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#MyWheaton Blog

Posted December 2, 2016 by
Tags: Spiritual Life My Wheaton

The Fellowship of the Rope

A historiography class reminded me why I fell in love with history. Though I’ve always liked it, I never knew history would hold my hand as I rediscovered myself. We often have well-rehearsed speeches about our dreams and decisions, but rarely do we pause to reevaluate the journey or reflect on progress. In our fast-paced society, it seems that we pause only to catch our breath.

Juan-Fernando León hiking

Well, I am pausing; not only to catch my breath, but to remember. I am pausing by looking back at the memories made at Wheaton College alongside fellow students, faculty and staff in this intellectual adventure. One of my fondest memories occurred in a historiography class where the fellowship of the rope story appeared in an article we read. Bluntly put, the author declared that in order for the teacher to survive in us, the professor in us needed to die. The author expressed the difference between teachers and professors as an analogy of those between climbers and mountaineers. 

Climbers are driven by the thrill of summiting; they are constantly looking for the next peak to climb and the fastest way to do it. They take unnecessary risks and shortcuts to reach the top. On the academic mountain, a similar dynamic happens. Many of us climb the academic mountain for the sake of reaching the top and will do anything, risk everything, to achieve our goal. The zenith of our efforts is to be a tenured professor at the cost of fellowship, which results in isolation. 

Mountaineers, however, are driven by the fellowship that forms in climbing a mountain. They are not only looking to summit a peak but rather they are looking with whom to do it. Similarly, there are those of us, who in pursuing our academic careers, look for the fellowship that comes from listening and learning from each other’s stories, experiences and strengths. The zenith of our efforts is to be a teacher at the cost of our own self-aggrandized ambitions, which results in fellowship.

The challenge for me was rediscovering who I wanted to be—a climber or a mountaineer; a professor or a teacher. I knew I was interested in history but was uncertain as to what exactly I wanted to do. However one thing became clear: history is best studied in fellowship. Poor history happens in isolation.

Let me explain this in mountaineer parlance. For mountaineers, the fellowship of the rope embodies an ideal—a nostalgic image—of a time during which mountain climbers relied on one another more than on gear. Despite ever-improving gear, the rope has remained central. Because the rope can pull, hold, and link together climbers of any experience as they journey up a mountain, it can also be lethal. When inexperienced climbers slip, the rope harnesses the experience of expert climbers in order to avert the fall. At the times when mountaineers slip, the same rope has the ability to take the whole group down. 

This is an important reminder not only as I continue to ponder on the type of teacher I want to be, but more so, as I witness the fellowship of the rope as an intrinsic method to study history in graduate school. The words we use to write history are the ropes that pull, hold, and link us together as students of history. Ropes are to mountaineers what words are to historians. When we give voice to the voiceless and the marginalized, we are binding ourselves together with their struggles as we communicate their stories. History is about learning in fellowship with those around us and with those who came before us. When we study history, we are not only entering a foreign land—we are entering a fellowship that exceeds time and space; a fellowship that prevents us from being chronological snobs. In fellowship, we learn about ourselves and others. In fellowship, isolation disintegrates.  

The historiography class, and those in it, taught me that the climber in me needed to die if I ever wanted to see the mountaineer in me become part of the larger fellowship of learners. Here at Wheaton College I am learning alongside peers, faculty, and staff how to be an intellectual mountaineer. So friends, if you are climber, consider the mountaineer. If you’re already a mountaineer, rejoice in the fellowship of the rope. 

Juan-Fernando León M.A. ’17 is a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in history of Christianity. Photo captions (top to bottom): Juan-Fernando hiking; Juan-Fernando with Dr. Jennifer McNutt and fellow graduate students and friends at the movies together.

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