I, for reasons of my own, listened to Trueman’s entire Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self in two days this past week, by speeding it up to 1.6 and vigorously cleaning my house in, as it were, a sort of a frenzy. It’s been almost a year and a half since I first read the book, and it was really helpful to race through the whole thing again, as a reminder to myself of—to employ what is rapidly turning into a cliché—“what time it is.” Then Providence, by the click of a lovely friend, delivered into my inbox a near-perfect illustration of Trueman’s seminal work. If you want a picture of the “modern self” of this age, a person who is finding out who she is and enacting it as a sort of drama on a stage, look no further than Agnes Callard, described by the New Yorker this way:
Agnes specializes in ancient philosophy and ethics, but she is also a public philosopher, writing popular essays about experiences—such as jealousy, parenting, and anger—that feel to her like “dissociated matter,” falling outside the realm of existing theories. She is often baffled by the human conventions that the rest of us have accepted. It seems to her that we are all intuitively copying one another, adopting the same set of arbitrary behaviors and values, as if by osmosis. “How has it come to pass,” she writes, “that we take ourselves to have any inkling at all about how to live?”
That essential and pressing question isn’t just theoretical for her. The article isn’t just about her philosophical work. In the main, Callard is the subject of this long and breathless expose because she did something morally significant. Though she was happily and contentedly married to a fellow philosopher with whom she shared two children, when one day she looked into the eyes of one of her students and felt herself, for the first time, fall in love, she understood that she had to reorder her life and end her marriage. Not to do so would be inauthentic. It would be like lying. She, therefore, laid out the whole problem to her first husband. They talked it through, in a “conversation” that “felt so honest that she realized she had probably never felt so close to Ben in her life.” Not so close, however, that she would reconsider her new experience of love. And that was fine, because everything fell conveniently into place. The divorce was accomplished amicably in three weeks, and a year later she married her new husband. Still, though there was very little pain of any kind,
Agnes was extremely upset that the divorce would harm their children, but she felt that the alternative was that she would become a bad person. “I thought that I would become sort of corrupted by staying in a marriage where I no longer felt like I was aspirational about it,” she said. Her friends and relatives suggested that she just have an affair, but that felt impossible. “It’s like you have this vision of this wonderful, grand possibility, and then you decide to just play at it, treating it like a vacation or something. It seemed like a desecration of that vision.”
My favorite word right now is “aspirational.” It says so much, or at least promises to. In the case of Callard, her aspirations began to spring into life:
Sometimes it seemed to Agnes that the universe had been prearranged for her benefit. If she and Arnold were taking a walk together and she craved a croissant, a bakery would suddenly appear. If she needed a book, she would realize that she was passing a bookstore, and the text she wanted was displayed in the window. She thought that this was now her permanent reality.
Ultimately, she and her new husband and her old one found themselves all living in the same house with the two original children, and the new one she had with the new husband. Because they all get on so well, and because it is better for the children that they all be physically present, they just don’t experience any of the usual troubles of jealousy and strife. Every day is one long philosophical conversation, except that, as the article draws to its inevitable demise, words like “divorce” and “loneliness” are taking their place once more in household conversations:
For Agnes, loneliness was the experience of having thoughts she wanted to communicate but felt unable to, because she knew that her words would come out wrong or be misinterpreted. Whatever she said would be a distortion of what she was feeling. “And that experience is almost a kind of madness—the experience of not being able to settle on a view about how anything is,” she said.
Today, in spite of the wretched time change, is Sunday, and we must wander over to the lections to see what God thinks about these sorts of things. We are in the middle of Lent, and you may be feeling the grime of failure, shame, and discouragement overshadowing all your promises to yourself and Jesus. Many long days still stretch out before the Paschal feast. The path is littered with tasks yet to perform, with feelings to examine, sins to confess, food to avoid, and vices to let go. That is if you are a Christian. If you are Agnes Collard, you are in a different kind of wilderness, one that, it seems to me, is just the right kind of place to meet the right kind of Person. She is very like the person we encounter in this morning’s gospel reading, a person who is so isolated, for whom almost nothing has conveniently fallen into any kind of order, who must be shouldering a great burden of experiences along with her water jar on her lonely journey to a well.
This other woman, unlike Callard, endures a certain degree of shame that causes her to be out in the heat of the day, drawing her water when no other woman will be around to talk to her. She has often gone to that very ancient well, made by the ancient patriarch, Jacob, and drawn her water and then gone home again. But today when she arrives, there is someone else was there who, though she does not yet know it, has the power to make her into, in the words of Callard, a “wholly other person.” “Philosophers,” explains the New Yorker, “often describe love from the outside, but she [Agnes] could provide an inside account…True lovers, she explained, don’t really want to be loved for who they are; they want to be loved because neither of them is happy with who he or she is. ‘One of the things I said very early on to my beloved was this: “I could completely change now…Radical change, becoming a wholly other person, is not out of the question. There is suddenly room for massive aspiration.”
I don’t think the woman of Sychar had any such aspirations when she finally, slightly out of breath from the heat and the walk, puts her jar down and finds that she is not alone after all. The man who is sitting beside the well most astonishingly asks her for a drink of water.
How it was even possible for him to speak to her? Men like him never spoke to women like her. That is one of those “social conventions” that help us orient ourselves in time and space, unless we throw them off by ourselves in the way of Agnes Callard. This man, though, isn’t groping around for meaning. He doesn’t have to perform anything for other people. He knows everything already, including the needs and sins of that solitary and, for us, nameless woman. And so he answers the deeper question of her whole existence, rather than the one about the water.
For, whether you are a philosopher or an influencer, every superficial question has the aspirational possibility to really be about the terrible fact of death. That is the ultimate loneliness. The point at which all that you have done or failed to do comes altogether at once and you go to another place and never come back. Death lurks, there, in the shadow, a great thirst that can never be quenched, a longing for knowledge and meaning and purpose that can never be satisfied—unless you happen to be met by this strange Man by the well. “You would have asked him,” says Jesus, “and he would have given you living water.” The woman doesn’t get what he is saying. What are you talking about? You don’t even have anything to draw water out of this well. Jesus makes it more explicit, “…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of living water welling up to eternal life” Her response is the simplest and the best, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
One can always ask. The people in the wilderness so long ago could have asked rather than demanding in anger. You can always look out over the wreckage of your life, sit down, put your head in your hands, and ask for life, for the living water. But know that when you do, before giving you what you think you need, Jesus will complicate and, at first, ruin everything. “Go, call your husband and come here,” he says. But she has no husband. She is living with a man and has had five husbands before. She is therefore in the same place as many women today who go from one person to another looking for someone to finally satisfy the deep thirst, the alarming hunger, the searching ache for a love that must, if only they keep searching, transform them into a beloved and satisfied whole.
The question, tragically, is one of worship. Agnes Callard, though an expert in Socrates, is really looking for the satisfaction and joy of worshipping the right Person, one truly greater and stronger and more good than herself. Of course two people who “fall in love” “want to be loved because neither of them is happy with who he or she is.” You shouldn’t be “happy” with who you are, satisfied with the dry isolating walk to a well that never answers all your questions or makes the hurt go away. If the thing that you worship isn’t God, you become “futile” in your thinking and your “foolish” heart becomes “darkened.” You cannot honor God because you wouldn’t before. And so you are caught in a terrible circle of loneliness, with only Socrates and Aristotle as your guides.
But this other man by the well, who knew both the builder of the well, and the woman there in the heat of the day, and, so many generations later—you—is the right person to worship. “Woman,” he said, “believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know…” couldn’t that be said about everyone today, in the futility of a darkened heart, groping around for a life-transforming love? “…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The woman looks at him. She’s no dummy. She is grasping the essential point. She abandons her water jar and runs back to her village to tell them all to come and see this man. She finds herself, though she didn’t anticipate it, or aspire to it at all, “radically changed” out of all her loneliness into a member of a family and village and community.
If you happen upon Someone who knows you completely, your inside and your outside, the thoughts of your mind and the inclinations of your heart, your going out and your coming in, you needn’t wait around, you should fling yourself into his way and worship him. The best way today is by getting up, even though you have lost an hour, and going to church. Hope to see you there!
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash