Perhaps you’ve already seen this term paper assignment, from Kurt Vonnegut, that’s posted at Slate? It’s worth reading, on the one hand, because it’s a simple reminder of how clever and lovely a paper assignment can actually be. I know I forget that, sometimes, and lose myself in the practical (and uninspiring) instructions I give my students. But I’m linking to it here because one particular passage captured my attention. Vonnegut writes:
As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all …”
There’s been ample discussion, on this blog, over the past several days about issues of “tone” and “discourse” in theological (and theoretical) conversation. There’s been talk of how to mitigate forms of rhetorical violence, about the relative value of anger, about the role of graciousness, the need to amplify hospitality. This is a good discussion, I think. These are good questions: how do we talk to each other across great (or minute) distances? How do we have a conversation? There’s no formula, and so we all weigh in with our two cents. Or ten dollars, as the case may be. I’m all for graciousness, and hospitality. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not sour. I like harmony. But it really gets me when these terms are raised up as pious ideals, at the expense of critical attention… or even, perhaps, cynicism. I like the way Vonnegut places religiosity (which he seems to be reading as a kind of awe, wonder, “delight in the universe”) in a necessary relation with cynicism. I’m totally on board with that. I’m guessing that most of us, who read this blog, don’t need to be sold on the necessity of a faith whose fitness is improved with doubt. But what about a sense of religiosity that’s fringed with cynicism? Can these be variations on a similar sort of theme?