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David Ingold: The Rhythms of Advent: Which Calendar Rules Your Life?

David Ingold on the liturgical calendars of Christmas

[Editor’s note: Today’s guest post comes from David Ingold, one of last year’s Colin MacLaurin Fellows and one of the members of our pilot residential program. David graduated from the U with a degree in mechanical engineering and now works as an engineer.]

It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving. After weekend of gratitude, rest, and maybe homework catch-up, it’s time for the final end-of-semester push.

Seventeen days. 17. Just seventeen days of until the last day of class! So much work to do in less than 3 weeks!! But twenty-four days until the last day of finals. I just need to make it twenty-four more days, and then… pass or fail…the semester will be over!

Even though I’m no longer taking classes, it’s not difficult to remember these end-of-semester thoughts common to students, especially since I live with a bunch of students at the U. In fact, just thinking about how soon the semester is ending makes me feel anxious on their behalf.

But this week marks the onset of something else, something more significant then the arrival of winter break. Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a season of eager longing and joyful hope for the arrival of Christ.

For those unfamiliar the practice of Advent, I want to ask a question: Which calendar rules your life?

For students, it is often the Academic Calendar; for much of America, the answer is the Consumer Calendar (which culminates with the Black Friday—Small Business Saturday—Cyber Monday trifecta). But for the church, Christ’s people, we have an alternative available to us: The Liturgical Calendar, a calendar of worship that begins with Advent and peaks at Easter, bringing us through the life of Jesus each year.

"The Nativity" by Antoniazzo Romano (1452-2512)

“The Nativity” by Antoniazzo Romano (1452-2512) (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It is an easy temptation to put your heart and soul in the results of finals and the hope of vacation. Rather than completely orienting our lives around the pressures of our world, the wisdom from Christian tradition calls us to remember Jesus and orient every part of our life (and year) around him.

In Advent, we join the church around the world in remembering the longing of Israel, God’s people, for the long-expected Savior while in Exile. Though Immanuel, God with Us, has indeed come (which is why we so jollily celebrate 12 liturgical days of Christmas!!) we wait still as ones in exile (1 Peter 1:17). We wait for Christ’s deeper presence in our lives and community, and even more so for Christ’s second coming. But we wait with joyful expectation, for he IS coming!

While Thanksgiving is not part of the liturgical calendar, how fitting that the prelude to Advent is a time for gratitude to God for who God is and all he has done for us. And yesterday evening I enjoyed starting this liturgical year with an Advent Feast, to rejoice and feast together because of our shared hope, and to express our longing for Christ as we sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

To aid us as we long for the advent of Jesus more than we long for the advent of vacation or relief after a strenuous Black Friday, I’ll end with an Advent prayer from Henri Nouwen:

Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas. We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day. We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us. We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom. We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence. We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus.” Amen.

Terror and Fear: Reflections on Christians' Call to Love

Terror & Fear: Reflections on Christians’ Call to Love

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Andy Bramsen, assistant professor in political science at Bethel University. This post originally appeared on Redeemer Journal, the blog of Church of the Redeemer, where Andy serves on the vestry.

As we reflect on the horrific acts of evil in Beirut and Paris that have killed scores and inflicted terror on the people of those cities and beyond, we grieve with them and pray for the Lord’s mercy and comfort. Yet it is all too easy to turn from mourning with the suffering to becoming hardened toward anyone who shares a national, religious, or ethnic identity with the perpetrators. This turn from sorrow to a hatred fueled by fear stems from a natural desire for self-preservation. Sadly, I am already seeing evidence of this in news and social media.

But as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called not to fear but to love. We are called not to focus on our own interests, but to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry, as we would serve Christ Himself. If we are serious about being Christ followers, we must take seriously the command He gave to His disciples: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

Part of taking up our cross involves loving and caring for all in need as we have opportunity to do so, remembering that the needy are our neighbors, whether or not they seem safe. And as we do so, we remember that our Lord chose not the path of safety, but the way of the cross.

So today I challenge us to reflect anew on what it means to live out the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

2015-11-09 design thinking blog 2

Shaped: Design Thinking, Desire, and Engineering

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Katie Hazlewood, a junior mechanical engineering student and one of this year’s Colin MacLaurin Fellows. Her post is the second in a series of reflections on design thinking as a connection between our faith and our callings. The first, by MacLaurin alumnus Nathan Trulsen, connects design thinking and business.

As described in Nathan’s article, design thinking is a human-centered, purpose-oriented way of thinking. Instead of budget, profit, or competition being the end goal, design thinking makes this goal centered around the desires of people.

In engineering firms that produce a product for a customer/client, this way of thinking should be in place for each product that is designed, prototyped and sold. In practice, this would mean putting the person (the client) before anything else, including cost and time. This is easy to agree with, but undoubtedly harder to practice. A balance must be created inside of this way of thinking. Projects must still meet budgets and deadlines so that overall productivity can increase. I believe that having design thinking embedded in the way these requirements are met is what makes the difference. If each new problem arising in product development was handled with a primary focus on the clients’ desires instead of the time or effort required to fix it, the end product may look a lot better, and clients may be more satisfied with their products in the end.

In broad terms, engineering focuses first on how things work, and secondly on how to make them better (more efficient, cheaper, and of higher quality). But how do these twin emphases relate to faith? If put in the context of design thinking, an instinctive analogy can be made. Just as engineers constantly look for ways to improve upon the current processes, Christians look for ways to restore and renew both people and the world we currently live in. In both scenarios, something broken is being restored. In the case of an engineer, this comes into play when troubleshooting and problem-solving occur: a broken process or product must be restored to its original state. For the case of Christians, this looks like spreading the gospel with the hope that broken, fallen people can start to be renewed to their original and pure created state.

Design thinking comes into this analogy when we look at how the restoring happens in each scenario. In engineering, this shift happens in the move from restoring processes to get the biggest profit to restoring processes to meet the original desires of the client. This shift focuses on the motive behind the engineer’s work. As Christians, we were given the Great Commission to go and make disciples, and to teach them the ways of the Lord (Matthew 28:18-20). This call to restore people is present and being completed because it is the desire of the Lord, not for our own selfish purposes. Again, this comes down to the motive behind our actions. In each case, the desires of people and the Lord are the end goal.

Design thinking can and should be applied widely, in many different fields. As a Christian engineer, I must seek to see the desires of people before other requirements or compensations. Through this, I must do the work the Lord has called me to, and seek to restore both people and processes according to God’s greater purposes and desires.

Nancy Nordenson on finding true leisure with Josef Pieper

Finding True Leisure: A Guest Post by Nancy Nordenson

[Editor’s note: Today’s post is an excerpt of a new book about work and vocation: Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure by Nancy Nordenson (Kalos Press). Finding Livelihood takes a creative nonfiction approach to exploring the multiple, often conflicting, calls we experience and must navigate. Nancy will be speaking at our Fridays @ 4 event this Friday, November 6.]

When you look at the face of a worker, wrote Josef Pieper, what you see is effort and stress becoming permanently etched. I’ve been reading and re-reading Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture for a book group called “Sophia,” because like the Greeks, this group seeks wisdom. I think it’s true what is said, that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. It’s also true that when you set your mind on a search, posit a question, you can’t help but start seeing clues.

Years before, someone whose opinion I respect recommended the book, and in a spirit of dutiful response, I checked it out of my local library. The book was small with a worn gold hardcover, no dust jacket, and yellowed pages. Copyright 1952. I had flipped from page to page, dipping here and there into the dense writing. I’ll skip it, I thought. To read this book would take too much time in a schedule filled with too much work. I already knew what it said, didn’t I? That it was in periods of leisure, among people who could afford leisure, that the extras that pushed society forward arose. The discoveries of geometry and calculus came about from men with time on their hands, not from men laboring deep down in a mine. The exquisite textiles that now hang in museums were woven by hands not otherwise occupied stirring gruel. I knew these pieces of history. It wasn’t hard to extrapolate the principle to the present. The book was as good as read without completing a single full paragraph. I returned the book to the library long before its due date.

Now, here for the book group was a newer edition, softcover with bright white pages. After reading it cover to cover, I realized my assumptions about it and its concepts of leisure had been all wrong. Pieper, a twentieth century German philosopher, published this book in 1948 after having first delivered portions of it as two lectures in 1947, just after the end of World War II. He wasn’t concerned with shoring up an eroding cultural foundation by advancing geometry and calculus or filling museums with textiles or tools of scientific discovery. Neither did he care about Caribbean cruises and hammocks and umbrella drinks, or rounds of golf or dinner for four at eight. Here was a man pleading with a world of people whose noses were to the grindstone rebuilding businesses, homes, and lives destroyed by the war. Eyes on the job, all hands on deck, preached the day’s motivational speakers, betting on productivity and utility to calm the turbulence. In contrast, Pieper pleaded: “pierce the canopy” that work forms over your life and transcend “the work-a-day world.” Allow “the totality of existing things to come into play: God and the World,” he wrote.

Why this message, this urgency?

To be human.

Start in the world and go up, urged Pieper. True leisure is “a condition of the soul.” True leisure is stillness, contemplation, passivity, receptivity, celebration, worship, wonder, mystery, and grace. A Sabbath intervention. These are words I can wrap myself in and relax with. Find, grab hold of, hang on to, defend to the last, this reflective posture, I tell myself, and you find the canopy’s needed spear.

[This is an excerpt of a chapter from Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure by Nancy J. Nordenson, Kalos Press, 2015. Used with permission.]

Nancy Nordenson is a freelance medical writer and also the author of Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure (Kalos Press, 2015), a contemplative exploration of the split calls that comprise a working life. Nancy lives in Minneapolis; she blogs at

Shaped: Design Thinking, Desire, and Knowledge

Shaped: Design Thinking, Desire, and Knowledge in Business Innovation

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Nathan Trulsen, a management consultant at Accenture, where he focuses on healthcare innovation and strategy. He is an alumnus of the Carlson School of Management and active member of the MacLaurinCSF community, which has helped shape his understanding of the Christian calling to business and economics. Opinions are his own and not those of his employer, Accenture.

MacLaurinCSF’s 2015-16 annual theme, “Desire & Knowledge,” is well-timed, as just this month Harvard Business Review declared, “Design thinking comes of age.” There is a deep analogy between design thinking and desire and knowledge: just as universities have prized a knowledge based on fact and reason, business managers have valued risk analysis, labor and capital efficiency over risk taking, empathy, and emotion.

But design thinking—prioritizing the emotional and imaginative side of being human—seeks to put creativity in the center seat of business strategy, owning up to the reality that desire and knowledge are more connected than largely acknowledged. As a Christian who seeks to give glory to God through my work, I am delighted that design thinking provides a more human approach to understanding innovation. And design thinking also highlights the need for moral formation so that we, all who aim to create value for customers, can serve their best, instead of their worst, desires.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a method for innovation and problem solving that involves deeper, pre-cognitive approaches to creativity, for which it has also earned the term “human-centered design.” Take the following diagram from the design firm IDEO:

ideo innovation

Whereas traditional business innovation often focuses on balancing engineering and finances in order to create functional utility for consumers, design thinking focuses first on what customers desire in order to create emotional value. Each design firm and corporation will highlight their unique process for getting here, but key recurring themes in design thinking are:

  • Putting humans first — When faced with the task of create a new product or service, the first step is observing how the customer experiences the current way of doing things. Without relying on the user to explain or quantify their thoughts, designers gain a deep, hands-on understanding of what moves people. Contrast this ethnographic approach to traditional business school training, where the best practice is for managers to use quantitative market statistics as knowledge.
  • Creative brainstorming — Solutions are brainstormed freely and creatively, allowing team members to take the solution in any direction. Collaboration and flat power structures are important here, since any team member may have the solution. More and more businesses are dispensing with hierarchical organization of power in an attempt to foster collaboration.
  • Prototyping solutions — After gathering as many solutions as possible, start rapidly creating models. Build physical replicas if possible, or, if you’re creating a service, create storyboards of how a consumer will experience the solution. Run these half-made solutions by the customer to get a sense for whether you’re going in the right direction. This sounds like extra work to managers who take a unidirectional view of work: define the problem, come up with a solution, and present the solution.

The designers of the world say design thinking isn’t new—and they’re right. What’s new is trying to take their creativity and human-centered practices and replicate them in other areas of society. IDEO was one of the first product-design firms that popularized design concepts for businesses. One hospital tasked IDEO with reducing the number of children that had to be sedated before having an MRI. So they designed a pirate-themed MRI machine and trained the MRI technicians to treat the scan as a pirate ship experience. The percentage of children needing to be anesthetized, previously at 80%, dropped precipitously and patient satisfaction went up to 90%. Traditional business innovation started with the technology and built an MRI machine. Design thinking started with patients and asked how they could enjoy an MRI scan.

Design thinking is especially helpful in an environment of rapid change, where it gives whole organizations, whether businesses or governments, a way to create new possibilities instead of being confined to analyzing and refining old ways of doing things. For example, design thinking has taken on an increasing role in moving the American health system from one organized around disjointed care and administration to one that focuses on increasing patients’ health and financial well being. Traditional health-insurance companies add social media, online chats, and web portals as service options alongside their call centers without providing access to cheaper and better care.

Enter Oscar Health, a startup insurance company in New York and New Jersey that wants to create health insurance that is “simple, intuitive, and human.” They give their members a seamless interface with descriptions of bills and procedures in plain English and access to cheaper, convenient health services. That’s only the tip of the iceberg for healthcare.

Why stop at creating public good? At Stanford, design thinking has moved beyond solving economic and social problems to solving the biggest personal life questions. Ainsley O’Connell’s analysis of Stanford’s “Design your Life” class is particularly telling. One student who took this class came away saying:

It really helped me understand what the concept of vocation was. [ . . . ] I had thought of it either as a narrowly religious concept or for a specific job. But it’s this feeling that I have true agency over my work, because I know what I stand for and I have tools to fix the things that I encounter in my life.

“Design your Life,” launched in 2010, has a waitlist of attendants as students seek the tools to discern what’s next after college. O’Connell even suggests that this class is filling the void created when Christian theology and moral formation were removed from campuses in the mid-20th century. On whether this class was created to address that void, course co-creator Bill Burnett says, “Design doesn’t speak to ethics and spirituality and all those things, but they work within its frameworks. Our only bias is, hey, we can make the future better.”

The running themes in design thinking are creativity, empathy, experimentation, and learning by doing. Making design kinetic—observing people, creating models—requires designers to be viscerally in the world in a way that reminds me of Christian author James K.A. Smith’s description of practical knowledge in his Cultural Liturgies trilogy. Smith leans heavily on anthropology to show that people are loving beings as well as thinking beings. Experiencing the world through our senses creates a knowledge that is often more convincing than disembodied ideas are.

There are two key takeaways for Christians to consider:

  1. There is cause for celebration. For the business person who views their work as part of God’s creation mandate to cultivate the world, design thinking is a welcomed movement. By putting humans first, design thinking allows us to build businesses around the purpose of “creating a customer,” as Peter Drucker famously said in 1953. With its focus on brainstorming and experimentation, design thinking also allows us to “employ the whole man,” for “this approach focuses on man as a moral and a social creature, and asks how work should be organized to fit his qualities as a person.” In a digital age in which machines have become more “intelligent,” performing cognitive tasks once thought untouchable (driving cars, walking across uneven floors, constructing sentences), design thinking helps us simplify the noise of technology and asks what it means to be human. Design approaches in business make this human-centered vision of work a reality.
  2. The moral formation by which our desires are shaped takes on renewed importance. People have never lost their nature as moral animals, but just as academia separated desire and knowledge, the market has been conceived as unfeeling and value-neutral. While economists teach that markets are amoral, every good marketer knows that products sell better when the product is worshiped. As our universities and markets recover the language of desire, we must be aware of how desires are formed and to what extent we are asking our customers to desire created things over the Creator. Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, wisely noted that “a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed,” for “of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality.”

So on one hand, we have design thinking and its method for creating experiences that resonate with our innermost being. Its use of empathy and experimentation employ the desires God imbued in us that swim below the surface of our rational action. On the other hand, we are left asking which stories and experiences will swoop in to form the moral imagination to which human-centered design caters. IDEO co-founder Dave Kelley looks to science fiction authors for inspiration. The Christian story, rich with imagery of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, is a forward-looking story of hope that transforms our desires so that we worship the Creator instead of created things. I am excited for this year’s conversations about desire and knowledge as I seek to understand human-centered design in a way that provides goods, services, and a life consonant with the Kingdom of God.

healthcare as a Christian vocation

Healthcare as a Christian Vocation: Announcing our new series of healthcare-focused retreats

We are excited to announce a new opportunity for Christian students preparing for healthcare professions.

Through a collaboration among the Catholic Medical Association, the Christian Medical and Dental Association, the Coptic Medical Association of North America, and MacLaurinCSF, we are offering a series of retreats designed to encourage Christian formation of grad/professional students in healthcare fields.

Students training in healthcare fields at public universities like the University of Minnesota receive first-rate educations in their specialties. But given the secular nature of public higher education, Christian students receive little or no support for understanding how their faith affects their work in healthcare.

To remedy this, we’re launching a rotating series of four overnight retreats—one offered each semester—so that students in medical, dental, pharmacy, and related programs can gain a Christian vision for their healthcare professions.

The first of these retreats will focus on the topic “Healthcare as a Christian Vocation.” Together we’ll seek to understand why our work in healthcare is not just a career, but a Christian calling—a vocation. We’ll cover the general theological concept of vocation and explore deeply and practically what vocation entails in the healthcare fields. The retreat will feature sessions and discussions led by local practicing physicians on topics such as:

  • the theology of vocation
  • the idols of the healthcare professions
  • healthcare as mission

The retreat will take place November 20-21 at a retreat center in Montgomery, MN. Registration costs $25, and includes four meals and lodging, as well as a copy of Timothy Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.

We will distribute a few short readings to all participants in advance, encouraging them to read and discuss these selections beforehand, so that we can all gain the most out of our time together on the retreat.

What to expect on the retreat:

  • learning together about vocation through presentations and small group discussions
  • conversation and fellowship with other students and practitioners in a variety of healthcare fields
  • time for quiet reflection on the kingdom significance of your work
  • prayer and worship together

To register for this retreat, please complete this Google form and pay online through MacLaurinCSF (select “Healthcare Retreat”). Retreat registration is now closed. If you have questions or would still like to register, email Andrew Hansen, Program Director at MacLaurinCSF.

shaping a digital world

New Fall Reading Group on Faith, Culture, and Technology

We’re excited to announce a new fall reading group that is getting started next week. Led by computer science PhD student Michael Tetzlaff, the group will be reading and discussing Shaping a Digital World by Derek Schuurman.

The study group will meet in Keller Hall and is cosponsored by MacLaurinCSF and Graduate Christian Fellowship. Their first meeting will be next Tuesday, October 6 at 1:30pm in Keller 4-131. Feel free to bring your lunch.

Here’s the description of the book from

Digital technology has become a ubiquitous feature of modern life. Our increasingly fast-paced world seems more and more remote from the world narrated in Scripture. But despite its pervasiveness, there remains a dearth of theological reflection about computer technology and what it means to live as a faithful Christian in a digitally-saturated society. In this thoughtful and timely book, Derek Schuurman provides a brief theology of technology, rooted in the Reformed tradition and oriented around the grand themes of creation, fall, redemption and new creation. He combines a concise, accessible style with penetrating cultural and theological analysis. Building on the work of Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, and drawing from a wide range of Reformed thinkers, Schuurman situates computer technology within the big picture of the biblical story. Technology is not neutral, but neither is there an exclusively “Christian” form of technological production and use. Instead, Schuurman guides us to see the digital world as part of God’s good creation, fallen yet redeemable according to the law of God. Responsibly used, technology can become an integral part of God’s shalom for the earth.

2015 Oscar Best Picture Nominees

Birdman, Boyhood, Budapest: What do this year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees tell us about American culture?

This fall’s talk on what the Oscar nominees tell us about ourselves is coming up quickly. If you want to catch up on your nominees or you’re thinking about watching one or two of the films, here are links to the trailers:

Our speaker Drew Trotter said that his talk will feature Birdman and Boyhood most prominently.

American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, and Selma will be discussed quite a bit, too.

And, even though all the nominees will at least be mentioned, the final three won’t be focused on to the same degree, though you’re welcome to bring them up in the Q & A:

Drew also chats regularly with Faith Radio’s Neil Stavem. You can listen to their past conversations here.

Which Best Picture nominees have you seen this year? What did you think of them? What sorts of topics and themes come to mind when you think about the films you’ve seen recently?

Phy Ed & Purgatory

Phy Ed and Purgatory: Dante’s Visions of Vice & Virtue

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Kathryn Mogk, a graduate student in the English department here at the U and one of our incoming Colin MacLaurin Fellows. Kathryn will be leading a reading group on Dante this fall—one of 10 reading groups on offer—and we’re pleased to offer this introduction to the great Florentine poet, which I hope will help entice you to join Kathryn and the others reading Dante. Register for Kathryn’s group and see what else we’re offering.

At the corner of the basketball court I stepped out of my lunge, checked my shoelaces one more time, and got ready to run. “Pride,” I whispered as my feet struck the pavement, taking up the rhythm of a jog I thought I could maintain. “Lord, pride.”

It takes about twenty laps around a high school basketball court to make a mile. My meager goal was to just do fifteen without stopping to rest. But even for the reduced count, lap after lap of the same concrete and chain-link fence was mind-numbingly boring. That’s why I decided to pray while I ran—at the very least it would distract me from the inevitable stitch in my side. Fifteen laps: seven sins, seven virtues, one Gloria. I got the idea from Dante’s Purgatory.

“Pride.” Dante was so right to place it at the bottom of the mountain of purgatory, as the first of the seven terraces that the soul must pass through on its ascent to the heavens. He was so right to imagine pride as a slab of stone bending you down, almost breaking your back, so that you shuffle forward under the load rather than running to God. But in his vision, the same punishing weight forces proud souls into the posture of the humility they need to learn; it turns their eyes to the ground, where they find carved images of Trajan putting aside his imperial majesty to answer the plea of a widow and Mary murmuring, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord.” In hell, for those who have rejected God, punishment is just pain. But in purgatory, for those willing to repent, even the natural consequences of their sin can be turned into instruments of redemption—reminders of perfection.

One lap complete. “Please, humility.” I had to start here. It’s the gateway into all purgation, or cleansing, of sin. You cannot be forgiven without humility, because you can’t even repent, because you can’t even admit or realize that you need. That’s why Dante places the terrace of pride first: you can’t get to any of the others without going through this one. If you tried to train yourself in the virtues of temperance or fortitude without first receiving humility, you’d only be weighing yourself down further with your own self-righteousness.

I turned the corner and whispered, “Envy.” Yes, I envied. Bitterness rose in my throat and I choked it down. Dante pictured the envious with their eyelids sewn shut with wire, blinded by their own hatred, unable to see their neighbors as they really are. It’s an image branded in my brain since the first time I read Purgatory. All Dante’s grotesque inventions have that unforgettable quality. The external symbol shows me sin’s true ugliness and absurdity.

And what was the opposite of envy? “Make me grateful, Lord,” I prayed. I called each of my roommates to mind with a quick word of thanksgiving for their talents, the carefree fun they seemed to have, their easy confidence with people. Why should I envy their strengths? Those very qualities made my roommates better able to serve others, better able to help me in my awkwardness and shyness. Dante pictured the souls on the terrace of envy leaning on one another, leading one another, all reduced to a mutual dependence. Their need for each other teaches them gratitude and love.

“Wrath.” Here, I thought, I could get off easy; anger was my least besetting sin. After all, in Dante’s Purgatory, you only stay on the terraces where you need to be purified; if you’re free from a sin, you walk straight through. But I couldn’t spend two laps in self-congratulation. As Dante passes by those who suffer, he pities them and promises to pray for them once he returns to earth. Their intercessions for each other create an endless link between the dead and the living, binding all the church’s saints and sinners together in one eternal communion. So as I ran I prayed for those who do struggle with wrath, known and unknown, as I hope that others pray for me.

“Blessed are the peacemakers.” Wrathful or not, we all can strive harder to promote peace. I love how Dante incorporates into each terrace both the whip and the rein—negative examples to restrain us from sin and positive examples to speed us forward with greater love. Even though, as Dante arrives at each new terrace, he learns that it is named after one of the seven deadly sins, he leaves each level with one of the beatitudes ringing in his ears, offering blessing for a quality that pleases God.

My pace was lagging—the dreaded stitch in my side was burning—but as I rounded the corner I pushed myself faster. “Sloth!” This is the turning point of purgatory. The first three of the seven sins involve love twisted into hate, the desire for one’s own good perverted into desire for other people’s harm. The last three are forms of love for things that are good in themselves, but the love is carried too far, the desire swollen out of proportion. In the middle you find sloth, which doesn’t love much at all. I know it so very well. Weariness of doing good, indifference as my actions don’t seem to matter, lukewarmness as the love of God grows cold—faugh! I spit them out of my mouth!

“Zeal!” On this terrace Dante sets the slothful sprinting. They don’t stop for rest, for nightfall, for the wonder of a living man walking among the dead—even the spirit who tells Dante about the terrace shouts his words over his shoulder as he flies. Love is the whip that drives them. It’s the perfect response to the punishment at the gates of hell, where those who never committed themselves on earth are forced to chase a meaningless standard pointlessly back and forth, going nowhere for no particular reason. Those whom God purges of sloth fix their eyes on Jesus, to run, run, run the race and receive the eternal prize.

“Avarice.” I might have thought myself free of this vice if it wasn’t for what Dante had taught me in the fourth circle of hell. There, hoarders and spenders, misers and prodigals accuse each other in endless confrontation. Their opposite errors helped me understand that it’s not how much money you have or even what you do with it that determines greed. Perhaps the strictness of my budget—my hesitations in the grocery aisle to determine which cheese was a few cents cheaper by ounce—kept me lying on the ground, unable to see the stars of God’s boundless provision, like the souls Dante describes on this terrace.

“Generous, Lord,” I panted, thinking of the homeless men I’d walked straight by, “open up my hands.” I vowed to put some ones and fives in my wallet to be ready for the next time I saw them on the streetcorner. On this terrace of purgatory Dante and Virgil meet Statius, a late Roman poet who, according to Dante, came to Christianity by reading Virgil’s poetry as a prophecy of Christ. Although Virgil did not himself know about Jesus and cannot enter heaven, he nonetheless prepared the way for others’ salvation. I take this to mean, among other things, that our smallest and most apparently insignificant acts of generosity can have ramifications beyond our most daring dreams, consequences we will never suspect until we meet again beyond the veil of death. Who could pass up the smallest chance to give, even one meal or one friendly human smile, if he knew it could prepare the joyful recognition and mutual honor that Dante describes in the poets’ meeting?

I came to the corner again and pushed myself through. “Gluttony.” Not a sin usually in my examination of conscience. Halfway around my track, it hit me: in his division of sins, what Dante means by gluttony is the perversion of desire, not just for food, but for pleasure. Facebook. Buzzfeed. Netflix. How many times had I glutted myself with the mental equivalent of ice cream straight out of the container? How often, when I was lonely or anxious, had I turned to earthly distractions instead of heavenly consolation?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” In this terrace of purgatory, the blessed souls, though they require no physical food, spiritually fast by yearning for the fruit of the tree of life. Though they have no bodies, the force of their desire changes the appearance of the shades, hunger withering the flesh until you can read OMO—that is, “man”—in their sunken eyes and emaciated faces. The discussion of how the shade relates to the body is a reminder that all Dante’s vivid descriptions of punishments and purgations really matter as representations of spiritual states. Here on earth, eating normally, healthy in body, I can be ravenous with hunger for righteousness, consumed and transformed by insatiable desire for God.

“Lust.” In Dante’s purgatory this is the last and most terrifying trial—a wall of flame before which Dante stops short in terror. When he plunges in, he feels as though bathing in molten glass would be a relief from the pain. The same trial, Dante says, awaits everyone. Fornication, homosexuality, bestiality, all meet in the same fire, with no one sinner able to look down upon another. There are so many ways that love—not just sexual love, but friendship and affection too—can go wrong: possessiveness, the desire to control, dependence, idolatry, complacency. It is so easy to use one another. Here, at the top of the mountain, what is highest and noblest in human nature faces the most insidious and deadly of temptations, a vice so subtly intertwined with love itself that it can only be purged by fire.

*Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car* 1824-7 by William Blake (1757-1827)

*Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car* 1824-7 by William Blake (1757-1827)

I was almost done. “Chastity,” I panted, smiling at the old-fashioned, much-maligned word. Released from lust, we are free to love rightly. The blessed spirits of Dante’s purgatory dart and dance within the flames, and when they meet they greet one another with a swift kiss of peace. Dante’s reunion with his beloved Beatrice on the other side of the fire promises that earthly love can be purified, redeemed, and made an agent of salvific power. Once we can kiss and fly instead of trying to cling, once we can see the human beloved as an image of the divine without making him or her an idol, love becomes the way to God. And even in the very midst of the fire, even when our desires are still disordered and dangerous, we love; there is nowhere, indeed, without love, except the furthest pit of hell.

At the corner of the court I lengthened my stride, almost singing, “Glory.” Any examination of conscience or effort toward moral improvement can become an exercise in legalism. That’s why all Christian thought about virtue ought to begin and end in grace. Once I would have thought purgatory the antithesis of such grace—grim, oppressive, mechanistic, driven by fear, based upon the idea of earning salvation. It is so in many medieval texts; but not Dante. Despite the pain that they endure, the souls in Dante’s purgatory rejoice. The mountain resounds with singing. For the souls in purgatory, though located between hell and heaven, are not in a middle state of uncertainty or doubt. They already possess the salvation for which they suffer and strive. Even as they endure the process of sanctification, they are already justified by grace through faith, and that assurance gives them invincible joy in the midst of their suffering and longing for heaven.

I have no idea whether we will actually endure purgation after death. I am absolutely certain it won’t look like an enormous seven-tiered mountain in the antipodes. But as false as it is literally, Dante’s description is allegorically and spiritually true. My life, as a Christian in the process of sanctification, is a journey up the world’s tallest and steepest mountain, afflicted by suffering imposed by my own sins, encouraged by the examples of the saints, supported by brothers and sisters sharing the same journey. Despite the distance of time and place, the unfamiliar allusions, the elaborate allegorical method, this 700-year-old poem speaks directly to my condition.

Across the centuries Dante shows me to myself, with such intimacy and accuracy that I can use his images to pray about the shames and struggles of my own heart. Some might think such a devotional use of literature inappropriate, but if it can be justified with any literary work, it is this one. The Divine Comedy is great poetry; it is serious theology and philosophy; but let us never forget that Dante also meant it to prompt us to prayer. Since he includes in each purgatorial encounter the soul’s request and his promise to publish their names so that those on earth can pray for them, I have no doubt that he prayed as he wrote and expected his readers to pray as they read. Let us therefore, whether we believe it can do him any good or not, say a prayer now in honor of the man who saw and wrote so well the Christian journey that we share.

Celebrating 20 years of the Holmer Lecture

Twenty Years of Holmer Lectures

This fall, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior will deliver our twentieth annual Paul Holmer Memorial Lecture. We’re grateful to be able to carry on this lecture series—a true testament to the vision of MacLaurin’s founder, William Monsma.

We don’t have the titles or exact dates for every lecture, but here’s a list of who has given the lecture each year, along with as much other information as I’ve been able to find about the lecture:



  • George Marsden
  • “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship: What Difference Do Christian Perspectives Make?”




  • Bruce Reichenbach
  • “Divine Sway: The Concept of Play in Hindu and Christian Thought”




  • Gilbert Meilander
  • “Begetting Children—Designing Descendants”
  • Delivered November 7, 2003





  • Stanley Hauerwas
  • “Theological Knowledge and the Knowledge of the University”
  • Delivered November 9, 2007


  • David Gushee
  • “Evangelicals and Human Rights: Problems and Prospects for the 21st Century”
  • audio recording
  • Delivered October 3, 2008


  • J. Budziszewski
  • “Kicking Against the Goad: Why Natural Law is Real, Good, and Usually Detested”
  • Delivered October 10, 2009


  • James K.A. Smith
  • “We Are What We Worship: On Sacred and Secular Liturgies”
  • Delivered November 19, 2010