Choosing Life and Love: Reflections on Growing, Changing, and Moving

10929156_468493449968450_3133394307104609088_n“If crunchy conservativism stands for anything, it’s the questioning of Progress and thoughtful but radical dissent from an ideology that believes the material universe is ours to manipulate to suit our ends. This is what the theologians call the Gnostic heresy, and it’s almost as old as Christianity. Yet it is the ideology that rules the modern world, the spirit of the age. There are no traditions, no ideals, no spiritual truths that cannot be violated to serve man’s wants. Modernity conceives of man as an autonomous being who owes homage to nothing and no one save his Almighty Self. This is an ideology that serves industrial capitalists and sexual liberationists, mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats, equally well. It is, however, the death of families and communities. And it may be the death out our civilization if not challenged and refuted.”

Rod Dreher, Crunchy Cons, page 227

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As I’ve mentioned before, Amanda and I will be moving again soon. Our lease is up at the end of September. We are going to move in with her parents temporarily while we look for a house to buy. Our hope is to move into our own house before our next child is born, so sometime before April 2. As we face down moving again and then again, we are in the unique position of being able to think through and discern our values, to come to terms with what our vision of the good life actually is.

Because, up to recently, we have been more or less blindly following the deep grooves that have already been laid out for us. Or maybe not blindly. Just, in general, not having the courage or strength or willpower to act.

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Last August I wrote about simplicity. I noted that my vision of simplicity, my social-imaginary as Jamie Smith would call it, usually comes with visions of the pastoral life. But, at the end of that post, I noted that contra my wish-dream of becoming a gentleman farmer in the vein of Wendell Berry, simplicity actually “has to do with control, with deliberation. It has to do with waking up, day after day, and knowing precisely how and why I got to where I am. Simplicity has to do with owning my actions, my decisions, my thoughts. It has to do with taking responsibility.”

What I meant then, but don’t think I really got across (or really understood myself until recently) is that this vision of simplicity does not deprive one of choices. In fact, choice is essential. There is, of course, the simplicity of maturity, the simplicity of accepting one’s life circumstances and living in a way that gives honor to God and neighbor in and through whatever else is going on. But really and truly, we all have choices. We don’t have to live the way we do simply because that is the way we live. Sometimes–even most of the time–we need to get over our idealist selves and make peace with where we are and what we are doing. But there are choices too. And, over the next several months, Amanda and I have the opportunity to make some of them.

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Our first real realization that we had choices to make came back in March when we drove through Abilene on our way to visit my grandma. We became extremely nostalgic for the life that we had had there. Amanda mentioned that, one day, we might well decide to move to a smaller town, to get out of the crush of the city. That one day our value of the small and the local might triumph over the utilitarian ethos of the age. I asked why we had to wait, why we didn’t just pack up and move. She spouted off something about me needing to finish my PhD and about our lease and about having Ellie and all the rest, the litany of constraints.

But I started to wonder. I started to wonder what would happen if I quit my PhD. I wondered if I would be a better father and husband, if I would be a better teacher and writer, if I would be more able to care for my friends and family. In short, I wondered if there was something I could do, some choice I could make, that would be better than the ongoing choice of all-consuming graduate education.

And the answer that I came to, that we came to, was that yes, in fact, I could choose something else more commiserate with our goals and values. I could choose, in fact, to quit.

I’ve detailed elsewhere why I left my PhD program–the program itself was intellectually vacuous (shot through with the nonsense), I didn’t want a research degree seeing as how I only really wanted to teach, I wanted to work in a place less hostile to my faith, I wanted to look for a job that would pay something decent so Amanda could stay home with Ellie more–but the choice itself, realizing that the choice existed, awoke something else in me; it opened me to the possibility of choice in any number of other areas of life.

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God was gracious to us and provided, on the final day of my contract with UTA, an offer to start another job that Fall. I would be able to spend the summer not in frantic search for a way to make money, but in a daily rhythm of work and play with Ellie. And then, come the Fall, I would be able to start anew. And that job, of course, was teaching 8th grade Humanities at The Covenant School.

Covenant is a K-12 Classical Christian school. As a Christian school, it seeks to spiritually form its students and to invite students, faculty, parents, families, staff, and all of the rest into the true myth of Jesus Christ. As a Classical school, it seeks to do this by shaping minds and hearts and bodies by exposure to, and learning from, the great books of the Western tradition. It’s the kind of place where I get to teach my 8th graders, who are taking Latin by the way, about the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Church, and the genre of apocalyptic literature all while encouraging them and praying with them daily.

Covenant is a place where I have found the beginnings of a community of the mind (something I lost after I left ACU) tied together with a community of the heart and soul. Covenant is the kind of place that is not only shaped by the Great Tradition and by the Holy Spirit, but also makes living the life of faith easier than it ever has been. I have been more sustained in my love of, and practice of, my habitus at Covenant than anywhere else I’ve been.

And all I can say is that it’s not even about me. I want to be part of Covenant. That is, I want to give of my time and talents and energy for the school and its mission. As I told Amanda on the day of my interview back in April, “I think I’ve found my people.”

It turns out that the new headmaster at the school comes from Faulkner University (where he was in charge of the Great Books program). His background is in the Churches of Christ, so we were able to hit it off great. He and I discussed how we ended up with a love for the Great Tradition. Something I told him is that I’ve felt robbed of my education because no one ever, in any kind of systematic way, taught me about all that has come before me, about my cultural and literary heritage. High school was a joke, but even in college I only received pieces here and there. English majors weren’t even required to take a Shakespeare course! And even my graduate education, while certainly deeper and more organized than undergrad, did not think it necessary to start at the beginning and come forward. I call myself a Master of Arts, but I’m certain that I’m not a master of anything. Covenant has awoken in me a great hunger for what has come before, for the knowledge and works of my cultural ancestors.

I’ve never been less interested in new ideas than I am today, and I’ve never been more interested in the old. All of which, I’m certain, means I’m some kind of conservative.

* * *

I’ve been writing on the blog now for awhile about the intellectual conservatism, what Peter Kreeft and others have dubbed Traditionalism, that has deeply influenced me and my outlook. This conservatism is interested, unlike the popular political pundits who use the term, in actually conserving something besides one’s money.

Rod Dreher, in a book called Crunchy Cons elaborates at length on this point. He asserts that there is a kind of disposition toward life, a sort of orientation toward the world, that is essentially interested in conserving the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in politics and art and music and religion of course, but also as regards food and the natural world and family and education. One of the points of his Crunchy Con manifesto is that, for Crunchy Cons, “the small, the old, the local, and the particular is almost always better than the big, the new, the global, and the abstract.”

This is something that I deeply identify with. It’s one reason that I fit in so well at Covenant and not so much in my former PhD program. It’s another reason why mine and Amanda’s values tend to be, in some pretty important ways, at odds with the world and culture around us. And, as I said earlier, we are blessed to be in a position to make choices about our future in line with those values.

* * *

Our values, of course, aren’t new. They predate my exposure to Covenant and Wendell Berry and Rod Dreher. In fact, a lot of these values were codified in the first Fall of our marriage, back when I was reading a lot of Michael Pollan and Tamar Adler. But our values have roots that go back further, back to our shared comitment to Christ and his church, back to our submission to Christian teaching on stewardship, family, and marriage. As we actively search for a new house, and as we take that opportunity to re-imagine our engagement with the world, we plan to be concerned with conserving the wisdom of those who came before us in the following areas:

First and foremost we are interested in conserving the wisdom of Scripture and received Tradition in matters of faith and religion. As I wrote back in March when I updated my spiritual journey, I have felt called back not only to the theology and spiritual practices of orthodox Christianity, but specifically to the Churches of Christ, the fellowship of my heritage. We are committed to serving in our church in helpful and good ways that honor God and love others. We are committed to submission to the church on questions of theology and practice. We are committed to participation in the life, worship, and service of the church for the sake of the Kingdom and Gospel of our Lord.

Second, we are committed to conserving the family. Russell Kirk once wrote that the most important institution to conserve is the family. I think that’s about right. The family, and not the individual, is the smallest social unit. And Amanda and I want to do what we can do to create an environment deeply hospitable to the flourishing of our growing family. That has already meant me taking a full time job that pays me something decent. It will also probably mean Amanda going down to part time or, more likely, PRN work after our second child is born. We could each work full time and leave our kids with friends/grandparents/daycare in order to make more money and have more stuff/pay down debt, but I think we are more or less convinced that conserving the family means, at least while our kids aren’t in school, that one of us be at home almost all of the time. It also means detaching ourselves from our stuff.

Making debt elimination the end-all-be-all is just one side of the materialism coin (we fully agree that debt is a terrible burden and is definitely something that wisdom and responsibility call us to deal with as a priority; it’s just not more important, in the short-tern, than being home with the kids). The other side is, of course, obsession with stuff. In our case, we (especially me) are addicted to our phones and computers. We want the house we will raise our kids in to be beautiful and useful, something we are willing to write 360 mortgage checks for. We want to have in our homes only things that are either useful or beautiful. And we want our kids to play outside, to get dirt under their fingernails. We don’t want them to easily live as the machines that our society wants them to live as. Rather, we want them to be–heart, soul, mind, and body–human beings.

Third, we are committed to engaging with the environment and, most especially, the food system in a responsible and prudential way. I do not have the space to outline the horror of our industrial food system that, if it had its way, would strap each one of us to a chair and pump food directly down our throats. But I can say this: we have abandoned the wisdom of our great-grandparents who not only farmed the land and cooked and ate holistically, but who also lived in deep rhythm with the natural order of things, closely aligning their hearts, minds, and bodies to Nature and her God. Read Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver and Tamar Adler and Wendell Berry. We plan to grow our own vegetables and maybe raise our own chickens. We plan to buy the rest in a fair-trade way from local farmers, whether as part of a CSA or at the farmer’s market. We plan to eat local, organic, and holistically. We plan to cook whole meals ordered toward pleasure and consonance with nature and nutrition and tradition. And, in general, we plan to live in a way that more properly gives precedence to ancient wisdom about the natural world. We did this when we lived in Abilene. It’s time to start again.

Fourth, we are committed, and this is still in the early stages of us thinking through it, to giving our kids an education that is far different than the ones we received. As a teacher at Covenant, our kids can attend for a really low cost. But, if that didn’t work out, I think we would try to make the sacrifices necessary to give them the education we desire for them, the education that shapes the whole person, that is invested in old ideas, that asks students to do nothing more than wonder and learn and think and that leaves questions of utility or efficiency out of it. We want our kids to to use their hearts and minds and bodies each in concert with the others and ordered toward a holistic and integrated life. We want them to recognize the Imago Dei on themselves.

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Please pray for us as we make this transition and as we take this time to really work through what living out our values will entail. We’ve been given a marvelous opportunity to consciously shape the world we will inhabit. We are grateful and humbled to have the opportunity.

* * *

“Truth is, there’s no way we could have made that budget work. And there’s no way we could have grown up enough to be “ready” for what providence had for us. We needed each other. We needed to grow up, together, and to know that our love for each other didn’t–and doesn’t– consist in having it all together. We didn’t have it all together at the beginning, after all, and we still had us. . . . Were we ready? No. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. That reality reminds me that our call to speak of the family together as a church can;t be simply nostalgia for a simpler era. We must call ourselves to a different sort of stability–the sort of stability that is a sign of the Kingdom. Family values aren’t a means to making it in America. Family, as defined by the gospel, will make us stranger than we want to be–and it’s about time”

Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, page 196

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