Knowing Is A Long Apprenticeship

“The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is… that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has as always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

I recently completed the reading of Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society and I must confess that ironically, I was irritated by the fact that it was not written in a manner that would have allowed for quick consumption. Reflective and offering many occasions for meditation, Peterson takes the reader through the Psalms of Ascension or the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). For all of my devotion, time spent in worship and study, Eugene Peterson describes me perfectly, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” A long apprenticeship. Those words began to gnaw at me. To be sure, I wanted holiness, to be holy but was there an app for it? In addition, my daily tasks seemed to increase during the time that I was reading it, further preventing me from completing the book in what I would consider a timely manner. Honestly, I was more interested in checking it off my list, being able to say that I had read it than mulling over its message.

I had sat in a lecture of Peterson’s during his visit to the St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland a few months before. There is even a picture of my meeting him in one of their publications and he remembers my name when I stand to ask a question of him. I have the video tape to prove it! Nevertheless, together, my husband and I must have bought six or eight books of his that day.  Perhaps a bit star struck after meeting the translator of The Message, we wanted to know the work of Eugene Peterson.

I wanted his books for their quotable verses and catchy sayings, a point to strengthen a sermon that I was to deliver or proof of my commitment to lifelong learning. I needed something new to say. And I was only interested in change if it occurred quickly but what I wanted was his change. I wanted the wisdom without the experience. I picked up his books as if cheat sheets for a course on discipleship. I thought that the book would be a critique of the culture when in fact it began from the start as an accusation against me. This comes from a woman who enjoys silence and quiet retreats, who listens to sermons for pleasure on days other than Sunday.

It seems that at some point, the busyness of this world had infiltrated mine. But, I am not really busy. Truly, none of us are; an emergency of any sort will bring this truth to bear. The reality is that I only feel busy with the constant buzzing and beeping of machines. They all need my attention and interaction. This paparazzi like technology makes me feel important, popular even. And yet, it because of my interaction with them that I feel the need to be constantly updated while believing myself to be always behind. It is a ridiculous and unfulfilling cycle. We have access to seemingly everything and now don’t have the time to experience and thereby know it.

“Tell me what you want me to know quickly. Hurry up and change me,” I say to the book. I wanted to skim over the process and get right to the point… right?  Completion. Finishing is the point, right?  Well, after completing the book, I don’t feel done at all. I feel as I have with every book that I have ever read: that I know less than when I began. For it is in my exposure to knowledge that the depth of my ignorance is revealed.

And I feel this to be true when it comes to people and cultures. The more that I learn about race and its progeny, the more I am convinced of my own ignorance. If this is the means by which we come to know ourselves and others then we don’t know anything at all. I don’t know anyone and I most certainly don’t know who I am. Instead, I know who I would like to be and likewise, how I have been told to perceive others. Getting to know anyone including ourselves is a long process. Our lives are not to be skimmed over, the social color of our skin seen and immediately, we are known.

Race allows us to assume that we know without having known but simply because we have seen. We have access and therefore, we have proof if we need it. We have “one black/white/red/yellow/brown/beige friend.” We had one bad or good experience and suddenly, we become experts on the lives of persons we have the least interaction with. We simply don’t have the time, we don’t want to endure the “long apprenticeship” of getting to know anyone not even ourselves. This is why we turn to race in search for quotes and proof of our learnedness. But, in truth, our knowledge of race serves only to reveal our ignorance.

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