James Houston — Regent College founder, Oxford professor, and colleague of C.S. Lewis, answers questions applicable to today’s changing landscape — bringing attention and wisdom to relevant issues in this culture and time.
What are some of the hurdles young people face today that you never had?
One of the things we are facing today is that young people have multiple choices, that I never had in my youth. The exacerbation of choice now makes a kind of paralysis of choice in our society because there are so many opportunities, so many directions that one can go in.
How can someone deal with all these choices?
The way to overcome that is to not take choice too seriously! People today find it deadly serious to decide what career track to follow and they don’t realize that the reason the choice is so serious to them is because it seems to identify them so much with a professional identity rather than a relational one.
What do you mean when you talk about a self- achieved identity?
When you have an identity in what you do rather than in all the range of your relational life, you end up being a depleted self. Especially when identity is assumed to be something that is self achieved, it ends up being depleted and shallow.
Whereas, if you are living with a much more robust sense of the self, that is given to you by relationships with others, then of course you have a much stronger sense of self. And in that respect, you can be therefore much more generous in your attitude towards other people. You are all around more relational.
You talk quite a bit about personhood, making a distinction between being personal and being individual. Please explain.
Fundamentally God has created us to be relational beings. You could say that there’s a huge difference between being an individual and being person. The person is, in a sense, one who is living in the theological understanding of personhood.
Personhood is ultimately to be relational as God is relational, whereas the individual is a self-contained and is therefore very limited in relational life. This applies to students just as well as people older in life. Clearly, if we can start earlier in life with an understanding of the personal dimension over the individualistic dimension, this will bear fruit now and later in life as well.
Do we decide what to do or does God?
One has to recognize that a lot of our life is much more guided by God through circumstances than through hearing some inner voice saying this is the way to go. It’s much more likely that we knock on doors and we find some doors shut and others open. That may be God using circumstances, as the sovereign of all time and circumstances.
You were acquainted with C.S. Lewis while at Oxford. What was that like?
When I was a young graduate and teacher at Oxford I was influenced by my encounter with C.S. Lewis. The thing that impressed me most about him was that he was as intelligent in his faith — in communicating it — as he was as a professional in literature.
Can you comment on Christians in professional circles expressing their faith, in this day and age?
I’ve often felt that what makes the witness of Christians incredible is when their expression of faith is not commensurate with their professional skills. The result is that their faith is ‘kindergarten’ compared with the way they’ve graduated in other areas of their life. That’s why I’ve felt there is a tremendous need to equip Christians who are intelligent to be intelligent in their faith. In the western world, the credibility of faith is being lost simply because there is a huge disparity between their general education and their faith.
How has the current burst of technology affected our ability to be personal?
The impact of technology is to give pseudo-relational impressions — that I am very friendly and very personal when I’m simply texting or joining some kind of computer club that brings us all together — like Facebook.
Are you on Facebook?
I’m not; I’ve deliberately refused to get involved! If I email, I write as though I’m writing a letter, to a person.
How does someone deal with dark times and valleys, with struggles for purpose or direction?
One thing I’ve always found helpful for when you are going through dark inner struggles that you find very threatening and challenging, is to try to identify it with the culture. If you understand some of the neurotic symptoms of the culture around you, you will understand why you are suffering the same kind of things within yourself.
When you see things more broadly in a cultural way, then you can understand that you can be sympathetic, as the prophets were, to their time.
What do you mean ‘as the prophets were’?
Jeremiah, for instance, knows [Israel's] in exile and he warns the people that it’s time to plant their vineyards and build their houses because they’ll be there for the long haul, as exiles. So, the very fact that you are not alone as an exile (in your struggle), but have fellow exiles as well, will give you some comfort. The problem that we tend to have is to take things so personally to ourselves that we forget we have companions in that struggle.
You talk a lot about lamenting before God. Can you explain this and its purpose for this generation?
Yes, I think it’s very important that today young people are able to disclose their inner doubts. A verse that will comfort them is 2 Corinthians 7:10, where Paul, to paraphrase what he’s saying, says that ‘the pain that is born of God (all the pain and the angst we have, that we can bring into the presence of God) is too significant ever to regret going through the experience’. The rest of that verse says ‘the pain that is of man (the self-encloser of the individualistic self), brings death’. In other words, we can’t cope on our own; we need the help of God. Some of the deepest pains we suffer, when we lament before God, turn out to be some of the most creative experiences we could imagine ever going through.
Can you explain the importance of Church history and how it is very much relevant for this generation of Christians?
The very nature of technology means that history becomes irrelevant. New techniques mean that we are always looking forward to something better. But humans have a memory; we have a history and a heritage. It’s my passion to say that we need all 2000 years of church history as well as the 1000 years plus of the Old Testament in order to enrich us to limp along as Christians in the 21st century.
How can past Christian culture help us understand today’s diverse Christian culture?
As never before, Christians need the communion of saints of the past to give them diversity and enrichment and sometimes judgement upon their own culture. How can we critique our culture prophetically unless we’ve got a perspective of previous cultures? For all these reasons, we need to take the history of faith seriously, because the very nature of Christianity is that it’s a historic faith. The reality of Abraham, or the reality of David, or the reality of Jesus Christ are historical events that are life changing and have transformed all of human history.
Do you have any advice for students?
We have to seek to have some balance. The advantage of being a student is that it’s a temporary position of limited time. We may make major sacrifices to concentrate and be successful in a way that is not necessarily going to be our way of life for the rest of our days. There is a difference between the pursuit of the professor and the pursuit of the student.
Advice for professors?
It’s very important for us to cultivate and not neglect our family life. At the end of the day, people that can be most enriching and joyful for us are our own family. And so, the pursuit of excellence has one great casualty to it. If I’m determined to make money, or I’m determined to make my own academic reputation, or I’m determined to single out one objective, that of course narrows the field of activities that I do. The end result of that can be very impoverishing. You can talk about the ‘failure of success’.
– Interview by Al Mills