Concerning Scholars, Part 1

A basic definition of a scholar is one “who has engaged in advanced study in a special field.” (1) It’s pretty simple. Study something long enough and hard enough and you’re a scholar. But wait… what constitutes a “special field”? Say, for example, that you have spent a lifetime learning the nuances and intricacies of torture. Are you then a scholar? Or just a sadist? Or perhaps your object of study is yourself. Are mystics, meditators and contemplatives therefore scholars as well? Mmm… not so sure.

These examples cause me to question the sufficiency of this definition, even though I’m quite fond of its brevity. It seems that there are other attributes required of a person to be scholar that are not covered by Merriam-Webster. Clearly learnedness is one. But what else? Does a scholar need to be dedicated to the common good? Dissemination of knowledge through writing and education? Engaging the public? Is there a moral or ethical component of being a scholar?

To sort this out, it might help us to step back a moment. Let’s take a look at a bigger picture and try to get some context, with the caveat that I am speaking from within the United States and from that perspective. Scholars are often also called academics, and together they make up what is called the Academy. This isn’t the Academy of Plato in Ancient Athens, the Greek name of which gives us our modern term “academia.” We’re not talking  about a specific place or group of people. The Academy is more like an ideal, a conceptual place where scholars and knowledge comingle. It can have a sort of lofty, ethereal feel to it.

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Raphael’s School of Athens (2)

But that’s not the only way people talk about the Academy in the U.S. A common metaphor for it is the Ivory Tower, a place where elites funded by the public write a bunch of stuff that nobody reads and have esoteric discussions on stuff that doesn’t matter. This description contains critiques of elitism, power, privilege, and control. It also contains a kind of expectation that the Academy do something that matters to people.

For the work to matter to people, it seems to me that they need to be able to engage with the work  in some way, which leads us to the problem of access. Most academic work (at least that which is most highly prized by the Academy) is published in academic journals which generally have absurdly high subscription and purchase rates, or in very small numbers by university presses. The highest quality teaching (informed by that work) is becoming increasingly inaccessible as tuition for higher education climbs.

This leaves us with a few closing points to ponder. Basically, a scholar is someone who studies something and knows it well. But in the U.S., there is an expectation that the scholar actually DO something with that knowledge, ideally something that benefits the many and not just the few. Scholars on the whole value this ideal, and strive to achieve it, but often get stuck in the mechanisms of the Ivory Tower.

Questions to keep considering: what is a scholar? what are the attributes of a scholar? what kind of product or outcomes are expected of a scholar? is there a moral or ethical component of scholarship? what is it? where does it come from?

Please respond with answers and comment! Next time we’ll turn our eyes toward monks and see where that takes us.

Notes

(1) “Scholar.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed October 20, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scholar.

(2) Wikipedia. Stitched together from vatican.va, Public Domain. Accessed October 20, 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4406048

Scholar Monks: An Introduction

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

One of the main reasons I undertook this blog was due to a significant question of my own, one I had been mulling over for quite some time, and still am. That question is:

What does it mean to be a scholar monk today?

In my various studies and readings, I kept coming across figures from diverse geographies and traditions who fit into this category that I am calling “scholar monks”: Buddhist monks who traveled, collected, translated and transmitted the teachings of Buddha; Jesuit priests who were extensively educated in not only religion but linguistics, history and philosophy; Greek philosophers whose “philosophy” was both an intellectual endeavor and a way of living that prepared one for death; early theologians of the Christian Church who rooted their theological and philosophical writings in practice and liturgy. And in learning of these people whose springboard for intellectual endeavor was prayer and meditation, I began to wonder, what does it mean to live this kind of life today? How different is it now than it was in these snippets of history I have been examining?

Exploring these questions is at least one purpose of this blog. The ongoing series “Scholar Monks” will explore the lives of scholar monks of the past as a way both to honor those who have come before as well as to sort out what their legacy might mean for the present day. My feet are on this ground, here and now. I love studying what is in the past, and also find it critical to transfer that knowledge in some way to the present.

A final note. Much of my personal study has been in Buddhism, particularly in Zen, and much of my professional study has been in Christianity and Neoplatonism, and so my expertise tends to float around these core areas. I fully intend to include figures from these traditions. ADDITIONALLY, and I put this in all caps for a reason, I delight at the opportunity to explore traditions and figures who I know less about and especially those that history has had a tendency to forget.

With regards to the former, I am excited to research scholar monks from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, indigenous, modern pagan, and other traditions, fully aware that the terms “scholar monk” may not even be appropriate for those traditions, and I will do my best to engage in discussing figures from those traditions respectfully. With regards to the latter, I am particularly thinking of women, whom histories written by men commonly forget, and others who live at the margins of society, including people of color and people who do not conform to whatever is “normalized” for that time and place. I hope to enlist the help of a number of guest writers in these efforts.

If anyone has suggestions for a scholar monk they would like featured, please let me know and I will do my best to oblige.

Beginnings

“Were it the case that a fly had reason and could rationally seek out the eternal abyss of divine being, from which it came forth, we say that God, insofar as he is God, could not fulfill or satisfy the fly. Therefore pray God that we may be free of God.”

– Meister Eckhart (1)

Quotes like these leave me with more questions than answers, and this is why I am starting this blog. I am a student of many things: spirituality, psychology, theology, social work, religion, geography, humanity. Whenever my inquiry takes me deeper into something, I often find both clarity and incomprehension at the same time. My questions are met by more questions and more questions. In the face of these questions, I often ground myself in practice.

And hence the title of this blog: Scholar Monk. There are traditions among world religions in which the stewards of the knowledge of a tradition are also dedicated practitioners (more on this in a later blog). They are both scholars and monks, intellectuals and priests, researching and studying their belief systems while ministering to others. I have long been attracted to the idea of the scholar monk, and, not surprisingly, have sort of become one.

I find for myself that knowledge and practice must go together. Too much knowledge and I become detached from reality, stuck in my head, intellectualizing everything. Too much practice and I lose touch with the world of space and time, a world in which egos often interact with each other, rather than souls. This is the world in which we live and work. In losing touch with this world, I lose my capacity to engage with it.

And so I will do my best to follow in the footsteps of scholar monks of old, engaging in the world of egos while remaining grounded in my knowledge and practice, and doing my best to serve truth along the way. As I undertake this life, I continue to find more and more questions along the way, questions that I will wonder at together, with you, through this blog. Questions that I don’t expect to find answers to, and yet I find value in the inquiry iteself.

In closing, Meister Eckhart seems to be a fitting person with whom to begin this dialogue, since, as Etienne Gilson put it, “One never feels safe in talking about Meister Eckhart. He seldom speaks twice un identically the same way, and the problem always is to know whether he is saying the same thing in a different way or if he is saying different things” (2). An appropriate guide, I think, for exploring the paradoxes of the world and wandering through questions upon questions. I ask that you join me in this space of inquiry, seeking understanding and a way to be in the world.

 

Notes

(1) As translated by Michael A. Sells in his Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 1.

(2) Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Toronto, Ontario: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1952), 38.