Saturday, August 29, 2009

Into the Ivory Tower

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.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I had been warming up to write about the (lost?) art of listening on my blog sometime soon, but my friend Dale beat me to the punch and raised it better than I might have. If you aren't a regular reader of terra incognita but have five minutes to spare, I invite you to head on over and read it for yourself. Whether you feel like engaging further or not, I can pretty much gurantee that four minutes of your visit will be spent laughing at a pretty hilarious (and all-too-true) comedy bit.


"It's just that we live in a time when you can't do heroic stuff. Y'know? Unless you join the army or something there's no big moment where you get to discover if you're a coward or whatever, and so I've got to look at the way I walk to the grocery store or behave with my friends, and try to discern the same information. Am I doing these things well? Am I living well generally? How do you live well in a quiet world where nothing changes and people are mostly pretty content? Should I be out looking for injustices?"

This is a poignant snippet from an ongoing story over at The Crooked Trees of Hafford, Saskatchewan which strikes a real chord for many, I think. Great questions. The story has been unfolding for awhile now, but I'm sure it isn't too late to begin following along.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Like A Rolling Stone

Less than a week until we move. It feels like we move a lot. In fact if we make it for the whole three year degree it will be, incredibly enough, the longest my wife and I will have lived anywhere in our 10+ years of marriage. I wonder what it might feel like to gather a bit of moss.

For now, however, we're rolling on, propelled especially by the gestures of support shown to us by friends and family this last little while. This Sunday our church joined the ranks of grace by sending us off for our overseas excursion feeling very supported, encouraged, and appreciated.

One aspect of this send-off was a great parting gift from my colleagues on staff at the church: A $60 iTunes gift card! It has not taken long to spend.

First I filled a hole in my collection (U2's October), then I snatched up 10 favourite songs from my past that I never bothered owning, and finally, as I love to do, I introduced myself to two bands who are completely new to me. In the latter case, it is a stunning pleasure to have stumbled across Stars' brilliant 2004 album Set Yourself on Fire (where has this been for five years of my life?) and Camera Obscura's thoroughly enjoyable 2009 album My Maudlin Career (thanks for the recommendation Jeff and Dave)! This is some fantastic music, fittingly made in Canada and Scotland respectively.

Also fittingly, among the "songs from my past" are six from The Rolling Stones (who also gather little moss). I couldn't resist, even though I bawked at the idea of going to see the Stones when they were in Regina a couple years ago. Once I saw their set list from that tour I remembered that I was pretty into them in high school and, despite my distaste for tight leather pants, still like several of their songs. So here's a couple questions for you:

1) If you owned zero Rolling Stones songs but were to buy six of them, which would they be?

2) What should I buy with my remaining $11?

Friday, August 21, 2009

The West Wing Exits Stage Left

About a year ago when my wife and I were gearing up for the birth of our twins, my cousin (who has twin girls) gave us a piece of advice for weathering the first year:

"Watch DVDs."

Twins keep you busy. You aren't housebound, but you spend a lot of time at home holding an infant. You spend an inordinate amount of time up in the middle of the night. You can get very grumpy on such occasions. You need something to do while feeding or comforting a child. Enter the DVDs.

Around Christmas time my mother in law found a deal on all seven seasons of the West Wing, and knowing I was a fan, snatched them up. That was like 9 months ago. We watched the last episode tonight. 22 episodes a season. You can do the math.

I don't want to be melodramatic about this, but this show was just what we needed on so many levels. It kept us sane during some of those late nights. When we had energy for nothing else but the tube it gave us a chance to "veg" without actually killing our brains. It was fellowship for us. Like reading a good book together. It gave us outside perspective and adult conversation at a time in life when such things tend to take a back seat. The list could go on.

Not only that, it was and still is just an incredibly poignant, personable, and powerful television series. We really got caught up in it. We shed tears at times. Maybe that's lame, but hey, when someone tells a story that strikes a nerve or you see a scene play out that subtly captures a moment or you watch an actor portray something that resonates, enlightens, or inspires---well, I think something of life is being kindled in you and that's okay. Its more than okay, it is what the arts are about.

Now, some episodes were duds. Some of the politics was a bit too much. Sometimes the seasons were less thoroughly amazing than others. When you put together 154 episodes in 7 years you are about to have a few miscues. But another thing you get, when you do it this well, is an modern epic which I daresay a century from now might be worth mentioning in the same breath as War and Peace and Les Miserables.

Sure I've become a bit of a West Wing nerd. Yeah I'd probably put Richard Schiff (pictured above) on my top three list of people I'd like to meet, and that probably brings me close to Trekkie status. But hey, his portrayal of Toby Ziegler (and his interactions with the rest of the cast performing similarily brilliantly), well, it did things for me; in me. At times a dose of reality and at times a spark of inspiration, the West Wing spoke into my life; it brought stuff out of me.

Its the kind of thing you expect to hear about a great piece of music or a play or a painting. Its what the best art does. I guess it is just hard to believe this show was actually on TV.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Welcome to King's College Aberdeen

On our recent house-hunting trip to Aberdeen, Scotland, my father and I had an hour or so to wander the grounds of what is to be my school for (Lord-willing) the next three years. Allow me to introduce you to the place:

King's College, the first of the schools that became the University of Aberdeen, was established in 1495. Today the university is comprised of over 15,000 students, almost 4,000 of which are postgrads such as myself. The latin motto is initium sapientiae timor domini, which means "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." I wasn't aware of that until recently, but that phrase is actually pretty important to me.

When I walk to school from our home a couple minutes away it will be down this cobblestone street called "College Bounds." On your right is basically an ancient city wall with doors and rooms inside and on your left are slightly newer buildings. This kind of visible connectivity with the past is one of the things that I love about Europe, and will be a source of inspiration I'm sure.

Keep walking and through the trees you glimpse the Crown Tower which adorns the northwest corner of King's College.

I loved my college and my seminary, so don't get me wrong, but I have always felt this nagging lack of ivy-covered stone walls in my educational experience. This particular building looked really cool at night with the lights inside shining through the greenery.

Just some of the architecture around the college. At the school's entrance a unicorn holds the Scottish banner and a lion the English. That's kind of how it is I think. Scotland holds the heart of Brittania's fantastic and almost mythological history, and England, while retaining a sense of that, is more the contemporary world power.

The sign on the door says "J. Webster." I haven't met my professor yet, and didn't have time for it on my visit, but we were walking along this wall and I glanced at what looked like a hobbit door and there was his name. Far as I know he is not a hobbit, though. In fact, from the way people talk about him, I am beginning to expect to meet a giant of a man!

And here is the Crown Tower at night. In the courtyard behind and below it is the door to my particular training ground: the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy, within the Collage of Arts and Social Sciences. In six weeks I will be a student there. In less than two weeks we move. With many of the biggest hurdles to getting there behind us, I am beginning to get pretty excited, not to mention grateful to God for this opportunity and intimidated about the challenge ahead of me.

Incidentally, I haven't decided yet what to do with my blog while I'm off doing PhD studies in Scotland. I never really wanted it to become my diary, let alone my travelogues, but my fear is that the demands of writing for school will drain me of any ability to write anything worthwhile here.

However, I can't deny that the lurkers and conversation partners I meet here have become a part of my life. I don't think the online world can ever replace local community, but as we spread far and wide across the globe I think it can be a great meeting place and supplement to our social webs and well-being. Truth be told, I have actually found in these last few months that some of my most vital encouragement and support has come from people who I now more often than not meet with here. Thank you.

Yesterday as I had lunch with a friend I realized out loud that whether or not I get a career or a book deal or anything tangible from this PhD (believe it or not, nothing is certain in this department), my driving passion will continue to be to explore life and Christianity for its meaning and to share that life and learning with those around me. So I think it would be wise to keep blogging from Scotland, even if I have less energy and time for thoughtful writing or discussion-sparking. So I'll probably try to post on here at least a couple times a month, even if it is just to share where my personal journey has taken me. That said, I would rather not turn my blog into narcissistic stream-of-consciousness self-exploration supported by the delusion that people care to read, so don't let me go there okay?

Anyway, thanks to all of you who have in one way or another helped me toward what is for me simultaneously a life-dream and a daunting challenge. I'm extremely grateful for and consciously will be ever-intertwined with the community with whom I've been blessed to share life.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The 3rd Annual Karl Barth Blog Conference

I'm not sure what all I'll be posting on my blog in the next hectic few weeks, but I am sure I'll be following the Barth Blog Conference over at Der Evangelische Theologe. The link will be in my blogroll if you care to follow along. The topic this year is right up my alley: "Karl Barth, Romans 1, and the Possibility of Natural Knowledge of God."

This has always been an intriguing topic for me, especially in light of Romans 1. I could go either way on this one, as clearly evidenced for me when I read Barth's debate on natural theology with Emil Brunner. I read Brunner's portion and literally thought to myself: "Yeah. I don't see how this can be refuted." Naive reading perhaps. I don't often buy stuff hook line and sinker like that. But I was sold. Then I rifled the pages of Barth's rebuttal and could no longer hold my original position. I was torn between whether I'd completely changed sides or was now simply utterly confused. It was one of the most remarkable reading experiences of my life.

This is a really important issue to me. Though I'm about to do a dissertation on Karl Barth I'm not sure I'm totally with him on this or not. Can we know God without his self-revelation? No. I think not. Seems absurd to say so unless we humans are somehow divine, which is almost the same as saying there is by definition no God (as we mean by that word). Can we know God without his self-revelation in Jesus Christ? Again, I think not, but here it may depend on what you mean by the word "know" and how much you mean to know Him.

The issue kind of unravels from there, and as we reflect on it from Scripture we find it exacerbated by such texts as Romans 1:20, which says that "since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

I want to hold BOTH the insistent Barthian logic of special divine self-revelation in Christ and the Catholic expectation that this will be in continuity with a general divine self-revelation in creation. I want to say that we confront and apprehend God in nature but that we do not satisfactorily, completely or rightly know this God apart from His self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

But just because I want to doesn't mean I can. Hence my eagerness to listen in on (and perhaps participate) in this blog conference and have my thoughts on the matter honed and more informed.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Everything is Amazing, Nobody's Happy"

My brother introduced me to this great bit from comedian Louis CK on Conan O'Brien. It begins: "When I read things like 'The foundations of capitalism are shattering' I think 'Well, maybe we need that ...'"

This is some funny stuff. Enjoy.

Ironically, when we were waiting for the youtube video to upload the other night we were cursing the internet connection for being so dang slow....

Saturday, August 08, 2009

There and Back Again

Well, my dad and I made it to Aberdeen and back. What a gorgeous city.

Armed with every kind of document we could think of (including a pretty humorously heavy-handed one from a friend in federal politics who confirmed that my father is who he says he is) to get through the red tape we needed none of it and breezed through airport security. We then had three days to land a home and ended up with the one you see below.

The people who put us up said they were concerned we may not be able to acquire a house in such a short time. It was truly a God-send. Literally a couple minutes walk from both my University and from our eldest boys' primary school, it will allow us the opportunity to live three years car free and to engross ourselves in student family life.

The strange story of how we came to acquire this home is a long one and I won't go into it here, but once again in my life I find myself at the other end of a strenuous and doubtful venture thankful for God's perpetually confounding mercy and mysteriously involving provision.