During our first formal hall for graduate students at Magdalen, the President of the college stood up and praised the role of tradition and structure in college life. Without citing specific reasons, he spoke of why students must wear gowns to dinner, why only certain people walk on the grass, and why each fellow has a certain seat in the senior common room after formal hall. ”We have carried these traditions for hundreds of years and we will continue to do so. We embrace them because they are good.”
I was struck by the contrast between that statement, and his next, where he went on to praise one of Magdalen’s more famous alumni, Oscar Wilde–hardly a lover of tradition himself. Wilde was a force of free thinking, and was certainly not afraid to challenge the norms of his time. Our chaplain once told me that there are college records citing a time when Wilde was reprimanded for reading a sensual passage from Song of Solomon with a rather “inappropriate enthusiasm” during a college chapel service.
It made me wonder. Did Wilde find value of rigid walls and structure of Oxford? Are there valid reasons to accept them as “good” in and of themselves? As I walked around campus, a frumpy lumberjack-american in a fancy-pants castle, I kept coming back to this Wilde vs Tradition conundrum. Was he a product of its success or proof of its folly?
Several years ago I had a conversation with my brother on the value of religious tradition and its impact on faith. This is an excerpt from that a letter I wrote to him, answering his question: “Is there value in institutional religion?” Re-reading our conversation seemed to reinforce the similarities between the structures of academic walls and religious walls and the freedoms and dangers afforded to the individuals who live inside.
’There are 15 bars near my house. Each of which is in some ways as much an institution as is church. By eliciting our common subscription to the mostly meaningless institution of the local bar and the traditions that go with it (i.e. a dark room, alcohol, sitting across a table from each other, paying a 400% mark-up for a beer, etc.), none of which are not intrinsically valuable, I am creating an environment for something that does have inherent value. These bars are mostly awful places if you look at them objectively (with the lights on and no one inside), but their presence carves out a space and provides a tradition which becomes the soil for fantastic conversations.
Church structured events are about as interesting to me as an empty bar with the lights on. They seem sort of lame and pointless. But they creates a space for something beautiful–a meaningless space in our lives where incredibly important connections (spiritual and interpersonal) can grow.
While the substance of tradition seem to be rather light on content, it can withstand a good bit of ongoing change–therein giving important activities the elbow room they need regardless of how well these activities might fit into the ever-changing cultural norms of the day. As culture flips back and forth on itself, with one generation rebelling against the next and then back again, these structures can give each new group the chance to experience something that their culture may have not allowed them to see. So a church group, while it may feel like am inorganic or forced community of people, can give people the space they need to ask questions that their culture would never allow them to ask.
In fact, the meaninglessness of tradition is important to this function. Traditions and structure are inherently hollow, which is why they are so good at being our placeholders for truth.
And in both cases (the bar and the Church), the truth that one finds ought to exit the structure as soon as it can (returning regularly, but not remaining). A life that never leaves a church group is about as noble as a friendship that never leaves the bar.’
So perhaps, is was the very confines of Oxford’s tradition’s which allowed Wilde to flourish, creating walls within which his creativity and like-minded friendships were free to grow without interruption. After leaving Magdalen, Wilde went on to create incredible works which have been read and loved by millions. He also got into some trouble by suing the father of his lover for libel–the facts that emerged in the lawsuit process ended up backfiring and landing Wilde in prison instead. During his two-year imprisonment–once again returning to an institutional set of barriers (albeit a much more gloomy set)–he wrote his famous work De Profundis. In that work he makes a passing comment, which might be well taken as a support of the merits of the confines to be found in the structures around us: ”The two great turning points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.”