Wet Feet: Navigating the Intellectual and Practical

“Hey, sorry to bother you guys-” the man wore more layers than I could count and spoke in a halting tone that had a tinge of shame to it. “Hi,” I answered, trying to quickly assess the situation. “I don’t want any money or anything-” It was just before 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, and my brother, Greg, and I were walking down the street in Boston looking for a bite to eat. “I just… my feet are wet, and I was hoping someone could go into the Walgreens and get a pair of socks for me, they’re like $1.99.” It had snowed all morning, turned to rain during the day and then back to snow. Now, there was slush everywhere, the kind of slush that’s cold like snow but soaks like water. In fact, about a block earlier, I had slipped a little on a frozen patch and gotten a good portion of slush all over my right foot, which was still wet. “Sure,” I answered, and he continued, “I’m just getting my life back together and I got a job, seriously, and I can’t get sick, I just can’t get sick, and with the weather today…” “Oh yeah,” Greg answered and gave him a supremely understanding nod as I opened the door to Walgreens. We couldn’t find socks at first, except some large Valentine’s Day socks that were more expensive. The man looked at them and hung his head, then looked at me rather sheepishly. I saw that there was a discount if you bought three pairs, picked up three, looked at him and doing my best to sound both warm and serious, said, “If we’re getting you socks, we’re getting you socks.” I paid for the socks and the three of us went outside. The man thanked us repeatedly, then kind of blurted out, “I’m Rob!” extending a hand to Greg and me. We introduced ourselves in turn and as we were about to part he added, “God Bless you guys, seriously.” “You too, seriously.” Greg and I answered in the sort of spontaneous unison that makes people think we’re twins, then made our way into the Chipotle across the street.

Allow me to backtrack a little bit, I was in Boston that weekend for the Augustine Collective Retreat, a conference that helps to equip and educate the students who work on Christian Journals like Peripateo. I had spent Friday afternoon and all day Saturday in intense discussions on writing, contemporary culture, and theological issues ranging from Calvinism vs. Arminianism to what is necessary for salvation. After Greg and I ate, we went back to the hotel where the conference was held and I spent three more hours discussing theology with different people. All of this is to demonstrate the following statement, I value intellectual thought, I value serious academic endeavor and believe it is important that everyone, Christian or non-Christian think rigorously. However, the juxtaposition between the intellectual exchange of the conference and my encounter with Rob has stuck with me. It has left me wondering about the interaction between the intellectual and the practical. This is a tension that strikes me as both relevant to Christian life because Christians are called both to learn about God and to live out God’s will, and relevant to Swarthmore, because we are an institution of higher education with a stated emphasis on social justice work. Let us explore that tension together.

I love ideas, and I believe that what we think is important. It is important to train the mind; I would’ve gone to another college and slept a lot more if I believed otherwise. But, thinking is important only instrumentally, through its effects on actions. A Christian framework would draw support for that idea from a passage such as the following “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (James 3:13, NRSV) In other words, actions demonstrate wisdom. This is how grades work, our actions on tests are taken as representations of our thinking. The question of whether tests are the best way to do that isn’t relevant to this article, but it is difficult to imagine a valid and useful means of assessing a person’s thinking independent of their actions. Even in the case where a person might forget how to take a derivative, while still retaining some understanding of the incremental changes involved in calculus, that retained understanding must have some effect on the person’s actions in order to be of value.

The other question that must be asked in order to arrive at a Christian understanding of this tension is: How does Jesus handle it? How and to what extent does Jesus engage in both the intellectual and the practical?

I would note first that Jesus studies. In Luke 2:46, we find Jesus sitting in the temple intellectually engaging with the teachers of the law. Throughout all four Gospels, Jesus repeatedly demonstrates an understanding of the scriptures that surpasses that of everyone around him. He out-argues the teachers of the law to the point where they’re afraid to continue testing him. Second, I would note that while Jesus talks much more theologically in John than in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, even in John, the Gospel does not read like a philosophical dialogue between Jesus and the disciples or Jesus and his opponents. There is action. When Jesus proclaims the “Good News” there are actions attached, when he preaches from the passage in Isaiah that says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) He then does those things over the course of his ministry.

In dealing with ideas of social justice, there is often a balance between a desire to have an unproblematic remedy for a situation and a desire to do something immediately. I’m sure there was a more systematically effective option than buying Rob socks. I don’t doubt that walking around the streets of Boston distributing socks would be inefficient. It doesn’t do anything to stop the same problem from occurring again. But, to stay in the terms of the opening vignette, coming up with a solution that provides socks for everyone a week from now doesn’t do anything for someone who has wet feet and no socks tonight. Both of these approaches are necessary; short run help without long run solutions is inefficient and a temporary fix at best. Long run solutions without short run help do nothing for the people who are actually suffering from systemic problems right now.

As a Christian, I believe that I have an obligation to do what I can to meet the needs that I see. The book of James puts it as follows, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17). Practicing Christianity cannot mean stopping at meeting spiritual needs. In a parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) Jesus characterizes the righteous as those who saw the hunger, thirst, nakedness, sickness and imprisonment of the “least of my family” and responded with food, drink, clothes, and care.

So, what does embodying this kind of care look like at Swarthmore? There are and should be lots of distinct answers to that question. There are certainly a lot of unmet needs and untreated hurts on our campus. But for me, this has meant looking outside of Swarthmore. When I look at the world, I can see more injustices and problems than I am capable of seriously endeavoring to remedy or resolve. Furthermore, as a Christian, I believe that I have to do something, but which thing(s)? For me, this is where faith comes in. I trust that if I go where God tells me to go and meet the needs that I see there, I am engaging with the right issues. Rather than spending an inordinate amount of time and energy analyzing the issues and solutions and trying to maximize the impact that I have, I trust that God can do the optimization problem better than I can. The challenge in this is that it requires actually listening for God and living in accordance with what I hear. When I engage with issues on and off campus, it is because I am going where I believe God is leading me.

When I’m at Swarthmore, I worship and teach music and the Chester Salvation Army, where I have experienced the power of the immediate transition between ideas and actions. Last summer, I got a grant from the Lang Center to run a music day camp there. I was frequently at the Corps for ten hours a day. I immersed myself in a faith community where if you were going to say that Jesus broke bread with tax collectors and sinners, you had better be willing to eat with whoever came through the door. If I sat there and shouted “Amen!” when the Major[1] preached on Jesus walking on the water and exhorted us to be “Water-walkers” rather than “boat-sitters” I could bet that I was going to have to “get out of the boat” on Monday. In fact, I spent the whole summer stretched across the gap between theory and practice in ways that I could never have anticipated.

In my interactions with the rest of the Chester Fellows, I examined questions centered on social justice work and understanding the power structures that have combined to perpetuate the problems of Chester. In summer Bible studies and at the Salvation Army, I looked at the passages that have led Christians to view social justice work as an integral component of lived faith. Then, there was camp, where I had to respond to the challenges resulting from broken systems in a way consistent with Jesus’ teachings.

Ideas are neat and clean. I can choose when to engage with Jesus’ teaching on going the extra mile.[2] If I’m in a Bible study and I decide to check out, the tangible and immediate consequences are minimal. Moreover, I can argue that one should “go the extra mile” without anyone actually making me do it. If, on the other hand, it is an hour past the end of my camp and I’m exhausted, but one of the students still hasn’t been picked up, disengaging isn’t really an option. The circumstances are such that I’m not just going to have to think about going another mile, I’m going to have to do it. Being forced to live out my faith like this led to some of the most impactful experiences of the summer. I consistently found myself in situations where I had to choose between ignoring what I knew God wanted me to do and doing something that I felt some combination of unqualified, untrained and too tired to do.

For example, one day after camp, an hour after camp had ended, I taught our most pugnacious and generally difficult 6-year-old to play the djembe and then picked up my trombone and played something that he could groove along to. When his mom got there, she started dancing around the room and smiling. The two of them enjoyed themselves tremendously. She then apologized for being late and thanked me very profusely. I found out later that my student’s father had been murdered recently and I immediately felt very small and foolish for caring about having to stay engaged for another hour at the end of the day.

I don’t doubt that the people on this campus, Christian or not, who are working for social justice generally have their hearts in the right place. I question whether our feet are in the right place. When I have an encounter like I had with Rob or when someone at Chester Corps praises God for helping him get off the street and into housing, I am left wondering what I am doing at Swarthmore. I am left wondering about what it means to be rooting myself in a hyper-academic community. This is an institution that at the very least professes a great interest in advocating for social change. It is certainly a place where social justice and the systems it seeks to combat are the subjects of academic study. But it is also a place with a remarkable capability for detachment and compartmentalization. We can study food justice and still send an unfathomably large quantity of food into the garbage at Sharples. We can study environmental justice and divestment, but still send all of that trash three miles down the road to get burned in Chester and leave lights on all over campus. This is not to say that we should not engage with questions in an academic way, but rather, that is necessarily insufficient to engage with them in a strictly academic way. If our studies, whether they be of scripture or sociology, do not alter our lives, we have wasted our time.

It is important, therefore, to get out of the bubble. It is important for us to “get our feet wet” as the saying goes, and to engage with the world in practical ways. I use “get your feet wet” because there is nothing that Rob could’ve said to convey the difficulty of his situation better than the slush I had stepped in myself. My first thought, when I felt the water get through the thin webbing of my running shoes was “Good thing I have a clean pair of socks at the hotel.” Getting our feet in the right place might mean getting them wet. Responding practically to need and hurt is not going to be comfortable. But treating people as fully human necessarily entails a multifaceted approach. Jesus proclaims “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.”[3] Given that loving God entails responding to human needs, there is no reason that we should respond to human needs with less than that. It is good for us to use our minds; I came to Swarthmore in part because I wanted to be a part of a community of people who were intellectually invested in questions of social justice. But it is not good for us to become so focused in any one side, the intellectual, the physical, or the spiritual, that we neglect the others. Moreover, it is important that we understand meeting basic physical needs as a foundation on which we must build in order to meet the others. This isn’t to say that the physical is inherently more important, only that order matters. Roofs and foundations are both essential parts of houses, but it’s impossible to put the roof on first. Human beings have minds, we have hearts, we have spirits, and we have feet. Sometimes, those feet are wet.

 

Endnotes
1. Essentially, the Major is the Pastor for the Chester Corps.
2. Matthew 5:41
3. Mark 12:30, it shows up in other gospels, sometimes in a different order.

Nathan Scalise ’16 is from Brewster, Massachusetts and is currently searching for the 25th hour of the day. When not running or eating, he basically lives in the Lang Music Building.

Image credit: Sam Gutierrez – Swarthmore Peripateo Spring 2014.

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