SUMMA in Action: Speaking the Truth in Love

Funding the moral education of teenagers is a wise investment on the part of the Church, because profound experiences in the teen years tend to refract through all of adulthood.

‌In December, the School of Theology announced the receipt of a $600,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment to support SUMMA Student Theological Debate Society, a program of the Beecken Center. The grant is part of an initiative established by Lilly Endowment Inc. to encourage high school students to explore contemporary challenges through their faith, by enabling private colleges and universities to offer summer institutes and other programs that will provide a framework for this exploration.

The Endowment is giving $44.5 million to 82 schools for various faith programs; however, the SUMMA program is unique to the School of Theology. Through a week-long summer camp, SUMMA offers a rare opportunity for high school students to engage in deep theological and philosophical discussions with English, history, and philosophy professors in a collegiate atmosphere.

SUMMA was envisioned and created in 2011 by the Very Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller III, now dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock, Ark., and a senior fellow of the Beecken Center. The Very Rev. Neil Alexander, dean of the School of Theology, notes that Keller entrusted SUMMA to the Beecken Center at the University of the South “for preparation of young people in making sense of their faith in a culture that lives on hopeful expectation of and wariness toward the claims of faith.”

Keller says just seeing Lilly’s request for proposal was exciting. “Lilly was saying that high school students are ripe for serious engagement with important questions by light of the Christian theological tradition. That was my thought in conceiving of SUMMA. Moreover, Lilly was looking specifically to colleges and universities with ‘strong theological faculties and clear commitments to religious life’ to develop and host such programs. It was because Sewanee is that kind of university that we asked it first to host, and now to own, SUMMA. So, in reading the Lilly documents, I felt rather like I might feel fishing on the White River if a professional guide came along and started working the same hole with the same fly I was using: I must be fishing in the right place. Then, when we received the grant, it was as though the guide had looked over my shoulder and said, ‘I like the way you fish.’ It felt great.”

Practically, the grant money gives the Beecken Center the financial means to recruit and attract more students to the program. Keller says, “Recruiting has always been the challenge. When students come, they love it. Getting them to try what is an offbeat sounding program takes elbow grease, media savvy, and imagination. Lilly lets us hire that media savvy and add some elbow grease.”

Exploring Academic and Spiritual Inquiry

SUMMA provides high school students with a framework to examine and build faith through intellectual channels. SUMMA Student Theological Debate Society was launched in August of 2012 as a pilot project of the Institute of Theological Studies at St. Margaret’s in Arkansas, where Keller served as theologian-in-residence. The first year, Keller brought 48 students from Arkansas and Mississippi to the Sewanee campus for a week of debate camp. That first camp was followed by a year-long debate program that culminated in a spring debate tournament. Forty-two students participated during the second pilot year.

The vision for SUMMA was developed from Keller’s view of the Church as a place of intellectual tradition, as well as moral and spiritual tradition, and from his desire to orient young people to that tradition. Debate is the chosen vehicle for instruction in the intellectual tradition, because it immediately engages the student’s own passion and intellect.

Keller called on the Right Rev. Duncan Gray, former bishop of Mississippi, to help identify recruits for the program. Gray says, “Five years ago, when Chris called and said ‘I’ve got this idea,’ I couldn’t imagine teenagers going to a Christian debate camp. How right he was, and how wrong I was!” Gray acknowledges the natural tendency of teenagers to form questions and doubts. “SUMMA blesses academic inquiry, so that teenagers need not leave the church to wrestle with their questions.”

Ross MacDonald, assistant professor of English at the University of the South, served on the SUMMA faculty at the 2015 camp. MacDonald says, “There’s a lot to be said for a program that takes seriously the intellectual exploration of faith, not just as the domain of professional theologians, but as the process of examining one’s own life.”

The capacity—and indeed, the desire—of teenagers to undertake such intellectual pursuits is often overlooked. Gray says, “The SUMMA program honors participants and takes them seriously, presenting them with important issues around which there is no consensus. SUMMA trusts that they can quickly learn how to speak the truth in love.” Gray says this is part of being in community. “Life is not as simple as slogans make it out to be.”

During an intense but fun debate camp lasting nine days each summer, students are exposed to new frameworks for thinking about complex problems. In addition to traditional rhetoric, logic, and debate skills, students also learn how to apply Christian theological tradition to modern questions. In the process, they often find their own voices as well.

Lauryl Tucker, SUMMA faculty member and associate professor of English at the University of the South, appreciates the camp’s emphasis on moral reasoning rather than dictated moral stances. As an instructor of English 101, Tucker appreciates the need for students to learn how to reason through a thesis. She notes that as campers learn to order their arguments in their minds, they begin to feel more confident speaking in groups. She says this helps young people overcome what has been called “imposter syndrome,” a deep-seated fear that their accomplishments and intelligence have been overrated, and if they speak up their inadequacy will be exposed. She notes this feeling is often especially strong in young women.

Tucker says, “Young women may struggle more to overcome the voice whispering in their ear. This process helps them learn that it is useful to test an idea out loud and support that idea out loud.”

2015 camper Bryana Torres (Bre) talks about just this experience. “At SUMMA I was taught to stand up. Now I talk a lot more in class, especially in a class I’m taking on ethical dilemmas.”

Understanding the Argument of the Other

With the successful completion of the two-year pilot program, SUMMA was launched in 2015 as a banner program of the Beecken Center of the School of Theology. Held July 21-29 at the School of Theology, the camp welcomed 34 high school debaters to campus to consider the resolution, “Euthanasia is morally justified.”

The campers, who came from 11 states coast-to-coast, exhibited a level of sophistication and engagement that surprised Tucker, who has served on the SUMMA faculty since 2013. She says, “The discussion ranged from big questions to precise life application, with campers engaged in a very rigorous day filled with lectures, history, principle, debate, and small groups.” She loves teaching students how to argue and think through complex ideas, and how to walk logically through theological questions.

As the permanent location for SUMMA, Sewanee provides an academic setting that allows campers to interact with both theologians and undergraduate professors. The setting offers not only the resources of the School of Theology, but also the entire University. Campers become familiar with library resources, and enjoy the dining hall and recreational facilities of Sewanee.  

A day at SUMMA camp offers several types of intellectual stimulation. After breakfast, campers gather in the School of Theology’s Hamilton Hall for morning lectures with Keller. The lectures provide a framework for the debates, including the history of the problem, various beliefs and understandings, and the debate process itself. Small seminar groups led by a mix of University faculty and clergy help the campers focus on their debate skills, explore theological texts to augment their positions, and practice speaking the truth in love. Afternoons are devoted to individual preparation—along with fellowship and recreational activities. Morning, midday, and evening are punctuated with both laughter and times of quiet devotion and singing.

MacDonald, who teaches literature courses at the University, joined the SUMMA faculty because he was intrigued by the idea of examining life so directly through debate in a program where “examination of life experiences and deep values was the text rather than the subtext.” MacDonald says, “SUMMA invites students and faculty members to ask deep questions about their values and think through the relationship between our values and the larger world of moral choice that surrounds us all the time.”

The interplay between Keller’s lectures on the groundwork of Christian moral reasoning in the theological tradition and the work of students and faculty in the small groups helps students develop these skills. MacDonald repeats St. Anselm’s motto, that theology is faith seeking understanding. “The students at SUMMA really embrace that motto. The lectures help them gain deeper historical perspectives and ground them in the experience of faith through history and reason.”

Torres, who is currently a senior at St. Andrews-Sewanee School in Sewanee, Tenn., came to SUMMA with a little previous debate experience. She smiles when asked about her first reaction to SUMMA. “At camp we had to consider both sides of a resolution. It was confusing at first, but it helped me to see both points of view, and how to bring theology into it. Normally, arguments don’t involve theology.”

For Gray, this is perhaps what makes SUMMA most unique and most valuable. “It can be rare to find practices that intentionally wed the rational/intellectual realm to the mystical/spiritual realm.” SUMMA engages campers, not abstractly but through the knowledge and experience each of them brings to camp with the classic disciplines of debate within the Anglican theological tradition.  Gray says, “For some of the campers I met last summer, it was a whole different concept to use their mind for inquiry related to a spiritual quest. This is a gift of the Anglican heritage.”

Counselors drawn from the University and religious community join SUMMA faculty members, comprised of clergy and college or high school faculty to lead small groups. The counselors also help students research and prepare arguments and practice mechanics.

Hayden Reece, a junior psychology major at the University of the South, served as a counselor at the 2015 camp. Reece was quick to articulate the benefits students may accrue from attending SUMMA during their high school years. “High school and college are two totally different worlds. SUMMA campers are exposed to college-level research, library systems, the campus, intensive lectures and seminars.” Campers are given a lot of freedom to explore campus, though Reece notes his charges were often tired from the full programming and more interested in developing relationships.

Reece was particularly surprised at the depth campers brought to the conversation. He notes that the camp was intellectually rigorous and deeply rooted in the Episcopal tradition. Reece emphasizes the value of encouraging young people to learn how to apply scripture to modern problems. During the lectures, Keller offers examples of how people misconstrue what the Bible says, and teaches campers how to use logic and the Christian intellectual tradition to avoid such pitfalls.

Gray says the benefits of SUMMA attendance extend far beyond debate skills. “Adolescence is a time of gaining self knowledge. Many of us grow up like chameleons, taking color from our surroundings. The way the world has been to us, is the way we think the world is. We are not always aware of the possibilities for human nature. SUMMA helps students begin to cultivate the habit of discernment, which is deeply valuable in an intellectual way. It invites us, through religious faith, to step out of local time and place, to engage in moral, existential conversation.”

Once converted from his skepticism that teenagers would even want to enter this existential conversation, Gray quickly became a recruiter for the program. “What SUMMA holds before them is an alternate way to be a Christian: with intellectual integrity.”

Gray notes that the skills learned at SUMMA are skills needed in life, and certainly in the church. “This goes beyond listening. It goes beyond empathy, because you must rationally understand the argument of the other.”

The 2015 recipient of the SUMMA Award was Joe Noser, a rising senior at University School of Nashville. The SUMMA prize, determined by a vote of all camp participants including campers, faculty, and counselor, is awarded with a trophy and scholarship of $1,000. Noser did not expect to win the prize. “There were so many intelligent and kind people at this camp. It is definitely an honor to know my peers voted for me.”

Keller says Noser came into the program with debate experience, but more importantly, he was attuned to the spirit of SUMMA. He did not set out to use his strong debate skills to overpower opponents. “Rather, he approached the debates as a good theologian would, as faith seeking understanding, and in the spirit of speaking truth in love. He is a terrific young man and served as a great example and mentor to all the younger debaters.”

Noser, who hopes to study journalism in college, attended the camp after learning about SUMMA through his parish. He had some experience with policy debate, which allows for extensive research, but was new to Lincoln-Douglas style debate used in SUMMA. He explains, “With Lincoln-Douglas debate, you don’t know what the topic will be in advance. You have only a very short time to prepare.” Debating both sides of a moral issue was also new to Noser. “Any theological debate I had been exposed to was in Sunday school, so I was new to debating both sides in a theological debate.”

Noser says, “Lilly could not have possibly found a better group of people to support. These are people who really care about relationships. The faculty and counselors are so kind, they’re genuinely interested in what teenagers have to say about serious theological questions. SUMMA is not just debate; it is a means of bringing peace into an increasingly chaotic world.”


Looking to the Future

Dr. Courtney Cowart, director of the Beecken Center, says the Lilly grant will allow the Beecken Center to expand recruitment efforts nationwide. The Beecken Center hopes to establish SUMMA as an intellectually distinguished theological debate society with a membership formed in the practice of deep listening to opposing viewpoints and learning to respond in a humane and positively humble manner not customary in many public exchanges today.

Cowart says, “These resources, so generously provided by the Lilly Endowment, will enable the realization of Dr. Keller's vision of cultivating future leaders who have received the foundation of theological literacy and have developed a literacy of the heart that comes from learning to speak truth in love.” 

If the phrase “speaking the truth in love” from Ephesians 4:14-16 seems to be on repeat, it is no editorial accident. Keller is fond of reminding faculty and campers alike that SUMMA is not just any old debate society, but a theological debate society—and theology is, in the words of Anselm, “faith seeking understanding.” He explains, “Without love there is no understanding. Jeremy Taylor said it best: ‘In heaven indeed we shall see first, and then love; but here on earth we must first love, and love will open our eyes as well as our hearts, and we shall then see and perceive and understand.’”

Conversation with SUMMA participants and faculty seem to gravitate back to the concept that love is the proper conduit for truth. In fact, the SUMMA Award offered at the end of the camp goes to the person who most exemplifies speaking the truth in love.

How You Can Participate

SUMMA camp will be held July 18-26, 2016. Registration is open, and clergy, lay leaders, parishioners, and parents are encouraged to identify young people (upcoming 9–12 graders) for the program. Students from all backgrounds and denominations and at every level of debate experience are encouraged to participate. A limited number of need-based scholarships are available and the scholarship applications are on the website.

Tucker would like to continue to see SUMMA campers who really want to be at camp, wrestling with ideas and struggling to give them voice. She notes that clergy and others should think about the young people in their midst who are quiet, and not just those who are confident and outspoken. “Young people who are thoughtful but quiet will also benefit, as they need to be thrown together with outgoing students to learn from one another.”

Torres suggests identifying teenagers who may be quiet but are intellectual thinkers and interested in theological implications. Although she attends an Episcopal school, she says it was Compline at SUMMA that brought her fully into Episcopal worship so that “I don’t need the words anymore.” For Reece, the ideal SUMMA camper is fairly mature, respectful, dedicated, involved in church, with a desire to succeed.

Noser hopes more campers will be recruited like those he befriended. “They should be intellectually curious, kind-hearted, and strong enough to have their own opinion.” He hopes the program will continue to draw students from diverse denominational backgrounds. “Last year we had such wonderful diversity. It was helpful to see how Episcopal doctrine taught me to approach positions differently than Methodist or Baptist doctrine—yet we never had an illogical discussion.”

Funding the moral education of teenagers is a wise investment on the part of the Church, because profound experiences in the teen years tend to refract through all of adulthood. This is especially true for a program like SUMMA that focuses less on moral stances of the day and more on how a person reaches conclusions. As Tucker observes, “The SUMMA program makes no investment in what students think, but in how they get there.”

The durability of this type of investment is attested by last year’s campers. “We’re still talking about SUMMA every day,” says Noser in a telephone interview. He says he uses social media to stay connected with campers around the country. “In fact,” he laughs, “I’m wearing my t-shirt right now.”


2016 SUMMA Camp
July 18-26, 2016 at the School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn.
Cost: $750 includes room, meals, materials.
Students with demonstrated financial need may apply for a limited number of full and partial scholarships.