly clear that the committee chair did not appreciate Louie’s desire to introduce people to God. You’d think it’s the sort of thing that might be in a chaplain’s job description! But no—this faculty member thought that young people should be “free” to create or discover their own conception of God. (Never mind that, according to recent scholarship, “proselytizing” is the single most important variable in the emergence of liberal democracy and is arguably also “the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations.” This scholar apparently couldn’t be bothered with scholarship.) 

Here’s the thing: Louie was disappointed but not bitter. He expressed frustration to me in the immediate aftermath, and then he never raised the matter again. Ever. That, I would suggest, is part of the lesson of Louie’s life. It’s not just that we could all be a bit more joyful (though we could), but we would do well to let disappointments roll off of us and not drag us down. Come to think of it, those two things are surely related. 

In God’s providence, this rejection actually may have released Louie to continue doing what he did best without institutional restraint. He was not an Organization Man. Even at Chesterton House, as long as the plumbing worked, I never required him to attend staff meetings. One of the last emails I received from him began “A special thanks to your sensitivity to my crazy schedule and the lack of necessity for my attendance at multiple meetings.” Yep. Some of us are called to build or work within institutions. Louie wasn’t. (Kudos to Young Life for accommodating his unique genius for so many years.)

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Speaking of the Louie-ness of Louie, one thing that has stood out to me more than ever during the long days since his death is the appropriateness of his name. To me, there’s something about “Louie” that sounds like a grade-school-aged kid you might not want your child to play with (an impression based not so loosely on my own childhood next-door neighbor). And there was that element to him—not just youthful, but utterly unpredictable…not governed by the rules of polite society. But I’m also struck how the single, first name was always sufficient for recognition. He was like a Brazilian soccer star: Nobody ever seemed to say, “Louie Who?”

–  – – – – 

At Chesterton House, Louie fixed leaky roofs, built bunk beds, and inspired all around him to lead lives of faithful service to God in Christ—all at the same time. And he made people laugh—did we mention that? 

When Louie first arrived at Chesterton House, I steered him toward the caretaker cottage. It’s cozy and cute and a stand-alone structure that affords some privacy. He might want to stay there, I thought, because—well—that’s where I would want to stay. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m kind of an extrovert.” (Ya think?) “I’ll just live in the house.” A single then, Louie? “No, no, I’d actually prefer a double.” And so at the ripe young age of 62, Louie entered fully in, yet again, to the life of undergraduate students. 

When Louie told me last month he was ready to move into a single, I told him he could have the largest single in the house. “Actually,” he responded, “I’d like Room 6.” Ah, yes, the famous Room 6—that would be the smallest room in the entire house. It’s basically a closet with a window. So he whipped up a loft and made use of the entire place…all 87 square feet.

– – – – –

Louie lived simply, with one notable exception. When I generated an employment contract that provided for one parking space, I might as well have been poking my finger in a leaking dam. Pulling into the driveway of Chesterton House this week, the first thing that catches your eye is his Volvo wagon…and his cargo van…and above all his 1966 Ford Ranch wagon. Three times the allotted number—not bad, for Louie. We recently found “Louie’s Lifetime Automobile Registry”: Over 50 cars, mostly from the ‘50s, ‘60s & 70s. Mostly Fords. What abourt Volvos, you ask? Well, the list is over 15 years old!

I expect Louie will be missed not only on campus but also at Hunts’ Auto, AutoZone, and Ithaca Foreign Car Service. Despite being a Cornell alumnus, he was more at home in a car shop than on campus. Ironically, his cars seemed to be in the shop so much you would see him walking all over town, traversing the hill that connects town to gown. He carried nothing with him. No books, no knapsack. Just his tattered baseball cap.

Speaking of which, Louie was the only sixty-something person I knew who could get away with wearing a baseball cap backwards and not look like a complete dork—or, better, not look like he was trying to be someone that he wasn’t.

– – – – –

I never spoke to Louie about Peter Pan. I don’t know that he ever gave Peter Pan a moment’s thought. And yet it’s hard not to ponder the connection. Despite the fact that he had visibly aged in recent years, there remained something almost preternaturally youthful about Louie—a resistance to aging for which Peter Pan is our common cultural referent.

Although Peter Pan is commonly associated with irresponsibility, Cornell history department chair Barry Strauss tells us we have misunderstood him. Peter Pan is a paradox, he says, and he is at least half Christian (named for St. Peter). Pan author J.M. Barrie “never preached eternal adolescence”—he adored childhood but “came down on the side of adult responsibility.” Peter Pan, Strauss says, is best understood as “untamed but upright.” That’s Louie, no?

David Brooks says that the people he most admires laugh musically while looking out for others. Barry Strauss says that Peter Pan simultaneously makes us long for childlikeness while sending us on our way toward adulthood and responsibility. These are the images that frame my memories of Louie.

– – – – –

I can’t say I have known anyone else quite like him. And isn’t that the beauty of God’s creation? Seven billion people, and none quite like Louie.

Louie is now in the unveiled presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. He has fought the good fight and finished the race. Today we join with others in the community and around the world giving thanks to God for Louie. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Ps 116:15)

We also ask for your prayers. The men of Chesterton House draw close to one another, and Louie drew close to many. His absence hangs heavily. The house is very quiet—quieter than it ever would be when he was there. The silence is loud. His absence will be felt to the same degree that his presence was felt. Which is to say, a lot. 

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Obituary: Ithaca Journal

Memorial Service: Vineyard Church of Ithaca, 23 Cinema Drive, Saturday, June 13 at 2pm 

Reception following the service will be at Chesterton House

Memorial Donations: At the request of alumni, and with permission of the family, a Louie Rudin Memorial Gift Fund has been set up at Chesterton House. You may donate online via Cornell and designate your gift in memory of Louie. Memorial Donations may also be made to Young Life



Non-Sectarianism Reconsidered


On April 27th, 1865 New York’s Governor Fenton signed a bill establishing Cornell University as the state’s land grant institution, which, from its founding, has been co-ed and “non-sectarian.” As universities across the nation continue to wrestle with what range of religious belief and behavior should be tolerated on campus, this weekend’s sesquicentennial celebration at Cornell [April 24-27] is a good time to revisit the 19th-century notion of non-sectarianism.

“The principle [sic] danger… encountered by the friends of education,” wrote Ezra Cornell, “and by all lovers of true liberty is that which may arise from sectarian strife.”Cornell co-founder and inaugural president A.D. White similarly advocated for “non-sectarian science.” Religion’s “interference” with science, he said, always and everywhere results in “direst evils,” while science’s interference with religion invariably results in good.

But White was wrong. He was wrong about the past—no educated person believed the world was flat at the time of Columbus; medieval Christianity served as a bridge, not a barrier, to modern science; and so on. And he was wrong about the future—he predicted that science would generate consensus in matters of morality and religion. “The really puzzling historical problem,” says historian Mark Noll, “is how any credibility at all still clings to the notion of warfare between Science and Theology.” 

Like the warfare metaphor, the ideal of non-sectarianism is also problematic.

The bill that Governor Fenton signed, drafted by then-senator White, affirmed “persons of every religious denomination, or of no religious denomination shall be equally eligible to all offices and appointments.” Likewise, Cornell stated “all students must be left free to worship God, as their conscience shall dictate.” So far, so good—this aspect of non-sectarianism is a step forward for civilization.

But non-sectarianism also has a dark side. Far from facilitating robust religious pluralism, the ethos of non-sectarianism often assumes that religion is (or ought to be) a merely private affair, thereby requiring students and scholars to check their religious identity at the classroom door. For all the talk of a supposed conflict between science and religion, the enduring problem today is poignant in the more value-laden humanities and social sciences, where secular ways of thinking about meaning, value, and purpose are privileged over religious ways of thinking. To paraphrase Mr. Cornell, we might say that the principal danger encountered by friends of education and lovers of liberty now arises from campaigns to eliminate any and all “sectarian strife.”

This shouldn’t be altogether surprising—glimpses of the problem were apparent from the beginning. When A.D. White spoke of “a conflict between two epochs in the evolution of human thought—the theological and the scientific,” the message was clear: people of faith are primitive. And when Ezra Cornell thundered “From these halls, sectarianism must be forever excluded,” it didn’t occur to him that nobody considers themselves to be sectarian. The exclusion of “sectarianism” thus comes down to the privileging of some persons and perspectives over others.

All of which is to say: non-sectarianism has not always been a force for inclusion.

In some respects, we have come a long way since 1865. Following World War I, we gave up on science as a source of moral and religious consensus. Since 9/11, sociologists have largely abandoned the secularization thesis—the idea that as societies modernize they inevitably become less religious. Fundamentalism, at home and abroad, suggests that pressuring people to privatize their faith is itself a form of violence that usually provokes an undesirable reaction.

Finally, following postmodernism, we are learning that we are all sectarians of sorts—that there is no single, objective “view from nowhere.” (As G.K. Chesterton once put it, “there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.”) At least I hope we are learning this.

As Cornell celebrates 150 years, my hope is that we can finally let go of 19th-century ways of thinking about religious pluralism, and move toward a more robust, multi-faith pluralism in which students and scholars are free to pursue the life of the mind in the fullness of their humanity. A good place to start would be to acknowledge the non-neutrality of non-sectarianism. 

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This article was published simultaneously on Patheos


Announcing Purchase of Residential Facility!


Dear Friends of Chesterton House,

Exactly two years ago, we announced our first ever capital campaign with a goal of raising $1,350,000 in gifts and pledges by January 2014, including $1,000,000 for a residential facility and $300,000 for the courses initiative. At seven times annual contributions revenue, this was a very ambitious goal.

As we reported last winter, Chesterton House received a most generous pledge of $1,000,000 from Susan ’81 and Greg Gianforte for the purchase of a house. After a very long six months of negotiation with the owner of the residential facility we have been renting for four years, it is our great privilege and pleasure to report that Chesterton House is now the proud owner of a large Tudor mansion located at 115 The Knoll, Ithaca, NY!

We are very grateful to the Gianfortes for their visionary gift to support Christian living and learning at Cornell, and we invite all of you to join with us in giving thanks to God for this great provision, which will benefit students at Cornell for generations to come.  

It is a great privilege to serve the Cornell community in this way, and we appreciate the support of all those who have helped us get to this milestone over the last 14 years. We invite you to join with us in celebrating God’s goodness and provision, for with the purchase of this house, we now have the assurance that the residential ministry is here to stay. Thanks be to God!

Karl E. Johnson
Executive Director

Embrace Place


When you attend a funeral and hear a eulogy, David Brooks recently wrote, what people tend to talk about is not the deceased’s accomplishments but rather their character. “Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.” This sort of growth in wisdom doesn’t just happen, he adds. It requires cultivation. The educator’s task is thus “to cultivate this ground—imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.” Here at Chesterton House, we offered graduating seniors in the Class of 2014 a brief meditation on Brooks’s contrast between “the way of the resume” and “the way of the eulogy.” 

The last four years, we said, have been largely about your resume—what job you will land, what grad school you might attend, or what starting salary you hope to negotiate.  It’s not easy to get off this treadmill or outside this frame of reference. Now more than ever everyone is asking, ‘what are you going to do?’

Brooks’s column raises important questions about the relationship of our work to our person—questions similar to those raised many years ago by Thomas Merton in No Man Is an Island:

“It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.

It is only when we are detached from ourselves that we can be at peace with ourselves. We cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us as we seek to live a myth we have created for ourselves. It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say, to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.

Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.” (The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1955)

And so we asked students, not ‘what are going to do?’ but ‘who are you going to be?’ What would it look like for you to value character as much or more than achievement? Or, put differently, what will be said about you in your eulogy? 

There is surely no one right answer to these questions, but given the difficulty young people have making commitments to institutions that serve as carriers of faith such as church and marriage, one piece of advice we offered was to embrace place. Whether Manhattan or Madagascar (one of our students is going there to study lemurs!), look for places you can live for at least a few years at a time. 

The way of the resume says place doesn’t matter because it’s a means to an end. What matters most is simply the job, the internship, or the experience. In part for this reason, you are members of the most mobile and transient generation in the history of the world.

If place is merely a means to an end, however, the same will soon be true of the persons of that place, who will eventually be reduced to “contacts.” At this point, what matters most has been turned upside down. Recall also that in Scripture wandering is a curse. When in Genesis 4 Cain kills Abel, God tells Cain, “You shall be a wanderer.” Cain will not settle or dwell. He will have no rest, no peace, no home. In short, no shalom. 

Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier observed the “curse” of wandering in everyday life. Whereas children from happy homes tend find a warm welcome wherever they go, he said, the child from an unhappy home “looks everywhere for some other place, leading a wandering existence, incapable of settling down anywhere.” Of unhappy persons, Tournier says, “the whirl of activities with which they fill their lives is a compensation for a profound dissatisfaction in regard to the quality of life they are living.” (A Place For You, Harper & Row, 1968)  (Perhaps it is one of the strangest achievements of modernity that wandering has become a virtue!)

And so we invited the Class of 2014 to meditate on this profound connection between transience and dissatisfaction in light of faith in Jesus Christ. Whereas the way of the resume wants to make your work a stairway to heaven, Jesus surprises us and manifests heaven on earth before our very eyes (Col 1). The result is that we are free. Our person enjoys a degree of detachment from our performance, and our work emanates not from compulsion but from our identity as adopted children of God.  

In keeping with Brooks’s observation that character requires cultivation, Chesterton House implements this vision of vocation through both courses and residential living-learning centers. One of the courses we will offer in the fall is “Identity, Community, and Vocation.” And our residential communities for men and women are designed to be places where students can experience real relationship, true community, and the freedom that comes from grounding one’s identity in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Second Wind Gives Men Second Chances


A few years ago, Carmen Guidi read a book that changed his life and, in turn, the lives of many others—from homeless men, women, and children to university students and professors.

Carmen is a hometown boy. He lives just outside the village of Newfield, NY, where he runs Guidi’s Collision Service, a family business started by his father. “If I’m twenty miles from home,” he admits, “I get nervous.”

If he wanted to remain comfortable, Carmen never should have read David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. “You and I can continue with business as usual in the Christian life and in the church as a whole,” Platt writes, “enjoying success based on the standards defined by the culture around us. Or we can take an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed him and really obeyed him.”

Radical woke me up big time,” Carmen says. “Twenty-six thousand children die everyday? Are you kidding me? Is that real?” Carmen was shocked, inspired, and motivated to do something—anything—but didn’t know where to start. So he phoned Platt. Although getting through to a bestselling author and megachurch pastor isn’t the simplest of tasks, when Carmen determines to do something, he doesn’t give up.

Platt’s advice? “Get out of your context.”

In Carmen’s case, that would mean getting out of Newfield. More specifically, Platt recommended travel- ing to Haiti to assist with ongoing relief efforts following the massive earthquake in 2010. This wasn’t exactly the advice Carmen was hoping for. “I don’t do airplanes,” he responded. That soon changed.

In February 2011, at the age of 46, Carmen flew to Haiti. It was his first time on a plane, and his first time going much of anywhere beyond Newfield. While traveling from the airport to his lodging by bus, Carmen stared out the window and wept. Witnessing the destruction and despair, he says, “I bawled like a baby.” In addition to distributing food, Carmen assisted with the construction of a school and a small orphanage.

One week later, back at home, Carmen wondered how he could continue helping the homeless. Like many people, he was unaware of a homeless problem closer to home. When he began volunteering at a local shelter, however, he heard about “the jungle”—a tent-city settlement of sorts on Ithaca’s west end, just five miles from his home.

When Carmen first visited the jungle, bringing pizza and blankets, he found dozens of men, women, and children of all ages. Some were transient and some were longtime ‘residents.’ Some had jobs and some did not. Some had substance abuse issues but many did not. It was hard to make generalizations about them, except that they were disproportionately men and disproportionately veterans. Although some reported experiencing a degree of community in the settlement, the environment was generally degrading and not at all conducive to human flourishing. The jungle was also an intractable problem for city and county officials—perennial problems included open fires, sanitation issues, and occasional violence.

Carmen didn’t initially set out to end homelessness in Ithaca. He simply set out to befriend a few men. As for helping them, his approach was unconventional. Believing that everyone wants to do something useful, Carmen invited the men to do volunteer work for others. Many responded, eventually contributing hundreds of hours at Ithaca’s new Thrifty Shopper and elsewhere.

Carmen also believes in the power of faith. That’s not to say he expects those he helps to share his faith. But God cares for the poor, Carmen says, and so too should we. He finds inspiration in the New Testament passage that speaks of the risen Christ as blessing those who fed him when he was hungry, gave him hospitality when he was a stranger, and clothed him in his time of need. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” Jesus said, “you did for me.’” For Carmen, this passage is a manifesto for service to the poor.

Among the men Carmen befriended, Dan was especially responsive. They talked together, volunteered together, and read the Bible together. Above all, Dan wanted what Carmen wanted him to want—to get out of the jungle. Those who work with the most needy among us know that such responsiveness is what sustains hope amidst all the disappointments, failures, and setbacks. Carmen was going to get Dan out of the jungle.

When Carmen traveled to Honduras for another short-term missions trip, however, disaster struck. While Carmen was away, Dan hanged himself.

That was it. Carmen cried out in anger to God, asking the most basic questions any of us can ask—“Who am I? What am I here for?” All the interest, care, and concern that had been percolating in Carmen since reading Radical boiled over. “Dear God,” he cried, “I want to do something, but all I know how to do is paint cars.”

Carmen began knocking on doors—social services, mental health services, and housing agencies. Despite various support systems, he found that arranging housing for jungle residents was “almost impossible.” He once spent an entire week at the Department of Social Services trying to arrange housing for a mother and her baby— without success. Witnessing homelessness and despair in Haiti was unnerving, but witnessing it within walking distance of home shook Carmen to his core. He began to wonder aloud, “Am I really in America?”

The problem, Carmen discovered, isn’t money. The problem is that the system is so complicated that homeless men and women can’t navigate it without committed advocacy and assistance. His story brings to mind the trenchant insight of Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Carmen spent much of 2012 helping jungle residents secure housing, until just six men remained. Many people believe that some choose to be homeless. Although it’s true that some men prefer the jungle to a homeless shelter, where they have little autonomy, that is not the same as wanting to be homeless. After Carmen gained their trust, even men who initially said they chose to be homeless admitted that they wanted out. “It’s all about trust,” Carmen says.

With all other alternatives exhausted and winter fast approaching, Carmen did what he felt obligated to do. Each time a man was willing to leave the jungle, he purchased a camper and hooked it up on his property—until there were six. “He took them onto his own property,” says Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick, “something that was incredible and, in my understanding, unprecedented in Ithaca. For the first time in literally three generations, the jungle was empty.”

That was one year ago—Christmas, 2012. If that were the end of the story, it would be impressive enough. But that is not the end. In fact, Carmen was just getting started. In 2013, Carmen founded Second Wind Cottages. In close collaboration with Community Faith Partners, a local non-profit organization, he is donating seven acres of land behind his shop and spearheading an army of volunteers to build a small village of winterized one-room cottages. Why build cottages when a dorm-style facility would be more economical? Because it’s not just about putting a roof over their heads. It’s about dignity, and having a cottage of one’s own is actually an attractive alternative to these men.

Constructing the cottages is a daunting task. One has to deal with architects, engineers, building codes, permits, the health department, and of course funding. “I was scared stiff,” Carmen says. Nevertheless, when he determines to do something, he doesn’t give up.

On Saturday, September 21st, 2013, after all the permitting and permissions, Community Faith Partners held a Care Day on site. Volunteers descended by the pickup truck load—one hundred and twenty of them, from local contractors to university students. Since then, thirty local businesses have contributed material and services, including a local architect, civil engineer, lawyer, and construction manager. Fifteen churches and four local artists also support the effort. On December 1st, just twelve weeks after breaking ground, Second Wind held an open house to show off the cottages, which are very nearly complete.

Second Wind Cottages, named by one of the residents, will create a healthy and humanizing alternative to homelessness for men in transition. Residents will pay what they can to live there. Drugs and alcohol will not be allowed. Bible studies and life-skill classes will be offered but not required. Eventually, after two more construction phases, the plan is to have eighteen cottages, a community center, and a social worker on site.

Second Wind Cottages is not exactly a success story. It’s more nearly a faith story. It’s a work in progress and always will be. There will continue to be disappointments, failures, and setbacks of all sorts, and Carmen knows this. “There is nothing romantic about this work,” he says. He would know. The baby with fetal alcohol syndrome that he and his wife Nan adopted from the jungle serves as a daily reminder that the problems associated with homelessness have no quick fixes.

The work of Second Wind Cottages will never be complete because it’s not ultimately about the cottages. It’s about transforming lives. In concept, Second Wind is not so much a settlement as a launching pad—a place of developing healthy habits and useful skills in constructive community. At the open house, pastor Chuck Tompkins put it this way: “Guidi’s Collision Service is full of banged-up cars that leave in much better shape than they arrived. So it is with the men who live here. Our hope and prayer is that through mentoring and the opportunity to experience transformed lives, they too will depart in much better condition.”

David Platt dared his readers to consider the consequences of believing and obeying the Jesus of the Bible. For Carmen, this literally has meant housing the homeless. By giving a second chance to others, however, this Newfield native has discovered a second wind also for himself. When many forty-something men are wondering why they haven’t yet achieved the American Dream of wealth and comfort, Carmen Guidi is redefining the dream. Although he claims not to have cared much about others until recently, today he insists with all the force of his conviction, “There is no such thing as a homeless person. There are people who happen to be homeless, but there are reasons they are homeless. We need to deal with those reasons.”

What can a guy who only knows how to paint cars do for those who happen to be homeless? When he is willing to give of himself—his time, his friendship, and his presence—the answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.


Several students associated with the Chesterton House ministry have contributed to the volunteer Care Days at Second Wind Cottages during the fall 2013 semester.

This article appeared simultaneously in the December 2013 edition of the Herald Examiner.  

Every Good Endeavor


In “Leaf: By Niggle,” JRR Tolkien tells the story of a man frustrated by his work. Niggle aspired to paint a beautiful tree set in a forest against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, but he was never very productive and only completed a single leaf. Niggle’s problems with productivity included not only his perfectionism but also his kindness to neighbors in their time of need. When it came time for Niggle to go on a “necessary long trip”–i.e., when he died and went to heaven–he was astonished to find “the Tree, his Tree, finished.” Although unfinished in the old country, in this new country the tree was real, complete, and permanent.
Tolkien was Niggle. Although we may think of The Lord of the Rings as a great success–indeed, it was selected as the U.K.’s “best-loved novel” (ahead of works by Austen, Lewis, Milne, and Rowling)–Tolkien did not experience it that way. He experienced deep discouragement and even despair over ever finishing the project. Before it was a best seller, The Lord of the Rings was a multivolume thorn in Tolkien’s tender flesh.
This story, used by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf to frame their recent book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (Dutton, 2012), touches people of all ages for the simple reason that work frustrates. We aspire to accomplish, succeed, and make a difference, but yet often fall short. What sustains us in times of discouragement? What sustained Tolkien was a vision of the world to come. “If the God of the Bible exists,” Keller and Alsdorf write, “and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavor, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”
The relationship of faith and work–how Sunday connects to Monday–is a fascinating topic. When asked, the most common connections people make include ethics (faith as the grounds of fairness and right action), evangelism (work as an opportunity to share faith), and charity (work as an opportunity to earn and donate money). Although potentially helpful so far as they go, these ways of connecting faith and work are insufficient because they are too instrumental; by valuing work primarily as a means toward some other end, they end up actually devaluing work itself.
This is ultimately a theological error. Consider creation: God brought order out of chaos, began filling and subduing the earth, and then called us to continue the process. “When we take fabric and make a piece of clothing, when we push a broom and clean up a room, when we use technology to harness the forces of electricity, when we take an unformed, naive human mind and teach it a subject, when we teach a couple how to resolve their relational disputes, when we take simple materials and turn them into a poignant work of art–we are continuing God’s work of forming, filling, and subduing.” Bringing order out of chaos connects our work to God’s work integrally and not just instrumentally.  
Consider also how sin and grace help us think about work. To those tempted to think that faith ought always to make a difference at work (a logic that often begets Christian enclaves), Keller and Alsdorf respond, “The doctrine of sin means that believers are never as good as our true worldview should make us. Similarly, the doctrine of grace means that unbelievers are never as messed up as their false worldview should make them.” There is no Christian way of doing math or masonry because that is not how God works in the world. God gives gifts generously to all his image-bearers, and work by all persons may thus serve as “a vehicle for God’s loving provision of the world.”  
For students, this vision for the integration of faith and work is not only of future value. Quoting Mark Noll, Keller and Alsdorf point out that God himself “made possible the development of sciences . . . provided the raw material for politics, economics, sociology, and history, [and] lies behind all artistic and literary possibilities.” This is the vision of faith and learning that undergirds Chesterton House, and the reason we selected Every Good Endeavor for our summer reading project. We discussed the book at length at our recent retreat, and it was a fitting way to kick off the new semester.
That is not to say it will make the semester easy. “Leaf: By Niggle” is a powerful story precisely because we are all Niggle; we are all frustrated at times by our work or studies. But in the midst of such frustrations, how helpful it is to know that there is a True Reality toward which we are laboring! It is liberating to realize that, like Niggle–and like Tolkien–none of us yet can see the full value of our present work.

Chesterton House Painting