A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Biola University in La Mirada, California and attend a panel discussion on disagreement and civility, moderated by Rick Warren and featuring Cornel West and Robert George. Reflecting on this trip, I wrote down a few highlights from my time there and what I learned from the experience.
Camaraderie Beyond Chitchat
There’s something special about the camaraderie that develops when friends and colleagues engage in conversations that last long enough to transcend chitchat. (Interestingly enough, the definition of “friendship” and what constitutes the shift from “colleague” to “friend” was one of the subjects we covered!)
Because of technological advance, many in our society believe we are moving into an era where geographical location and physical proximity are irrelevant. Face-to-face interaction can be replaced by screens. “Gathering” can happen online, just as it can in person.
It’s true that geographical location may be less important in the future, but this perspective depends on what we are judging importance by, and how we define “important” in the first place. In my case, I am learning that nothing substitutes for “in the flesh” interaction with others. Trying to imagine four or five of us, in passionate conversation and debate, having the same experience via conference call is impossible. When people say, “You just had to be there,” they’re saying there really is something there – in a particular place and time – that cannot be replicated. One of the takeaways for me was that I need to be more intentional about cultivating moments with friends from around the country and enjoying face-to-face interaction whenever possible.
Classics and Community
The second highlight was sitting in for a discussion of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with Biola faculty members. The Torrey Honors Institute at Biola utilizes a “great books” philosophy of higher education.
A couple weeks before the trip, I received an annotated copy of Julius Caesar as well as a recent film version of the play. Because we had all read the book and watched the play, our two-hour conversation was less about the book generally and more about the book’s specific ideas. The purpose of the event was not to provide an opinion on the play, but to allow the art to serve as a gateway into significant issues and questions of truth, beauty, and goodness. The conversation was mind-blowing in all the right ways — to the point it felt hard to keep up. How in the world we discussed authority, resistance, the role of government, tyranny, suicide, nobility, and heroism within that two-hour span is still a puzzle to me, and yet somehow we wrestled with all these issues and more.
The takeaway for me was: I want to study more great books, and I want to do so in community with others, not just on my own. Reading Julius Caesar was one thing, pleasurable in and of itself, but discussing the play with a lively group of scholars enhanced my enjoyment of Shakespeare tenfold.
Civility and Conversation
A third highlight was the event itself – The Cost of Disagreement: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil. I’ve already written about the subtitle for that event, a statement I initially thought was mistaken and later came to agree with.
The event itself was a 2-hour conversation between Rick Warren, Cornel West, and Robert George. Some who were watching the live-stream or following the conversation via Twitter may have been expecting more debate from the panelists. There were moments where major disagreement came to the surface, of course, but the overall ethos was one of collegiality and civility, finding the commonalities to celebrate instead of the divergences to lift up. To fully appreciate what went on there, you had to be familiar with Cornel West and Robert George and understand just how differently they see the world.
Most interesting to me was not the different perspectives represented by those three individuals, but the manner in which they seek to communicate their perspectives. (Mike Cosper pointed this out also.) West communicates in rhythm and cadence: he is an activist at heart, with the poetic passion for desire coming through in his speech patterns. George communicates in logic and reason: he is a scholar at heart, with a careful desire to follow logic wherever it leads. Warren communicates in epigrams and folksy sayings: he is a people’s pastor at heart, with the ability to to translate high-level conversations for the commoner.
Overall, the time spent of Biola renewed my confidence that evangelicalism has many bright years ahead. The winsome, thoughtful model of scholarship is alive and well today, and I’m grateful to have had a taste of it there in Southern California.