by William Gonch
The sun sets late in Yorkshire. As late as 10:30 in the summer you can walk out of the abbey church at Ampleforth, where the Scala Foundation summer seminar met, onto a wide stone patio raised twenty feet in the air. You look over a sweeping hill. Behind you a thick, crenelated bell tower, pierced with slender stained-glass windows, rises over the pointed nave roof. Look down and the slope is cut into playing fields for the local school, yellow-green farmland, and a pasture of fat, bleating sheep. A few dirt paths run down the hill before they slip behind trees and disappear, emerging periodically to uncover the abbey before disappearing again, leading eventually to the water.
Worn, handmade wooden fences divide one farm from another. The fences are reinforced with modern wire, but they are built with wooden posts and cross-pieces that could have been used five hundred years ago. The old crafted wood adds a look of softness to the landscape that makes the whole field feel more human than would be possible with modern steel poles or electrical wire. Generations of farmers have fitted the place for human habitation; they pruned and tended nature, but did not bulldoze it. There was a place for us there, and it fit into the broader natural pattern. It is not just that the fields were homely; there was a place for us among them, as there was a place for us at Scala.
As in most of life the best parts of the seminar were unpredicted and unplannable. Conversations popped up at breakfast over eggs and tomatoes (this is England!) or late at night, sunk in the guest house’s deep sofas. We argued about MacIntyre and Nietzsche, about Scripture and tradition, about Beauty as a transcendental and a bunch of other things. We didn’t always agree—far from it! But we became an intellectual community, which means that we reasoned together. We cared about reaching the truth, and we shared enough vocabulary that we could ask hard questions without worrying about whether our colleagues would understand why we were asking them. We could press logic to its natural end, and we could make cases for the sake of argument to see where they would end up. I’m a Christian and a nerd, hopefully in that order, and I’d been dying to have these arguments. I don’t think I was the only one.
It sounds like I’m describing the life shared at any academic institution, or, for that matter, 1 AM in a smart undergraduate’s dorm room. But those 1 AM dorm room conversations are important and, for Christians in the academy, sometimes hard to find. In a passage that we read at Scala, John Henry Newman describes the education that happens, almost by accident, when a college brings people together and lets them bounce off one another:
When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day.
We learn at least as much from our unexpected conversations as we do from academic seminars. But Newman goes on to say something much more specific. A group of people, arguing and reasoning together, sharing experiences with one another, eventually becomes a distinct culture. As they test their experiences and viewpoints against one another, certain ideas rise to the top. They come to be shared and form a foundation for further questions. Eventually, maybe without realizing it, these people have created a culture of reasoning. They have each been equipped, in Newman’s words, with “a living teaching, which in the course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition” in which we can hear “a characteristic tone of thought, a recognized standard of judgment…which, as developed in the individual, is a twofold source of strength to him, both from the distinct stamp it impresses on his mind, and from the bond of union which it creates between him and others.”
Being part of a tradition—even the one you make with your roommates—gives you strength. When someone cares about your questions, it binds you both together. When someone will listen to your reasoning, even if he does not agree with your conclusions, you feel encouraged to follow that reasoning wherever it leads. That is the “bond of union” that Newman describes. But the “distinct stamp” is just as important. We cannot reason every question out from first principles. Usually, when I am considering a new idea, I start from an intuition and work it out into a full argument. Often my argument is halting until I figure out what I think. Most of us reason this way. That’s not to say that we always stick with our initial intuitions, but we need to expand those intuitions before we discover what we think. We need to take some ideas for granted in order to develop others. The “distinct stamp” that an intellectual culture impresses on its members includes the assumptions that we share and the kinds of reasoning that we acknowledge.
And here’s my point. The “distinct stamp” of many institutions and subcultures today is secular, relativist, and materialist. Christians today cannot share that stamp. That’s not to say that we need to retreat from secular institutions, or that we should fear secular ideas. Just the opposite. I have spent my entire life in secular institutions, I’ve had wonderful teachers and mentors who do not share my faith, I’ve learned immensely from people who do not believe in God. I continue to learn from them every day, and I am grateful to them. Rather, Newman’s point is that every community of reasoning is structured by habits and assumptions that are mostly unconscious and unexamined. As Christian scholars and intellectuals, we constantly find ourselves rubbing up roughly against those assumptions. If we are to contribute to the broader intellectual community, we need space in which we can examine our own intuitions, share them, develop them into theories and arguments, and test them within our own tradition. Christian intellectual communities like Scala let us do this. Like the air in North Yorkshire, they let us breathe.