Compelling Interests

Editor’s Note: Today we are honored to publish Donald T. Williams, PhD., who is the R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia, and a past president of the International Society of Christian Apologetics.  Our hyper-politicized age makes it more difficult for many who teach in academia to voice what they think without becoming embroiled in controversy and caught in the unique bureaucratic hell that belongs to the academy.  In a world like this, old-fashioned professors are increasingly rare and refreshing.  Thank you, Dr. Williams.

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When I contemplate the fact that I have somehow become sixty-six years of age, I think about retirement.  I can’t afford to actually do it (yet), but I can afford to think about it.  My mind’s appetite for my work is unabated, but I can feel my body slowing down.  I would never want to stop teaching, but at some point it will be good to step back from the headlong pace of a full load.  And so I think that as my career as a full-time academic and scholar approaches its end-game, as the brevity that was always a characteristic of this earthly life becomes inescapable, it becomes even more important to focus on what matters.

And thus I find myself rolling my eyes at one more scholarly article that would (and should) never have been published at all save for some dutiful colleague’s desire not to perish, but which I have to read anyway so I can say that I have done a full literature review, and thinking, “Life is too short for this.”  I think I am right about that, but the rules of scholarly publishing require me to waste this precious time anyway if I am to be allowed to publish something that (I hope) is actually worth reading.  My patience with this particular conflict between the Ideal and the Real wears thinner with every passing year.  But wrestling with it has given me some additional clarity about what I actually do care about and what I ought to be inspiring my students to care about.

What am I interested in?  What do I care about?  I care about Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

I care about Philosophy (as an academic “subject”) in so far—and only in so far—as it helps me to understand and pursue Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  If you have some other agenda for doing philosophy, don’t waste my time.

I care about Literature in so far as it embodies Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

I care about Poetry—real poetry, not just fractured prose cleverly arranged in short lines—because it lets us deploy the full range of the power of language, including meter, rhyme, and alliteration, and the full range of the power of thought, including metaphor and simile, in the service of the quest for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  At its best, it lets us sing them.

I care about Literary Criticism in so far—and only in so far—as it helps me to discern, understand, and appreciate the ways in which Literature embodies Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, that is, to discern, understand, and appreciate the meaning by which it does so.  That would be the author’s original meaning.  If you are pointing me to anything less than that, don’t waste my time.  I think Matthew Arnold was not naïve or outmoded in the least when he said that the function of Criticism at the present time was “to see the object as in itself it really is” and, on the basis of that vision, “to discern and propagate the best that has been thought and said in the world.”  I think that in losing his faith in Christian theism he lost the only basis on which such a quest could finally be successfully pursued; but at least he got the goal right.  If you are pointing me to anything less than that, don’t waste my time.

I care about Philology because words are wonderful things in themselves and because it makes the profitable study of older Literature (including biblical literature) possible.

I care about Theology in so far as it shows me the Source and Grounding of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the triune God who created this world and revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, and in so far as it helps me to worship Him more profoundly, serve Him more intelligently, and follow Him more faithfully.  Because at its best theology can do those things (in the past, there were actually theologians who thought about their calling rather explicitly in such terms), I care about it very deeply.  If as a theologian you are seeking anything less than that, don’t waste my time.

I care about even Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, then, not ultimately for their own sake, but because they are reflections of God’s perfect Being; for Truth is the reflection of His Mind, Goodness of His Character, and Beauty of His Glory, as they are imprinted on the world He has made.  And He is perfect truth, perfect, goodness, and perfect beauty, world without end, amen.

I care about my students because they were made in the image of God to love Him, and to love Truth, Goodness, and Beauty for His sake, alongside me.  I care about them because Christ died to restore them to that image and that love.  I care about inspiring them and equipping them to join me in the quest.  I care about my job and my college in so far as they give me the opportunity to do that.

Here is what I don’t care about.  I do not care about any of the items that follow because they are at best a distraction from, and at worst the mortal enemies of, any serious quest for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

I don’t care about “political correctness”; I have no patience for “trigger warnings”; I am positively inimical to “safe spaces.”  If you don’t want to be challenged, that is, if you don’t want to grow, drop my class now and find another one that is willing to coddle you.  That is the only trigger warning you are going to get.  If you are prepared to give your all in the quest for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, I will give you all the help you can handle.  If your agenda is anything less, my class will make you feel uncomfortable and out of place.  It will be very likely that, in the words of Gandalf, “You shall not pass!”  That is how it should be.

I don’t care how you “feel” about the subject.  Give me your thoughts on it, if you have any.  Otherwise, hush, and free up time for those who do have thoughts.  And listen to them.  You might learn something.

I don’t care about how clever you are or how up to date you are or about what kind of jargon you can deploy to obscure your poverty of actual thought.

I don’t care what facile Post-Modern “theory” you are using as an excuse to dismiss, rather than discern and embrace, the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that may be embodied in the literary Text you are purporting to “interpret.”  I don’t care about “the freeplay of the mind in the text.”  I don’t care about how many clever “readings” of the text you can generate.  I care about the Text and about what it actually says.

I don’t care to play tennis without a net.  I don’t care to watch you do it either.

I don’t care if you think I am a Curmudgeon, a Troglodyte, a Reactionary, a Bigot, or just a general Party-Pooper of the Professional Pretensions of Pompous Academia, for having said these things so plainly.

Oh, by the way:  I can actually say all of this so plainly because I already have tenure.

Think about what that means for the future of what we are pleased to call Higher Education.

And think about Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—but only if you want to start a revolution.

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Dr. Williams is also the author of 10 books, including Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016); Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised & expanded (Lantern Hollow Press, 2012); Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012); Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011); The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Church (Chalice Press, 2008); and Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007).