Out and About

Live Big; Think Small

Mellow notes of a harp filled the Alexander Ramsey Room of the Minnesota Club in downtown St. Paul as a number of guests gathered for lunch. It was a festive occasion. People moved about meeting one another and talking with anticipation of the address we were soon to hear.

By the time Dr. Paul Holmer advised us to “live big and to think small,” the harp had long been silent, lunch had been eaten, and Dr. Holmer was concluding his talk, “Stages on Life’s Way.”

Paul Holmer, former Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, lives big, thinks a lot, and thinks clearly. Dr. Holmer’s scholarship is well established. In addition to the books he has written, he has taught widely and is world-renowned for his knowledge and understanding of Søren Kierkegaard. Paul is very active—teaching, speaking, and preaching. His retirement from Yale to the Twin Cities has been a great advantage to those of us who live in the area. It has been possible to attend classes taught by him at Plymouth Congregational Church and Bethlehem Covenant Church and to hear him preach at churches in this area, to mention just a few occasions.

For Paul, his retirement has allowed a return to Minnesota where he grew up and where he taught philosophy at the University of Minnesota until 1960. Among the guests at the luncheon were many current and former members of the University of Minnesota Philosophy Department.

Paul told us that as a young boy he wrestled with two powerful conceptions of who he was. On the one hand, the message of religion from his family and Salem Covenant Church was that he was a product of divine activity. On the other hand, the message from intellectual quarters was that he was the result of an evolutionary process that began with tadpoles and the like coming out of the “burps and gasses” of an abysmal swamp as described by H.G. Wells in his Outline of History, which Paul received as a gift from his Uncle on his eleventh birthday. He read and outlined all three volumes. At age 14, this secular, academic side of the dialectic within him received more fuel when he used paper route profits to purchase Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the GoodWill Bookstore and during the next two years read every page.

Paul told us of the year he spent reading Neitzsche aloud to Dr. David Swenson on Saturday mornings. Paul was seventeen. In addition to the task of comprehending Neitzsche, he was re- quired to read in a shouting voice into a large hearing machine because Dr. Swenson was very hard of hearing. I suspect this conditioning of Paul’s vocal chords has served him well.

Dr. Swenson had come upon a book by Søren Kierkegaard in an old book store on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. He was in despair at the time and S.K. apparently hit spiritual and intellectual chords. Subsequently, Dr. Swenson translated much of Kierkegaard and introduced him to America and to the English-speaking world. When Paul said, “I owe everything to him,” he was acknowledging the importance of Dr. Swenson both to his personal life and to his intellectual development.

Paul left the University of Minnesota to take up teaching responsibilities at Yale University. Paul said that during the years at Yale, he began rereading Søren Kierkegaard with the help of Ludwig Wittgenstein and rethinking the antithesis of divine activity and the machinery of human rationality. He gave seminars on Intentions, Motives, and Purposes; Emotions, Passions, and Feelings; and a year-long seminar on Vices and Virtues. This new method allowed him to pick up issues in a small, piecemeal way. The consequence was an energetic and attractive period of teaching. With Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein as helpmates, said Paul, he discovered that what needs to be learned is to live big and to think small.

Living big and thinking small struck a chord with me, and I know it struck others similarly. It fits with the conviction that existence precedes essence, which is also stated: “That something is comes before what it is,” or living precedes thinking about it. I don’t find it easy to live big, but I have been convinced for some time that this understanding puts thinking into perspective and allows the room needed to live big.

Toddler Room, September 6, 1992

Every so often my turn comes around to join the children in the toddler room at Bethlehem Covenant Church. It turns into one of my best times. Not only do I get to spend the hour or so with the kids, I get out of going to the morning service. The latest instance was the Sunday I spent with Marissa and Benjamin. Usually there are more little people in the Toddler Room but not the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

Benjamin was first to arrive and he helped set things up. He was ready for action immediately. As we surveyed the situation and our resources, he showed me an acorn he had in his hand.

“Did you find it on the way to Church?” I asked.

“No,” he said as the acorn disappeared in the palm of his hand.

I did not clearly understand the explanation he gave. Once in a while I caught a glimpse of it. It was very smooth from being held a lot. He did all his work that morning with the acorn in his hand, unnoticed by the rest of us except at rare moments.

There was a piece of equipment in the room that was new to me. Benjamin knew more about it than I, including the fact that it would be what we would make of it. We decided it was either a trailer or a buckboard—something that needed to be pulled. It was made of blue plastic bars and had three yellow plastic seats. Two were in the back and one was up front where a driver could sit. It had a long blue trailer tongue with a wheel on it. The problem was that we had no vehicle with which to pull the trailer. Benjamin explains things by working them out in a story. In this case, we were waiting overnight for our car to get fixed.

There was another way around the problem. We had two rocking horses that could pull the buckboard so we could get going today, but we had to figure out how to hitch the trailer to the horses. Benjamin pondered the problem only briefly before coming up with an ingenious way to hitch one of the horses to the buckboard using the yellow trailer of a toy gasoline truck and a couple pieces of string.

By this time, Marissa had arrived. The two friends and I discussed what we were trying to do.

“Will you help, Marissa?” asked Benjamin.

Marissa came up with the idea of using more string. The partners scoured the room and found a few little pieces of string. A few knots had to be untied before they could be utilized.

About this time, Lynette came by to tell Marissa and Benjamin that it was time for the Children’s Sermon in church. Marissa was off in a moment, and Benjamin declined in favor of a jail construction project he had conceived. To tell the truth, under Benjamin’s narrative direction we had most of the jail built before we heard Marissa, who is very fast, come scampering down the hall.

Marissa helped put some finishing touches on the jail and then created a bedroom on top of their house (the jail doubled as their house). By then it was time to take a break for 5-Alive and Ritz Bitz. It turned out that the back seats of the buckboard, which doubled as part of the jail, also made a great restaurant counter. Marissa and Benjamin sat on cardboard bricks in front of the counter eating and drinking from our plentiful supply.

Shortly after we finished the snack, we discovered a couple books. Feet, by Dr. Seuss, was selected and read with great attention. After that, we were discussing The Growly Bear and were about to begin reading it, when Marissa suddenly said, "Let’s do some puzzles.” The Growly Bear was left to herself.

The Three Little Pigs, Ms. Piggy, and Donald and Mickey puzzles were taken apart and carefully put back together. Marissa had finished putting the Three Little Pigs back together and Benjamin was beginning another engineering project, when his dad came in. Benjamin was running into some difficulty trying to tie a string. I noticed the acorn on the floor. I caught his eye and pointed to it. Immediately it was safely back in the palm of his hand.

Church was over, but in the Toddler Room things were still in full swing.

North Park Wedding

Kristen Soderstrom and David Starr were married in North Park Covenant Church on September 23rd. Kristen was a beautiful bride, which came as no surprise, and David was a handsome groom. The music was superb, the parents were proud, and the service was fitting. North Park Covenant Church itself seemed to rejoice at the event.

The “Old Gym” rejoiced, too. (More recent North Park College students may refer to this venerable building as the Chap- el, but for an earlier generation it will always be the Old Gym. I suppose for those of earlier times than mine, it is the Gym, or even the New Gym. If one calls it a gym now though, it requires the word old, because the basketball hoops are gone.)

Anyway, the Old Gym was a great setting for the wedding reception. Mel and Joanne Soderstrom may personally know. more students and faculty of North Park, and be known personally by more, than any other couple. Mel has served the college in several capacities for 30 years. For some time now, he has been the friendly, resourceful financial aid director. The upshot of this is that the Old Gym was full to capacity and many of the guests were dear North Park friends. For example, the Copy Editor and I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Verla and Carroll (CP) Peterson, Jane and Hobart Edgren, Dagmar and Mel Soneson, and Muriel and Elder Lindahl.

Kristen and David could not have wished for a more convivial beginning to their life together, nor given us more pleasure. Best wishes to you, Dave and Kristen. - PJ