This week, hundreds of Columbiansmyself includedbore black smudges on our foreheads, coming from Ash Wednesday ceremonies.
Religion often is barely visible at Columbia. For many of us, theres no particular reason to duck inside St. Pauls or notice the façade of Lows declaration that Columbia was founded ...for the Glory of Almighty God. Yet we all have classmatesfor whom church is not a big part of their liveswho suddenly bear crosses on Ash Wednesday.
Whats the point of this antiquated religious rite? As with any custom thats been around for centuries, its often hard to remember its original purpose. As one proverb has it, Traditions are problems to which we have forgotten the solutions. Yet I find this one deeply relevant to the Core and to student life at Columbia as a whole.
Ash Wednesday kicks off the 40 days of Lent, which lead up to Easter and serve as a time to remember Christs sacrificial death. (The 40 days after Easter are a joyous time to celebrate his Resurrection.) Its a somber time when many Christians choose to sacrifice something they enjoyFacebook, candy, and meat are popular optionsto keep Jesus suffering in mind. The Bible passages and sermons read in church are sober, and everyone talks a lot more about how sinful they are and how much their lives need changing.
All this religious moralism reminds a lot of people why church can be obnoxious. It can seem like guilt tripping, emotional manipulation, a stifling power play. Friedrich Nietzsches On the Genealogy of Morals certainly makes this accusation. He considers this Christian emphasis on humbling the imperfect self before a holy God to be a humiliating slave morality that stifles human creativity. When everyone is kneeling and being marked with ashes, where is the glorious assertion of the human will?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing more than a century before Nietzsche, would also have had little patience with Ash Wednesday and Lent. According to Rousseau, we are naturally free, spontaneous, and happy, unencumbered by guilt or even a sense of self. But once we start to live with other human beings and compare ourselves to them, we develop an oppressive sense of expectation. Standards to live up to alienate us from our natural wholeness and confidence.
The problem with Rousseaus view is that its far too optimistic. Human nature isnt sweetness and light that are tainted by a bit of misunderstood acting out here and there. Theres a fundamental twistedness about our desires and our thoughts that cant be explained away. From Roman gladiatorial games to Aztec human sacrifice, and repression in North Korea to the Wounded Knee Massacre, humanity everywhere and always seems capable of deliberate brutality.
No Columbian has taken part in anything so colossally wicked. Yet, if were honest with ourselves, we certainly have betrayed our friends, intentionally used words to belittle and wound, mocked the suffering, or ignored the marginalized. We may not be implacable archvillains, but we are often petty and selfish humans.
The spirit of Lent reflects St. Augustines understanding that the human heart always naturally loves bad things. Instead of Rousseaus innocent natural man, who slowly learns corruption from his corrupt environment, Augustines Confessions portrays even babies as black-hearted. Even as infants, Augustine says, we long to tyrannize and bend other people to our selfish wills.
To acknowledge that tragic truththat we are not who we ought to becan be wonderfully liberating. Im a second-semester junior, and everything right now is about securing the ideal summer experience. Programs and employers present themselves as flawless. Theres always a long line at the Center for Career Education as we wait for advice on how to minimize the weaknesses of our resumes. You can recognize a friend on the way to a career fair by his immaculate suit coupled with a slightly awkward gait.
Perhaps Columbians of yore have always felt this enormous pressure to perform. But now the pressure has allied with social media to infiltrate every moment of our daily lives. Every meal has to be Instagram-worthy because the Internet doesnt want to know that you ate only a piece of toast while rushing to finish homework.
This is why I find Lent something to look forward to each year. During these 40 days, I am free to admit that I am flawed. Lent is humbling but not humiliating, and it lets me recognize how weak and imperfect I am compared to the perfection of Jesus and his life. That makes it possible to look at other peoplein all their complexities, beauty, and frustrating habitsand love them for who they are, not for who they should be.
Its worth having those awkward conversations with friends who put crosses on their faces. Ask them why they do it, what Lent means to them, and see whether they agree more with Nietzsche, Rousseau, or Augustine.
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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