Nov 23, 2020

A Small Step towards the Extraordinary

A Small Step towards the Extraordinary

A Small Step towards the Extraordinary

Nathan King

"The call to be extraordinary," says Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Discipleship, "is the great, inevitable danger of discipleship."

An extraordinary life resonates loudly, like a deep, pure tone of a large bell, marking a significant event. I want to lead an extraordinary life.

I just don't want it to be dangerous.

Bonhoeffer took a different tack. He was a pastor in Germany during World War II. He opposed Hitler, standing up when so many others in his community - including Christian pastors and church-goers who followed a religion whose teachings clearly went against what Hitler stood for - passively sat on their hands.

His courage and resolve alone highlight him as extraordinary, but his philosophically rich books stand the test of time, including the book quoted above, a meditation on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

Discipleship is one of those words that has grown stale from overuse and misuse. In American culture, it generally applies to Christian devotion, and use of the word generally alienates those who don't subscribe to that way of life. "I'm not a Christian, so discipleship doesn't apply to me. I don't want to waste my time on weird religious themes," would be the understandable conclusion.

But discipleship simply means to discipline oneself to the way of another. Importantly, it doesn't mean to adopt the way of another forever.

We can be a disciple in a big, bold way, committing our entire life to the model of someone (like Jesus) or some idea (like stoicism).

We can also make ourselves a disciple temporarily.

In the classic book How to Read a Book by Charles Van Doren and Mortimer Adler, the authors propose that a deep reading of a book causes the reader to become a disciple to the author. To truly understand a book, the reader has to set aside current opinions and clearly determine at a fundamental level what the author is trying to say, determining even what the author means by definitions of common words, to "come to terms" with the author:

The major effort of the reader, therefore, must be with respect to the terms and the initial propositions. Although the philosopher, like the scientist, has a technical terminology, the words that express his terms are usually taken from common speech, but used in a very special sense. This demands special care from the reader. If he does not overcome the tendency to use familiar words in a familiar way, he will probably make gibberish and nonsense of the book.

The reader is becoming a disciple of the author in order to intimately understand and to try on her ideas. That will lead the reader to mull over what the author is trying to communicate. The reward for the reader is to learn something new, ideally contributing meaningfully to living a richer life through either agreement and adoption of new ideas, or through reasoning out why those ideas are incorrect and strengthening intellectual reasoning for not following those ideas.

Most people who read don't disciple themselves in this way to the author. They fly through books, not stopping to ponder what an author means by his "terms and propositions."

Notably, most people don't even read. The people who disciple themselves to the terms and propositions of an author while reading a book grapple with thought and themselves in a way that achieves and extraordinary outcome.

So we can be extraordinary in small, temporary ways, like reading a book. Such an outcome stays with us and causes growth, even if not as sustained as how Bonhoeffer meant it.

Is it dangerous to become a disciple in a smaller, temporary way, like reading a book? There is danger. Especially in how boldly the reader selects a book.

Even in the small step of deeply reading a book we set aside our own beliefs, our own social conformity, and we must reconcile new ideas to what we already assume. In short, this small discipleship experience causes us to reflect. And reflection can bring us to truth that fundamental overrules the way we order our lives, causing us to disrupt career paths, relationships, and spending habits that were previously in a stable state.

Maybe this is why even with reading, there are so few who disciple themselves to the process:

Bonhoeffer's assertion is large and daunting, easily creating a mental resistance to even trying it out. Reading a philosophical, literary, or scientific book and discipling oneself to the author during the experience is much more achievable.

Quite possibly, such a step outside of one’s comfort zone opens new realities and sets the stage for making all of life extraordinary. With this small but extraordinary outcome, our lives are richer for it.




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