Stranded in Babylon
Wanderlust and Homecoming

The Naked Will

"Professors in countless clasrooms in many different disciplines report that students have already been welll taught that, when they are faced with any moral proposition, the proper response is 'That's just your opinion.' They are resistant, then, to resolving disagreement by reasoned arguments. They aver, 'You choose your good, and I'll choose mine.' Reasoned debate is replaced by naked will. I choose. Don't ask me to give reasons --- I just choose." (Michael Novak, "Remembering the Secular Age," First Things, June/July 2007)

Over 15 years ago now, my wife and I hosted a 17-year old French-speaking exchange student from Switzerland via a Young Life exchange program called Amicas. I assumed that Marie (name changed) was a Christian and, naturally, that she was on board with the moral imperatives of Christian belief. I had a few things to relearn that first month.

The second or third day she was with us, she informed us that her sister was living with a man, was pregnant, and had an abortion. She saw no problem with this. They loved each other. They did not need a baby now. Now granted, this was not shocking news in 1991 as it was not uncommon. However, what was uncommon in my world was to hear another Christian justify it. In the end, after I explained my opinion and its rationale, she used the discussion-ending "That's your opinion; I have my opinion. That's true for you, but not for me." I told her that wasn't truth at all, but preference, that I was talking about what was really true. But it was over. She did not want to talk any more.

When you reach the point that you no longer profess to believe in truth, then conversation becomes meaningless. As one of my graduate school professors once said, as he did not believe in truth the only thing he believed in was power. All that mattered was who had more guns or money. All that mattered was who won.

In this kind of environment it's very difficult to have rational discussions. For one thing, no one is interested in what they view as a dead-in discussion. What's the point, after all, in talking about what is true (or good or beautiful) if, in the end, there is no standard by which to measure such things?

In this time, I think you must live out truth, show and not so much tell it. And that's what we tried to do with our exchange student. We simply loved her as best we could and lived our family life as authentically as we could, our failures on display, of course, as there's nowhere to hide when you live together. Sure, you might not have outright arguments with your spouse but there is that argument that is a silent one, when an icy chill descends on the home for a time, when maybe a few choice words were said in a certain tone. You don't hide that.

At the end of the year, when she left us, she gave us a letter. Leaving the airport my wife read it to me. Among other things, there was this: "You know the discussion we had earlier in the year? I have thought about this, and I agree with you." Was that because of my brilliant argumentation? I expect not, as it was a stumbling and too emotional discussion. Perhaps our shining life of marital bliss? I doubt it. We had our moods, said things we did not mean, wanted what we wanted sometimes no matter what was best for all. But it was all in the open, and we knew when we were wrong, and in our home was an inevitable standard we could not keep. So what's that leave? Grace. We did not perfectly love, and yet we were perfectly loved. We did what we did because we ought to or we did what we ought not do knowing we ought not. Whichever way it fell, the standard was there. What was true and good mattered.

What Marie was telling us those first days was that she believed what she did because she wanted to believe it. And that's that. Maybe what she came to believe, I hope, was that the true and good wasn't simply a function of her naked will, but existed independently of her, that truth really mattered and wasn't simply chosen.

And my professor? He's no longer at my graduate school, did not rise in the ranks to a deanship. Not enough power, I guess.