History majors and concentrators had to submit their plan of study forms this week to let the department know that they’ve been thinking about graduating and actually have a roadmap for getting there. It was a routine task, for me and for every Columbia history junior and senior: We’re used to jumping through hoops, preening and presenting ourselves, proving our credentials before a skeptical audience. At the end of our four years, we hope we’ll have done enough to deserve to graduate.
As I left my adviser’s office on the sixth floor of Fayerweather, my eyes happened to take in one of those beautiful old maps that litter historians’ walls. It read, “Tracing the Irish Church: Influence Throughout Western Europe, 4th-6th Centuries.”
That was a reference to the hundreds of Irish monks who left the rocky shores of the Emerald Isle. While the Roman Empire was crumbling, they sailed in tiny coracles to spread Christianity among the pagan Goths and Franks. Their work in founding monasteries, schools, and churches played a decisive role in calming the constant warfare of the Dark Ages. They were men like St. Patrick, still treasured in Irish culture for his role in molding Europe for centuries to come.
The story of the brave, poor, frail Irish monks of the Dark Ages always inspires me. But it’s a story of triumph from weakness. It doesn’t fit well with the narrative that we tend to embody as Columbia students: a narrative of qualifications acquired, of merit won.
That narrative orients us from pre-application to post-graduation. The future members of the class of 2018 are frantically putting together applications and writing essays to unlock a door into the power and privilege of Columbia. In Morningside Heights, seniors are working hard to line up job prospects and present themselves as excellently as possible in interviews.
Whether we’re religious or not, we usually assume that our “gods”—the things we want and sacrifice for in life—are obligated to look us on with favor if we fulfill the right criteria. Most religions assume it, too. I’ve had the great joy of reading the Dhammapada, the sayings of the Buddha, this past week. In the text, the Buddha becomes enlightened through meditation and self-control, and he teaches others how to reach nirvana too. The moral paradigm is that we try hard and are rewarded.
But Contemporary Civilization includes a different perspective. Exodus, the second book of the Torah, tells the story of God’s intervention to save a people from slavery. Genesis, the first book, recounts the creation of a world saturated with joy, peace, and love as God’s human viceroys cultivate it.
But, blinded by pride and lust for power, the first man and woman fall from relationship with God and the world becomes riven by cruelty, injustice, and oppression. As Duke legal scholar Arthur Leff summarized world history, “If all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel.”
After choosing to save one particular people, the Israelites, from slavery in Egypt, God gives them commands in Exodus 20. This is the passage with the famous Ten Commandments, which are popularly associated with religious people, moral superiority, and complacency.
The text opens, “God spoke all these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’” God acts first, saving the Israelites, and then gives them commands to live in harmonious relationship with him and with one another: “You shall have no other gods before me.” They are not saved because of their obedience.
This idea is foundational for the Judeo-Christian understanding of God and morality. The New Testament has a lot to say about grace—because God’s action to identify with humanity and end all oppression and evil, the cosmic Exodus, is not something anyone could ever deserve. It’s freely, lovingly given. Then a relationship of love comes with moral obligations for the believer.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, with his customary pithiness, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I and every other Christian do fall terribly short of truly following Jesus in every aspect of life. I can, and must, pray and fight to learn to desire the good and replace self- and other-destructive patterns. But there is also hope, and healing, beyond myself.
An eternal life filled with infinite love has been freely offered. I can fill out plan of study forms and navigate the choppy seas of Columbia with peace, knowing that what the history department thinks of me doesn’t determine my worth.
Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. He is the president of the Veritas Forum, and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Fridays.
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