Faculty Blog - Dr. Jeremiah Webster
The next time someone asks, "What are you majoring in?" ... tell them, "Enchantment."
English. Religion. Philosophy. These were the hallmarks of my wide-eyed undergraduate career at Whitworth University. I would have explored other majors as well, but academic inquiry is expensive: #studentloans. Although English was my first love, I wanted theology and the pantheon of great thinkers to inform my study of literature as well. I was also under the impression (delusion perhaps) that I needed Gollum-possession of the "right answer" to be a disciple of Jesus. I misread Peter's mandate to be "prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (I Peter 3:15) to mean the cultivation of comebacks, "got-ya" entrapments, and hermetically sealed reasons for faith. It wasn't until much later that I realized my view of Christianity was more secular than scriptural, more attuned to the "patterns of this world" (Romans 12:2) than the "easy yoke" of Jesus (Matthew 11:30). In my pursuit of God's truth, I had neglected one of the central features of the Christian faith. Namely, its propensity for enchantment.
When Jesus says we must become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3), He calls us to be childlike, not childish. He invites us to retain the same wonder children have for autumn leaves and starfish, the same trust they exhibit when a loving parent is near, and forego the tantrums that inform a toddler’s immaturity and lack of discernment. In a similar fashion, Jesus’ call to be “born again” confounds the disciples and takes Nicodemus down the rather comedic path of trying to conceptualize a second life in utero. Both parties miss what Jesus is after. If Walker Percy is right in his appraisal that we “ ... live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who is or what he is doing,” then a rejection of the ideologies that brought us here and a reevaluation of Jesus’ admonition is of vital necessity.
The longer I follow Jesus, the more I am drawn to aspects of Christianity that evoke poetry, provoke mystery, and re-enchant a world disillusioned by the preachments of secular naturalism. This is a region of soul that rests in God's faithfulness and explicit revelation (Romans 1:20). It is a place of creative abandon and reliable curiosity. It is a place of liturgical commitment, of mindfulness beyond the mindless reductionism we inherited from the Enlightenment. Christianity is a wellspring for the examined life. As philosophy, Christianity rejects a dualist vision of the human person and the created order. As religion, Christianity encourages introspection, silence, and confession in the lives of all believers. As an act of faith, Christianity draws individuals away from the micro-narrative of Self, and into the macro-narrative of God. When I inhabit this reality, I am Lucy entering Narnia via wardrobe, Thomas before the risen Christ, Bilbo at journey’s end, Anne (with an "e") reciting Tennyson by heart. I reside in the sort of enchantment I believe we are invited to experience as disciples of Jesus. I pray every student experiences this measure of grace at Northwest University. There is always trial, always struggle, but we endure when we reside in the other-serving, outward-gazing, self-forgetting realm of enchantment.
Few authors capture this reality better than the American poet Walt Whitman. His poems interrogate the tenets of utilitarianism, and celebrate aesthetic experience as an equally valid epistemology. He understands what happens when we privilege one form of knowledge, intelligence, or success to the neglect of another. Observe what happens in his poem “When I heard the learn’d astronomer” when a professor’s effort to domesticate the cosmos is met with accolade and applause …
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
My wish to major in "everything" at Whitworth was born out of a desire to experience enchantment and the perfect silence Whitman describes in his poem. I wanted to reside in the fullness of God's truth: a geography vaster than anything I could devise on my own. Whatever major appears on your diploma at graduation, I hope you resist the temptation to silo your experience of God into a single lens or discipline. Embrace the arts, sciences, and humanities as complementary endeavors, equal participants in God’s revelation and truth. Cultivate a healthy suspicion of celebrity and the rubric of mere monetary gain. There's a reason Whitman becomes tired and sick in the lecture hall. When truth is pursued for the wrong reasons, it diminishes the dignity of participant and subject alike. Become a life-long student of the transcendentals: Truth / Goodness / Beauty. When we couple these realities with Christian devotion and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we experience enchantment, an intimation of heaven’s quotidian bliss. The genius of God’s grace and provision is that the myopic lecture hall and mystical night-air are both apt tutors.