It seems a perfectly logical thought at the time, trust me.
On my way up to my room I found myself gaping at a framed cartoon map of Oxford, which had me curiously spellbound as I surveyed the landmarks, breathing-in something of the this city’s historic story. Things had occurred here. Great thoughts had occurred here. And much of these, even, contained a very real sense of God about them. I left that thought hanging for a while, adjourning the jury for another day. In the morning, after a majorly disappointing ‘all-day-breakfast Cornish pasty’ (why?), I found a little cafe opposite Balliol College called The Buttery, hoping to charge my phone in exchange for relieving them of one of their underbaked croissants and overpriced lattes. After my phone decided to breathe its last (possibly, a providentially punitive miracle), I attempted to cross Broad Street, navigating my way through what seemed to be a plague of bicycles. Most of these were dormant, though occasionally one would erupt into life and nearly run me over as it accelerated away with a chirpy, ‘sorry!’
In spite of this depressing thought, though, I still couldn’t shake the effect the city had had on me thus far. In spite of all that I despise about the domestication of the Gospel at the hands of human convenience, I couldn’t help that I was beginning to yearn again for the very concept of tradition itself.
Of course, I should add that just because meaning is predicated upon such things as collegiate traditions, it doesn’t actually mean they are meaningful. But they still serve as a powerful reminder of something that is innate to human beings: that we want the stuff we do to matter. And they may still foster an important purpose simply by being maintained and entered-into. When it comes to learning and thinking within such an environment, these seemingly strange old customs actually lend a sense of gravity to everything else you do, too; a sense of wonder in what your work and thinking is connected to, whereby you might genuinely believe that it might be contributing to a larger tapestry. I’ve never really felt that in my university experience. Too much of it was in my own hands; it was up to me if I wanted to make it seem meaningful. There may have been events or customs available in small pockets, but they were never compulsory enough. It’s as though they didn’t have the daring to impose themselves upon me in any demanding way, and so I subsequently chose to ignore them, as many do. But it seems that wherever there is an absence of a demanding tradition, there always lurks a sense of the arbitrary; that is, the despairingly meaningless. “Why do you do [insert activity] in this university?” “We do [insert activity] in this university because [insert activity] seemed like the best activity to be inserted at the time. Tomorrow we may try [insert activity II], if it suits. And next week, if the weather is nice, we may do [insert activity III]. Do come along, if you can make it. If not, maybe next time.” This strikes me as an utterly uncompelling way of living or doing anything. Try, instead: “We do [insert activity] here because it symbolises the [insert metaphor] of the [insert concept] which hearkens back to the great [insert narrative] evoking the ancient [insert myth]. If the weather does not suit, we are still going to do [insert activity] anyway because of the [insert law] which we invoke every third [insert season]. Do not, by any means, be late.”
We must yearn to be joyful regardless of the outward circumstances (Phil. 4:11), but this need not compete with the yearning to think and act upon that which is excellent, praiseworthy, noble, or lovely (Phil. 4:8). Indeed, we are creatures who require the scaffolding of tradition from time to time, even if just to remind us of where we are, where we stand, and to remember that there’s more going on than we think.
I think this may be precisely the same reason I could never have been satisfied with a singular fridge magnet.