Science and Poetry

As a youth, I enjoyed poetry as much as any other red-blooded boy. Grade school reading of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss gave way to more complex poems in middle and upper school such as those of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, and Ovid. Outside of school, I ingested poetry almost exclusively through music. Whether the lyrics of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or The Cure actually count as poetry, they at least aspired to rhyme, meter, intertextuality and occasionally transcendence. Since poetry was a slippery thing to define, these too became models for me. As a musician I began to write songs which needed lyrics— poems I surmised. I wrote my obligatory love ballads, as both the poetry in textbooks and the rock legends I followed suggested that I should. Growing in Christ led me to appreciate the old hymns of the church as well as newer worship songs. I wove these patterns too into the lyrics that I would write.

These habits and observations confirmed for me that poetry, like fine art, had two great aims: God and
girls. It was about the mushy stuff that one couldn’t quite grasp. Poetry was designed to evoke feeling, a form of amusement—a repose from thinking. What poetry was distinctly not about was science. I was good at mathematics and science and so I thought myself well-rounded to be also interested in ‘poetry’. These were two separate realms, akin to Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria.

This vision of reality worked well enough through my college studies of natural and moral science and
my early years of vocation. It was not challenged until seminary when one of my professors noted that an early twentieth century Russian Harvard sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, thought differently about art. He held that instead of simply entertaining the masses, artists often led the way in culture. They at times apprehended major cultural shifts before they had begun. For Sorokin, this was true for all levels of art: statuary, painting, music, and architecture, to name a few. Of course this was also true of literature and poetry. I encountered for the first time what I had been habituated to miss. Literature and poetry could be about substantial things, concrete realities as well as the ineffable ones like God and love. Poetry was not mushy, or perhaps reality itself was. Others of my seminary professors reiterated that God could not be circumscribed by logical syllogisms and that love was an essential component to ontology. While I was primed to revision things, I had little sense of what this meant for my reading of Homer or Coleridge.

While I began to enjoy poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Wordsworth more regularly, it was a Ken Myers’ interview with Mary Midgely that caused the scales to fall from my eyes. Midgely, an elder-stateswoman of British philosophy, had written a book entitled Science and Poetry, and the title itself was enough to arrest me, a science teacher. This short interview provided for me the missing link between words, numbers, and reality.1

Consider an example from Alfred Lord Tennyson to illustrate the deep interplay between poetry and science. In the mid 19th century Tennyson wrote In Memoriam. It is a long poem, and for that reason one I would have previously avoided.2 These lines from Canto LVI explore the relationship between God, man, and nature. (Hint: the phrase ‘a thousand types are gone’ in the first paragraph refers to the extinction of species, a topic of fresh concern in the 19th century.)

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone She cries, `A thousand types are gone: I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath: I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair, Such splendid purpose in his eyes, Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies, Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills, Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime, Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless! What hope of answer, or redress? Behind the veil, behind the veil.

This poem yields a phrase, “Nature red in tooth and claw,” which perfectly encapsulates Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The poem’s first lines also grapple with the justice of God in letting species go extinct.3 Will man suffer the same fate? Is man like the animals and his ‘spirit does but mean the breath?’ Only through competition and the survival of the fittest can nature continue, a nature as indifferent to man as to any other of her creations. This antagonistic striving seems horrific and ghastly but Darwin encouraged us to remember that it is only ‘natural’. Love is not ‘Creation’s final law.’ As surprising as it is to read such a profound apprehension of the moral significance of Darwin’s vision, it is also surprising to note that Tennyson wrote this nine years prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species and one year before Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest,’ published his first book. As Tennyson’s poem had attained great fame, being lauded even by the Queen of England in 1862, Darwin himself had likely encountered it before penning The Origin of Species.

Men were toying with the idea of evolution and an impersonal nature devoid of God years before Darwin had proposed his mechanism. It seems that a number of people were eager to believe this vision of reality before it had any claim to a ‘scientific’ sense. Many had become convinced of man’s descent from a common ancestor with the animals before Darwin had suggested any manner of how it might occur. Even Herbert Spencer, who argued that he not Darwin was the real inventor of the theory of evolution, had first written of evolution’s moral implications in his 1851 book, Social Statics. This was six years before
he had suggested any technical details for it in his 1857 essay, Progress: Its Law and Cause. Interestingly, Spencer was himself adapting ideas from a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had written an unfinished essay, Theory of Life.

Many believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection or some new synthesis arising from it shows that competition and ‘the survival of the fittest’ is a law and the only natural way of conceiving reality. But consider this perspective from The Non-Local Universe published by Oxford University Press, a book about the 20th century developments in natural science.

Darwin made his theory public for the first time in a paper delivered to the Linnaean Society in 1858. The paper begins, “All nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature.” In The Origin of Species, Darwin is more specific about the character of this war: “There must be in every case a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.” All of these assumptions are apparent in Darwin’s definition of natural selection…

[But] During the last three decades, a revolution has occurred in the life sciences that has enlarged the framework for understanding the dynamics of evolution. Fossil research on primeval microbial life, the decoding of DNA, new discoveries about the composition and function of cells, and more careful observation of the behavior of organisms in natural settings have provided a very different view of the terms for survival. In this view, the relationship between the parts, or individual organisms, is often characterized by continual cooperation, strong interaction, and mutual dependence.4

As it turns out, competition and survival of the fittest do not have the law-like character that Darwin believed they did. Consider the finale to Tennyson’s poem.

Of those that, eye to eye, shall look
On knowledge, under whose command Is Earth and Earth’s, and in their hand Is Nature like an open book;

No longer half-akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did, And hoped, and suffer’d, is but seed Of what in them is flower and fruit;

Whereof the man, that with me trod This planet, was a noble type Appearing ere the times were ripe, That friend of mine who lives in God,

That God, which ever lives and loves, One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

Tennyson chose to believe in the law of love instead
of reducing all to “Nature red in tooth and claw.” The developments of the last thirty years in biology noted above may not provide a final definitive view of nature, but at least these developments help legitimize Tennyson’s choice to believe in a law of love over one of cold competition. They remind us to distinguish Darwin’s mechanism from his metaphysics.

But even Darwin’s mechanism cannot be left wholly untouched by the notion of poetry. For at its base poesy is about words. In the Mars Hill interview referenced above, Mary Midgely pointed out that ‘natural selection’ is itself a metaphor. Darwin and many of his readers were conscious of a device he used that I had missed in all my years of studying biology. Darwin is likening nature to a human animal breeder using ‘artificial selection’. While animal husbandry has an ancient heritage, the English of Darwin’s time would most likely associate animal breeding with the intelligent artificial selection of English dog breeders. Dogs had been bred all over Europe to exhibit an impressive variety of traits. Darwin thus extrapolated from what was done by human intelligence and artifice with dogs. He imagined that nature could do likewise with enough trial and error with all species—even to the point of originating new species. It made no matter that strong cases of this had not been technically ‘observed.’ Dogs are all one species and yet some of Darwin’s technically distinct species of finches interbreed similarly to dogs. Overlooking the difficulty
this poses to defining the concept of species, the metaphor of comparing nature to a human breeder carries much of the weight.5 Detractors of Midgely claim that metaphors
in theories such as Darwin’s are just window-dressing, but Midgely asserts that these devices and metaphors are much more central to scientific theories than most realize. They often determine both formally and informally the direction a theory will take.

This raises the question of the general role of words within scientific theories. Nobel Prize winning scientist Sir Peter Medawar noted, for example, that hypotheses themselves are acts of the poetic imagination. Interestingly, he claimed to have gleaned this insight from the poets Shelley and Coleridge.6 Thus, as I teach physics students about Electricity and Magnetism, I now note with greater interest scientific terms themselves like ‘current’ and ‘potential’. These words often have fascinating histories of their own. While it is common for physics teachers to speak of current as the movement of electrons in a wire, the word ‘current’ was used to describe electricity many years before the concept of an electron (Greek for amber) was formulated. Initially, the flow of electricity was simply likened to the flow of a river, a current. The term electric potential (voltage) is intimately linked to the notions of Aristotelian act and potency, old metaphysical concepts which the Inkling, Owen Barfield, claimed held nearly “half the weight of the philosophical thought of the Western mind… between Aristotle and Aquinas.”7 Perhaps words and metaphor are at the heart of many scientific concepts, and this need not compromise the truth of theories. Consider this passage from Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus.

And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes-how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced
to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art.8

This is a beautiful passage full of insight. These ideas unfortunately led Camus to postmodern skepticism. But for those that believe that language itself is deeply connected to reality through Christ the incarnate logos, it need not unsettle our belief in truth. Consider Barfield’s statement from Saving the Appearances, “There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the Incarnation of the Word.”9 Perhaps our belief that truth must provide mathematical certainty is itself a poetic construct and not the only way to understand truth.

Countenancing this hypothesis, let us consider the thought of Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, and his desire for apodictic certainty. Descartes (and Galileo as well) was wrestling with atomism. This philosophy
was formulated in the fifth century B.C. by the Greek philosopher Democritus. But it was a poem, De Rerum Natura, which transmitted atomistic thought to European culture. This poem, meaning On the Nature of Things, was written by the ancient Roman Lucretius and had been lost to Europe for nigh one thousand years. When rediscovered in the 1400’s, its atheistic and reductionistic assertions caused quite a stir among intellectuals.10 During this period of great religious fervor which at times careened out of control, the picture of an inert reality composed of uncuttable, disinterested atoms bouncing around in empty space attracted many adherents. There is no god, there are no souls, there is no purpose or meaning. Reality is merely atoms in motion in the void and the “highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.”11 Montaigne openly flirted with atheistic atomism in the late 16th century. By the 17th century Galileo and Descartes were explicitly searching for a Christian version of atomism. Once Isaac Newton included atomistic philosophy into his “System of the World,” it became a part of the mechanistic paradigm of modern science. Truth and certainty were then to know the exact positions of the atoms and the laws by which they were governed, for there was nothing more which affected worldly matters. Thus when Napoleon asked the renowned astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace what place God had in his system of planetary motion, Laplace could famously retort “I have no need of that hypothesis.”12

Some of us may feel obliged at this point to say, “OK, well they were right.” But let us conclude with a couple of final thoughts. Modern physicists no longer believe in Democritean atoms or Newtonian corpuscles. Descartes and Galileo followed Lucretius to conceive of reality as composed of tiny hard ‘uncuttable’ pieces of matter, but the ‘atoms’ of Rutherford or Bohr were filled mostly with empty space.13 These ‘atoms’ soon became eminently cuttable into neutrons, electrons and protons. And protons and neutrons are considered in turn to be composed of quarks, which are believed to exist only in groups of two or three. Interestingly, the word quark is a neologism. It comes from a line in a poem by James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake, “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” The atomism of Descartes which led to the mathematicization of science was a figment of a poem, no more or less ‘absolutely’ true than the bizarrely communal quarks of Murray Gell-Mann. The assumptions that led Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Locke to disenfranchise words and qualities from their rightful place in science have been
long displaced. What lingers is a stultifying scientism. “She blinded me with science,” objected Thomas Dolby before he yielded that science is “poetry in motion.” While many generations before Descartes, and possibly even Francis Bacon himself, might have concurred with Dolby, the dubious rock-poet, this sentiment is mostly relegated
to the postmodern counterculture today.14 Thus it is rare but refreshing to hear thoughts such as the one which Cornell physicist, Carl Sagan, put into the mouth of his leading scientist in the finale of his novel-made-movie Contact. When his heroine, Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Arouet beheld the wonders of the galaxy from her starship, she exclaimed, “They should have sent a poet.”15 Perhaps those of us who are science educators should be training them.

The Liberal Arts and Human Flourishing

One encounters any number of reasons for the importance of a liberal arts education, both from within the Christian classical renewal and in the broader educational culture. In Christian classical circles one is likely to hear an emphasis upon the potency of the liberal arts as tools of learning, while in the broader culture the emphases one often meets range from vague notions of well-roundedness to pragmatic claims of employability. Thus the thesis advanced in the present article may appear to some as bold and somewhat surprising.

The best reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is not that it produces well-rounded persons, though the breadth of human experience it affords is expansive. Nor is it that the liberal arts foster or engender the kind of written, verbal, or critical thinking skills sought after by some employers, though the skills of persuasive writing and speaking and of interpretive reading and analysis indeed lie at the core of the liberal arts curriculum. Rather, the most compelling reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is the distinct claim that the historical, aesthetic, philological disciplines of the traditional liberal arts curriculum
cultivate the qualities of moral judgment, common sense (sensus communis), and taste.1 It is not only that the Western tradition has understood the distinctively human element of civilization to consist in the acquisition and exercise of these qualities, but also that they actually constitute the pre-critical conditions for human rationality itself. Put most simply, then, the best reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is that it cultivates the qualities necessary for human flourishing, both in terms of human reason and of human moral being in the world. It is also the most compelling because it is perfectly attuned to our own cultural moment.

Cultivating moral judgement, common sense, and taste

There is perhaps no single aspect in which a liberal arts education is more obviously unique than in its telos— the acquisition of moral wisdom or judgment. Earlier thinkers such as Plato or Aristotle would have called this virtue phronesis, practical wisdom. While our own culture is preoccupied with a plurality of incommensurable educational goals—rational mastery of a subject, technical proficiency, the ability to calculate, to deduce, or to process data—the ideal of a liberal education has always been wise and responsible action in the world. Phronesis thus unites the theoretical and the practical goals of education; we might say that it is the good sense to know what to do with truth. Honed through imitation and continual practice, it is the skill of living a good human life in the world.2

The question arises, however, if the liberal arts are primarily academic in nature, how does such an education cultivate this virtue of practical rationality? The most direct answer is that they do not and cannot do so on their own. Acquiring the skill of living wisely in the world takes practice— real choices, real actions, real consequences.3 However, the liberal arts provide irreplaceable imaginative resources for acquiring this skill. In fact, imagination is perhaps principal among these resources, for the poets and historians have bequeathed to us the great gift of literature—narratives historical and fictional—where one may observe the lives of the wise and the foolish, experiencing those lives vicariously by entering imaginatively into their stories. Through the study of literature the student gains the kind of experience in life necessary for moral formation that his or her young age does not permit. Hence, what one lacks in lived experience he can glean from literary experience. Cicero adds a further dimension to our understanding of this imaginative effect of literary experience in his famous oration Pro Archia Poeta. “All books are full, all words of the wise are full, and all history is full of examples,” he writes; “I have always kept these images in view when serving as a magistrate, shaping my heart and mind after them by meditating on their excellences.” For Cicero the study of history and literature afforded by a liberal arts education not only instructed him but compelled him boldly to act for the common good of his community. The experience gained from the liberal arts provides narratives for making sense of one’s own life and directs one’s affections toward what is good and noble and true. Potent resources indeed for acquiring moral wisdom.

Sensus communis is closely connected to the skill of moral judgement. Although we often render this Latin phrase with the familiar words common sense, it is necessary to recall something of the technical meaning these words carry over from the art of rhetoric in order fully to appreciate their importance.4 Of course, we use the phrase common sense all of the time to mean an intuitive understanding of how to get along in the world, often contrasting it with academic or specialized knowledge.
(In fact, one is at times tempted to conclude that common sense is precisely the one quality many academics are lacking.) Although the ordinary meaning of the phrase is not identical to its technical sense, it happily flows from it. In classical rhetoric, sensus communis actually refers to that shared understanding of the world that a rhetorician can rely on when crafting his oration. It is not something he must prove, nor even that he will often state. Rather, it is that shared body of assumptions that invisibly bind together a group of people and, as writers from C. S. Lewis to Alasdair MacIntyre demonstrate,5 actually make moral reasoning possible in the first place. Since this quality was first marginalized and then suppressed during the Enlightenment, it is difficult for the contemporary reader to appreciate just how important the acquisition of common sense was to educators in the classical world.6 Aristotle notes in the Ethics, for example that the conscious transfer of the culture’s body of shared assumptions is one of education’s primary objectives.7

As a quality intentionally cultivated by the liberal arts curriculum, sensus communis is best characterized as a studied sense of the wisdom and insight (and indeed the prejudices and presuppositions) of previous generations. As such, it awakens us to that indefinably familiar atmosphere that breathes through the pages of the stories, shapes the historical narratives, and inflects the language of a people at a given place and time. It develops a conscious sense for what is commonly, though implicitly, held to be true. Common sense is thus closely related to what Edmund Burke famously coins the moral imagination in his Letter Concerning the Recent Revolution in France, and sounds remarkably like that distinctly human faculty-the chest-whose loss C. S. Lewis laments in the first part of The Abolition of Man. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur also seems to be invoking this sense of the common, when he speaks of the insight into life acquired via the “long detour” among the literary and imaginative works of humanity.8 He argues that what seems to be a detour is actually the obligatory path we must take if we are to understand ourselves and our culture. Failure to take this detour, to run along this path, is to guarantee the short-circuiting of self-knowledge. Interestingly, Ricoeur’s detour among the historical, aesthetic and philological disciplines is actually the well-worn path of the liberal arts curriculum—the study of history, literature, poetry, and language. The liberal arts connect us to our historical tradition by cultivating a sense for what is held in common throughout the history of that tradition.

The development of taste is something of an aesthetic analog to the cultivation of common sense. While it is not only artists who need to cultivate taste, reflection upon their experience is helpful in understanding its foundational importance. For to become a musician, fine artist, actor, or poet, is to take the long detour via the aesthetic achievements of humanity. The cellist works through the instrument’s received repertoire, the fine artist makes master copy after master copy, the actor rehearses the same lines countless other actors have performed for generations. I suppose we grasp intuitively the role tradition plays in the pedagogy of the arts. Lest we fail to recognize its significance, however, it is important to see that the specific claim of the arts in this regard is that creativity and artistic sensibilities are formed by attention to tradition. Picasso, to cite a somewhat dated but brilliant example, is highly original (to many of his time shockingly so); yet, without the tradition of European masters, there would be no blue paintings, no Guernica. Again, we grasp all of this intuitively; but how often do we fail to reflect upon the actual process of artistic formation when we wonder over much that is crass, tasteless, or vulgar in contemporary culture? The development of aesthetic taste, like the development of the adult palate, is formed by experience. As common sense is a studied sense for
the commonly held truths of a culture, taste is a sense for what is fitting or decent that is cultivated over time and experienced in the arts.

The liberal arts are more timely than timeless.

I asserted above that the most compelling reason to pursue a liberal arts education is that it cultivates the qualities necessary for human flourishing. To understand why this makes the liberal arts relevant to contemporary culture it is necessary to place our cultural moment within historical perspective. The last century witnessed a series of radical upheavals in the cultural and intellectual life of Western civilization. While one is tempted to think here only of cultural developments—the world wars, the advent of the nuclear age, or the sexual revolution—the intellectual landscape changed forever as well. Most importantly in this regard is the abandonment of what some intellectual historians have termed the Enlightenment project.9

To paint with very broad strokes, the Enlightenment is an episode in the intellectual life and culture of Western civilization, where on the basis of and in reaction to a number of factors—scientific, social, religious, and political—Western thinkers experienced an acute loss of confidence in central elements of human tradition and in the institutions which embodied and perpetuated that tradition. Where Western civilization had been maintained by a tensed harmony (at least in theory) of a number of incommensurable authorities—faith, tradition, reason, experience, community—the Enlightenment project is perhaps best characterized as the attempt to secure the goods of that tradition upon the putatively certain ground of reason. A brilliant illustration of this project
is Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? in which he famously describes enlightenment as man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity, an immaturity strictly defined as reliance upon such traditional mediating structures and institutions as books, doctors, priests, and judges in human intellectual, physical, religious, and moral life. To be enlightened, claims Kant, is to dare to think for oneself—sapere aude!— and thus his ideal human is a rationally autonomous subject for whom reason is the sole guarantor of human intellectual and moral goods. The notion that human flourishing is dependent upon anything more fundamental than reason is precisely what is repudiated here.

By the mid-twentieth century, when the realization that the European Enlightenment had culminated in the most devastating (and efficient) elimination of human  life the world has yet witnessed—indeed, greater in quantity than all armed conflicts in human history combined—recognition of the Enlightenment project’s failure was widespread. Yet, it was not merely malaise or disillusionment that signaled the end of the Enlightenment. Throughout the twentieth century there was also a succession of insights—notably from the sciences— concerning the role historical tradition and community practices play in forming our philosophical outlook, the influence that religious (or anti-religious) presuppositions have in our reasoning, and the comprehensive effect that language and culture have in shaping our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. With this succession of insights has come renewed appreciation for the displaced notions of faith, tradition, reason, experience, and community. There has been renewed appreciation as well for the practices and ways of being in the world that gave these notions plausibility prior to the Enlightenment.

It is this new way of thinking about human rationality that provides a renewed context for liberal arts education, and the most compelling case for its contemporary re-appropriation. An Enlightenment view of reason has simply proved too narrow to account for human rationality, much less to secure the goods of human life. The historical, aesthetic, and philological disciplines of the liberal arts curriculum, however, are especially well fitted to the more robust understanding of what it means to be rational in our current intellectual situation.

Beyond the “well-rounded” student

Understanding this historical context also helps us to perceive the problem with the commonplace notion mentioned above that a liberal arts education produces well-rounded people. For it was precisely as an unquestioning response to Enlightenment rationality that the liberal arts were first defended as the means of making well-rounded persons. The rational and scientific disciplines, so the thinking went at the time, set the standards for what it meant to be well educated. The liberal arts are important for making one refined, cultured, humane. Thus, taste, common sense, and judgment were understood to be important subjective or intuitive qualities one should develop while acquiring an otherwise objective and scientific education. However laudable the intention, this notion is tragically mistaken for at least two important reasons. In the first place, rather than maintaining the liberal arts in something of a separate-but-equal status with the sciences, emphasizing their cultural or refining qualities actually served to relegate the liberal arts to educational window-dressing. In the age of science, urbanization, and industrialization, such accoutrement was superfluous—indeed, when it comes to making the automobile, not only history, but art and literature too, are bunk. In this brave new world of progress, the very notion of refinement was seen to smack of elitism and old-world aristocracy. Moreover, in light of the discussion above, it ought to be clear that the relegation of the liberal arts to
the periphery of the curriculum was philosophically naive. It was not apparent in the nineteenth century, but we see now that the qualities the liberal arts cultivate, much more than rounding out a practical, scientific education, actually play a fundamental role in the acquisition of human understanding as such. The liberal arts are thus essential to and not just an accidental element of education.

In The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis writes: “And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation— we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self- sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity
we remove the organ and demand the function.” He is lamenting the failure of modern education to cultivate
the very qualities we have addressed all too briefly in this essay—moral judgement, common sense, and taste—not, we should note, critical thinking or academic rigor. Modern education rendered the cultivation of these humanizing qualities impossible because it displaced the liberal arts curriculum with what was imagined to be a more practical or more relevant curriculum. Chesterton once remarked that thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world. Perhaps we could adapt his words here and apply them to our discussion: thoroughly practical people never understand what is truly practical. So in its departure from modern education, the Christian classical renewal has come to understand that it is precisely the liberal arts curriculum—that seemingly impractical detour among the literary and imaginative works of humanity— that cultivates the qualities necessary for meaningful human action, and indeed true human flourishing.

“What’s Going On?” as an Essential Question: Jesus, Socrates, and the Imagination

The use of essential questions to guide both curriculum and lesson planning is characteristic of classical Christian education. As John Milton Gregory proposes in The Seven Laws of Teaching, questioning is an artful science that invigorates the learning process by drawing students into an active posture of inquiry, rather than relegating students to passive receptacles of information.1 The use of essential questions is taken to be synonymous with the Socratic method and the teaching style of Jesus, placing the practice squarely at the center of classical and Christian education. The desire of the Socratic and Christological method, however, is concerned with a reality deeper than the (truly gratifying) moment in which a student, rather than the teacher, answers the question. In short, to take a cue from the pedagogies of Socrates and Jesus is to be occupied with a form of comprehension more primary than rationality—namely, the imagination—and to seek after this precise form of comprehension demands an appropriately precise form of questioning. I propose, in the words of a teacher who has had a great influence on me, that Socrates and Jesus teach us to interrogate the imagination by taking the time to ask Marvin’s question, “What’s going on?” before Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?”2 In order to develop what is meant by using “What’s going on?” as
an essential question and to demonstrate its use, I will first examine the pedagogies of Socrates and Jesus, reflect upon the philosophical underpinnings of an imagination-centered pedagogy, and, finally, provide two case studies drawn from the seventh and twelfth grade classes I teach.

The Socratic method of interrogation deals with one ethical question by asking a series of other, seemingly unrelated, ethical questions. In order to answer, “What’s to be done?” Socrates demands that we address what’s going on. If we were to ask, “Is it good to know oneself?” Socrates would barrage us with a whole host of other questions: is this knowledge the whole or a part of virtue, is this knowledge teachable, is it enough to make us happy? The purpose is not simply to elicit right answers to a list of discrete questions, but to destabilize our sense of knowledge by demonstrating the unity of these answers—that, in fact, their usefulness is not as distinct definitions or separate units of knowledge, but as they cohere together by their reference to wisdom in its unity.3 To answer one is to find oneself approaching another; to fail to answer one of the many is to fail to know anything at all. It is in this sense that Socrates challenges others by his claim to know only that he knows nothing.4 Socratic questioning resists the fragmentation of knowledge by building connections among different forms of analysis and disciplines of study. To the extent classical education models itself upon the Socratic method, classical educators are committed to rigorous, interdisciplinary interrogation.

Characteristic of Jesus’ teaching is the way he revolutionizes, not simply modifies, understanding. This is because Jesus is not preoccupied with discrete objects of knowledge, but total ways of being in and seeing the world. When the Sadducees approach Jesus with a question about the resurrection, they seek to trap him with a “What’s to
be done?” question, but he responds with a revelation of what’s going on. To the question of whose wife a woman married seven times would be in the resurrection, according to the Sadducees’ plans, Jesus would have to either deny the resurrection or betray the law of Moses, which instituted Levirate marriage (see Luke 20:27–40). He does not answer their question when he says, “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” for “they cannot die anymore.”5 He shows, instead, that their understanding of the resurrection continues to include a place for death—a profound misunderstanding of what the resurrection is. The law of Levirate marriage only makes sense in a world of death, wherein the death of a husband means a grief-stricken widow must be passed along and “given in marriage” to another. The condition for the possibility of their understanding of the resurrection includes death; death has so infected their vision that they are unable to imagine a world without it. It is precisely the good news of the gospel that a new imagination, a new way of seeing, comes with the new creation. To the extent classical Christian education models itself upon the teaching of Jesus, classical Christian educators must be committed to interrogating the imagination.

The imagination is like the structure and contents of a room that we enter. The furniture, the walls, and the carpeting are set: they are the setting in which we eat, read, or converse. A space’s form can have direct bearing on the sorts of encounters or behaviors that take place inside. The open concept living space of a modern home encourages fluid movement and interaction among those who would otherwise be occupying different rooms. A cathedral’s immensity, permanence, and verticality impart upon worshipers the awe that is appropriate for encounter with the eternal and wholly Other.6 Buried with books in the university library’s basement, the graduate student feels life and joy incrementally sapped away with each flicker of the fluorescent lights. To ask what’s going on of a particular situation is to start moving the furniture, tearing up the carpet, and examining the architecture of the rooms we inhabit. Forces beyond our immediate attention operate upon us and shape us; our very perception of particular situations is, in a sense, given prior to our rational engagement with that situation. Like a room, that givenness circumscribes, directs, and limits our engagement; it can make certain choices seem inevitable, and others unthinkable. The question of what’s going on engages this givenness.

James K. A. Smith has identified this imaginative givenness as a faculty that rests somewhere between instinct and intellect.7 It is a discipline deeper than a rationalist worldview that has been constructed over time and passed down by the incorporating and institutionalizing practices of our communities. The imagination is constructed and entered, given and inherited. Moreover, the imagination, not the intellect, is the motivating center of action; if action arose from intellect, academics would surpass all others in moral excellence. Instead, the seat of action is the imagination, or what French philosopher and social theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus: a structure that structures our vision of the world and our moral place in it. Contrary to a common scholastic fallacy, there is no theoretical space above or behind the practices that shape our imagination; rather, we are fully embodied beings and our imagination reflects the social location of our bodies.8 The rooms we enter represent forces of desire and relations of power that shape identity. As Bourdieu carefully points out, this discipline is far from innocent—especially in the academy—for the way we see the world reflects our social location in it, and it is characteristic of this vision to be self-effacing. That is to say, it is all too easy to forget the conditions for the possibility of seeing the world from a position of scholastic privilege—“a site and moment of social weightlessness” wherein philosophical investigation is freed from the constraints of necessity.9 According to Plato, leisure (skholè) is the distinctive and requisite privilege of philosophers, the success of whose heavenly searching depends upon not being preoccupied with the hurried conditions of the world “at their feet.”10 Forgetting the privilege of that detachment, students and teachers re- inscribe the inequalities that support their studious position of sight.

One essential question I have been using with my seventh graders is, “What do stories do?” They have learned a simple answer: “Stories teach us how to see the world.” This is an inquiry along the register of the imagination, but what is the connection between stories, the imagination, and bodily discipline? As the Israelites entered Babylon in
the early sixth century B.C. and passed under the Ishtar Gate, they were submitted to an imaginative discipline. The imposing structure boasts extravagant wealth and power, not only by its sizable, artistic construction but also, and more seductively, by its brilliant, expensive blue hue. Images upon its walls tell the story of Marduk who, according to the Babylonian creation myth the Enuma Elish, created the world by destroying the gods who opposed him and then established the city of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate itself as testimony to his victory. It would be insufficient merely to note this point without attending to its formative power upon those exiled bodies passing under it. The Ishtar Gate serves as an entrance into the city, to Marduk’s temple,
and into the Babylonian imagination. It operates as a habitus, an imaginative discipline of domination over those shackled exiles subjected to it. Walls ask without rational argumentation, “Where is your wealth and power? Where is your city? Where is your god?” Bodies comprehend, “We are captive.”

Shackles tell a similar story in U.S. History. With my seniors, I ask the question more directly, regarding any given event we study, “What’s going on?” Thomas Jefferson is a particularly contested and paradoxical figure who well serves this analytic exercise. An agrarian antifederalist, Jefferson opposed the strong central authority created by the U.S. Constitution: he was one of the many who immediately recognized how subjecting local, state interests to national control would likewise consolidate power with the traditional, urban, moneyed, and property-holding elite. We cannot read the Constitution naively, but must ask with Jefferson what social arrangement the Constitution stabilized. After a century of class conflict—Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 only the latest flashpoint of tenant unrest—the elites sought finally to secure their position.11 James Madison proposed a national representative republican government as a mechanism capable of filtering out the vicious lower passions; according to the maxim of the federalist John Jay, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”12 Once in office, Jefferson advocated for the poor landless whites. He would maintain education as a prerequisite for civic participation, yet he insisted that the poor were capable of being educated, growing in virtue, and joining the American experiment. There was one condition: the institution of slavery would have to be maintained. Who else would support the agricultural industry (America’s backbone, according to Jefferson) if poor whites were to seek advancement and full citizenship? The condition for the possibility of white prosperity was black enslavement—a channel in American imagination and society that flows throughout U.S. History to the present. Jefferson’s imagination was held captive by a racialized vision of the world. Even as Jefferson exposed the hierarchical social arrangement stabilized by the Constitution, we must inquire after what social arrangement had constituted his vision of American democracy.

The ultimate purpose of drawing attention to the ironically non-egalitarian author of the Declaration of Independence is not to cast judgment on an individual, but to demonstrate the way disastrous choices and skewed perception can seem completely reasonable within the horizon of a distorted imagination. “What’s going on?” sets us upon a trajectory capable of exposing that imagination. “What’s going on?” demands that we go deeper than asking what happened, who was involved, when it occurred, and why and how it came about. To follow the classical trivium, these are essential questions of grammar and logic, and they must be answered. We must identify the players, facts, and events in their entire social, political, and economic complexity; we must discern the logic of how those players, facts, and events are organized into relationships of causation. Yet, there remain questions of rhetoric: how are grammar and logic being deployed and whose interests are served? Following the Augustinian principle that societies are constituted by their loves, how does desire shape identity? Furthermore, with Augustine, how do relationships and systems reveal idolatries that play out in lust for domination?13 What is being desired, what relations of power are being established or stabilized, and how are identities being formed in the process? What identity is desirable and who is excluded from this identification? What are the social conditions for the possibility of satisfying what is socially desirable? What is the quality of the relationships being established—e.g., mutual, reciprocal, oppressive, violent? How do particular social arrangements validate or invalidate certain identities and desires? What’s going on? No question is irrelevant to study, as Socrates teaches us. Every question is relevant to exposing whole ways of seeing the world, as Jesus reminds us. Apart from this interrogation, we know nothing—the Ishtar Gate is just architecture, the Constitution is just a text, and slavery is just an institution.

The Formative Power of Educational Metaphors

Metaphors are powerful tools that profoundly affect how we think and live. Throughout history numerous metaphors have been used to describe the nature of education, and these have had a formative impact on educational theory and practice. In this essay I examine three educational metaphors and consider some of the educational implications that follow from them. The three metaphors are Plato’s cave, the industrial factory, and a guided journey. While the brief analysis presented here certainly is not exhaustive, my goal is to facilitate further conversation and thought by offering a compelling case that the explicit and implicit metaphors that guide and limit our understanding of education deserve careful consideration.

I. Plato’s Cave

At the beginning of book VII of the Republic, Plato offers perhaps the most famous educational metaphor in history with his allegory of the cave. Plato asks us to imagine a group of human beings who live in a cave. Since childhood they have been bound fast such that they cannot move or even look in any direction except straight ahead. Behind these prisoners there is a fire that casts light onto the cave wall in front of them, and between them and the fire there is a low wall. As various artifacts are held up behind this wall, all that the prisoners can see is the shadows of these objects cast onto the wall in front of them. What would happen, Plato asks, if one of these unfortunate prisoners were to be freed? At first he would be dazzled by the light and unable to identify the artifacts moving along the wall. Based on a lifetime of experience, the shadows of these objects would seem truer than the objects themselves. If he were then dragged up out of the cave into the sunlight, he at first would be unable to see anything because of the sun’s brilliance. After a time of adjustment, however, he would be able to see things as they truly are and not merely as images or shadows. Thinking back to his former bondage in the cave, he would pity his fellow prisoners and would not desire the prizes they give to those who are best able to identify the shadows and predict which will appear next. If, however, he went back down into the cave and immediately had to compete with the prisoners at identifying shadows, his eyes would not be adjusted to the darkness and the others would conclude that his journey up out of the cave was a waste of time. They would prefer to remain in their ignorance, concludes Plato, and would try to kill anyone who attempted to free them and lead them upward.

While the allegory of the cave has many social, political, epistemological, and religious implications, in the Republic Plato treats it primarily as an educational metaphor. He prefaces the allegory, for example, by charging his listeners to “compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this,”1 and after describing the allegory he immediately draws a series of educational conclusions. He contends that the power to learn, like sight, is present in every person. He furthermore argues that, “The instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul.”2 Plato therefore concludes, based on the allegory of the cave, that education is “the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and tries to redirect it appropriately.”3

According to this first metaphor, then, the role of teachers is not to transfer knowledge to their students or to equip them with the ability to learn. Rather the teacher’s role is to facilitate a sort of conversion experience in which students turn from the shadows of this world to the form of the good. As C. D. C. Reeve explains, the fundamental goal of education according to Plato “is not to put knowledge into people’s souls but to change their desires, thereby turning them around from the pursuit of what they falsely believe to be happiness.”4 It also follows from this metaphor that education is often a necessarily painful process for students as their “eyes” adjust to new perspectives and realities that may completely undermine what they once comfortably believed and held to be valuable. To put it in concrete contemporary terms, the student accustomed to reading celebrity magazines and Twitter feeds may initially find the profound insights of Homer, Augustine, or Shakespeare somewhat difficult to grasp and appreciate.

II. The Industrial Factory

The second educational metaphor to be considered is that of the industrial factory. This metaphor, unlike Plato’s cave, did not originate first from a writer’s pen but rather from the multifaceted Industrial Revolution that took place from the late 18th through the 19th century. Two particularly important aspects of the industrial factory that arose during this period were interchangeable parts and the assembly line.

At the beginning of the 19th century, cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney championed the manufacture of interchangeable parts in the production of muskets at his armory. Whereas before an artisan gunsmith had been responsible for crafting each weapon by hand from start to finish, now identical component pieces were manufactured separately en masse and then assembled together to form a complete musket. This had obvious benefits, for both production and repairs were faster, easier, and cheaper. This new system also meant that the necessary qualifications of workers were quite different. No longer was each weapon produced by a sole craftsman who understood the intimate connections between all the parts. Now separate groups of relatively unskilled workers could produce each part, and it was not necessary for them to understand the assembly and proper function of the musket as a whole. It is quite possible, for example, to manufacture a given number of perfectly acceptable firing pins each day without understanding how the firing pin will function as part of the entire musket or knowing how to connect it to the other parts of the firing mechanism.

In addition to interchangeable parts, a second important aspect of the industrial factory was the assembly line. This idea was used and developed throughout the 19th century and was famously “perfected” by the Ford Motor Company in the early 20th century
for the production of Model T automobiles. The basic concept behind an assembly line is that the product being manufactured is assembled in discrete segments by workers who remain stationary along a production line. Each worker is thus responsible for performing a simple task over and over while other necessary tasks are simultaneously performed by other workers along the line. Like the concept of interchangeable parts, the assembly line has obvious benefits in terms of efficiency: fewer tools are needed, and mastery of a simple repetitive task increases production speed and reduces the occurrence of error. Also like the production of interchangeable parts, an assembly line requires relatively unskilled labor. Workers on a tractor assembly line, for example, can perform their job quite satisfactorily without having any idea how to accomplish the other tasks necessary to assemble the entire tractor or understanding how their specific task contributes meaningfully to the assembly of the entire product.

As interchangeable parts and the assembly line became the accepted norm in factory production, the industrial factory gradually became the dominant metaphor by which to organize the process of education as well. Thus, as historian Page Smith notes, by the final decades of the 19th century education had come to be treated primarily as a “knowledge industry.”5 Consider, for example the daily and annual routines of both teachers and students in a post-Industrial school. The teacher, like the factory worker, became a specialist. Whereas before a school teacher (often in a one-room schoolhouse) was responsible for crafting a small group of local students in various curricular subjects over the course of multiple years, teachers soon became responsible for a specific subject area or grade level. The Algebra teacher might now teach period after period of Algebra each day, repeating the same lesson plan over and over much like a factory worker who repeatedly performs the same task. The third grade teacher similarly is a specialist in teaching third grade and repeatedly performs this task year after year. Like the factory worker, the industrial teacher does not have to understand the end product. The Algebra teacher can teach Algebra perfectly well, it is assumed, without understanding how mathematics works alongside of history, literature, science, foreign languages, and fine arts classes to holistically form the student into a certain kind of person. Likewise, the third grade teacher can teach third grade math, it is assumed, without needing to understand how the mathematical concepts being taught will later be developed and built upon to form students able to reason about higher mathematics or solve complicated calculus equations.

While teachers become akin to factory workers in the industrial factory metaphor, students in many ways parallel the products that roll off an assembly line. Each day students move from class to class, subject to subject, just like partially assembled products rolling down a line. Their discreet educational “stations” are divided into even intervals usually governed by bells, and as students are shuttled down the line they encounter at each station a new worker who specializes in the assigned educational task for that period. On an annual scale student learning is divided into distinct grade levels through which students progress. Like products on an assembly line, students do not move on to the next grade level until the education of their current “station” has been successfully completed. Thus the enterprise of learning, on both a daily and annual basis, is conceived of not as a holistic and continuous process but as one that can be divided into a list of distinct standards or “steps” through which students must sequentially move.

III. A Guided Journey

The third and final educational metaphor to be examined is that of a guided journey. This is a metaphor that in many ways challenges the previous metaphors, especially that of the industrial factory, and that may be particularly helpful for those working within a classical liberal arts paradigm. The metaphor of a guided journey has appeared in multiple ways throughout history, from medieval universities and guilds, to Dante’s use of Virgil in the Divine Comedy, to the Latin roots of the very words we use to talk about education.

Consider, first, the Latin words for “teacher,” “student,” and “educate.” In Latin, a teacher is a magister
– literally a master. A student, on the other hand, is a discipulus – literally a disciple. The process in which the teacher and student engage together, namely education, comes from the Latin verb educere which means “to lead out.” Thus etymologically in Latin the idea of a teacher educating a student literally means that a master is leading out a disciple who follows behind. It is worth noting that in order for this view of the educational process to make sense, the teacher and student must be facing in the same direction and moving toward the same goal. The teacher is a guide who has been down the trail before, so to speak, and uses insights gained by past journeys to lead his followers down the path and demonstrate for them how to navigate the trail.

Another example of this guided journey is the relationship that exists between a master tradesman and an apprentice. A blacksmith, for example, may take a young boy into his shop in order to guide him toward mastery. The master craftsman serves as a guide for the novice by allowing the boy to observe him at work and by giving his apprentice some simple tasks that he too can accomplish despite his limited experience. While on a day-to-day basis the master may be creating a beautiful wrought-iron piece of art as the apprentice is bending horse shoes or stoking the fire, in a fundamental sense they are both about the same business. Like the trail guide and his followers, both are travelling together along the same path. The blacksmith leads his disciple along the journey of becoming a master by guiding him through steps that he has taken many times in the past and by modeling for him how those tasks should be done.

According to this metaphor of a guided journey, then, a teacher is a master who leads students along the path of learning. As John Milton Gregory writes, “It is the teacher’s mission to stand at the impassable gateway of young souls, a wiser and stronger soul than they . . . to guide them to the paths to be trodden.”6 In an important conceptual sense, teachers do not face students in order
to direct the teaching process at them but face the same direction as students, a few paces ahead in their own journey of learning, in order to guide students toward a common goal. As master learners guiding students on
the path of learning, teachers serve as exemplars of what students ought to become. Thus, in a fundamental way
the teacher is the text, and an essential characteristic of teachers is that they themselves model the same approach to learning that they seek to cultivate in their students. As Arthur Holmes writes, “The most important single factor
in the teacher is the attitude toward learning. By virtue of what a teacher is, his students can stand on his shoulders and peer further in their day than he did in his.”7 In other words, according to the metaphor of a guided journey what it means to be a good teacher has more to do with being a certain kind of person and learner than with producing a certain set of measurable results.


Plato’s cave, the industrial factory, and a guided journey are but three in a long list of educational metaphors that deserve similar analysis. Other metaphors with significant educational implications include Socrates’s appropriation of midwifery, Comenius’s garden of delight, Locke’s tabula rasa, Rousseau’s treatment of children as plants, and the digital computer which stores and transfers information as discrete “bits” of inert data. All of these metaphors deserve careful consideration because they all have the power to guide and limit the kinds of educational questions we ask and the answers we give to those questions. For example, many arguments for the necessity of annual standardized testing rest squarely on
an industrial factory conception of education.8 On a model of education that takes the teacher’s goal to be Socratic conversion of the soul or a guided journey of disciples toward mastery, however, such arguments are much less compelling. Other questions that are influenced by the educational metaphors we adopt include what kind of environment we should cultivate within the classroom, how schools and teachers should structure the daily routines of their students, what kind of assessments (if any) teachers should give, how we should define and evaluate successful teaching and learning, what constitutes valuable teacher training, etc. These are all important educational questions, and the formative power that our metaphors have in how we answer them is profound. Analysis of the implications of our educational metaphors is therefore invaluable, and it behooves us to carefully consider the role that metaphors play in both describing and prescribing our educational thought and practice.

Christian Apologetics and the Imagination

The part of the mind known as the imagination—the ability to form mental images—is important in the life of the Christian. Though a realm in need of discipline and sanctification, the imagination is a God-given super-power, making possible some of the greatest achievements of human beings. It makes possible empathy and compassion, shapes our worldviews, and is the way into our hearts.

The imagination can also be the way into the hearts of unbelievers. Many people in today’s culture, trapped in their narrow materialistic worldviews, “cannot imagine” any kind of spiritual reality. They perceive only dimly
the difference between good and evil, and while they can respond to extreme cases of the two (they are human, after all), they have difficulty imagining themselves as sinners. And God, Christ, Hell, Heaven, Redemption are outside of their imaginative frames of reference.

But it isn’t just that they have trouble imagining spiritual reality, they have trouble imagining physical reality. Their world consists of material objects, which they are glad to use for their pleasure; but the objective universe has no meaning for them. They think science has not only explained the natural order but has explained it away. There is no mystery or wonder in the external world, only dead matter. It can be manipulated in various ways, but any kind of meaning must come from within the self. While there might be objective facts, there is no objective truth. They cannot imagine a creation, much less a Creator.

One symptom of this tragic blindness is that people today are strangely impervious to reason. Rational arguments were important in the modernist era, which claimed the Enlightenment mantle of being the “Age of Reason.” But postmodernists often seem little affected by logic, chains of reasoning, or objective evidence.

Convincing people of the  thus poses new challenges today. Evangelists must try to reach people who have little conception of what the evangelists are talking about. Apologists can make superb arguments for the truth of Christianity that nevertheless fail to penetrate the mindset of their audiences. To be sure, many people are still coming to faith, proving that the Holy Spirit and not our merely human efforts is the One who brings people to Christ. And yet Christians must continue to speak about the objective truth of what we believe, objectivity being an important part of our worldview, both to emphasize to non-believers that the message of Christ is not just another construction of the self and to teach new believers how to think in objective terms. But one way to connect with postmodernists, to open their minds to a much larger worldview, is to reach their imaginations.

What C. S. Lewis did

C. S. Lewis is surely the best known and most successful Christian apologist of the 20th century. He showed that there is a rational case for Christianity. As such, he was addressing the modernist mind. And yet that was not all he was doing. Consider the climax of his argument about Christ in Mere Christianity:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.1

Here is a logical argument, establishing three possibilities and asserting which one is more plausible. But it is also addressing the imagination. When we read this argument, we are also picturing a lunatic, a devil, and even a poached egg. We also picture in our minds the responses to Him: shut Him up, spit at Him, kill Him, fall at His feet, call Him Lord and God.

Lewis wrote many books that make the rational case for Christianity: Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, God in the Dock, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer. His apologetic works are not abstract tomes, full of intellectual content but tedious to read. They are absorbing and hard to put down. His reasoning, full of vivid illustrations and analogies, is compelling, even exciting. This is because Lewis is stimulating not only his readers’ intellects but also their imaginations. Lewis was also the author of fantasy novels: The Chronicles of Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces. At a time when literary modernism favored works of grim realism, Lewis was writing in the genre of untrammeled imagination. But these works of the creative imagination, written to send their readers’ imagination soaring, also were works of Christian apologetics, playing a role, just like his rational arguments, in bringing countless readers to faith.

An important clue to Lewis’s life work can be found in the subtitle of the first book that he wrote after he became a Christian: The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism. His is an apologetic not only for Christianity but also for reason and romanticism. But aren’t reason and romanticism opposed to each other? How can he defend both logic and emotion, realism and fantasy? And in what sense are both opposites under attack?

This may be one of Lewis’s greatest insights. The modernists, in the name of reason, rejected romanticism. Today’s postmodernists, in their subjectivity, reject reason. But even as early as 1933 when Lewis published Pilgrim’s Regress, both worldviews were taking shape and starting to contend with each other. The narrow road that the Pilgrim must follow runs between two extremes. On one side are barren, icy cliffs, symbolizing the cold, hard facts of rationalism. On the other side are hot, muddy swamps, symbolizing the sensuality and inwardness of romanticism. But when the Pilgrim finds Christianity, a true reason and a true romanticism are restored to him.

Today, both objectivity and subjectivity are impoverished. Both are lifeless. Having no room for each other, they leave human beings trapped in a partial, incomplete state, with the different facets of their minds and personalities in conflict with each other. In the words of Lewis’s rival and fellow convert T. S. Eliot, who put forward a similar diagnosis, human beings today are plagued with a “dissociation of sensibility,” in which thinking and feeling go in different directions.2 Eliot found the unified sensibility he craved in 17th century Christian poets such as John Donne and George Herbert, and then he himself embraced the Christian faith and experienced the wholeness that it brings.

Lewis’s own coming to Christ had its start in his imagination. What he presents in an allegorical fantasy in Pilgrim’s Regress and more straightforwardly in his autobiographical memoir Surprised by Joy is his account of various experiences of ineffable longing. These were moments of transcendence, glimpses of something beyond this life, which he felt as a mingling of joy and an almost painful yearning. As he recounts in Surprised by Joy, different things would bring on these feelings, but they were almost always works of the imagination: Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin; a recording of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries; the mere title of William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End. A milestone in his spiritual pilgrimage was his discovery of Phantases by the Scottish clergyman George McDonald, one of the great masters of Christian fantasy. When he read it, Lewis said, “My imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.”3 Later, in a conversation about myth with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, he realized that what he loved in myth—its aching beauties, its slain gods, its deaths and resurrections–pointed to Christ, in whom myth became fact.4

Imagination led C. S. Lewis to Christ, and he led others to Christ by awakening their imaginations.5

Freeing Prisoners

Lewis’s good friend and the man who brought him to Christ was J. R. R. Tolkien, an even greater writer of fantasies. In replying to the charge that fantasy is mere “escapism,” Tolkien asked, “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”6

This is exactly the plight of the lost. They are prisoners of the sin that enslaves them, to be sure (John 8:34). They are also imprisoned in their narrow, confining, claustrophobic worldviews. That prison may be the materialism that insists that the physical world is all there is. Or it may be the even smaller and darker enclosure that is the self.

Tolkien wants to help the captive “get out” of his prison so that he can “go home.” Imagining something bigger and better than the constricting confines of the prison blows out its walls. Imagination can also awaken a yearning for one’s true home.7

To be sure, imagination can send an escaped prisoner in all kinds of directions, including to new imagination-created prisons. Christians must continue to insist on reason, evidence, and objective truth. What must be done is to re-associate truth and the imagination.

“Part of our problem in presenting the Faith,” observes Alison Milbank, “is that our world deadens desire, and many people do not know that they are missing anything.”8 “For me,” she says, “the whole enterprise of presenting the faith convincingly is aimed at opening this desire in others.”9 Helping people realize that they are missing something and awakening the desire for eternal life, for God, are critical for both apologetics and evangelism.

This is a task for the imagination, but not at the expense of reason. But reason itself needs to be imaginatively rehabilitated. Again, Dr. Milbank suggests how: Reason does need rescuing and we can do so by recasting the limit to understanding from a negation to an opening out to mystery. As Fr. Giussani argues, reason discovers mystery: ‘the summit of reason’s conquest may reveal itself as a foothill’ but this perception is itself a positive discovery that there is more: ‘the existence of something incommensurable in relation to [Reason] itself. And it is imagination that helps reason to recognize the mystery as mystery. So let us use every imaginative tool at our disposal to awaken the religious sense, and then use reason to explain the difference this viewpoint makes to our experience of the whole of reality, which is restored to us, in all its fullness.10

A good example of how this apologetics of the imagination has worked in practice can be seen in this account from British journalist Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who describes how, as an atheist, she was converted to Christianity through the poetry of George Herbert. (I have never understood why Herbert is so little known by evangelicals today. The Word of God is part of the texture of his verse, his major theme is the Gospel, and few have written so profoundly of their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Also, even secular scholars agree on his stature as one of the greatest lyric poets of the English language in his formal and aesthetic mastery.)11

Ms. Threlfall-Holmes recalls first coming upon Herbert as a teen-ager in school. “By the end of the weekend, I realised that this poetry was the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across.”12 She says that she had assumed religion was for the weak-minded. “But here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read, grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.”13 Notice that she is responding not simply to Herbert’s imagination but also to his intelligence. And yet, her own intelligence needed something more.

She responds to the honest struggles that Herbert records. She says of his poems that “many of them clearly describe his intensely personal struggles with faith and calling. Even those that are more formal explorations of particular religious doctrines or concepts have a similar air of spiritual authenticity. There are no mere statements of dogma. The poems record the poet’s own doubts and faith in a way that still rings true with many readers, even those with no explicit faith of their own.”14 She begins to see that there is more to Christianity than she realized.

For Herbert, religion is never simply a set of dogmatic assertions, or a collection of cultural practices, as historical religion is sometimes caricatured. . . .It was easy to dismiss the truth of the 20 impossible things that religion seemed to expect me to believe before breakfast. It was much harder to dismiss my own emotional reaction to these poems: the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger. They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.15

Our churches are full of young people like teenage Miranda—smart, sophisticated in their own way, and eager to leave their parents’ households–and we agonize how to reach and keep them. They need teaching, but simply throwing abstract doctrinal ideas at them may not be enough. The teaching needs to appeal to their intelligence. But Christianity is not merely about ideas.
It is about mighty realities, as concrete as rough-hewn wood stained by blood. And Christianity is not about bourgeois complacency, but it addresses failures, suffering, and personal struggles. Teaching the faith to young people—or, for that matter, to the unchurched or to anyone today—should involve awakening them to “the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger.”

The point is not just that we need more poets and other artists like George Herbert, though we do. We do need more apologists like C. S. Lewis who can reach both the intellect and the imaginations of people today, who are, in many ways, different than those Lewis addressed in his day. And we do need more writers like J. R. R. Tolkien who, even though they do not directly address religious issues, can expand the imaginations of their readers and fill them with desire for realities beyond the world.

But we also need preachers who can move their hearers to a deeper response. We need people who can witness to their friends so that the message of the Gospel is not easily dismissed but sinks in deeply. To be sure, the Word of God creates faith through the work of the Holy Spirit, but God’s Word itself is much more than abstract ideas. It certainly teaches inerrant propositional truths, and it does so by means of historical narratives, parables, poetry, and figurative language—all of which address the imagination in the course of reaching the heart. Meanwhile, all Christians—especially as they face the dehumanizing, reductionistic, and materialistic mentality of our current times—need to love God with all of their minds, which would include their imaginations.

Analogical Knowing: Creation is a Temple

The church prays Psalm 3, saying:

Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there be which say of my soul, there is no help for him in God.


But Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; My glory, and the lifter up of mine head. I cried unto the Lord with my voice, And He heard me out of His holy hill.


I laid me down and slept;
I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, That have set themselves against me round about.

Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God:
For Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone;
Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.

Salvation belongeth unto the Lord: Thy blessing is upon Thy people.


Christians have prayed this prayer many times, reciting or reading it. But should they?

I want to ask a simple question but I’m not sure how. Let me try it practically: Is it fitting for you as a Christian to pray this prayer? Let me ask analytically: can we see the “ten thousands of people” as demons? These are the same question in that both ask a larger question: what kind of world do we live in?

Is it a world in which the material is ultimate and only people trying to hurt you physically can be considered your enemies? Or is there some other realm just as real, of which the material is a manifestation but not an exact likeness.

Do we live in a naturalistic a-cosmos in which power rises against power producing, by some unapprehended logic, the wonders of the world we live in?

Or might we live in a magical cosmos – in a sort of Hegelian dialectic where some transcendental force works in and through events (thesis battles antithesis, releasing new glories in a synthesis of creative destruction).

Or might we, in fact, live in a world that is an image?

King David lived in an image. He could speak of ten thousand people surrounding him quite physically (I will not say “literally”). There they were and he could see them. Opposition arose time and again, sometimes ten thousand people.

When David spoke of the holy hill whence God heard his cry, he had a specific place in mind, bearing all the antiquity of Abraham’s offering and all the freshness of his own temple-building resolution.

So was that all David had in mind? Was he thinking only of a physical mountain on which Jerusalem would be built and on which a temple would manifest the glory of God to the nations? Did he have in mind only ten thousand human people surrounding him?

David himself stretches the physical interpretation when he says in verse three, “Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me.” Surely he doesn’t mean that he walks around with a round or octagonal version of God attached to his wrist. God shares a quality with a shield: He will preserve David from harm.

Clearly, metaphors are used throughout the poetry of the Psalms and Proverbs and common sense helps us understand them 95% of the time. Does that justify sweeping the whole of Psalm 3 or the whole book of Psalms or even the whole Bible into some spiritualized interpretation that clouds the obvious and plain meaning?

Well, no, not if you put it like that. I would never want to lose sight of the obvious and plain meaning. But we can’t ignore the clues given throughout the Bible that God is not only talking about historical physical events. The whole Bible, from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, presents reality as, ultimately, not a physical place, but as a temple of the living God. Yes, the physical is physical. But even it is not ultimately physical; it is meant to be spiritual. You could even say that our vocation as human priests is to offer the physical to God and by doing so to “spiritualize” it. It won’t lose its physicality but transcend it, finding and fulfilling its purpose (a house, still a house, becomes a house in which God lives – a temple).

Genesis 1-3 describes the creation of a temple and the placement and eviction of its priest. The same pattern is repeated in Exodus and throughout the Bible until we reach Revelation, where the temple of God, the very holy of holies, encompasses the whole cosmos.

This creation is a temple.

When we pray to “Our Father who art in heaven,” we don’t mean that He sits up on the clouds in a blue sky, but that He inhabits the holy place where His throne is surrounded by ten thousand times ten thousand angels. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Moses all saw it, and Hebrews shows that the earthly tabernacle and temple were an image of the eternal temple in the heavens.

There is an eternal heavenly temple that is the dwelling place of God and an eternal manifestation of His nature. The earth and the physical heavens are an imitation of this eternal temple (thus earth is His footstool, heaven His throne, etc.). The tabernacle and temple are specific imitations of the eternal temple because, having fallen, we can no longer see clearly the heavenly image in this earthly mess.

The church is the earthly fulfillment of the temple of God, in which the Holy Trinity takes His habitation by the Holy Spirit and the blood of Christ. It cannot be understood apart from its nature as temple. The spirit of man is the temple of God. Its inmost dimension is the holy of holies, possessing the Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat sitting upon it and the law of God contained within it.

We do have a problem though: perhaps the first manifestation of God’s extraordinary humility is that He allowed the first priest to evict Him from His own temple. Since then He has stood at the door knocking, but He will only come in to those who open the door.

It is more natural to pray Psalm 3 analogically than

We are the temple. Within us is this holy hill. If God

is welcome there, He abides there and He hears us when

we cry to Him. But we are surrounded by “ten thousand people,” Those spiritual beings rise up against us with challenges and accusations, speaking directly to our souls, telling them, “There is no help for him in God.”

It is no “spiritualization” or “allegorical” interpretation to say with David, “Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.” The allegory would be to look at the people David fought and to think that it had actually happened to them.

Those spiritual beings speak, and that is all they can do now. They tell us lies. We don’t hear physical voices because they are hovering around that deep inaccessible part of our beings, the place where a still small voice keeps beckoning to us, simply and unobtrusively. They make as much noise as we allow them to make so we can’t hear the still small voice.

“There is no help for you in God.”

That is the one thing they most want us to hear. That way we’ll try to help ourselves. That way we’ll turn away from the one thing needful. They speak. But they speak with a disjointed jaw and broken teeth.

This is everything. Do you believe that you are the temple of the living God, living in a cosmic temple, whose task it is to receive into your inner sanctuary the God of life so that you can have, like the garden of Paradise, rivers of life flowing out of you into the four corners of the earth, renewing the whole earth with the life of the eternally living God?

Do you believe that the world around you is a temple and that you are the priest, called to offer it to God?

Do you teach your students as though they are temples and priests – images of the God of heaven and earth – or do you teach them like they are beavers whose highest calling is to build a house that dams up the river?

The cosmos is first a creation, a temple, a work of art; it is not a scientific experiment. We live in a cosmological analogy. That is the first step to understanding the cosmos, the human soul, or, for us, education. You can’t put things together by cutting them up.

And that makes all the difference.

We have the opportunity to offer our schools to God by thinking of them with the right analogies used appropriately.

First, we must subject analytical thought to analogical (i.e. to acknowledge the power of our governing analogies).

In particular, we must learn to think using sound

analogies in the following areas.
1. School governance and leadership. We tend to

use military and industrial analogies. We need to think with more humane and ancient analogies, such as farming, building a temple/house, and weaving.

2. Teaching. We need to teach analogically, under which I include mimetic and Socratic teaching. The goal of our teaching is love from a pure heart, and that pure heart is able to see both the whole and the right relations of the parts to each other. Administering information on behalf of a text book company or a state or accrediting agency might be necessary since as slaves we are told to submit to our masters. But we mustn’t do it without transcending it with more sound approaches.

3. Curriculum. A curriculum is already and always an analogy because it is the model of reality from which students learn as much or more as they do from the content. The curriculum that is not integrated lies to the children and confuses them. It must model the harmony of reality, giving due honor to each art and science and aligning the relationships among the arts and sciences.

We must recapture the Christian classical meaning of arts and sciences. An art is a mode of making something and a science is the knowledge made by the liberal arts. We must reexamine the nature, power, and limits of the natural sciences. I refer you to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, lecture 3, paragraphs 22ff. for a discussion starter.

We must learn to treat the cosmos as a temple where the skies are spread out as a roof and the earth is

the King’s footstool. We must learn to view the soul of each student as the very Temple of the Living God, the center of which is the only place where the King of glory waits to sit on the Mercy Seat from which will flow rivers of life to the whole world

4. Assessment. We must not be governed, driven, or anxious over analytical assessments, which wrench student performance from its context and reduce it to something that can be measured. Again, we have to submit to our masters, but to be intimidated by them is distracting folly. We must realize that whoever assesses us is our boss, that assessment determines how we teach, and that conventional assessment undercuts the apprenticeship that characterizes a classical school (I specifically protest against standardized tests and the A-F grading approach, neither of which would ever have entered the mind of a classical educator prior to this age that is lost in the wrong metaphors).

5. Community: We cannot manufacture or produce a community. We can only nourish and grow one.

The fact that these are hard challenges is irrelevant. The child’s soul trumps all other needs. Teachers must
be hired, equipped, and valued based on their ability to nourish the children’s souls through the sound analogies that lead them on the path to truth, goodness, and beauty – without which they are lost, no matter how successful.

Accounting for the Form Knowledge Takes: or, What Do We Mean by “Meaning?”

In recent years, Christian educators have become more aware of the fundamental role of the body and of the imagination in the acquisition of knowledge. Teachers and administrators are increasingly recognizing the mistake — embedded and celebrated in modern culture — that ideas can be reduced to abstract information. Because human beings are not “brains in vats,” but created to know the world as embodied, intuitive, imaginative beings, knowledge is not simply data. Teaching and learning are thus more like a dance than a data transfer protocol.

We are none of us simple blank slates. We each receive knowledge into the context of what we already know and what we imagine to be the case. The rhetorician and intellectual historian Richard Weaver used the term “metaphysical dream of the world” to describe the “intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality” that informs all human thought.1 Weaver’s use
of the term “dream” suggests that what we commonly call “worldview” should be recognized as more than a simple checklist of doctrines and their consequences. The perception of reality and the wise apprehension of what is true about reality has a character that is more like a story than a formula, equation, or algorithm. Acquiring knowledge is the act of amending the story about reality that we carry with us — a story that orders our assumptions about what is and what might be — with new details: characters, settings, events, expectations, patterns of resonance.

But a memorable story, a story that haunts our imagination and shapes our dreams, is more than a collection of such details. It is in the form of the telling, not just the content of what is told, that stories sustain coherence. Good storytellers, good journalists, even good comedians, know that the timing and texture of the story — pauses, inflection, repetition of certain details, the careful selection of le mot juste — is essential to the story’s success. In stories, form is the fount of meaning. But not just in stories.

While some will insist that anything that can’t be set down in words can’t be knowledge, the testimony of the Psalms clearly refutes such a claim. As in all poetry, the Psalms present meaning in the concreteness of metaphor, whereby some aspect of the physical world — the world known to us immediately by the senses — is likened to some reality that is more than matter.

Consider the opening verses of Psalm 91:

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.

4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,

6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

The meaning of the text is in the metaphors and their unstated, connotative, associative power, a power which is ignited as we imagine ourselves in the embodied settings the metaphors describe. And beyond the meaning in the metaphors lies a meaning in the poetic structure, especially the confident rhythm of those couplets. In verses 5 and 6, we experience night and
day, night and day, threatened by arrows and pestilence and wasting destruction at all hours. Would God have communicated with us more efficiently if he hadn’t relied on so many metaphors? Is our acquisition of knowledge and understanding hampered because the form this revelation takes is so vividly tied to concrete experience, rather than the safe, lawyerly language of theological abstraction? There are those who seem to believe so, and since the Enlightenment — that cultural movement intent on securing knowledge that could liberate us from all shackles — their number has been thicker on the ground, so to speak. Consider this counsel from John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

[I]n Discourses, where we seek rather Pleasure and Delight than Information and Improvement, such Ornaments [as metaphors, similes and the like] . . . can scarce pass for Faults. But yet, if we would speak of Things as they are, we must allow, that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheat: And therefore, however laudable or allowable Oratory may render them in Harangues and popular Addresses, they are certainly, in all Discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where Truth and Knowledge are concerned cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the Language or the Person that makes use of them.2

If I read this correctly, “Things as they are” are best understood without figurative language. By contrast, the Psalmist (in Psalm 19) seems to be asserting that the biggest “Thing as it is” can be known in the wordless speech of Creation received through all the senses:

  1. 1  The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

  2. 2  Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.

  3. 3  There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.

  4. 4  Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Derek Kidner suggests that the sense of the paradox of wordless speech described here might be better conveyed if we insert the word “Yet” at the beginning of verse 4. There is no speech, no words, no voice, yet their cry, their utterance, their knowledge, is universally disseminated.
Poet Joseph Addison (1672-1719) captures the paradox of wordless speech in the third stanza of “The Spacious Firmament on High,” when he marvels:

What though in solemn silence all move round the dark terrestrial ball? What though no real voice nor sound amid their radiant orbs be found? In reason’s ear they all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice; for ever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”

The sensory experience we enjoy of Creation conveys real knowledge about the Creator. Creation, without words or propositional speech, is meaningful. As with stories, the form of Creation — especially, in this case, the experience of what we call “radiance” — is the fount of its meaning.

Unfortunately, contemporary Christians, like most post-Enlightenment people, tend to assume that form and content are easily and conveniently separable, and that the form with which content is expressed is not itself meaningful. According to conventional wisdom, forms serve the same role as wrapping paper, a decorative garnish, or a spoonful of sugar in dispensing medication. The form of expression may make the content more attractive or desirable, but it does not convey any meaning in and of itself.

Pastor Rick Warren typifies this assumption when he counsels church leaders: “Music is nothing more than an arrangement of notes and rhythms; it’s the words that make a song spiritual.”3 Any music with words that present Christian ideas or sentiments (or even vaguely pious words capable of being interpreted in accordance with Christian teaching) is automatically Christian music, and thus apparently liturgically appropriate. Words are the only vehicle of meaning that Christians need to worry about. Anything worthy of the label “knowledge” is conveyed in words and only in words.

D. C. Schindler has characterized such assaults on the meaningfulness of poetic expression as an expression of an “iconoclasm of the intellect,” a formative feature of early modernity whose consequences are still much with us. The images torn down and smashed in this crusade are the experiences of the senses, which even in the Platonic conception, Schindler argues, were assumed to be “intelligible content, in a spatial and temporal mode.“ While modernity assumes that the physical world is meaningless matter — and the life of the senses thus has no intrinsic connection with Truth — the Platonic and subsequent Christian assumption was that the physical world was “nothing but meaning made tangible” (or, the case of art and music, meaning made visible and audible). Whether received immediately by the senses or echoed in metaphoric speech, the perception of reality through the body by what would later be called the imagination was the source of meaning. Schindler insists that a recovery of a Christian understanding and implementation of imagination is essential to the recovery of a Christian understanding of truth:

The imagination is, if not the center of the human being, then nevertheless that without which there can be no center, for it marks the point of convergence at which the soul and body meet; it is the place where faith in the incarnate God becomes itself incarnate and therefore truly becomes faith; it is — pace Hegel — where reason becomes concrete, and the bodily life of the senses rises to meet the spirit. It lies more deeply than the sphere of our discrete thoughts and choices because it is the ordered space within which we in fact think and choose. Far more than a mere faculty, the Christian imagination is a way of life, and this is because we might say it represents the point of intersection between Christianity and the world.4

Discipleship (that enterprise of which education is a subset) can be seen as the forming of a Christian imagination, the training of the believer’s facility and agility in imagining the world rightly, thus to seek to resonate sympathetically with the order of Creation. Whether we use the vocabulary of loves and affections, imagination, or of taste, the effect is the same. Discipleship involves
the training of intuitive and subjective responses. C. S. Lewis captured this understanding near the beginning of his great treatise on education, The Abolition of Man, when he explained that, in classical and premodern Christian thought it was assumed that “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”5

In many Christian circles, discussion of the meaningfulness of form is all too rare. Forms are discussed in terms of popularity, as meaningless vehicles or containers for the content of conceptual knowledge. Or they are regarded only as motivational devices — usually carrots rather than sticks — employed to stimulate enthusiasm about certain truth claims or certain moral commitments.

But to say that the only kind of knowledge Christians should be concerned with is abstract, analytic, conceptual knowledge is to treat human beings more like angels or computers. Brains with no bodies, no loves, no qualities.

Meaning (and hence knowledge) is much bigger than verbal content. Flowers left by a bedside in a hospital are meaningful, as is a cross burned in someone’s front yard. A child running to greet her father returning home will mean something different from a child sitting coolly on a porch-step until he arrives. Eye contact or the lack of it can be meaningful. The presence of a friend means something different from a text message, and a gift carefully wrapped and hand-delivered means something different from a gift card left anonymously on a desk.

Words rationally perceived are necessary for stating and defending truth, and Christians do care about truth. But we care for more than truth. We care about realities that can only be partially described by words: about joy and sorrow, hope and frustration, fidelity and fear, love and justice. All of these abstractions are known by us as embodied creatures, living in space and time. Sorrow or fear or hope are not abstractions when you experience them.

The meaning of the realities with which Christians are concerned — which is pretty much all of human experience in its relationship with God and with Creation — cannot be adequately described through coldly analytical declarations, definitions, and argument. God knows this better than we do, which is why when God reveals himself to us, reveals who He is and what He is doing in the world, He does so in the concrete realities of Creation — the Heavens and the mountains and the seas and ants and trees and marriage — as well as in inspired stories and poetry, metaphors and imagery, parables and hymns, letters and visions. The Bible does not arrive as systematic theology and isn’t given to us just to create jobs for systematic theologians who, once they complete their work, can get rid of all of the imagery and messiness and fuzziness of the Bible. The Bible is given in forms that are to form our own lives, and it does that by capturing our imagination as well as engaging our analytic reason. In fact our imagination has to be involved before our reason can do its work.

Forms are meaningful in part because we live our lives in the form of our bodies. When we are burdened, we bend; when we express deference we lower our heads and our eyes; when we are excited our hearts race at a faster rhythm. When we strive to be attentive, or when we are pensive, we slow down, sometimes to stillness.

Not only do our bodies form our experience; our inner lives also have a form. Philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) developed a theory of art that challenged the radical dualism between content and form, and thus between objective and subjective. In her anthology Problems of Art Langer argued that “subjective existence has a structure; it . . . can be conceptually known, reflected on, imagined and symbolically expressed in detail and to a great depth. Only it is not our usual medium, discourse — communication by language — that serves to express what we know of the life of feeling. . . . [W]hat language does not readily do — present the nature and patterns of sensitive and emotional life — is done by works of art. Such works are expressive forms, and what they express is the nature of human feeling.”

As Langer describes the formal depiction of inner life, she quotes a psychologist who has been trained in music who said, “‘Music sounds as feelings feel.’ And likewise in good painting, sculpture, or building, balanced shapes and colors, lines and masses, look as emotions, vital tensions and their resolutions feel.” This does not mean that we need to translate a painting or a sonata into words, into discursive concepts in order for the work of art to do its work. “A work of art is an expressive form, and therefore a symbol, but not a symbol which points beyond itself so that one’s thought passes on to the concept symbolized. The idea remains bound up in the form that makes it conceivable.”

This binding together of form and content is not unique to works of art. All transmission of knowledge — by the Heavens, by storytellers, even by humble teachers — relies on the situatedness of embodied knowers. We and our students are not “brains in vats”, not computers, not disembodied spirits. Our lives have meaningful form, and thus the form we give to the knowledge we share will take some form. The challenge to thoughtful teachers is to appropriate the form that is most fitting.

Making Delightful Sense of Knowing (Ad)Ventures, Part I

Covenant epistemology offers a multifaceted vision of knowing that pertains to knowing ventures in every corner of our lives.1 Its central claim is that our paradigm of knowing should be, not the widely held view of knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed, but rather a vision of knowing as love-drawn, covenantally forged, dynamically unfolding, interpersonal relationship. I believe that shifting from the more pervasive paradigm to this vision of knowing makes a radical difference to learning and teaching. It makes sense of what we already know is important. It suggests ways we may be even better at it. And it offers fresh encouragement to us in our mission. Covenant epistemology makes delightful sense of knowing, restoring, among many other things, the adventure to our knowing ventures.

In this two-part essay, we’ll explore this alternative vision of covenant epistemology, and the difference it makes to learners and teachers. Part 1 invites you to ponder some of the mysteries of knowing, and it also sketches covenant epistemology’s understanding of both knowing and being as interpersonal. Part 2 (in the next issue) introduces you to a key component of covenant epistemology: Michael Polanyi’s innovative account of the two-level structure of knowing.

Part 1: Loving in Order to Know

All of us are involved in knowing, all the time, in every corner of our lives. Since this is obviously so, it seems we should be continually attuned to epistemology, and we should make responsible choices with respect to our epistemology. But it is also obvious that usually we do no such thing. Many people don’t know what epistemology is—that is, the philosophical study of how we know whatever it is we know. And the fact is that we go through life and knowing with little sense that we already have what I think of as an epistemic default. We have preconceived notions regarding what knowledge is, and these unavoidably impact all our knowing.

People of modernity in Western culture generally exhibit a default ideal of knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed. I call this the knowledge-as-information mindset, or posture, or orientation. It comes with several related stipulations regarding what knowledge is and what it isn’t.2

Learning and teaching are endeavors powerfully affected by one’s operative epistemic ideal, whether we have identified it or not. A defective epistemic ideal thwarts our efforts; a healthy one would positively and strategically impact them. In my work I identify the knowledge- as-information ideal and try to show its defects and illegitimacy. In its place I commend covenant epistemology, and an epistemic ideal of loving in order to know. I try to show its superiority in according with who we are as humans, in restoring regard to the world we try to know, and in showing us a more effective way to do so.

In what follows here, I want to guide the reader through some reflection regarding knowing that will showcase and contrast these ideals, criticizing the one and commending the other. In the process, I believe that any teacher and most any learner can quickly draw positive, concrete, effective, and encouraging implications for teaching and learning.

All knowing is coming to know

What is involved in knowing? To begin with, knowing is always a venture: all knowing is actually coming to know, being on the way to knowing. What should concern us, as we seek to make sense of knowing, is not what we already know, but what we do not yet know and how we move toward it.

What our epistemology needs to make sense of is not so much information and explanation. What it needs to makes sense of is discovery—coming to know in the first place. Making sense of that, it turns out, will not eliminate either information or explanation but actually allow us to make sense of it far more deeply. Understanding them properly will make us better at them.

The prevailing paradigm of knowledge as information gives us no help here. Knowledge is information; either you have it or you don’t. But it takes only a little reflection to realize that before we have the information in question, we can’t say what the information is. Even after we “have” the information, we have no guarantee that we understand it. And finally, even if we have the information and understand it, it would be entirely arrogant (and counterproductive) to presume that we
have exhaustively grasped its significance, implications and possibilities—any of which might reshape what we previously thought the information to be.

These puzzlements which the ideal of information engenders rightly suggest that it offers no account of how to move from not knowing to knowing. It actually suggests that we can’t move toward knowing. But if we were to conclude that knowing is impossible, we would be skeptics indeed. We would imagine ourselves cut off from reality. We would also be hardly human. This is not true to reality, and it isn’t true to who we are.

The main act, in knowing, cannot be expressed as “gathering information.” It must be something far more profound. We start to get at that profundity by seeing that all knowing is a venture toward the not-yet-known. Wonder involves knowing that we do not yet know.

For this to make sense, we will need an epistemology that makes sense of knowing what you do not yet know, and one which can guide you toward it. The Polanyian component of covenant epistemology affords just such an account; we’ll show that in Part 2. For now let’s just assume it. From well before we can be said to have information, we are setting out on a knowing venture, moving from not-yet-knowing, drawn by something we do not yet know. And this continues through the entire venture: at any point in our venture, we find ourselves poised on the threshold of more which we do not yet know. Knowing ventures are not-yet-knowing through and through. We are always on the “near side” of knowing.

I do not at all mean to cast this as futility. What I am envisioning, in the knowing adventure, it can be seen, is not a paranoid doubt but instead a responsibly risky but delighted confidence that whatever we know is liable to prove to be so much more than we might think. It will turn out that this is just what gives us the sense that we are actually connecting with reality. Knowing is not less; reality is more. And knowing itself only makes sense if we see it as a journey of discovery—a knowing venture.

Understanding knowing as coming to know brings our understanding of knowing into accord with our humanness, and with reality—with who we are, and with what (or who) reality is.

Loving in order to know

It is significant, therefore, that we do seek to come to know. As humans, we embody, in our very being as humans, a posture of hope and desire: we long and love to know. Covenant epistemology says that we should see ourselves, in knowing ventures, as loving in order to know, rather than as knowing in order to love. Knowledge does not precede love; love precedes and invites knowledge.

What stands most originally at the outset of our knowing venture is something like reality’s beckoning us mysteriously into wonder and puzzlement. We notice and attend; we say, “Huh!” In that notice, in our heightening desire, we are starting to respond to reality’s beckoning.

By way of example, I believe that you can supply a story or two, from your own life or others, that display that knowing is a venture, and that something akin to love and desire, a kind of wondrous intrigue with a hidden reality, sets it off. We must be drawn to what we want to know. Teachers—this teacher anyhow—are always scrabbling about to strike a spark in a student’s life, to wake them to wonder. Teachers of small children no doubt can infer from this claim that I teach college students! Small children, by contrast, are born loving to know. Teachers of small children have the opposite problem: they must seek not to extinguish the spark.

In the Western tradition of thought and ideas, especially in modernity, such an approach as loving in order to know is deemed both improper and ludicrous. People tend to conceive of knowledge as purest when it is refined to remove the dross of personal investment, passion, for these could only be a cloying, diluting, bias.

This paradigm presumes that information is only dispassionate. That is to beg the very question at issue. Is information dispassionate? Or is it rather the case that, if it is dispassionate, it is subpar as information? Have we, in fact, a myopia, not only with respect to knowing, but also with respect to reality? We want to develop an epistemic orientation which rings true to ourselves and to reality.

It is no great leap of logic to surmise that just such a defective approach to knowing lies coiled at the root of natural human desire, striking it into oblivion. If knowing requires checking desire at the door, we should not be surprised that childish excitement subsides into boredom and indifference. And we should expect that the human race will be adversely affected when it comes to understanding the world.

Key to a healthy epistemology is identifying the posture of loving to know. Key to learning and teaching is assuming it—in the sense of taking it as our own.

Pledging in order to know

People in the thrall of the pervasive epistemic ideal of knowledge as information tend to believe that responsibility and commitment are not involved in knowing; only after we know do we then have an option (not even an obligation) of personal commitment. A knowledge-as-information paradigm engenders this outlook. In the process it excises from knowing the very things that drive it and improve it. For love involves both desire and covenant. Love and pledge are two sides of the same coin; pledge is the underside of love.

As persons desiring to know the yet-to-be-known, we both love what we do not yet know, and we pledge ourselves to it. We pledge to do what it takes to pursue the hidden reality that beckons us. And I believe that reality is so structured that it takes just this loving pledge to evoke its gracious self-disclosure. Knowing is covenantal. And so is reality, as we will see.

Marriage vows offer a wonderful analogy here: we pledge to love, honor and obey…what we know but do not yet know. And that responsible pledge itself invites and brings reality to be. It invites and makes possible a new family and a good marriage.

If pledge is the underside of love, trust is the other side of loving pledge. We pledge ourselves in hope and trust in what we do not yet know. Love invites the real, pledges itself to invite it, and confidently trusts that reality will come through. Sts. Augustine and Anselm famously said, “I believe in order to understand.” It is only a small step from this to aver, “I trust in order to understand.”

Inviting the real, and a person-like real that responds

In that moment, what we do not yet know is hidden from us—even as it draws us. But it turns out that our epistemic posture significantly impacts what we apprehend. Love guides us into understanding contact with reality. Love actually invites the real.

We love in order to know. Of course we must distinguish love as healthy and responsible from defective, idolatrous, distortions that do not deserve to be called love.3 But all of us have plenty of experiences in which our attitude and approach actually shaped what transpired and what we received. I have come to recognize that how I address my “grandcat,” whom I am babysitting, affects her response. Bean is up to something questionable at the base of my Christmas tree. If I reprimand her, she cowers and hides. If I call her sweetly instead, I find, she comes readily to attend to me. Reality comes to me according to my posture.

Reality graciously and generously gives itself to be understood by those who bind themselves to what they do not yet know. Covenant epistemology implies covenant ontology.4 Knowing is best conceived of as loving; that which is known is best conceived as dynamically, generously, responsive to such overtures. It is also fruitfully conceived of as, literally, a tissue of promises—of the Lord’s covenantal “let there be”—every atom, in every instant. A tissue of pledge is therein also one of love. To say that love actually invites the real properly honors the integrity of the real as person-like—as love and pledge at its core.

A knowledge-as-information presumption mercilessly occludes the living core of reality, reducing
the real to two-dimensional 1s and 0s. Love, by contrast, enables us to apprehend what is there, as it is there truly. We don’t demand, and we don’t “harvest,” in the current, heartless, connotation of that word. Indeed, the knowledge- as-information approach has licensed us to dissect and appropriate whatever we want of reality. It accommodates our Western modernist desire to master and control, to
the end of power and progress. Instead, best practices of knowing, and thus of learning and teaching, are practices of love.

Aspiring knowers must cultivate an epistemological etiquette, so to speak. We’ve already fingered the posture of love as key, along with responsible personal pledge, trust, and risky investment. We may add the motifs of hospitality and welcome—we create a space into which we welcome reality. This suggests boundaries we must honor. It implies personal maturity, openness, humility, respect, gentleness and patience. We may not dictate or compel reality to fit our preconceived notions.

Listening deeply and empathetically, we should see, is no passive biding of one’s time, waiting to speak. Instead, it itself actively confers the very dignity that renders the yet- to-be-known the generous reality that it is. Reality grows to be itself in the dignity we confer. Listening empathetically means listening in concert with what we seek to know, seeking to indwell it and have it indwell us.

Here are a couple of closely related expressions of this that I especially commend: delight, and what I call noticing regard. It’s common to imagine, in our less-than- perfect world, that love involves a forbearing toleration and a condescending mission to improve what is lacking. The idea of delight subversively dispels this unfortunate caricature. Delight is a celebrative notice and regard. It is fraught with wonder and joy. It is entirely specific—this item, for itself—rather than something blandly general. It begins a relationship of knowing, and the relationship must only grow and deepen it.

The heart of knowing: insight

Love, pledge, trust, invitation—none of this guarantees understanding. Nor does it somehow add up to it. To cast knowing as a venture of coming to know is
to say emphatically that understanding, when it comes, is a gracious gift from beyond us. It contains at its core an element of surprise. Insight is intrinsically a transformative reconfiguring of whatever it was we thought we were dealing with or seeking to understand. Rather than information having been completely amassed, the dynamic is that what was hidden has now been revealed. We find ourselves not so much informed as, rather, changed. Polanyian epistemology, the subject of Part 2 of this essay, will elucidate the knowing event of insight.

The goal of knowing is not the exhaustive, comprehensive amassing of information. Nor is the question whether this is possible or whether we must settle for something less.5 The goal of knowing is of an entirely different sort. It is not information but rather relationship. It is not exhaustive comprehension at all; it is, rather, communion with the real. Coming to know anything
at all, whether the structure of DNA or God himself, is
a commencement of an eternally lively relationship of unfolding mutuality never devoid of further surprise and deeper delight. “From this day forward…”

The difference covenant epistemology makes to learning and teaching

It takes little effort to see how all this plays out
in learning and teaching. Instead, it gratifyingly confirms what we already sense is important, heartening, inspiring, and guiding us to cultivate it even more. Teachers invite the real, both with respect to the real they and their students seek together to understand, and with respect to their students. Students may also invite the real with respect to their teachers and their classmates. The goal of education, we should see, is to form persons as great lovers, people who care for a dynamically generous reality in which they already, as responsible persons, are embedded, and to which they are deeply bound.

All this fleshes out the vision of covenant epistemology, of knowing as, not merely knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed, but rather as the love-drawn, covenantally forged, dynamically unfolding, interpersonal relationship. Embracing the covenant epistemological vision makes a valuable, concrete, encouraging difference to learning and teaching. It restores the adventure to knowing ventures.

Humanism is NOT the Problem

I have read that in the process of freezing to death, it is when you begin to feel warm that you know you are dying. So it is with the decline of the culture: The further we descend into cultural chaos and incoherence, the better we feel, and the better we feel, the less we realize that we have a problem.

Up until fairly recently it was common to hear about the “crisis of the West.” This was when we were still feeling the cold. Numerous books were written on the subject, the most famous of which was probably Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. But there have been others: Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and James Burnham’s Suicide of the West ―all, in one way or another, prophesied the coming doom of Western civilization. Spengler, in fact, uses the term “wintertime” to describe the phase our culture
is now experiencing: a time of mental exhaustion, irreligiousness, and meaninglessness in art.

But now, as we fall into the last stages of our decline, we don’t hear so much about the crisis of the West anymore and we get–instead of cold prophecies of doom– the warmer comfort of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, in which we will all become economic and social liberals and live happily ever after in a secular version of the Millennial Kingdom.

Will Fukuyama’s “Last Man” please turn out the lights?

Those of us who still feel the frigid cultural air can be excused for trying to do something to avoid getting to the point where the cold is so severe that it feels warm. What is it that we should do to save Western civilization? There are several things that anyone on such a Quixotic quest should think about, the first of which is the question of what Western civilization is.

Spengler famously believed that even using the term “Western civilization” betrayed a sense of hopelessness, since, he said, civilization is what a culture becomes once it atrophies. So maybe “Western culture” is the better expression. With an understanding nod to Spengler we will use the terms interchangeably.

What precisely is Western culture? In a nutshell, it is the civilization that derives from the cultures of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, which was conquered and transformed by Christianity and which has been handed down through the centuries by an education system that has historically been referred to as “classical education.”

The Greeks represented philosophical and literary man. They produced the greatest philosophers and playwrights. With the possible exception of St. Thomas or Hegel, there is no philosopher who compares in insight and comprehensiveness with Plato or Aristotle. And there are no playwrights comparable to Aeschylus and Sophocles, although a few people would make the argument that Shakespeare is their rival.

The Greeks were humanists, a term we Christians often view with undue severity. I was recently in a panel discussion on classical education and one of the other panelists, when asked what was wrong with modern education, said, “humanism.” Humanism is exactly what is not wrong, either with the modern world or with modern education. We would be a lot better off if it were.

In his book The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton speaks of the sophistry that drives much of modern secular thought, a sophistry that works “first to soften the sharp transition from animals to men, and then to soften the sharp transition from heathens to Christians.” In other words, there are two distinctions essential to the Christian view of the world: that between man and nature and that between God and man. It is these distinctions that modern thought obfuscates.

What we need to understand about the Greeks is that they at least, unlike their pagan predecessors, got the first part of this right. While the pagans who surrounded them were worshiping man-beasts fashioned out of stone ―an idol with the body of a man and head of a bird, or with the head of a man and the body of a lion―the Greeks alone among the pagans idealized the human form. “Wonderful are the world’s wonders,” said Sophocles, “but none more wonderful than man.” Try to find in Greek statuary any such mongrel deities as those of the Egyptians or Babylonians and you will look in vain.

The only exception to this was the Centaur, a mythical creature (but not a god) with the body of a horse and the torso and head of a man. But the Greek’s fascination with this creature is probably due to the high regard in which the Greeks viewed the horse, an animal whose nobility has always attracted the admiration of men and which, even today, is the common companion of aristocrats (horse racing, we are still told, is the “sport of kings”). “The ancients,” said Thomas Bulfinch, “were too fond of a horse to consider the union of his nature with man’s as forming a very degraded compound, and accordingly the Centaur is the only one of the fancied monsters of antiquity to which good traits are assigned.” The Centaur also served the symbolic purpose of representing the nature of man at his wildest and most bestial.

The main problem with the paganism of the Greeks was not that it was wrong, but that it was incomplete. This is something that we forget at our peril. It is not wrong to say that man is the highest and noblest of material creatures. He is, in fact, made in the image and likeness of God, and, therefore, he is all this―and more. The entire creation story in Genesis is a scaffolding for the construction of man.

The Greeks understood the proper metaphysical location of man―above the beast and below the gods. He was, as religious historian Mircea Eliade pointed out, the one animal who walked erect, a sign of his higher possibilities. Their gods were ill-conceived: products of their imaginations and projections of themselves. They were deities made in their own image because they had no access to the revelation of the God in whose image they were made without their knowing it―no revelation, that is, other than the natural revelation, which could only take them so far. But it was a revelation.

This understanding of man was an essential aspect of the classical worldview that was shared by Christian thinkers from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to Richard Hooker, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It is why these thinkers are often called “Christian humanists.”

The Greeks believed in something they called arête. It has many shades of meaning, but it generally has the sense of some kind of human or moral excellence. To have arête was to live according to your human essence or nature: It was the art of being human. This assumed, of course, some kind of human ideal to which men were expected to approximate. The closer they approximated this ideal, the more they were said to have arête.

The Greeks were not wrong that there was such an arête or human ideal, they were only wrong about how this arête was defined. To the Greeks human perfection involved two things primarily: strength and stratagem. These two traits were on prominent display in the two books which articulated their ideals: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus―the stories of these figures in various ways expressed the ideals of the Greeks. They were exemplars of arête.

It isn’t humanism that is the problem today, but anti-humanism. “This teaching about the place and special dignity of man is today on the defensive,” says Leon Kass in his great commentary on the book of Genesis The Beginning of Wisdom:

It has been attacked as both false and dangerous. Some say it expresses merely an anthropocentric prejudice, vulgarly called ‘speciesism” by some advocates of animal rights. Others, appealing to evolutionary theory, allege that far from being godly, man does not even differ fundamentally from other animals: since all life is in the same business― survival and reproduction―man’s difference is merely superficial, a difference not of kind but only of degree.

The Greeks had it half right; the moderns have it all wrong.

The Romans, like the Greeks, were humanists. The Latin equivalent of the Greek arête was the Roman humanitas. They too believed in a human ideal, although it was slightly different from that of the Greeks. The old Romans were people of civil, filial, and sacred obligation. Unlike the Greeks, who speculated about the good, the Romans were people of practical virtue. They brought Greek philosophy down to earth. Theirs was an ethical culture, with Aeneas as their model. The “pious Aeneas,” he was called. There were other Romans too who exemplified their ideal of man. You can read about them in Plutarch’s Lives.

Although the Romans bowed to the superiority of the Greeks in philosophy and art, they excelled them in administration and efficiency. The study of the Romans is a study in political and ethical man. The Romans, said Russell Kirk, “were a people of strong classical endowments, grand engineers, tireless political administrators, organizers of military success; most of all they were men of law and strong social institutions, who gave the world the pax romana, the Roman peace.”

But to this recipe for Western civilization, we must add the ingredient of the Hebrews. If the Greeks were speculative man in miniature, and the Romans practical man, the Hebrews were the spiritual. The Greeks were literary and philosophical; the Romans political. But we look to the Hebrews for how God deals directly with individuals and with nations. The Greeks speculated on the nature of wisdom and virtue; the Romans attempted to practice them; the Hebrews alone among men knew their author. The Greeks and Romans were the stepchildren of truth; the Hebrews were its natural children.

Christianity came historically out of Judaism. But when the classical cultures of Greece and Rome were subsumed in Christianity, the fathers of the Church did not reject the concept of an ideal man. While they reviled the vices of the Romans, they did not reject their virtues. The cardinal virtues theorized about by the Greeks and practiced by the Romans―justice, temperance, courage, and prudence―were fully accepted by Christian thinkers. But at the same time they saw their insufficiency. Rather than rejecting the concept of an ideal man, the Christians informed the concept with new life. To the cardinal virtues of the ancients they added the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

To the Christians, the ideal man was Christ, the second Adam. While Homer’s Achilles was born of a mortal father and an immortal mother, Christ was born of a mortal mother and the immortal Father; while fictional Achilles was half god, half man, the historical Christ was fully God and fully man.

When G. K. Chesterton said that Christianity was the “fulfillment of paganism,” this is what he meant: not that Christianity was a further development of ancient paganism, but that ancient paganism (or at least the Greek and Roman form of it) was a stunted form of a truth that they, as men made in the image of God, knew was there but didn’t have direct access to.

This is what Lewis meant too when he contrasted paganism and modern secularism, saying that paganism was as a virgin and modern secularism like a divorceé in relation to Christianity. Modern secularism rejects the truth it knows; the paganism of the Greeks and Romans accepted a truth they had no way of knowing.

And one of the truths modern secularism rejects is the existence of any human ideal. It cannot accept the concept of an ideal man because it does not believe in man, but only in men. In fact, it rejects all transcendent truth. This is part of the reason that the classical education that was once taught in schools has been abandoned: because it was a scandal to the modern mind. This is why, in the course of about two decades around the turn of the 20th century, a new philosophy of education took control of schools. In several waves, beginning in the 1920’s, first progressivism, whose goal is to change the culture, and then pragmatism, whose goal is to fit children to the culture, took control of schools. The goal of passing on a culture passed away. Latin, the chief means of learning grammar, the first of the liberal arts, was made a specialty subject in high schools and then eliminated altogether. Classic literature and history―the primary means of teaching cultural values―still hangs on, but only by a thread. These subjects cannot meet the new (and mostly meaningless) criterion of “career readiness.”

Modern schools talk about “cooperation,” after having abandoned the literature that once taught students how human beings related to one another. They champion “creativity” in the very act of stifling the imagination. They rattle on about “critical thinking skills” after having abandoned the only program that has any right to the title: the liberal arts.

If you want to conduct an interesting experiment, there is a very simple question you can ask the next time your educator friend tells you how much he thinks we need to teach critical thinking skills. Let him finish his sermon, and then ask, “Could you define critical thinking skills for me?”

You will never see a blanker stare.

Modern educators have abandoned the very things that are required to accomplish the goals they profess to admire. They have, in Lewis’ words, removed the organ whose function they demand. “They castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Classical education is not only the best way to educate children classically, it is the only way to educate them at all. It is not just the best form of Christian education, it is the only kind of education that can accomplish the purpose of secular education.

“It is only Christian men,” said Chesterton, that “guard even heathen things.”

While we look down our noses at the Greeks and Romans because they worshiped man, we burn incense to the basest god of all: the Self.

Knowing the Past to Navigate the Future

I f we are to guide 21st century students towards truth, beauty, and goodness, we have to understand the default assumptions they bring with them to every conversation. Knowing what they believe and where those beliefs originate is especially important in the realm of moral and political education, where the distance between where they are and where they should be is so extensive.

Our students inhabit a disorienting world. The salient feature of contemporary moral and political discourse is that we have what seem to be unresolvable disagreements about the nature of the good life. Disagreements about which actions are right and wrong, about which policies the government should adopt, and about which goods we should privilege over others boil down to fundamental disagreements about the nature of the good life. Moral pluralism and an accompanying relativism are assumed realities by nearly everyone who enters the public square in the 21st century, and our students are no exception.

Moral and political discourse has not always been so disordered, and it became so through a series of subtle shifts over the course of the past half century. Introducing students to the Classical and Medieval authors who lived prior to the disintegration of moral and political discourse, showing them where in history the conversation shifted, and helping them think through the consequences of those shifts can help them understand themselves better and help them critically examine the assumptions they have inherited from their culture. In what follows, I recount some of the history. The story is much more complicated than the one I shall tell here, but my hope is that this brief introduction will provide some context for further study.

We start with the ancients. Both the Greeks and the Hebrews believed that the Good was something objective, universal, and eternal and that purpose was woven deeply into the fabric of the universe. Plato, writing against the relativists of his day, the sophists, argued that the Good was an eternal form in which all other good things participated. By taming the wild parts of one’s nature, the appetites and the strong emotions, with reason, one could steer one’s life towards the Good. Disagreements about the nature of the good life were for him the fault of human ignorance, not indicators of the lack of objective standards.

Aristotle agreed with Plato that moral goodness was objective and universally applicable to all human beings. To be a good human being meant to be good as the type of thing humans are, namely rational animals. A flourishing human being on his view was one that optimized both his rational faculties and was able to contribute to the common good. To do that, one needed to acquire the virtues, dispositions to think, feel, and do what is right and good. One gained the virtues through education, particularly through education that habituated students into good communal practices. The key virtues he and Plato exalted were justice, wisdom, fortitude, and temperance. Aristotle added other qualities that made one good in social settings, like being witty and generous, to the list as well. Most virtues, for him, were the mean between excess and deficiency, so being witty was good, but being either a boor or being a buffoon was vicious. Cowardice was irrationally deficient, while rashness was irrationally excessive, and courage, the mean between the two, was the ability to do the good in the face of danger.

The good life for both Plato and Aristotle was only possible in a community oriented towards the common good. Members of the community were to be educated to share a conception of the good life for human beings and to acquire the virtues needed to pursue that common good. In stark contrast to contemporary individualism, the ancient Greeks believed that the individual good and the common good were deeply connected.

The Hebrews, though markedly different than the ancient Greeks in many respects, were like them in that they believed in an objective moral order. They offered deeper insights into the nature of the good life through the doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. The Doctrine of Creation asserts that human beings are given a nature within the context of an ordered universe. Because of the fall, however, human beings became broken and therefore unable to enjoy the friendship with God they were intended to have. As a result of sin, the law was given to restrain sin and incline people’s hearts towards God. Through the covenants, God reached down to broken humanity to offer restoration, which came decisively in the sacrificial and transformative death and resurrection of Christ. Followers of Christ are promised justification and sanctification and an eventual end to all the chaos and suffering caused by the fall. Because God has reconciled humanity to himself, the good life becomes possible again, though only in an imperfect way this side of Heaven. In the promised consummation Christians are given a sure hope that frees them to pursue limited, imperfect goods in this life, knowing that perfection awaits them in Heaven.

In the Medieval era, Augustine, a kind of neo- Platonist Christian, shared Plato’s conception of the good as being transcendent, over and above all particular examples of good things and true independently of human knowledge or choice. As a Christian, he equated that Good with God. His conception of the good life was Platonic in many ways but complicated by his deep understanding of the will. For Augustine, it is not the case that to know the good is to do the good. Rather, humans can know the good and still willfully rebel against it. He considered sin the orientation of the heart away from the Good towards nothingness. Drawing from the teachings of Jesus, he was more concerned about the orientation of the heart than he was about external actions or even the good life in this world. Augustine made an important distinction between the good life in the worldly city of man and the good life in the city is God. Writing while the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble, Augustine gave Christians a way to live the good life and establish good communities in the absence of worldly order. He complicated the Greek worldview by suggesting that the virtues needed for citizenship in the city of God sometimes make one less successful in the city of man. When the world is out of joint, he argued, one might need to take the path of martyrdom.

Thomas Aquinas, like Augustine, was a Christian, but unlike Augustine, he traced his intellectual heritage back to Aristotle.

He argued that Aristotle was basically right that if one wanted to flourish in this world, one needed the virtues. However, like Augustine, Aquinas argued that humans were not just created to flourish in this world. We were created for loving union with God, and union with God requires the acquisition of the theological virtues – faith, hope, and love. The life of the virtuous man may not always lead to success in this life. It will, however, lead to beatitude in the afterlife.

Aquinas on the political side made some distinctions between various types of law. He asserted the existence of a divine law, which he split into the eternal law, the overarching principles by which God governs the universe, and the divine commands He gives us in Scripture. The natural law, according to Aquinas, flows out of the divine law. God created us with a certain nature and that nature determines what we must do and not do to flourish. So the natural law is grounded in creation, which is grounded in the eternal law, and the divine laws simply clarify for us what should be clear to us by means of the natural law. Aquinas thought that we should be able to know most of what God wants us to do simply by utilizing reason properly to study human nature. The natural law consists of objective truths about morality. When we create civil laws, they are either in harmony with the natural law or they are not. With a conception of the objective natural law standing above all civil laws, those who subscribed to Aquinas’s natural law theory had grounds for criticizing bad laws. If civil law were the highest law, then those in power would determine the laws, and the laws would only be overturned by force. According to Aquinas, might does not make right. The natural law stands in judgment over the civil law, making it possible to criticize unjust laws.

Later William of Ockham and John Duns Scotus developed the concept of natural law further, but they ultimately embraced and refined divine command theory. They argued that God’s commanding or willing X is what makes X right, and God’s forbidding Y is what makes Y wrong. God’s reasons for willing X and prohibiting Y they considered ultimately inscrutable. We cannot always know the reasons for God’s commands. We have to obey because of our position under God’s authority. Whether natural lawyers or divine command theorists, the late medievals believed that there was a standard above worldly standards and that it may be morally required that someone rebel against a civil authority. Objective standards, external and superior to human will, provided a constant check on power.

Some major changes occurred in the transition to the early modern era. One of the major catalysts of change was Machiavelli, who moved away from the concept of virtue, the good-making qualities that are supposed to help one flourish as a human being, to the concept of virtú, which are the qualities that will make one successful. We can hear the echoes of the sophists here. How can I win friends and influence people in Renaissance polite society? By having virtú. Machiavelli makes a clear fact/value distinction. Politics is about facts. Morality is about values. Through careful study, one can discover the objective truth about how to maintain one’s power. Machiavelli argued that one must sometimes use immorality to your advantage, or else come to ruin. Morality is more flexible than that. Sometimes a prince must lie, cheat, steal, threaten, and kill to achieve his ends.

Another major change took place when Thomas Hobbes replaced the divine right of kings with secular absolutism. Prior to Hobbes, within the feudal system, kings began to centralize their power, asserting that they functioned as God’s representatives on Earth. Prior to the Reformation, the only possible legitimate check on their power within that system would have been the Catholic Church under the leadership of the popes. In the Leviathan, Hobbes removed God from the equation. Like many Christian political theorists before him, he examined humans in the state of nature, which he described not as Edenic, but rather as a savage world in which everyone had a right to everything, a right to steal, kill, and harm whomever they wished. Life in the state of nature for him was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As he tells the story, living in such a savage state of nature, everyone feared everyone else because even the strongest, most intelligent person could be killed by the weakest person if given the right opportunity. Nobody was safe. Out of fear all decided to bind themselves together in a social contract, a kind of secular covenant with each other. In the contract everyone relinquished their rights to everything in exchange for the safety only a very powerful sovereign could provide. Hobbes argued that the sovereign, because he was made sovereign by contract, embodied the will of the many. Law thus became the expression of the will of the sovereign. Later, Locke and Rousseau, who neither shared Hobbes’s pessimism about human nature nor his love for monarchs, worked to limit the power of individual sovereigns and give the power back to those represented by the government. In the process, however, they largely kept God out of the equation, leaving humans to determine the nature of the good life on their own.

Modern moral theorists such as Kant and John Stuart Mill attempted to rescue the Christian moral system in the face of increasing opposition during the Enlightenment. They tried to generate universal principles that would help ground the inherited Christian moral system in some aspect of human nature. Kant tried to ground morality in pure reason. His principle, the Categorical Imperative, read much like the Golden Rule, requiring individuals to try to imagine what it would be like if their plan of action were to become the general rule that all people would follow. So, for example, if one was not able to rationally and consistently will that all people should lie, then one ought not to lie ever. In another formulation of the Categorical Imperative, Kant required that one always treat humans as ends in themselves and never merely as means. In other words, if one was planning to do X to someone else, one must first have that person’s consent before proceeding. No one can morally simply use another human being for his or her own ends.

Mill argued that when deciding between possible courses of action, we should always try to bring about the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. By happiness he meant not the rich conception of human flourishing Aristotle and Aquinas described but rather pleasure and the absence of pain. Though he made allowances for intellectual and aesthetic pleasures to count as higher than base physical pleasures, his conception of happiness depended entirely upon what humans, in their fallen state, actually desired rather than what they were created to desire.

As the deontologists (as the followers of Kant came to be called) and the Utilitarians (as the followers of Mill came to be called) duked it out for moral theory supremacy, with both sides generating strong arguments against the other, philosophers like Nietzsche and later the British logical positivists called their whole enterprise into question. Nietzsche argued that humans should evolve past the herd morality they have inherited and create their own “table of values,” while the positivist contended that all moral language is literally meaningless except insofar as it expresses the speaker’s personal preferences.

So, today, in the absence of a shared conception of the common good, we are left with a weak libertarian no- harm principle. Because no one can agree on the nature of the good life, the only actions that should be outlawed are those actions that harm other people in their individual pursuit of whatever goods they choose. We are given no direction beyond that from most contemporary moral and political theorists. The focus has turned to rights over responsibilities, personal opinions instead of eternal truths, and respect and tolerance in place of wisdom, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love. If our students are to find moral direction and provide leadership in a fragmented and confused world, they must become conversant with the rich Classical and Medieval tradition and enter the public sphere with ideas that are so old that they will appear radical and innovative.