Books as Conversation Partners

In A Theology of Higher Education, Mike Higton discusses how learning is inherently social. It is a continual conversation in which we learn to make judgments on the reasons of others, and to have our own reasons judged. He discusses how, even amidst the loneliness of a Ph.D. writer, the learning process is inherently social. I find his description fascinating:

“One way of describing a Ph.D. is to think of it very much in conversational terms. After all, one way of seeing the Ph.D. student’s central task is as the attempt to extend his circle of conversation partners. Conversations with a supervisor, conversations with fellow-students, conversations at conferences and in seminar presentations, conversations with the examiners – but also conversation with the hundreds of people whose books and articles and papers and pamphlets the student reads. The Ph.D. student, normally working on a very focused topic, nevertheless builds a massively extended conversation around that topic, inviting together (in one form or another) all the relevant people that he can find. A Ph.D. is, in that sense, an extended act of hospitality. Sometimes the student is simply playing host; sometimes he is the life and soul of the party; sometimes he is the one who gets to say, to the accompaniment of distant thunder, ‘You may be wondering why I called you here this evening…’ And this hosting of a conversation is a massive extension of vulnerability: you invite all these people into your home, and then allow them to criticize the décor, turn up their noses at the food you serve, pick holes in the things you say. If it were not for the act that at least some of these conversation partners will be or become friends, this would make a Ph.D. sound like a very bleak prospect indeed.”

The Christian life, like learning, is inherently social. Stanley Hauerwas explains that as humans become part of God’s story, they must recognize that they are part of a history, and that they now bear this tradition. He writes, “Our initiation into a story as well as the ability to sustain ourselves in that story depends on others who have gone before and those who continue to travel with us.” The Christian life is dependent on the community of the church. However, it is important to remember that while the church exhibits itself through local communities, the church itself is made up of the entire body of believers across time and space.

People in my Christian circles have criticized me in the past for spending a lot of time over the years reading Christian books when I could have been dedicating that time to meditating on Scripture.  If learning is inherently communal, an individual pursuing knowledge of God ought to be willing to extend his circle of conversation partners beyond those physically present – to treat learning in this sense as “an extended act of hospitality” in which he “invites together all of the relevant people he can find.” This includes those in the church body who are not physically present, but whose arguments he can converse with in the hope of making new friends. I think this is why, even before inviting conversation partners that I’ve been reading at the university level, I was intent on hosting authors such as C.S. Lewis, Francis Chan, Donald Miller, Rachel Held Evans, and many other guests. I don’t desire to limit my understanding of my tradition to the personal revelation I receive through Scripture or to what I can learn from those who immediately surround me. I see diving into the way in which these authors have understood their faith as a way to extend my circle of conversation partners – a way to extend my community to those beyond my time and space.

My cherished guests

My cherished guests

Higton describes learning as a spiritual discipline because it involves processes in which learners are deeply shaped. The kind of learning that he paints a picture of involves the shaping of “emotions and values, deep orientations,” and “pervasive ways of seeing.” As I’ve entertained these authors as conversational partners, I think they’ve really shaped who I am now.

Martha Nussbaum writes, “Books are not ‘alive.’ At best, they are reminders of what excellent thinking is like, but they certainly cannot think. Often, however, so great is their prestige that they actually lull pupils into forgetfulness of the activity of the mind that is education’s real goal, teaching them to be passively reliant on the written word.”

I disagree with Nussbaum. I think that, if viewed as conversation partners and potential friends, books can be very much alive. However, I appreciate her critique that books cannot be a substitute for thinking things through. Because I view the books I’ve read as conversation partners, and because I view many of their authors as friends, I have a habit of inviting them into conversations with my physically present friends. Sometimes this is appropriate. However, on other occasions, no matter how “alive” they feel to me it is inappropriate to drag these conversation partners into my real-life conversations with friends. When a friend comes to me struggling, hurting, and seeking comfort and wisdom, they are not in a place in which they would like to make new conversation partners, new potential friends. They really don’t want to hear what Stanley Hauerwas or Rachel Held Evans has to say. They understand that my conversation partners have shaped me, and in light of this, they want to hear what their friend, Ally, has to say.

For me, the research process is a conversation. It is a way to learn to practice hospitality. It is allowing myself to be malleable enough to be shaped by my guests to the extent that I am not simply “passively reliant” on their writings. Over the past five weeks, I have hosted Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Richard Bernstein, Hilary Putnam, John Milbank, Charles Taylor, Stanley Hauerwas, Martha Nussbaum, Mike Higton, and others – and I can confidently say that as I’ve poured over their works, some of these thinkers have become dear friends of mine. Not because I’ve met them, but because their ideas have deeply shaped me.

I agree with Higton’s proposal: “it might be that socially inclusive, secular, and religiously plural universities can sometimes be contexts in which the Christian participant can learn more about virtue, sociality, and the common good than they have done in the church,” and that this added understanding can “help the church to be more fully the church.” Hosting these intellectuals for the past five weeks has taught me how valuable books can be as conversation partners in a way that has crucially informed my understanding of my participation in the church of Christ.


  1. Ally — again, brilliant.

    One of the things I have learned to appreciate about the Anglican church is the fact that the liturgy can be viewed as an occasion for the sort of sociality that you rightly say is a part of the Christian life. When I was younger, I thought it could only be insincere (at best) to pray someone else’s prayers, and say someone else’s words during church, but I’ve come to see that praying someone else’s prayers, for example, can be a way of feeling connected to and in touch with the universal church. (Especially when the prayer I’m praying is, say, the Lord’s Prayer.)