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You Are Not Those Who Saw the Harbour Receding: On Matthew Lee Anderson's "Called Into Questions"

January 30th, 2024 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

There's a story I heard John Hodges tell once during a lecture at the Rochester L'Abri conference. T. S. Eliot is doing a reading of some of his poems, Hodges told us, and afterwords a woman stands up during a time for q and a and says "could you explain what (poem) means?" Eliot looks at her, somewhat confused. He pauses. Then he says, "you mean you want me to say it worse?"

What you have in this simple story is a reader who wants the text to be brought to her exactly where she is now and put into a packaging that she can fully comprehend and explain. You also have a writer who wants the reader to stretch themselves and try to begin to engage with a text that doesn't easily yield itself to the demands of lazy readers. There are, as is often the case, errors on both sides—readers can be too lazy and writers can be too snobbish.

Certainly, Eliot himself could be a snob. One read of "The Waste Land" will tell you that. But on the whole my sympathies here are with him all the same. When we encounter great art we often are encountering something greater than we ourselves are. If you were to imagine the beauty of that work of art to be a fixed volume that can fit in a vessel... well, the vessels of our own selves as they exist now are frequently insufficient to the volume of the art. And when this happens we can be tempted to demand that the artist find some way of taking that art and reducing it, shrinking it down to something that can fit. But, as Eliot understood, this is ultimately a demand that the artist say what they mean to say in an inferior way. I thought of this anecdote from Hodges often as I read Matt's recent book.

To get at the point another way, consider the widely discussed finale of the NBC show The Good Place. The show is the story of four people who die and enter the afterlife, where they learn to be far better people than they ever were during their life on earth, eventually gaining access to the show's version of heaven.

Yet what happens in the finale is interesting and also horrifying: The characters discover that unending bliss gets old. They find that they come to a moment where they feel satiated, as it were, and that they do not need to exist any longer. And so they walk through an arch in the woods and dissolve into the ether of the universe.

One of the show's protagonists, a moral philosopher named Chidi, explains this in a much loved (but actually quite chilling and horrific) final monologue:

For The Good Place, personalized existence isn't an inherent good. There comes a time when one's existence has been "completed" and it is good to slough it off and rejoin the universe. The way that the show gets there, however, is interesting: There's a scene where Chidi and his partner Eleanor are in Paris during a specific moment in history enjoying the city, seeing people that Chidi has studied, enjoying something that should be ostensibly perfect and delightful and yet Chidi finds it is no longer so. It doesn't captivate him as it once did. For him, that's the sign that it's time to "go." (We won't linger over what this way of thinking would mean for euthanasia, though hopefully that thought experiment helps highlight how monstrous this view of the world actually is.)

The idea, then, is that eventually one has exhausted the pleasure of personal existence and once that exhaustion has happened, it's time for one's personal existence to end, for the wave to return to the water.

I take Matt's project in the book to be something like an attack on this entire mode of thought. This includes the pablum coming from Chidi, but also encompasses a similar version of this idea that often pervades Christian communities and that can sometimes slide into something closer to the more overt forms one finds in something like The Good Place. The intellectual life in Christian circles sometimes functions as something like a treasure hunt for The Answers where the Bible and some secondary text from a chosen guru, often a Bible teacher or professional apologist, is used as the map. And so you go off on your answers quest, seeking discrete, propositional answers to whatever particular questions most concern you.

In some cases, the quest "succeeds" and what you end up with are a mass of Christian believers convinced that they have arrived at a perfected Christian knowledge. This often makes of them a kind of cult, dedicated more to the ministry of whoever wrote their favored secondary text than they are to the catholic faith passed down through the ages. It can also make them somewhat cold and lazy, convinced they no longer need to explore or even maintain basic postures of intellectual humility because they have already found all the right answers. (Cradle Roman Catholics sometimes know better than to hold their faith in this way, but one particular twist on this amongst evangelicals is that evangelical converts to Catholicism develop precisely this posture about their newfound religion.)

In other cases, the quest fails and this leads to disillusionment, perhaps even apostatizing if "my personal adventure quest for intellectual satisfaction" becomes synonymous in the person's mind with "being Christian." Or in a variant on this model, the answers are 'discovered' and then judged to be unsatisfying in some way.

In short, Christianity is conceived as a search for intellectual answers to The Big Questions. Once that move is made, the answers will either be 'found' and one will judge one's Christian experience to be 'complete,' without any need for further maturation or the answers will not be found and Christianity is tossed out at the same time as the adventure quest.

Neither of these approaches leads one to Christian maturity. Indeed, in a worse case scenario they end up escalating the problem from one of mere intellectualism to something like ontology itself, the very problem raised by The Good Place: How can existing for all eternity actually be a good thing? Won't you get bored? Intellectual boredom gives way to ontological boredom.

The contrast to all of this is the sort of Christianity Matt holds out to his readers in his book. It is a faith that doesn't easily fit into the dominant blocs of the American church—he is no promoter of "doubt" as a kind of unambiguous good or essential element of Christian belief, but neither is he selling certainty like so many gurus of the past. He's calling his readers above all to approach their intellectual lives with Christian maturity and is offering them a path toward doing that. But maturity does not mean free from uncertainty and it certainly doesn't mean a faith that no longer needs to study and question but simply declaim and command. Mature Christian faith can't ultimately mean either of those things because on the one hand our own waverings often keep us from the life of love and on the other our false certainties hinder our attempts to know the God beyond all praising.

He is calling his readers, rather, to something like the intellectual approach of St Thomas Aquinas, who could write millions upon millions of words and yet, upon experiencing a more mystical encounter with the divine, recognize that even his learned, scripturally rooted writing about God can still seem like little more than straw when set next to the reality of knowing him.

This, perhaps, is where we should return to Eliot: I said before that Eliot could be a snob. That is true. But sometimes the appearance of snobbishness is actually a badly expressed attempt at reaching toward something higher and more beautiful and just better than what was already set before you. And if attaining to that higher beauty is harder, well, so be it. The beauty is worth it. The experience of trying to speak God's thoughts after him, rooted in Scripture and the faithful reflections of our mothers and fathers down through the age, all while remaining fully cognizant of one's unclean lips and faltering spirit and failing mind, is the pearl beyond price. It draws one up into worship of God and to a more wholehearted faith and captivation at the one who is love, who moves also the sun and the other stars.

I mentioned the ultimately nihilistic ending of The Good Place as the monstrous place one might end up if one thinks that personal existence itself can ever be exhausted or the good of it can somehow be 'used up,' such that non-existence becomes the right choice. Perhaps another story then is a good place to end, presenting a better picture of what it can mean to exist well in the world.

Groundhog Day tells the story of a narcissistic Pittsburgh weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over in small-town Pennsylvania. (Internet sleuths have tried to nail down exactly how long Bill Murray's Phil Connor spends in Punxsutawney, PA, and arrived at the answer of nearly 34 years.) Upon realizing his plight, Connor quickly works through a variety of coping techniques. He tries hedonism, but that gets boring. Then he slides into despair and attempts to escape the cycle through suicide. Then he turns toward altruistic moralism. And as he realizes the limits of altruism as a homeless man he has attempted many times to save dies yet again he looks at the sky as the scene ends. Selfish pleasure is boring. Death is not an escape. And moralism can't accomplish enough good to satisfy you. So... then what? 

Forced to exist, Connor resolves to live according to love, loving both the neighbors he has been trapped with in Punxsutawney and loving the place itself and the world it is in. He masters jazz piano and ice sculpting (some things he had already begun work on during an earlier hedonistic phase on the path to impressing a woman he wanted). He attends to the place he lives, learning through sheer repetition what people will need help and when. And so he gives himself to the place's life with little regard for himself—and in that act of dying to self, he is freed. The cycle is broken and he awakes to find a new day.

The lesson of both Groundhog Day and Called Into Questions is broadly the same, I think: That the world is worth knowing and is worth loving. Anderson's book, of course, supplies the theological rationale here that Murray's film can only vaguely gesture toward. But the point remains the same: It is good to exist. And it will continue to be good to exist, even into eternity. You'll never plumb the depths of the delights of existence because you'll never exhaust the riches of the God who is existence himself, whose will ties you to existence, and whose love calls you toward beauty. Existence is never complete; there is always more joy to discover, deeper pleasures to be found. The best way of understanding Anderson's book might be to read it as a footnote to this:

Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

The earlier edition of this book, of course, was called The End of Our Exploring, itself a reference to Eliot, who coined the phrase in his "Four Quartets." As we leave Anderson's book, it might be well to let it guide us into another part of those marvelous verses, a section which inspired the name of a journal that remains very dear to me and which has helped form a circle of friends seeking to live the questioning life well:

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think 'the past is finished'
Or 'the future is before us'.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
'Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).