My morning commute from Newton to Boston provides the context.
There is something so peaceful atop the hill at the Andover-Newton Theological Seminary where I currently reside. I not only hear the birds chirping but I see them fluttering about in the tree right outside my window. As I drink my morning coffee meditating on the words of Thurman, I enter the world on my own terms. My favorite part of this routine is when I step out of the front door in the morning, that first deep inhale of the crisp New England alerts my spirit to the start of the day. In front of me I can see for miles the green (and now in the fall the changing colors) of hills posing as mountains. Even on a gray New England morning, there is something vibrant about the color of the world atop that hill.
As I descend down the steep hill I past a stone bench marked for a recently deceased student it proclaims to the world that he, “Walked these grounds seeking truth and peace.” I often wonder what those who walk the grounds below this hill are seeking. Aside from this I am moved by the beauty of the magnificent trees which seem to claim the landscape for themselves reminding me that I am just a visitor to this place. And along side the tress I see those beautiful New England homes; large, but not obnoxious, luxurious, but not gaudy. In one home a beautiful library is visible through the third floor bay window. In another home a beautiful painting reminiscent of Thomas Cole hangs on the wall in an ornately decorated dining room, the scene is a perfect picture framed by a large window with drawn back curtains. The lawns are perfectly mowed the flowers in the gardens perfectly placed. In the ample driveways the cars complete the picture of success. In my morning commute I have come to fall in love with this scene. It is peace, it is success, it is good.
As I descend from the hill to catch the T and enter into the world of the “living,” I am never alone. I often have the companionship of voices in my ear. Usually, I am listening to either a Spanish on-the-go lesson or a meditation by Howard Thurman, but sometimes I listen to NPR. On one such morning as I was admiring the stylishly placed solar panels on top of a house that I hadn’t noticed before a story came on NPR about the growing inequality in America. I turned my attention to the news. A pain in my stomach emerged as the story progressed from a cold economic analysis to a human interest piece focused on a struggling family from a neighborhood I grew up in Atlanta, Ga. The story first remarked on the increase in crime and unemployment in the neighborhood before cutting to a women who’s weary voice cried out, “We are struggling to survive and I don’t know if we will make it.” This women’s voice sounded like my mother’s voice. That cadence was all too familiar, the combination of anger, shame, and hopelessness which with dutiful effort I’ve tried to exorcise from my own utterances.
In this moment my present environment felt like a sick illusion. How could it be that this world of peace and beauty, of order and plenty exist along side a world of chaos and struggle? How could I exist in both of them? Now, of course I am not the first who has struggled with such dissonance. Cornel West remarks upon this as the pure absurdity of the black experience in America. Du Bois refers to this as the accented Double Consciousness experienced by the educated negro. So my concern here is not to lament about this or to pretend that I am pointing out something new. My question is more of a theological nature. How do we live in this world and not be of it?
To push deeper. I know that my current circumstance, being a student at Boston University, being a Christian soon to enter a seminary, places me as part of the system of ideas that have created the absurdity which I experience. Put in a different way, the same ideas that I am being exposed to in my current circumstance whether explicitly in the classroom or implicitly by virtue of my participation in various institutions are the same ideas which can be seen as responsible for a great deal of human suffering. The ideas of of which I speak include but are not limited to prominence, achievement, hierarchy, recognition, acquisition, individualism, striving, education, work, labeling, definition, and a myriad of others which our systems stand upon that go far deeper then just those things like capitalism, dominance, patriarchy, hegemony, and racism which are easily identified and argued over by academics. Further, ideas within Christianity like sin, salvation, discipleship, denominationalism, or even the very idea of a church itself can add to as opposed to alleviate the ills of the world.
To push home the theological point, if I am of flesh and it is this decaying flesh which is the source of my brokenness then how can I ever rely upon it for my salvation. Many would say that I can’t and resort to ideas like grace or God’s general benevolence as the answer. However, in a world of action where God seems to be neutral in many of the affairs of men, this answer becomes hard to swallow. The simple question I rise is this: How does one use the tools of a corrupted system (whether a system of ideas, institutions, or our existence itself) to fix the ills created by that system? This is the bone I shall be doggedly chasing while I remain a stranger in this foreign land but I have to admit my wrestling with it here, now, in this place, is beautifully absurd.