James K.A. Smith @ GoodReads

Well, I've been horribly delinquent over here at "What I'm Reading." I have a long shelf of books above my desk here that I've been meaning to blog about, but just haven't found the time--probably because I've lapsed into thinking each post needs to be a "review" rather than just an off-the-cuff take on what I've been reading.

As a way to get away from that, I've just signed up for a GoodReads account and will hope to post more regularly at www.goodreads.com/jkasmith. (This is as close as I'm going to get to anything like Facebook!)


The Bookish Beware

"How deluded we sometimes are by the clear notions we get out of books. They make us think that we really understand things of which we have no practical knowledge at all. I remember how learnedly and enthusiastically I could talk for hours about mysticism and the experimental knowledge of God, and all the while I was stoking the fires of the argument with Scotch and soda."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 224


The Impiety God Loves

What a marvelous description Merton gives us of his friend Bob Gibney:

"Gibney was not what you would call pious. In fact, he had an attitude that would be commonly called impious, only I believe God understood well enough that his violence and sarcasms covered a sense of deep metaphysical dismay--an anguish that was real, though not humble enough to be of much use to his soul. What was materially impiety in him was directed more against common ideas and notions which he saw or considered to be totally inadequate, and maybe it subjectively represented a kind of oblique zeal for the purity of God, this rebellion against the commonplace and trite, against mediocrity, religiosity."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, pp. 200-201


Merton on Columbia

While Merton would praise some of his teachers at Columbia, he has this to say about the institution as a whole:

"Poor Columbia! It was founded by sincere Protestants as a college predominantly religious. The only that remains of that is the university motto: In lumine tuo videbimus lumen--one of the deepest and most beautiful lines of the psalms. 'In Thy light, we shall see light.' [The verse, incidentally, inscribed above the entrance of Calvin College's chapel.] It is, precisely, about grace. It is a line that might serve as the foundation stone of all Christian and Scholastic learning, and which simply has nothing whatever to do with the standards of education at modern Columbia. It might profitably be changed to In lumine Randall videbimus Dewey."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 194


In Covert Praise of Socrates

Merton recounts an influential teacher and mentor, Mark Van Doren, and in doing so, sketches what I still aspire to (though often failing) in terms of pedagogy--the great tradition of the Socratic method:

"Mark would come into the room and, without any fuss, would start talking about whatever was to be talked about. Most of the time he asked questions. His questions were very good, and if you tried to answer them intelligently, you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had 'educed' them from you by his question. His classes were literally 'education'--they brought things out of you, they made your mind produce its own explicit ideas."

~Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, p. 154


Beware of Metaphysics!

"Fortunately, this was one of the matters in which I decided to ignore his advice. Anyway, I went ahead and tried to read some philosophy. I never got very far with it. It was too difficult for me to master all by myself. People who are immersed in sensual appetites and desires are not very well prepared to handle abstract ideas. Even in the purely natural order, a certain amount of purity of heart is required before an intellect can get sufficiently detached and clear to work out the problems of metaphysics. I say a certain amount, however, because I am sure that no one needs to be a saint to be a clever metaphysician. I dare say there are plenty of metaphysicians in hell."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 104


The Psychology of Comfort

[Resuming a series on Merton's Seven Storey Mountain after a hiatus over Lent.]

Merton offers a concise but insightful take on on a feature of our collective psychology which has only increased since he made the observation:

"Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture."

~Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 91