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Philosophy & Autobiography

I am no philosopher, nor a philosopher’s son. I am not even a herdsman or nor a dresser of sycamore trees. I refer to myself as the utility infielder of the religion and philosophy department at the liberal arts college down the street. When asked if I could teach Philosophy 101, I responded, “Well, I think I know more than the freshmen. Or at least I can read faster”—my insecurities and incompetencies quickly surfacing. 

I tell myself that having a “non-expert” teach an introductory course is a good thing, especially since the vast majority of my students will not major in philosophy. My simplified, make-connections-to-the-real-world approach, will be more valuable in their real-world futures. To accomplish this I rely on the most-overdrawn contrasts and embarrassing caricatures. I aim to teach to the college freshman that I once was. Most of the time I had trouble distinguishing between philosophy and psychology. Both began with P, ended with Y, and had something to do with the mind. Are you sensing my feelings of inadequacy yet?

It is a cliché that the teacher is the one who learns most. I’ve also come to wonder if all teaching isn’t really autobiography, just hidden and wrapped up in objective and academic garb.

Recently, in a lurching attempt to make Plato and Aristotle interesting and important, I heard myself declare to my class, “I think one of my life goals is to become more Aristotelian.” I’m certain this caused all my students suddenly to sit up straight and listen intently. Even now I feel myself slumping down, hoping all the experts and trained philosophers out there won’t point out the errors and stupidities in my assertion.

As a child, my parents never said “As Plato teaches us…” They never encouraged me to read The Republic. I doubt that my grandfathers, both of whom were eighth grade graduates, ever heard of Plato. But deeply rooted in them was a trust that “education” could edify and elevate their children out of the cave of bleak rural life, of daily chores, of muddy boots (this despite their Reformed/Pauline intuitions that what plagued each of us was deeper than what education can fix). Still, it worked. All of their children graduated from college and left rural life and working with their hands.

So too, no one ever said to me “Nothing physical, tangible, or of this world is worthy of much effort or devotion.” But somehow the message was received. Reading fiction, reveling in creation, or exerting yourself physically, were never condemned directly. So how did I come to sense that such things were dim and unsatisfying? How, as an adolescent, did I get the impression that something akin to an untamed beast had taken up residence in my body? And that it might erupt at the most humiliating of times, and in the most unseemly of ways? O be careful little hands, what you do, for the Father up above, is looking down in love. So be careful little hands, what you do.

Be under no impression that I—insecure, non-expert that I am—have shed and spurned all notions from Plato. I still love to read from 2 Corinthians at funerals, and hope that someday it will be read my own, even if here, the one from Tarsus sounds an awful lot like the one from Athens. 

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Just as no one ever told me to think like Plato, never did I receive a directive to become more like Aristotle. Authors like Brueggemann and Hauerwas, even N.T. Wright, schooled me in the holiness of the earthly, the daily, the local. Over the years, I was nurtured by the goodness of ritual and routines. Bread and wine at the Lord’s table. Bread and wine, cheese and peaches in the Alps. Long walks with loved ones and solitary bike rides. And while my grandfathers wanted their grandchildren not to have muddy boots, in my case they also produced someone whose hands are not handy, who can’t make or fix much of anything. I’ll admit to a sort of naïve romanticism about the proletariat and primitivism, an undue attraction to artisans and bricoleurs.

Maybe these changes and growing edges are not truly or exclusively from Aristotle, and remember they are only growing edges. But increasingly I sense the good, the true, and the beautiful are not above and beyond, but are instead among and around us. When I am attentive, I encounter them.

Did my freshmen hear all this between the lines of our class discussion? I have no idea. But my gratitude for and wrestling match with where I come from and whose I am, continues.  

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

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