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Essay

Unity, Liberty, Charity

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Today was one of those incredibly busy days. You know, the kind where you fly out the door early in the morning, already late.  The kind with back-to-back meetings and a million things on the to-do list.  The kind where you grab lunch as you walk between appointments and then end up trying to eat that lunch in quick, stolen bites over the next couple of hours.

Yep, today was that day.

When I finally got home, I found an email from an all-campus colleague.  He wondered why I hadn’t attended a breakfast this morning that his department had coordinated for some of our incoming students.  Though his email was very temperately worded, I could tell that he was not pleased that I had been absent.

Simple, I responded: I thought the breakfast was optional.  All the email I had received had said it was—or at least implied it.  So I had taken them at their word that our required work was doing the advising of these same students in the afternoon.  That I had done—and gladly.  The breakfast sounded nice, but it was one thing I was glad was non-compulsory in an already busy day. 

Turns out, though, my colleague and the folks with whom he works had a different sense of what “optional” meant.  “To be honest,” he wrote me in reply, “I’m not sure how optional the breakfast really is.”  Though the emails I had received had taken a tone of invitation (instead of directive or demand), the breakfast was, for he and his staff, clearly an indispensable part of the day.  

Now, my colleague is a good-hearted man, and his office works hard to make students welcome at our college, so in our email exchange, we were able to quickly see how unspoken assumptions had influenced the way we each had interpreted our expectations of the situation. 

But our exchange reminded me of how often we react to each other—in judgment, in criticism, in frustration—based on things we implicitly believe are obvious and fundamental, even though we seldom actually ever communicate them—or sometimes communicate, intentionally or not, the very opposite.  

I’ve always been fond of the formulation: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

The problem comes, of course, in the definition of “essentials.”  The conversations on this blog, for example, over the last months continue to demonstrate that the warrants of our belief need rigorous articulation and examination.  What are our “essentials”? How do we communicate them?  In what things must we work towards unity, in what towards liberty? 

Without a clear sense of these, we’ll continue to waste more time than we should on kerfuffles that distract us and drain the energy we have available for the work of servanthood that lies before us.  In bringing folks to God’s abundant table, that breakfast is not optional.  

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

One Comment

  • Al Janssen says:

    There is a strange "etc." in Calvin's fourth book of the Institutes. He is talking of how churches may "swarm" with faults but that alone should not separate the church. He says: "…some fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church. For not all doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God's mercy; and the like." It's the "and the like" that is the mischief here! What else might he consider included int he essentials?

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