On What (Not) to Say and Write: Jesus in the Desert 3

Notre Dame, Indiana. When I was the Director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions (2010-2017), one of my favorite events was hosting discussions of new books by faculty, fresh and bright and often cutting edge writing by talented faculty at all stages of their careers.

In preparation for the book events, one of my favorite questions to the author was, How did you come to write this particular book? Given your expertise, the range of things you can write on, how did you narrow it down to the theme/s developed in the 200-300 pages of this book? The question was not about expertise nor about the general importance of the field – rather, given all that you could have written, why did you write this book? I put the question to every faculty author in advance of her or his session, but most still talked about the importance of the topic, as if to say, a book needed to be written on this, and I was able to do it. Rightly, I supposed, they were talking about their interesting books; I was interested in the mystery of human creativity, this author choosing to weave these works into just this marvelous book.

I posed the question, because it was my own question. Given that I have studied Hinduism widely and with a certain depth, given how little most of the texts and topics had been written about, and given my comparative approach that doubles and triples the number of angles and topics, there have always been multiple topics for me to write on, in each and every project. I am just finishing a book, tentatively entitled, Slow Learning in Fast Times: On Reading of Six Difficult Hindu and Christian Classics and Why It Matters. The first chapter is largely about how I had begun writing a book about just one Hindu text that brilliantly exemplified medieval traditions of ritual law and reasoning. During my study of it, however, I realized that the audience would be very small indeed, not just because the text is difficult, but because we rarely read anymore with the care and patience required by such a text. So, after much reflection, I backed up to a larger topic, Why can’t we read properly anymore? And so it turned into a book about Hindu ritual thinking, about radical nondualism, and about singing with end in devotion to the Lord. These, in turn, have been paired with three Catholic classics: a catechism (by Peter Canisius), a work of doctrinal theology (by Peter Lombard), and a treatise on the rosary (by Louis de Montfort). It is to be a book about reading slowing, that can be understood only if it is read slowly. I have further revisions and corrections to do, but it is largely done with. Probably not a New York Times bestseller, but nevertheless my best work right now, not the better book that someone else might have written. It is an appeal to all of us, right or left, in power or in danger, to slow down, recollect and enter deeply upon our own traditions - finding them again, if need be - so as to be educated and transformed by them - so as then to be able to engage one another in a richer, more comprehensive, deeply open manner.

Jesus in the desert

Discerning what to say and not say brings us back to the very short Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent this year:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (1.12-15)

Jesus himself had to go from being a recipient of baptism by John, and validation by God’s Spirit, to figuring out what he could and should say, on his own, when all else was stripped away: in the desert; reduced to a state of nature among beasts, things, institutions, and persons that are seen with an equal eye, simply as they are; tempted by Satan (to do the wrong thing for the right reason), consoled by angels (by the assurance that less is more, the small right thing greater than true and good in the abstract).

This testing made the difference. Jesus came out of the desert, the Spirit now inside him rather than driving him. He had found his way to his proclamation of the Kingdom, because by trial and temptation, he had pushed away all the extraneous good things that he might have done — stones into bread, descending in triumph from the temple’s pinnacle, receiving the fealty of all natures — to find within himself the good news of God’s Kingdom, in his own words. He was not John the Baptist, nor the rebel king who would overthrow Herod’s wicked rule. He was simply Jesus, nothing less or more, this blessed person coming out of the desert, finding his voice, and calling everyone to change their lives and enter God’s kingdom: the time is fulfilled, now.

Improbably, Mark 1.12-15 is a Gospel text that can help us to be better scholars (or teachers or practitioners of any good work). I have already written a first and a second blog about the passage, about the utter simplification it asks even of scholars: to be alone with Jesus in the desert (while on sabbatical in the contemplative space of Notre Dame), seeing universities (my own Harvard included) with that equal eye, just as they are but no more than that, precious resources, but only perhaps relevant to what any student or professor really needs or wants at this or that crossroads in life. Lives are changed by people who say and do what is given to them to say and do in the moment, not by better universities, more money, greater celebrity, wider audiences. Bear down, write your book, not theirs.

It is a small thing, in light of the Gospel and in the face of the crises facing us in 2018, to discern which book to write now, as a professor, at one university or another. But if we stop flailing about and opining needlessly, we learn to do the singular and smaller things which we can actually do: the kingdom of God is (already) within you.