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Faculty Focus  


Jennifer Holsinger
This summer, incoming Whitworth students were asked to read
Mountains Beyond Mountains,
Tracy Kidder's account of Dr. Paul Farmer and his extraordinary commitment to serving the world's poor and sick. In introducing the assignment, Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Le Roy, '89, sent students four essays written by Whitworth professors reflecting on tensions in the book between obedience and compromise, Christ's call to serve the poor and spread the gospel, realism and idealism, and developing one's intellect while recognizing its limits. The essays modeled the kind of critical thinking and analysis in which the students would engage with faculty and peers once they arrived on campus. All four essays can be viewed at www.whitworth.edu/mountainsbeyondmountains, and we're pleased to publish Assistant Professor of Theology Adam Neder's here.


To Whom Do We Belong?
Let me begin this essay about Paul Farmer with an observation about Soren Kierkegaard. My reason for doing so will become clear shortly. Kierkegaard's Attack Upon Christendom is his iconoclastic broadside against 19th-century Danish Lutheranism. In a series of brilliantly argued and wickedly scathing essays and aphorisms, Kierkegaard lays out a penetrating and essentially simple argument: Christianity as practiced within Christendom has nothing in common with discipleship as described in the New Testament. When all are Christians, he argues, none are Christians. What goes by the name "Christianity" is in fact paganism – the very opposite of true Christianity. Amidst wave after wave of attack, Kierkegaard returns to a simple point: Every moment of life is characterized by either obedience or disobedience. There is no middle term between these two. It is a harrowing thought if taken seriously, for it means that life contains no neutral regions, no safe zones, no territory beyond the fray of battle. This ironclad Either/Or hovers over every moment of life and exposes all of our facile attempts to avoid it. It shatters all of our half-efforts and easy compromises, revealing them for what they truly are: self-serving and fraudulent. We prefer compromise to obedience, Kierkegaard insists, comfort to suffering, and half-truths to the Truth itself.

For those of you who have already read Mountains Beyond Mountains, it will be obvious why I am talking about Kierkegaard in an essay about Paul Farmer. I do so because Farmer's life is one extended argument against any and all forms of moral and intellectual compromise. You cannot understand him unless you understand that. The man is singularly and unflinchingly opposed to such compromises. And the farther into the book you read, the more likely you are to respond to him as his colleague Ophelia did: You compare yourself with him and you realize that your life just doesn't measure up. When viewed against the depth and integrity of his life, our lives seem, well, shallow and compromised. In fact, Farmer's life is on such a grand scale that it is tempting to think of him as an alien, a freak or perhaps even a saint – at any rate, as an unattainable ideal rather than an ordinary person. Please be clear that while this is a safe way to regard him, it is also the worst possible way.

Why? Because to think of him that way is to take his fangs out – to turn him into a pussycat. To idealize him is the best way to tame him. It is the best way to keep him from being a threat to our comfortable ways of living. If Paul Farmer is something like a superhero, then we're off the hook. We couldn't possibly be expected to live similarly.

Let me put it even more emphatically. From a Christian point of view, Paul Farmer's life is ordinary. His accomplishments, of course, are not. But his manner of life is. The fact that it seems to us so exceedingly extraordinary reveals just how far removed our conceptions of the Christian life are from the New Testament.

Now, what do I mean by that? It would seem that Farmer's life is many things, but ordinary is certainly not one of them. And yet one of the many striking things about the New Testament description of discipleship is that it makes absolutely no attempt to hide the fact that to live a Christian life will cost a person everything. Everything! For when Jesus Christ says, "Whoever does not deny himself, take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple," it is not as though he doesn't really mean it. "When Jesus Christ calls a person, he calls that person to come and die." Those are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, someone who knew that while the Christian life is immeasurably good – because it is life in and with Jesus Christ – it is also the farthest thing from safe and comfortable. There is no passage in the New Testament that penetrates more deeply into the heart of the Christian life than Paul's assertion that "we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's."

Do you want to know Paul Farmer's secret? Do you want to know how to make sense of him? Would you like to understand how to unlock the riddle of why someone who could so easily live in a plush neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, would instead choose to live so much of his life in the underbelly of the world's poorest areas? Here it is: Paul Farmer understands that his life is not his own – it does not belong to him. As you begin your education at Whitworth, let yourself be guided by this question: To whom do I belong: myself or someone else? Your answer will make all the difference.

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