Intellectual Hospitality

Picture a group of APU undergraduates gathering in a small classroom to study C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Carly is the first to arrive—she’s done all the reading, and she’s ready to go. Andrew wanders in next, wearing a crisp white shirt and a bow tie. Jeremy has dirt under his fingernails; he was tending his garden before dashing to class. Scott looks restless, distracted, and a little rumpled, like maybe he didn’t get much sleep. These students and others sit around a long table in my classroom. They come from varied faith traditions. One spent 12 years in Jesuit schools. One comes from an Eastern Orthodox background. Another is Assemblies of God. There’s a student who identifies with the Red Letter Movement, and his closest friend in the class is an Episcopalian and an outspoken advocate for social justice. Working with this diverse group of students was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had as a professor, and one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had as a believer.

On the first day of class, I open with this ritual: I place Mere Christianity in the middle of the table and I say, “This semester, we will do all we can to learn from Professor C.S. Lewis.” As we focus on the text, we follow the advice found in one of Lewis’ most important books, An Experiment in Criticism: “We read in order to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from solitude. We should be [concerned with] entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings, and total experience of others.” In this class, we will work hard to listen to one another, to seek first to understand.

Lewis helps us begin the journey by describing Christianity as a large house. As people enter through the door of faith, they find themselves in a hallway with doors along each side: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God, Episcopalian, United Methodist, Vineyard, Calvary Chapel, Independent, and so on. Lewis says, “It is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in . . . And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best . . . The question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of [church] service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here?’”

According to Lewis, the nonnegotiable core of the Christian message is this: “The death of Jesus Christ has somehow put us right with God.” In light of this singular message, we live out that conviction in a thousand different rooms, in a thousand different ways, as God calls each of us to the specific work we are meant to do. So how should we treat people who choose different rooms, who make different choices? How do we deal with people with whom we have differences—not little differences, but big ones, differences about what we believe and how we should live? Scan the comments on your Facebook newsfeed, and you’ll see a host of common approaches: Dismissal. Criticism. Shaming. Attacking.

I’d encourage us to consider a different option: intellectual hospitality. I did not coin the term, but I love the image it conjures. Intellectual hospitality invites us to gather around a table—a seminar table, a dinner table, a communion table. Julia Reinhard Lupton says that a table defines or “fashions a space that invites conversation and deliberation as well as the sharing of meals and the paying of bills. The table, unlike the couch, distributes distance while also creating the possibility of the face to face; it is quite literally the support not only of plates, notebooks, and Sabbath candles, but also of the very spacing that sustains human relationship.”

The idea of hospitality around that table has deep roots in classical literature, where the principle of hospitality, xenia, translates as “guest friendship” from the original Greek. It offers guidelines for how to gather around the table, how to serve as a host, and how to behave as a guest. Immediately upon arrival, a guest received provision, without inquiry as to his or her name or business until the duties of hospitality had been fulfilled. The stranger at the door was welcomed and cared for. In response, the guest showed respect to the host and honored the rules of the household.

This idea of xenia is suggested in Hebrews 13:2, where we are told, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (NASB). This requires a shift in our thinking. We usually view hospitality as with an eye to impress. We invite the people we know. We clean house, buy fresh flowers, and cook special meals. Though we enjoy one another’s company, we also present our best face —our gaze is still fixed on the mirror. However, the word “hospitality” comes from the Latin hospes, which means “stranger.” Thomas Ogletree, retired Methodist minister and former dean of Yale Divinity School, suggests that to offer hospitality is to “welcome something new, unfamiliar, and unknown into our life.”

The ancient tradition of hospitality specifically meant to take our eyes off ourselves and linger face to face with the someone who is not like me.

In the classroom, the concept of intellectual hospitality occurs when students engage with unfamiliar ideas, read books from unknown authors, and entertain new ways of looking at the world. Though they often resist it at first, I ask them to slow down, be patient, ask good questions, seek to understand. I want them to consider the possibility that even the most farfetched idea may contain something of significance. If nothing else, it may serve as a catalyst to help them clarify what it is that they truly believe. Keegan Osinski, theological librarian, holds that hospitality is necessary for learning, because every idea and every academic subject—arithmetic, history, chemistry, music, architecture, theology, philosophy, literature—begins as a foreign one, and if we never allowed a new idea in, we would never learn anything.

Peter Elbow, author and English professor emeritus, suggests that we can grow in our ability to offer intellectual hospitality by stirring up the habit of curiosity. He submits that we can improve our ability to ask good questions and understand new things by playing what he calls the Believing Game. It’s like taking a new idea out for a test drive, pushing its buttons, twisting its knobs, pressing the accelerator, seeing where it goes. When we encounter a new idea, we do not have to commit to it, invest in it, or even learn to like it. But first, we should listen and then seek to understand.

Intellectual hospitality encourages us to engage with new ideas, not merely contradict, dismiss, dispute, reject, or ridicule them. When people react with skepticism and distrust, discussion often dissolves into a matter of winning and losing, a cycle of contradiction and strife. People are used to the Doubting Game—playing devil’s advocate or being argumentative or contrary. The Believing Game is harder—and more hospitable.

The Believing Game invites us to a kind of critical thinking that does not scour new ideas for their pitfalls, but welcomes them so that they might be understood and respected, whether or not they are accepted or affirmed. As Lewis says, “Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke, and merriment you want, the answer is obvious. And if it is worthwhile listening or reading at all, it is often worth doing so attentively. Indeed, we must attend even to discover that something is not worth attention.” That is intellectual hospitality.

And, at its best, intellectual hospitality takes us deeper than mere tolerance. It calls us to something higher, something better, something that marks our character and transforms our souls. It teaches us to cultivate generosity, humility, kindness, and patience, and it helps us overcome selfishness, insecurity, suspicion, and shame.

I witnessed this profound transformation in my own classroom. Those students in my class last fall worked hard to understand what Lewis had to say, leaving their assumptions and agendas at the door, gathering around the seminar table learning what they could from close reading of the text. And somehow, what they learned about reading started to change the way they talked with one another. We kept repeating our mantra: seek first to understand. In the beginning, it wasn’t easy. They wanted so much to correct each other and argue. They stepped on each other’s toes and interrupted each other’s sentences. To be honest, I was one of the worst offenders. Things got pretty heated, and tensions rose.

But as weeks went by, things turned around. My students learned to give each other space and time. They learned to ask a clarifying question rather than step up with a challenge, correction, or contradiction. They learned that people have reasons for the things they hold dear, and that our beliefs are usually much more complicated than they might seem at first.

Something really special happened in that classroom with that diverse group of students. As the semester drew to a close, the students asked if we could keep meeting. We finished Mere Christianity, and they wanted to read another book together. So we started the Dante Club. These days, instead of meeting around the seminar table in the classroom, we meet at my house and gather around my dining room table. We read. We talk. We seek to understand.

Carly is usually first to arrive, even though she has the longest distance to drive. She’s always done the reading and always comes prepared. We set the table together as the others arrive. Scott shows up looking rumpled and distracted. And then comes Jeremy, who walks out to gather ripe tomatoes and fresh basil from the small garden he planted in my backyard.

Here’s what we discovered: It is not that we have great food and great conversations in spite of our differences. It is that we have great food and great conversations because of our differences.

The virtue of intellectual hospitality holds tremendous implications in my classroom and at Azusa Pacific. It offers a healthy antidote to the polarization of our age. Intellectual hospitality doesn’t mean assent, blind adoption, or uncritical affirmation of every idea I stumble upon. It does mean that I listen, that I seek to understand, that I pray for patience as well as courage. It means that I ask better questions, and I work hard to stay quiet long enough to understand the answers. The rules for the household of faith call for kindness, patience, and prayer—intellectual hospitality. How will we answer that call?