Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Western Zen

Angel of the Waters statue at Bethesda Fountain in New York's Central Park

The essay below is one that I posted in 2012. It holds a "double treasure" for me. I originally wrote it to bring together several strands in my own search in order to highlight how the wisdom tradition can be found in our western culture.  I was able to bring in some important information from a couple of my mentors in addition to more recent experiences that helped me to see our “western Zen” tradition.

As it happened, that original essay was printed in a local newsletter back in 2003 when Marcus Borg presented a series of lectures in Birmingham. I had never heard Marcus Borg before. As the lectures proceeded, I was impressed with the way that he brought deep personal meaning and spirituality to modern scholarship. During one of the breaks, I approached Mr. Borg to get him to autograph his book The Heart of Christianity.

He had evidently read the newsletter which provided the details of the lecture series that weekend, and which contained my essay. As he was signing the book, much to my surprise he said, "I really liked that article you wrote. I mean every aspect of it was so good." He had recognized me because my picture had been in the newsletter.  He even commented on particular things I had noted in the article. I was amazed that he had taken time to read it and that he expressed genuine interest in what we were doing in our small corner of the world – and he wanted to encourage that. What an immense gift of encouragement Marcus Borg gave to me that day! 

Western Zen

         "Imagine there's no Heaven…"
                                    ~ John Lennon

I love Zen stories. Zen stories are wisdom stories that have a way of getting right to the heart of the matter. Often they show in simple ways how conventional ideology falls short. They have a beautiful way of dramatizing that certain things are true except when they are not. I call them Zen stories because they are usually from an Eastern religious tradition. Actually, we have a kind of Zen tradition in the West, but it has always been more peripheral or underground rather than mainstream.

Years ago, a professor of mine, Dr. William Hendricks, told us that Western civilization has inherited three views of reality: Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He boiled down each of those views to a basic question. The Greek approach to reality is, "What does it look like?" (e.g., classical Greek sculptures). The Latin approach asks, "How does it work?" (e.g. Leonardo DaVinci). The Hebrew approach asks, "What is it for?" (e.g., the Hebrew prophets who advocated for a higher purpose). It is probably true that those three questions dominate our Western culture.

However it came to be, activity, acquisition, and development so dominate the West that there has been little room for a wisdom tradition. Perhaps that is why today many of us are hungry for those wisdom stories from the East. Even so, there is indeed a wisdom tradition in the West. It just takes a little more effort to find it since it has often been underground or even suppressed by the authorities in charge. That is why I am even more delighted when I discover an example of Western Zen.

One Sunday, I heard a Catholic priest relate an old legend* that I had never heard before. To me, it falls into that category of Western Zen. The legend has it that one day an angel was walking down the road carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. Someone asked the angel what he was doing with those things.

"With the torch, I am going to burn down the mansions of Heaven," the angel said, "and with the bucket of water, I am going to put out the fires of Hell. Then we shall see who really loves God."

I love those stories that catch us off guard and show us so succinctly the nature of motive and reality. I appreciate Zen whenever I find it. I am particularly pleased when I find it within my own Western tradition. I think Paul Tillich must have known something of Zen. One of my mentors from my teaching days in Hong Kong, Dr. Paul Clasper, had been a student of Tillich. He told me that the professor would spend the whole term meticulously plotting out his systematic theology. At the end of the term, he would essentially destroy the whole notion that there can be a systematic theology. C. S. Lewis knew something of Zen when he wrote the novel, Till We Have Faces, where he demonstrated that our perceptions may not reflect reality.

Imagine no mansions in Heaven, no fires in Hell. Imagine no theology. Imagine seeing the world with new eyes. "You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." We have a treasure of wisdom tales and Zen stories to help us to understand that certain things are true except when they are not. Celebrate wisdom and greet your neighbor with awakened eyes.

[* I later learned that the story the priest told has been attributed to two different holy women: Saint Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic and the 8th century Muslim mystic, Rabi’ah. ]


Photo Credit: Alberto Manuel Urosa Toleda (Getty Images)


Monday, August 28, 2017

Monday Music: Tomorrow Is a Long Time

"Tomorrow Is a Long Time," by Bob Dylan has been covered by many, including Judy Collins, Elvis Presley, the Grateful Dead, and Odetta Holmes. Dylan's original live recording of it was featured on the television series, The Walking Dead.

In the video below, singer John Winn tells of when he first heard Dylan sing the song back in the early days when they were both living in Greenwich Village. Winn, at the age of 80 recalls the young Dylan's state of mind and the circumstances that inspired him to write the song. He then gives us his rendition of this simple, plaintive, and moving song.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Solar Eclipse

beneath summer trees
biscuit cutter fractal light
seeps past lunar hills 


Photo: Shadows in tree leaves during solar eclipse, WKRG News, Mobile


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Grace in a Time of Hate

A side street view of Grace Episcopal Church

Some of us have been distressed by the season of hate that seems to have taken hold in the U.S. Earlier this month, the presence of white supremacy groups marching on Charlottesville to protest the town’s decision to move a statue of Robert E. Lee was disturbing to many. As a Southerner who seeks to live a Christian life, I was particularly distressed to see how so many white Christians could not bring themselves to denounce white supremacists and the hate speech they promote. Southern Evangelicals have been especially shameful, in my opinion, in refusing to call out white supremacy, and refusing to hold a president accountable for his blatant disregard for moral values and democratic ideals. 

The torches, the swastikas, the chants of "Blood and Soil," and "Jews will not replace us" were so out of place for the America I thought we should be living in by now. At the same time, so few white Christians were willing to speak out; so many conservative politicians stood silent, offering no opposition to the words and actions of hate.

Southern Confession

I will tell you a secret. I am “southern born and southern bred,” having grown up in
Alabama. We have a state rich in natural beauty, but also steeped in racial prejudice. Here is my secret: I have been assuming all of my adult life that the rest of the country would help my state redeem itself. When I saw the success of the civil rights movement along with the advances made in the U.S. to bring about equity and justice, I thought that my home state would eventually realize its errors. I thought we would have to mend our ways as we came to realize the responsibility that comes with being part of “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

I thought a just nation would bring my state in line so that humanity would flower and prejudice would subside. As I have looked out at our country over the past several months, I fear that
Alabama has had more of an influence on the rest of the nation than the nation has had on Alabama. The fear, hatred, prejudice and violence that I thought would subside in my state, have instead spread across the country.  We seem to have dispensed with the guardrails of common decency in our public discourse.

Is This the New Normal?

So now you see why recent events have been demoralizing for me.

I know that not everyone is turning a blind eye to white supremacy and hatred. I know that last November a little over half the country voted against a right-wing demagogue. I know that many people at the time found his bigotry and sexism beyond the pale. Yet the fear is that this “beyond the pale” bigotry is in danger of becoming the new normal. Some days, it can all seem overwhelming.

By the end of last week, I felt the need to spend some time in prayer in light of what I saw as the state of our nation. Though I have my own faith community, I have also visited other churches in town. Having been to Grace Episcopal Church on a number of occasions, I felt that this would be the most beneficial church for me to visit. I knew that because of the prayers they pray, the music they sing, and the work they do on the city streets, this would likely be the place for me to find some respite in light of distressing national news. I hoped that it would be a place for me to settle my mind and spirit; a place to pray and contemplate; a place to hear a word of hope and encouragement.

Grace Notes

On Sunday morning, I headed over to Grace Church. I was not disappointed. The Anglo-Catholic liturgy, music, and prayers provided the space to settle. The homily, delivered by the Rev. Robyn Arnold, gave acknowledgement to the political distress that I felt. She stated as she began her Sunday message that her parishioners understood that she seldom spoke politically from the pulpit. Nevertheless, she felt the need to address the events of the past week. Because she spoke from the heart to the heart, I found her message to be more pastoral than political. 

I left with an encouragement that I can carry on and perhaps even do this hard thing that may be called for in the days ahead. Moreover, I was reminded that we can be faithful witnesses even in the small things we do right where we are and that can make a real difference.

I jotted down a few sermon notes on the service leaflet. In the margin beside the parish prayer requests there was enough space to write . Here is what I walked away with from the homily:
Remember who you are.  You are created by God and made in God's image.

Realize that anger  leads to hate and that hate will eat you up on the inside. It is possible to “be angry and sin not,” so take care not to let hate take control.

In the Gospel reading for the day, Jesus said that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." (Matthew 15:11)

Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

We must remember that God is love and therefore trust in God’s love.

We must respond to hatred and injustice, but that response will differ with different people: some will respond publicly to oppose injustice, hate, and greed; others will respond more quietly to do small things in love right where they are.

We are to be Christ in the world at every opportunity.

We are called to show the peace of Christ in our words and in the work of our hands.


The other thing I like about attending Grace Episcopal Church is that as I drive back home, I can listen to “A Writer’s Almanac” on NPR. I get to hear Garrison Keillor tell about literary milestones for this day in history and then share a poem. On this day, the words he always closes with were a particularly appropriate benediction:

“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

And then the road home, to carry on tomorrow.


Photo taken from the website for Grace Episcopal Church


Monday, August 21, 2017

Monday Music: Eclipse (John Denver)

Here's one of my favorite John Denver songs. I learned to play it on the guitar many years ago. Today's solar eclipse that will cast a swath across the U.S. brought it to mind.

"I think it's kind of interesting the way things get to be,
The way that people work with their machines..."


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Friends Gather

friends gather and wait
breezes rustle summer leaves
cares are forgotten

Photo by Peggy Farmer


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Best Cup of Coffee

A view of Lantau Island, Hong Kong

The Best Cup of Coffee I Ever Had

It might have been due
To the light drizzle we faced
As we disembarked from the ferry
Onto Lantau Island.

It could have been the camaraderie
Of good friends
Coming together for a weekend
Of hiking and camping.

We set out with our backpacks and folded tents
On the gradual incline of a path
That would wind its way
Above the bay
And up the gentle mountainside.

Cool air prevailed
As the light rain fell.
That coolness settled
Into our hands and feet
When the sun dropped down below
The crest of the low-lying hills.

I have had so many cups of coffee
In the courses of my days.
Coffee at home
At friends’ tables
In fine restaurants
At roadside diners.
I have sipped coffee from steaming mugs
On winter days,
From fine china
On summer evenings
And from the basic white cup
Of a sidewalk café in Paris.

My taste in coffee
Has covered many brands
And many roasts.
Sometimes it had to be a robust French roast,
Sometimes a mellow “house roast” blend.
There were seasons when I expected
That sharp edge of a dark roast
To pierce through the cloaking of cream
That I stirred in.
Other seasons required the light and buoyant taste
Of a “breakfast blend.”

There have been days upon days
When I endured the tepid results
Of a new brand of coffee with a great ad campaign,
Looking forward to the last scoop in the bag
When I could return to
The tried and true
Of the hardy favored brand
That I should have never departed from in the first place.

Many have been my days of coffee,
But it was on that first night
While camping on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island
That all past and future cups
Came into focus.
All coffee would henceforth be
At best, a valiant attempt to compare.

Just before the night began to step in
We decided that we had found our campsite.
There was a small creek for water,
And a level area to pitch our tents.
Our first task was to start a fire.

Wood was gathered and the fire was started.
“Now we need to get us some coffee,”
Our friend and hiking guide said.
He had some tablets
That would purify spring water.
Just to be safe
We boiled the water sufficiently
In addition to adding the tablets.

With water ready
My only cup was a plastic cereal bowl
And my coffee was instant powder stored in my bag.
Yet with the cold of night settling in,
Feet wet from hiking in the rain,
And good friends gathered,
That cup of instant coffee
Make from purified creek water
Drunk from a plastic bowl
Remains in my memory
The best cup of coffee
I have ever had.

                                                        ~ CK


Photo: "Beaches on Lantau Island, Hong Kong," from Peanuts or Pretzels travel site:


Monday, August 14, 2017

Monday Music: Glen Campbell sings Mull of Kintyre

The world lost an incomparable artist last week with the passing of Glen Campbell. He started his career in LA as a studio musician, backing up such notables as The Beach Boys. "Gentle on My Mind," written by John Hartford, was his break out hit that set him firmly as a solo artist. A native of Arkansas, he kept ties to the country music that he cut his teeth on, but his great success was in his ability as a crossover artist, appealing to pop and Top 40 as well as country. He teamed  up early in his career with songwriter Jimmy Webb to record a string of hits for many years.

While he was a virtuoso on the guitar, his musical talent is further on display in this clip where he sings Paul McCartney's "Mull of Kintyre" and then plays the bagpipes to boot!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Saturday Haiku: The Goldfish Pool

fish swim in shallows
while deeper waters reflect
much more to the soul 


Image: The Goldfish Pool at Winston Churchill's Chartwell estate
Medium: Oil on canvas
Artist: Winston Churchill


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Faith and the Liberal Arts

[Note: A version of this essay first appeared on this blog in July of 2013 under the title, "A Faith of One's Own."]

Samford University's Reid Chapel
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)

Today's essay is a variation on the theme from last week about the benefits of a liberal arts education.  Today I take a brief look at my exploration of faith within a liberal arts curriculum. 

It is important to be a part of a faith community, but it is also important to have a faith that you can buy in to – one that makes sense within your worldview and the life that you live.  An important step in helping me to find a faith that I could buy into came when I was a college student at Samford University. 

I chose to pursue a double major in English Literature and Religion & Philosophy.  As it turned out, these two branches in my liberal arts education helped me begin to forge a faith I could call my own.  There was one professor in the Religion Department, Dr. Karen Joines, who was particularly controversial. His specialty areas were Hebrew, Old Testament studies, and archaeology.  He was seen by many as a “liberal apostate” who should be removed from our Baptist institution. It was my English studies that helped me to have a different view, and a much greater appreciation for our liberal professor.

Sacred Story

In Karen Joines’ classes, it was okay to believe what you wanted to believe, but he wanted you to grapple with the questions of faith and to understand why you believe as you do. He wanted us to understand the deeper meaning of the Resurrection story, asking questions like, “If you could have set up a video camera in front Jesus’ tomb, what do you thing you might see when you played it back?” and “If there were no afterlife in Heaven, would you still live the Christian life?” us to understand the deeper meaning of the Resurrection story, asking questions lik

The single most important lecture I heard during my four years at Samford was his lecture in Archeology class on mythopoeic thought. That lecture opened up new vistas for me. It affirmed my love of poetry, nature and spirituality. It brought to me a heightened sense of wonder seldom found in the classroom.

There were other things he said in his classes that have stayed with me through the years. They were the closest things to rabbinical sayings that I have heard first-hand. He talked about Jacob, emphasizing that he went limping after his name-changing encounter with the angel. Referring to the book of Daniel, he told us that in our life we will be asked to bow the knee to Nebuchadnezzar, “and if you know what's good for you, you will bow to Nebuchadnezzar – but you better not." (It didn't take me long in the real world to know the truth of that comment, which I came to see as a kind of “Jewish koan”). On another occasion told us about Micah, in the book of Judges, who lost his silver idols and declared, "They have taken my gods away, and what am I to do now?"

Perhaps his most controversial chapel lecture was his “Funeral for a Friend,” in which he described, again in quite poetic language, the death of God, or more accurately, the loss of our concept of God as real life unfolds. Dr. Joines challenged the assumptions that we brought from our Sunday school days, but he was showing us what sacred story is about.

Finding the Connection in Literature

While many were livid with what they saw as apostasy, it occurred to me that if Karen Joines spoke the same words over in the English Department, he would be viewed as a defender of the faith. You see, while my colleagues in Religion classes were having difficulty dealing with doubt and things that might challenge their faith, I was seeing the world of literature deal with much harsher crises.  My studies in the English Department showed me how to honestly deal with the questions and challenges of life. Literary people were not confined by doctrine and did not have to restrict life to theological boxes.

I was reading Shakespeare, who wrote more on the human condition than anyone else in the English language. More important, he dramatized the conflicts and struggles common to us all. I was also watching Huck Finn wrestle with the notions of race and slavery, I saw Atticus Finch strive for justice in the segregated South. Moreover, I was beginning to understand the beauties of poetry, which I have come to see as our own “open canon of scripture,” to which we continue to add with each passing year.ish language, and who, more importa

The result of grappling with questions raised by literary writers was a larger appreciation of life. There was no condemnation for stepping out of the boundaries, no call for the firing of professors. There was just the exhilarating process of examining life, love, joy, sorrow, struggle, and friendship.

My double major in English and Religion helped to open my eyes to a wider world as I wrestled with finding the meaning of the life I am attempting to live. I carry from my studies a particular treasure in that gift that Karen Joines gave in my religious studies – that vibrant sense of the poetic along with an honesty to face struggle and doubt within the context of faith.  He inspired a freedom to live unbound by outdated notions.

*    *    *

Post script: I have attempted to carry on the idea of sacred story, as Karen Joines demonstrated to us in his classes. I have recast some of the Old Testament stories in a kind of personal midrash in “Tales of Isaac: Part I - The Altar and Part II - The Blessing,”  “Discovering Esau,” “A Blanket for an Old Man,” and “The Mark of Cain.” I also tried to follow up on Dr. Joines’ lead in “When Your Gods Are Taken Away.”


Monday, August 7, 2017

Monday Music: Bluegrass and The Byrds

Fascinating footage of Roger McGuin and The Byrds mixing it up with bluegrass legend, Earl Scruggs in 1971. McGuin along with fellow musician Chris Hillman did the same kind of thing with the same song for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2.

In this first video taken from the documentary, Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends, you will see Roger McGuin and The Byrds performing with Earl Scruggs on the banjo. After a little bluegrass session, they do the song, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," by Bob Dylan. The song had been in The Byrd's repertoire, having been recorded for the 1968 album, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." (To watch the entire documentary, available on YouTube, go here)

This second video features the recording from Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2, with Roger McGuin, Chris Hillman and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Yellow Warbler

the fleeting warbler
stops on a swaying tree branch
bright song fills the air

* To hear the yellow warbler's song, go here.


Photo: Yellow warbler along the Natchez Trace Parkway (National Park service photo)


Friday, August 4, 2017

A Song from Sam Shepard

Last week we lost actor and Pulitzer prizewinning playwright Sam Shepard. (Singer Patti Smith wrote an eloquent tribute to Sam Shepard in the New Yorker)

From a post by American Songwriter Magazine:

R.I.P. Sam Shepard, one of our country's greatest writers. Though mostly known for his play-writing (to which he brought a rock and roll sensibility) and acting, he also co-wrote the song "
Brownsville Girl" with Bob Dylan.

Shepard was hired by Dylan to write the script for an experimental film during the singer's famous Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. The film never really panned out, but Shepard's journals about the tour (published as the Rolling Thunder logbook) provide great insight into Dylan's world circa "Blood On The Tracks."

Shepard also played drums for the Holy Modal Rounders in the late '60s and co-wrote a play with Patti Smith called "Cowboy Mouth," when the two were living together at New York's Chelsea Hotel in the early '70s.

The song “Brownsville Girl” appeared on the album Knocked Out Loaded. It is a grand epic of a story with the dramatic flair indicative of a playwright's touch. Some critics have said that it is the only noteworthy song on the album.

Brownsville Girl

Lyrics by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard

Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck

Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath
“Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death”

Well, I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in
And you know it blows right through me like a ball and chain
You know I can’t believe we’ve lived so long and are still so far apart
The memory of you keeps callin’ after me like a rollin’ train

I can still see the day that you came to me on the painted desert
In your busted down Ford and your platform heels
I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet
Ah, but you were right. It was perfect as I got in behind the wheel

Well, we drove that car all night into San Anton’
And we slept near the Alamo, your skin was so tender and soft
Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back
I would have gone on after you but I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off

Well, we’re drivin’ this car and the sun is comin’ up over the Rockies
Now I know she ain’t you but she’s here and she’s got that dark rhythm in her soul
But I’m too over the edge and I ain’t in the mood anymore to remember the times
when I was your only man
And she don’t want to remind me. She knows this car would go out of control

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

Well, we crossed the panhandle and then we headed towards Amarillo
We pulled up where Henry Porter used to live. He owned a wreckin’ lot outside of town about a mile
Ruby was in the backyard hanging clothes, she had her red hair tied back. She saw us come rolling up in a trail of dust
She said, “Henry ain’t here but you can come on in, he’ll be back in a little while”

Then she told us how times were tough and about how she was thinkin’ of
bummin’ a ride back to from where she started
But ya know, she changed the subject every time money came up
She said, “Welcome to the land of the living dead”
You could tell she was so broken hearted
She said, “Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt”

“How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh
“We’re going all the way ’til the wheels fall off and burn
’Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies”
Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn”

Something about that movie though, well I just can’t get it out of my head
But I can’t remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play
All I remember about it was Gregory Peck and the way people moved
And a lot of them seemed to be lookin’ my way

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls,
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

Well, they were looking for somebody with a pompadour
I was crossin’ the street when shots rang out
I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran
“We got him cornered in the churchyard,” I heard somebody shout

Well, you saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune. Underneath it,
it said, “A man with no alibi”
You went out on a limb to testify for me, you said I was with you
Then when I saw you break down in front of the judge and cry real tears
It was the best acting I saw anybody do

Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass
but sometimes you just find yourself over the line
Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now
You know, I feel pretty good, but that ain’t sayin’ much. I could feel a whole lot better
If you were just here by my side to show me how

Well, I’m standin’ in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck
Yeah, but you know it’s not the one that I had in mind
He’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about
But I’ll see him in anything so I’ll stand in line

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

You know, it’s funny how things never turn out the way you had ’em planned
The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter
And you know there was somethin’ about you baby that I liked that was always too good for this world
Just like you always said there was somethin’ about me you liked
that I left behind in the French Quarter

Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content
I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone
You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent
And I always said, “Hang on to me, baby, and let’s hope that the roof stays on”

There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, he wore a gun
and he was shot in the back
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

Copyright © 1986 by Special Rider Music


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education

Samford University Library
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)
Last week on NPR's The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor read a poem by Faith Shearin, “Directions to Your College Dorm.” It is a wonderful poem that transported me back to those days of breaking away form home, meeting new friends, and learning of a wider, grander world. It also reminded me of how much I value having gone to a small liberal arts college where I could safely explore the wonders, joys, anxieties, and anticipations of a life moving out into the world. (You can read Shearin’s poem here.)

Thinking back on those days prompted me to repost an essay that I wrote a couple of years ago looking back on my liberal arts education which was published at AMERICAblog in May of 2015:

The Liberal Arts Pathway

It has been over 30 years since I received my first undergraduate degree at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. I have no regrets about the liberal arts foundation of my higher education. While the question “How can I get the best job?” has encouraged much of higher education to become glorified technical schools, to limit one’s education to employability for employability’s sake is to miss out on what education is supposed to be. What’s more, even in the context of employment, it limits ones opportunities down the road.

In my professional life, I have been involved in teaching, social services and healthcare. At each stage of my career path, my liberal arts education helped not only in opening some doors, but also in dealing with life once I walked through them. In today’s environment, with the speed of both technological and social change, one can expect to have to change jobs or to get some retraining for the workforce. A liberal arts education teaches you how to learn, allowing you to adapt to new challenges, requirements and settings.

I double majored in English and Religion & Philosophy, leading to all of the predictable jokes about my supposedly nonexistent job prospects. At the time, I wasn’t worried because I expected to either teach or enter the ministry. While those fields were good for me at first, I began to see that there were other professions that would suit me better. I eventually went back to get further training for my subsequent jobs, but my background in liberal arts was with me every step of the way.

Learning liberally

A view of Samford's Reid Chapel
(Photo by Charles Kinnaird)
I grew up in a small town, which led to my being a bit naïve when I entered college. I was surprised to find that my college professors were intent upon not only teaching me “things,” but also making me struggle with what those “things” meant. Whether it was history, science, literature, music, art or philosophy, everything was grounded in larger questions concerning what it means to be alive in the world. I was introduced to Shakespeare, who wrote more on the human condition than anyone else in the English language, and who more importantly dramatized the conflicts and struggles common to us all. I saw Huck Finn wrestle with the notions of race and slavery; I saw Atticus Finch strive for justice in the segregated South. I came to understand the intricate beauties of poetry, which I began to see as our own “open canon of scripture,” to which we continue to add with each passing year.

There was no condemnation for stepping out of the boundaries. There was just the exhilarating process of examining life, love, joy, sorrow, struggle and friendship. And when what you’re studying is life itself, your education naturally extends beyond the classroom. Some of my best memories from college are the debates and conversations with friends over lunch, about what Professor So-and-so said in class or a project that one of my friends was working on.

It was a wonderful and challenging milieu that fostered an appreciation for others and, in turn, a more progressive consideration of life itself — an outlook that was at once more hopeful than the provincial views I had grown up with and more aware of our past and present social inequities.

Living my education

That being the case, it still took most of my college career to get to the point of being able to think through the concepts I was being exposed to. Many are not developmentally ready to fully profit from their education in their late teens and early twenties. Education is a life-long struggle. For example, I had a conversation with a high school classmate whom I happened to meet years after graduation and who had become a successful banker. He mentioned our high school English teacher and noted that, “We really need what we learned in English class even more when we are in our thirties and forties — much more than we could realize at the time.”

A foundation in the liberal arts forces the student to grapple with the realities and vagaries of life, both before and after they receive their degree. This is especially important in the real world, which doesn’t curve your grades. In the ups and downs I have faced since graduating, I have always had something essential to fall back on; lessons that extended beyond employment and paychecks that could be re-applied to life as it happens.

So by all means, get all the training you can, but make sure you’re learning more than just what’s on the test. Life is more than your first job; educate yourself liberally, and you’ll be prepared to live accordingly.

Samford University Campus (courtesy of Wikipedia)

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