Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them “children.” Hannah Arendt
One of the wonderfully gratuitous features of my early years as a college professor was the opportunity to teach regularly with a couple of master teachers. During the first decade of my teaching career at Providence College, I taught on an interdisciplinary Honors Development of Western Civilization team every year with two such colleagues. Rodney was a teaching icon from the English department who now, a few years after his untimely passing, has a tree on campus, a seminar room in the brand new humanities building, and an annual lecture named after him. One of the most dynamic and engaging pedagogues I have ever encountered, I remember telling Jeanne shortly after meeting Rodney in the middle nineties in my first year at Providence College that “when I grow up, I want to be Rodney.”
The other member of our teaching triumvirate, Ray, is an extraordinary professor out of the History department. He is also one of the flat-out finest human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing. This coming spring Ray and I will be teaching a colloquium together for the third time the past four years, and class fondly referred to by students as “Nazi Civ.” I am a far better teacher and human being for having spent so many years in the classroom in the company of these outstanding colleagues.
Because we spent so much time together in and out of the classroom, the three of us got to know each others business over the semesters a bit more than is typical between professional colleagues. We often spoke of our children; Rodney’s and Ray’s were young adults at the time, while mine were in high school and junior high. One morning before class as we were getting coffee in the break room, Rodney was bemoaning the fact that he had returned home from work the previous day at 5:00 in the afternoon at the very same time that his son, a twenty-something who was still living at home, emerged bleary-eyed from his basement bedroom for the first time that day. As we compared notes about the shortcomings and failures of our respective offspring, Ray, who I had always pegged as the perfect father and husband, grew reflective. “I’ve heard so many parents talk about the wonders of parenthood, how raising children is such a privilege, how their children’s growing up years were the best years of their lives,” he said. “I guess I must have missed that.” Preach it, Ray. For all of our politically correct claims about the wonders of child rearing, all parents know that Hannah Arendt’s “tiny barbarians” comment is absolutely true. Civilizing barbarians is hard work.
The word “barbarian” is from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), the term Greeks used to refer to anyone who was not Greek. To the refined but xenophobic Greek ear, the sounds coming out of a non-Greek speaker’s mouth sounded like “bar, bar, bar”—hence, “barbarian.” We would call such persons “blahblahblahrians.” The wider connotation of “barbarian” is simply someone or something that does not fit into the expected categories, abide by the accepted rules, or behave according to agreed-upon standards. That description certainly fits children and a lot more—I frequently call our dachshunds barbarians when they pee or take a dump in the middle of the floor, just as I would probably call a human being a barbarian (and worse) if they did the same thing.
And yet there is something exhilarating about having barbarians in our midst. A world without barbarians, without unfamiliar hordes pressing against the outer walls of our holy-of-holies comfort zones, is a world that eventually would stagnate into a smug status quo. I realized this past semester, as I do in varying degrees every semester, that one of the regular features of what I do as a teacher is to let the barbarians loose on the civilized yet unexamined thought processes of my students. Philosophy is an inherently barbarian discipline because it’s entire raison d’etre is the challenge to consider that one’s most cherished beliefs might indeed need improvement, that the doors and windows to the inner sanctum might regularly be opened to allow the smelly and scary barbarians in.
Several years ago, when I was still an untenured assistant professor and should have been keeping my mouth shut, I recall being involved in a conversation about this feature of philosophy during a philosophy department meeting. We were in the process of crafting a new “mission statement” for the department, an exercise guaranteed to generate disagreement. One of the older members who had been chair of the department for a couple of decades before my arrival, a Dominican priest, proposed that our mission statement read that “The mission of the philosophy department is to teach the Truth.” Period—and make sure that it’s a capital “T” on “Truth.” I, along with several others, suggested that this would presume that we possess the Truth with a capital T, a presumption that is directly contrary to the very spirit of the philosophical enterprise. In a condescending tone (or at least so it sounded to me), another priestly colleague said “Vance, some of us around here think we have the truth,” to which I replied “And here I thought we were a philosophy department.”
So how does one keep the pursuit of truth alive without it being sidetracked into defense of the Truth? Over the past several years in my teaching and writing this question has been directed more and more toward the arena within which Truth rears its ugly head most often—religious belief. During my sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute five years ago I described my original book project as follows: “Is it possible to live a life of human excellence, of moral focus and spiritual energy, in a world in which the transcendent is silent, in which God is arguably absent?” As I led an afternoon seminar based on my early work on this project with a dozen fellow “resident scholars,” one of them—a Lutheran pastor—asked “But Vance, don’t you have to believe something with certainty if you’re going to call yourself a Christian?” To which I replied, “I don’t know—do I?” I had been wondering that for many years, but this was the first time I had said it aloud. And it was liberating. What would a faith that in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred, look like?
As I’ve dug into these questions with new energy and focus over the past few years, several matters have begun clear, beginning with the fact that the transcendent is not silent after all and God is definitely not absent. They just show up in entirely different places than where we have traditionally looked for them. And I am finding that, for me at least, a vibrant faith requires little in the way of defending the Truth, but rather a willingness to welcome the divine even when wrapped in unexpected packages. As James Carse writes,
This is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas.
Such barbarian incursions are not to be feared or defended against. They are to be invited and welcomed. Just as the millions of tiny barbarians who invade the world every year are actually the way in which the human species is renewed and regenerated, so the regular introduction of barbarian ideas into our civilized and supposedly completed belief systems will keep those beliefs from turning into idols. What would a faith in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred look like? It would look a lot like Faith–the real thing.