Another Report from the Trenches

Editorial by Art Dewey
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From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 4
July – August 2017
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Often around this time of year I share my latest findings from the front lines. Before the strains of Pomp and Circumstance fade, the recycled glitter gets swept away, the rented caps and gowns are returned in a frazzled state, and the sonorous advice from visiting Magi evaporates from the made-over basketball arena, I try to focus on what I have learned from my students.

One student, in particular, has been a singular concern. From his responses in class and his mid-term essays I knew him to be an intelligent and thoughtful student. Yet, only a month before finals did I get a chance to speak with him in some depth. I learned that he came to class often having worked an entire night shift in a bakery. That explained his disheveled appearance and sleepy eyes. I saw him again and again fighting back sleep. But there was something deeper going on. He had grown up in a traditional, somewhat conservative Catholic home. But his intellectual trek had taken him light years away from what Cincinnatians call “the Westside mentality.” He was not willing to submit to the status quo; he refused to cancel his questions about life. In short, he was acting quite naturally as a young adult and thus was frowned upon by most of his family.

That afternoon he shared with me something he reiterated in his final essays. He was stuck in a quicksand of apathy. He felt constrained, even “fated” towards his life and future. Intellectually he knew that life was dynamic and flowing, yet he could not see any real change happening in his own life. And this unnerved him dramatically. He had taken seriously what other theology profs had taught, learned to slice and dice the Gospel of Mark. But somehow it all left him cold. He did not see what he was learning to have any relevance for his life on this planet. And so he sat with me one afternoon worried that his heart was not ignited by what his head was working out. He felt saddened by the effort that seemed to lead nowhere.

So I listened and suggested that he make another trip into the interior. Use the final essays as a way to reflect seriously on where life was leading him. Engage the fragments of the early Jesus traditions by taking into consideration what countered the domination gospel of Rome.

So he retraced our steps in the readings and classes. He patiently reconsidered the words and deeds of the historical Jesus as well as the letters of the historical Paul. He confessed that the fragmentary evidence from these two human figures threw him a lifeline. He saw that each voice had something to say to a world that was held in the clutch of suffering and slavery. While these men “were not saints,” they both “found hope in a hopeless world.” They used “their imagination to escape a cruel fate.”

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This appreciation of Jesus and Paul led him to begin to “find alternatives to what appear to be lose-lose scenarios.” He went on to explain his discovery:

I had once thought that the future had the capacity for change, but that, ultimately, it was predictable. This new hope gave me an edge. Time is not the only thing that facilitates change in my life. This new hope is a creative one, based not on the failures and fatalistic structures of the past, Rather, it is outside expectations. It is something that is found in places our imperfect world forgets about.

He then pointed out that such interruptions in the ordinary run of things are often snuffed out by institutional conformity or personal corruption. He ends with the question:How can such a dangerous idea survive?

I rejoiced when I read those words. I could identify with his search and his breakthrough. I know how precious this is. He has joined a curious company that circles the planet and extends throughout time. Life will not be easier for him. But it will now be interesting and open. He has discovered how the tradition of hope runs forward, not in some predestined line or lane, but zig zags unexpectedly,beyond projection or surmise. He has become a co-conspirator with all those before him who have dared to live on the edge of things. He will give heart to those who follow him.

My student touches upon what Helga Nowotny calls the “cunning of uncertainty,” the very basis of genuine science and critical thought. It is precisely out of the unknown that we draw out breath. We forget that the future stands within our present confusion and fears. We attempt new things precisely because we are lured by more than what we observe to be “the given.” We begin to see that the world does not work because it was always “thus and so”but, at the heart of it all, it is a bewildering and wonderful mystery that defies the conventional and the trodden.

So I shall attend what seems to be my “millionth”graduation, will search the line of students for those I have taught and have surprised me. And I shall be grateful, remembering that once more a student had the courage to face what was said to be inevitable and was patient enough to detect another way to live our life together.

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

The Fourth R 30-4

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