World View
World View

World View

An annotated reading of your world, including YMCA and family dinners.
December 1 st 2014
Appears in Winter 2014

Social Mortar | There is a place here in Grand Rapids where I catch glimpses of a world otherwise unseen, a little city within the city that reverberates with echoes of a City to come. It's a place where the curtains of our subdivided segregation are pulled back and you can see a cross—section from almost every tribe and tongue and nation and class.

Sadly, it is not our local congregation. In that respect, Martin Luther King Jr.'s observation remains largely true: Sunday morning at 11am is still the most segregated hour of "Christian" America. No, the place I prize is our downtown branch of the YMCA. The new building opened in 2005, thanks to wide support from a variety of donors and philanthropists, and our family has had a membership ever since. It's hard to think of any institution that is more hospitable. While the posh and privileged sequester themselves in elite clubs on the suburban fringe of the city, the Y is open to all comers.

On any given morning, while I run around the track, I can watch a multi—ethnic pick—up basketball game with young men from every corner of town, while an intense game of wheelchair rugby unfolds on the other side of the gym. On another morning, social workers accompany mentally challenged adults on the track and I can see tenderness in their care. The Y functions as the gym for a local charter school, and offers "home pool advantage" to the Catholic high school. The free childcare provides respite for exhausted young moms whose hour on the treadmill feels like the slice of Sabbath they need to continue their important work for the rest of the day. It's a place where you'll find the fit and slender alongside those of us who, well, aren't quite there yet but who are trying our best. It is also one of the most multigenerational places in town, where infants giggle with their parents in the pool while a veritable phalanx of regimented septuagenarians take their water aerobics very seriously.

In short, the Y is a beautiful place precisely because it's not an enclave for just the best and brightest. To the contrary, it is one of the few places where a jumble of the city's inhabitants gather to rub shoulders with those who would otherwise remain separate from each other. It is one of those sort of "invisible" institutions—like the post office or public transit—that we take for granted only because they blend into the landscape of our lives. Like the nondescript mortar holding our buildings together, these uncelebrated institutions hold together our communities. These are sites where we practice life in common, pulling us out of our privatized comfort zones. Let us now praise (and patronize) them.

Building Cathedrals at the Dinner Table | In Communities of Practice, educational theorist Etienne Wenger recounts the story of two stonecutters. Each is asked what they're doing. One responds, "I am cutting this stone in a perfectly square shape." The other responds: "I am building a cathedral."

I can imagine the first stonecutter pausing at the second's reply and and then saying to himself, "That's right. I forgot. We are building a cathedral."

When I hear this story, it brings to mind the Patheos blog, "Building Cathedrals," that brings together the wisdom of seven Catholic women, all graduates from Princeton University, who are, as they put it, "seeking to build our families just as the architects of the great cathedrals built their detailed masterpieces: day by day, stone by stone, with attention to details that only He will see." There are a lot of tedious aspects to stone—cutting and masonry, and yet they are all crucial to the grand project of cathedral building. So, too, with parenting: little things matter.

For example: never underestimate the formative power of the family supper table. This vanishing liturgy is a powerful site of formation. Most of the time it will be hard to keep the cathedral in view as dinner is just the occasion for sibling bickering. Yet even then your little tribe is learning how to love their neighbours. And your children are learning something about the faithful promises of a covenant—keeping Lord in the simple routine of that daily promise of dinner together.

Then there will be nights when the mundane subsides because all of the capital of those meals together gives you the opportunity to invite your children to see the world anew. Don't underestimate the significance of a dinner table education. This hit home for me again just recently. Around the Smith family table, our conversation veered toward a heart—breaking story of twelve—year—old boy who had marched to a playground and killed a nine—year—old neighbour with a knife. He then knocked on a nearby door, asked to call the police, confessed his crime and told the officer he wanted to die.

As my wife, Deanna, recounted this story at dinner, our youngest son Jack's blood began to boil with anger, an adolescent expression of sadness for the boy who was killed. What could possibly drive a young boy to do this? But Deanna wasn't finished with the story, and how she told the rest was a lesson in moral discernment and compassion.

How, indeed, could a boy do that to another? As we already suspected, the horrors of the young man's abuse and neglect emerged. Sadly, it almost became understandable why this boy wanted to die. Though no excuse, this murderer was a victim, too. Tears now began to well up in Deanna's eyes as she tried to get our son to imagine the unimaginable. She filled in the picture: the filth of the boy's so—called home, its tables covered with drug paraphernalia but its cupboards bare. The boy's body was riddled with bruises and scars from abuse and he arrived at school hungry almost every morning. Deanna patiently, yet tearfully, tried to get Jack to realize that almost everything he took for granted in his own life was absent from this young man's world. Jack sat silently as he absorbed all of this. Not even a boy twice his age would be able to suppress his tears by this point.

That night one of our older boys just happened to be home from college and had joined us for dinner. He was quiet through all of this, seemingly aloof, and gathered his plate without a word and went into the kitchen. But then, in the mirror on the dining room buffet, I could see him behind me, hunched over the counter, sobbing quietly, learning to lament. Such lament is part of the sort of "conservatism" we sketch in this issue: not mourning the loss of power and prestige, but mourning the tragedy of the world in which we find ourselves, mourning for neighbours who bear the brunt of injustice, even though we grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Sometimes in this fallen world the best thing we can do is teach our children how to be sad.

How to Open Your Eyes | I suppose the point of this little column, "World View," is to provide some vignettes that might invite you to see your own world anew. It should be no surprise, then, that while recently reading Alain de Botton's marvelous little book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, I was particularly drawn to its seventh chapter, "How to Open Your Eyes." Botton evokes Proust's own enthusiasm for the work of eighteenth—century painter Jean—Baptiste Siméon Chardin.

Chardin did not paint palaces or princes, nor were his paintings populated with heroes and gods. To the contrary, Chardin's canvases depicted the homey and mundane, the domestic and the overlooked: a bowl on a table, a woman cleaning turnips, a boy blowing soap bubbles. In the way that Chardin's eye and brush hallowed the ordinary, Proust realized something significant: it's not that some lives are inherently more valuable or interesting or sacred than others; rather, it simply depends on how you look at them.

Chardin's painterly view on the world helped Proust break out of his malaise: happiness, he concluded, "may emerge from taking a second look." We might then realize "the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them." Chardin's paintings taught him to see the world anew, his world anew, and "hence to revise certain notions of the good life which risked inspiring an unfair neglect of some settings and a misguided enthusiasm for others"—a perennial word of counsel that should ring loudly for us today.

A Church for the World | Chardin's hallowing of the ordinary parallels a key feature of the Protestant Reformation, what Charles Taylor calls "the sanctification of ordinary life." The monk is no holier than the farmer, the nun no holier than the mother. All of life can be—and should be—lived coram Deo, before the face of God.

At the same time, engagement in domestic life is no longer a free pass from pursuing holiness. So expectations are also ratcheted up: the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are affirmed in their "worldly" stations as called to serve God, just as the priest; on the other hand, the domestic labourer does this with something of a mendicant asceticism. The goodness of worldly labour is no excuse for worldliness.

In this sense, all of our contemporary discussions about "faith and work" are heirs of this Reformation theme. In that case, we might also be able to learn from the Reformers about what it looks like to pastor "workers." What sort of church can sustain and nourish this rich and wide sense of vocation? To frame this in the categories of Abraham Kuyper, the church as "organism" can only flourish if it is nourished by the church as "institute."

In this respect, I was intrigued by a footnote in Matthew Myer Boulton's extraordinary book on John Calvin's pastoral theology, Life in God. As something of an aside, Boutlon notes, "Overall, Calvin put less emphasis on private and small—group Bible study than on the corporate, ecclesial Bible study that constituted the daily sermons delivered in Geneva. Accordingly, we may think of Calvin's project as a massive program of civic education." Calvin's pulpit was not only "internally" concerned with the church; from the pulpit he was aiming at the city.

The project of renewing our social architecture depends upon the hearing of the Word and the nourishment of the sacraments. Together they are the food we need for our work in the world. So why not bless your pastor in that endeavour and gift him or her with a subscription to Comment?

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?