A Wise Shepherd of a Wandering Mind
I have often thought of the role of teacher as something of a shepherding role. One does not « teach » by simply dumping rote information into another’s cranium like so much slop into a trough: rather, it is a relational, growing process. A book suggestion here, a probing comment there, an insightful remark now, a stern warning them…in walking with a skilful mentor over many miles, it is often difficult to say exactly where the transfer of information occurred. Through thousands of small interactions, a skilful teacher can prompt a pupil with cunning and tact, often without any outward coersion at all.
I have been coming to grips with my ability and responsibility as a natural « shepherd. » I have the ability to influences others: this comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. What has caught me off guard recently is realizing that I have an equally powerful and important task when it comes to my own mind. Paradoxically, I am hearing the Spirit caution me, « Shepherd your mind cautiously! »
Some months ago, I had written my intention to read the « greats » of Christian history (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, etc.), then move on to some of the greats of Western secular thought (Kant, Nietzsche, Derrida, etc.). On my first reading of Kant, however, I found myself snatching for my mind in terror, pulling it only in the nick of time out of harm’s way. It is no small thing to allow one’s mind to wander into a work of genius, opposed to the Lordship of Christ!
In his introduction, Kant writes that the measure of a book is not determined by how long it is, but by how long it takes for the reader to master it. True enough. At the end of the day, however, it may be difficult to determine who is master of whom.
My first experience with a truly « great » book was Augustine’s « The City of God. » Simply getting through the 1000+ pages was an accomplishment in itself: understanding it was quite another thing! I spent the greater part of the summer of ’08 reading, re-reading, and reading secondary sources, in an attempt to get to the bottom of this great work. In the end, I felt fairly confident that I had understood one sliver of his thinking (that is, his thinking on Christian politics), as well as a few other issues. It was not just my thinking that had changed, however: I had changed. Such is the nature of great works.
A work of genius such « The City of God » is more than a communication of information. It is an invitation to come and wander – to explore and habitate with a genius, in the recesses and convolutions of his own grey matter. It is one thing to enter into a labrynth like « The City of God » – it is quite another thing to find one’s way out! Just when I thought I « had it, » I read an apparently contradictory statement. « Now where does that fit in?! » Back I journeyed, pressing deeper and deeper into the labyrinth…gradually becoming more and more familiar with the curves and patterns of the walls, becoming intuitively familiar with the logic, becoming increasingly impressed by the genius of the author. The power of such a work is that it is nearly impossible to conquer the material without becoming a part of the material, without standing under the tutolage of the master of the hosue. Until the mental pathways of my own mind began to match those of Augustine’s it was simply impossible to understand what he was saying.
To read such a great work is to be changed. For a Christian to allow themselves to be changed, they must first ask, « Is this change pleasing to my Lord? »
Although I disagree strongly with Augustine on many points, I have grown from his writings perhaps more than from any other writer. The reason for this is that the mind of Augustine is a house completely submitted to the Lordship of Christ. There is one Lord and Saviour for Augustine – the Lord Jesus Christ. In reading, « The City of God, » I had the great priveledge of journeying with a genius, as he wrestled to express his devotion to God with all of his monumental cognitive abilities. In the process, I felt my own mind lifted to new heights of intellectual worship of God.
This was the positive experience which I had in reading, « The City of God. » In Kant – what little I read of him – I felt this same process beginning in reverse. Here too is the mind of a genius, laid bare. Here I found myself in a labryrinth of thought, seeking to find my way out. Here too, I knew that the only chance at freedom was to learn to think like the master. But here was the difference: Kant is no follower of Christ. Whereas Augustine humbled himself before the almighty, Kant’s mind is a bulwark, raised against the knowledge of God (1 Cor. 10:5), on which whole schools of thought have been built, and countless souls have been shipwrecked.
I am certain that if I had arrogantly continued in my attempt to « master » Kant at this time in my mental/spiritual journey, I would have been putting my tender and vulnerable mind into a dangerous trap, from which I would not have emerged unscathed.
I have decided to dramatically trim down my reading list. I want to really « master » the true fathers of the faith, before I plunge into the heretics, false-teachers and false-prophets of our day. I also want to grow in my understanding of the Bible itself. It is not true that you can only read the Bible through the lenses of your own day: I think the Bible has a way of speaking for itself: I want my mind shaped first and foremost by the thoughts of God in the pages of holy scriptures, and secondarily by the greats who have understood Him well before again testing my mettle against the tough questions of life and philosophy.
In the mean time, I hope to learn of such people as Kant and Schliermacher through secondary sources. There are people who have more education than I ever will, who have conquered the minds of these people, who have charted a way through. It would be a wise course of action simply to read such people, rather than wandering blithely into these minds for myself.
It is time for me to learn some humility and responsibility. Neither my mind nor my soul are invincible: it is my own responsibility to shepherd myself well.