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February 15, 2007
"Mental Slovenliness"

In his meditation for today (My Utmost for His Highest), Oswald Chambers writes, "When once you allow physical selfishness, mental slovenliness, moral obtuseness, spiritual density, everyone belonging to your crowd will suffer." This is directed, we should be clear, at the Christian church, and with good reason. People filled with religiosity but not grace are toxic — at the extreme they are the sort who blow up school buses full of Israeli children, while in milder forms they are the gossipers and backbiters who think hell exists for other people.

A mistake too many Christians make in separating from Judaism and Catholicism is the notion that spiritual work is misguided. The Christian walk, in this worldview, is all about the personal decision for Jesus. He is the author and perfecter of faith, after all. But we also know that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Work out — what a lovely way to put it. There's work involved, in other words. A signature of the Protestant movement for at least the last one hundred years, however, is anti-intellectualism, combined with an insurance salesman mentality — get the poor sinner to mutter a commitment prayer, and you've won yourself another soul for Jesus. Those newly won souls are tender things, of course, and the souls of children are especially imperiled, so best to shield the whole flock from seditious thought. Perhaps it's true that the heart and flesh crying out for God in despair feels a lot like Holden Caulfield, but best to just burn that copy of Catcher in the Rye. The boy curses, after all. So not only is spiritual work eschewed, but also the honest working out of spiritual things — evidenced, for example, in the stark paucity of Protestant literary accomplishments.

I'm wrestling with the two-fold challenge of how to teach my sons. I don't want them to turn out like vast sums of Christian churchgoers, with absolutely no sense of church history, no understanding of the foundational principles of theology — in short, no ability whatsoever to serve as genuine leaders or teachers. This is remedied easily enough (with the added twist of educating myself in the process, because I number among those vast sums — it's like building rooms at the same time you are laying the foundation).

But there's the additional challenge, of fostering in my boys a sense of genuine inquiry. I want them to learn the true things, the unseen things, but I want for them to learn to wrestle with these unseen things, because I don't think we really know them, in our gut, until we have looked at them in the cold dark hours, in the midst of our knowledge of the suffering of the world. I want them to know faith from the eye of Graham Greene's whiskey priest, and confront nihilism in the eye of Flannery O'Connor's Misfit. Certainly God places us in travails that teach us more than a book, but surely books, if the mind is nimble enough, can begin this process of inquiry.

I suppose this means that first they shall have to learn to read. Caleb is making great progress in this area, as is Eli. Isaac is still learning that upside-down is not the preferred way of looking at books. And yet already I'm thinking of reading lists, and gentle discussions, and days when they have questions that I have no idea how to answer.

So I'm curious, from those of you whose children are older, and have found some resonance in anything I've written above. What do you read? What do your children read? How are you working (and cultivating in them the desire to work) so that you and your family don't suffer from "mental slovenliness?"

Perhaps this is too constant a theme with me, the desire to be liberated from ignorance. I suppose it's the natural consequence of growing awareness of one's own ignorance. Funny how it took me two degrees and thirty-odd years to get to this place, where I realize how little I really know about anything.

Posted by Woodlief on February 15, 2007 at 08:16 AM