Scene: Northampton, MA. Some years more than ten ago. A young(er) Susannah, dealing with the remnants of a Vineyard church plant after a grad school conversion had left her theologically annoyed with the charismatic evangelical Protestantism which had, despite its weaknesses, led her to Jesus.
I’d started a blog, and was exploring the Weird Christian Blogosphere a couple of years after its heyday. The Catholic theology I was reading seemed to be pointing to something –but aspects of the Reformation, as I understood it, had bitten deep. Still, there was something other than John Piper out there, I could sense it. And when Peter Escalante showed up in my Facebook Messenger and said something like “I want to tell you about this Google group I think you might be a good fit for”, I remember saying to him “Are you connected with this weird Reformed Thomist crew? I’ve sensed that you guys were out there.”
That led to some very intense years in the group known as Reformed Irenics (which Brad Littlejohn and Joe Minich have written about in more detail). I was reading in a more focused way, finding confusion gradually increasing and then dispelled and then increasing again and dispelled again, reading a ton of Calvinist International, reading the PDFs of scanned books and articles that were flying around, learning a body not just of text and thought but of lore and gossip that led from Jerusalem in the 7th century BC to Athens in the 5th century to Thomas Aquinas College in the 90s and Yale in the 2000s, ordering increasingly obscure books, and finding myself particularly drawn to the writing of Alastair Roberts. Alastair demonstrated, among other things, another aspect of this work: all the skills of intelligent reading that I had brought to other texts, he brought to the Bible, and reading alongside him, I found myself reading a text that fulfills all the promises of every other book, every text turned up as a codex in the Vatican library after having been thought lost as a scroll in the fire of the Library of Alexandria, every work tracked down through Latin translations of Arabic translations of the Greek.
It felt like an intellectual explosion. I’d had an excellent liberal arts education. I’d put in my time as a more or less Straussian. But it felt like I’d never known what it was to think before. Though I had been taught slow reading, close reading; I’d also always on some level been able to get away with cleverness and wit. And in any case, for Straussians the stakes are always somewhat low: they are certainly not eternal, and the demand of the moral integration of the self is not present alongside the demand for perception. Now I had to bring all of what I had learned to a different forum: I could not just be clever–I had to be intelligent, I had to think. Honesty mattered, and honor: one couldn’t hide forever between the lines. This was a new mode of being and work that took everything I’d been brought up to do and kicked it into high gear: this is what all that was for.
Everything was real: all of my intellectual life, and all of my life as a Christian. I certainly had to do the reading, from the beginning: at least, to do more of it: to recognize there is always more to do. I had to read not just for quotes but for substance, for the mind of the writer and for what was behind his mind–not in the tricksy way of the Straussians necessarily, but by being both intelligent and open to what was being said. And, especially when dealing with the dangerous ideas, I had to (eventually) not just be intelligent but to be wise, and to be good, and to be good with others, to be in a community of intellectual goodness and wisdom. That is still in progress. This is all still in progress.
It was a cauldron of dangerous ideas, it felt like dancing on a volcano, but Steven Wedgeworth and Ruben Alvarado and others were excellent guides: ruthlessly ripping off the blindfold of the easy secular postwar consensus ideas that I’d had and the easy evangelical ideas of others, driving us to consider the possibility that everything we knew was wrong, that we had been standing on our heads our whole lives. And then, when we were about to plunge fully into reactionary politics and philosophy, thinking that the most extreme position must be the truest, they slapped us in the face with moral sanity, and historical and Gospel checks and guideposts: refusing to ever let us stop thinking and go merely on vibes, refusing to ever let us merely react.
We had an enormous amount of fun, but we were never allowed to not take ourselves or our words seriously. We learned not just the principles of rule but the practice of self-rule. We were challenged to grow up, intellectually and politically and theologically: to no longer be children. We jostled each other out of doomerism and any tendencies to parochialism: there was always an air of the wider world that blew through that group, a breadth of time and space. There was nothing resentful about it and nothing cozy. The art of intellectual friendship was cultivated as assiduously as the art of rhetoric. It was breathlessly exciting.
In the middle of all this, Brad was working on something. Out of this milieu, plans for Davenant coalesced. It felt like the beginning of something extraordinarily important. I thought of Davenant as the institutional embodiment of this spirit. I still do.
Notoriously, I only came to National Convivium for the first time this past year. But in, I think, 2015 I went to the Westminster regional Convivium. I remember Brad’s parents picking us up from the train station and driving us there, and Peter complaining about Brad’s complaining about something, and then we showed up at the event space and, very naturally, I found myself helping Rick take boxes of fliers and books out of the car trunk and arranging them on the literature table. “Are they paying you? Do you work for Brad?” said Peter, obnoxiously. I ignored him and kept putting out literature.
I’ve been doing that kind of thing ever since.
A year after that, it fell to me to organize the first NYC Convivium, which we held in The King’s College. We ended up eating Chick-fil-A in a counterrevolutionary manner in lower Manhattan, visiting Hamilton’s grave (this was when we were all deep into our Hamilton phase, or at least I was), and then going out for oysters (I was in my maritime education-in-lower-Manhattan phase too, which involved a good deal of oyster propaganda.). Brad looked at the cocktail menu with intense puzzlement and finally ordered something he called a Kuyperinha.
Many other things happened during those years that belong in this narrative but which I don’t have time for. I served three terms on the board, edited Ad Fontes for three years, organized other events, made hors d’oeuvres. And the work of Davenant grew, and we saw that same ethos and joy and friendship and rigor be extended to many other people.
And then, just as Davenant Hall was taking off, just before the pandemic, in Washington, DC, I met up with my Davenant friend Alastair for a coffee, and we arranged to meet up in Trieste after Carnevale. The last two days of Carnevale were canceled because of COVID. I went to England instead, to visit my friend. As I have said many times, Davenant is among many other things very slow Bumble for very niche Christians.
I’ve discussed RI and TCI and the spirit of those conversations, that friendship group. Davenant is the institutional embodiment of that spirit. The Christmas of the year that Davenant was founded, Christmas 2013, I wrote this poem for everyone involved:
May the gospel’s joy invade from Bethlehem, my hard-shell dears,
May you keep your Christmas thoroughly and banish all your fears:
You’ve the theology of roundheads, but the hearts of cavaliers.
Susannah Black Roberts is a Senior Editor at Plough Quarterly and at Mere Orthodoxy. She and her husband split their time between the West Midlands in England and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
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