Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Life in the Pond

Last week I was a little fish in a large pond.  Now, before I say another thing I want to assure you I am not looking for any sympathy or pity; I am very happy about my status last week; I count it as a great privilege to have been in that wonderful pond, at all--as a little fish or otherwise; it is the truth.  It is as Prof. Peter Schickele, the alter ego of the famous P. D. Q. Bach once said, "Truth is truth, you can't have an opinion about it."

The pond I entered was the annual theology conference held at Wheaton College.  This year's topic was Christian Political Witness.  I won't be recounting the substance of the various talks given, so relax; besides, much of what I talk about on this site was discussed at the conference.

It was clear I was an outsider from the get-go.  While I was waiting for the shuttle one morning, I had a chance to meet one of the presenters.  I asked him where he heralded from and what school he currently taught at--that sort of thing.  Then he asked me what I did.  I told him I was a research chemist.  He kind of scrunched up his face--not caustically, but definitely with a hint of 'they'll let anybody come to these clambakes'--and said, "Ah, why are you HERE?"  Notice the emphasis wasn't, "Ah, why are YOU here?" which would have been caustic.  I had to laugh inside because had he showed up at an American Chemical Society Convention, he probably would've been asked the same question, and likely with considerably more causticity; because we are, after all, chemists (get it? caustic? chemistry?) Sigh.

The Lord knew I would feel a bit disenfranchised at my first foray into the theological academic world; consequently, within literally five minutes after my arrival I met a new friend who is a pastor from Idaho and who kindly took me under his wing.  He turned out to be a genuine kindred spirit, and he patiently listened to my ideas and responses to the various papers I would have otherwise been forced to hold in.  I hope I was equally a friend to him.  The only negative thing about my friend Steve was he was a dangerous person to be around when perusing the sundry books for sale outside the auditorium; I came home with six new reads and a drained pocketbook, thanks in part to Steve's encouragement.

One observation I made of the various guns brought in to present papers is a person's congeniality and willingness to spend time talking with you was inversely proportional to his or her age and stature.  The really big names would shake your hand (fin), say a few words, and quickly move to next person (fish).  Each was like a water-skipper darting across the pond, always with minimal contact to the water.  I don't fault them for this.  Most of those sturgeons boasted at least six different titles for sale on the book tables, and one doesn't become that productive without being somewhat preoccupied and busy.  It reminds me of when the servant of the great opera composer, Puccini, criticized the latter for his unpredictable bouts of aloofness: how apparently Puccini would often stop for no apparent reason on one of their walks and become lost in his thoughts while tapping his cane against the ground to some unheard music.  I thought, well of course, dummy, you don't produce the works Puccini did without your mind wondering once and awhile.  The same is likely true of the Titans of theology I was afforded the opportunity to hobnob.

It is no different in the world of science.  I remember when I was in graduate school my adviser invited me into his office to meet some high-octane chemist from the west coast.  After a few platitudes I asked him about a topic of physical organic chemistry, whereupon he jumped down my throat, "YOU'RE a graduate student and YOU don't understand this?" (Notice the caustic emphases).  On the other hand, when I was a fledgling visiting Illinois as a prospective graduate student, I had the chance to meet Dr. Paul Flory, the very famous polymer chemist and Nobel laureate.  In stark contrast to the other famous guy, Dr. Flory spent considerable time trying to get to know me as a chemist and a person--me, who had not yet even attained the status of a little fish.  Dr. Flory has since passed on, but I will never forget him.

Another observation I made while swimming about the pond last week is each fish is trying to mark out his or her own place in the underwater garden by courting the bigger fish.  I wonder, in fact, if this isn't the primary reason the younger fish are more cordial than the older ones.  I'm not criticizing them for their political stratagems; how can I? I tend to do the same thing, myself.  But it is fascinating to watch as one of the younger academics offers a gift of her new book to the elder statesman--the big large mouth bass--with the comment, "I'd love to know your opinion of it."

Everyone in the pond last week was friendly but definitely in their own element.  I was both a little fish and a foreign fish.  But as with all fraternities, to join, one must pay the dues.  I haven't done that yet, so for now I must remain on the outside.  And as I have already stated, this is perfectly okay and the way it is.

In another respect, though, it is a sad testimony that in a group of Christians--both great and small--who convened to talk about the proper Christian political witness--only one person of about three hundred offered his or her hand, unsolicited, by way of introduction to this outsider.  Does such behavior really constitute what Jesus meant when He commanded us to love each other as He has loved us?


Jeff said...

Jesus = BIG (beyond human comprehension) FISH

Woman at the well = tiny tiny tiny fish

Yet Jesus spent time talking with her.

If we were to somehow plot the "Bigness" of Jesus and our own "bigness" on the same graph we would need some sort of hyper log scale and a million mile tall graph. The difference between the published theologian and a frog would require an electron microscope to see on that same graph!

Harry Shields said...

As always, Bruce, I liked your post and was drawn in to the events you painted in my mind.

I thought of something one of your heroes--Francis Schaeffer--wrote. It was the title of a book--"NO LITTLE PEOPLE!" When we all stand in the presence of King Jesus, we are not little fish after all. We are servants of the king--each one, whether chemist or theologian, carpenter or baker.


Andrea K. Van Ye said...

great post, bruce. love the imagery. sometimes i struggle with jealousy. i feel small and other writers/speakers seem so much more ... equipped, talented, may i even say ... blessed.

but it's not about what they or i do or don't do, it's about Jesus.

after all, we're all in the same pond, drinking/breathing in the same water ...

praise God for however He chooses to use us.