Most working adults don’t dream of spending a week of their summer tromping through the mountains with 150 high schoolers and a copy of Plato’s Meno. But the staff of Wheatstone Academy are an odd bunch. Wheatstone Academy is the brainchild of Dr. John Mark Reynolds, founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, inspired and made possible by Mike Kiley and John Siefker, and perfected by Executive Director Rebecca Fort. Founded ten years ago, Wheatstone is as fantastic as it was in 2000, but no easier to explain. That’s what makes Wheatstone a week that will change your life.
Wheatstone is not an academic camp, though the students spend most of the week discussing Plato and learning from professors of various disciplines. It’s not a typical summer camp, though the students have mentor-counselors, go rock climbing, and stay up far too late each night. It’s not an arts camp, though we go to the Getty, dive into Shakespeare’s plays, attend classical music concerts, pursue artistic skills in artisan-led workshops, and follow a film professor through a guided viewing. Wheatstone is at once all of these things and none of them, because at its core, this program is an introduction to the examined life.
It’s not just about thinking. Many of us live a bifurcated life, as though we’re brains living inside bodies that are mere “earthsuits,” or animal desires conflicted by an overdeveloped cultural consciousness. Our modern culture perpetuates this divide, urging us to interpret morality in purely rational terms divorced from biological desire. The Church, in opposing it, far too often overcompensates by negating the body entirely, casting it in the role of biologically sinful tempter bent on thwarting our sanctification. Neither view accurately describes the complex relationship that makes us what CS Lewis called spiritual amphibians, bodies intertwined with souls. Therefore, neither view is particularly helpful, especially as we try to understand the world around us and cultivate virtue. And when it comes to knowing a being as complex as God, this confusion can be fatal to our faith. No wonder over half of students who claim to be Christian at the end of high school leave the church before they finish college.
For a week this summer, Wheatstone students and staff pursued the life of the head, heart, and hands—what Plato would call the whole soul. In Plato’s Meno – the text for the week – Socrates tries in vain to get the young, handsome Thessalian general Meno to explore a question with him: What is virtue? Meno is intent on finding out if virtue is teachable, but Socrates insists the question is unimportant if they don’t know what virtue itself is. He spends most of the dialogue proving to the stubborn Thessalian that he doesn’t know what virtue is, but Socrates cannot convince Meno that it’s a problem. As Plato knew his readers would remember that a few years after this dialogue was meant to take place, Meno betrayed Thessaly in battle against Artaxerxes, was captured, tortured for a year, then executed. Even Socrates couldn’t save Meno.
Socrates’ attempt at intervention came too late for Meno. In the same way, most of our attempts come too late for Christian students who, like the thickheaded Thessalian, think they have the answers they need until harsh reality exposes the inadequacy of their faith. We usually try to stuff information into the cracks of their belief—apologetic techniques, creation/evolution debates, platitudes and word studies to deal with the problem of pain. But the problem isn’t a dearth of information or conviction. The problem is that we segment our emotions and rationality into separate spheres that never intersect and we view our bodies either as enemies to be fought or spoiled children to indulge. Thus dividing our own reality, we render ourselves incapable of comprehending the greater reality of a Triune God. Through this broken system, most of us end up worshipping an idol, created from half-formed notions of God as father, teacher, disciplinarian and Santa Claus. It’s no wonder that bright young adults raised in the church reject from this false vision.
This is why Siefker and Kiley created Wheatstone. It’s a difficult week for student and mentor alike. We spend hours in discussion of ancient philosophy and end up with more questions than answers. We spend a day in the outdoors challenging ourselves on ropes courses and scaling cliffs to remind our minds and hearts that we have a body that must be incorporated into the life of the soul. We watch Othello in Griffith Park and spend hours staring at paintings in the Getty to try to catch a glimpse of Beauty. We realize that maybe Plato understood virtue better than we do and worry about what that means for those of us who have a relationship with the Living God. Most important, though, we learn to see each other as we really are. If we could truly see how the souls and bodies of our fellow humans bear the image of God, we might be tempted to fall down and worship them. We learn that love, whether we can adequately define it or not, is the key to becoming whole souls, and a whole community with other beings made in His image will draw us closer to Him. And we follow Plato’s Socrates in agreeing that we probably don’t know anything we think we know, and instead we try to ask the right questions.’