sometimes, the angels are in the details

I have began to notice something recently in discussions online.  Comments, blog posts, tweets, facebook threads, while many may dismiss these as “it’s just the internet,” these conversations do matter.  Let me give an example from the meat world, then make my way back to my point about online.

When I was in high school, one of my teachers taught us a *limited* amount of poetry by writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  On a personal level, the teacher was likeable, but there was nothing I learned about Emerson (back then) that would convince me to go read his works. Also, I was more interested myself in American government classes and U.S. history.  I have recently been reading Cornel West’s Democracy Matters, and he talks about how Emerson opposed the removal of First Nations people from states like Georgia, and how he criticized the Slave Fugitive Laws. If I had been aware of this, knowing that I believed in social justice then as I do now, I would have been more invested in Emerson, and probably U.S, literature much more earlier than grad school.

Sometimes teachers avoid these teaching moments because maybe they are afraid of the details of a writer’s political life may say about their own politics or biases.  Is teaching particularity something to be avoided? Transition now to online discussions.  I can think of one past and one more recent discussion.  In the former, there was a commenter who is highly educated as I am, but with some of the comment he left, you couldn’t really tell. At the same time, this commenter wrote a book on a theologian who has an affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, the openness of God, and an engagement with natural sciences.  You would think that this person and I would get along, and we do.  But some comments just don’t go away, like being told  that I should choke on the brand of philosophy I preferred to read, or only being seen under a gaze where the only two possibilities are a faithful Barthian Church-loving orthodox Christian, or A Heretical Schleirmacher-loving liberal who is only about experience.  This seems like an unfortunate form of dehumanization; I was being objectified and not addressed as a person.

The problem lied specifically in this writer being taught that his perspective was universal, and that anyone who started with particularity was a experience-driven, theologically liberal, Jesus-dissing heretic.  But fortunately, by way of providence, I have other friends who I am in conversation with, and they have encouraged me to read the late theologian in question in spite of this interlocutor’s behavior.  A similar situation arose during grad school.  In a Christian ethics course, I learned about virtue ethics and Thomas Aquinas.  Given the text that was selected, and the extremely limited focus on Aquinas as a Trinitarian ethicist (from a Protestant interpretation), I had difficulty seeing why Thomists loved Aquinas.  I do recall on Facebook during that semester, or somewhere about that time, in a very active (now really defunct) theology group, there was a philosophy student who identified as a feminist, and she was a Thomist.  I thought that was an interesting combination.

And then last Sunday night, in a long Twitter conversation with two or three friends, I learned how Thomas’ view of human flourishing may be compatible with liberationist and feminist theologies. Perhaps the problem with the class that I learned about Thomas Aquinas was that the professor did not teach specific details of Aquinas’ life or work, just generalities along with secondary texts.  It probably would have been more useful if we had access to primary texts as well.  Maybe, after all,  it’s not the devil, but the angels who are in the details, specificity, particularities, the nitty-gritty and that’s why these are all so important when it comes to learning, teaching, reading and writing.

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