By Jon Jordan
When we find ourselves in times of conflict, what we need and what we are tempted toward are often in a great deal of tension. What we need is to be called to humane interaction, to Christian charity, and to seeking first to understand rather than to be understood. What we are offered instead is pressure to communicate quickly and platforms that encourage us to do so. We are rewarded for roasting those with whom we are in conflict, and for ensuring that our voice is the very loudest in the digital room.
Or put another way: what we need most in moments of conflict are the humanities, and what we are offered instead is a dangerous parody. Our modern world, driven by media and data, offers us the ability to short-circuit the process of slow, virtuous thinking, and the benefit of listening for wise peer feedback before publishing opinions.
The humanities — the great fruit of the liberal arts — equip us with the skills, postures, and attitudes we need to live as free women and men together in society. The Trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric — the first three of the seven liberal arts — equip us to rightly know the world we inhabit, our relationship to that world, and how it is we are to relate to others within that world.
What major problems do we face today that could not benefit from a better understanding of our world, of our relationship to this world, and how we ought to relate to one another within our world?
As a Headmaster at a classical Christian school that is committed to educating students in the Liberal Arts — including the Trivium, of course, but also the other four (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy) — I am well aware of what focusing on these things can do for our souls. But that doesn’t stop me from also being drawn toward the downward spiral of media consumption in times of strife or conflict.
I have not engaged in Big Social for three years, and more often than not I have a news filter active on all my devices that prevents me from reading more than 15 minutes of news, opinion, and commentary each day. I know better, and I have put limits in place to prevent it from happening, and yet I still find myself drawn to the temporary high offered by doom-scrolling and hate-reading. I have a hard time believing that those who are saturated in Big Social and media consumption find the struggle any easier than I do. As I have argued before, these things are bad for our individual souls. But they are detrimental to our collective souls, too.
The humanities are good for you, and the humanities are good for us.
It was Wendell Berry who pulled me out of my most recent spiral. I rediscovered The Mockingbird Sings, one of my favorite Berry poems, when I sat down to read after being tired of staring at my phone. This poem — like many good works of art — pulls us out of the news cycle, beyond a caricature of our enemy, and toward a more human understanding of the world and our relationship to one another.
The mockingbird sings
his praises of his mate
or of himself. In his joy
he knows no difference.
At first I called him silly
and egotistical, like all
lovers in the spring,
unable to say enough
of his ambiguous delight,
and so he repeats himself.
And then I said, “He’s right!
Love teaches him to fail,
at this best of times,
to know whose song it is,
hers or his. … ”
This poem might just have something to say to those of us who are committed to a catholic, evangelical, and ecumenical Church. Especially those of us who find ourselves in that Church as Anglicans. What would it mean to fail “to know whose song it is” in the context of an increasingly fractured Anglican Communion? At a minimum, I think it means that we must move beyond celebrating the fall of our fellow Christians. This is the first step toward any sort of reconciliation. Before we can sing the praises of the other, we must stop rejoicing in their failures and being amused by their shortcomings.
This is perhaps especially important to keep in mind here in our own American Anglican context. Do we in the Episcopal Church celebrate the further splintering seen in various continuing Anglican provinces? Are those in the continuing churches prone to celebrate whatever madness may or may not happen at General Convention? In doing these things, we are at danger of looking forward to bad news coming out of the other’s camp — of singing our own praises at the expense of theirs.
Though entrenched in a different sort of schism than our own, Keble is also helpful here:
Speak gently of our sister’s fall:
Who knows but gentle love
May win her at our patient call
The surer way to prove?
Once we begin to unlearn the instinct to celebrate the demise of our sister churches, we may just be able to begin to learn what it is to genuinely rejoice in the success of the other.
On a grand scale, this might just be what it takes to work toward a vision of ecumenicism that includes two bodies coming together without one destroying the other. To truly “sing the praises” of a different Christian tradition is the foundation for this sort of non-destructive communion.
I fear it is perhaps more difficult on a smaller, internal scale. This is true in many areas of life. Some of our deepest long-term fights and resentments are, in fact, with those closest to us. A fight with a stranger does not need as long to heal as a fight with a lover, or sibling, or parent.
If we are committed to the path of reconciliation within the Anglican Communion, we are wise to listen to this poem. If our goal is to learn to sing the praises of a sister church, let us begin by speaking gently of her fall.
And if you find yourself spiraling toward the drain of media consumption, take a break. Pick up a good book — or perhaps a great one — or re-read a favorite poem. Trade a hot take for a purposefully slow one.
Here is another appropriate one from John Keble–from The Christian Year, poem for St. Mark’s Day, based on Acts 15.36-41. Here are favorite sections:
“Divided in their earthly race,
Together at the glorious goal,
Each leading many a rescued soul,
The faithful champions shall embrace”
“O then the glory and the bliss,
When all that pained or seemed amiss
Shall melt with earth and sin away!
When saints beneath their Saviour’s eye,
Filled with each other’s company,
Shall spend in love th’ eternal day!”
Wonderful. Thank you!!