Commencement season is almost over (there are some college graduations still happening, if you can believe it!). This year I learned of a tradition I didn’t know existed. Apparently a newly elected president’s first commencement address is usually given at Notre Dame. But Donald Trump broke with this convention, recently delivering his first commencement address at Liberty University. In my opinion, it was one of his better public addresses. But he did do one conventional thing in the speech itself: he quoted from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Quotations from this poem are ubiquitous at graduations, along with inevitable misinterpretations.

Here is “The Road Not Taken,” in full:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The narrator is spinning. At the crossroads, he suffers from paralysis of analysis. But then he comforts himself, telling himself that he’ll come back to the other road but at the same time doubting he ever will. He’s telling himself a story in order to get over the anxiety of this decision, which can’t escape the air of the arbitrary.

The “road not taken” was traveled about as much as the one the sojourner wound up taking. Frost says this himself, if you pay close attention:

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same…

The roads are the exact same; it’s only later that he claims to have taken the road less traveled. (The following video explains this well, but it includes profanity.)

This poem is often quoted as “The Road Less Traveled.” That is exactly what the author imagines himself saying at the end of his life. Perhaps celebrating some successes (and by implication denying other failures), the narrator romanticizes his arbitrary choice and makes it the secret of his success — he makes this arbitrary decision part of the self-delusional narrative he tells himself regularly to get through this thing we call life.

“The Road Not Taken” is perhaps the most popular poem written in English (lots of metrics, including Google analyses, bear this out), but American opinion of Frost is divided. In the imaginations of many, if not most people, Robert Frost exists as a kind of American sage, akin to Carl Sandburg or Benjamin Franklin. But to the literati class, he’s a mischievous character who uses his lyrical gift to poke fun at the masses, who misinterpret him so badly that they themselves deliver the punchline at their own expense. But seeing Frost in either of these lights strikes David Orr, who wrote a book on the poem in question, as missing the point:

…the confusion embedded in “The Road Not Taken” is mirrored in the love and misunderstanding between its American author and his English friend. If this is an ironic parallel for such a thoroughly American poem, it’s also a fitting one. The ideas that the poem holds in tension — the notion of choice, the possibility of self-deception— are concepts that define not just the United States, in all its ambiguity, but the responses that the United States inspires in and from citizens of other countries. There is the admirable self-reliance and the towering egoism; the emphasis on liberty and the thirst for control. There is the grandeur, and there is the hypocrisy. These contradictions come together in the idea of “self-determining power” that proved fatally compelling for Edward Thomas. This is why it’s not so surprising, after all, to see “The Road Not Taken” used in a twenty-first-century Ford commercial in New Zealand. The iconic American poem, the iconic American brand — what better pairing to convince a Kiwi that his own “self-determining power” is central to the life he will lead and the choices he will make? And that this power would be enhanced by the purchase of a Taurus? […]

At the same time, of course, the advertisement itself is an attempt to undermine that power and replace it with the judgment of the advertiser and his client. It is, in one sense, a deception — as is “The Road Not Taken.” Yet for all its trickery, no text from the past hundred years better captures the difficult essence of American experience, or more successfully translates that essence into a figure useful to people far beyond the borders of the United States. “The Road Not Taken” is a literary oddity and a philosophical puzzle, but more than anything else it’s a way of framing the paradoxical and massively influential culture in which it both begins and ends.

In Orr’s eyes, Frost is not being sentimental or cynical. He’s just describing the complex nature of being human and making decisions and choices in a culture that makes such decisions and choices determinative of identity.

I think Melissa Febos gets at Frost’s point in her memoir Abandon Me:

Jonah, whose name means “dove,” is not brave. He simply exhausts all his other choices. The only thing left to choose is God’s will, and even then, after proclaiming his prophecy, Jonah shakes his fist at the Lord. His destiny does not give him peace; it enrages him. It’s not what he wants. He begs God to kill him. But God doesn’t kill Jonah. God’s mercy often doesn’t come in the form of erasure. And the story of Jonah seems a parable of what I have often suspected, that life is a great “choose your own adventure story.” Every choice leads the hero to the same princes, the same cliff. There are alternative routes, but there is only one ending, if you make it there…every love is a sea monster in whose belly we learn to pray.

Predestination or free will? The answer, of course, is yes.

Today is Ascension Day. For some reason, after the Resurrection, God decided his sojourn on earth wasn’t completed. Jesus, God in the flesh, chose to spend forty days with the early church, coming and going, appearing and disappearing, almost as God did in the Garden before humanity found itself wandering East of Eden.

At the heart of Christianity is what is sometimes called “the scandal of particularity.” The truths of reason seem allergic to the accidents of history. So why does the creator of a seemingly infinite and expansive universe tie our redemption to a child who many undoubtedly thought was born a bastard, to Jewish refugees, who was later executed in the backwater of the Roman Empire? Why is the fate of every tongue, tribe, and nation bound up with a Palestinian Jew, who, apart from the Resurrection, would have gone down as one of the nameless thousands that the Roman Empire crucified without a story to tell?

I think our lives work from the particular to the universal. Richard Rohr observes that a mark of spiritual health is the growing appreciation of “both/and” and the easing of our commitments to the “either/or.” Our appreciation for universal spiritual truths generally comes long after we experience healing and deliverance from a pain or wound or sin that is so particularly ours. You can only meet the Creator of all things through a journey that begins in and with your thing, the thing that binds you but also is the occasion for your own liberation.

The Ascension guarantees that God’s embrace of the human condition is not accidental or some strange epiphenomenon that may or may not have lasting significance. It assures us that God is really human, and invites us to a gracious humanizing journey that ends with God being all in all, but not without us. In the Ascension, God forever is marked as human, and we are forever marked as having a story bound up with the Divine.

In his famous lecture “The Humanity of God,” delivered in 1956, Karl Barth begins by situating his theology in relationship to the past and contextualizing the direction it might take in the then-present:

What began forcibly to press itself upon us about forty years ago was not so much the humanity of God as His deity — a God absolutely unique in His relation to man and the world, overpoweringly lofty and distant, strange, yes even wholly other. Such was the God with whom man has to do when he takes the name of God upon his lips, when God encounters him, when he enters into relation with God. We were confronted by the mystery comparable only to the impenetrable darkness of death, in which God veils Himself precisely when He unveils, announces, and reveals Himself to man, and by the judgment man must experience because God is gracious to him, because He wills to be and is his God. What we discovered in the change which occurred at that time was the majesty of the crucified, so evident in its full horror, just as Grünewald saw and depicted Him. We saw the finger of John the Baptist, by the same artist, pointing with authority to this holy One: “He  must increase but I must decrease.”

Unmistakably for us the humanity of God at that time moved from the center to the periphery, from the emphasized principal clause to the less emphasized subordinate clause. I should indeed have been somewhat embarrassed if one had invited me to speak on the humanity of God — say in the year 1920, the year in which I stood up in this hall against my great teacher, Adolf von Harnack. We should have suspected evil implications in this topic. In any case we were not occupied with it. That it is our subject for today and that I could not refuse to say something on it is a symptom of the fact that that earlier change of direction was not the last word. It could not be. Similarly, the change in which we are now engaged cannot be the last word. That, however, may become the concern of another generation. Our problem is this: to derive the knowledge of the humanity of God from the knowledge of His deity.

Barth resisted the temptation to do the kind of re-narration that Frost’s narrator does. He was able to see the limits of previous thinking, yet not be embarrassed or ashamed by those limits; he was even able to invite continued expansion and exploration. He didn’t need to revisionist-ly romanticize or demonize previous roads taken but was able to see that all roads can lead to a proverbial and redemptive Rome. Perhaps this comes from the conviction and comfort found in the humanization of God, assured by the Ascension of Jesus, which invites one to embrace the scary reality of our creatureliness, with all its limitiations, a prospect the Creator chose to forever share with us.

The Ascension is at the heart of the Gospel, even if it’s not given consideration or reflection most days. It’s a gracious invitation, in the words of N.T. Wright:

To embrace the ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitble despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as CREATURES: image bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless.

Loving limits is a gift of grace, one offered by a God whose commitment to us is limitless.

For further thoughts on the significance of the Ascension, check out this recent episode of New Persuasive Words: