At left you see All Souls' College--apparently the one research-only university at the University of Oxford--and its "ivory towers". Although the phrase may originally have been used to denote honour, it is now most commonly pejorative; a put-down. In 1911 H. L. Bergson's used it to say that each member of society "must be ever attentive to his social surroundings - he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower."
Wikipedia describes the ivory tower as "a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life . . . . [including] esoteric, over-specialized, or even useless research; and academic elitism, if not outright condescension . . . . the implication being that specialists who are so deeply drawn into their scientific fields of study often can't find a [common ground] with laymen outside their 'ivory towers'. Moreover, this problem is often ignored and instead of actively searching for a solution, some scientists simply accept that even educated people can't understand them and live in intellectual isolation."
Well, I love the ivory towers. I think there is a time and place for intellectual isolation. People ought to take a monastic retreat at some point in their lives (be it spiritual or intellectual or both). Some people, as a matter of fact, ought to do it fairly often---for intentional periods and purposes.
I am quite thankful for the time my sinus specialist spent at medical school. I admired the many degrees and certifications on his wall for a good 20 minutes before he walked in the room, said hello, and stuffed metal objects into my head through the nostril. I'm thankful for the time he spent in "intellectual isolation."
Of course, we realize we need specialists. We are glad to have places where people go to think about particular things. In most cases we are largely uninterested in doing it ourselves, and are glad someone is willing to go do it. We'll pay them well when they come out. We'll pay them not to use their big words on us, of course, but we're glad they know their stuff, and are comforted to hear at least a few big words before we cut them off with "give it to me in English doc". We'd rightly say it more often to our auto-mechanic too, if we weren't so disoriented by the pin-ups on the wall, the Aerosmith on the radio, and the menacing invoice printing off loudly from the urine-yellow computer on the counter.
But then there are theologians and philosophers. I'm not sure we know what to do with them anymore. I mean, you can get what sounds like decent theology and philosophy pretty much anywhere you want, it isn't hard to find what you are itching to hear, and you can usually get it quite readily from someone who someone else thought worthy of the title "doctor".
Besides, hasn't everything been thought over enough? What is the relevance of one more doctor? One more professor? One more guy in grey hair holed up in an office writing books that will only be read by other guys in grey hair holed up in their offices? "What's the point of that?" I used to ask myself, and still do, but more often back when I was still denying the part of me that desperately wanted to be that grey-haired guy one day.
Well, there's plenty to say about that I'm sure, but suffice it for now I'll say three things and then give a personal reaction:
1) Even if it was just that, it would be worth it. In the information age and the age of rapid change, perhaps more than ever, we need at least a few people who are out of it enough to be able to stop and think about it half clearly. Even if it is just going over old ideas with a fine-toothed comb, I find comfort in knowing that some people are doing it. And if that's my fate too, well, I'll accept it with honour and dignity and give it all I've got. Even if nothing of value is unearthed, or if something is and is never heard about, it'd still be a worthy vocation.
2) Yes, one should avoid "sheltered and unworldly", but one should also remember that one's study might only be "disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life" precisely because everyday life's practical concerns might not be all there is worth thinking about! As a matter of fact, many of them may upon further thought be seen as totally wrong-headed!
3) Having said both of those things, it also needs to be said that one who is too out of it won't know what to think about, or may even misinterpret the trends (as so many modern Christians do with postmodernism). One has to be with it too. The goal of any sort of "disconnection" from everyday life should be to reconnect; to have an impact, to have something worth saying, or questions worth asking, in context. The accuracy of one's interpretation of one's own time and place, as well as one's application, impact and relevance, will be related to the amount one has "remained attentive to one's social surroundings."
I'll admit that this is one thing I'm nervous about. I'm nervous on two fronts (and I'm not fishing for "go get 'em Jon" comments here, really): 1) That I'll be able to keep up with the technical language and know-how of the specialists I will be studying under and with, and 2) That I'll be able to do that and "keep it real", even find a way to communicate what I'm thinking about, with my family, friends, church, and society.
I'm afraid I might be naive. I do realize that I'm going to give an inordinate amount of my next three years to all-out research, writing, reading groups, and other very nerdy and intellectually isolating things. I realize that this is all gearing up to the production of one long book on one narrow topic which may be read by next to no one. I can take a certain joy in that, actually. But I also intend fully to be a good dad and husband, to enjoy football, music and film, and to every step of the way ask myself what difference it makes and try to talk openly about it. (How soon and in what capacity I get back to blogging again, you'll understand, remains to be seen).
Of course there will be some sacrificial demands on time and attention, as well as labourious days of footnote-scouring which should not become the segue from my four year old's dinner-table story about goldfish.
Then again, maybe it would be worth a try sometimes. Otherwise what hope is there of ever connecting? After all, isn't some of the fault with whatever went wrong with the ivory tower with the people who started chalking up all heady talk to "academic elitism" and "outright condescension" just because some of it is? (I realize that is no reason to make my kids the victim of dictionary games, but you get my point.)
Certainly there will be many many days spent on tedious things that only build to something potentially worthwhile. That's work. That's fine. I enjoy that. But ultimately I want whatever I go and bury my head in at University to be relatable and useful. My prayer, in fact, is that it will be in service to the church and the world (even if my particular contribution only touches a minute corner of it).
There may be no better challenge in this regard than the one that comes from the subject of my studies itself. After all, I am heading off to study God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. By grace I have as my subject the Creator who so loved creation that He gave Himself to it in freedom, that it might love Him in freedom! Thus, contrary to the way wikipedia put it, in this case one might actually hope to be "so deeply drawn into their scientific field of study" that the gaze is moved perpetually from self-loving isolation to self-giving love for the world, along with it being reconciled to God in Jesus Christ.