Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Intellectual Life, #6

Following immediately after the previous quote that gives a warning, Sertillanges provide the positive image of what the writer should be:

Seated at your writing table and in the solitude in which God speaks to the heart, you should listen as a child listens and write as a child speaks. The child is simple and detached because he has yet no self-will, no pre-established positions, no artificial desires, no passions. His naïve confidence and direct speech have an immense interest for us. A mature man, enriched by experience, who should yet preserve this simplicity of the child would be an admirable repository of truth, and his voice would reecho in the souls of his fellow men.

If you are suspicious of Sertillanges' statements about the nature of the child, try to put aside as a "given" those self-centered attributes that all men possess by virtue of the Fall, and think only of the child's natural proclivities on the basis of his very limited knowledge and very open curiosity. The child does not ask or speak out on the basis of calculation of how it will affect his self-image or reputation. The child doesn't offer observations in order to garner support for an ideology. The child doesn't offer his own opinion in order to please others so as to be accepted in their company. He has no acquired tastes for which all of his words and actions are bent toward serving. It will not take a child long to learn each of these vices, but in his natural capacity they are harder for him to come by than the mature human soul. Therefore, the more the mature human soul can seek to recapture the relative innocence of the child's ability to speak from his plain and shameless ignorance, the more the mature human soul will be able to avoid the shamelessness of serving his refined, self-centered pretensions.

The Intellectual Life, #5

The following advice from Sertillanges is good for all, but especially good for the self-conscious rhetorician:

This perverse world loves, at bottom, only saints; this cowardly world dreams of heroes; Roger Bontemps [An easy-living, happy-go-lucky person] grows grave when he sees an ascetic. In such a world you must not yield to public opinion and write as if humanity were looking over your shoulder. You must shake yourself free of other people, as well as yourself. In the intellectual domain as in every other, to rise above man is to prepare wondrous things, for it is opening the way to the Spirit.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Intellectual Life, #4

In an age where "critical thinking" is valorized with little or no distinction, the following words are a breath of fresh air:

An essential condition for profiting by our reading, whether of ordinary books or those of  writers of genius, is to tend always to reconcile our authors instead of setting one against another. The critical spirit has its place; we may have to disentangle opinions and classify men; the method of contrast is then admissible and needs only not to be forced. But when the aim is formation of the mind, personal profit, or even a teacher's exposition, it is quite a different matter. In these cases it is not the thoughts, but the truths, that interest us; not men's disputes, but their work and what is lasting in it. It is futile to linger endlessly over differences; the fruitful research is to look for points of contact.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Intellectual Life, #3

Even when reading "hostile" works, one must be willing to seek out the Truth that comes unbidden from them:

Truth will not give itself to us unless we are first rid of self and resolved that it shall suffice us. The intelligence which does not submit is in a state of skepticism, and the skeptic is ill-prepared for truth. Discovery is the result of sympathy; and sympathy is the gift of self.

The Intellectual Life, #2

I mentioned in my last post, that I am working slowly through A.G. Sertillanges' book, The Intellectual Life. Here is another gem:

Our soul does not age; it is always growing; in regard to truth it is always a child; we who have charge of its permanent education must not, as far as possible, leave any of the problems arising in the course of our work unresolved, or any of our investigations without an appropriate conclusion. Let the man of study then be perpetually listening for the truth.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Intellectual Life, #1

I'm slowly making my way through a book by a French Dominican friar, A.G. Sertillanges: The Intellectual Life. The book is chocked full of good quotations. I'll be posting some periodically. Here is one:
"Do what you ought and must; if your human perfection requires it, the different demands it makes will find their own balance. The good is the brother of the true: it will help its brother. To be where we ought to be, to do what we ought to do, disposes us for contemplation, and feeds it; it is leaving God for God, according to the saying of St. Bernard."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Biblical Theology Writing Assignment

The following is a writing assignment I gave to my eighth grade theology class. We are studying Biblical Theology, and have been looking at the Fall of Man. The Fall of Man impact all of the fundamental relationships of man: toward God, toward Creation, toward Man. Instead of showing gratitude toward God, sin causes man to be thankless and independent toward God. Instead of working the Creation to bring it to fullness, sin causes man to be lazy and self-serving in his labor. Instead of showing honor toward men, serving the good of the other before oneself, sin causes man to envy the good of his neighbor and seek to magnify his own good at the expense of others. Given the reality of sin, how does the Christian prepare for victory against the enemies of the Flesh, the Accuser, and the World? The following assignment aims at finding answers to that question.

Identifying the Enemy and Strategizing for Victory

  1. Write as many ways as you can imagine that a child is tempted to turn away from God in the three fundamental relationships of man:
    1. Gratitude toward God
    2. Work to Creation
    3.  Honor to Man 
  2. Begin writing the ways one could go about defeating each temptation (what thoughts, what prayer, what actions, etc.)
  3. Complete three temptations and three tactics of response at a time.

  1. As a teacher I am tempted toward ingratitude toward God by complaining about how little time I have to complete my job.
  2. As a teacher I am tempted toward laziness toward Creation, by choosing to read for pleasure rather than grade student papers.
  3. As a teacher I am tempted toward impatience with my students by not reviewing material they have not learned well.

Tactics of Response:
  1. To defeat ingratitude about how little time I have, I can remember that all circumstances are from God, who promises the power to obey in all my responsibilities without having to control all the outcomes myself. I can offer a prayer thanking God for the promise of help and asking Him to help my to be wise with the time I am given. I can then consider what are the priorities of the work I have, and make a plan to complete each priority in order of importance.
  2.  To defeat laziness in grading I can remind myself that the pleasures of leisure are made sweeter by the labors of work, and I can “go to the ant” and "consider the field of the fool" so that I see the destruction that laziness brings. I can offer a prayer thanking God for the chance to help my students grow in knowledge and wisdom and their skill in writing. I can then plan to work for thirty minutes of uninterrupted grading before taking any sort of rest, then take a five-minute rest of stretching & drinking water, and then work for an additional thirty minutes, and so on until I am finished grading.
  3.  To defeat impatience toward my students’ ignorance I can remind myself of God’s long-suffering toward my own ignorance in the many things He has said to me in His Word, but which I have not yet learned. I can also remind myself that learning truth is an everlasting activity that is worth every moment of effort. I can offer a prayer thanking God for revealing truth to man that brings life, joy, and communion with God and man. I can then assess what barriers may be causing my students ignorance, and strategize ways of helping them discover the truth that they are missing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Trinitarian Greeting

The opening of Peter's first epistle has a wonderful Trinitarian greeting:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.

The odd (odd to Gentile ears like mine, anyway) phrase "for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ" is likely a reference to the sealing of the New Covenant, the Old Covenant being sealed with blood by Moses at Sinai (Exodus 24:8):

And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, "This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words."

Elected by the Father.

Sanctified by the Spirit.

Sprinkled into the Covenant by the Son.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Measure of Man

The pursuit of human excellence is the original and loftiest pursuit ever undertaken by man. It drove Adam to rebel, Achilles to fight, Plato to contemplate the verities, and the Son of God to take up human flesh.

There have been a multitude of pathways toward perfection pursued by men. They are as so many facets of a diamond, splintering light into an array of colors, now dazzling, now captivating, now titillating the spirited part of the human soul to renew its own efforts to exceed its capacities and become, well, Divine.

In Greece, men became gods by physical and mental prowess, exhibited through fearless acts of courage in battle, ingenuity in labor, craftiness in speech, shrewdness in policy, wit in the company of friends and ecstasy in the embrace of a lover. Rome was an homage to Greece, which was itself a variation on a theme by the cultures of the Ancient Near East, with their exhibitions of violence and sexual manipulation of the gods.

The measure of man was manifest in his power to accomplish whatsoever he willed, and to will nothing less than what excelled the capacities of all other men. This spirit endures today in every corner of Western Culture. Man wants to show his worth through the domination of every undertaking. Is it any wonder that video games captivate the imaginations of youth, who lack the means to ascend, but are overflowing with the passion to do so? Video games allow one to taste the superhuman qualities by means of simulation, at once satisfying the passion, but at the same time stultifying power to ascend in the natural world. So too many of the musical and theatrical choices available play into the same passion, and resort to the same means of simulation to achieve the temporary fix. Music that highlights ecstatic and erotic love, wealth and fame beyond measure, domination through expressions of anger, domination, or control are available at a hand's random snatch from the shelves. Movies portray sex that evokes cries of ecstasy, or limitless cognitive prowess available upon instantaneous conjuring, or physical capacities to endure pain or overcome obstacles that are by implication superhuman, or even explicitly so. Even outside the acknowledged realms of simulation, where "reality" is supposed to take place, a simulacra of superhuman images predominates. The television personality with the perfect complexion, quickest wit, or most incisive analysis must also appear as natural and unscripted as possible. Celebrities from all areas of life, whether sports, business, entertainment, religion, what have you are portrayed in glorious perfection until a relatively minor and all-too-human flaw or mistake becomes the fodder for pretenders to the throne to devour in all the splendor of unmitigated envy.

Protagoras is credited with saying that of all things the measure is man. From one vantage point, the empirical one at least, this is true. Man does measure all things--evaluating them scrupulously or unscrupulously. The other things in the world do not measure. But taken in another way, Protagoras' claim is patently false. Man is not the standard by which man measures. If this were so, perfection, superhuman qualities, the qualities of divinity, would not be that by which man measures--for they are not what man is, at least not by the same empirical test that acknowledges man as that thing that measures all things. No, man measures himself against his idea of God, and insofar as man's position toward the One True God is rebellious, he cannot accept the One True God as the One by which to measure himself. Rather, he must judge by the false image, the idol, the supplanter god who serves as the placeholder for the Triune God. No Christian who has a modicum of Biblical knowledge could deny the pervasiveness of idolatry, nor fail to acknowledge it as an exchange of Truth for Lies.

And yet.

And yet Christians more often than not measure by the measurements of pagan and infidel idolaters. Christians measure one another by the topics of the classical encomium:

What is the greatness of your race?
What is the greatness of your country?
What is the greatness of your ancestors?
What is the greatness of your parents?
What is the greatness of your intellectual education?
What is the greatness of your training in skills?
What is the greatness of your cultural knowledge?
What is the greatness of your mind?
What is the greatness of your body?
What is the greatness of your fortune?
How do you compare to the greatness of others?

One can craft the pretense that such measurements are simply instrumental--one is not judging anyone's "true worth" by such standards, after all. But I remain skeptical. I don't see alternative measurements very often, unless it is something like, "judge not, lest you be judged," which sounds more like a defense against one's own failings being declared than it does a plea for an alternative measure of excellence.

If not these things, then, what is the measure of man?

When one considers the life of Christ, by what measure will His life be discovered as the most excellent of all, the one that displays humanity at its most excellent? He was not from a great race, country, ancestors, or parents. Though few would argue against his capacity for knowledge, skill, and cultural awareness, no one could seriously maintain that he exhibit any of those to the highest degree during his lifetime. Nor did his mind, body, or fortunes seem altogether more excellent than all other men. He does not compare well, and even the long train of unfaithful admirers of Jesus cherry pick ideas of his that could have and may have originated before him or gained more potent expression after him.

With what measure, then? Consider the negative. At what point did Christ endure, undergo, take up what no man before, or after him, could? It is not hard to conceive that another man might be wounded more grievously than Christ, and remain courageous and stalwart. It is not hard to conceive that another man might be scorned more than Christ was, and come through undaunted. It is not hard to conceive that another man might be more honored than Christ was in his life, and remain remarkably humble.

What then? What did Christ undergo than no man could before him, or after? The just penalty for the sins of the world. Consider what it must have taken for a man to endure the unmitigated wrath of God poured out for every offense, and to do so without guilt or cause for condemnation. The ultimate humiliation, the ultimate denial of one's human excellence. Surely this was something Christ endure that no man before or after him could.

Even so, the negative construction beckons the question: if it was by enduring the wrath of God that Christ exceeded all other men, what was it that enabled Him to endure, the positive quality that was able to overcome? If wrath is an outpouring of hatred, the rejection of worth or value or excellence; then would not love be that which would need to be greater in order to endure? This seems most fitting. Only the man who was most beloved by God (the Being excelling all others in Love) could endure the greatest measure of wrath. Christ, the Son of God, was so loved by God that He could not only endure the shame and injustice of the world, but also willingly take upon Himself their due penalty for their transgressions, the wrath of God.

The most astounding aspect of it all is that in being the man most beloved by God, Christ was also the man most capable of loving, and so poured out his love upon men, that they too could become the most beloved of God--the very means by which human excellence reached its apex; the very means by which the human is made partaker of Divinity, of Divine Love.

The measure of a man's greatness is in how much he is loved. Those who are beloved of God are the men who are the greatest, who are granted participation in the divine nature. Those who pour out the greatest love toward others reveal themselves to be those who partake most fully in the divine nature, for their capacity to love is proportionate to the measure of love they receive from the Father. No greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Liberating Effect of Education

From Dave Hicks, via Circe Institute.

A “rigorous” education is for me one that saves souls one at a time and pulls that soul out of his socio-economic context, whatever that is, and gives him an “out of body” experience, so to speak. It frees him from his passions or at least puts him at odds with them, makes him aware of the assumptions underlying the arguments swirling around him, causes him to recognize and detest cant and mediocrity, and establishes in him an insatiable hunger for whatever is good and true and beautiful. It gives him a star to follow, whatever the crowd is doing. Makes him a Magus.

 The italicized portion is, for me, the primary and most difficult aim of education. Plato sought it, Augustine sought it, Calvin sought it, and all wise educators today seek it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Wherein "difficulty" is really just how things are supposed to work

Why does God delight in difficulty, while man is so content to be at ease? It is tempting to examine the curse in Genesis three and imagine how supple and responsive Creation must have been to Adam's efforts before his Grand Rebellion, but there is no hint that the labor would have been easy for all of that perfection. Rather, the only indication seems to be that man's labor would not be fruitless (thorns and thistles choking to death) or debilitating (sweat of the brow implying painful exertion). 

I don't think that one could say Adam would not need to be daily wrapping together grapevines into some shapely order, or disentangling them with great care when they had grown waywardly in the night. I don't think that one could say little Cain and Abel wouldn't have required a great deal of patience as they learned from their parents the things that were new and at which they were unskilled. God Himself waited when Adam named each creature that He trotted before the man, all the while knowing that none of them would be adequately suited. God could have told Adam as much, and perhaps Adam would have taken God's word for it, but Adam's knowledge would have been far less intimate than it was as a result of the long process of investigation. God, who enjoys everything He does after some fashion, surely delighted in watching Adam learn, however slowly or rapidly Adam was able to draw his conclusions about each beast.

Indeed, as one reflects upon the tasks that seem most difficult--getting a child to learn, teaching a new skill to an unskilled worker, waiting for all of the aspect of a planned event to come together, gathering the scads of data that trickle in bit by bit by bit--they seem to be difficult not insomuch as they are fruitless or debilitating, but rather insofar as our capacity to enjoy the labor is deficient. The intemperance of wanting to get the expected result from the labor apart from the difficulties associated with the labor thwarts one's enjoyment of the labor itself--such intemperance is the thorn that chokes the life our of the growth God seeks to develop in us.

How did we get to be in this situation where false ideals persist about our labor: that results must be immediate, tangible, and fully formed at every stage of our efforts? Perhaps part of the problem is the way in which the corruption of sin bends our attentiveness; shaping our expectations. Sin, arising as it does from corrupt desires, is self-absorption. James seems to hint at this problem in his rebuke in the opening verses of chapter four:

Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet[a] you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and[b] adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”? But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble."

James acknowledges that our displeasure arises from the self-absorbing nature of our desires for pleasure. We want what we want, but when we do not receive (did we not think to ask?). We grumble and fight and steal to get it because God has refused it to us (why should He give when we've purposed to abuse it?). God resists such prideful grasping, since such grasping is a being-for-death.

When I grow angry that my child does not fulfill my expectations, do I do well to be upset?

When I get incensed that my student fails to follow my wishes to the exact letter, am I seeing my labor rightly?

When I grow bitter that my colleague cannot seem to "get over" his particular faults, is it from justice or from inconvenience that I condemn?

I do not mean to imply that expectations of results are of necessity flawed. No doubt Adam would have to develop some expectations for how his labor would go, even in paradise, since he had many things over which he was to labor. But when one's expectations are thwarted, this too is from the hand of God, and our reaction demonstrates our own orientation toward Providence. Is God not patient with us? Has He not borne with our stupidity, our rebelliousness, our incapacity? Has He not done so to an exponentially greater degree than we shall ever bear with another soul, indeed all other souls, in our own responsibilities and tasks?

Rome was not built in a day, the Oak of Great Girth and expansive shade did not grow in a fortnight, and no human soul (excepting perhaps Enoch), no matter the greatness of its growth, has even reached full maturity in this course of life in this broken body.

What then shall deliver our minds from captivity to the discontentedness of misplaced desires? Surely the love of Christ. If self-absorption wrecks upon the rocks of wretched desires, contentedness must embark unto the safe harbors of Christ's handiwork on our behalf. Chronicling the patience of Christ toward oneself cannot but make evident the great discrepancy between where we ought to have been by now and where we have actually come. I may not throw teenage tempter tantrums at my stupid siblings any longer, but I still complain when my boy's shoes come untied (again). At the same time, chronicling the effects of God's kindness reveals how much further we have come than we would have had God not show that grace by which we were made able to stand. I may still complain when my boy's shoelaces remain perpetually uncoupled, but it doesn't take me very long to repent of it, nor do I seem to fall so easily prey to the temptation as once I did.

In short, it is not quite enough to "think of others" in order to do well by them as instruments of growth in their sanctification. One must "consider oneself rightly" which certain requires a healthy dose of remembering, counting, even reveling in all the various ways Christ's love for us has patiently shaped us through all of our deficiencies and recalcitrance in order to go and do likewise.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Chesterton on the Family

"When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale." ~Chesterton, Heretics

In Chapter XIV of his book Heretics, G.K. Chesterton takes modern writers to task for their take on the institution of the family. Many Evangelical Christians today might assume that on the basis of Chesterton's Christianity and their own antithetical stance toward modern views on the family they and Chesterton would be fitting bedfellows. On the contrary, Chesterton's brief essay should make the typical evangelical uncomfortable, and in just the right way.

He begins, as Chesterton so often does, by turning several ideas on their head. Some suppose that the family or the small community is too narrow, but Chesterton argues that it is actually broader than what most men choose to seek outside of the small community. Men naturally choose to avoid the unpleasantness of differences, and so seek society with those with whom they are most like. The small community destroys this possibility, because there are few who are alike, despite their general similarities. Brother Bill hates what I love, Cousin Kitty is just odd, and Uncle Bob has untidy political views. Neighbor Joe never "minds his own business," which is to say that he is minding his own business quite well, and is too full of life to be interested only in himself and wants to know more about me.

When a man is not free to choose his own clique, he is forced to learn to be in society, a society much broader and more potent than the small universe he would create for himself to serve his own predilections and myopic desires. The small community, and more particularly the family, requires submission to the Divine Will that is so inscrutable to our meagre rational powers and limited capacity for knowledge.

Chesterton does not, however, argue that the desire to be free from the overwhelming vivacity of the neighborhood is a bad thing. What he challenges is the notion that it is a noble thing, or even more acutely, that it is a source of strength. Nietzsche laments with beautiful language the commonness of the herd, but his desire to escape it does not show his great strength and vigor of life, but rather his great impotency and weakness to be immersed in life. The man who desires freedom from the neighborhood and considers it a virtue has a nihilistic bent, a being for death--that most narrow and empty slice of human existence toward which we all turn, but from which we will all be raised to new life (or second death, which is Hell itself).

Chesterton goes on to make a poetic plea for the romantic and interesting life of the neighborhood and the family--where one may be renewed by the endless novelty, variety, and surprise that awaits at every strange turn of human will in each other with whom one lives in that uncomfortable intimacy of the small community. What may be gained for oneself is not only romantic, however, but quite vivifying to the soul--for the being-for-self is by nature consumptive of resources, whereas the being-for-others is pouring forth of its resources. That doesn't sound vivifying, except when one adopts the Christ-like maxim that losing one's life is how it may be saved, that through sacrifice comes bounty, that by burying one's seed into the soil of other souls it may produce fruit pressed down, shaken, and multiplied a hundredfold. The exciting possibilities of such investment in other souls requires the faith that rests upon the limitless bounty of the God who has Created, sustains, and shall renew all that He has made; not the faith that rests upon the very limited resources of one's own finite soul.

When one meekly abandons himself to the Providence of the Father in Heaven, one opens himself to Good Surprises beyond anything he can imagine. All it takes is loving one's neighbor as oneself, which, if is not yet obvious to say, requires one live, truly live, amongst one's neighbors.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Two untitled poems

How does the oak stand up so strong,
While leaf and limb and acorn fall?
He stretches down and up and out so long,
Breaking through heavenly and earthly walls;
Yet through him air and water flow,
Wind does bend him and light shapes.
Years will pass and he'll outgrow,
His summer laurels and winter capes,
His greens and goldens, browns and bare.
Beneath brilliant blues and radiant reds,
He wears silver moon and sunshine flare,
All out of doors, all in his bed.


Full sail and fifty on they sped,
Threshing fields of sun-splashed spray,
A harvest red in dawn and blood,
Fixéd they upon yon waterway.
Cold scowls upon men's faces fell,
Cold winds blew behind their sails,
Cold hearts gripped helm, and
Home hearths too were gripped,
Where cold cry wives' and mothers' wails.
Blasted winds propelled their craft,
Blasting guns propelled their steel,
Blast upon blast till most fell at last,
And last of them were brought to heel.
"Give up thy Gold or give up the Ghost!"
Up blood boiled as boiled up the sea,
"Our precious Ore ye shall feel and Full!"
Bloody cries spilling, spilling blood by the lee.
Somewhere sunward soared a lone albatross,
She lingered aloft uncompelled to alight,
Drifting slowly among wispy clouds,
Accompanying spirits long into the night.
A rising wave o'er a sinking ship,
So runs the course of many a corsair,
Ambitious men make for a stormy sea,
Leaving behind many a weeping widow, fair.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Image no. 1

Hark, this fly upon the glass,
Whose life, a fortnight, may endure,
A pure and holy image art,
A mark, marked by imprimatur,
A glory, reflecting by the Light,
Whose life, no night, could long endure,
Whose pure and holy image imparts,
Peace, by order of loves, secured;
Your silent wings send forth resonant winds,
They whisper gently past the ear,
Perceptible only to that soul,
Who attends amidst the noise to hear;
The voice of praise they, pregnant, bear,
And birth in hearts with hollow cavity,
Whose echoes sound the blows of love:
A fugue of tones timbred by Divinity.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education

The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical EducationThe Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, the positives.

Clark and Jain state in the introduction that their book is extending the bridge that the contributions of Douglas Wilson's book, Case for Classical Education, and Evans and Littlejohn's book, Wisdom and Eloquence, have made toward repairing the ruins of the classical liberal arts education. I think that they have given Classical educators, whether Boards, Administrators, or Teachers, a wealth of material for reflection, integration, and probably reorientation of their classical and Christian schools. Perhaps most significantly is their integration of Piety, Gymnastic, Music, and Philosophy into the pedagogical course that includes the seven liberal arts (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). They also seek to integrate Theology, but I found their sections on theology (the shortest in the book) to be the least developed and compelling. It isn't that I disagreed with their conception of the place of theology, but they did not bring much clarity to the study of theology as a subject, leaving it to be considered as a discipline that provides the grounds for and permeates the rest of the subjects. On the whole though, this is a delightfully fresh and welcomed addition to the literature on classical education and I hope it becomes a required reading for parents and classical educators in Classical schools and homeschools everywhere.

Second, the things that could be improved. Though this section is lengthier, it doesn't detract from the tremendous value of this book. In fact, it is because I like this book so much that I hope a second edition comes out that improves some of the things that may turn off the reader who isn't immediately excited about it, or has little or no experience with classical and Christian education.

First, a minor quibble. For a book that is outlining a philosophy of Christian Classical Education that values beauty, the layout of the book is underwhelming. The cover is adequate, but inside the margins are too narrow, the blocky highlight quotes that interrupt the text are obtrusive, and the footnotes will be intimidating to anyone who isn't used to reading scholarly literature (or, rather, scholarly literature that uses footnotes rather than endnotes). For the second edition, my humble suggestion would be to widen the margins to at least one inch on the top and bottom, and perhaps 1.25 on the outside edges; eliminate the highlight quotes or relegate them to the margins in a smaller font; turn the footnotes into endnotes, either at the end of chapters or at the end of the book.

Second, a second edition should go deeper into explaining the role of theology as a subject at the end of the course of education. If there are implicit theological elements throughout, what sort of "catechetical" knowledge of the Bible, if any, should classical educators provide, and how should theology capstone the entire endeavor at its end? What sort of theological study did the medievals employ?

Third, a second edition should expand the appendices. The first appendix was little more than talking points for what promises to be a much more detailed explication of a recurrent theme in the whole book, which is how the late medieval shift in philosophy opened avenues into modernity. The claim is probably an overstatement, or at least needs to integrate other factors, but as it stands in the book, the reader is just left wondering why such an important historical shift is only getting two pages of summary. Appendix II requires explanation. It was not clear to me how exactly the features of the chart were to be used, or what made the chart's contents a narrative. Appendix IV, like Appendix I needs to be expanded, and perhaps integrated with Appendix I since there seems to be some connection between nominalism, voluntarism, and the rejection of two of Aristotle's four causes. Appendix V looks great, so great in fact that it might be better put in the introduction to help the reader see the whole in one image before diving into each particular.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 15, 2014

On the self and desire

Christianity is full of apparently paradoxical statements. The appearance is, I believe, a product of our own incapacity for the truth--an incapacity somewhat derivative of our finitude (we don't possess a nature fully capable) and moreso derivative of our pervasive and total corruption (what nature we have has been destroyed in its capacities). It doesn't make sense that "he who seeks to save his life shall lose it, while he who seeks to give up his life shall find it" because we have been imprisoned by our own aberrant desires, rendering whatever capacity for understanding that could be used subject to that aberration.

Consider the apparent paradox of determinate freedom. Some have argued that true freedom requires the will to be free from all constraints, free from the determining influence of anything that is not the autonomous, individual will or desire. Freedom means choosing as my desire is directed by my desire alone. May other factors offer themselves up for influencing that choice? Surely, but they cannot be said to in any way move the will toward one or another option in the choosing. The will remains self-determining. And in being entirely free of all external determination, the individual who wills is self-defining by virtue of the free choices made. A claim to aseity seems a necessary implication of this view.

Christianity, however, asserts the entire givenness of created being, and, in the fullness of time, the sons of God shall be revealed only as they see (and I think "see" is a metaphor for know, here) Christ face-to-face, that is, unveiled because the corruption that blinds will be completely removed. For the Christian, the self, like being, is entirely given. It comes from God the Father, is imaged in Christ Jesus the Son, and is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian self is entirely determined by an Other that is not the self, not the individual chosen by the autonomous choices of the will. The Christian identity is received rather than taken, discovered rather than invented--it is the result of surprise rather than contrivance. The oddity of the givenness, and the paradox that arises out of our finitude rather than our sinfulness, is that amidst all of the givenness of the self, the individual is fully participating in the revelation of his identity. There are analogies that help to illustrate this idea, but I have yet to find a definition or description that satisfies rational criteria for explanation (not that there isn't one, or that it hasn't already been found--I can speak only for the places where I have looked!).

Practically, for the Christian, the paradoxical aspect of entire givenness and full participation comes in relinquishing our corrupted desire to be self-determinate and self-defining. Our natural desires are inherently self-oriented. We put our own desires as a priority, we consider ourselves before others, we think in terms of what will benefit ourselves more easily and more willingly than we think in terms of what will benefit others. This is enslavement given the nature of reality. Since our selves are entirely given, we cannot find ourselves by seeking our own desires. It is a vicious circle, and one that cannot avoid importing (whether consciously or unconsciously) things from others that we observe. The lie that I can make myself, even through imitation, fails to recognize that I may be given something other than what I would choose. Let me illustrate.

For most of my childhood I fashioned myself as a professional athlete. My parents largely indulged my efforts by continually driving me to practices and games, waiting long hours after practice was over while I worked extra to improve my skills, and by supporting my decisions for pursuing the sport beyond high school. In college I retained the desire and, although I had to reconcile myself to the possibility of some alternative because I was not given a scholarship to play, I walked-on and redshirted my first year, all the while continuing to work and cultivate my efforts toward the image of "professional athlete." When it became increasingly clear during my time on the team that I would never become a professional athlete bitterness and resentment became the consistent pattern of response to my circumstances. Far from being "free" in my own choices, I was driven by emotions that I did not enjoy, but had not the will to put away so long as that will was fixated upon the false image of the self I had chosen. However, when God broke my will of its clinging to this false image, I was liberated to both enjoy the sport in the capacity that God had graciously granted to me to participate in it, and I was free to receive a new and as yet undiscovered self of what God had in store that I had been blind to. Although I did not receive this discovery with the surprise of an excited child eager to imagine and receive limitless joy offered by the Father, that too was available to me. It was not until my desire died that the self God was fashioning for me could be resurrected unto my understanding.

The Christian life is full of many such deaths because of our idol-making tendencies--crafting selves for ourselves rather than receiving our true selves from the knowledge of God in Christ. The self-seeking that derives from the unpurified will is enslaved to the passions that arise from unfulfilled (or unsatisfying) desires. The self-receiving that derives from the purified will--the will that anticipates God's moving and shaping of the self in ways unexpected and better than expectation--anticipates and receives the surprises of God's Providence with thankfulness and joy at the chance of discovering anew what it is that God is giving to us--our true selves; the selves that look just like Him.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Prayer and Thanksgiving

Over the past few months I have been recording prayers in a journal, which I hope to eventually pass on the one or more of my children. The last two prayers I have recorded come from Scripture; Daniel 9:1-19 and 1 Chronicles 17:16-27. The first prayer is Daniel's, after he has read the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the return from Exile. Daniel's prayer is one of corporate confession of sin. In it he repeatedly emphasizes the guilt of the people who have forsaken obedience to YHWH, bring shame and reproach upon themselves, but especially upon the name of YHWH. He pleads upon the mercy of God to restore the people, to once more look with favor upon them, and to relent of His covenant curse upon their waywardness. Daniel's plea is grounded in God's own character and reputation--for God's mercy and for God's name among the nations, does Daniel ask for forgiveness.

The second prayer is one of David after having been told by God that the house David wishes to build for God would be completed by his son, but that God was desirous to make a house of David's own house, that is, to establish in David an everlasting name by which the greatness of God's name would be published among the nations forever. David expresses profound gratitude for the undeserving gift of being God's own possession. He recalls the mighty and unparalleled acts of God in choosing to deliver Israel out of bondage in Egypt--one people from among all peoples of the earth--to establish the glory of His name. Now, it is David's own house which God will deliver out of the midst of enemies from without and within.

Both men in these prayers exhibit a posture of humility and utter unworthiness to be considered for the honors which God has promised to bestow upon them and the people. They acknowledge that God hs an exclusive privilege to be glorified above all created things, but for some unfathomable reason God has chosen to include a people, a house, as the vessel by which His Name should be extolled and honored among the heavens and earth and depths of the earth.

The Church today, it seems to me, has lost its gratitude toward God. With one hand she pretends that she is worthless, not the main point of creation, and therefore need not worry herself about purity, need not defend the honor of her name before all peoples. She needs only to hunker down, wait for chaos to reach its fullness, and hopefully pick a few stray pagans who wander into her battered and besmirched doors to bunker with her until kingdom come. With the other hand she exalts herself as though the only thing worth being was to be adorned like her, whether or not that adornment look anything at all like the adornment her husband has commanded her to put on herself. She is haughty, and self-righteous, and vain. One pride disbelieves in the glory God has laid upon the Church, while the other pride takes up the glory as though it was her own and not the gift of Almighty God. The one pretends to be a slave of a hard taskmaster who rarely offers much for encouragement and sustenance while the other pretends she has no master and needs no provisions for which she cannot provide for herself. Is it any wonder that the name of Christ and His bride has become a reproach and cause for shame? Homosexuals, thieves, and violent men would not be able to speak openly and freely against the God of Heaven and Earth and the precious vessel of His High Honor unless the bride were so filthy as to be unrecognizable, or so wanton as to have slept with all of these evil suitors instead of the Bridegroom. 

Yet if the people of God would but repent, truly repent, turning away from our sins and transgressions and returning once more to Christ and to His commandments, the Great God of Creation might grant us repentance and bring our enemies to shame, just as He did to the Egyptians who considered the people of God as nothing but slaves to be manipulated and used for their own ends. The Church does not need cultural transformation, nor does it require a rapture. These things are secondary and come by the Spirit more so than we like to acknowledge in the nitty gritty details. Our part is to see ourselves as we really are--undeniably unworthy to be as uncomparably honored as we are--and in so doing we may just be impressed enough by God that we wish to imitate Him in the world.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Teaching and Christian Practices

In their introduction to Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith identify a limitation in the foci of Christian conversations in higher education upon “the integration of faith and learning”. First, they say there has been a focus upon the content—what Christian ideas will be taught—in the integration of faith and learning. Second, there has been a focus upon the sorts of learning faculty ought to have in the integration of faith and learning. While recognizing the necessity and value of these two foci, Smith and Smith argue that little to no attention has been given to the learning of students. They ask, in effect, what historically Christian practices can inform and impel the education of learners in a classroom setting? Or, to put it another way, what makes any method of teaching and learning distinctively Christian? Moving beyond the ideologies of Christianity that form the presuppositions of Christian education, Smith and Smith want to focus upon Christian practices; specifically, how practices shape virtues and habits in the formation of learners. The focus upon practices relies largely upon Alistair McIntyre’s After Virtue, where he defines practice as:

[A]ny coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. (quoted in Smith & Smith, 8)

According to McIntyre, a practice is social and largely inherited; it possesses certain internal goods to be realized in its course; and it maintains relevant standards of excellence, which are pursued and extended. What is, or is not, a practice? Consider the example of chess, for a moment. Playing chess in order to sharpen one’s thinking in preparation for law school would not constitute a practice, for although one’s participation in chess could be social and inherited as well as have standards of excellence to be sought, the goods involved terminate outside of the activity itself; the “good” of playing chess comes apart from chess itself. One’s “realization” of the goods associated with chess would only be deemed successful insofar as one saw their impact upon one’s legal education—chess is but a means to another end. However, one’s participation in the practice of chess would include motives terminating in the goods internal to chess itself, such as the analytical skill, strategic imagination, and competitive intensity that comes in the activity of playing chess. One’s “realization” of the goods associated with chess would be successful in the playing of chess itself, that is, playing chess according to its own standards of excellence within the social environment.
Within Classical and Christian education we could conceive of a similar bifurcation between a full-orbed practice, and education as a means to another end. The student who wants a Classical and Christian education primarily in order to boost test scores for college and gain more scholarship money is not engaged in the practice of Classical and Christian education. Neither is the teacher whose instructions emphasize grade achievements or other goals that terminate outside of the content and process of learning as such (even the goal of “pleasing one’s parents” would not constitute one’s Classical and Christian education as a practice).
In a lecture delivered at the Alcuin Retreat held at Calvin College in November 2012, David I. Smith provided an excellent example of how methodological habits can disrupt rather than cultivate the internal goods that educators strive to emphasize in their courses of learning. Smith’s son came home one day asking for his father’s help to study for a theology exam that was coming up the next day. The teacher described the course material as, “eleven ideas without which no one can understand the New Testament.” The test was to cover the eleven terms (e.g. “sanctification,” and “justification”) and their definitions. While quizzing his son on the definitions of, differences between, and examples of sanctification and justification, Dr. Smith’s son, exasperatingly exclaimed, “But Dad, I don’t really need to know these that well.” That is to say, Smith’s son had learned that when the teacher (whom Smith described as one of the best at the school) gave terms and definitions, only two kinds of assessment were likely: multiple choice questions or matching terms and definitions. In order to ace the test, and “understand the eleven most important ideas for understanding the New Testament,” one needed only to memorize the patterns associated with the terms and their definitions. To illustrate, Smith changed the terms and definitions into Wingdings font and it was still possible to discern which terms went with which definitions. In other words, one could ace the assessment without having ever achieved the ostensible goal set by the teacher—that is, to grow in one’s ability to correctly understand and apply the ideas most important in the New Testament. Because the teacher had not reflected upon the assessment in terms of whether it was really suited to meet the goal—in other words, by not adequately integrating all the elements in the course into a coherent practice—the chances of his students failing to receive the desired learning outcomes were increased, if not missed altogether.
What then would be distinctively Christian practices that bring consistency between "classical and Christian education" and teaching "classically" and "Christianly"? Perhaps it would include singing songs together to begin the day, or reciting a corporate prayer, or ritual conversational topics desired to stir up one another for good works (discussed once a week during lunch). Perhaps it would include topical prayers offered prior to assessments, such as, "Lord, as I endeavor to fulfill the task of this assignment, let my mind be clear of selfish ambitions, distracting desires, and other temptations of which I am unaware. If I have not prepared as I ought, forgive me, and teach me through my weaker efforts to desire greater diligence in preparation; showing mercy unto me according to your lovingkindness. If I have prepared, may my efforts be an acceptable service in your sight. Amen." There are plenty of possibilities, many of which may already be in place in your home, school, job, or church, and only need to additional realization to make the practice more understandingly performed and more gratefully appreciated. Maybe there are many more, which you could begin considering and working to implement. What practices have you in mind?

Friday, February 14, 2014

An Augustinian Interpretation

Augustine is rather ingenious in his interpretations of the Old Testament narratives. I have been reading very slowly through the City of God and have recently covered Augustine's interpretation of the Noahic Flood. Typology is growing into favor again in Protestantism, which may bode well or ill depending upon how it is done.

A friend of mine recently posted some brilliant typological thoughts that I briefly interacted with in the comments. I thought I'd air them here, and perhaps add some elaboration.

My friend identified the sons of Israel/Jacob with the seed of the Serpent and Joseph with the seed of the Woman in the epic struggle between the City of God and the City of Man so prominent in Genesis and throughout Biblical history. However, the relationship is more complicated, or at least complex, than some of the others, for instance, Cain and Seth.

Why complex? Well, Judah, who is a son of Israel who sells Joseph into slavery (indeed, is the catalyst for that decision, delivering Joseph out of the hands of his other brothers, who had murderous intent), who marries a foreign wife, but who also ends up siring the seed of the Promise and becoming a substitutionary intercessor for Benjamin on behalf of Jacob/Israel, who will die if Benjamin is not returned safely.

Interestingly, the story of Judah and Tamar has some tantalizing typological possibilities. Judah marries a foreign wife, thereby committing adultery against the Covenant family, a kind of apostasy or exile. Tamar's origins are not given, but there is Rabbinic commentary that assumes she is an Israelite, or a member of the Covenant family. She is also, in the narrative, a rejected bride. Perhaps Judah represents wayward Israel, of whom Paul speaks in Romans 9-11. Perhaps Tamar is the bride of Christ, the Church, whose righteous intervention in the world arrests the waywardness of Judah/Israel and brings him back into the Covenant family. Tamar is not necessarily a Gentile, but neither is the Bride of Christ--for all who are of Christ are True Israel. The Bride is of mixed origin in national identity (Jew and Gentile), but is without national origin in her priestly identity (Christ is of the order of Melchizedek). Tamar is intercessory for Judah through her sexuality--she takes him up on his obligation, which he refuses to give (not unlike Ruth with Boaz, through Boaz is willing; or even Zipporah when she takes the foreskin of Moses' son when he neglects to do so).

All of this is quite tentative, and I wouldn't stake any firm claim on what I've got here, since I've only begun to consider the possibilities. I hope some readers of mine might interact with what I've put forward in the hopes of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Musing on the Biblical Theology of the Flood

Immediately prior to God's cleansing the world of sin in the Great Flood, Genesis 6:5 says, "Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Surely Satan and his legion of evil ministers perceived that they had nearly stolen victory over God and the Promised Seed, as none could be found who sought faithfulness to God Almighty. None but Noah, that is. But God did not destroy the world utterly, nor did He hand it over entirely to the Prince of the Evil Age, but rather baptized the earth in water, destroying its corruptions and renewing the land for a second opportunity for Noah to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth in accord with God's commandments.

Immediately prior to God's cleansing the world of sin in the Second Great Flood--that is, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit--we do not receive an explicit comment on the evil of the age, but we find it visible in every Gospel. The surge of demonic activity--nowhere in the Old Testament or after the Apostolic Age so virulent and pervasive--was dominating the earth and corrupting even the people of God (it is no exaggeration when Jesus refers to the leaders of Israel as sons of their father, Satan). When the Son of God appears on the scene, the demons are surprised, asking if Jesus had come to torment them before the time. The Seed has come, but the armies of heaven had not yet been assembled for the final engagement. Why then had the Commander of the Host of Heaven come? Whereas the Great Flood covered the Creation in water, there is a double baptism that inaugurates the  Age of the Heavenly King. He dies on the cross and bathes the world in His own blood, making it possible for all who would turn to Him in their allegiance to receive cleansing from their corruption. Then as the King ascends to take up His session upon the Throne of Heaven, He gives gifts to His thanes and companions, the Church, His own Spirit, which is poured out like a Flood of water and fire upon the people. The strong man was cast off the throne of the earth, to be bound for a time, and his ministers of evil were being cast out by the power of the name of the King and by His Spirit, working in and through the Body of Christ, the Church, and in particular its appointed leaders.

The way was thus cleansed for yet another opportunity to be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth in accord with God's commandments. However, like the sons of Noah, the children of the Age of the Heavenly King are not yet given complete victory. There is a time of long-suffering while all those whom the King desires to bring into His Kingdom shall be found and brought within its gates. Then comes the final Flood, the Host of Heaven and the Saints of the Most High God shall ride in the train of the King as He tramples the remaining corruption, and removes His enemies forever; casting them into the lake of Fire along with all those who refused to cast their allegiance with the High King of Heaven. Then shall all cleansing be consummated the Great Renewal shall be begun, and the fruitfulness and multiplication and filling of the earth shall be complete, and resplendent and redounding glories shall be on the lips of the people of God forever more.