Dr. John H. Westerhoff discusses spiritual formation and liberal arts learning.

Having taught linguistic philosophy and anthropology I am aware that good communication is dependent on the shared understanding of words and concepts. For example, as I read a number of issues of The Journal of the Society of Classical Learning, I became aware of extremely negative attitudes toward “post-modernism.” I happen to be very positive and hopeful about the possibilities of a post-modern era, but I also know that there are very different understandings of the concept.

I believe that history can be understood by defining it in terms of eras and transitional periods. When the middle ages, the age of faith, were coming to a close, a transition period (the Renaissance and Reformation) turned into the birth of a new era, the age of reason which became known as modernity. Some of us believe that the value of modernity has reached its theological and moral limits. The 20th and 21st centuries appear to be a transitional period out of which a new era will emerge. We call that new age “post modernity,” an age much more friendly to faith and the spiritual life.

During the age of modernity, relativism became normative among intellectuals. My desire is to free us from believing that in terms of beliefs anything goes, to embracing a genuine respect of our differences and an understanding that in our differences we are stronger. I believe truth is found in holding together, in a healthy tension, counter opposites (e.g., Jesus is fully human and fully divine). Truth is believing that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. There is the truth, but it would be a denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in God’s continuing revelation for any of us to be certain we know what it is.

Too many have turned education into debate and the desire to be right rather than dialogue and the desire to seek after truth. Relativism is not a virtue, but neither is absolutism. The intellectual way of thinking and knowing founded on reason and logic needs to be complemented by the intuitive way of thinking and knowing founded on the arts and the imagination. It is not enough to teach the history of art or music. We must teach every student to paint and play an instrument.

It is good to remember that while classic and classical are related, classic is a judgment that defines something’s value, while classical
is more a reference to an ancient culture and its understandings, ways, and artifacts. Nothing is of greater value simply because it is ancient any more than because it is new. The classical age also was more diverse than we sometimes imagine. The church East and West has been divided for years between the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy and reason can not replace theology and revelation.

One last comment. As early church fathers put it, “Christians are made not born,” and when asked how, they pointed to three processes: formation or the participation in and practice of
the Christian life of faith; education or critical reflection on our lives in the light of the Gospel; and instruction/training or the acquisition of knowledge and skills fundamental to the Christian life. It is not enough for a Christian school to offer courses in religion. It needs to critically look at its total curriculum to discover what it is really teaching. My observation is that spectator sports in school are more important than physical health and lifelong exercise; that the value of competition is ahead of cooperation; that individualism is more important than community.

Consider two final exams I used at Duke that are examples of my understanding of a Christian education in the classical tradition: First, what is the one question, stated clearly and fully, that you are now asking that you were not asking at the beginning of this course? Then state how over the next year you intend to search for its answer.

Second, in the groups of five to which I have assigned you, agree on a subject related to this course, then write a paper together on that subject and create a piece of art related to it. Then evaluate each other on your contribution to the product and the process of this project.

I look forward to meeting you at your society’s conference in June. I long to meet you and discuss with you the important question of the spiritual life and spiritual formation.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

About SCL

The Society for Classical Learning exists to foster human flourishing by making classical Christian education thrive.

Recent Resources

More Resources

Sign up for our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SCL news, events, and resources!