In Ulysses James Joyce begins the third chapter with a phrase: “the ineluctable modality of the visible.” If you are anything like me, you started to become confused at the word ‘ineluctable’ and by ‘modality’ any hope of this phrase being meaningful had vanished. However, this phrase actually refers to a fairly obvious principle in human experience despite Joyce’s excessive use of obscure words.
So let me explicate this phrase for you. ‘Ineluctable’ is a fancy word for ‘inescapable’. ‘Modality’ simply means a form of sensory perception. Thus, “the ineluctable modality of the visible” refers to our inescapable reliance upon vision in perceiving the world and in perceiving ourselves. This reliance mostly goes unstated. Yet you rely on vision as you read this, just as you rely on vision to drive to school or work, to walk, and to communicate with others.
Joyce’s idea evokes a host of questions drawing from an abundant history of philosophical thought. I am not adept to fully answer such questions, nor am I offering some argument on epistemology. That is not the point.
I bring up Joyce because he gets at something deeper than vision. Underneath this phrase lies a question that we all have to answer: “How do I perceive the world around me and how do I perceive myself?” As Mrs. Wilson would point out, we all answer such questions with a “worldview sifter” unique to each of us. Through Ulysses Joyce displays a worldview obsessed with the physical, one that claims there exists no spiritual meaning behind the physical, bodily world. Through such a worldview, Joyce naturally draws his attention toward the physical modes of perceiving the world. The ineluctable modality of the visible captivates Joyce.
At Harvard I have been captivated by the ineluctable modality of Christ: the inescapable condition of seeing the entire world and myself in terms of Christ. I go to biology class and stand in awe at the incredible complexity of the millions of chemical pathways in a single cell, each molecule the work of God. As I read Homer I encounter the same elements of the human condition addressed by Jesus in the Gospels. I attend a neurobiology seminar only to find that my professor believes in Christianity amidst a community that replaces belief in anything transcendent with a belief in Science. I find in the student body a Christian community stronger than any I have ever seen before, one that shares with me the ineluctable modality of Christ. I walk across Boston Common beneath the spire of a church hundreds of years old and yet actively and radically involved in the community this very second. I am invited to parties where I see laid bare the insecurities of the most successful young people in this nation due to their lack of Christ. I sit down for breakfast only to be confronted by friends who cannot help but ask about the Gospel of Christ.
Whether I am reading alone in my room, writing a paper in a library, meeting with a professor, eating at a dining hall with friends, going to a party, playing in a concert, or meeting somebody new, I am confronted in some way with Christ.
At this point, you may have noticed that nothing I have said about Harvard is exclusively true of Harvard alone. My friends at many schools can take biology classes and read great authors and find Christian professors and connect with Christian community and have spiritual conversations.
My reply to such an observation is, “exactly”! I cannot count how many times somebody from the Calvin community has approached me to say “I’m worried about you going over there” or “it is a dark place” or “you will really have to hold on to your faith there” or “it will be such a challenge for you”. Underneath these comments exists a fear that Christ is somehow harder to find at Harvard than at Dordt, Westmont, Calvin, Biola, etc. Granted, Harvard embraces a diversity of beliefs while these other schools exclusively embrace Christianity. Yet, I cannot believe Christ is harder found at Harvard than at any other school. Every day of this last semester has been filled with finding Christ.
But this is nothing new. My time at Calvin Christian was filled with the same ineluctable modality of Christ. In a typical day at Calvin I encountered Christ through telling Bible stories in Spanish with Señora Silva, comparing the worldviews found in the Bible and literature with Mrs. Wilson, studying the general revelation of God through science with Mr. Jasperse, learning the history of the church with Mr. Van Solkema, singing praises to Christ with Miss Van Essen, and hearing the word of God preached in chapel. The only difference between Calvin and Harvard in this respect is that at Harvard fewer people share with me the ineluctable modality of Christ.
I also find the draw towards the ineluctable modality of Christ to be stronger at Harvard than Calvin. This is no insult to Calvin, but a compliment. I believe Calvin educates its students in such a way that they are prepared to grow in spiritual maturity upon graduating, and in this way trained me in the ineluctable modality of Christ.
In coming to see Christ everywhere in the world and in my life, I have joined the call of all Christians over the centuries. As Paul writes, we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rm 12:2) which allows us to attest to the will of God. As we see the world through Christ we see the will of God along with it. How do we renew our minds in this way? Jesus told us to “abide in Me, and I in you” (Jn 15:4) just as branches that bear fruit must abide in the vine. Abiding in Christ changes how we see the world and how we see ourselves. The author of Hebrews likewise commands his audience to fix their eyes on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2). By seeing the world through Christ, by embracing the ineluctable modality of Christ, we gain a faith that draws us towards Christ in everything. For me, this way of seeing started at Calvin and has intensified at Harvard.