I’m teaching a course on biography. I truly love it. It’s called ‘Lives of Faith’ and it follows James McClendon’s idea of biography as theology (and his book of that name, first published in 1974).
I want to offer a number of posts around this theme, but here I hope to say a bit about the rationale of the course.
I think I first got interested in the contribution of life experience to academic work when I was an undergraduate student in philosophy, and especially the philosophy of religion. The philosophy of Wittgenstein placed the whole quest for meaning (and at that time it was so much about how language functions as meaning) within what he called ‘forms of life’—and drew attention to lived experience as the locus for meaning.
But that wasn’t the key insight that came to me then: as I read a lot of sources on topics such as the the nature of religious experience and the ‘problem of evil’, I noticed that the people whose work I found most helpful and insightful were people who had done something else in their lives, perhaps in community service or teaching in a school, as well as university teaching and research. Wittgenstein himself was a prime example. Between his first efforts in philosophy and his much more famous works later in the twentieth century, he went into a kind of self-imposed exile, actually a period of extended research and reflection, working as a primary school teacher. He watched and learned how children learn, learn to speak and read, and live.
I was at that time in my life experiencing a number of profound existential crises, in part relating to the ‘call up’ of young men my age to enter the army and go to Vietnam—something I was profoundly sure I would not do. (The back story to this has a lot to do with the trauma following the shooting death of my older brother, some years earlier.) At precisely this time I found the work of the theologian Paul Tillich. He had suffered an immense amount of trauma, in both the first and second world wars and he spoke of ‘the courage to be’ in the face of meaninglessness, guilt, anxiety and death. His own life story and this philosophical theology were so helpful to me that I think without them I would not have made it through that time.
Life stories shape the way people think, teach, write and live. There are many ways in which this expresses itself.
In another post some years back I wrote about the value of life stories, drawing then upon an article by a British writer, Patrick: http://www.tobefrank.com.au/i-like-this-quote/theological-compost-2-biographies-give-life/
Just two things from that article I want to affirm here now. The first is that biographies offer us a sense of our common humanity. When we read about others, whether their successes or struggles (and usually it’s both), we know that we are not alone. In some way or other, this person is like me and I can derive some encouragement, insight or even a lesson on how not to deal with things, from their story.
Then, too, so many biographies tell us of the power of influence. Here I will cite two very distinct examples. F W Boreham was a young and, in many ways, ill-equipped pastor in a rural town in the South Island of New Zealand. He had migrated there from London, not having finished his training. But he was keen to learn and had a very sharp mind. His biography records that at that time another pastor from a neighbouring town recognized these things, and mentored the young Boreham by guiding his reading. Boreham said that that man ‘opened his mind’. We know very little of that other man, but we do know that Boreham went on to write 47 books, to preach to huge audiences in Hobart and Melbourne, and to write editorials for the daily newspapers in those cities for 40 years. That’s the power of influence.
In another post I will write of John Flynn and the Royal Flying Doctor Service. As a young lad, Flynn knew Herbert Mackay, whose company developed and manufactured the Sunshine Harvesters. From Mackay Flynn learned, both by observation and from the man’s instruction, about the power of vision and about the need to find solutions to practical problems, to make that vision a reality.
The stuff of life is story-telling: not just in words. We live our stories. We live within the stories of our community, whether it’s our ethnic community, our nation or sub-culture, our church or our footy club. We tell stories, we gain meaning from them, and we live them. Life stories shape us, even as we too shape them as we tell and re-tell them.
In the next few days, Australians will again think on the stories of the battles at Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915. It is a story of defeat, which is said by some to be the birth of our nation. Unquestionably it is a significant story in shaping who we are and to whom we think we belong. Many other stories shape our life as a nation, too. As individuals and local communities, we have the stories of the indigenous peoples of the land, of British, Irish, Chinese and many other settlers of the nineteenth centuries, and then the extraordinary numbers of people, cultures and stories that have come to form a multicultural nation today. These stories shape our lives and we live by them and into them.
Faith is not a set of beliefs or ideas, however much we may fervently assert them. Faith is the living of our convictions, and the most effective ways we know and hold those convictions is in living. More than that, such faith, as life story, is not a private thing, nor only an individual thing. It is the dynamic life shared with others in community, changing, growing, struggling and yet also rejoicing in being alive, together.