This week, hundreds of Columbians—myself included—bore black smudges on our foreheads, coming from Ash Wednesday ceremonies.
Religion often is barely visible at Columbia. For many of us, there’s no particular reason to duck inside St. Paul’s or notice the façade of Low’s declaration that Columbia was founded “...for the Glory of Almighty God.” Yet we all have classmates—for whom church is not a big part of their lives—who suddenly bear crosses on Ash Wednesday.
What’s the point of this antiquated religious rite? As with any custom that’s been around for centuries, it’s 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 Christ’s sacrificial death. (The 40 days after Easter are a joyous time to celebrate his Resurrection.) It’s a somber time when many Christians choose to sacrifice something they enjoy—Facebook, candy, and meat are popular options—to 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 Nietzsche’s 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 Rousseau’s view is that it’s far too optimistic. Human nature isn’t sweetness and light that are tainted by a bit of misunderstood acting out here and there. There’s a fundamental twistedness about our desires and our thoughts that can’t 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 we’re 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. Augustine’s understanding that the human heart always naturally loves bad things. Instead of Rousseau’s innocent “natural man,” who slowly learns corruption from his corrupt environment, Augustine’s 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 truth—that we are not who we ought to be—can be wonderfully liberating. I’m a second-semester junior, and everything right now is about securing the ideal summer experience. Programs and employers present themselves as flawless. There’s 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 doesn’t 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 people—in all their complexities, beauty, and frustrating habits—and love them for who they are, not for who they should be.
It’s 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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