On Thursday night I gave a lecture in Charlottesville, “Can We Know the World, and Still Love the World?” Not a surprising question for anyone who knows me, but it is always a hard question, and one that is asked from my heart. Hosted by the Center for Christian Study, the “father” now of study centers throughout the United States, it has a long history of offering resources of mind and heart for the students of the University of Virginia. The main room was full of folk, mostly undergraduates, some graduate students, and a few faculty.
As I am wont, I made an effort to step into the world they inhabit, believing that they were just like me. And so I first said something about my assumption in coming into the room: we have all been hurt, we all have known sorrow, we all have experienced the wounds of the world. I don’t wonder about that, but I simply assume it is true, for everyone everywhere.
And in that we are not alone. So I told the story of Walker Percy, a son of the South whose family was torn asunder by the suicides of both his grandfather and his father. Before he was out of adolescence, his mother died too, of what was always seen to be mysterious circumstances, e.g. her car was found in a levee outside of town, and no one ever knew whether she intended the “accident,” or whether it “just happened.” After his own undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina, he went to medical school at Columbia University. But before he began his residency, he contracted tuberculosis, and eventually had to give up his plans to become a physician There is much more that could be said, but over the next 20 years he tried and tried to find a way forward— without much success. The world had been hard on him, losing both parents and his professional plans. What would he do now? Was there anything to do?
At age 45 he wrote another story, hoping that someone somewhere would read it. And surprise of surprises, “The Moviegoer” won the National Book Award for Fiction, and that honor catapulted him into a place of prominence that he never left. Over the next years he wrote several apocalyptically-themed novels, “The Last Gentleman,” “The Second Coming,” “Love in the Ruins,” “The Thanatos Syndrome,” and more. Once asked about his willingness to look the bleakness of the human condition “in the eye,” Percy responded that, “Yes, I will do that… but there is always going to be a hint of hope in my work too.”
A hint of hope.
I spent some time that night on the heartaches of the world, pondering songs and songwriters who have artfully mourned for the sake of the world– from the Smashing Pumpkins to the Fray to Mumford and Sons. I even inviting the students to “choose” a sorrow. Would it be the martyrs in Libya, the burning-to-death of the Jordanian pilot, the murders in Paris. Or more locally, what about the Rolling Stone article on the rape culture at UVA, the story that wasn’t true, and yet tragically and horribly is true. I wasn’t trying to be mean, but rather to have them think hard with me. Knowing what we know about the world, what will we do? How will we respond? Can we know this world, and still love it?
Most of the time we mused over the possibility of a way of knowing that implicates us, for love’s sake, in the way the world turns out. A knowledge that means responsibility, and a responsibility that becomes care. And of course I told several stories of former UVA students whom I have known and loved, having spent their years at Mr. Jefferson’s University, now working out their lives in the midst of the messiness of the world— its sociological and historical complexities, its economic and financial complexities, its medical and military complexities.
In their different ways, each is someone who understands life as a vocation, a life offered in service to the world born of a love for God. In their distinct ways, each is someone who sees his life as a way of answering the question of the night. Yes, in their own unique ways, each is a hint of hope— and sometimes that is the best we get.