Scholarship, Contemplation, and Holiness

Stacks in the New Orleans City Archives
Stacks in the New Orleans City Archives – Creative Commons (ALA TechSource)

I don’t normally post anything in the evening (WordPress wasn’t letting me edit anything until now), but this has already been an abnormal day in other respects. My mother-in-law is up for a visit, so while our kids stayed home with grandma I put in a rare Tuesday at work. As a result, I got to spend two hours doing something I rarely have the chance to do outside of vacation time: conduct research in an archive.

Now, I’m a teaching professor, first and foremost, working for a teaching department at a school known chiefly for teaching. But there’s always a small part of me that’s terribly excited to dive into archival research. It’s partly because I’m an introvert and enjoy getting time to myself. But there’s a deeper sense of joy that comes with research.

This summer I’ll be applying for renewal of tenure, and it so happens that this rare in-semester burst of scholarship coincided with my starting to think about writing that application. So I’ve been reading what I wrote five years ago for my initial tenure. Here’s part of what I wrote about scholarship:

After the Fall so much of the world appears to us out of focus. Even the simplest glance or gesture is open to misinterpretation when we “see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12), while a blur as vast and dark as the “problem of evil” could daunt an intellect as impressive as Augustine’s. Scholarship grants us the epiphany of clarity: truth crashes into focus.

I’m sure that all of us have experienced in our research moments when we do know as fully as we are known, moments when the mirror shatters and we come face to face with Truth. Sometimes it’s frightening: I’ve seen my youthful doubts that we are “all… under the power of sin” (Rom 3:9) meet their end in my studies of the Holocaust, where evil could truly be banal. But sometimes the fleeting clarity of discovery reveals (as “in the twinkling of an eye”) the fulfillment of the “living hope” the apostle Peter describes (1 Pet 1:3). I have never understood the imperishable inheritance of new life as clearly as the first time I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last words as he headed to his execution: “This is for me the end – the beginning of life.” Truly Christ does play in history, and 9,999 other places besides.

I’ve got my doubts that the “scholarship of discovery” really ought to take priority over the other kinds of scholarship identified by Ernest Boyer (integration, application, teaching), as it long has in the post-Enlightenment Western academy. And most of my “discovery” is really “recovery” (of long-forgotten documents that might speak to us anew).

But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the exhilaration of the “eureka” moment. If only it came more often, and more regularly, and when I really needed it to happen…

As it was, I spent two hours in the archives and never did find the one document I really wanted to retrieve: a 1955 speech by Bethel’s new college dean about education in the Pietist center of Halle. Which is frustrating, but might actually point to a more profound benefit of scholarship. If you can tolerate another quotation from a five-year old tenure essay:

Of course, most flashes of insight are not nearly so dramatic as these, and I ought not to glamorize the work of discovery. Most of the time it’s quite dull: flipping through page after yellowing page of long-forgotten telegrams, memos, and letters, trying to find needles of meaning in haystacks of platitudes and minutiae.

That’s why I’m struck by an unlikely parallel that came out of a conversation with a student interested in grad school. In the middle of an hour-long series of questions and answers about the GRE, language proficiencies, and teaching fellowships, it came out that both of us had begun to read about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. It seemed like a non sequitur, but then it occurred to me that the early monastics probably would have felt at home in historical archives. Many of them did spend their lives engaged in the discipline of study, and an archive can be like a monastic cell when you spend months in quiet solitude, undisturbed even by the silent companionship of a fellow researcher. [This describes virtually all of my time doing dissertation research at a French archive in Colmar.] No doubt research is the most ascetic experience I engage in. In almost every other area of my life, my desires are easily met – and often lead to excess. But in research, no matter how badly I want to find an answer, it may not come for days or weeks, if at all.

I learn to savor the rare scraps of knowledge that turn up, and to thank God for using the fallow hours to focus my attention on the search for knowledge. Lucius of Enna once said, “Working with my hands, I pray without ceasing.” Perhaps the same is true of scholarship.

Reading that section of the essay again reminded me how Kathleen Norris — who knows her way around the monastic tradition — once redefined a word that academics treasure, but rarely in connection with their spirituality (if any):

Norris, Amazing GraceThe word “detachment,” valued by early monks as a virtue, has almost lost its positive connotation. Nowadays it is most often used in a negative sense, to mean the opposite of a healthy engagement with the world, and with other people. It conveys a sense of aloofness, a studied remoteness that signifies a lack of concern for others. The monastic interpretation of “detachment” could not be more different: in this tradition it means not allowing either worldly values or self-centeredness to distract us from what is most essential in our relationship with God, and with each other. One sixth-century monk, Dorotheus of Gaza, describes detachment as “being free from [wanting] certain things to happen,” and remaining so trusting of God that “what is happening will be the thing you want and you will be at peace with all.” (Amazing Grace, p. 32)

It’s important to note that Norris goes on to discuss problems more serious than a historian struggling to find sources — her husband’s severe depression and the (non)coverage of mental illness by certain health insurance plans — but if seen in proper perspective… Her conclusion still rings true for those of laboring in the archives:

This sort of detachment is neither passive nor remote but paradoxically is fully engaged with the world. It is not resignation, but a vigilance that allows a person to recognize that whatever comes is a gift from God. (pp. 35-36)

Perhaps this was just my mind’s attempt to justify two hours of research that didn’t yield the desired object. But it might also point to a different way of thinking about the Christian vocation of scholarship, one suggested by Jake Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen of Messiah College:

In addition to encouraging Protestant scholars to draw on Christian denominational traditions other than that of the Reformed, ch. 3 of their Scholarship & Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation asks what “traditions of spiritual practice” might mean for Christian scholarship:

While the churchly theological traditions just described have been central for many Christian scholars, Christian faith transcends churchly affiliation and theological affinity. A person’s faith is in some sense a gut-level reaction to the sacred…. When we speak of traditions of spirituality, what we have in mind is that holistic experience of the sacred—an experience of faith that involves the entire person: the combined physical, emotional, and intellectual dimensions of who we are as human beings….

Jacobsen & Jacobsen, Scholarship & Christian FaithPiety or spirituality is almost always complex and multilayered. Our personal response to God pulls us in different directions at the same time: wordless wonder, thankfulness, worship, prayer, joy, sorrow for the pain of the world, desire to serve others. For most of us, however, certain dimensions of spiritual practice ultimately become more important than others. Out of the many and varied impulses of piety, only some seem a natural fit; only some aspects of Christian practice demand our sustained attention…. Just because our divergent spiritualities push us in these different directions—just because we tend to spend more time and effort on one kind of spiritual activity rather than another—does not mean that we thereby dismiss other expressions of piety as inherently less valuable. It simply means that given the time constraints that define our lives, given the need to choose priorities, and given our own natural inclinations, we will find ourselves drawn to certain forms of piety or spirituality more than others. And those different spiritual dispositions can have an influence on the way we understand Christian scholarship. (pp. 90-91)

They then consider how the six spiritual traditions described by Richard Foster (in his Streams of Living Water) could influence conceptions of Christian scholarship. I’ll just touch on the two that seem most connected to my monastic-like experience of scholarship this morning. First, the “stream” exemplified by Anthony of the Desert, Julian of Norwich, and Henri Nouwen:

The contemplative tradition of Christian piety emphasizes the mystical experience of God that comes through the life of prayer. It is a deeply personal form of spirituality and one that often draws individuals away from attachments to the world…. The contemplative tradition of spirituality has the goal of always living in the conscious presence of God. (p. 91)

Then, a bit less obvious, the second tradition:

The holiness tradition focuses on the development of Christian character through self-discipline and the cultivate of the virtues. The goal is the restructuring of the inner affections so that right living becomes a natural habit. (p. 91)

As examples of the “holiness” tradition, Foster mentions two seemingly different 16th century figures — Menno Simons and Ignatius Loyola, who “shared a sense of Christian faith as a way of life—a way of life that required the cultivation of certain dispositions like humility, a willingness to serve others, nonviolence, and introspective self-criticism” — as well as Phoebe Palmer and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in whose “lives we see a commitment to deny self and to conform fully to the requirements of the gospel, especially as expressed in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Jacobsen and Jacobsen conclude:

The vocation of Christian scholarship is not necessarily central to any of these six traditions of spiritual practice, but each has implications that might apply to the academic life. The contemplative tradition reminds us of the need to make room for divine mystery in our academic interpretations of the world. The holiness tradition points to the fact that the habits we cultivate—either habits of virtue or habits of vice—have the potential to shape our scholarship in subtle ways for good or for ill. (p. 93)

As the day ends, I’m especially taken by the notion that scholarship can serve to develop Christian character. I’m sure that, as the Jacobsens suggest, our habits can shape our scholarship, but beyond whatever we discover (or recover) and how we interpret what we find, the very act of research is valuable for individual scholars and academic communities because it can cultivate “habits of virtue” like patience and humility — and, every so often, as we stumble across that 1955 speech that has eluded us for three years, the virtue of joy.

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