The Loneliness (and Solitude) of a Christian Historian

If you didn’t notice it over the weekend, do yourself a favor and read John Fea’s heartfelt “Confessions of a Lonely Christian Historian.” It begins:

John FeaI think all of us who pursue a life of the mind are, to some degree, lonely people.  We live in the world of ideas.  We spend a lot of our time in isolation–reading, studying, thinking, writing. We tend to be introverts.  For those committed to independent thinking, the chance of being marginalized from this or that community only increases.

Recently I have read several things, heard several things, and have been in several conversations that have reinforced a sense of the professional and intellectual loneliness that I have experienced over the last several years.

He proceeds to ruminate on everything from family and class to religion and the humanities, concluding:

What makes this all so difficult is the fact that I have fellow-travelers and conversation partners in all of these areas.  And the same people who are fellow-travelers in one category will often part ways with me on other issues.  This, of course, is normal. I would not expect anything different.  I think all of us deal with this in some way, but I wonder if those of us who live a life of the mind experience such loneliness more than others. Finding common ground can be hard work.

To varying degrees, I’ve felt several of these lonelinesses myself at various points. And this might not be unique to historians, academics, or evangelical Christians. I wonder if fear of loneliness isn’t helping to produce polarization in American society, as people seem so desperate to belong to ever-smaller groups that they’d rather conform to ever-longer lists of intersecting membership criteria than risk one of John’s lonelinesses.

But another of John’s recent posts might hint at how Christian historians might respond to such feelings. Today he shared another excerpt from his book Why Study History?:

Fea, Why Study HistoryHistory is not only a discipline in the academic sense in which philosophy or literary criticism or sociology are disciplines.  It is also a discipline in the sense that it requires patterns of behavior, such as the denial of the self, that are necessary in order to meet the “other” in a hospitable way.  Doing history is not unlike the kind of “disciplines” we employ in our spiritual lives–disciplines that take the focus off of us and put it on God or others.

I’ve often considered history in these terms — but typically as a version of the discipline of study. What if we embraced that academic inclination toward isolation and thought of history as being akin to another classical discipline: solitude?

What if disciplined study of the past enabled us to do like Jesus, John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and many contemplatives since and, in Dallas Willard’s terms, “[choose] to be alone and to dwell on our experience of isolation from other human beings.” In the process, he argues, we interrupt “patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God” and start to develop a “freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 160).

This may sound like just a cultivation of loneliness, an intentional amplification of the feelings John wrestled with. But the great spiritual writer Richard Foster suggests that these are different ways of being by ourselves:

Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude. The fear of being left alone petrifies people. A new child in the neighborhood sobs to her mother, “No one ever plays with me.” A college freshman yearns for his high school days when he was the center of attention: “Now, I’m a nobody.” A business executive sits dejected in her office, powerful, yet alone. An old woman lies in a nursing home waiting to go “Home.”

Richard FosterOur fear of being alone drives us to noise and crowds. We keep up a constant stream of words even if they are inane. We buy radios that strap to our wrists or fit over our ears [Foster first wrote this in 1978] so that, if no one else is around, at least we are not condemned to silence. T. S. Eliot analyzes our culture well when he writes, “Where shall the world be found, where will the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.”

But loneliness and clatter are not our only alternatives. We can cultivate an inner solitude and silence that sets us free from loneliness and fear. Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment. (Celebration of Discipline, p. 96)

I need to think more on this notion, but it seems possible that the discipline of history can foster a spiritually healthy isolation. By temporarily stranding ourselves outside of our own time and entering what A. G. Sertillanges (another recent topic of John’s) called a “laboratory of the spirit,” Foster thinks that we not only cultivate a “deeper, fuller exposure to [God’s] Presence” but gain “increased sensitivity and compassion for others… a new freedom to be with people… new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts” (pp. 108-109).

2 thoughts on “The Loneliness (and Solitude) of a Christian Historian

  1. Great stuff Chris! Henry Nouwen talks in numerous books also about solitude vs loneliness. I’m currently thumbing through Henry Nouwen’s Reaching Out, and it has a lot to say on the subject as regards the life of a Christian. Thanks for tying this to history!

  2. Chris,
    I so relate to your blog. I am working my way through Spirit of the Disciplines for the second time. What a blessing to those of us, who find the chatter of life a challenge to Silence and Solitude.
    “Silence and Solitude” by Ruth Haley Barton also hit the nail on the head for me!

    Thank you for your insights.

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