The Possibility of Intellectual Localism

The contemporary localist movement is generating a lot of interest around the conviction that people should live and die in the place of their birth. The debate over localism is a large one that I will not enter into here (the Winter 2013 print edition of Fare Forward is dedicated to the topic of place), except to say that it was the inspiration for some recent musings.  If the localists are correct in arguing that we owe something substantial to the place where we grew up, might we also owe substantial allegiance to the ideas that shaped us?

My former professor, Father James V. Schall, SJ, often said, “the most important things about you were not chosen or even influenced by you.”  He meant this as a challenge to our pretense that we are fully autonomous, self-shaped individuals. We are all born in a time and a place we did not choose, and given to parents we did not choose, and raised in a certain environment that indelibly shapes us before we have the ability to offer our consent. This is simply the fact of life, regardless of our individualist pretentions to the contrary.

I recalled Fr. Schall’s words recently, as I have begun instructing my little sister in theology and church history. Once a week, we Skype across the hundreds of miles that separate us, and I listen with joy as she recounts to me what she has learned: “already but not yet,” “Messianic expectation,” “paedo- and credo-baptism,” among other concepts..  Yet the deeper I get into some of the material, the more caveats and explanations I have to offer: “Now Jessica, you should know my opinion here differs from what you’re being taught in church.” Not that our home church is heretical – it is pastored by my father, for whom I have naught but immense respect – but since my childhood some of my theological opinions have shifted and realigned, as indeed they must if any healthy and sincere interaction with the breadth of Christianity is to take place. How is one to interact with the ideas of his youth that he has left?

I am convinced we do owe particular gratitude to the ideas that we were raised with, even if we move away from them in adulthood. Perhaps those who think their upbringing poorly formed them won’t share this sentiment. I understand that reaction. One day when I was tempted to lament my lack of cultural knowledge and upper-class refinement, a friend gently chided me by reminding me that “we were raised to know the ins and outs of the King James Bible, and there is no richer cultural heritage possible for an English-speaking modern.” And indeed, it was not for nothing that I received the moniker “chapter and verse Hawkins” during my undergraduate years. Yet the most striking thing for me still remains that I had so very little to do with the cultivation of that personality.  My brain was filled with Biblical passages long before I had an adult decision-making faculty to intentionally choose them.

Like the localists (I think), I would not like to press the point too far.  The primary goal of the human mind is, after all, to worship God through the knowledge of the truth, and therefore if the opinions with which we grew up lack that truth content, it is wise and fitting to move away from them (does localism dictate that we must return to gang-controlled neighborhoods, for example?).  Nor am I at all suggesting that continuity of opinion ought to be imposed through legislative or social pressure. Furthermore, the task of the liberal arts – to create free minds through exposure to the entirety of literary, philosophical, and cultural consideration of a topic – is a noble and necessary one. But is this necessarily destructive of an appreciation for the ideas of our parents? If the individualist story is false (as Schall, the localists, and many other critics of modernity have suggested), is the content of our intellect untouched by our localist obligations? Consider these musings as an invitation to consider our intellectual debts and inheritances, a topic for which I solicit the readers’ comments below.

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  • Justin-

    I’m responding to your solicitation, and I think that my personal experience may be of value here. It might appear on the surface that, in my current situation, I could not be in an environment that differed more from that of my childhood. My father ran a small contracting company and my mother turned down the opportunity to go to law school in order to marry him. My upbringing, needless to say, was very blue-collar: conservative, religions, and anti-liberal arts. One might even be tempted to go so far as to say that it was anti-intellectual, but that claim would have to be reckoned with the pile of science books that gradually accumulated on my bookshelf. At the dinner table, my father frequently made fun of philosophers, politicians, writing, and any academic subject that was not science or math. I think it was largely because of this influence that, throughout my education, I avoided courses that involved writing at all costs, and stuck to science.

    Once college came around, I chose to major in biology, and avoided taking any “bullshit” courses where there were no clear answers. My aversion to the arts did not last long, however, for in a moment of crisis, I was handed C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. After having enjoyed it immensely, I quickly looked for another book to follow it. This chain continued until I can say – with complete honesty – that during my time as an undergrad I wound up reading more theology books than science books. It didn’t take long for me to determine that I belonged somewhere else.

    And now, I find myself enrolled in a doctoral program in theology. Not only is it intellectual, and not only does it involve writing, but I even find myself reading some of those knucklehead philosophers that my father warned me about. One could say that this transformation has been radical, and one would be right, but even so, I am still profoundly shaped by my upbringing.

    Despite my bookish tendencies (which must be all nature and no nurture, given that this proclivity is shared by no one in my family), I find that I *look forward* to doing the dishes and mowing the lawn. I am itching to repaint the the bathroom in my house and clean out the gutters. I’m also pretty conservative, despite having beed educated in some of the most liberal areas of the country.

    It seems to me then, that the values and main ideas of my childhood have largely stayed with me – though I have changed some of them, and doing so was a painstaking process. What has changed has mostly been my approach. While my father would prefer to learn about the meaning of life through his hands, I prefer to do it in an armchair with a book in my hand. While he backs up his opinions with personal anecdotes, I tend to do it with books and articles that I’ve read. The values that I learned from him – to give family life high priority, to make God the center of my life, and, most importantly, to work hard – are still with me; they’ve just taken on a nerdy overtone.

  • Justin Hawkins

    Matthew, thank you for your honesty in this very fascinating reply. I find my experience to be quite similar to your own in a number of ways, which was much of the inspiration for my solicitations above. Might I ask where you are doing your theology program? I’m at Yale Divinity School now, but would love to know where to look for you in case we happen to cross paths at some point.

    Thanks again for your reply.

    -Justin Hawkins