By IHE Fellow Jennifer A. Frey
In mid-March, I arrived home from a spring break spent giving lectures at various universities around the country to find out that not only would I not be returning to my own campus anytime soon, but also that five of my children would not be returning to their respective schools. On top of that, our longtime caregiver could no longer come to the house to watch our toddler. I was disoriented and anxious. One afternoon, in despair, I called my department chair and tearfully asked him: How am I supposed to do this? He said some well-intended words of encouragement, but we both knew there was no answer to my question. None of us had models to imitate or imaginative resources of past experience to draw upon.
The first major sacrifice was my research, which screeched to a halt along with my public speaking. However, I was committed to maintaining my podcast, Sacred and Profane Love, which is devoted to the exploration of the philosophical and theological dimensions of literature. I’m glad that I kept this commitment — difficult as it was while homeschooling and teaching online — because I now have more listeners than ever. Why have so many turned to literature, philosophy, and theology during this crisis? Boredom is only part of the story — I suspect the rest has to do with the human need to make sense of our own suffering.
The global pandemic has thrown the fragility of our lives into very stark relief. It has forced many of us into a posture of self-examination and reflection about the ways we have ordered our own lives and society, but also about God, death, and the point of our own existence. Philosophy is often said to be born of wonder, but it is surely born of suffering too. Certainly Albert Camus, author of The Plague, saw this clearly.
The aim of the Sacred and Profane Love podcast has always been to remind its listeners that great art is a cognitive enterprise, that it reveals truths to us that we are inclined to forget or neglect, and that literature plays an important role in human flourishing. We live in an age inclined to oppose reason and imagination, but the two are meant to work together cooperatively. I try to recover these connections in each episode of the podcast, not with dry lectures or didacticism, but by exploring a great book in honest, unscripted conversations with my guests, who are typically philosophers, theologians, or literary critics who have a deep appreciation for the books under discussion.
As we now slowly ease out of lockdown and try to puzzle through what sort of world we want to rebuild together, I believe that we need the renewed moral imagination that comes from encounters with great literature as much as we need skilled expertise. We need imaginative resources and models to imitate, conceptual clarity, and revelation. In short, we need literature, philosophy, and theology. And if you seek those resources in the midst of your daily life, I hope you’ll join the growing audience of Sacred and Profane Love.