When I was an undergraduate, the most exciting, life-changing class I took was LSU Prof. Greg Schufreider’s course in Existentialism. The height of my intellectual experience of college was sitting in a little cafe, now long gone, called the Gumbo Shop, with a pitcher of beer, studying for the Existentialism final with three friends from the class. Kierkegaard! Nietzsche! Jaspers! Sartre! We went at it for hours, so deeply into learning, and teaching each other, that we forgot we were in public. Our minds were on fire and our tongues were blazing. At one point, I looked away from the table, and saw that the entire cafe was listening to us, apparently mesmerized.
That’s what college, at its very best, is all about. I minored in Philosophy at LSU, and had I had a more academic temperament, I would have majored in it. It excited me intellectually more than anything else. Last Sunday, I had lunch with my niece Hannah, an LSU undergraduate, and when she asked me what elective she should take in the fall, I told her she should take Schufreider’s Existentialism course, bar none. We talked about Kierkegaard, and how much that course shaped my thinking, even as I went into journalism as a vocation. She reported back later that night that the course will not be offered this fall, which kind of broke my heart for her. But she’s got two more years left at LSU, so maybe things will happen.
We just met Hannah and her family for lunch in St. Francisville today, to celebrate her 20th birthday. My son Matthew, who is 13, is studying Plato in his classical tutorial, and asked me to be sure to read his assigned texts (Apology, Crito) this afternoon so I could talk about it with him tonight before class tomorrow. I love that my son is so interested in philosophy, and was just about to fetch the texts from his room when I checked to see how The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming is selling on Amazon. And I saw this new review, written by Jon Cogburn, an assistant professor in LSU’s Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies:
I started teaching in the LSU Philosophy Department after Mr. Dreher had graduated. But my older colleagues would remember him fondly as we talked about his articles and then blog at Belief Net and the American Conservative. Whenever you see one of your students do such interesting intellectual work (in Dreher’s case, (a) returning conservatism to its communitarian roots and then doing the hard work of honestly following that where it leads, and (b) humbly sharing his experiences in trying to be a good Christian) it’s tremendously validating. At a time when higher education is to some extent under siege in Louisiana, students like Mr. Dreher make it still worth it.
Aristotle once said, “We love our teachers, but we love the truth more.” And with this book Dreher has surpassed all of us still here at LSU. The teachers become students, and it’s no longer a matter of feeling validated for having done a good job. The wisdom and beauty of the text just obliterate that.
It’s one thing to announce simple wisdom such as love and kindness being the most important things. But quite another to live this wisdom. Mr. Dreher’s love letter to his dead sister, his family, and their community is in no small part brilliant and moving precisely because it instantiates the very qualities it encourages.
This is as far from a self-help book as one can get. There is nothing trite in it. The horrors of bullying, cancer, loss, and the kind of festering, stupid arguments that separate us from those we love most are unflinchingly depicted. You will cry when you read this. . . Just last night I read Mr. Dreher’s depiction of Mike Leming’s animal howl when his wife died. The description of Mr. Dreher’s nieces confronting their dead mother and wounded father is one that will remain with you.
The only book I have to compare this with is C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed,” though I think that Mr. Dreher is more successful than Lewis at wringing genuine meaning from tragedy. I hope from this point forward that people will read the books as a pair.
One thing I’d like to comment on that I haven’t seen in the reviews thus far is Mr. Dreher’s wonderful depiction of the numinous aspects of reality in the book. Typically in literature one only gets this kind of thing with surrealism, which actually falsifies the phenomena. Mr. Dreher present these experiences in a straightforward and epistemically humble way. He reports the experiences of himself and others feeling presences in the room that impart wisdom. He shares a startling dream where Ruthie tells him it’s going to be O.K. His meditations on a couple of photographs explore the uncanny way that the deepest spiritual reality can be mechanically captured. He never claims to know what exactly is going on here, but just presents what happened. . .
Following old Celtic terminology, theologian N.T. Wright calls such experiences “thin spaces,” where the kingdom of heaven edges over into our reality, and he makes them one of the corners of his apologetics (following Lewis, the other important one is a pervasive sense that the world is fallen). I think that we all have experience with these thin spaces, but we are so quick to dismiss them that we end up denying a central part of the human experience. One of the many good things that might come from Ruthie Leming’s suffering and Mr. Dreher’s book is that readers might be a little less distrustful of their own profound experiences of the numinous.
But more importantly, this morning I’m going to call my parents and tell them that I love them. I’m going to buy a present for my nephew. Please read this book. You’ll do the same.
What can I say? I’m so incredibly humbled by this review, coming from the kind of man I look up to, and wanted to be at one time in my life, but didn’t have it in me to be. It reveals something to me that justifies the decision I made to forswear academia for a journalist’s life, though to keep philosophical questions at the heart of my writing: that some of us have the gift of being able to explore and to teach wisdom in the academy, while others of us have the gift of being able to explore wisdom through telling stories. It’s all in service of the Truth, at least it is if we’re honest.
Jon Cogburn, I don’t know you, but I’d like to; the beer is on me at The Chimes. Soon and very soon!