Thursday, September 13, 2007

...with all thy mind

Anglican mission work has been successful in college towns to a degree that many church traditions have not. One of the chief attributes of our ethos is that we seem to thrive where the mind is challenged. Traditional Anglicans have never feared the arena in which intellectual prowess is required to defend the Faith. We have never feared the progress of science, the difficult questions of philosophy, the theory of evolution, or debates with atheists. In order to evangelize in the modern world it is necessary to have a tough and strong faith that stands up under the pressures of modern thought. But, in very recent years we have been given an ironic challenge: To withstand modern prejudice of the most "enlightened" kind as it comes to us from the age of higher illiteracy- the sort of illiteracy that only a very modern college can provide. In a time when people earn degrees that demonstrate no true education, but rather an amount of indoctrination, the time has come to recognize that modern education itself will collapse unless it is revitalized by its historical source, the Christian Church that created it in the first place.

A few years ago I spoke with a young woman who was majoring in English at the University of Maryland, and listened to her describe what she had been taught in a class on the works of William Shakespeare. Did she learn to appreciate his ingenious economy of words? Did she understand the meaning of his stories, whether the tragedy of Hamlet, a man who could not make up his mind, or the irony of MacBeth -how the promises made by the weird sisters were deceptive in their accuracy, and brought about their own punishment? Did she understand the guilty abdication of King Lear and the fruit of his sin visited on his own head? Did the comedies provide for her any pleasure, such as A Midsummer Nights Dream? The extent of her understanding of Shakespeare was simply this: She learned that it was important to detect the bias of "white male literature." The course was not intended to educate, but to do the very opposite. Instead of helping the mind to learn and grow, the course stifled the mind with irrelevance and the higher illiteracy of "enlightened" bigotry.

Saint Paul wrote to the Church of Rome that they needed to offer themselves to the Lord; that this was their reasonable liturgy of prayer that involves the whole of life poured out to God. But, in order to do so, they had to renew their minds (Romans 12: 1, 2). To think as a Christian is not easy, especially in this era. We live in a time in which many people catch their opinions (or, as they say, their feelings) the way that one catches a virus. To assimilate the bias of modern “civilization” requires no effort, because we are surrounded by sound bites and other forms of subliminal propaganda. Ideas are fed into our minds before we know what has happened, and we never had to think. The use of Right Reason, along with Scripture and Tradition, as the authoritative way to learn and know the truth, is an art and discipline that takes effort. It requires the effort of refuting wrong ideas, and the more serious task of learning the truth.

In many ways, to think with a Christian mind is as defiant as human flight. It seems unnatural to wrestle the powers of gravity, to take off and soar, and then to land. Indeed, a pilot must intend at every moment of flight to keep the airplane up, and must work to do so, or it will come crashing down. That is what it is like to think with a renewed mind, that is, with a Christian mind. It requires intention and effort to defy the gravity of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, which uses every means to abolish thought. Thank God that we have been given help. We have at our disposal a rich collection of writing that is suited for our times, with keen intellectual prowess and prophetic insight, yet written for the common man.

We cannot expect the young students of this age to grapple with our theologians, such as Francis Hall and Eric Mascall, until they have learned to think (which may require unlearning many anti-intellectual habits of the modern university system). We do have writers who can reach across the divide, however. And, as always, one name stands out in particular. Chief among the most relevant and helpful of modern writers was the great Anglican thinker, C.S. Lewis.

A great deal of attention has been drawn to his fictional works, by, of all unlikely sources, Disney studios. And, indeed, his fictional writing is excellent. In addition to the Narnia stories, his space trilogy contains one of the greatest English novels of modern times, That Hideous Strength. Even in works of fiction, his Christian philosophy is expressed in the clearest of terms, containing the prophetic element by which his critique of modern (or post modern) anti-culture becomes more relevant as time passes, than during his lifetime. Yet, even more helpful still, in any honest endeavor to sharpen mental faculties, is his non-fiction, which comprises the bulk of his extant published works. In order to jump in and benefit from a good collection of his best thinking, no better book with which to begin is the collection of essays published under the title God in the Dock.

In one volume, the reader is given a sample of Lewis as theologian and philosopher, as moralist and social critic. His religious devotion and literary knowledge contribute to the overall understanding of the man, and of his renewed Christian mind, in such a way as to help the mental pilot who is only just learning to keep his mind soaring above the gravity of a fallen world. Of course, before making the effort of reading Lewis- easy to do as he combines light reading with heavy thinking in a most engaging style- the decision to fly must first be made. One must first decide that it is the religious duty of Christians to learn and to think. But, remember, flying, though requiring intention and effort, can be quite pleasurable.

Getting back to the need to save education from the bigotry, intellectual laziness and indoctrination of this age; just as I said about seminaries I say about the university system in the modern world. We must not simply equal the accredited institutions of alleged higher learning; we must surpass them. In very practical terms, students need history and classical languages, since linguistic roots are essential knowledge to anyone who wants to understand serious thought. Why would I even bring this up among Continuing Anglicans who are trying to grapple with the problem of clergy education, and keep their own churches afloat? Who better?


Sandra McColl said...

As a failed academic, but the possessor of a pretty good emperor's new clothes detector, I quite agree. Think I might listen to a little white male music (yes, they make that, too) before saying my prayers and going to bed.

Tony Esolen said...

Father Hart,

Superb comments. I used to observe to my students that Nature in her motherly care had provided each of us with a certain fund of dullness which, with hard work and assiduous reading, we could deepen into downright stupidity; and that it was the object of a college education to assist us in this endeavor. Hence the foolishness of those people who insist that colleges are vastly overpriced and deliver an inferior product. It is exactly what we are paying for and what we want. I mean, if people were really to think about schooling, politics, law, raising children, buying groceries and furniture and houses, watching television, and so forth, with a Christian mind, what would happen to the economy? Why, you'd have a kind of universal jaywalking -- everybody crossing everything all wrong. Mustn't have that, say our lemmings in the avant-garde.

Rob said...

I share your concern about education. I have been a teacher and adminsitrator for ten years. Last year I was principal of a Catholic school (and have since switched to cleaning houses where I make twice as much money, but that's another story).

I remmeber someone being disappointed about their life as a teacher because, when he was young and idealistic, he imagined teachers in the lounge on break discussing Plato and great works of art. He learned that they just sat around griping about their classes and their pay.

But that is not the real problem. The problem is this: They don't sit around discussing Plato because they don't know who he is. I assure you, the average teacher today is very poorly educated. Master's degree or not, I have yet, in ten years, to meet more than two fellow teachers who knew anything about history, literature, art, etc.

Oh, the others knew enough to teach their subject from a textbook, sure. But the average college graduate today knows almost nothing. When you gave your example about the young woman who had learned to detect "white male bias" in Shakespeare (Go figure) I thought, "Well, at least she paid attention in class!"

Most people don't bother. It's not that they are learning PC. It's that they aren't learning anything at all.

Ken said...

I received a catalog from the The Teaching Company a few days ago:

Seems like an interesting way of expanding one's mind, maybe to "unlearn" the things one "learned" in college.


Carlos said...

Going to UC Davis, I thought there was going to be "talks" amongst my friends and classmates akin to something from "This Side of Paradise". In fact, I was really taken by Amory Blaine's character who was well read and mused on many subjects of the social sciences. Such things do exist, but its unfortunate that so many students (friends included) that I've met just go to school, read the text, memorize it for the test and that's if.

I love having the University library at my hands, I've found all sorts of interesting books that are now out of print. The university used to be a place of "learning" for the student, a place to become learned, and now it's just a route to get a decent job. And the crackpot research that goes on amongst the liberal arts is rather sad. My best friend who (no surprise) is a religious studies major, is infuriated and frustrated with his professors in his department. Most have some neo-feminist, or spiritualist agenda and it seems more and more, that in order to get tenured, you have to come up with the most bizare interpretation of history or religion, and defend it. If you can do that, you are in. I don't think that's right. Besides History (which is my major), I've had very few liberal arts classes I've enjoyed. Anthropology and Sociology seem almost a joke now. It really discourages me sometimes, and unfortunately, has lowered my opinion of the humanities in public universities.

On a side note, I was looking at the APCK parishes in California, and I noticed an unusually high number in College Towns and wasn't sure if it was coincidence or not: Palo Alto, Chico, Arcata, Berkeley, Santa Barbara. It's unfortunate there is nothing near or in Davis...

Joseph said...

When I was a Freshman in college 22 years ago at a small Lutheran supported college in NJ (that sadly closed in 1995) I had professor who lamented the lack of basic knowledge among students. It was a core Western Civ class( yes they had one)
I was his pet because I knew what should be common knowledge for anyone in college( Greek Myths, Basic history etc)
I feel blessed to have a great education. I am 40 and have a Doctorate in Chiropractic and I was shocked that those in school with me, all with at least a Bachelors degree having a blank stare when someone mentioned Martin Luther... we have a day off in January for him