From the Colloquium
The Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts sponsors two fellowship programs: a Postdoctoral and a Graduate Fellowship program. Both of these involve the Fellows in an ongoing colloquium, for vigorous discussion and debate about issues of vocation and higher learning in a Christian context. Here is a peek into what the current Postdoctoral Fellows are engaging with right now.
Overall, the weekly gatherings of the fall 2017 colloquium have pursued this question: “How might practices and perspectives from Christian faith and tradition contribute to our understanding and practice of the academic vocation?” Going back to some of the key texts from which the Lilly Fellows Program draws its inspiration, the group has considered the meaning of Christian teaching when a Weberian view of the academic vocation still exercises a powerful influence. Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” and Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden have given the group an opportunity to discuss whether the values held and sustained in the Christian tradition have a place in the academy, and how they might be brought to bear on academic learning in general.
A selection from Russell Muirhead’s Just Work and Robert Wuthnow’s “The Changing Nature of Work in the United States: Implications for Vocation, Ethics, and Faith” led the group into a discussion of the realities of the world we work in, and prompted consideration of whether our own situation in the academy differs from the larger work world described by these authors. What pressures do we face? How might we think about the various calls upon our time, and the shrinking demand for some kinds of intellectual work? Further, with Muirhead, the question arose of the extent to which academic work forms the person who does it, in ways both expected and unexpected. What abilities or habits do we develop from the very nature of the work we do? Both of these works force the reader to think about the limits of our own agency: issues of justice, economics, relationships, health, and accidents of birth, for example, all factor into how we discover and work within the paths of vocation presented in the academy.
Richard Russo’s short story “Horseman” gave rise to lively discussion! Russo’s characters leave some of us uncomfortable. They face many academic and personal challenges that, we have to admit, are not far from our own experiences—and seem to remain unsolved. This is a work that challenges us to think about gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and the subtle ways these can be perpetuated in academic life. It also invites reflection on how to exhibit one’s authentic self in one’s work, in the face of the risks involved, and the constraints under which we labor.
Next, the colloquium considered subjects not often juxtaposed. Academic study and teaching are connected to discipline and prayer, according to Simone Weil (“Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”) and Stephanie Paulsell (“Writing as a Spiritual Discipline”) Paulsell’s suggestion that writing can deepen our life in community connected well with Weil’s notion that the faculty of attention, as developed in study of all different sorts, was important for service to God and one’s neighbor. In fact, both of these authors grant an important nobility to academic study, as they see it leading far beyond the classroom. Paulsell reminds us that writing can be a spiritually transformative activity in which words can be offered to others for their good; Weil suggests that all study, if approached in the proper attitude, increases the capacity to attend to others’ needs.
However, Paul Griffiths’ essay “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning” identified a Christian ambivalence toward learning and raised the question of how to balance “prophetic” and “pastoral” teaching modes. Should we foster curiosity? Should we foster studiousness? How does—and should—one lead to the other? Griffiths’ work also led the group to consider the role and interest of Christians in the practices of the disciplines and how they relate to each other, and the relative importance of learning outcomes. Griffiths also makes the provocative claim Christian influence in higher learning is felt in ways that can be traced back to Christian liturgical practices.
Amy and Leon Kass’s “What’s Your Name?,” along with Genesis 2 and Ursula LeGuin’s “She Unnames Them” helped us into the many questions raised by the traditions we are given to receive, work within, and alter. What does it mean to “name” something or someone? What dangers lie in the act of naming, such that naming, and the work of tradition might need to be undone? How does tradition help us view our possible futures? Finally, how does naming relate to knowing?
The poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss distinguishes primarily self-loving art from art that loves outwardly, which we considered on its own and also refocused on broader academic pursuits of teaching, writing, editing, and scholarship. One important question was how our devotion to our academic work relates to the call that other people place on our lives—our responsibilities to family, students, even God. Wiman also calls attention to a source of tension in the artist’s life, between the need to fight despair with self-expression, born of self-knowledge, and the trap into which self-love can lead us. Can this be a problem for the academic, as well?
Concluding with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s influential classic The Sabbath is a good way to consider, again, whether work ought to be the primary source of one’s identity. Rabbi Heschel suggests that most of our time is spent conquering space, and that we tend to lose the sense of the sacredness of time represented by the Sabbath. Although work is necessary, so is rest—and the latter is sanctified at the very creation of the world. Do we have a specifically academic problem of time? If so, what (Sabbatarian) practices might help us regain a celebratory experience of time? How might we gain an awareness of time that keeps with God’s own Sabbath, and what would that mean for the work we do on the other six days?
Once again, the colloquium has given our group a lot to think about.
Posted by Joseph Goss