“When one buys the farm and moves there to live, something different begins. Thoughts begin to be translated into acts… It invariably turns out, I think, that one’s first vision of one’s place was to some extent an imposition on it. But if one’s sight is clear and one stays on and works well, one’s love gradually responds to the place as it really is, and one’s visions gradually image possibilities that are really in it… Two human possibilities of the highest order thus come within reach: what one wants can become the same as what one has, and one’s knowledge can cause respect for what one knows.” (Wendell Berry, Standing by Words)
Julian M. Reese with Teresa Hooper
RENEWAL IN THE ACADEMY
George Marsden asserted in The Soul of the American University (1994) that campus ministry “hardly touched the anti-religious heart of modern academia.” I spoke before of how our campus ministry started planting seeds and subsequently witnessed a sweet fruit of welcome for a faith-informed perspective.
But in his 2021 revision, The Soul of the American University Revisited, he notes that “American higher education has changed in some striking ways” since 1994. Many thought that our marvelous welcome into academic departments was unique to our university. What we now know is that we were carried along in a stream we did not initiate, something outside of ourselves; and the unexpected fruits of that welcome have been part of a quiet, hidden movement across the country. We are now living in a moment where religious thinking is making a comeback in the academy.
Part of the Incarnational Presence ministry is the renewal of the ideas and conversation in the academy, but many years have passed since the Christian mind has had a seat at the table of intellectual conversation. That time has finally come. A faith-informed intellectual perspective potentially brings a fresh, potentially invigorating voice to the ideas of the academy.
But an incarnational voice must be earned. The soil must be prepared. Seeds must be planted. And we must be patient as we wait for God to enrich the entire conversation community. In this article we look to the imaginary of the farmer as we wait for the fruit of earning a voice in an academic community. We reflect on three values of the farmer and the habit clusters which contribute to the fruit we seek.
1. THE FARMER VALUES PLACE
To value the place of an academic community means that we come to stay. We are inhabitants, not tourists. We study the contours of the land and learn the soil. We listen to discover the interests and conversations of what is already present. We learn the culture and language of this place as we simultaneously deepen our own foundational commitments that we find in the Scriptures.
To value place also means a commitment to staying in one place over a long period of time, a discipline that the Christian community has historically called “stability.”
Benedict of Nursia, 6th century father of Western monasticism, made stability the first vow in his “Rule” for monastic living. According to Lynne Baab, stability means “being willing to look for God here in the constancy of this place in this rhythm of life, rather than seeking God in ever-changing places and varied routines… What was needed, Benedict taught, was… a commitment to trust in God’s goodness— that he was indeed there, in that very place; and that holiness, happiness, and human fulfillment were to be found, not tomorrow or over the hill, but here— today.”
To stay put is to value place.
Our last post introduced the habit cluster of “Ministry by Walking Around” (MBWA), a spiritual discipline of paying attention and learning to “see” as you study a place. Reading departmental bulletin boards can teach you what the interests and activities are of the people in the department. Walking through a department lets you practice the habit of “brushes,” or brief encounters, with other inhabitants of the “land”.
Attending events cultivates your own learning and shows respect to the work of the scholar. We may not understand it. We may not agree with it. But we can always respect it and find some value in the exploration.
In other words, being in a place means dwelling within it and learning its value. It means looking for and seeing the work of God already in the soil.
2. The Farmer Values Rhythms
A farmer values the natural rhythms of the weeks and lets them shape her life. She notes the changes of the seasons and the times for planting, confident and hopeful that, deep beneath the earth, mysterious transformations are at work which will develop into the fruit of harvest.
As we inhabit the academic community, we must also respect the rhythms of their week and seasons. When do they teach or write? When are office hours and committee meetings? What seasons of an academic’s life are the most stressful? What goes into tenure, or publishing a book? Class preparation? Distressed students? Community service?
Gaining an incarnational voice means inhabiting their rhythms, but it likewise necessitates that we pay attention to our personal rhythms to make time for others. In other words, we must cultivate the habit of opening our schedules.
According to Eugene Peterson, most people are “too busy” for two reasons. First, “I am busy because I am vain [italics his] … The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself— and to all who will notice — that I am important… When others notice, they acknowledge my significance, and my vanity is fed.”
Secondly, he argues that “I am busy because I am lazy [italics his]. I let others write the agenda for my day because I am too slipshod to write it myself.” He concludes, “If I vainly crowd my day with conspicuous activity or let others fill my day with imperious demands, I don’t have time to do my proper work, the work to which I have been called. How can I lead people into the quiet place… if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?”
Wendell Berry reminds us that “the good worker will not suppose that good work can be made properly answerable to haste, urgency, or even emergency. . . Distraction is inimical to correct discipline, and enough time is beyond reach of anyone who has too much to do.”
Like the farmer, we must work steadily and deliberately according to the needs of the season, making time within those seasons to do the appropriate work.
3. The Farmer Values the Fruit
In Traveling Light, Peterson says that “The person… who looks for quick results in the seed planting of well doing will be disappointed. If I want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, it will do me little good to go out and plant potatoes in my garden tonight. There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and reaping. During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and seeding and nurturing and planting still other seeds.”
The farmer values the fruit that he wishes to produce. If the farmer wants potatoes, he plants seed potatoes. If he wants apples, he plants apple seeds, each in the manner and time that allows them to flourish. What kind of fruit do we dream about harvesting in the university? And what seeds do we need to plant to earn a voice there? Developing the habits of reading and listening are both vital to planting those seeds.
HABITS OF READING: Always carry a book, but it needs to be the right book. Read the books of academics in your department and ask them for recommendations. Look for things from an academic press. And find suggestions by reading book reviews in thoughtful journals like First Things or Hedgehog Review. Be sure to read things you don’t agree with. And as you read, have questions about your reading ready.
HABITS OF LISTENING: If you work in campus ministry, you have to be able to “speak in tongues.” Every discipline has its own language that must be learned. Hang out in places where the faculty and grad students hang out like favorite coffee shops, where conversations will be happening. Ask to participate in reading groups to learn more about the discipline. Attend department lectures. Sign up for symposia or conferences. Get an invitation. Pay the conference fee. Sit in the back. Take notes. And be prepared to introduce yourself as a Christian campus minister who is curious.
By inhabiting the imaginary of the farmer, we become followers of Jesus who value the place where they are sent, who love it as inhabitants rather than tourists. We want to value the rhythms of the community around us and within us. And we want to value the fruit of a Presence which earns an incarnational voice.
Next week we think about inhabiting the imaginary of the jazz ensemble, along with habits to cultivate which lead to the fruit of encouraging creative participation in the life of God. Join us as we prepare to enjoy the music.