Last month, ACTI Rains Research Assistant Emily Rawson sat down to chat with Dr. Brad Stone, Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the 2016 Bellarmine Forum, about SLOW time and contemplation at a Jesuit university. See our companion post for Emily’s exploration and photos of SLOW spaces around campus.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
ACTI: What would you define as the Catholic intellectual tradition?
BS: I jokingly would say, let’s talk about what it’s not. I think a lot of people hear “Catholic intellectual tradition” and they automatically assume we are talking about medieval European kinds of things. In the twenty-first-century world, where the majority of Catholics are in the southern hemisphere, the phrase “Catholic intellectual tradition” is going to have to take on a new meaning. For me, the Catholic intellectual tradition means the way in which discernment can take place from the point of view of the globe as a totality, under a kind of Christian process. So my answer is to challenge the claim of Catholic intellectual tradition, because it usually means something like the dominance of European philosophy and theology. For me, it can’t be that. The Catholic intellectual tradition is one that recognizes the ways in which Christian thought occurs globally.
The Bellarmine Forum’s theme this year is the value of time. We live in a society that is defined by speed; we will lose things that aren’t quick. So the key Catholic intellectual tradition component is discernment. We have to actually take time to discern: be that God’s will for our life, or be that the truths of ultimate reality. In today’s world of speed, that kind of thinking is too slow. You can see this, for example, in the presidential debates, where everyone’s answer will be two minutes even though we’re talking about nuclear war. How do you get nuclear war in two minutes? Or the idea that everything should be “tweet-able,” when there are just certain things in the universe that require more than 140 characters to express. So the Catholic intellectual tradition is a tradition that realizes that certain questions will take time to answer. That will require us to slow down, to truly contemplate them, to leave meditation time open, unfilled. We don’t have enough time in a culture of speed to go deep. What we want to do is go deeper. And to go deeper requires us to slow down.
One obvious connection between the Catholic intellectual tradition and the Bellarmine Forum is the idea that in slowing down, we can tend to the things that are most valuable to us. To contemplate the nature of God really requires a lot of time, and the Jesuits know that—hence the retreat, the examen, as ways to really take the time to think through these things. The kinds of questions that the Catholic intellectual tradition has deemed important, perennial, philosophical questions aren’t meant to be answered quickly. It fights against a culture that wants instant answers. In the case of the Catholic intellectual tradition and philosophy more generally, you run into the problem of neither of those criteria being satisfied, insofar as you’re not getting answers that you will never have to think about anymore, and the answers you get are not instant. The Catholic intellectual tradition demands that we take the time to learn millennia of material, and then take that material and apply what is relevant and get rid of what isn’t relevant to today’s world. That’s something you can’t do in one sitting, something you can’t do in five seconds.
ACTI: Particularly in the establishment of the Bellarmine Forum, has the Catholic intellectual tradition and philosophy made LMU different from other schools? Would establishment of a similar forum been the same at other schools, and have you felt welcomed into the Catholic intellectual tradition here at LMU?
BS: I would say I’ve been welcomed into Catholic intellectual tradition, though of course my work is on figures that already fit in it—and as a non-Catholic there is always big “C” versus little “c” [Catholic]. I do Spanish philosophy, and if that’s not Catholic philosophy, I don’t know what is, because it surely can’t be the rest of Europe. I’m doing a lot of work on thinkers who are Catholic thinkers, and even the Europeans I do work on are European Catholic thinkers. Whether or not the Bellarmine Forum is unique to the Catholic intellectual tradition, I would honestly say probably not. It was designed to be an interdisciplinary exploration in the humanities and social sciences. A lot of the past themes, since we are at LMU, have focused on justice and things like that. Paul Harris and I have done a lot of work over the years on time, and so our first original plan was just a bunch of interdisciplinary things on time: scientists, artists, philosophers, literary people, theologians, all coming together to work on time. In that regard, it’s not unique, and a lot of schools have those sorts of interdisciplinary centers. If anything, LMU is woefully behind when it comes to interdisciplinary centers. We have too few sites compared to a lot of competitor schools where good interdisciplinary work can take place.
The topic of the values of time is informed by Paul Harris’ participation in the Spiritual Exercises at LMU, as well as my own religious life, though not so much at LMU. The idea of the spiritual dimension of slow time, regardless of one’s faith tradition—the idea of taking time—appears in every religion in the world. If nothing else, as the Old Testament psalmist reminds us, “Be still and know that I am God.” But you have got to get still! And so in Buddhism, this is sitting zazen; this is yoga in the Indic traditions. So we have this notion already: this is a spiritual notion, not unique to Catholicism, but it definitely must be present in Catholicism for it to truly be spiritually rich. Other universities could take up slow as a model. There is already a movement in America called the “Slow Movement,” be that “slow food” as the avoidance of fast food, or “slow university” as the notion of returning to universities being a place of wonder and musing versus endless committee meetings, which is what we currently have. So in that regard, SLOW LMU is not unique to LMU, but insofar as the Bellarmine Forum has provided a space for the taking of time, and taking time in a serious way, we are actually most fully fulfilling key elements of the Jesuit and Catholic intellectual tradition. So we didn’t create it with the Catholic intellectual tradition in mind, but everything that is right about the Forum is right insofar as it connects to the Catholic intellectual tradition.
ACTI: What is your religious background? How has that impacted your coming to LMU and your work here? Does your faith inform your scholarship, vice-versa?
BS: I grew up Baptist—I’m from the south, so you’re either going to be a Baptist or a Methodist for the most part. I grew up black, and it sounds funny, but we mix Baptist and black together to get a very rich American black church tradition. So when you talk about black American Christianity, I grew up in that world: a world where you were hated in society, but at church you were somebody, because you were a child of God, and the world can’t deny that of you. And so I grew up Baptist, got to graduate school, and got involved with the Congregationalists, which is a descendant of the Puritans and Pilgrims. They are highly academic and very community centered, so I grew a lot being with the Congregationalists. My wife grew up Episcopalian, and so I always joke that I am Episcopalian by marriage. I have done ministry work in all of those traditions, so I usually describe myself as a lay preacher in the Baptist, Congregationalist, and Episcopal traditions. The idea there is simply that for me, within the Protestant world there are a lot of subgroups, but those are usually indicative not so much of theological disagreement, but of social and cultural differences. To be a Presbyterian often means that the people came from Scotland. Presbyterians may believe something slightly different than Anglicans, but the real difference is between England and Scotland. I grew up Baptist, and the Church of the Nazarene is pretty much Baptist, except that they are against tobacco and Baptists in the South grew tobacco. Sometimes these differences are very trivial. They are historical more than ideological. If I just pulled an average Catholic off the street and an average Episcopalian, neither could really tell me anything of philosophical substance or value that differed between them.
For me, coming to LMU, I knew I was going to a Catholic university. I was not thoroughly aware of the Jesuits outside of my interactions with Spanish Jesuits, so I didn’t know how they worked in America. Like a lot of academics, you go where jobs are, so I did not come to LMU because I was only going to work at a Catholic Jesuit institution. Since I’m not Catholic, that isn’t really an automatic criterion for me as it could be for a Catholic professor. But I am a person who always wanted to be at an institution where religion was seriously considered. I did my doctorate at a state school, where although there were ample kinds of religious people, the institution wasn’t religious. My undergraduate studies were at a Baptist school, so I’m used to being able to talk about questions of faith, used to being able to talk about Bible, used to being able to talk about Jesus. I definitely wanted to be at a place where those conversations can happen, and LMU is one of those places. In terms of what I’ve gained from being at LMU, I’ve learned a lot from Jesuit spirituality, particularly a lot of phrases. A lot of people may think that’s a kind of cheap answer, but, since I’m philosophically speaking, a student of discourse, I think the way we say things matters, and I think the way we phrase things gives us insights into the world and into ourselves, as inhabitants of the world. So when Jesuits say things like “Finding God in all things,” or “The kingdom of God is a human being fully alive,” these are expressions that really remind us of fundamental spiritual principles that are not unique to Catholicism, or even unique to the Jesuits. But the Jesuits have neat ways of framing Christian ideas, and I’ve gained a lot from those phrases. Those who go to church with me know that prior to my sermons, I usually pray the prayer of St. Ignatius [link: http://www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/prayer/traditional-catholic-prayers/saints-prayers/suscipe-prayer-saint-ignatius-of-loyola], because I find it beautifully worded, and it really is a prayer for the people who have given their lives to ministry. At the end of the day, all we need is love and grace, and everything else we will give to God, and let God use—as the words say—in accordance with His will. So, I’ve gained that insight, being here.
ACTI: What do you hope to achieve with SLOW LMU? What do you hope to see from students, professors, faculty or anyone here, in taking their own SLOW TIME?
BS: Let’s just go through all the levels.
For students, SLOW LMU is an invitation to actually go to college. We live in a society mostly marked by massive pressure, a terrible economy, and massive student loan debt that means students go through college with no joy and no learning. Compare that to my generation and the generation prior to mine, when college really was a time to find yourself in the way that middle and upper class people were able to do. Things were much slower when I was in college. You took your classes, lived on campus, and there weren’t sixty-four million clubs and programs. The idea was that you would literally hang out with other people, and come up with your own stuff. Now college is too packed, students are too programmed. Every moment has to be taken up by something. Student club meetings here are at 10:00 at night. Meanwhile the students are just trying to make the best grades they can make, because they need the best job they can make if they can even begin to hope to pay off their student loans. There’s no actual college experience happening.
The word scholar comes from the Greek word scholé, which means leisure. Academics is supposed to be a leisure activity. For students, then, SLOW LMU is an invitation to actually take these four years and make them truly meaningful, versus merely beneficial. Students are strategic; they have to be, I understand. But we have lost the soul of the university when students can’t take the time to write a poem because writing poetry won’t pay their bills. Students struggle even while they’re here, wondering how they’re going to pay for their next semester, never mind how they’re going to pay once they graduate. That has caused a speed factor to creep into colleges: students want to know “How can I graduate in three years? Let me get a whole bunch of AP credits so I can get out of college quicker.” Students could really benefit from slowing down, doing fewer things, reading more good books, reading more good books carefully, instead of just glancing their eyes over the pages.
For faculty, this is a call to return to the life that made us all want to become professors to begin with. In today’s world, faculty do a lot of administrative work that we didn’t exactly sign up for. We thought that being a professor would mean hanging out with our students, reading good books together, and producing new knowledge – but most of my day is taken up in administrativa. Professors, let us slow down. Let us tell the university that for a little period, we should take time and energy and devote it to each other, and engage in the activity that we claim to be our vocation. None of us went into being professors to be administrators. We went into professing because we love our subject matters. For professors, SLOW LMU is an invitation to reclaim the life of the mind that we’re often too busy now to do.
For community members, SLOW LMU is to remind them that, whatever field they’re in, remember that time is finite and there is life to be had. We could say that one way of thinking about SLOW LMU is an invitation to live life, instead of having life live us. It seems like we’re in an age where life is living us more than we are living life. But we can make a decision about that. We can decide today that we’re not going to let that happen, or at least not so easily.
Part of signing up for SLOW LMU is an agreement that people will spend thirty minutes, three times a week, in what we call SLOW TIME exercises: walk a lap, sit in a tree. Do something. Go to our Displacement Garden in the Burns Fine Art Center and stack stones. Just walk around, with no destination. The second you see something interesting, walk towards that. The next thing you know, you may have walked all the way downtown. We don’t know. But you will have had an experience. People also agree that they will do more meditative practice, of some kind or another, be that prayer, or zazen, or whatever. We can find time in our life that isn’t already spent and squandered. Most people in our society use time the same way that they use credit. We max ourselves out, and we’ve already spent years of the future, for the present. Let us take the time to truly be in this moment, and let the Now have its time. Some people think that slow time automatically equals doing nothing, and that’s untrue. It means that whatever we do, let it be worth the time we spent on it. SLOW LMU can include doing homework for class, it can include being in a committee meeting, but let’s make sure that the time we spend is really worthwhile. So if we’re going to spend time reading a book, let’s really read it, and let it engage with us. If we’re in committee work, let’s not see it as rubber stamping in a time wasting meeting. Let’s ask ourselves: how can this time be efficient, and produce the results we want, because that’s time well spent. It’s not just making time, but making sure that the time we use really is well spent: the correct use of time.
ACTI: How do you take SLOW TIME in your life? Does it connect with prayer in any way? How has it affected you and how does it work for you?
BS: There’s a lot of ways. Some of ministerial work requires prayer and meditation, not for myself per se, but praying for others and engaging with others. I also play piano, and I make sure that I sit down and play it. This semester I instituted something new that Brian Treanor argued for many, many years ago, but the university at that time was not yet ready for it: namely, the idea of SLOW HOUR. On Monday and Wednesday I set aside an hour, which is technically an office hour, but I cannot do any business in it. In that hour, I’m not answering emails, I’m not answering the phone, I’m not interacting with students about my classes or about their graduation requirements or anything like that. That hour is usually eating lunch with people, and taking that time to actually get to know each other and talk to each other. We can play games, we can share our life stories; there’s all kinds of things we can do in that hour. But it is set aside; it’s what’s called SLOW HOUR. No business can happen in that hour. I’ve been doing that, and I plan to continue doing that even after the forum.
Of course I’m a philosopher, and so a lot of my intellectual work is already a leisure activity insofar as I have to set aside time to think through things and savor good arguments and things like that. So those would count, especially since I’m a full professor now and I don’t have the immediate concern of “Is this idea publishable?” I’m allowed to consider ideas regardless of what could become of them, whereas when you’re trying to get tenure, trying to get promoted to full, you have to care a lot about publishing, and that gets in the way of actual thinking. So once you’re at my level at least, doing your scholarly work is a SLOW TIME exercise. And if I’m not overly busy with committee work, I’ll have time to read. So I’ve made sure to read more books this fall. I’m taking the time to actually philosophize. Philosophy is itself a SLOW TIME activity. In fact, I would say, it’s the best SLOW TIME activity, but that might be a biased answer.
ACTI: Has SLOW LMU in any way changed the way you think about your work here or your faith outside of here? Or is it more like a manifestation, a final coming of some of the things you’ve already mentioned?
BS: I think it’s a manifestation; it’s something that has been in the water for a long time, and this is the fulfillment. We’re hoping that even beyond the Bellarmine Forum this whole LMU movement will continue. I’ve really enjoyed the interdisciplinary work that has been happening with the forum. There are many more conversations across disciplines, the kind of stuff that we all love, if we have time for it. So let’s make the time for it. Let’s interact with each other in meaningful, intellectual ways.
Was it due to my faith? I don’t know. If anything, it has allowed me in a certain way to live out some of the faith concepts I already have. I’m in that tricky bind, because of course, as the co-director of Bellarmine Forum, we made SLOW LMU because we had already bought into it; we already thought it was good. So I’m enjoying that it is out there and operating, but it’s more of a manifestation of ideas already had. But I’m open to surprise, I’m open to new things. Maybe I do not yet see the fruit, even in myself, of what’s going on this semester.