Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Stability of Triangles

I'm back from my trip! And it was thoroughly wonderful! I lived fully in the present and enjoyed every moment, including the travel itself, and even the waiting in airports. I felt very little of the travel anxiety I used to feel. Maybe it was that I thorougly knew how important this trip was -- this was exactly what I had to do right now in my life.

I won't go into all the details, but I do want to share some of what this trip was, and what it meant to me. The conference I attended was the Friends Association for Higher Education conference. This organization exists both to support the institutions of higher education that are historically Quaker, and also to support people like me: Quakers who teach in non-Quaker colleges. I love these annual conferences. The conferences draw together a great group of people, and the conferences offer wonderful series of presentations and workshops. Often, the presentations and workshops can feel like -- well, they are -- "gathered" Meetings.

The theme of this year's conference, "Centering on the Edge: Intellect, Spirit, Action," was especially meaningful and relevant to me. Now that I have tenure, I realize that I have a responsibility to use my academic life well to address the needs of the world, and so I have been deeply re-thinking my academic identity. I entered into the conference a little worried that I was facing a crisis: an agonizing decision of whether to turn my back on some of the philosophy research I have been doing in favor of a more serious turn to peace research.

But as each session I attended at the conference ministered to me in its own slightly different way, a new image of my academic life started to come into focus. It crystallized in a conversation with one of my friends. I realized that I have three major research interests that initially seem very different, and so I keep thinking I need to simplify by focusing primarily on just one or two. But I suddenly realized that all three feed each other in important ways, and in my attempt to "embrace complexity," I need to just accept all three fully. Those three, for me, are philosophy of science (and, more generally, issues dealing with knowledge, meaning, and language), peace studies, and Quakerism.

So, how do they feed each other? If we make those three into points of a triangle, then look at each side of the triangle:

The "philosophy-peace studies" side, for me, is about the relationships between knowledge, language, and power. I am interested in the power of words to resolve problems nonviolently.

The "peace studies-Quakerism" side may seem obvious at first, but someone at the conference said that his (Quaker) college had a hard time finding someone well-qualified to teach both Quakerism and peace studies -- there are excellent Quaker scholars, and excellent peace studies scholars, but surprisingly few who directly combine the two in scholarly research today. This astounded me, and struck a deep chord in my soul, because there is an intersection there that I feel led to explore more deeply: the history of Quaker involvement in peace issues. Immediately upon the conclusion of the conference, I began to research what has already been done on this topic, and I very much look forward to continuing!

The "Quakerism-philosophy of science" side may be less obvious, until one notes that Quakerism arose at the same time as the rise of early modern science. There are scholars who have already begun to explore this connection, and I would like to join in this research as well. I am also fascinated by the contrast between the Quaker acceptance of forms of knowledge that cannot be put into words, and the analytic-philosophy emphasis on limiting knowledge only to what can be put into words.

Now, back to the story: when I mentioned to my friend that I needed to keep all three arenas of research, she noted to me that a triangle is the most stable shape. (Stools made with three legs never wobble.)

Then, later, she surprised me by speaking of "my" triangle in general terms as if everyone has a similar triangle: a triangle of spirituality, activism, and study. "All three kinds of people," she noted, "those who primarily define themselves as spiritual, those who primarily define themselves as activists, and those who primarily define themselves as scholars, really need all three if they are to do their work well."

And only just now, in writing this, do I notice that the very subtitle of the conference expresses the same idea: "intellect, spirit, action."

So, no wonder! What I thought was my personal, private revelation was instead a mirror of the very intent of the conference itself! We were all helping each other to define for ourselves our particular triangles, and to nourish and strengthen the interconnections between the triangles' points! No wonder it was such a powerful and inspiring conference!


  1. In-between all sorts of stressful experiences, I'm catching a few minutes to skim over some blog posts, and that's when I came across yours (you had commented on The Good Raised Up—thanks!).

    I'm struck by the "triangle" that the conference alludes to and which you propose, in part because I had a sense that something wasn't quite sitting right for me. While I agree that a triangle is the most stable shape, I couldn't figure quite where the element of COMMUNITY or HEART fit in.

    That's when I recalled I had attended a workshop awhile ago, perhaps at a yearly meeting, about spirituality types. About half-way down the page, there's a chart with four quadrants:

    • Kingdom/pragmatic
    • Head/thinking
    • Mystic/contemplative
    • Heart/affectionate.

    In my opinion, while mystic and heart are very close, as are kingdom and head, they also each have their differences. But I think what you're getting at is that activism without faithfulness (pragmatics without contemplation) may miss the mark; and strategizing without care for effective change and significant relationships (thinking without affection) may also miss the mark.

    One of the most significant parts of my journey among Friends has been coming to understand the importance of having a community among which to discern and test the leadings of the Spirit.

    Do you think your individual "triangle" of research arenas could exist within the contextual, encompassing "circle" of community, whether that be the community (or system) in which you hope to effect change; or the community (Quaker meeting) in which the other areas are developed and supported?

    Liz, The Good Raised Up

  2. Whoops, I see I've made a comment that blends both this post and the subsequent one. Oh well, par for the course for me, in these chaotic times.

    Liz Opp

  3. Thank you, Liz, for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I do see it as you describe.

    The triangle is always embedded in a community (scholarship is learning from others and learning about a wider world that includes other people; activism is the attempt to reach out to others in hopefully helpful ways; personal spirituality includes an acknowledgment of our essentially relational nature).

    And, also, love motivates all three points of the triangle (spirituality is the cultivation of one's capacity to love; scholarship is motivated by love because good learning is a form of love; activism too is motivated by love -- caring enough for the world that you wish to make it a better setting for others to live meaningfully and with fulfillment in relation to each other).

    I'm very glad you raised these very important points!