BY TIM KOWALCZYK
There’s No Duke but Us
I’ve written elsewhere on our habit of abdicating responsibility for the problems in our community. In brief, we’re only too happy to complain about Duke’s problems—peer pressure, work-hard play-hard, social expectations—but shrink from doing anything to fix them. They are “Duke’s” problems, or “collective” problems. In a sort of Orwellian word game, we call these problems something they are not to make them sound beyond our power to correct. My focus here is to explain, in the grammar of Christian philosophy and theology, why these problems are our responsibility to fix.
Simply put, there is no “Duke” other than the six thousand-odd undergraduates who make up the bulk of our experience here. My Duke-on-paper is the organizational chart, my deans and professors and classes and all the frameworks set up around that. But the Duke I live, “my” Duke, is the professors I know well enough to work with, the graduate students whose office hours I’ve gone to, the fifty-odd undergrads I’m acquainted with, and the fifteen or so I know really well.
In the same way that the Church-on-earth is the sum of believers, Duke is the sum of the people here.
The most common reason that we don’t meet our problems head-on is some variation of “I’m just passing through.” I have some hurdle or hurdles to clear, and if I can just get past those, then I’ll have the time to “do the right thing.” To some extent, this is true. Studying for the MCAT or LSAT, completing job and graduate school applications, attending information sessions to have some idea of what you want to do—and then doing the work to be able to do those things—this is important. If we keep our heads down, and climb the ladder of law or medicine or consulting or banking or whatever it is we want to do, then we’ll be able to do some good.
We think that some later goal and some later work will “make up” for the good we put off now.
All We Have Is Now
But “passing through” gambles on a certainty that life does not provide. “Passing through” assumes a kind of stability in life, a certainty in “here now, there later, no interruptions.” Our faith cautions us against this certainty. Our faith warns us that the only place we have is “here,” that the only opportunity we have to do good is “now.”
Consider Revelations 16:15. “See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothes, not going about naked and exposed to shame.” Or 1 Thessalonians 5:2. “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Christ comes to us when we least expect him, often in the people we overlook. “…just as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me” (Matthew 25:40). Living in Christ and for Christ means seeking Him in the present moment.
Consider the Good Samaritan. Here was someone on no set path, who stopped his life, only for a little while, to help someone he found in need. He saw someone who needed help, and the only reason he helped was that help was needed. He saw what we do not: that while we can do everything in our power to influence a future that exists only in our hopes, we can make a real impact—we can move the world toward the good—in the here and now.
How many times have we passed by someone in need, have we cancelled a lunch or left a message unread or put off some meaningful conversation, because we are passing through to something else? How many times have we put off some little, powerful moment, for the sake of pouring out more of our time and more of ourselves, storing up treasure for a future that exists only in our hopes?
“Now” Is Where God Is
Our problem is this: God presents Himself in the moment, and asks us to seek Him in the moment, but we do not commit to the moment. God Is Who Is, outside of time yet forever present-tense. The less we seek God in this moment, the less we find Him here and now, the farther we drift from Him.
The point is made best by Soren Kierkegaard in The Lilies of the Field, a kind of commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. Kierkegaard argues that the sparrow that does not “fall to the ground apart from you Father” (Mt 10:29) has no idea when it will fall; but more than this, it has no idea when next it will rest, when next rain will come, when the next meal will be. The sparrow commits to the moment and finds the joys God gives it despite the radical contingency of its life. It lives moment-to-moment, and God will provide what it needs in that moment.
If only we lived like sparrows, we would find God in the moment. We would do the work we are here to do, but we would live the lives we are here to live. We wouldn’t see a problem and say “oh well.” We wouldn’t dodge the eyes of someone in pain. We wouldn’t cut and run every time someone asks us to see them, or to hear them, or to just be present for them.
But we like to think we know more than sparrows. We play the odds. We chance ourselves. We put off the work we were created to do because there is no room for it in our “plan.” We should remember Ecclesiastes, that all things are vanity. We should remember Paul, or Thomas a Kempis, that we can have everything in the world but if we have not love, it profits us nothing.
Be Present to the Moment
But in the end, we are responsible for committing to the moment because that is where the Church is built. We have a choice in life, between God and idols. Whatever we choose, the rest of our life will fall in line behind it. We value and rank what’s in our lives to better achieve that goal. We can do what we’re here to do, exhaust ourselves in tests and quizzes and meetings, and we’ll live a fine life, always waiting for that next great thing we’ve been working toward for so long. Or we can do what we are Here to do, what we are Made to do.
We have a choice in life, between presence and absence. We can be present to God in the moment, hear His workings in our heart, and live the life made for us; or we can be absent, focused on the corner office we may never have and the car we may never drive, never reaching for something more and always morose that we never found something more. The mystic Thomas Merton once said that all a “zen” person is, the secret of their way of being, is to slow life to a human pace. Only then can we see ourselves as we are and the world as it is. Only then can we recognize what is wrong in the present moment, and what we can do to fix it. Only then can we begin to put our community back together, person by person, piece by piece.
So, recall the admonition that we should remove the beam from our own eye before removing the speck from our brother’s. Do you see some problem on this campus, some unfeeling thing that you want fixed? Root it out of your own life. Commit to the present, to the here and now God gave you, and make this presence real to others through how you live your life. Yes, walk on the ground, but keep your eyes fixed on heaven. God Is Who Is. God is outside of time, and yet God is present-tense. If you want to find God here and bring God here, seek Him where you are.