I reflect fondly on the several years my wife and I resided in Edinburgh. The city itself is dazzling, as any one who has travelled there can attest, and is site to a staggering range of artistic and cultural events. My alma mater is located there, obviously, serving as an energetic facilitator to a great majority of the city’s intellectual initiatives and achievements since before the American founding. There’s always something on. In a given week a student might enjoy a stimulating weekly seminar, stroll across city centre for a Gifford lecture, and complete the evening with special film screening, introduced by the director herself. Few places on earth can compare. In moments of quiet solitude I think mostly of the rituals and spaces that defined my time there, and I have come to the conclusion that intellectual vitality, aside from the requisite divine illumination, is bolstered largely by these two factors: learning rituals carried out in inspiring venues.
I enjoy teaching immensely. The glimpse of understanding that passes across a student’s face is inexpressibly gratifying to any earnest teacher. Preparation for class lectures is, however, a rather stupendous challenge. For a slow thinker like myself, preparation alone can consume nearly every spare hour of a given week, if I let it. When the semester load is especially heavy, there is no time for my own research. And it isn’t a matter of just “being more disciplined” about my time, but rather a straightforward decision about, say, family leisure or reviewing a book, basic home maintenance or devising a fresh proposal. Teaching demands have prompted me to think time and again about what sorts of fertilizers enrich intellectual soils and I keep coming back to that same compound: learning rituals carried out in inspiring venues.
Most days I would walk to New College in the morning and leave at “quitting time.” That walk up the mound is notoriously sweaty. Ironman winners can’t get from new town to the Ramsay Lane wing without shortness of breath and excess perspiration. But its that moment when, just before entering college, you look back over new town to the Firth of Forth and are arrested by gratitude. The Torrence room, with its tall arched windows — cubicles are necessity in such a room, unfortunately — is where the intellectual labor takes place. It inspires the labor. Curiosities can roam safely within its walls. On realizing suddenly that a certain book may be of assistance, one gets up and descends an ungodly number of stairs to the New College library, housed wonderfully in the former sanctuary of a Free Church. En route back to the study carroll, a stop for coffee is imperative. Labors begin again, reinforced by caffeine and text. My fortune was to have a desk along the window-wall of Torrence. Out of these windows I could see only chimneys and rooftops and the magpies and sky-rodents (pigeons) perched indelicately upon them. I was inside, withdrawn from the dastardly Scottish elements. When depleted I could look to the adjacent wall for some encouragement, where a portrait of the great Scottish theologian, Thomas Torrence, hung in awkward isolation on an enormous and otherwise empty wall.
Most days I would walk home from college with my wife and we would discuss whatever it was we were thinking about that day. Mercifully, it was all down hill. The walk took us past the college entrance, the national galleries, Scott monument, Princes Street, George Street, Queens Street, Queens Street Gardens, and to our own comely lane. Theologians will perhaps foist “liturgical” language upon this romantic depiction, and I wouldn’t be opposed to that out of principle, I suppose, though the terminology is now somewhat stale from overuse.
The human mind needs time and space to breath. Its oxygen is silence. Our best thoughts are slow thoughts. The longer we linger over our mind’s imagery, the more vivid its color, the crisper its contours. It is for good reason the scriptures implore meditation and contemplation. Without them our minds are imperiled. But it turns out that patient thought is the hardest won. Moderns are mostly convinced that what is most needed is accelerated thought–more news, more data, more efficiency, more speed. The mind simply does not work that way; it is meant to walk, not run. Pace of mental ambulation is key. Rituals are what give us intellectual rhythm and centrifuge, and if they are practiced regularly, a mindlessness that frees for superior mindfulness.
I believe wisely designed spaces that acknowledge the shape of the human soul, in all its limits and all its potential, offer the best venues for intellectual adventure. The space can’t manufacture good thought by itself , of course, and that is why learning rituals are equally decisive. The venues of thought must correspond to the rituals of thought: they are mutually compounding. Inspiring venues encourage rituals and rituals in turn prompt thinkers to seek out inspiring venues.
Modern prophets of education herald the victory of group “collaboration.” I, for my part, favor seclusion. Let me think alone; when I’m ready I’ll discuss. Group discussions are more excruciating than constructive, in my experience (save for a few church examples), and that is why I never ask my students to break into them during class. Something tells me that Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Barth didn’t do their best work belly up to conference table for brainstorming exercises. No, I suspect they did their best thinking alone, silent, and temporarily closed off to the world outside. They retreated into their minds. Collaboration, if it happened at all, would come only much, much later. Reversing the priority of this thought process, as the modern acceleration project has tended to do, suffocates the imagination and overwhelms contemplation with still more “conversation.” Apt are the words of David Hume: ”An author is little to be valued who tells us nothing but what we can learn from every coffee-house conversation.”
Living within an increasingly post-Christian society the Church must remember the forgotten wisdom of thinking the thoughts God has given it to think. This may even demand individual toil for the “unthought thought,” the diligent strain to break through the strictures of contemporary discourses and assert the truth that most needs asserting, undeterred by platitudes the modern age takes for granted. We have learned an invigorating, if also painful lesson about the final impotence of sophistry. We must now seize the opportunity to speak poignantly, charitably, beyond our tired modern confusions; the task is as crucial as it is formidable. Reflecting on the very means to good thinking is a sensible first step–making ourselves a living sacrifice, not being conformed to this world (Rom.12).Read More