25 January 2009

In which we consider the Reformation and the Covenanters

Saturday, 17 January 2009

In our preliminary reading (our textbook is Arthur Herman's How the Scots Invented the Modern World) we encountered the National Covenant as an examplar of Scottish independent-mindedness and illustrative of the bottom-up view of authority that has been generally favored throughout Scottish history. Today, one of the highlights of the class so far, we intimately encountered the Covenanters and the leaders of the Scottish Reformation. Our scholar-hosts for today were Ms. Kristin Cook, a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, and Rev. Michael Luehrmann (aka Mikey) of the Carrubbers Christian Centre in Edinburgh. We began our day together at Carrubbers, an evangelical church that meets one block from our hostel!

Michael led us on an engrossing tour of Edinburgh in light of the Scottish Reformation. Reading stirring quotations from Reformation leaders such as Knox and Melville, he walked us through the parking lot behind St. Giles' Cathedral, where a small yellow square in parking spot #23 marks the site of John Knox' grave. While a more suitable memorial to Knox stands several meters away within the church, many of us were sickened to see the huge equestrian statue of the villainous Charles II (who attempted to exterminate the Covenanters) looming over the humble parking spot.

Later, we were taken to the Magdalen Chapel, the small house of worship at which the first Scottish Reformers met and drafted the Scots Confession of 1560, launching the Scottish Reformation. We listened to a fascinating lecture by the wonderful and devoted caretaker of the chapel, then walked through the churchyard of Greyfriars Kirk, where the National Covenant was signed. Greyfriars is renowned for its memorial to the Greyfriars Bobby, but we were there to walk the ground on which so many of the Covenanters walked and to see the memorial for the 18,000 who were martyred during the "Killing Times" of the late 17th century. Michael and Kristin also led us through part of the National Museum, where copies of the National Covenant, Covenanter banners, and other interesting artifacts are displayed.

Kristin then led us on a walking lecture, commenting on interesting connections between the Presbyterian Christianity of the Scots and the Enlightenment ideas that emerged so notably in the 18th century. We ended our day with a pizza dinner in the hostel, with Kristin discussing her graduate work – focused on American literature of the Enlightenment period – surrounded by students.

Tomorrow: rest and worship at Carrubbers

Hume sweet Hume

Friday, 16 January 2009

Our second scholar-host was Dr. Thomas Ahnert, also of the University of Edinburgh, an expert on the history of the Scottish Enlightenment. Thomas began our time together with a lengthy and strenuous tour of Old Town and environs, with visits to the Sir Walter Scott monument (which some students climbed for stunning views) and Calton Hill. Calton Hill affords panoramic views of Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth, and is always whipped with high winds. Hence our appearance in our all-class photo below.

The whole class on Calton Hill, right before several were blown away...

After another lunch at the Elephant House, we returned to the history department at the University of Edinburgh to go deep on topics related to the Scottish Enlightenment, focusing again on David Hume, William Robertson, and contemporaries such as Hugh Blair and John Witherspoon.

One interesting theme brought out by Thomas concerned the role of revelation in the consideration of the existence and nature of the human soul. The standard view of the time is that "conserative" Presbyterianism (which represented majority views of faith and doctrine) emphasized revelation while the moderate thinkers now associated with Enlightenment emphasized reason and "science" in their analysis of such issues. But when it came to the question of the soul, these roles were typically reversed: conservatives insisted (contra Hume) that the philosophy of the soul was complete, and that nothing remained unaccounted for, while many moderates agreed with Hume that philosophy could not prove such things, and that therefore revelation was required. Demanding stuff, but interesting.

Tomorrow: a visit with an expert on literature and an emphasis on the Scottish Reformation

24 January 2009

An evening with Burns...yikes

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Robert Burns is the Bard, the national poet of Scotland. He lived and wrote during the Enlightenment era, and many of his works were inspired by Enlightenment values and ideas. And his 250th birthday in a week and a half – the night before we depart for home – is the occasion around which Scotland has proclaimed 2009 to be Homecoming. (A tourism ploy, of course, but endearing nonetheless.) During this week, at the University of Glasgow, a major academic conference was meeting and examining all things Burns. One conference event was a dinner performance of some Burns musical works, so a journey to Glasgow was our second major academic event.

The venue, Òran Mór, was an interesting place. Formerly a Presbyterian church, it still displayed busts of major early Protestant leaders and a few more venerable Christian heroes. The busts were in excellent condition, but a glance to the ceiling made it clear that we were not in a Reformed house of worship.

Calvin students at Òran Mór experiencing Robert Burns.

The elaborate artwork (a large mural by Scottish novelist and artist Alasdair Gray) bespoke New Age-like themes, and the fully-stocked bar evoked good-natured muttering from some of the students. One student, gazing around and snapping pictures, referred to the place as "a little sputten" and was kind enough to explain the term to her mystified instructors. (The word apparently identifies something as somewhat blasphemous.)

The stage at the Burns Conference venue at Òran Mór. Note the nicely restored busts of historic Protestant Christian leaders.

The food was fantastic and in the elegance of the place it was easy to forget that most of us were sleeping four and more to a room in a hostel. The first performance was a singing of The Jolly Beggars, a cantata with several parts. The songs are earthy and bawdy, and we were able to grasp some of the difficult Scots language but mostly we relied on non-verbal cues and the voices of the interesting cast of characters.

The next performance was a memorable one indeed. The singer, Sheena Wellington, is one of the most renowned vocalists in Scotland – we had previously heard an excerpt of her rendition of "A Man's a Man For a' That" at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. She performed a sampling of songs from The Merry Muses. Ms. Wellington selected the songs, and she proudly informed us that she had omitted the "scatalogical" tunes since Robert Burns had probably never changed a diaper. To say that many of the songs she did choose were off-color would be to put things a bit delicately. While other selections were quite beautiful, most of us found the program to be over the top, and chalked it all up to a very interesting cultural experience.

Tomorrow: another day with an Enlightenment scholar

22 January 2009

Exploring the Scottish Enlightenment with Nick Phillipson

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The academic mission of our course is to understand the Scottish Enlightenment by visiting the land where it unfolded and by learning from those who study it full time. To this end, we arranged to spend a day with each of four Enlightenment scholars of various areas of expertise. Our first host was Professor Nicholas Phillipson of the University of Edinburgh. Professor Phillipson (henceforth called Nick, at his request) undertook to show us the physical geography of the Scottish Enlightenment throughout the morning then to map out the intellectual geography of the era in an afternoon session.
Calvin students meeting Nick Phillipson (second from right) in the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade. Edinburgh Castle in the background.

We met Nick at the foot of Edinburgh Castle and immediately began to learn about the sense in which the Scottish Enlightenment was an ambitious building project, a stupendously expensive effort to expand Edinburgh beyond the overcrowded Old Town (built on a ridge extending downhill from the ancient volcano on which the castle sits). The effort culminated in the creation of New Town and there were subsequent projects that were similarly grandiose but less successful.
Calvin students with Nick Phillipson, learning about the Old College of the University of Edinburgh.

One important stop in our morning session was a remarkable historical restoration project and educational attraction: Mary King's Close. (A close is a a small alley, named but typically only wide enough for pedestrians.) Part ghost walk, but mostly history lesson, our trip through the close was entertaining and enlightening. Our guide, in character and period dress, repeatedly emphasized the squalid conditions under which 17th- and 18th-century residents of Edinburgh typically lived. (Ask any student about "the bucket.") Not for nothing was Edinburgh then known as Auld Reekie. We learned about the plague, and how Edinburgh beat it. In the gift store, one student bought a cute little stuffed Plague Doctor, with the creepy bird-beak mask to keep out the "miasma."
Our class inside the real Mary King's Close.

When it was time for lunch, Nick evoked gasps of excitement when he announced that he had reserved tables for us at the Elephant House, a wonderful café and coffee house now known as the Birthplace of Harry Potter. It was there (among other places) that J.K. Rowling sat next to her infant daughter and wrote the beginnings of the story of the boy wizard. The food was very good, and it's truly an inspiring place. Maybe that's why Edinburgh is one of three UNESCO "Cities of Literature."
Where we had lunch: J.K. Rowling's former hangout.

After lunch we convened in a conference room in the history department of the University of Edinburgh for a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion of the intellectual history of the Scottish Enlightenment. Nick outlined the roots of Enlightenment in the installed power of Presbyterian moderates (at the universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow) and in the vigorous challenge to belief mounted by David Hume. (Nick refers to Hume as "the infidel genius.") We learned of the important role played by the somewhat lesser-known William Robertson, after whom the building we met in was named. Nick's energy and passion left us inspired if exhausted, and we shuffled happily back to our home on Blackfriars Street to recuperate before our evening's cultural event: a visit to the Scottish Storytelling Centre for a night of stories with a Robert Burns theme.

Tomorrow: a trip to Glasgow to experience songs of Burns in performance

21 January 2009

Journey to Scotland and the saga of the Lost Students

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

It all started smoothly enough. Our group of 20 split into four groups, each of which trundled down Queensway to the Bayswater Tube station. The Circle Line got us to King's Cross Station, and after hauling luggage up far more stairs than we expected, we congregated on a platform at the famous station. There was time for many of us to be photographed at the barrier through which one gets to Platform 9 3/4. We decided to take a non-direct route to Scotland, on a train to York where we would change to a train to Edinburgh. Sounded simple.

Calvin students on Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station in London.

The train to York was run by the Grand Central company and included a snack trolley (no chocolate frogs, though), free wireless access, and large pictures of Marilyn Monroe. We had a great time. Then the train stopped at York.

Under normal circumstances, we would remember York as the site of Calvin's Semester in Britain program. Instead it became the site of one of our course's most memorable (mis)adventures. Our train, it turned out, was running late and the crew was hoping for a very quick stop in York (for 60 seconds or so). That would have been difficult enough, given we are a group of 20 in a new environment and carrying luggage. But when we went to get off the train, we discovered a bizarre exit system: to open the door and alight, one must pull down the window of the door, reach outside the train and open the door from the outside. (Our friends in Edinburgh were surprised to hear all this.) Well, one group of us managed to get the door open and to frantically offload our luggage and our bodies. But a second group couldn't get their door open, and the train was moving before the incompetent crew realized that people might actually want to get off the train at the stop. As the train pulled out, some of our number on the platform could see a fellow student's hand groping for the door handle on the outside of the train. Oh no!

In York we tried to get the train company to get our stray students off at the next stop, and put them on the next train back to York. This would have worked quite well, but while the staff at York were friendly enough they were unable to figure out how to contact the crew of a train. So instead, the Lost Students were advised to alight at a station downtrack, and change to a train in Newcastle that would proceed to Edinburgh. Once the remnant in York learned this, they got on a train to Edinburgh via Newcastle, and our class was joyously reunited in Newcastle. The Lost Students reported that they found the whole thing "fun" and told hilarious stories of holding signs for passing trains (which they thought would have the rest of the group on board) telling them to meet in Edinburgh.

The Lost Students showing courage and cleverness.

It was all worth the hassle, because we finally arrived safe and sound in gorgeous Edinburgh, and checked into our wonderful modern hostel in the middle of the Royal Mile. We were offered free full breakfast for our entire 10-day stay – a surprise blessing – and discovered a clean and comfortable common area that was a nice change from the more, er, rustic accommodations in London.

Next up: our first meeting with an Enlightenment scholar

The British Museum and its Enlightenment Gallery

Monday, 12 January 2009

The British Museum exhibits treasures from the whole planet, so it's only fair that it's been "free to the world since 1753." We spent the better part of a day here, and here are some highlights:

  • Large remnants from the Parthenon in Athens, among the so-called Elgin Marbles.

  • A wonderful set of ivory chess pieces, from the 12th century A.D. These are the Lewis Chessmen and were found in Scotland, so the rest of the set is displayed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where we'll be for most of our time in the UK.

  • A large area called the Enlightenment Gallery (originally created to house the library of King George III). The room includes collections of all sorts, and is an apt illustration of Enlightenment thought and intellectual practice. One student, contemplating some particularly interesting fossils, announced an intention to become a geology major. (Paging Ralph Stearley.) The exhibit emphasized the Enlightenment emphasis on observation and experiment and presented the Enlightenment using seven main themes.

  • The Rosetta Stone.

  • Egyptian mummies, with results of scans showing their well-preserved body cavities.

  • A remarkable collection of timepieces of various types and ages.

Next: King's Cross Station, Platform 9 3/4, and our eventful journey to Scotland.

Westminster Abbey on a Sunday

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Westminster Abbey is the magnificent national church of England, described as "part national church, part national museum" and the resting place of personages as illustrious as Isaac Newton and Elizabeth I. It is also the meeting place and namesake of some of the most noted confessions of Reformed Christian belief. But today, for us, it was mostly a place to worship with a group of believers somewhat different from ourselves.

Some of us have worshiped in Roman Catholic and/or Orthodox contexts and found the Anglican service to be mostly familiar. Others reported that they found the service to be a new experience, and there were some awkward moments during communion when some of us weren't sure what to do. But it was good to worship in new surroundings. Most of us intend to return to the Abbey in two weeks or so for a tour. On the way out, we filed past the monuments of Isaac Newton and Charles Lyell, and some noticed that we walked over the grave of Charles Darwin.
Calvin students outside Westminster Abbey in London.

Tomorrow: the British Museum.