Category Archives: Desire Issue

To Want to Want: Desiring Differently

By Jason Lee, TD ’22. Jason is majoring in Global Affairs.

Sometimes I’ll look up from lunch and wish I liked math. This is different from wishing I was good at math. As it is, I’m perfectly fine being remarkably average. What I mean is that sometimes I wish math was as beautiful to me as it to the people who love it. Somewhere past the point where numbers become Greek lies the internal, ticking logic of the universe that I imagine is what pushes them to slog through things called combinatorics or “Boolean” whatever.

But while I know I’m missing some sort of splendor behind the polynomial veil, I’m stopped by the unfortunate fact that math bores me. So I kind of want it, but not really. There’s a distance between me, a person who wants to see lovely and evocative things, and a desire for this particular lovely and evocative thing.I almost have the desire, but not quite.

This is odd, but not uncommon. Exercise is another example of this in which we all know that running — or jogging, hopping, or picking things up and putting them down again — in the long run will make us healthy, which we want. But for various reasons we don’t do any of these activities. Eating poorly and staying up late are related examples in that, right now, we want to do both — fast fried food tastes good, and there’s a curious sense of pride and/or solidarity in working until predawn — but we wish we didn’t. Next to all our wantings and not-wantings, there appears to be a second category of desire in which we want to want or, alternatively, we want to not want.

Academics sometimes call this “wanting-to-want” a second-order desire or metadesire. I do not want to do math, but I know there’s an arithmetic wonder for those who count it all out, so in recognition of that, I want to want to do math. Once recognized, metadesires pop up everywhere (see: procrastination — we want to punt the p-set that’s really just the same problem repeated seven times, but we wish we didn’t).

So then, what to do about this, not new, but maybe newly attended to set of wants? We may as well start where we do with our more immediate cravings, which is to say, rank them. We do this almost instinctively with our regular wants. Our desire for learning (or maybe just a diploma) outweighs our desires for things incompatible with the demands of college, such as free time, or a disposable income. Over learning, we value our identities and our self-worth.

In the same way, maybe our want to want to exercise lies above our want to want to listen to country music. That seems to make sense: fitness can be its own reward, whereas country — country can wait. But then, shouldn’t we value finding, or rather, learning beauty in all things above being able to lift unreasonably heavy objects? That’s not exactly a fair comparison, but what I’m trying to ask is, whether we do or don’t, why?

There appears to be a standard or purpose by which we have ordered our desires, even if we did not consciously subscribe to one. There are a thousand and one such standards, whether altruism, God, or I-just-want-to-be-happy, and all offer many ways to prioritize, but also filter, our desires. If this standard, or “The Point” is our own happiness, we pull our great tangle of wants into order based on what drives us to joy. Maybe eating terrific cuisine tops that list, or making gobs and gobs of money, or living by the coast while others are cast aside.

By ranking and pursuing these immediate desires we can take steps towards our Point. At the same time, we also put together a set of metadesires, which by nature are more oriented towards the future. Alongside desires fitted to who we are right now, there exists a class of metadesires that pertain to self-transformation, to who we want to become.

Maybe that sounds a little grandiose. And in a way it is grandiose, ambitious, and plain difficult to accept–not to mention achieve–the project of self-improvement. After all, there’s been more than enough research demonstrating sturdy links between CO2 ppm and meat production, refrigerators, and palm oil to provoke some lifestyle changes with the recognition of “caring about the planet” as a worthy desire in line with our Point. Yet for some reason, that recognition isn’t enough. Even if we only consider those who have the funds to enact such lifestyle changes, my favorite dish is short rib stew, yours is ice cream cake and we both use semi-cheap soaps. Sometimes, our resolve to pursue improvement is simply too weak. Within certain margins of nuance, we don’t want to protect the environment: we want to want to.

It is here that our metadesires of self-improvement become achingly relevant. On some level, our metadesires reveal a lack: of resolve, of foresight, of willpower, of vision, of stamina, or of tenacity in ourselves. There’s a sense in which we want to become ready, or maybe worthy of our Point before we take it on. If our Point is to protect and empower people, we must first want to fight by all means for the planet, to acknowledge the homeless, or even just be academically responsible and start papers prior to their due date. If we ignore the project of self-improvement fueled by these transformative metadesires, then the Point is not only out of our reach, but out of our pursuit. If we don’t value metadesires as part of our Point, if we are always waiting to be prepared for our desires rather than letting our metadesires prepare us, then there’s no reason to seek anything more than what we are already capable of, to desire anything more than what we already know, or to be more than we already are.

But if we do attend to them, our desires for transformation help us not to just pursue “feeling good,” but health, and not just health but wholeness. They guide us beyond I-just-want-to-be-happy to a timeless happiness that may be called satisfaction, or even peace. They push us not just to live well or be compassionate, but to be good, the best we can be. Wholeness, peace, goodness, which can be called righteousness: these are enduring, one might say eternal desires that prepare us for our Point as much as they push us to it.

At the same time, it makes sense to be wary of these types of metadesires. After all, we don’t know where they come from, and sorting the origins of desire like trying to unmix paint. Maybe these projects of self-improvement as I’ve defined them are just the result of social pressure, conditioning, and overactive community instincts. Maybe it is efficient or biologically sound to pursue certain desires, even if, for some reason, we don’t feel the desire itself. Maybe they’re a burrowing side effect of a consumerist culture that is constantly telling us to want things that we don’t currently want. The resulting wariness is paralyzing; if we can never parse the roots of our desires, how do we know we’re not wasting our time, or worse, being made fools of?

It is in this uneasiness that I and other believers turn to faith. As Christians, we believe that there’s a Big Guy™ up there who not only created the world, but has a particular way in which He’d like us to live in it. Not because He’s picky, but because He knows His Point for us will be larger and broader and more fulfilling for us, the people He loves, than any other.

This is not to say that such a life will not be difficult. God knows it will at times seem just as complicated and confusing as all the other Points. In fact, Paul, the author of several books of the Bible, explicitly acknowledges in his letter to the Romans the difficulty of metadesire, self-improvement, and general existence in this way:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-19, NIV).

In response, we’re promised that God will help us along the way. In combination with our own earnest efforts, He will grant us the resolve and the capacity we lack to deny our misleading (which for me means un-Godly but could also be called counterproductive) desires and help us become worthy of the Point that He has set before us.

If this is true, then resolve can be trained and morality practiced. We can try to do it on our own, or with those we trust. It could be that the desires of self-improvement promoted by the Bible are the only way to live a fulfilling life. The exact way we live and the goals we set for ourselves seem to be matters of faith. For those who say, “that’s good for you, but I don’t really need it,” I understand. In fact, I’ll be honest in saying that even if we believe them to be promoted by a holy text, we’re not always sure how our professed metadesires will get us where we need to be.

One simple response to this uncertainty is that if there is a person or method or series of poems that some believe to be inspired and effective in helping them get to where they want to be, it seems odd not to look there. But more importantly, the Christian message is that in our doubt, in our uncertainty, we’ve chosen to believe the word of an unwavering, divine, bigger-than-capitalism God. Rather than rely on what we know–which, as we’ve discussed, is often so, so little–we’ve chosen to humble ourselves in faith. To keep living in that humility is the Point.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

The Weight of Expectations

By Serena Puang, DC ’22. Serena is majoring in Linguistics.

After Dorothy went back to Kansas, the land of Oz descended into madness, and I was powerless to stop it. The apple trees decided that they didn’t want to give up their fruit anymore, so they started stretching their branches over the main roads in an act of self-protection and gutted transportation infrastructure in Oz.

A wise man once told me that experience is the only thing that brings knowledge; I guess I’m “experiencing” right now, but I don’t feel wiser. I traded my ratty green sweater for a classy three-piece suit, I’m running meetings I could have only dreamed of sitting in on a couple of months ago, but on the inside, I still feel like the same Scarecrow who spent years fighting to keep the crows from pecking at my hat, the one who watched in silence as thousands of passersby debated each other, wishing I had a brain too.

Not many people are given the opportunity to rule Oz, and I just want to do it well. No more tricks or optical illusions, I want to do right by the citizens of Oz:  to truly see them and make each person feel valued, to create an environment where everyone can succeed–the wizard certainly didn’t.

“Scarecrow, there are a few individuals requesting an audience with you,” Tinman says.

“Just a minute,” I reply, “I want to read the briefing from yesterday before I jump into more meetings.”

“You misunderstand, they’re presently in the throne room.” he says.

As a little scarebaby, I marveled at pictures of the Oz throne room. The long curtains that trailed down from the high ceilings lent an air of mystery, and the gold siding sparkled in a way that made anyone standing in the room glow. I remember thinking if only I could belong here, then nothing else would matter. But now, the whole room is technically mine, and the too-nice chairs in the too-nice grand hall bring out the accent colors in the too-nice wall decor. I’m almost scared to go in because it feels like I would ruin it.

I take a deep breath and entered through a side door anyway. Five Munchkins, two flying monkeys, and seventeen bunnies are crowding  around the main entrance. When they see me, they suddenly charge at the throne, pushing and shoving to get to the front. I didn’t even know bunnies lived in Oz.

Three hours later, the monkeys are still screeching over each other about unemployment in light of the Wicked Witch of the West’s…recent change of state. The room lost its illustrious glow about two hours ago, and the sheer amount of green that permeates every crevice of the room is about to drive me crazy. The bunnies left after I agreed to let them sell more carrots to make up for the lost apples, but the Munchkins and I are still talking in circles, trying to figure out what to do about the trees.

“We just need to cut them back,” repeats Illad, self-appointed leader of the group, “Nothing’s going to get done if they’re on the roads”

I sigh. If the fighting trees are anything like the apple trees around my field at home, it might not make sense to cut them back. They’ll just get angrier and put down stronger roots. But they must have considered that, right? Surely I’m not the only one who’s had this thought…maybe it’s just so obvious that it goes without saying.

“You need to do something!” another Munchkin reiterates, “What’s your plan of action?”

“I need to have a talk with the trees before we move forward–don’t you think?” I say.

There is so much chaos in the room, I can’t even remember a time people weren’t demanding things from me. Over everything, I hear my heart racing. It’s like something is pushing against the sides of my brain, trying desperately to get out. I wanted to do the best job I possibly could, which is why I instituted an open door policy for citizens to voice their concerns, but the amount of need is overwhelming. Maybe it would be better if I weren’t the one doing the job at all.

“I thought you were on our side!” Illad exclaims, “Why can’t you just make your own decisions? Don’t you have a brain in that thick head of yours?”

“Of course I do!” I scream, “I’m trying my best! It’s not my fault that you’re all being unreasonable!”

“So much for a ruler that listens and is always on our side,” Illad snorts, “Let’s go.”

Guilt washes over me as everyone else filed out of the room with their things. Why did I snap like that? Tinman comes in with Lion and a list of agenda items.

“How are you doing?” he asks.

I respond, “Completely overwhelmed and out of my depth,” except for some reason it comes out “Fine. You?”

He brushes off the question like it was a stray piece of straw I trailed on the ground, “Did you take the time to glance over the briefing I sent you?”

“I haven’t had time yet.” I reply apologetically.

“No worries, there isn’t anything that pressing. As long as you didn’t agree to allow the bunnies sell more carrots. That would be a disaster.” He pauses to look at me.“Is something troubling you?” he asks.

“I just…I guess I’m stressed about the whole tree situation. ” I say, tiptoeing around the carrot issue,   “I don’t want to make the wrong decision”

Lion piped up, “Oh! I understand completely! I get stressed all the time. You know, like is my mane losing its shine? Do I do bows or no bows? All you need is to take a ME-day–it’s self care. Have you tried clearing your mind of all your worries?”

“I’m not sure this is the same–”

“Perhaps your mind is too occupied,” Tinman adds. “Frequent rest is key to a productive and efficient mind. If you simply set the problem down and return to it at a later time with a clear head, you’ll likely find that the solution was there the whole time.”

“Yeah! Sometimes the answer is inside you all along!” says Lion.

“I guess you could be right,” I say weakly.

I know they’re trying to help, but they don’t get it. They seem to be fitting right into their new roles, and even if Lion is a little dramatic, they haven’t messed up like I have. They haven’t failed Oz.

I’m so lost in thought, I almost don’t notice the man wearing a sleeveless green button-up with matching green pants who has entered and is tapping his foot, waiting for me to address him–yet another failure of the day.

“Can I help you?” I say in the most professional tone I can muster.

“The ruler of Oz needs a consistent and reliable public face. It’s key to public relations and stability as you can probably imagine. As you learned during your audience with him, the Wizard before you used this machine to create that projection,” the man says, gesturing to the contraption, hidden behind one of the curtains, which creates the formidable floating head I’m used to associating with the Wizard, complete with voice modulation. “Now, since you, Tinman, and Lion are co-rulers, you all need to learn to use the projection. It’s a fundamental part of the job.”

Without pause, the man launches into a long explanation of each of the dials, knobs, switches, and levers that control the projection. I try to listen, but I’m not convinced that we actually need a projection at all. He says it’s for public relations, but it feels like deception. When I saw behind the curtain and found out the Wizard was just an ordinary man from Kansas, I felt betrayed. I don’t know if I want to or should do that to someone else, but maybe this is what it takes to be a good ruler. Maybe, if I nail this, I’ll finally feel like the legitimate leader of Oz everyone expects me to. Maybe this is all worth it.

He demonstrates and I try to imitate him exactly, but my feet don’t glide over the pedals like his do. When he does the projection, it looks like the formidable wizard I’ve admired for my entire life, but when I do it, the smoke comes out in awkward puffs like an asthmatic choo choo train and I can never get the voice quite right. Despite everything, the man seems to still believe I can do it. Each failure is met with a “Just try again, you’ll get it,” or “You’re obviously capable of this.” I know that’s supposed to be encouraging, but each one feels like a weight being stacked on my shoulders, a pressure to live up to everything this title entails. I start to think that he’s just saying these things. I may never get this. What made me think I could ever be better than the wizard? How can I be a good ruler if I can’t even use the projection?

I try again, and the projection looks like it’s being operated by a gang of blindfolded flying monkeys–a lot of moving parts and zero coordination. After what feels like my fiftieth failed attempt, just looking at the contraption to think about trying again fills me with a pang of anxiety. I turn back and realize that Tinman is still there, patiently waiting so he can have a turn. I step down and let him try, and of course, he gets it effortlessly on the first time. I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I feel my cheeks burn in embarrassment anyway. The task was easy. I’m the problem. I shouldn’t be here. Tinman doesn’t say anything, but I know what he’s thinking: I can’t believe this brainless fool is in charge.

I want to melt into the walls or better yet, return to the fields I came from. At least there, longing for a brain felt hopeful. Even as a distant dream, it was something to cling to. Now I have everything I thought I wanted, but I’ve never been so unhappy. Before I know what I’m doing, I start running–even though I know I won’t get far. I keep going even when I feel my legs go numb and see the trail of straw I’m leaving behind me. That is, until I stumble and fall. I look up, face to face with the apple tree whose roots I just tripped over.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

“No one does,” the tree replies gruffly. “It’s like we’re completely invisible.”

“Um…well it’s kind of hard to miss you. You’re in the middle of the road,” I say.

“That’s not what I mean,” he says slowly. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” I say.

“Everyone in Oz is constantly telling us what our problem is, but the problem was never really apples. It’s the fact that no one ever comes to see us unless they want something. Don’t get me wrong, we want to do our jobs, we just don’t want that to be the only thing that gives us value.”

I pause for a moment, unsure of what to say.

“Told you, you don’t understand,” he sighs.

“Well, maybe if we all met together we could talk it out,” I suggest, but it feels hollow.

He gives me this incredulous look, and suddenly I regret saying anything at all. I want to say the right thing to make this all better, but I don’t think that exists.

“We won’t stop,” he says matter of factly. “You won’t convince me that anything will change.”

I could take him at his word and act accordingly; I could go in Monday morning and issue a formal decree recognizing the trees for their contributions to Oz–no projections, no games, just a legitimate, maybe feeble attempt to extend an olive branch to a group that is often overlooked. But that would counter what everyone else is telling me we have to do: cut them back. There’s no guarantee that the trees will do anything in response to us reaching out, and if it fails, even more of Oz will be mad at me. Despite everything, I think reaching out to them is right. It’s what we should do, so despite every fiber of my being that’s screaming at me to wait or to consult Tinman or to let someone more qualified take over, I issue the decree right when I get home.

I start with the history of the partnership between Oz and the trees. With careful attention, I describe the work they do every day, how Oz wouldn’t function without them, how grateful we should all be to them. It seems futile. The trees probably won’t even care.

The next morning, everyone is buzzing around the throne room before I get there, and once I enter, a chorus of congratulations greets me.

“Good job!” Lion says enthusiastically, “I knew you already had the solution.”

“I have to admit, that was really smart of you. I’m sorry I misjudged you yesterday,” says Illad.

I bury the words that want to leap out of my mouth next. I didn’t think of anything— I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and that was only because I was completely incompetent at projecting. I did what anyone would have done.

That night, everyone goes out to dinner to celebrate, and I try to match the enthusiasm everyone else seems to have, but it’s hollow. Everything around me is happening, and I’m just there. I know I still don’t really belong here. Everyone thinks I’m great now because I “did something smart”, but I didn’t. Anyone could have done this, anyone should have done this.  I’m so mad at myself because this is technically what I wanted, but it still feels like I’m pretending. When the conversation lulls, I get up and say I have to get home.

“I shall keep you company,” says Tinman, and we walk out together. “I believe personal congratulations are in order.”

“I’d really appreciate it if we just didn’t talk about that.”

“Why is that?” he asks.

“Don’t you see? I stumbled upon that solution. I didn’t know it would work. It’s not like I was actually smart or actually thought anything through. It’s not like I really have a brain; I was just there.”

“I was under the impression that the wizard…”

“He gave me a piece of paper and a title. That didn’t make me smarter.”

“I thought you were adept enough to realize that this fixation you have on attaining brain severely misses the point. It’s not a superpower” he says.

“Yeah…I guess. But you do have a brain,” I shoot back.

He shouldn’t get to tell me that it’s not a big deal. It is a big deal that everyone else can do something I can’t. Growing up, I couldn’t stand being the dumbest person in the room, but what’s worse is the pressure to pretend that you’re not.

“Why is having a brain so important to you?” he asks.

“How else am I going to do my job well?”

“I believe you already have.”

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

An Ordinary Love

By The Logos Masthead.

For all its hype, love doesn’t always work out. Christians, for whom love is the most fundamental truth and mandate, can say that “love covers a multitude of sins” and “love is patient, love is kind” (1 Pet. 4:8, 1 Cor. 13:4), but these verses don’t seem to be a very good remedy for a broken heart.

While the precise definition(s) of “love” may warrant extensive discussion, we know love when we encounter it. It is a deep and powerful force that changes the way we feel, the way we act, the way we promise. It is something extraordinary, in the literal sense. Love is patient and kind but also crushing. It can be tyrannical.

“I envy their happiness who have never loved; how quiet and easy are they! But the tide of pleasures has always a reflux of bitterness.” – Peter Abelard

Before love breaks in on our blissfully ignorant existence, life is reasonable and full of the possibility of contentment. When it does invade, everything fades to dark in contrast. The most powerful love feels not only desirable, but right–so right that nothing can be denied it, and anything can be justified for its sake. Even when our conscience tells us that something about this love–its intensity, its object, its context–may be wrong, love pushes back: not to love would be wrong. Love seems to come so close to the divine, sanctifying and exalting its object.

“When the Best is gone – I know that other things are not of consequence – The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care –

Not to see what we love, is very terrible – and talking – doesn’t ease it – and nothing does – but just itself.

I often wonder how the love of Christ, is done – when that – below – holds – so -“ Emily Dickinson

As divine as it can feel, love is tragically bound by mortality. The classic love story always features a happily-ever-after: love’s triumph over seemingly insurmountable circumstances. But there is no guarantee of this happily-ever-after in real life. Arbitrary and inevitable difficulties will tear at relationships, seeming to contrive against lovers’ perfect union and satisfaction. No union between people can ever be perfect, thus to be a lover is to never be satisfied; to be a lover is to face daily tragedy.

“In spite of all my misfortunes, I hoped to find nothing in it besides arguments of comfort; but how ingenious are lovers in tormenting themselves!” – Heloise d’Argenteuil 

The one inescapable circumstance of human life is death. Yet worse than death is having to kill our loves. In the face of inevitable obstacles, what happens when unextraordinary ethics challenge love’s tyrannical rightness? The height of tragedy is the moment of choice. Agamemnon decides to slay Iphigenia. Cordelia refuses to profane her love to Lear. Christ says “Your will be done.” Does one choose to be good, or to be happy?

“The love boat has crashed against the everyday” – Mayakovsky

Sometimes the choice is widely agreed upon by society: monogamy is preferable, while restrictions on sex and gender are now almost unthinkable. The struggle raging in our hearts is rarely so clear. If I love someone I cannot be with, why does it sear my lungs? Because I feel that this capricious, tragic love is something extraordinary. I feel that the love that is opposed to life also transcends life. But I know I am wrong.

“I incessantly seek for you in my mind; I recall your image in my memory; and in such different disquietudes I betray and contradict myself. I hate you: I love you. Shame presses me on all sides: I am at this moment afraid lest I should seem more indifferent than you, and yet I am ashamed to discover my trouble. How weak are we in ourselves, if we do not support ourselves on the cross of Christ.” – Peter Abelard

The Christian claim is that ethics and happiness are compatible in Christ, no matter how seemingly at odds. If love and justice meet at the cross, where is the hope for the unjust lover? I am trying to believe in the ordinariness of extraordinary love. We fall in love given the right circumstances, the right time, and in the most unexpected of ways–only our finitude is what makes love special and extraordinary in this place and time. But the hope of the resurrection is that somehow, all ordinary loves will be made extraordinary. At such a time, the most extraordinary, mind-blowing, heart-breaking earthly love will be no more or less divine than other, simpler loves.

When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven (Mark 12:5).

This, I think, is the hope of an ordinary love: that we can look at  our extraordinary loves and believe that they will be made abundant. It means that we can temper love’s tyranny because this isn’t the last or even the best of it. It means that when the ethical crashes into the love boat, it need not sink, but can expand to include the ethical. It means that mortal life need not stand opposed to love.

“I love you as I did on the first day – you know that, and I have always known it, even before this reunion.” – Hannah Arendt

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

A Fear of Far Drops

By Bella Gamboa, JE ’22. Bella is majoring in Humanities.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an epic poem dating from the early first century CE, is a collection of tales of transformation, many of which remain quite well known in some form today. Among these stories is that of Daedalus, the ill-fated artisan who is exiled to Crete, and his son, Icarus. What follows is an original translation of Ovid’s Latin text.

Daedalus loathed Crete and his long exile; he was filled with longing for his home, the place of his birth, but the vast sea separated him from it.

“Minos, king of Crete, may obstruct our escape by land or sea,” he said, “but the sky is yet clear. We will take that path: though he might possess everything, even Minos does not control the air.”

As Daedalus spoke, he directed his mind to previously unknown arts. Now, he makes nature itself new. He puts feathers in ascending order, beginning from the smallest, with the short feathers following the long – you could imagine they grew along a slope, like a rustic panpipe that rises up little by little, with uneven stalks. Then he fastens the center of the feathers with flax and their edges with wax; and he bends the structures which he assembled so that they resemble real wings.

Meanwhile, Daedalus’ son, Icarus, stands nearby. Not knowing that he handles his own ruin, his face beaming with pleasure, Icarus begins capturing feathers, which he lifts with his breath; just now, he softens the golden wax with his thumb – and his playing hinders the wondrous work of his father.

After Daedalus placed the finishing touch on this undertaking, the craftsman balances his body in the pair of wings, and, as his wings strike the air, he hangs aloft.

Daedalus equips his son and says, “Icarus, I warn you to fly quickly in the middle way. Do  not go too low, for the water will weigh down your wings; and if you soar too high, the sun’s fire will scorch you. Do not be distracted by the constellations – not the Deer-keeper or Ursa Major, nor the unsheathed sword of Orion. Rather, be sure to follow my lead, and seize the way!”

As he gives his son this advice for flying, Daedalus fastens the unfamiliar wings onto Icarus’ shoulders. Between the work and the warning, his aged cheeks grow wet, and the fatherly hands tremble; he gives kisses to his son, not to be repeated again. Daedalus flies ahead, lifted by his wings. He fears for his companion, just like a bird that leads forth its fragile offspring from their high nest into the air. Daedalus encourages his follower, and he instructs Icarus in the damned art, and shifts his own wings to look around at those of his son.

Those who catch sight of them flying – a fisherman trying to catch fish with his rod, or a shepherd with his staff, or a farmer leaning on his plough – are amazed and believe those who can soar over the sky to be gods.

And as they begin to pass by the islands – on the left side lies Junonian Samos (Delos and Paros had been left behind), Lebinthos on the right; and Calymne, overflowing with honey – the boy begins to delight in daring flight. He deserts his leader and pursues a higher path, as he flies full of desire for the sky. The nearness of the swift sun softens the sweet-smelling waxes that bind the feathers; the waxes gradually melt.

Icarus shakes his arms, now bare; but, lacking wings, he cannot catch hold of the air. His lips, forming the name of his father, are received by the sapphire sea, which afterwards was named for him.

And the unlucky father, now no longer a father, cries, “Icarus, Icarus, where are you? Where should I seek you? Icarus!”  he calls out.

But then he catches sight of feathers in the waves, and he curses his skill. He lays Icarus to rest in a grave. That island is since called by the name of the buried.

From a ditch, a cackling partridge watches the unfortunate son being placed in a muddy tomb. The bird claps his wings and reveals his joy with song. At that time, this bird, called a perdix, was unique and had never been seen before – it was created but recently as an eternal record of your crime, Daedalus.

Once, Daedalus’ sister, not knowing what fate held, had given her child to Daedelus for teaching, a twelve-year-old boy, with a mind hungry for learning. This child, Perdix, removed fishes’ backbones to study them; he cut continuous spikes in the spines with a sharp knife and discovered its use as a saw; and he was the first to fasten two iron arms onto one vertex, so that when the bars were evenly set apart, one arm traced a circle.

But Daedalus envied the boy and threw him headlong from the sacred citadel of Minerva. Then he lied that the boy had fallen. But Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, who favors the clever, saved Perdix and transformed him into a bird and covered him with feathers in midair. So the vigor that once fed his genius was transferred to his swift wings and feet. His name from before, Perdix, remains as the name of the partridge. However, this bird does not lift its body on high, nor does it make its nest in branches and high trees: rather, it flies near to the ground and places its eggs in bushes. Mindful of its past, it fears far drops.


Icarus’ flaming fall is a well-known parable, generally presented as a warning against the foolish ambition represented by his arrogantly flying too close to the sun. But Ovid’s myth in its entirety, including the little-known context of Perdix’s story, transforms typical images of the principal characters. Icarus becomes a playful boy who flies too high due to the exhilaration of flight, while Daedalus is jealous and overreaching, guilty of killing his nephew and of manufacturing the false wings that enabled his son’s death.

Yet even with the story of Perdix, Daedelus is not entirely despicable. He appears to genuinely desire intellectual distinction, and he achieves mastery as an artisan and inventor. Yet this desire leads him tragically astray. What, then, is the distinction between productive intellectual pursuits, and the destructive desire for preeminence that dooms Daedalus?

Despite the myth’s age, Daedalus’ overreaching ambition remains recognizable, particularly at a place like Yale, where everyone strives for excellence. Just getting to Yale requires a highly competitive process, and that competitive pursuit of success continues here, with countless applications for internships, seminars, and clubs. Although our ambition might not lead us to throw our nephew off a citadel or result in the death of our son, any degree of mastery requires sacrifice — students’ sleep deprivation and overwhelming GCals can attest to the toll.

While the inventive Perdix displays the beauty of innovation and genius, Daedalus twists this pure curiosity with his consuming desire for preeminence. Blinded to his limitations,  Daedelus values his own supremacy over Perdix’s life, and that murder leads to his exile. Then, in his attempt to escape, he convinces himself that he can “make nature new.” But as real as the wings might appear, and despite his trust in his creation, Daedalus’ work is flawed and finally melts away. He could never have made Icarus a bird, for no matter his skill, Daedalus is only human. Icarus was only a playful, curious child whose entrancement with flight was practically inevitable. Daedalus begins with genuine knowledge and passion for his artistry; but once his desire becomes one for preeminence itself, without heed for his finitude or the consequences of his actions, he pursues any end to remain the greatest and to escape his stifling exile.

Our desire for intellectual distinction can both push us to be our best self and lead us astray. An understanding of both excellence and humility is necessary to honor our efforts and passions and prevent them from crushing us.

Like Perdix, with his “mind hungry for instruction,” I find that learning is most enjoyable when it is sought for its own sake. Beyond the pleasure of learning itself, as a Christian I think that God appreciates and even encourages intellectual efforts, just as Athena offers her divine endorsement to Perdix. Furthermore, I believe that God is Himself the source of that impulse. Our desire to learn and to create, intellectually or physically, reflects our being made in the image of God. God’s preeminent creativity is apparent in the simple beauty of ochre autumn leaves, or in the more opaque but nonetheless fascinating principles of organic chemistry. The divine value of intellectual pursuits is liberating and invigorating, particularly for students – we ought to and can acquire knowledge, grow in creativity, and passionately pursue our interests.

But lest we depend on excellence for satiation, a certain humility is crucial so that our pursuits do not become distorted as Daedalus’ desire for preeminence. Humility is not equivalent to self-deprecation, but rather entails a healthy recognition of one’s limitations, and of what is greater than ourselves. Daedalus unsuccessfully attempts to bring about a metamorphosis of himself and his son into birds; but unlike Daedalus, the divine Athena successfully transforms Perdix into a true bird. It often seems that we can attain an enduring sense of self-worth, or some sustaining success, through our work and academics, or other spheres in which we might seek perfection and preeminence. But I, at least, cannot successfully manage this. I know that I will fail, whether a slightly disastrous pop quiz or something of greater significance. I cannot accumulate achievements that are sufficiently dependable. When Perdix falls, Athena enfolds him in feathers, and provides some salvation. Yet even his new partridge form remains limited – the bird does not lose its fear, and so it continues to “fl[y] near to the ground and place its eggs in bushes.”

To me, Christianity offers a more thoroughgoing and enduring salvation; Christ, in his faultless life and sacrificial death, covers us with his perfection. As a result, I do not need perfection and supremacy to establish my identity or prove my value. And the existence of God counteracts my hubristic sense that I must or even can attain some unattainable supremacy – it is, in a sense, an impulse to make myself a god, comparable to Daedalus’ foolhardy wings. Just as only Athena can make a true bird, only God can offer me full, lasting perfection and ultimate excellence.

The elusiveness of preeminence and greatness are no longer an existential threat when my performance and distinction do not define my identity or worth. The ability to pursue knowledge and excellence without the pressure that my identity is rooted in my success in these endeavors is quite freeing.  That I will inevitably fail, in ways large and small, is not crushing, and I need not despair that I am not the best in every (or any) subject. Though they certainly remain stressful, orgo midterms do not define me, and I can more readily embark upon my attempts to muddle through material without that additional pressure; and classes that are primarily pleasurable can become all the more so. I can enjoy soaring through the sky when I have the chance, for when I fall like Icarus, I know I will not face his end. And unlike Perdix, I need not “fear far drops” due to past catastrophes. The knowledge that in God I needn’t and simply cannot be the best is perhaps the only effective relief I find from the endless pursuit of ever-fleeting success.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

A Dialogue on Desire at Durfee’s

By Ben Colon-Emeric, TD ’22. Ben is majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Joan: Hey, Max! How are you doing? Making the old Durfee’s run, I see.

Max: Yeah, I was too busy to get lunch. I have a bunch of internship applications I’m working on.

Joan: Relatable!

Max: I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on me to make the most of my time. I don’t really want to work this summer, but I want to have an internship under my belt.

Joan: Why?

Max: If you’re doing STEM, especially medicine, you need to do research at some point or else you fall behind everyone else.

Joan: So you’re saying you want to be as good as everyone else?

Max: Well yes, it’d be strange if I didn’t.

Joan: What do you mean?

Max: If I see that someone is more successful than me at something, I want to improve so that I can be as good as they are. It’s normal.

Joan: Is it normal though? You’re saying that you see someone succeeding and want to be like them so that you can feel better about yourself; isn’t that envy?

Max: I don’t think so. Look at the classic Ten Commandments idea of envy, the “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s air pods” sort of thing. That is about actual things that can be owned.  For all of those things, if I have them, my neighbor does not. If I choose to get an internship because everyone else is getting internships, there is no material loss to anyone; everyone wins.

Joan: That feels like a really narrow definition of envy. Envy does not need to involve a loss for whomever you are envying. By getting an internship, you are trying to remove your sense of being inferior to people who get internships. Even though you don’t directly take anything away that they own, you are still establishing an antagonistic relationship by trying to place them beneath you; this is still envy.

Max: So give me your definition of envy, then.

Joan: Envy is the state of desiring what someone has simply because they have it and you don’t. Take your situation, for instance. You already said that you don’t really want to get an internship for its own sake–you want it because other people are getting internships and you don’t want to fall behind. If people around you didn’t have internships, you wouldn’t desire an internship.  Therefore, your desire for an internship is envious.

Max: I spy a problem. You say that if I want something because others have it, it is envy. But then that seems to regard all forms of imitation as envy.

Joan: No it doesn’t. You can do what others do, so long as you do not do it just because others are doing it.

Max: That doesn’t work though. Let’s say that it’s winter, and it’s bitterly cold. I see you wearing a nice wooly scarf. I say to myself, “Wow, she looks warm in that nice scarf. I want to be as warm as she is; I should get a scarf.” Before seeing you, I didn’t understand the benefits of scarves for warmth; I thought they were pointless.

Joan: I mean, they are pretty pointless.

Max: But seeing how comfortable you are with your scarf makes me want to achieve a similar state of comfort. By your definition, this would be envy, but I think we can agree that I am justified in my desire to be warmer.

Joan: That’s an interesting point, but it’s a different kind of desire than your situation with the internship. In that example, there’s a comparison between you and the other people that is absent from the scarf example. With the scarf, you don’t care if you’re warmer or colder than me, you just want to be warm. In your case, the internship matters only insofar as it changes your status in comparison to someone else. Your desire is envious because it stems from that comparison.

Max: I don’t buy that. It wouldn’t be envious if I said that I want to be like you because you are better than me.

Joan: It’s nice to hear you say that.

Max: Don’t flatter yourself, it’s a thought experiment.

Joan: Well, as much as I like your statement, there’s still a problem with it. The phrase “I want to be like you because you are better than me” can go two ways. It could mean that you are using me as an exemplar. People do this all the time; that’s why people look to the lives of the saints for inspiration or read biographies of inspirational figures. Seeing virtue and wanting to emulate it is good. But your statement could just as easily mean that you want to be like me, who is better than you, because you do not want to be worse than me.

Max: I don’t see the distinction.

Joan: It’s a matter of motive. You want to be like the saints because the saints are good, and you want to be good. But you want to be like the students who have internships because you do not want them to be better than you. The first is a desire to be a better, holier person, which is good. The latter is the desire to feel better about yourself by placing yourself above others, which is bad. To distinguish between those two forms of “I want to be like you because you are better than me,” you need to add another clause.

Max: So it becomes “I want to be like you because you are better than me, and I want to be good,” versus, “I want to be like you because you are better than me so that I will not be less good than you anymore.” The first is good, the second is envy.

Joan: That’s it exactly.

Max: So the envy is not my act of desiring an internship that others have. The envy is entirely in my motivation for that desire.

Joan: That seems like a solid working definition.

Max: The problem is, of course, how do you improve your desires? How do I train myself to  stop wanting to not be inferior to other people?

Joan: I like that you used the word “train;” that’s very Aristotelian of you.

Max: Your year of DS rears its ugly head.

Joan: Sure, but it’s super applicable in this case. Aristotle believed that virtues needed to be practiced in the same way we think about our bodies. To reach peak physical fitness, you need to work out a lot until exercising becomes a habit. To reach peak moral rightness, you need to constantly make sure you’re acting morally so that eventually you reach the point where acting morally becomes instinctive. I think it’s the same here. To make sure you don’t want things from a place of envy, you need to examine why you want the things you want. Eventually, you’ll instinctively avoid wanting things for the wrong reasons. It has to be an ongoing process.

Max: That makes sense. I have to be constantly critical of my reasons for wanting things until I get into the habit of wanting things for the right reasons. I should still go for the internship, but I need to get myself out of the mentality that I need to do it because others are doing it. I need to shake the desire to not be inferior.

Joan: Pretty much.

Max: That’s a lot of work.

Joan: Yes it is.

Max: Well there you have it.

Joan: Now go and fill out those applications.

Max: All the while scrutinizing my motives for doing so.

Joan: I mean, doesn’t every application ask you why you want to be a part of whatever it is you’re applying for?

Max: You’ve got me there. Alright, I’ll see you later.

Joan: See ya!

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

Thoughts on Catholic Liturgy and Expressive Individualism

By Jadan Anderson, MC ’22.

The rhythm of the Catholic Mass is silent. I remember from my childhood. But after a few rounds of standing and kneeling, calling and responding, listening and reading, and standing and kneeling again you latch onto the beat. You start to feel it first when you fall to the kneelers. Then it’s in the page turns. Then it inhabits the rumble of the congregation’s chants. It’s overwhelming, and you are mildly terrified of sitting down a moment too late or singing the hymn too fast or stumbling over too many words of the Nicene Creed. Your own beat just cannot keep the same time; so, you stifle it. You are part of the mass but struggle to find yourself in it.

This liturgy, the structure through which the congregation is meant to worship, meant to be reminded of the beautiful mystery of their faith, was suffocating. The homilies were monotonous. I felt that if I was here to praise God, I should do so the way I wanted. If I wanted to clap my hands, I should. If I wanted to dance around, I should. If I wanted to stand when everyone else kneeled, I should. But to deviate from the ritual meant to disrupt others and embarrass myself. So, I went through the motions. In doing so, sincerity was lost to tradition’s rigidity, mass lacked integrity, and, despite reciting the psalms and singing the hymns, the rhythm of the Catholic mass remained silent and so did I.

I arrived at Yale eager to replace ritual with all new things. Behind the tropes about college being a time to discover ourselves and craft our future is the implicit assertion that this will all be done away from home, free from the influence or command of liturgical, familial, or even cultural ritual. It’s a major selling point; it’s a promise. With this scope and freedom, discover what you really want, learn who you really are, grow into yourself. While this yearning to know ourselves is innocent and noble–it is the key to honest self-expression, and self-expression is beautiful–the promise falls short.

When in my first year I tried to parse through all that I thought I wanted, I found a mess of tangled up, contradictory hopes and ambitions. I found ephemeral ideas of a future self, some of whose origins were almost unknown to me. Without the grounding knowledge of my own desires, which were more fickle and fragile that I had previously thought, I wasn’t sure where to turn for the answer to the question, “Who am I?”

Filled with this unexpected and disappointing doubt, I found myself one night on Park Street in a 10:00 PM service at Saint Thomas More. Mass began. The rhythm had not changed. It was still structured and rigid, silent and pervasive. My beat still didn’t keep time.

 But then it did. Abruptly, the two rhythms became one. Mine was completely the Mass’s and the Mass’s completely mine. What was once suffocating was no longer. I still felt the rhythm surrounding me, in the falling and the chanting and the turning. But it became intuitive, natural, liberating because I trusted that the beat would ground me. The rhythm, always silent, remained silent, and so did I. Yet self-consciousness gave way to a long-awaited sense of self.

**

The moment those two rhythms become one holds the essence of liturgy. It’s about this essence that Luke pens in his gospel, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”[1] Of all the great paradoxes of the Christian faith–Jesus as fully God and fully human, the Trinity, the resurrection of the dead–this one is no less incredible. You want to find your true self? Die to yourself. Trade in your will for God’s will. Trust that He will return to you a truer and better self than any version concocted out of jealous ambition or misguided filial obligation or even innocent yet short-sighted dreaming. The claim sounds outlandish. Many might say it sounds repulsive.

Identity is one of the things we hold most dear. There exists a universal desire to know oneself and be known to others, and with it, the cry of expressive individualism. For the expressive individualist, fulfillment is achieved “through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity.”[2] That identity is found in the pursuit of that which is desired, so long as the desire is authentically one’s own, as the best manifestation of one’s true self. Expressive individualism maintains that since only the individual knows and can discern her desires, only the individual has the power to define herself.

The Christian also seeks fulfillment through identity. However, she rests knowing that the definition and revelation of true identity comes thankfully not from herself and her desires but from God and only God. This Christian idea is repulsive at first glance because it willingly takes the power of self-definition away from the self. This seems to fly in the face of expressive individualism by opposing mainstream conceptions of authenticity and undermining freedom of choice. And it does, but not in totality. The choice is, to where or to whom we turn to look for ourselves.

**

The rhythms became one when I chose to participate in the liturgy, to let my worship be formed. As Luke’s passage suggests, you choose to surrender yourself not to your desires but to God’s; for the promise–backed by a God who claims perfect constancy, unlike my inconsistent desires–is that at the end of it all, our true selves will be illuminated.

The rhythms became one when I realized that where the mass’s beat rested, my own could fill in. There exists a “living space of freedom between each commanding beat.”[3] The capacity for expression, for personality, is not forgone. It is highlighted by the steady, external structure, like watercolor seeping just outside of definitive lines, or a riff floating between the notes of a melody.

The rhythms became one when I allowed liturgy to challenge the idea that authenticity is only the work of one pair of hands. Expressive individualism makes knowing oneself an isolated endeavor, prior to relationships with others. The Christian idea is that the expressive individualists have it out of order. You cannot really know yourself before you go to others; you go to the Other in order to know yourself. Authenticity, then, is a relational project, not an insular one. And like any relational project, it requires both the relinquishing of power and the decision to trust. As for the decision of what structure or philosophy or God to trust, that is the reader’s decision. I have come to follow C.S. Lewis’s line of thinking when he writes, “The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become—because He made us. He invented us. He invented all the different people that you and I were intended to be.”[4]

Looking outside of oneself in search of one’s true self seems counterintuitive. But parallels exist outside of the experience of a Catholic mass. When is the last time you went to a party or to a club? Toad’s Place, perhaps? Do you remember wedging yourself through to a comfortable spot on the dance floor? The rhythm of the music likely complemented the chaos around you. It may have been hard at first to catch the beat. But you do, and before you know it you’ve spent two hours swaying–or jumping–to songs you can’t even remember. Time passed by so quickly. You lost yourself to the beat. But you were at home in the beat. Content in the beat. Yourself in the beat.

A better parallel is dancing with another person. When was the last time you were led in a dance with a partner? Intimately? Not necessarily romantically, just intimately–a dance in which give-and-take ruled your steps, in which you had to resist the impulse to control lest the both of you trip over each other. When you trust the leading partner to lead, provided they are experienced, the dance becomes fluid. Intuitive. Natural. As it should be. Hours, again, are lost to it. And though your control is lost to your partner’s steps, the dance is good. The dance is yours.

[1] Luke 9:24, New American Standard Version.

[2] Levin, Yuval. The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

[3] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1985.

[4] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Walker & Co., 1987.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

Desiring Unity: Reflections on Protest and Protestantism

By Sharmaine Koh, SM ’22. Sharmaine is majoring is Statistics & Data Science and History.

– Protest-

Open your G-cals. Type in “Yale Campus Protest” sometime in the next semester. We can probably log a protest into our fingertip calendars with more certainty than we can schedule that let’s-grab-a-meal meal.

Part of this certainty arises from the constancy and regularity of the Yale Protest. The image of a colourful crowd ringed by tanned gothic walls is all too familiar and frequent. There are fresh faces from walked-out-of lectures. There are lips shaped like “O”s for shouts and “o”s for boos (and “ok boomer”). There are fingers clenched white around signs and loudhailers. In their time-stopping, cop-defying resistance, the passionate motley compels the world to stop and listen.

As I look at the faces of peers just like me — poised to shout a slogan, stony in defiance, or alight in hopeful laughter — a deep sense of empowerment I can’t quite describe bubbles up within me. But even as my heart swells with the slogans, and I scavenge for the will raise my fist, I doubt. Suddenly their banners and fists seem vacuous and performative, misguided and divisive. I confront the dissention of my classmates with a conflicting allergic discomfort.I walk away confused and disappointed with myself, wondering why and how to grapple with a simultaneous rapture and repugnance towards this spectacle.

As I delve deeper into this inner conundrum, I recognise the shutters with which I consider protest. Where I come from, unlicensed public demonstrations are illegal. In Singapore, we are raised to be hyper-conscious of vulnerability, suspicious of dissent, and protective of order. Afraid of fracture, we sweep inconvenient alternative truths under the carpet because to confront them, we must struggle amongst ourselves. Underneath the suave confidence of a small state, there is a nagging fear that there is little else left for us without the ability to agree among just 6 million people. We have come to accept our absence of protest culture as a necessary sacrifice. And there is fruit in this “unity”, too. There is no doubt that internal stability — whether artificially imposed by a heavy-handed state or not — is part of what has allowed us to grow and thrive. We look to crippling protests and restive disunity in our neighbourhood with wary eyes and give thanks that “it doesn’t happen here.”

But surely, I think, this settling for a limited unity bodes only an empty house. Behind the cheery facade, feuds simmer under saccharine smiles, its members go to sleep with unresolved disagreements, elephants in rooms are ignored. As things fall apart, it seems insufficient to hush protests and trample on truths in a desperate attempt to just hold it all together. An aversion to trouble is not a desire for unity.  You do not want to live under the roof of a house you no longer believe in. You couldn’t ask a Hong Kong citizen to stay acquiescent to what they see as Chinese hegemony in the interest of “unity”. You couldn’t expect Ho Chi Minh or Gandhi to place independence on the backburner for imperial “unity”. You couldn’t envision student activists at Yale being “complicit” with the administration’s investments in fossil fuels for some campus “unity”.

Therefore, I see on the other hand the need for protest. I recognise the fruit in its struggle for a vision of truth, for the traumas of the last century have produced a character more insidious that the rabble-rousing protestor — the bystander. Writing after the fall of Nazi Germany, German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller penned a poetic confession concerning the cowardice of the Protestant clergy, the German intellectuals, and himself:

First they came for the  socialists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

—  Martin Niemöller, “First they came …” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Today, we have cultivated a Niemöllerean aversion to this passive submission. There is no pride in the guilt from all sides, Germans and Christians alike. In the face of feverish national unity, Niemöller held his tongue. As Hitler justified anti-semitism with the writings of Luther, Christian fellows preserved their peace. Swept up in the currents of right-wing nationalism, people watched Germany unite under a swastika and murder millions of Jews. Sure, in the mass mobilisation of Total War, Naziism united the nation. Nobody protested. But today, nobody praises Nazi Germany for its unity during the war. Today, nobody praises the many around the world who stood passive in the face of genocide. They were not united. They were complicit.

– Protestantism –

Martin Niemöller reminds me of another German Lutheran. Four centuries earlier, this other  German Lutheran Martin —  Martin Luther himself — took a decidedly  different approach. Luther was a monk responsible for starting the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church. Appraising the state of the Catholic Church in 1517, Luther saw its corruption, objected to the excesses of papal authority, and published a substantial thesis detailing 95 points of practical and doctrinal disagreements. Protestants today are named for Luther’s revolutionary protest.

I consider all of this with conflicted fallibility, navigating the complexities of my own Catholic identity. In Luther’s protest, I recognise the courage that Niemöller lacked. In Luther’s eyes, it would be a greater sin to stay silent and preserve a superficial unity, than to resist the corruption of his Catholic contemporaries. But I also see the painful legacy of division that the Reformation bred — 500 years of flurried mitosis that leaves us with more than 38,000 denominations today.

So I struggle as the Catholic Church struggles to discard the indignant hurt that the Reformation has bred. I struggle with an acquired moral authority that comes with believing we were the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” fighting against the legacy of a protest that was “heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth” (Pope Leo X, 1520).  I am saddened that even as I find love and joy in exploring my faith with my Protestant brothers and sisters, on Sundays we still worship at different churches. My desire for reconciliation and Christian unity is restrained by an obligatory counter-protest to Luther’s protest.

“The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the body of Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth?” [emphasis added]

Ut unum sint, Pope John Paul II (The Vatican website)[1]

Such is Christianity’s tragic desire for unity. Martins and John Pauls, Protestants and Catholics, protestors and protested-against, even if seemingly opposed, don’t actually disagree on this fundamental thing. They recognise that true unity needs to be founded on truth. The problem then, is confronting our different version of truth.

St. Augustine provides a nice analogy for the necessity of truth to unity.

“Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law and agreed on.”

The City of God, Book IV, St. Augustine (Trans. Marcus Dodds, 1950, Modern Library ed.)

If we assume that kingdoms stand on the side of justice and have apprehended some form of truth, this big band of men is respected for its unity. But unity among a band of robbers can hardly be celebrated — it seems absurd to respect men for uniting around unjust deeds.

Thus, I realise that protest in and of itself is not the problem, but the solution. Underlying the spirit of protest and protestantism is a desire for both truth and unity. When the rabble is roused and the banners are raised, we are alerted to the fact that the truth around which we might once have united has gone awry. If unity needs truth, disunity signals that truth has not been attained. Society has gotten something wrong, and protest points it out. We must keep looking and keep struggling.Therefore, protest — ostensibly divisive, arguably polarising — is paradoxically what will realise our desire for truth and unity. With this, I resolve my discomfort with the protester, recognising that there is good in them.

But if protest is the solution, why have we not resolved anything? I consider the Yale protest again. Every semester, with the regularity of moon cycles, Yale protesters gather in front of Salovey’s office and yell at his impervious windows. Every semester, Yale administrators pace about their offices, draw the blinders to survey the chanting crowd, then sit down to send a school-wide email. Every semester, the protesters and the provosts go home after a day of protesting and listening to protests, pat themselves on the back for yelling and listening to the yells respectively, and fall asleep to the musical sounds of free speech and healthy discourse.

Perhaps we continue to sleep at night because the permission of protest has ironically become a flimsy band-aid for our cowardice. Underlying a tolerance for protest is a learned respect for the equality of opinions, however different. But these differences also worry us because we doubt whether they  can actually be reconciled. As religion encounters atheism, as conservatives encounter liberals, as Yale protestors encounter Peter Salovey, they recognise in each other sometimes fundamentally contrary positions. The right to protest becomes our response to this uncomfortable difference. Protest simply becomes a ritual to remind ourselves that we agree to disagree.  But we stay in the little kingdoms of people who agree with us. Now and then, we open the windows to let in the noises that other kingdoms are making in our backyard, and we pat ourselves on the back for even opening the windows. The noise, however, is merely ambient. We don’t really listen to each other.

– Beyond Protest –

The words of another Martin Luther come to mind.

“At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this […] The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.,  in a Q&A session at Western Michigan University, December 18 1963 (God and Culture, 2010)

Speaking in Jim Crow America, King lamented the Church’s failure to uphold its responsibility as “the moral guardian of community” by not starting a movement of desegregation. The Civil Rights leader spoke specifically of racial division, but his words are hauntingly relevant to the unity of the Church as a whole today.

What happens after the protest? In the context of the Church, we built separate churches. We worshipped in separate places on Sundays. We settled for unity within our individual denominations. But in some other ways, we moved forward. In 1999,  after extensive ecumenical dialogue, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The revolutionary doctrine professed “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ”, the doctrinal point at the very root of the initial conflict. In 2015, Catholics and Protestants jointly held a prayer service in Sweden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It has taken us 500 years, but today, the movement towards ecumenism, or Christian unity, is a hopeful détente of sorts.

Part of the reason why Christian unity is so urgent and necessary is because we recognise that the Church was not meant to be divided in this way. In Colossians 3:15, Paul writes: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” Because of this intended wholeness in Christ, there is widespread recognition that Christians have a responsibility to mend divisions in the Church that has for a long time festered in its fallen state.

But outside of the Church, the desire for unity feels somewhat more muted. Somehow, it feels as though the world has stopped believing that it is better together. Underlying semesterly protests, political unrests, and international strife, is a bewildering paradox. The resistance clings to a desperate hope that their protest will change things, but at the same time doesn’t believe that the other side will ever “get it”. In a bitter loss of trust and faith, protestors keep up the yelling to be heard.

So what happens after the protest? In the context of Yale and the world, the protesters pack up and go home. They come back again tomorrow, next week, or next semester. The protest starts again, and the cycle continues ad infinitum.  Or, if the belligerents choose non-confrontation, the resistance breaks away, lives a separate existence, spawns an alternative culture. If they choose revolution, history has often proven it to be bloody and tragic. Either way, the relationship is essentially antagonistic, and we stop daring for radical reconciliation because it seems so unattainable.

As I consider Luther’s contest and the Yalies’ protests, their legacies make the desire for unity seem like a tragic one, for the desire for unity really is a desire for truth, for a common ground to stand on. As hope in truth dissolves in the post-modern world, that grounding is increasingly hard to find. But straddling my cosmopolitan and Catholic identities, I wonder if the Church’s own experience with division might hold kernels of wisdom that the wider world can look towards. Surveying the history of Catholic tension with Protestants has been surprisingly and remarkably hope-giving.  It has taken us 500 years, but in those years we have revised our respective positions, we have learned to listen, and we have actively sought out areas of agreement, while holding fast to certain principles that distinguish us. It is some proof that a desire for unity, a tempered patience, a passage of time, and a deep faith to lean on God, will bear fruit.

One thing Christianity does well is daring to posit and pursue an absolute Truth. No matter how vehemently Methodists disagree with Mormons or Seventh-Day Adventists, they all assert that God, at the very least, is Truth. In the plurality of today’s world, this profession that truth is absolute has fallen out of fashion. Relativism — the belief (ironically) that “truth is relative” — has often served as a conservative and cautious cop-out to the overwhelming number of beliefs in our world.

But we do ourselves no justice by asserting that truth is relative and using that as a justification for separate existences, veiling it as “mutual respect”. For nobody takes to the streets to protest or counter-protest a truth that they think is relative. Seeing different beliefs as “relative truths” is not respectful, but patronising. We are simply duplicitous fence-sitters that declare “everyone is right, subjectively”, while really believing that we are more right. Relativism’s moralising, self-contradicting ambivalence makes us no different from the silent Niemöllerean bystander. It is a defence mechanism that really veils a deep-seated insecurity of having one’s own beliefs challenged. The protester or the protested-against, in contrast, fare better when they boldly posit that they believe their perspective better approximates the absolute truth. And it stops short of bigotry if they open up this belief to challenge from opponents, in humble conversation with others as co-searchers for truth.

Thus, the pursuit of unity must start with the desire for truth that underlies the instinct to take an absolute stand and protest. When communities start to fray and fall apart, protest endeavours to revitalise unity by signalling that truth has lost its way. But with each act of protest, we are in danger of exchanging our artificial unity for a convenient disunity, where a limited sense of agreement is easier established in smaller and smaller groups. We have to go further. The desire for unity must be carried through beyond the protest.  All sides must dare to believe in reunification.

The Christian case is a hopeful one, because God has revealed to us the necessity of our unity in Him. No matter the disagreement, our concomitant desire for truth is founded in Christ. Charged with a teleological mission, we are convicted to strive towards Truth Himself. In the endeavour’s seeming unattainability, we have God to lean on and faith that His will be done on earth as in heaven. Outside of God, the picture is rather different. Yet no matter what form secularism’s absolute Truth takes, belief in its fundamental attainability and the necessity of unity charges the secular establishment and the secular activist with a greater urgency and moral responsibility to keep striving. If not faith in God, progress at least requires faith in the humanity of the other side. If we really hold such faith, maybe our G-cals might look a little different next semester. Maybe we can grab a meal with Salovey. We can only hope.

[1] Ut unum sint, “That they may be one”, is a 1995 encyclical by Pope John Paul II on the Catholic Church’s relations with the Orthodox churches and other Christian ecclesiastal communities. An authoritative document on the Catholic church’s ecumenical commitment, it reinforces the need for unity in the Church, and further dialogue with Protestants.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.