The Lamp, the Lifeboat, and the Ladder
On childhood evangelism and proselytizing prose.
The summer after my 8th birthday, I walked the aisle of a brush arbor revival to announce that I was ready to join the family business.
I had been called to be an evangelist.
The revivalist that night was my great uncle Paul. Paul was the best known of the ordained Swadleys, the ranks of which included my father, my father’s father, my uncle, Paul’s two sons, and more than a few cousins. Geoffrey Swadley had been Harry S. Truman’s pastor. Paul himself had baptized Brad Pitt, and the sermon he once delivered to George H. W. Bush was the stuff of lore. The first Swadley who immigrated here was a minister. We even have a family sermon.
In middle school I job shadowed a pastor. We read and talked and visited shut-ins. I remember wondering how someone could spend so long in prayer.
In high school I twice attended Summit Ministries in Colorado, a summer camp for indoctrination in its fullest sense. Lectures addressed ‘Relativism’, ‘Marks of the Cults’, ‘Augustine/Pelagius’, and ‘Jihad in America’. I don’t recall the pedagogical thrust of ‘Pluralism’ but I can guess. The week culminated in a protest outside Planned Parenthood and a field trip to Focus on the Family.
I learned to treat the world of ideas as combat. The only intellectuals I read growing up were apologists: Lewis, Chesterton, Schaeffer. (Dr. Noebel, who ran Summit Ministries, co-authored the representative title Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium with Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame.) As president of the College Republicans I spent my tenure pwning the libs avant la lettre. The nascent blogosphere only reinforced my combative instincts. And all this before Twitter.
I realized this week that the same proselytizing reflex had carried over into scholarship, too. I left U. Chicago thinking that ‘the discipline didn’t understand self-interest’ and that it was my job to set things aright. Of course theorists had done a lot of work on interests, but I’d found enough righteousness to carry me through my prospectus. It was someone is wrong on the internet for all of intellectual history.
But what other models were on offer? The male academics to emulate were driven by ambition and antagonism. Prolific ideological sparring was a safe route to notoriety. The most successful philosopher I know has made a career of contrarian vainglory, flaunting his h-index like Flavor Flav wears chronometers. What a tragic waste of talent.
One aim of this newsletter is finding wisdom in unusual places. Philosophy has no monopoly here; who among us would look to the philosophers in our lives for guidance on how to live?
No, we must nourish ourselves elsewhere, even from the Pinterest-popular poet. I stopped reading Rumi when he became internet famous. I feared he was too accessible. Poetry must be difficult, we're told. When Coldplay defiled 'The Guest House' I felt vindicated.
I wonder how many joys I’ve passed by from fear that a critic might find them passé, or too simple, or—the deadliest of our sins—too earnest.
Allow me, then, to share a simple, earnest poem:
Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.
Help someone’s soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.
Stay in the spiritual fire.
Let it cook you.
Be well-baked loaf
and lord of the table.
Come and be served
to your brothers.
Nothing that I’ve written until now has approached the usefulness Rumi describes. I composed to either impress or convince, and in so doing, accomplished neither.
Back in December, when I had the idea for The Eudaimonist, I interrogated my motives. I found two; both were foreign to me. The first was a desire to enjoy writing. For reasons explained previously, the pressures of prose had overwhelmed me. Not the pressure of the blank page. Not the work of creation itself. What I feared was you. Would you think me smart enough? Would I still want these essays a decade from now? Would I be the only one?
The second motivation was to write with the aim of bringing even the smallest amount of comfort or consolation. This would mean, above all, doing no harm—checking my ego, avoiding the reflex to superiority.
I wasn’t sure that I could meet even these minimal standards. I’m still not. That’s why the final motivation behind this newsletter is to observe its effects on me. I had/have misgivings as to whether I was/am ready. Ready to put imperfect thoughts in front of you. Ready to accept your criticism or, far worse, your praise.
So here’s the first report from the field.
I feel freer in this medium to explore a voice that fits awkwardly in academic publishing. And I heard from friends and acquaintances that my last essay had borne fruit. They found some meaning there, or simply took pleasure in the reading itself.
Pleasure and a bit of solace. Can this sustain a writer’s career? I hope so. I’m done playing the evangelist. I’ve no one now to convince. I’d much rather look inward, to see how much I can see.
Let others correct each other. I’ve enough to correct in myself.