Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
December 16, 2016
**This column is dedicated to my dear friends and esteemed Seattle Pacific University colleagues, Dr. C. Edward Smyth, Professor Emeritus of Educational Ministry, and Dr. Les Steele, Professor Emeritus of Christian Formation.
When I was a freshman in college, I fell in love with a tree. Nothing weird, mind you. It was a pure and chaste sort of love. I might even call it a Platonic love, if it hadn’t turned out, instead, to be Kantian. More on that below. But first some context.
I spent my undergraduate years at Haverford College, a small Quaker school ten miles west of Philadelphia, PA. The campus is beautifully landscaped, and is in fact a registered arboretum, with specimins of many exotic trees and shrubs. One of its most distinctive attractions is the “Climbing Tree,” a gnarly old osage orange that stands just to the left of the entrance ramp to the Magill Library. Many years ago, the tree fell, but for some reason it wasn’t removed from the grounds. And, as the description of that tree on the college website indicates, “it has continued to grow in its reclining state and has become a sculpture.” Here are some pictures of it:(1)
Like many students over the years, I loved to clamber among the branches of that tree, or to lie on its stately horizontal trunk, reading or daydreaming. I thought of it as “my tree,” not in the sense that I “owned” it, of course, but in the sense that I felt grounded and restful in its leafy embrace. And if there’s one thing that college freshmen need—even if they don’t realize it, as they often don’t—it’s a sense of groundedness and restfulness.
When I entered Haverford in September, 1970, I already knew that I wanted to major in philosophy, so I immediately signed up for the yearlong introductory philosophy course. The fall term was devoted to the ancients, Plato and Aristotle, and the spring semester to the moderns, Descartes, Hume, Kant and Nietzche. The instructor for the spring section was Dr. Richard J. Bernstein, known even then as one of America’s preeminent social philosophers, and still going strong today.(2) The class was small—just a dozen or so students—and was conducted as a seminar. We sat around a large oval table in a classroom on the second-story of the humanities building. If you looked out the window, you could see the Magill Library just across the lawn.
One fine spring day, we began our study of Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. That morning I had sat under my Climbing Tree cramming for class. I diligently highlighted what I took to be the key passages, and jotted notes and questions in the margins. Classtime came, and Dr. Bernstein began the session, rather oddly, by walking around the table and peering over our shoulders at the textbooks lying open before us. “Ah,” he said, returning to his chair, “I see by your underlining that you are all active readers. Excellent!” And then, after a moment’s pause, he leaned forward and added with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “But when you are reading Kant, how do you know what not to underline?”(3)
From there he launched into a dazzling lecture on Kant’s theory of knowledge. He explained that the British empiricists of the previous century had regarded the human mind as a tabula rasa, that is, a “blank slate” onto which the images of things perceived by our five senses were somehow imprinted. To the empiricists, the mind was essentially a passive receptacle of impressions from “outside” itself. Kant disagreed. He argued that the mind was an active instrument, ceaselessly engaged in sifting and sorting and classifying sense perceptions according to a priori “categories,” and turning them into the “objects” that we experience. Knowing, in other words, is an activity. Knowledge is not merely etched onto our minds; it is constructed by our minds as we engage with our world.
I was utterly transported by that lecture. Perhaps I had come to a dim understanding of Kant’s Prolegomena that morning as I prepared for class. But the vividness and lucidity of Professor Bernstein’s expostion lifted me into what I still recall as one of the grandest moments of pure intellectual joy that I have ever experienced. I floated in rapture down the front staircase of the humanities building, stepped out onto the porch—and there, before my astonished eyes, was that magnificent, recumbant osage orange tree, which now turned out to be, in a way far more profound than I could have imagined just three hours before, “my tree.” I had somehow “made” that tree myself! The gnarliness of its bark, with some patches worn smooth by generations of young climbers; the delicate inflorescence of its young seed shoots; the rough, tuberculated surface of its mature fruit; the sharpness of the spines on its leaf axils—all of these qualities that I had come to love from sitting under it so often had somehow been conjoined and organized by my own mind into the concept of the Magill Library Climbing Tree.
I learned about the active power of the human mind that day. But over the years, I’ve come to understand something equally important about the mind: its need for peaceful contemplation. I learned this, not from my study of Kant, but from my study of two great twentieth century thinkers, the rabbinic philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel(4) and the Trappist theologian Thomas Merton.(5) This has great implications for Christian higher education.
All too often, education is aimed at the acquisition of power—an aim that quite properly reflects the fact that the mind is an active agent. Thus we measure the effectiveness of a given educational program by what it enables students to do—to retrieve and manipulate information, to solve complex problems, to speak and write clearly, to cooperate effectively with others, to master the skills needed for securing lucrative and satisfying employment, and even perhaps to analyze and rectify social problems. All these are worthy educational outcomes. But in my view, students subjected to an educational program that is restricted to such outcomes suffer a grave impoverishment—without even knowing they are suffering it. They come to think of the mind as the servant of the will, and knowledge as a means for the gratification of desire. But what if the human mind is more than an “instrument” for the performance of tasks? What if it is also made simply to contemplate the world with joy, gratitude and wonder, and to let the world be just what it is, without having to measure it, manipulate it or figure out how to profit from it?
Whereas Kant taught me that I had, in a sense, “constructed” my Climbing Tree, Heschel and Merton warned me against wanting to do anything else with it except to love it for what it was. I have come to realize that the ultimate goal of the human mind is to enter ever more deeply and amazedly into a world that infinitely transcends our comprehension and defies our efforts to control it; that the more we know, the more we know how little we finally can know—and yet the more we can delight in how little it matters that we really know so very little; that we think, finally, in order to wonder. And wonder should lead us beyond our comfortable certainties about the world to an ever-growing amazement at its grandeur and inscrutability, as well as its hospitable willingness to draw us into ever-closer communion with itself. We might call this the “mystical” element in Christian higher education, the highest and holiest and happiest part of it, the part that grounds us in the solid givenness of things and allows us to rest in the glorious goodness of things.
(1) Haverford College Arboretum, “Arboretum Tree Tour,” https://uploads.knightlab.com/storymapjs/3962644fbfef705fe22a0fe464619f59/arboretum-tour/index.html, No. 25, accessed 12/14/2016. The photograph is reproduced from the website with the kind permission of Mr. Bill Astifan, Arboretum Director.
(2) “Richard J. Bernstein,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_J._Bernstein, accessed 12/14/2016; and “Bernstein, Richard,” New School for Social Research, http://www.newschool.edu/facultyexperts/faculty.aspx?id=23876, accessed 12/14/2016.
(3) I still have my copy of the version assigned for PHIL 102: Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphys-ics, ed. and trans. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Inc., 1950).
(4) See, e.g., Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (orig. pub. 1951; reprint ed., New York: Farrar, Strause & Giroux, Inc., 1976), especially Chapter 2: “Radical Amazement,” pp. 11-17.
(5) See, e.g., Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (orig. pub. 1965; reprint ed., Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1973), especially Chapter XII: “The Need for a New Education,” pp. 212-218.