Since Oxford, my life has followed, more or less, the rhythms of a more ancient academic life. Since Oxford, I have passed my days in quiet scholarly contemplation, doing my best even in the hustle and bustle of Princeton for time spent at my desk in the library basement or over meals in quiet conversation about academic matters. And since Oxford I have ended my week, every week, with an evening church service, and I have tried to use the discourse of the Anglican tradition to formulate ways of keeping faith in what I do. When I was being a tourist round the Evensongs of Oxford colleges, I discovered the Anglican liturgy as a way of making sense of, and expressing, the moral call to wake up every morning full in the desire to do better and to be better. I saw the church as one of the few institutions in the modern Anglo-American world that believes in contemplation as a good in itself and as a route to human flourishing. And although in the months since I have struggled with the implications of being a churchgoer, and with the metaphysical, supernatural aspects of Christianity that simply don’t help me to make sense of the world, my churchgoing has become intrinsically entwined with my sense that my scholarship, and my academic aspirations, are a vocation in the service of a future promise greater than myself.
There are many reasons why this is true for those who make their lives in universities, many of which I’ve discussed before. And it is of course no coincidence that it is through a particularly scholastic religious tradition that owes a lot to Oxford and Cambridge that I found ways of thinking about the moral value of what it is that I’m doing with my days and with my life. But I often feel as if faith in the academic mission—in the good of universities, of teaching and learning, of spending one’s day in the library, of devoting oneself to abstract concepts rather than material things, of teaching intellectual curiosity rather than skills—entails leaping off an epistemological cliff in a manner similar to what’s required of the person who aspires to religious faith. Grappling with the faith expected of a churchgoer has helped me to realize just how hard it is to explain to outsiders what you naturally, emotionally, intuit. But it’s also helped me to realize that there are points of entry into faith-based ways of thinking even for those of us who remain fundamentally and unashamedly agnostic. The Anglican tradition is fantastically admitting of metaphor (and so is the Bible itself, of course—just look at Jesus’ parables), and just as this allows non-Christians access to its precepts, it also allows anyone to repurpose its precepts into tenets of right-living outside the immediate boundaries of worship. The intellectual and cultural structures of Anglican worship make me think a lot about what it means to have a vocation, to think about texts and ideas, and to have an emotional connection to the texts and ideas one studies. And they also have helped me to understand what it means to have faith.
In my attempts to understand various parts of the Christian, and specifically Anglican, worldview, faith has been one of the greatest sticking-points. I remember sitting in my Victorian Intellect and Culture seminar last Hilary term being completely outraged by the kind of faith-based logic Newman proposes in his Apologia: Newman basically says that he started from a point of religious faith, and that living his life in accordance with that faith and the principles it preached led him to feel spiritually rewarded and thus to shore up his faith. But I didn’t understand: where did the faith come from in the first place? I’ve never been an especially faithful person: with low self-esteem, cynical about politics and world affairs, requiring external affirmation from others to believe in what I do. I didn’t understand how you could just posit this positive feeling for what seemed to me to be no reason. And hence, I suppose, why I have had so many tortured conversations over the past several years, with my parents and my advisors and my friends, about whether it is possible to ethically justify spending my life in universities, learning and teaching the things that give me the greatest joy. I didn’t believe that I could give to others by giving to myself; I thought I had to give everything of myself until there was nothing left. And I didn’t know how to say that some things are just good, regardless of whether—as my British colleagues might say—we can track their impact in empirical terms.
Discovering the Anglican discourse, on the other hand, has made this calendar year—my junior spring and senior fall—my most intellectually fulfilling year so far. It feels strange saying that, as someone with so little connection to the supernatural aspects of Christianity. But instead, now, I am starting to develop frameworks in which I am spiritually equal to all my neighbors—in which, just as I am to love them, they are also to love me, and I am to love myself. I am starting to believe that I need to be spiritually whole before I can do my best work to help others, that peace and beauty and joy are goods to work towards, that part of being good people is waking up every day with a firm commitment to getting better. I am starting to believe this now because I have knelt in college chapels and prayed with words like this now countless times. I’m starting to perform that kind of illogic logic that I read nine months ago in Newman. I’m starting to think that I can do my part to help the world by rejecting the assumption that a good person works until they cannot work anymore and then works some more after that, and instead slowing everything down. I’m trying to think of my research and my conversations, both in their own ways efforts to expand human knowledge (whether of the past or of ourselves) as the kind of mental upkeep that we need as much as we do the physical to really, properly be whole. And I feel safe, and relatively unashamed, in saying that without Oxford Anglicanism, I wouldn’t have the framework to believe that being good to myself allows me to be good to others; and that nurturing my own unique talents, my own deep sense that I would not be truly happy outside of universities, is a legitimate way to increase the general good of those around me.
I’m not trying to make this all seem facile: like any believer, from day to day I find that once I’ve struggled out of bed, this Onward-Wisdom’s-Soldiers kind of determination evaporates all too quickly. My diary is full to bursting and I pound the pavements through my days: not always doing the reading, not always being any more than instrumentalist about my undergraduate education, and usually so exhausted when I reach dinnertime that all I can do is bitch instead of being charitable to my classmates, my professors, and why we’re all here. I while away hours procrastinating, lingering at meals or on the internet, not quite so ready to practice the virtues of scholarly devotion as I am to preach them. But every night, I say my confession. And every morning, I try again.
There’s one more thing I’ve learned from the Anglican tradition, and while this is something I want to talk more about in a future post in order to really round out the lessons of this calendar year, I think it bears mentioning here. Between Symonds’ own brand of Anglicanism and the one I encountered in today’s Oxford, I started to know what “love” means. This was a word that in my adolescence I never really felt as if I understood, and the more than purely academic understanding of sexual desire it seemed to require was never something I felt I could engage with. Religion—Phaedrus beautiful-boys religion, or Jesus love-thy-neighbor religion—has helped me to access a register of emotional ecstasy for the people and the places and the texts and the ideas in one’s life that places desire not quite so much in the body as in the soul. The search for spiritual communion—to feel a little less lonely, to connect, to be responsible for another’s soul, in the Platonic Socrates’ words, taking flight—is something to which I can aspire, and something which I sense has the best shot of anything of making me whole.
Of course, there are still the moments like this one, when all is quiet on the quad at quarter to midnight, I am too exhausted to start the next of my mounting pile of things left undone, the Christmas lights in my room burn through the silence, and I reflect on how isolated I feel, and how little energy I have to do my schoolwork or write my thesis or keep on giving my life to my work. These moments have been happening very frequently of late, and until I understand a bit better what it really means to leap off that epistemological cliff of faith, I’m not sure I will be able to gin up fiery passion out of this kind of ennui. But I know enough about faith to know that it means that even if logic tells you that you will never reach the summit of your steep uphill climb, you have to keep going anyway. You have to keep trying to love all your neighbors, you have to keep trying to love all your work, you have to keep trying to love yourself, and you have to keep hoping that someday someone will love you back. And if you fuck up, nothing too bad will happen. It’s not the end of the world. But you have to say that you’re most heartily sorry, and you have to try harder next time.
On nights like this, when I don’t know how I’m going to do history, much less love, tomorrow, I say my own kind of non-supernatural prayer: O, Wisdom: Grant me the grace to love what I do, and through loving what I do to love myself. Grant me the grace that I may, through a life of moderation in your service, be a more fitting recipient of the love of others. And through the love of you and of all who walk in your way, may I be a better servant to the causes of peace, of happiness, and of human flourishing. In Wisdom’s name, Amen.
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