The thing I miss most about academic life—summers aside—is its constant promise of new beginnings. Each semester offers a fresh start and the beguiling hope: surely this time I will get it right. My lectures got bogged down in detail; this time they will never lose sight of the big picture. (Or they were too general and this time they will be anchored in hard data.) My seminars were too structured; this time I will allow room for freewheeling discussion. (Or they were too undisciplined and this time I will keep them rigorously on topic.) Twice a year—more if you're on quarters—you get a chance to reinvent yourself, if only in the classroom. And on the first day of class we're all good teachers.
It might be supposed that the life of an editor is much the same. Every issue, after all, offers a new beginning. But the breaks aren't as clean. You don't move from issue to issue in distinct progression. You're always working on three issues at once: one for which you're correcting final proofs and blue lines, one for which you're copyediting, one for which you're deciding the contents. It's all a blur, which is why when friends ask what's coming up in the next issue and you can't immediately answer, the reason is something other (you hope) than incipient Alzheimer's. There's no clear beginning and end, just constant process.
Starting over—the idea appeals to all of us, and not only in our jobs. This explains the otherwise (to me) inexplicable appeal of the New Year's holiday. New year, new possibility. This time I'll get it right.
And so we make New Year's resolutions. We'll be thinner, healthier, more disciplined, less anxious, kinder to spouses and colleagues, slower to anger and swifter to bless—just all-around better people. Most such resolutions, of course, have a notoriously short half-life. New years soon enough look like old years, and new lives like old lives.
Teaching was like that, to tell the truth. For all my resolutions to fix what was wrong, my teaching evaluations read much the same from semester to semester—and so did those of my colleagues. During my years at Queen's University in Canada, our teaching evaluations were published and circulated. They had, we soon discovered, a fixed and seemingly unalterable predictability. Things changed at the margins, but that was all. Last year's popular teachers were also this year's, and Professor X was as boring in the spring semester as he had been in fall.
Not only did our relative popularity rankings remain pretty much the same, so also did the reasons for them. In my case, my seminar students always said, on the positive side, that I was well-organized and knowledgeable. (Of course, any professor who can't persuade undergraduates that he knows his subject should find a new line of work.) They usually said that I was enthusiastic and open to points of view other than my own. On the negative side, they regularly said that I graded too hard and allowed insufficient latitude in discussion. And they always said, one way or another, that I talked too much.
It's not surprising that our evaluations changed so little over time. Styles of teaching have to do with fundamental traits of temperament, and the injunction, “change your teaching,” is the equivalent of “change your personality.” Not many of us can or do accomplish that. One year, in response to student criticisms, I determined to become more flexible and less controlling in conducting my classes. It was a fiasco. Since I didn't really believe in open-ended discussion (the classroom is not a bull session)—and the students could sense I didn't—I lost the virtue of disciplined inquiry without gaining that of creative exchange. After that failed experiment I went back to my strengths and learned to live with the corresponding weaknesses.
All of which explains, by analogy, why New Year's resolutions so regularly fail. Not always, of course (I did manage one year to stop smoking). But they succeed best when focused on very specific behaviors, not on new modes of being that require transformations of character.
I concede uneasily that this is not the dominant vocabulary of Christian moral discourse. Christians characteristically speak of radical reorderings of life, of lives made new in Christ. Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics alike talk the language of perfection, of the Christian pilgrimage as that toward ever more perfect conformity to the imitation of Christ. I understand why they speak that way, why in a certain sense they have to speak that way, but that understanding of the moral life simply does not coincide with the reality of what I see in the lives of others or what I experience in my own.
That is not to say that radical transformations do not occur. They do, and they are miracles of grace, but they are not the norm. Most of us experience our moral endeavors neither as fundamental reinventions of self nor as progressive steps on a journey toward perfection. We do not necessarily improve morally as we grow older. More usually, we exchange one set of vices (and virtues) for another. We outgrow youthful passions; we lose youth's enthusiasm and openness. When there is growth in grace it is not typically either dramatic in nature or radical in direction. It is less a remaking of self than a making better—maybe even making the most—of the variously imperfect people we are.
This may sound like a recipe for moral resignation or complacency. It can of course become that. But, I would argue, it is faithful to the reality of the moral lives of most of us. When Luther insisted that we are beggars before God he was acknowledging, without accepting or minimizing, our damnable failure to live up to the demands of radical discipleship. We never do “get it right.” Radical failure throws us back on radical grace. As Augustine said, “Our very righteousness . . . is yet in this life of such a kind that it consists rather in the remission of sins than in the perfecting of virtues.”
God made us for perfection, and our inability to live that way makes our moral lives a muddle at best. Yet we have no choice but to live in that muddle, giving in neither to moral lethargy nor to fantasies of moral purity. Start over? Of course: after every act of confession, every word of forgiveness. And so on tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It would all be quite absurd if it didn't have a happy ending. But it does, and that, out of pure gratuity, blesses the muddle.