We need a philosophy of education

Thomas Aquinas, who in many ways is the pre-eminent teacher of the Church, asked whether it was really possible to teach another person anything at all.

I say this is a sign that he really was a classroom teacher.

In the first part of the Summa, Q 117, he asks whether “one man can teach another, as being the cause of his knowledge”. My favorite objection he lists is the fourth one:

Further, the teacher does nothing in regard to a disciple save to propose to him certain signs, so as to signify something by words or gestures. But it is not possible to teach anyone so as to cause knowledge in him, by putting signs before him. For these are signs either of things that he knows, or of things he does not know. If of things that he knows, he to whom these signs are proposed is already in the possession of knowledge, and does not acquire it from the master. If they are signs of things that he does not know, he can learn nothing therefrom: for instance, if one were to speak Greek to a man who only knows Latin, he would learn nothing thereby. Therefore in no way can a man cause knowledge in another by teaching him.

I think most teachers could think of many instances in their experience that line up pretty well with that description!

You’ve got your students who already know stuff, and in some real way already have a kind of incipient grasp of your lesson before you even begin. They do just fine, with or without you it seems, and they ask all sorts of insightful questions about a topic they already love–or at least, a topic they grasp enough to be willing to investigate further.

But then you have other students who seem to know hardly anything at all–at least, not the things you think are important that they know–and by the end of the lesson it’s unclear if they are any better off than before. With or without you, they struggle.

I have always been rather disturbed by a passage in the Gospels where Jesus describes something very much like this:

The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’ (Matthew 13:10-13)

This principle–“to him who has, more will be given; to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”–seems to be an accurate observation about life in general and education in particular, but it also seems extremely unfair and upsetting.

Does Jesus speak in parables because stories are the best way to reach those of us who have not been granted “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom”? Or is he speaking in parables, in a veiled way, in order to keep those mysteries hidden? I don’t know.

When I read Thomas’ question about whether or not one person can teach another person, I go back and try to remember how I learned things. How did I learn to write a thesis statement, or incorporate a quote? How did I learn to read? How did I actually learn to memorize Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides”? How did I learn to play that first chord on the guitar (it was D)?

It’s tricky. It’s hard to remember. It’s especially hard to unpack how one learned about the things one really loves—because they seem so intuitive and “(con)natural”—to use an Aquinas term. This makes it harder, in some ways, to teach things that you really love to someone else.

In some cases, I remember teachers being involved in the process of my learning, but many of these instances seemed for me to involve largely an interior process, a personal negotiation with reality, a task I had to wrestle with myself.

I remembering seeing the red marks scrawled all over my sophomore year summer essay, and then trying to apply that feedback (“your thesis needs to be arguable! split infinitive! tenuous connection!”) when I was writing my next essay. I saw on the chart where I was supposed to place my fingers on the frets of the guitar, but I had to bend my own small hands in various contortions in order to release the appropriate sound from the strings—and I had to do that over and over and over until I didn’t have to think about where my fingers belonged anymore.

I find it interesting that educational theories in the last thirty-plus years have focused on students learning rather than teachers teaching—and although perhaps when taken to extremes that approach underestimates the value of teachers as “experts”, as many classical educational models claim—there is something rather Aquinas-esque about the student-centered approach.

With gifted students, teachers sometimes feel superfluous. With really struggling students, teachers can feel helpless.

So, can you teach someone else something?

Or, despite popular perceptions of education, is learning really an interior cognitive task that only the individual can perform for herself?

In his answer to the question, Thomas Aquinas starts off by acknowledging how complicated the process of learning is: “I answer that on this question there have been various opinions.” Note that he says this after having already listed some of those opinions in the objections. There are more.

One of the opinions he explores in his answer is that of the Platonists, who perhaps veer too far in the student-centered direction in theory of how learning happens. They

held that our souls are possessed of knowledge from the very beginning, through the participation of separate forms, as stated above (I:84:4); but that the soul is hindered, through its union with the body, from the free consideration of those things which it knows. According to this, the disciple does not acquire fresh knowledge from his master, but is roused by him to consider what he knows; so that to learn would be nothing else than to remember. 

That is, according to the Platonists, the teacher isn’t actually giving the student any new knowledge at all; she is merely prodding him to “remember” something he already has inside of him!

I’m glad that Aquinas explicitly discusses this view, because as strange as it sounds, the process of teaching and learning often really does feel that way. Students who already know a lot are the ones who exclaim “Oh!!” in recognition during your class—almost as if they are remembering something. To “recognize” the truth seems awfully similar to this idea of “remembering” it.

You can hear echoes of this theory today in the literature that emphasizes student “construction” of their own knowledge— as if all the pieces of knowledge are already there, they just need the encouragement or proper environment in which to build those pieces of prior experience in whatever way makes the most sense to them. In this conception, the teacher is more of a facilitator than a source of knowledge.

But Aquinas doesn’t follow the Platonists. His view of how learning happens is more nuanced.

I’m still unpacking his complex answer– but part of what he seems to be saying is that learning happens on both an exterior and interior level:

In order to make this clear, we must observe that of effects proceeding from an exterior principle, some proceed from the exterior principle alone; as the form of a house is caused to be in matter by art alone: whereas other effects proceed sometimes from an exterior principle, sometimes from an interior principle: thus health is caused in a sick man, sometimes by an exterior principle, namely by the medical art, sometimes by an interior principle as when a man is healed by the force of nature.

I think he is saying that learning–the process of becoming educated–is like the process of being healed. Both an “exterior principle” (like the work of a doctor) and an “interior principle” (the work of the body) are involved.

At the same time, Thomas emphasizes the interior principle as being primary; that is, the fact that any exterior principle (like the instruction of a teacher) can only help or strengthen the interior principle (the intellectual work of the student), which is where the real learning is happening:

Secondly, we must remark that the exterior principle, art, acts, not as principal agent, but as helping the principal agent, which is the interior principle, by strengthening it, and by furnishing it with instruments and assistance, of which the interior principle makes use in producing the effect. Thus the physician strengthens nature, and employs food and medicine, of which nature makes use for the intended end.

Therefore it is possible to teach someone else something, but not in the sense of dropping knowledge into him like you might put apples into a bucket. What makes the endeavor so mysterious is that a teacher must encourage, inspire, and explain something to the student, so that the student herself can engage with the content interiorly in order to grasp it. Learning is not something that can be forced; the student’s own agency is deeply involved.

But the teacher is not thereby rendered superfluous:

Now the master leads the disciple from things known to knowledge of the unknown, in a twofold manner.

Firstly, by proposing to him certain helps or means of instruction, which his intellect can use for the acquisition of science: for instance, he may put before him certain less universal propositions, of which nevertheless the disciple is able to judge from previous knowledge: or he may propose to him some sensible examples, either by way of likeness or of opposition, or something of the sort, from which the intellect of the learner is led to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.

Okay, so, a teacher can give examples that tap into the student’s “previous knowledge” and experience, or she can invite the student into new experiences (“sensible examples”) in order to invite the learner “to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.” I can read stories to my students. I can give them examples of good writing. I can break down those examples into small, focused pieces. I can give them something new.

The teacher, according to Aquinas, also acts like a doctor:

Secondly, by strengthening the intellect of the learner; not, indeed, by some active power as of a higher nature, as explained above (I:106:1I:111:1) of the angelic enlightenment, because all human intellects are of one grade in the natural order; but inasmuch as he proposes to the disciple the order of principles to conclusions, by reason of his not having sufficient collating power to be able to draw the conclusions from the principles. Hence the Philosopher says (Poster. i, 2) that “a demonstration is a syllogism that causes knowledge.” In this way a demonstrator causes his hearer to know.

It sounds like Aquinas is saying one can go step-by-step through a logical demonstration or process with a student, leading him by the hand to the proper conclusion if he doesn’t yet have “sufficient collating power” to get there himself. Similarly, a doctor could give a prescription or propose a specific activity (extra rest, drinking lots of liquids) that helps the body do what it cannot do by itself, or is having difficulty doing by itself, to rid itself of a particular disease.

His reply to objection 3 is helpful here:

The master does not cause the intellectual light in the disciple, nor does he cause the intelligible species directly: but he moves the disciple by teaching, so that the latter, by the power of his intellect, forms intelligible concepts, the signs of which are proposed to him from without.

I invite anyone with greater knowledge of Aquinas to weigh in to my reading of him there—I might not be fully getting it. (In other words, I am willing to learn! to be taught! to be assisted in my “insufficient collating power”!)

It is true that Thomas Aquinas did not have access to modern science and psychology. But he was a teacher, and, I suspect, drew a lot from his own observations about teaching others in unpacking this question.

I think we in the Church need to do some serious work looking at the thought of Aquinas and others, and looking also at the findings of contemporary science, psychology, and educational research in light of Christian anthropology in order to develop a robust philosophy of education.

What does it mean to be educated? Is there only one way to be educated well? What are the ends of education, and how do we reach them? What does good teaching look like? What does learning look like? How do people learn, anyway–and therefore, how should we go about teaching? What are the responsibilities of the student, and of the teacher, to one another, to themselves, to the subject? Where does virtue come in–and holiness?–neither of which are dependent upon intellectual prowess, as the history of the saints suggests? To what extent is Catholic education about evangelization and to what extent is it about inquiry and knowledge?

Without articulating clear answers to these (and other) questions, we find ourselves limping along in Catholic schools, adopting unquestioningly or rejecting too hastily the secular models of education around us.

Blessed Cardinal Newman, who is about to be canonized, had a few things to say about these things.

Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.

It is well to be a gentlemen, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,—pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim.

(The Idea of a University, Discourse V)

That is, acquiring knowledge and even cultivating one’s intellect are important and noble aims. We need a better understanding of how those things happen in order to formulate a more precise approach to Catholic education. But they are not the only thing. Formation in virtue and instruction in living the faith are even more important. Yet, as Aquinas noted earlier, there are exterior and interior principles at work, some beyond our reach or control.

Richard Wilbur has a beautiful poem about writing, but when I read it I often think about the process of learning in general. His attitude toward his daughter is so very much like the attitude of teachers toward their students. Watch the starling in this poem—and watch the speaker watching the starling. It sounds, to me, like a teacher watching a student wrestling with a new and challenging subject.

The Writer

Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Questions of work and identity, especially for teachers

There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few years in Catholic circles regarding problems with perpetual discernment–a phenomenon among many young people influenced by both a genuine desire to follow the will of God and an oft-cited anxiety around commitment that seems to afflict millennials more than previous generations.

As a result, many of us find ourselves continually discerning but never deciding. Or we try new things but do not fully invest in them–we go on a retreat here or there, we explore Catholic dating sites (well, I don’t), we try out a young adult’s group or bible study, we test out the waters, wondering when they’ll calm down a bit and stop seeming so stormy and treacherous…

Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)

Oh, right.

But there’s another problem going on here regarding discernment, and the best way I know how to get at it is to explore it from a (former?) teacher’s perspective. But even that parenthesis indicates my problem:

I was a teacher for eight years. Am I still, even though I no longer teach high school, even though I no longer have a classroom and grade papers and lesson plan? You see, there’s this part of me that wants to justify still holding some kind of claim to that title. Perhaps, because: if I’m not still a teacher, then who am I?

Not everyone defines herself by her job description, and some jobs seem more intimately tied to one’s sense of self than others. But if we think of doctors, police officers, soldiers, writers, poets, carpenters–and teachers–we might realize that a lot of folks see their jobs as outer expressions of their inner personalities.

And so the paralysis of perpetual discernment is not only afflicting those trying to decide whom to marry or those trying to decide whether to join consecrated life; it also seems to afflict many more people now in their professional choices. Many of us were told when we were young you can be whatever you want to be even more often than we were fed Disney love stories. The latter seems to involve fate or Providence–but the former, the loneliness of choice.

I’ve recently been auditing a seminar on Work and Vocation for undergraduates, led by my boss and colleague. He notes that many young people today are overwhelmed by a sense that they must find meaningful work–not just dignified work. That is, they feel they must search for a career that is not only lucrative but also engaging, that calls upon their creative capacities, talents, and interests–that somehow affords them an authentic expression of themselves. He contrasted this experience with that expressed by Lars Svedson’s description of his father in the mid-twentieth century:

My impression was always that he, for the most part, enjoyed working at the shipyard. Yet he was also eager to leave at exactly 3:30pm every single workday, and as a child I usually met him at the gates of the shipyard before we walked home together. There was a very strict distinction between work and leisure, and my father had limited contact with his work colleagues outside the workplace. If a particularly close colleague had fallen ill, he might pay him a visit in the afternoon, but otherwise work and leisure were strictly isolated social spheres. Questions as to whether his job was “meaningful” or whether it was an expression of his “true self” do not seem to have occurred to him. (Svedson, Work 1)

That’s the kind of work/life distinction I always idealized as a teacher, but it was never one that made sense to me if I remained being a teacher.

You see this conflation of job and identity a lot in the teaching profession, and I think it is intensified in Catholic circles. Not only am I a teacher, I am also a disciple of Christ, commissioned to invite other disciples. I’m not just supposed to teach a subject, I’m supposed to form persons.

My experience of being a teacher is wrapped up in my experience of discipleship, of following Christ, of serving the Church. If I stop being a teacher, what happens to all that?

I left teaching in large part because it felt like being in an unhealthy relationship with a bad boyfriend who was super demanding and not very good with boundaries. That could indeed be part of why I and (I believe) many other teachers who leave the profession struggle with questions of identity afterwards. But setting co-dependency and other issues aside, I think there is something beautiful about the connection between work and identity; the sense that your work was an authentic expression of your unique interests and gifts. There was something truly unique in teaching that called to you, and calls to you still, even if you are discerning out of it for whatever reason. Most people enter teaching out of a profound desire to do some good, to do something meaningful, to share a particular love of a discipline or even a way of life with others. That desire doesn’t just go away when you leave, nor should it.

I remember during my first and second years of teaching a lot of my friends were getting married and having kids. And I remember thinking to myself, as I sat behind my desk watching a group of my first seniors take their final exam, with a sudden surprise, “I haven’t been given that right now, but I have been given this; I have been given these kids.”

It’s hard to leave an experience like that.

But should I approach my work in that way—in the way many people in the modern Church talk about Vocation with a capital V?

Well, I suppose Flannery O’Connor did. In her Prayer Journal, she wrote,

I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually—like this today.

Writing for her, and for most people who are truly great writers, isn’t a job. It’s a vocation in the sense of calling. Writers through the ages from Homer to Milton have cited the gods or muses that called forth from them the opening lines of their epic works–they talk about the experience as if they almost did not have a choice but to write down what they “heard.”

And though I can’t say I felt quite that way as a teacher, I think the experience is more akin to that than to landing an executive director position at a big corporation.

But if work is tied up in vocation, it’s also tied up in the questions of discernment with which we began. And in addition to struggling with discernment, whether one is discerning one’s way into the water or out of it, I think a lot of us struggle with questions of work and identity, or work as identity. And not in a workaholic kind of way (though maybe that, too) but in a quasi-spiritual kind of way.

It would be easy to say, “Well, obviously you are more than what you do!” It’s just as easy to say, “Obviously what you do shapes who you are!”

Whom you marry, or what religious order you join, or what job you accept determines, to a large extent, how you’ll spend most of your time. So how are you going to spend it? And how is that shaping who you become?

I can’t shake off this question: To what extent ought we to identify ourselves with our work?

Flannery, again—as a graduate student, wrestling with her vocation:

Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realize I don’t know what I realize. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it. […] All boils down to grace, I suppose. Again asking God to help us be sorry for having hurt Him. I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing. (Excerpts in the New Yorker)

I mean, you read that–“give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord”–and you think of her life, and you realize with fear and trembling that God said yes.

Her very next entry reads,

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.

So–again, I ask whomever may be reading this, to what extent ought we identify ourselves with our work, especially if that work is something like writing or teaching?

I have no straightforward answers, actually.

But I find it interesting that even though Jesus called Peter and the others to leave their day jobs and fishing nets behind, to embark on a completely new way of life of preaching and healing and miracle-working for which they were completely unprepared, he still said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

Their work was still to identify them somehow, to be characteristic of the radical new life to which he called them.

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew (Vocation de Saint Pierre et Saint André), 1886-1894.

Sed Contra: Precise language “preserves mystery”

James Keane and Sam Sawyer, S. J., in an essay for America magazine criticize the sensational headlines about the recent Pew Research study that found a vast majority of American Catholics (almost 70%) asserting that the Eucharist is just a “symbol” of the body and blood of Jesus. They acknowledge that this statistic is troubling for many people, and they even begin their article with Flannery O’Connor’s oft-quoted statement that if the Eucharist really is only a symbol, then “to hell with it.”

But their main point seems to be to set the minds of very concerned leaders like Bishop Robert Barron and outraged O’Connor-minded folk at ease. The wording of the Pew Research study question itself, they claim, may be partly to blame for the troubling Catholic response: “When language more familiar to Catholics is used and the surveys are clearer about what is being denied by the ‘symbol’ answer, belief in the Eucharist is nearly double what Pew found.”

Moreover, they suggest that the Thomistic language employed by the Church herself regarding the Eucharist is rather difficult:

In that sense, at the consecration the “substance” of the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ, while the “accidents” remain those of bread and wine—which is why we experience them physically as being unchanged. This distinction between substance and accidents, however, is a feature of technical language about metaphysics, not everyday description. And even as technical language, “substance” and “accidents” are no longer in widespread use among philosophers and theologians outside of Thomistic circles (except, perhaps, in reference to the Eucharist).

(“Explainer: Why the Eucharist is confusing to many Catholics (and survey researchers)”)

To emphasize this point about the Church’s apparently confusing language, the authors explain that theologians Schillebeeckx and Rahner in the last century tried to come up with other terms (“transignification” and “transfinalization”, respectively) to describe what happens during the consecration while still “affirming the church’s teaching on the real presence”. The authors admit that “these approaches found little traction when up against the weight of centuries of Thomistic language used to describe the Eucharist”–a rather odd description to begin with–but odder still if you realize that in fact the uses of those newer terms were not just unable to find “traction” but were actually determined to be “false and disturbing opinions” by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei.

That is to say, language matters. And making mistakes in language, especially language about the Eucharist, is a serious matter.

The authors conclude the article with the consoling thought that for most Catholics, “a theologically accurate description of what ‘actually just happened’ on the altar is less important than faith in the sacrament, a sense of sharing in the community, an experience of thanksgiving.”

To which I would say, “sed contra”:

Absent a theologically accurate description, what kind of “faith in the sacrament” are we really talking about here?

Keane and Sawyer seem to want to calm those wringing their hands over the results of the Pew survey. The way the question about the real presence was asked and the way the Church has articulated the teaching itself are problematic for Catholics today, they explain. The point seems to be that most Catholics aren’t heretics, they’re just confused.

But the underlying assumption there seems to be either: 1) ordinary Catholics can’t be expected to understand Thomistic language or 2) ordinary Catholics are so unaware of the centrality of the Eucharist to their faith that (arguably) ambiguous language in a poll is going to completely throw off their responses.

If either (or both) of these scenarios are true, I think we have a good reason for consternation.

But if, as I suspect, neither of them are true–that is, ordinary Catholics CAN understand Thomistic language about the Eucharist and they SHOULD be able to respond accurately to questions from secular sources about central tenets of the faith–then, well, we still need to be concerned and we actually need to do something. We need to reclaim the Thomistic language that helps preserve the mystery of the Eucharist from error, and we need to evangelize and catechize. That is, we need to share the Gospel.

We also may need to seriously consider the reasons why so many Catholics report not believing that the bread and wine really change into the body and blood of Christ. Lex orandi, lex credendi…

The essay’s concluding reminder that the Church’s “greatest thinkers” have always resorted to the phrase “it is a mystery” when people have tried to define doctrines like the Trinity is also problematic. The silent implication here seems to be, “Why bother trying to explain something you can’t explain?” Or even, “It is prideful to try employ human language to pin down what is happening during the mass.”

Of course, they aren’t wrong. The Eucharist is a profound mystery, and human language cannot fully describe any of the mysteries of God. Thomas Aquinas himself famously called all of his work “straw” after his mystical experience of Christ. (For more on that fascinating story, do read Josef Pieper’s The Silence of St. Thomas.)

Nevertheless, the Church has had an odd habit throughout the centuries of trying to do just that: of using human language to describe the divine mysteries when the need arises. And the form this need usually takes is heresy.

The reason the Church approved St. Thomas’ “technical” language of “substance” and “species”/ “appearances” in her official teaching on transubstantiation during the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and reaffirmed that language as being “fitting,” “proper” and “most apt” during the Council of Trent (1551) is that misunderstandings and heresies had run rampant and she needed to clarify the truth for the faithful. A similar response was required for the much earlier distinction between the divine and human “natures” and one divine “person” in Jesus Christ (Nicea in 325) or, a little later, the distinction between one “nature” and three “persons” in the Trinity (Constantinople I in 381). The former definition was made to combat Arianism, the latter to combat Arianism again, Apollinarism, and other heresies.

I point out this history (of which I am sure the authors are aware) in order to emphasize how important precise language has always been to Church teaching.

The Church is taking her cue, of course, from the Lord Himself, who likes communicating in human language. He spent centuries communicating with the Jewish people and with Moses in particular “as a friend speaks to a friend.” The result is the Torah and the entire Old Testament. Later, He became a human being in Jesus Christ and used his human intellect and human tongue to share all sorts of parables, stories and exhortations.

In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor says, “Dogma is the guardian of mystery. The doctrines are spiritually significant in ways that we cannot fathom” (emphasis added). In an essay published in Mysteries and Manners, she takes up this theme again:

Dogma can in no way limit a limitless God. The person outside the Church attaches a different meaning to it than the person in. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind.

I think this is exactly what the language of transubstantiation does. It does not exhaust the mystery; it preserves it.

Although most Catholics are not called to be theologians, we are, by virtue of baptism, “priests, prophets, and kings,” called to share in the sacrifice, proclamation, and mission of Jesus Christ. As such, we need to keep the mysterious words of the Gospel, and the language we need to share it with others, “on our minds, on our lips and in our hearts.”

Persistent Concerns

I was teaching a senior elective a couple of years ago called “Christian Authors,” and I remember trying to teach my kids about this idea of the “persistent concerns” of a writer– the issues that an author keeps coming back to, over and over again, in story after story, book after book. It’s a hard thing to teach in a one semester course because you can only really see it if you have read lots of things that one person has written.

A wonderful professor of mine in college, Dr. Roper, mentioned something like this in our literature class in Rome. He compared the act of real, honest writing to the rather unattractive image of scratching an itch that just won’t go away. And great writers, I suppose, are those people who keep scratching perpetual itches.

So, think about your favorite author– someone whose wide body of works you have read. Think of this person’s novels, short stories, essays, letters–whatever you have gotten your hands on over the years. Aren’t there certain threads that keep pulling on each other again and again? Isn’t there this sense that, somehow, every story he ever wrote is somehow the same story? Or perhaps there is an image or moment that keeps coming up over and over– not in a way that is forced, or even intentional–but nonetheless unmistakably patterned on another scene you’ve seen her try to articulate before?

You may have discovered this phenomenon long ago, but when I finally did, I felt like I had stumbled upon a small revelation: most writers, even the really great ones, keep writing about the same darn things.

And for most of them, it’s just one thing. Maybe two. Three at most.

It may look like lots of different things. C. S. Lewis wrote about everything from lions in wardrobes and men traveling to Mars to older demons teaching young devils the ways of temptation–but, in the end, wasn’t he always really writing about that mysterious, unbidden joy and longing? Lucy follows it, Ransom is baptized in it, Screwtape tries to kill it, Orual stifles it, Reepicheep plunges into its depths– but it’s always there. The most beautiful passages in all of Lewis’ stories and apologetic works describe that longing he called “joy”.

For Austen, one obvious persistent concern is marriage. For Flannery, it’s that violent intervention of grace. For Dostoevsky, it seems to be something like human suffering and the beauty of God.

What are the persistent concerns of your favorite writer? What questions or ideas do they keep going back to?

My kids actually notice this phenomenon all the time with the very few authors the curriculum demands they pay attention to more than just once, but they express their recognition with something less than awe: “Ms. Shea, why does Shakespeare always write about relationships with trust issues?”

I don’t mean to ignore the complexity and nuance of what great writers and poets do–but I believe that considering a large body of someone’s work in this way can help us find a more meaningful path towards knowing him better. When I was assigned the onerous Junior Poet project in college, and had to absorb all the writings of a particular chosen poet, I found that sitting back and asking myself rather simply about Richard Wilbur’s persistent concerns helped me to see connections in his work I had been too overwhelmed to appreciate before.

I bring this idea up because something occurred to me today as I was thinking about the Feast of Christ the King– a feast, I admit, that never has captured my imagination or spiritual feelings in any powerful way before. Gaudete Sunday always does, the Easter Vigil does, the Visitation… and lots of other minor memorials. Most of them probably have some kind of connecting thread to one of my own persistent concerns. But not the Feast of Christ the King. It’s the feast that lets me know that I can finally get excited for Advent, and that has been about it.

Yet for some reason today, as I was listening to a podcast about this last Sunday in Ordinary time and thinking how the whole kingship thing doesn’t really resonate with me, I remembered a priest asking once, in a homily perhaps, “Do you know what Christ talks about most in the Gospels?”

I remember my mind flitting through a list of possibilities. Love? No, too obvious. The poor? Mm, Jesus acts always with them in mind and heart, but how often does he actually use the word “the poor” besides in the Beatitudes and “the poor you will always have with you”? Maybe forgiveness– or something nobody would say, like bread? Fish? No. Ah, of course. Abba. Father. That must be…

“The Kingdom.”

What?

“The Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven as it is called in Matthew. The Kingdom is what he loves to talk about most.”

I remember being rather astonished and almost… disappointed? Not love? Not hope? Really, Jesus? What you talk about most is “the Kingdom”? What even is that?

Even now, as I write this, I decided to do a quick Command+F (mac!) search. In the King James translation of the Gospel of Matthew, the word “kingdom” appears 57 times. In Mark, 21. In Luke, 46. In John, only 5 (!).

As a comparison, the English word “love” occurs 57 times in John, 18 times in Luke, 10 in Mark, and 16 in Matthew.

That’s 129 to 101 in favor of “kingdom” over “love”, folks. And we know there are (at least four?) different Greek words for love, and John employs different ones throughout his Gospel, and so that 101 number would go down quite a bit if we distinguished the different actual Greek words being translated with the one English “love”. (For a brief but interesting summary of key Greek words in John, see this website.)

But the consistent word for Kingdom, βασιλεία or Basileia in Greek, appears 162 times in the New Testament according to Wikipedia–and most of those instances are from the lips of Christ himself.

Okay, so even if this priest was exaggerating, and even if you did more searches and found out that another word appeared more frequently, it’s clear that “the kingdom” is certainly a persistent concern of Jesus.

So why, I wondered, isn’t it a persistent concern of mine?

Partially, perhaps, because I don’t fully understand what the kingdom is. It always seemed synonymous with the Church or with heaven, or perhaps with the new creation–and those identifications are all true. Yet still it is only in the context of the term “kingdom” that I ever identify those already mysterious concepts with one another.

I remembered vaguely that in Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict reflects on the meaning of “the kingdom” quite a lot, so I searched for his explanations:

“‘Kingdom of God’ is…an inadequate translation [of the Hebrew malkut and the Greek basilea]. It would be better to speak of God’s being-Lord, of his lordship” (emphasis added, 56).

“He, who is in our midst, is the ‘Kingdom of God,’ only we do not know him (cf Jn 1:30)….He himself is the treasure; communion with him is the pearl of great price” (60-61).

“The Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he. On this interpretation, the term ‘Kingdom of God’ is itself a veiled Christology. By the way in which he speaks of the Kingdom of God, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God’s presence.”

Mysterious still.

But at least I’m beginning to think about the Feast of Christ the King in a different way–that is, I’m actually thinking about it.

It’s a feast that celebrates the consummation of that kingdom, the already-but-not-yet reign of the one true king.

And then I remembered–how did I not see it before–how so many of Jesus’ stories are about the kingdom, how one must be “like a little child” to enter it– how the teacher of the law who answered him wisely was “not far from” it — how the poor in spirit would “inherit” it — how it is like a treasure in a field or a pearl of great price.

He even seemed, sometimes, to struggle to put it into words for us–as sometimes we all do when we are talking about what we love best: “What is the kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a man planted in a garden… To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour…” (Luke 13:18-20).

There is much more, of course, to think about here. Like the kingly gifts he received from the magi as a poor infant, or the mockery of his kingship that he suffered at the hands of the Romans. The crown of thorns and the purple robe and the “King of the Jews” notice by Pilate take on a new poignancy when you reflect on how much Jesus loved to preach about the kingdom. And that pointed question we actually heard in the Gospel this Sunday from Pilate touches, rather deeply, on the whole mystery of what Jesus meant by the term:

Pilate said to Jesus,
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own
or have others told you about me?”
Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I?
Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.
What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.
For this I was born and for this I came into the world,
to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

John 18:33-37

Perhaps as we get ready for Advent– a season full of persistent concerns I can more easily relate to like waiting and hope– I can first pause and reflect, in this last week of ordinary time, on one of Jesus’ favorite things to tell stories about: his Father’s Kingdom.

Zašto-je-narod-vikao-»Krv-njegova-na-nas-i-na-djecu-našu«

TeacherCounselorParentCoachFriend Part II

Continuing from Part I–What does it really mean to be a teacher? What is our role in the lives of our students?

St. Thomas Aquinas actually has this beautiful image of the teacher as a doctor, and the act of teaching as an act of healing. (I highly recommend this great talk by Fr. Vivian Boland, O.P. on “The Healing Work of Teaching: Thomas Aquinas and Education” if you want to learn about it in depth.)

I mean, just think about that for a second.

As I mentioned before, there is a certain appropriate professional distance between the student and the teacher, as there is between the counselor or doctor and the patient.

Yet Aquinas draws this comparison for other reasons–namely, because of the actions of teaching and learning.

He says, “Learning is produced in the pupil by the teacher, not like heat in wood by the fire, but like health in the invalid by the doctor” (Treatise Of Spiritual Creatures. Art IX. in conjunction with a polemic against Averroës, as quoted here).

He also says, “We do not say that a teacher communicates knowledge to the pupil, as though the knowledge which is in the teacher is numerically the same as that which arises in the pupil. It is rather that the knowledge which arises in the pupil through teaching is similar to that which is in the teacher, and this was raised from potency into act, as has been said.  As the doctor is said to cause healing, although he works exteriorly, while nature alone works interiorly, so man is said to teach the truth, although he declares it exteriorly, while God teaches interiorly” (Aquinas, Questiones Disputatate de Veritate Q 11, a 1).

What is so lovely about Aquinas’ view is that the teacher, like the doctor, works in harmony with nature– that is, the teacher appeals to the capacity of reason that already belongs to the student. The teacher is not so much giving what the student does not have, but is rather cultivating, nourishing, and drawing out capacities that are already in him by virtue of his human nature. The teacher helps to actualize potentialities that already exist in the student.

giphy
Phil helps Hercules hone his “god-given” strength.

Moreover Aquinas seems to imply that the teacher is a kind of “coworker” with God– a favorite term of Pope Benedict as well, whose episcopal motto was “cooperatores veritatis” : coworkers of the truth. God does the interior work, according to Aquinas, but we have a part in the “exterior declaration” that God uses to bring about the inner transformation.

But the key is to remember that this image is an analogy–and so although there are elements in being a doctor that are like those in being a teacher, there are also elements that are unlike, even according to Aquinas.

I cannot heal my students of their physical, emotional, or mental infirmities in the same way a medical doctor or therapist can, because I am not trained to do so. I can, like any other human being, listen with attentiveness and sensitivity and care to whatever problems or sufferings they express, but in that sense I find myself more like a caring (but untrained) friend than like a counselor.

And yet, are teachers friends?

Yes, and no. Like friends, we are on a journey with our students toward the truth of whatever we are trying to teach. And like friends there is a certain level of equality through shared experience in the classroom and in the school community of certain events. And like Aristotle’s “friendship of virtue,” we are hopefully engaging in a relationship in which we encourage our students on to greater goodness, and likewise ourselves receive the ways in which they encourage us to greater virtue and love.

But as Aristotle also points out, equality is necessary for friendship. And there is a marked inequality in the student-teacher relationship. Even the most egalitarian among us would admit that there is, at least, an imbalance of power; the teacher has (some) authority over her students, and even evaluates their “performance” and evidence of learning. So friendship, in the traditional sense, is not even possible (nor, I would argue, advisable).

I’m still thinking about all this. More to come.

 

The Sacramental Approach, Part 1

I have written about trying to teach the sacramental approach before, when my Louisiana kids and I were tackling Flannery O’Connor stories:

I gave my students the example of the Eucharist. “What’s the Eucharist?”

“The body and blood of Jesus.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“So I can’t just pray and receive his body and blood in a symbolic or ‘spiritual’ way? I have to eat the bread and wine?”

“Yeah you have to eat it.”

“Okay. Well, O’Connor is saying it’s the same with stories. You can’t get the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ of a story any other way. You have to read the story itself – you have to eat and drink it. That’s where the meaning is. You can’t just pull it out in some abstract way. That’s what O’Connor thinks, anyway.”

For the typical high school student, this is very hard to accept. Like most people these days, they are Gnostics, and they would prefer to separate body and soul, sign from sacrament, story from meaning. It’s easier that way.

“Sacramentality and the Short Story” April 2013

I’ve been weaving the sacramental approach into the way I try to encourage kids to embrace mystery in stories and other works–but until I taught Christian Authors for the first time last semester, I had never made it the title of a unit or an explicit part of the curriculum.

But this past summer when I was thinking about what were the essential things I wanted kids to learn in a Christian Authors course, this was the very first thing that came to mind. I learned about it myself through extensive reading, largely thanks to Flannery O’Connor, of course, but also through Dostoevsky and Greene and Marilynne Robinson and Emily Dickinson, all of whom engage this approach in very different but powerful ways.

I also learned about it from two professors in college: Dr. Lowery taught it to us explicitly while we were in Rome so that we could enter into that experience more deeply; Dr. Gregory taught it to us far more implicitly by the way she approached lyric poetry. She describes something very akin to the sacramental approach in her profound essay “Lyric and the Skill of Life”:

I would like for a moment to take seriously this sense that the discernment and preservation of “grace” within the world entails art: that is to say, a deliberately cultivated skill, an habitual focus of both mind and affection, a discipline of attention. The arts enacted by the poet are open to the reader willing to accept their difficult conditions. The steady and serious reader [Emily] Dickinson hopes for comes to share in the economy of grace – the ascetics of perception, feeling, and thought – that grounds her discipline.

The tough thing about the sacramental approach, however, is that the only way to really learn it is to discover it yourself–to gradually become aware of a common thread, a particular vision, weaving itself through the best art, the best books, even the best movies.

What is the sacramental approach, you ask?

That is the question my students are asking right now. I have not given them a definition, and I don’t plan on giving them one until they can already come up with a good account of it themselves. So, I’m not going to give you one right away either.

However, I have given them definitions and examples of some other approaches Christian Authors (and any authors, really) often use–so that by contrast they can see what the sacramental approach is not:

The Didactic approach – from the Greek didache meaning “teaching” – an approach that openly tries to teach or inform. Good examples of these are Church documents, many parts of St. Paul’s letters, large sections of the Gospels (esp. the Sermon on the Mount), theology texts… even The Chronicles of Narnia, which try to teach a younger audience what Jesus is really like. Even the parables of Christ are largely didactic–though, I would argue, not exclusively so.

The Apologetic approach – from the Greek apo “from” and logos “word, speech, account, reason” – an approach that tries to persuade using logic and evidence. C. S. Lewis’ Mere ChristianityMiraclesThe Problem of Pain and other works are examples of this. Chesterton also used the apologetic approach–even in many of his Father Brown mystery stories.

Propaganda – from the (relatively modern) Latin propagare “to propagate, to spread” – an approach that tries to spread ideas, often by biased means, often by manipulating emotions

Obviously, one would hope that Christian authors would not use propaganda. Yet even certain members of the Pro Life movement use it (and feel justified in doing so). And a lot of modern Christian music and movies really earn this somewhat dishonorable label–because the art they create (manufacture?) is bad, and it exists only in service of (or subjugation to) the message.

An example of Christian propaganda we looked at in class today:

I mean, all you have to do is look at the title of the movie to know the message. The atheist professor is the stereotypical meanie who has a painful past and lots of resentment and pride to boot. The young handsome Christian has to make lots of cliche choices and engage in a final showdown of some sort.

In these first few days of the semester, I am trying to help my kids come to their own understanding of the sacramental approach by giving them lots of experiences–both of what it is, and what it is not.

An example we looked at in class today is Richard Wilbur’s beautiful poem about the experience of waking up in the morning and that half moment of semi-consciousness between dreaming and waking, spirit and body: “Love Calls Us to Things of This World.” You will notice that it is neither didactic nor apologetic–and nor is it propaganda.

But it is surprising. There are lots of images and juxtapositions you wouldn’t expect–and I bet you can easily find the one line in it that rather shocked everybody.

Nor is this poem explicitly Christian. As one of my students pointed out, it mentions “nuns”, but not really in the most flattering way.

As I said to my students today, the sacramental approach is one of the hardest things to teach. To just give them my definition of it would miss the point–and would deprive them of the chance to discover this deeper vision, to enter into a new way of looking at the world, to start noticing it everywhere, to begin fumbling for their own words to give it voice.

More to come.

Three Pseudo-Christian Approaches

Some two and a half years ago, Pope Francis told us about the Christian way to encounter God in the world:

“We need to touch Jesus’ wounds, caress Jesus’ wounds, bind them with tenderness; we must kiss Jesus’ wounds, literally. Just think: what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed. To touch the living God”, Pope Francis concluded, “we do not need to attend a ‘refresher course’ but to enter into the wounds of Jesus.” (Pope Francis, VIS)

Read the rest of it here: Vatican Information Service

pope-francis-favela-wyd
via thoughtsfromacatholic.wordpress.com

In this homily, the Pope contrasts this Christian approach of touching the wounds of Jesus with three other approaches: the “Gnostic” approach (pursing “knowledge of God” rather than a relationship with the God-Man, Jesus Christ), the “Philanthropist” approach (doing good things, creating the Kingdom of God rather than working to receive it as a gift) and the “mortification” approach (earning one’s way to God through self-denial).

These three approaches are what you could call “pseudo-Christian”. Each has an element of Christianity in it, but each neglects something or exaggerates something.

As a teacher, especially a former ACE teacher, I think I am very much tempted to adopt these mistakes:

1) The Gnostic Approach: Let’s face it, I’m what Flannery O’Connor disparagingly calls a “big intellectual”. So are a lot of people who went to liberal arts colleges. We thrive on ideas, and connections, and relationships, and books. We love learning ABOUT God. But of course, that is not the same as learning to know God. The former is fascinating, the latter is frightening–and causes us to change. Gnosticism treats one’s relationship with God as an elite journey into higher levels of spiritual knowledge and tends to either despise the world or ignore it.

2) The Philanthropist Approach: ACE teachers, and members of other service organizations, are especially prone to this error I think. The theology goes something like this: Jesus was always talking about “The Kingdom of God.” This “Kingdom” is “the reign of God on earth,” or a society founded upon peace and justice. As Christians, we are responsible for creating this society by opposing and changing the pre-existing unjust structures.

There IS a lot of truth to this approach–but like all distortions, it’s all the more dangerous because it has only part of the truth. This was the Christianity I learned in high school and many learn at colleges that are comfortable professing only the parts of the faith that no secular person could be offended by.

The philanthropist’s mistake is a misunderstanding of what “The Kingdom of God” really is. Notice Jesus never says, “Go out and build the kingdom of God, and as soon as you manage that, I’ll come back!” He says “The Kingdom of God is at hand” and “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That is, the Kingdom is the gift of God’s presence that we can choose to participate in or reject–but it is not something we can bring about by our own efforts.

Often I think it’s up to me to change education single-handedly. Really, it’s God’s work in which He invites me to participate.

3) The Mortification Approach: This is the approach that, I believe, the Philanthropist approach (ie. “Spirit of Vatican II) was trying to correct. This more “traditional” mistake falls too far in the other direction– it makes the journey of faith a bunch of requirements. It encourages people to remove themselves from the sinful world and focus on personal acts of self-denial and good works. It is rigid and prideful. It’s the error of the Pharisees.

Interestingly, it makes the same fundamental mistake as the Philanthropist approach: it relies far too heavily upon human effort and not enough upon God’s grace. Unsurprisingly, the Self-Mortifier and the Philanthropist fall into similar sins of pride and lack of charity toward others.

The Christian approach, according to Pope Francis, is quite different. Unlike the Gnostic, who prizes knowledge and esoteric ways of knowing God, the Christian realizes that knowledge of God is available to everyone, and that the only real way to know God is through love. Unlike the Philanthropist, who focuses only on trying to bring about a utopia on earth, the Christian remembers he is a citizen of heaven and that the Kingdom is a gift, not a political agenda. Unlike the Self-Mortifier, who focuses so much on his idea of heaven and his own advancement in the spiritual life that he cuts himself off from the world, the Christian is willing to walk boldly into the mess to find Jesus in everyone he meets.

Augustine, Advent, and the “O Antiphons”

One of my all time favorite passages from the Office of Readings is Saint Augustine’s meditation on desire:

Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it), but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers. (Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)

I remember reading this while I was studying in Rome seven years ago. I was praying a lot then, for many things, and the idea that my prayer was a means by which God was “stretching” my heart so that I could have the capacity to receive his gift really helped me.

It strikes me that this meditation describes very well what Advent is all about. We are waiting and hoping for God to finally come, just like Israel waited (and still waits).

Augustine continues:

The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed. No eye has seen it; it has no color. No ear has heard it; it has no sound. It has not entered man’s heart; man’s heart must enter into it. (Ibid)

Because, of course, the “gift” which is “very great indeed” is the Emmanuel Himself.

If you read the Old Testament this way, it makes more sense. All of that wandering in the desert, the exile and return, the judgment of the prophets, the takeover by Babylonians and Greeks and Romans was an enormous stretching process whereby the desire of Israel for the Messiah was increased. By the time of Jesus, that desire was so intense that people were identifying messiahs everywhere.

We see this same desire in the Church as we look forward to the Messiah’s second coming. We see it especially in the “O Antiphons” and the repetition of the word “come” over and over again. Each antiphon has a different name for Jesus– “Wisdom”, “Leader,” “Root”, “Key”, “Radiant Dawn”, “King”, “Emmanuel”, and in each antiphon the speaker begs for the Messiah to “come”:

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!

(“The ‘O Antiphons’ of Advent”, USCCB website)

Every antiphon is a prayer and an exercise in desire.

antiphons
via maryellenb.typepad.com

Advent is a season for this desire, as Fr. James Martin in his recent seasonal reflection explains. But of course, in some sense, we are always living in Advent, until the Second Coming itself or our own death–whichever comes first.

Augustine even alludes to “set times and seasons” in which we pray to God “in words” to help us “mark the progress we have made in our desire.” I think this is exactly what Advent is:

In this faith, hope and love we pray always with unwearied desire. However, at set times and seasons we also pray to God in words, so that by these signs we may instruct ourselves and mark the progress we have made in our desire, and spur ourselves on to deepen it. The more fervent the desire, the more worthy will be its fruit. When the Apostle tells us: Pray without ceasing, he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of him who alone is able to give it.

(Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)

 

“Beauty Will Save The World”

The other evening I attended the Archbishop’s Lecture Series. Dr. Jonathan Reyes came and spoke about how to preach the Gospel in a skeptical age–and an age in which reasoned arguments no longer have much purchase.

Jenny over at Mama Needs Coffee has a beautiful reflection on his talk. An excerpt:

That’s the kind of love that speaks to a world grown blind to logic and deaf to reason. They might not believe in absolute Truth any more, but they can still perceive its counterpart, absolute Love. And from that encounter of being loved, of being valuable…a conversation can begin. (“My Little Lepers”)

She goes on to recount Dr. Reyes’ reflection on Mother Teresa. The reason the world loves Mother Teresa is because although it cannot comprehend faith very well, or the idea of “objective truth” (the phrase even makes me cringe a little), or rational argument, it is still attracted to beauty, for all of its infatuation with ugliness. And because Mother Teresa went to the ugliest human places with love, she reminded us of what real beauty is like. And the world noticed.

Dr. Reyes encouraged all of us to “get our hands dirty.” The world will not really listen to what Christians have to say anymore, but it is still watching us closely, and it may yet be moved by something beautiful.

Dostoevsky famously said, “In the end, the world will be saved by beauty.”

I thought about this in the context of my own world–my students. They are, as I am, products of a “skeptical age” that has lost the ability to reason. Our generation does not have the patience careful argument requires. Just watch the Presidential debates. We prefer slogans, soundbites, tweets, and hashtags.

I’ve noticed this countless times when I try to teach essay writing at the beginning of the year. Especially this year, I have been bewildered and discouraged by my student’s intellectual poverty–their struggle to form coherent thoughts, never mind reasoned arguments. Many of them still have a hard time wrapping their minds around what an “arguable thesis” even is. They can parrot back cliches and soundbites, but they cannot prove a basic claim.

It is my responsibility to try to teach them how to do this.

And yet, Dr. Reyes’ talk gave me pause. Maybe I am starting in the wrong place. Maybe I shouldn’t start off the school year with essay writing– essentially, teaching kids how to think and prove a point.

Maybe I need to start off the year with beauty.

Maybe they would be more open and eager to learn how to think, how to write, how to formulate a thesis and use evidence to support it, if they were at first struck by something beautiful.

I’m still not sure what that would look like. But I’m going to give it some thought.

 

 

Teaching Archetypes; Or, Backdoor Natural Law Theory and “Myth Become Fact”

 

I’m in the middle of a mythology unit with my kids and we’re learning about archetypes–recurring character and event patterns that show up in stories from all different cultures, times and places.

For instance, the orphan-turned-hero archetype: the young boy in the Native American Blackfeet myth we read, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Jane Eyre, , even Luke Skywalker if you admit that Anakin is kind of dead, practically speaking.

cfe-little-orphan-annie
And of course, Lil’ Orphan Annie.

Or the mentor figure who must die/disappear so the hero can become a hero: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Glenda the Good Witch.

frodoscream
So sad.

Or the flood myth archetype: Noah and the Ark, Utnapishtim in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Deucalion and Pyrrha in the Greek story, and stories in practically every culture on this planet.

Or the hero’s journey archetype. Here’s a fun video we watched in class about that:

Or, perhaps more provocatively, the dying and rising godlike hero: the Egyptian Osiris, Babylonian Tammuz, Greek Persephone, Hercules going to the Underworld and bringing Theseus back, Odysseus, Aeneas… and Gandalf the Grey coming back from the dead as Gandalf the White, and Aragorn passing through Dunharrow.

And, of course, Jesus.

Whoah. Yes, it’s true. Jesus fulfills archetypes big time.

One of the essential questions we are considering in this unit is What do Archetypes Suggest About Human Nature?

Well, what they suggest about human nature is that such a thing actually exists– and that human beings all over the world are caught up in the same search for meaning and often come to surprisingly similar answers.

Archetypes suggest there may be eternal truths about human beings. The stories we tell are similar because we are all similar. Among these standards are moral standards that all cultures recognize but some cultures realize more fully than others do.

And there you go: Backdoor Natural Law Theory. Sort of.

Next up on the unit plan: Is Christianity just another myth?

I mean, it is pretty similar to a lot of other myths. Sometimes uncannily so. There’s the whole scapegoat archetype thing going on. And isn’t Jesus basically like the half-god, half-human heroes of old? And doesn’t that prove that Christianity just adopted other mythologies and so basically our God is just an updated Zeus, or something?

We’ll have some interesting discussions, for sure. But to guide us, we will be reading excerpts from C. S. Lewis’ “Myth Become Fact.”

Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. (Lewis, “Myth Become Fact”)

This is going to be a bit mind-boggling for some of my kids, but I think it’s worth a try.