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Augustine and Hannah

By March 27, 2015 No Comments


Two pieces of my work this semester couldn’t be further apart–or at least they seem to be disconnected. I’m writing a book on Heavy Metal music. It’s a positive treatment that brings Slavoj Zizek, Jurgen Moltmann, and Michel de Certeau together with Led Zeppelin, Gorgoroth, and Mastodon. I’m exploring the significance of the practice of metal, how it taps into a form of the spiritual, the mythical, and the sacred in the context of what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame” of secularity. Yesterday, in between watching and listening to metal videos, I happened to pick up Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. For hours I got lost in her description of alienation in the contemporary world, how we’ve moved from asking questions like “what” or “who” to obsess about questions of “how”. She discussed how process dominates the way we see and think about the world. Which pushed me to think about my role as a professor at a Christian college. Higher education is obsessed with “process”, with “systems”, with “jobs”. Contemplation is out, and production is in. Utility quickly pulls the plug on every discussion that tends toward the philosophical. “Why do we exist?” “Who am I?” tend to be met with a “Who cares? How does this apply to my life? How does this apply to my job?” So we fall over ourselves to “do” something. We really don’t care what, as long as we’re doing… producing.

The part of my work that metal seems to contradict is the Spiritual Formation class I teach to theology majors. We’re reading Augustine’s Confessions, following him from his life of unbelief through his conversion to his wrestling with deeper philosophical and theological questions. I figured the first part would work well–students always like a good testimony. It’s the second part I was worried about…how practical is his venture into memory or the flesh? Let alone his interpretation of the Trinity and Genesis. So it was with great fear and trepidation this morning that I went to class, wondering what students would say. I opened class with prayer and started to formulate the question I wanted to start with, when a hand went up. “Augustine is very Platonic in his thinking isn’t he?” I was silent…not in shock but relief. Other hands went up with more questions…so I started writing on the board, unpacking a bit of neo-Platonism, trying to help them understand what Augustine was saying. We did make application to Spiritual Formation, I asked them about their own lives, how they are “ordered” by what they desire. When class was over a few students stayed behind to ask more questions–a professor’s dream.

So what’s my point? Maybe we don’t have the slightest clue what we mean when we talk about education being “practical”. Maybe we’ve diminished education by focusing on jobs and utility; maybe students are bored with education because WE dilute important ideas with utility and pragmatism. Maybe the malaise facing Christian higher education is grounded in our failure to help young people wrestle with things that truly matter. Maybe contemplating the deep mysteries of human existence–helping young people wrestle with their identity in relation to God and neighbor–is more important than making sure they have employment. Didn’t Augustine quit his teaching gig after he converted? Wait a minute…

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at

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