Over a late lunch, I have been finishing up Shirley Williams' autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves. It was back in 2001-02 that I met Williams and her late husband, Richard Neustadt, a Harvard professor considered one of the great scholars of the U.S. presidency (himself featured in a recent study I'd like to visit: Guardian of the Presidency: The Legacy of Richard E. Neustadt; he himself had pointed me toward his own magisterial Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, with what I only found out later was the most ridiculously modest comment that some readers "had found it useful.") This was when Williams was delivering the year's Erasmus Lectures at the University of Notre Dame (published as God and Caesar: Personal Reflections on Politics and Religion, during my final year of teaching high school at Saint Joseph's. I had more than my fair share's chances of talking with both of them, talking about the build-up toward the Iraq War and the action in Afghanistan with Neustadt in the wings after one of Williams' lecture sessions as she conversed with remaining members of the crowd, and dining with them one night after receiving a wryly surreal phone call from Erasmus Fellow George Howard (who directed Kevin Fleming's doctoral dissertation) intoning something like, "Are you available to dine with the Baroness of Crosby?"
The rain and Williams' ending combined in my head to create something of a bleak mood. Both rain and Williams are in an of themselves quite good. But it is the scope of something like drought that can feel overwhelming. (Along with the worries of something like climate change contributing to it, whether such change is actually man-made or part of the ongoing global warming that people suddenly seem to have forgotten that we've been experiencing since the last ice age.) And so can the governmental challenges that Williams outlines as she reflects over a life of public awareness, and then service, that goes back to being a student in a bomb shelter during the Second World War, arguing policy with the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, who happened to be sitting next to her.
My visit up here has been taken up thus far with a notable amount of babysitting duties or just keeping my nieces occupied, which I haven't regretted after being separated from them for so long. Sophie alone has kept me delighted with a steady stream of fun quotations from a five year-old, the last one being, as I searched in the refrigerator for the peanut butter that Haley wanted for lunch: "It's in the pantry. Get your facts straight!" Haley and Grace just add to the delight, with Haley building a catapult the other night in order to hit me in the head with a pillow, and Grace excited to take me on in chess, having just discovered that I know how to play it, too. I've had a few opportunities to work, though, and am in a big one now, as the family is away for a week, having driven down to Florida for a beach vacation.
So here I find myself locked into some work on Trinitarian theology (which reads far, far more slowly than an autobiography), along with some private excursions into reading what I can of subatomic physics after the physics world's giddy announcement that they think they may have observed a Higgs Boson at CERN. They're both necessary reading for me: the mystery of God and the mystery of Creation. (Again, outside of the biblical and secular fundamentalists, there's no intrinsic opposition between religious and scientific ideas: historically, attention to the latest details of scientific discovery have always been of theological importance in trying to understand what is meant by the act and the reality of Creation, of God's endowment of the universe with its own intrinsic characteristics.) Trinitarian theology, I've spent a lot more time on. I get it, to the extent that it can be "got," having followed the development of that analysis, description and logic through the centuries. Subatomic physics, I don't understand nearly so well, but I keep trying, finding within it every bit as much an occasion for theological and spiritual wonder as I do for physical wonder.
For me, that's all part of my "work," my occupation. Reading Shirley Williams, then, on the challenges facing us that she describes in her epilogue – though not failing to note the great advances made since she was born in the midst of the Great Depression – gives me a list of more than enough challenges and work to be done: enough to keep nearly everyone occupied. And which makes my own work in the field of human ideas and understanding seem incredibly luxurious and esoteric. I know, intellectually, that this isn't so: the whole point of my kind of historical and contemporary research is to recognize the huge effect that our ideas and presuppositions have upon our world and on our actions in it. Williams' book is a testament to that fact.
But, man, am I staggered when I look at the weight of everything that needs doing, and wondering whether my unquantifiable attempts to influence change – by exposing students to a greater world of ideas and helping them learn to weigh them – is really contributing enough to those needs. I related in a letter of application that a student once asked me what the "concrete products" were of reflective sciences like theology and philosophy. The truest and most precise answer I could come up with was "civilizations." And now we're having to build a new kind of global one: sustainable and no longer merely consuming, a world to garden, not just harvest, in a time when the communications and travel technology is such that I do indeed find myself in the (historically rather novel) position of having to worry about everything in the world.
And yet through all this, outside, the rain and the thunder roll on, reminding me that there's a great deal beyond all our power or control, and that grace itself is the factor in history most beyond all calculation.