Machen Day 2018


The undergraduate student of the present day is being told that he need not take notes on what he hears in class, that the exercise of the memory is a rather childish and mechanical thing, and that what he is really in college to do is to think for himself and to unify his world. He usually makes a poor business of unifying his world. And the reason is clear. He does not succeed in unifying his world for the simple reason that he has ho world to unify. He has not acquired a knowledge or a sufficient number of facts in order even to learn the method of putting facts together. He is being told to practice the business of mental digestion; but the trouble is that he has no food to digest. The modern student, contrary to what is often said, is really being starved for want of facts.

Certainly we are not discouraging originality. On the contrary we desire to encourage it in every possible way, and we believe that the encouragement of it will be of immense benefit to the spread of the Christian religion. The trouble with the university students of the present day, from the point of view of evangelical Christianity, is not that they are too original, but that they are not half original enough. They go on in the same routine way, following their leaders like a flock of sheep, repeating the same stock phrases with little knowledge of what they mean, swallowing whole whatever professors choose to give them and all the time imagining that they are bold, bad, independent, young men, merely because they abuse what everybody else is abusing, namely, the religion that is founded upon Christ. It is popular today to abuse that unpopular thing that is known as supernatural Christianity,
but original it certainly is not. A true originality might bring some resistance to the current of the age, some willingness to be unpopular, and some independent scrutiny, at least, if not acceptance, of the claims of Christ. If there is one thing more than another which we believers in historic Christianity ought to encourage in the youth of our day it is independence of mind. (What is Faith? 16-17)

Fishermen Need Not Apply

Does the path to sanctification (or virtue) really lie in a liberal education?

Liberal education, according to Blessed Cardinal Newman, is primarily formation of the mind enabling it to seek, know, and contemplate truth, which is the good of the intellect and which prepares us to know fully and love fully the One who is the truth. But I do not think education of the mind is sufficient. Just as a specialist education in one field or skill should not come before a generalist and integrative education in the principles and mindset of all fields, education of the mind alone or as foremost is imbalanced, and can lead to extreme deformations in the soul, such as hyper intellectualism, an inability to act decisively, and a lack of emotional intelligence and integration. In addition to the mind, there must also be an education of the body in endurance and long-suffering, the imagination in beauty, and the will in the good. All this is to say that a proper education is an education of the whole person, but the person is neither his intellect, his will, his imagination, his memory, nor his body. He is, rather, his heart. And the heart is what WCC educates best.

Why is the heart so important? In a word, God. God makes His presence known in our hearts, and we see God with our heart, not our eyes, and not even our intellects. But the synthesis of all our powers at the very core of our being. The heart is supernaturally educated by grace, the sacraments, the life of Christian charity, and the teachings of the Catholic Church, but the heart needs a robust natural education in order for the supernatural formation to take root and bear fruit. How can the heart be educated? Only by a “curriculum of the heart,” one that forms and perfects all our powers in different disciplines: humanities, the moral imagination; the fine arts, the aesthetic sense; the outdoors, the will, the senses, and our character; math and science, our powers of observation and interpretation; philosophy, our critical and questioning powers, our dialectical mind; and theology, our contemplative essence.

Imagine if Peter and Paul had had to go to college before attending seminary with their Lord. Jesus would be dead and they’d be rising seniors.

Or maybe, just maybe, word, sacrament, and prayer work independently of philosophy and literature. Nothing wrong with education and in Protestant circles, literacy was pretty important for participating in the worship service — hymn singing and all. But education will not save us. If we know that in politics, why not (Christian) religion?

Liberal Education After the Fall

Must a student be baptized before pursuing the true, good, and beautiful? That questioned occurred after reading Fr. James Schall’s summary of Tracy Rowland’s lecture on Roman Catholic education.

For Rowland and Schall, the Trinity informs the study of everything and so Christianity is at the foundation of any genuine education:

…the basic Catholic approach to education is that there “exists a relationship between the human intellect, the theological virtue of faith, and the transcendental of truth; there also exists a relationship between the human will, the theological virtue of love, and the transcendental of goodness, and there exists a relationship between the human memory, the theological virtue of hope and the transcendental of beauty.” The transcendentals—one, being, good, true, beautiful—are predicates we can apply to everything that is. They reflect in our being the inner relation of the three persons within the Trinity.

It is possible to pass through schools, even at the graduate level, and not really learn much of truth or of what is important. This result can happen also in Catholic schools. Thus, we need graduates who actually have “Catholic intellects, Catholic wills, Catholic imaginations, and Catholic memories.” They need to be conjoined in a proper order of soul. We want to know the truth, to control our own disorders, to imagine what can enlarge our vision. A Catholic memory will know of its saints and their foibles, of glories and tragedies.

But I wonder why a Christian approach to education, one that takes Genesis 3 and the triumph of Augustinianism over Pelagianism seriously, wouldn’t first start with fallen human nature and the incapacity for those, either unregenerate or unbaptized (depending on your communion), to see the Trinity in the true, good, and beautiful because unbelievers are turned in on themselves. In other words, doesn’t a Roman Catholic view of education presuppose that professors and students are baptized and belong to the same communion?

Schall goes on to explain that Rowland acknowledges that not all students have the same intellectual capacities:

This is not an evil, but an aspect of a common good that makes it possible to participate in a broad range of goods and fruits of labor, and insights of others. Some will be more gifted intellectually than others. Some will have greater hearts, be more insightful, or possess skills or virtues that are good. Not everyone is a genius. Indeed, studies show that only about twenty percent of students are able to grasp subtle abstract points of knowledge. The teachers and schools must know and attend to the differences.

An educational egalitarianism that presupposed that all students have the same capacities, talents, and discipline will probably end by teaching very little to neglect the real needs and skills of actual students. Some students will be more attracted to truth, others to goodness, others to beauty, and still others to all sorts of practical and unexpected things. “Human lives can turn into narrative wrecks if educators produce people who can think at high levels of abstraction but are emotionally retarded or who lack sapiential experiences, or who conversely are emotionally sensitive but have no intellectual framework with which to make judgments about their inner life.”

But imagine the narrative wreck that comes with a failure to acknowledge that students can’t understand the Triune God without a prior work of grace, that all students try to suppress the truth in unrighteousness apart from God’s saving work.

If Christian education is going to be redeemed, doesn’t redemption need to be part of the conversation?

Is Joseph Epstein Off Limits to a Christian?

About a year ago, Joseph Epstein, one of (all about) my favorite writers, produced a piece on the value of liberal learning. It is smart and clever, as Epstein’s essays always are, and this one helps me try to convince freshmen in Western Heritage of the value of Greek philosophy (during a wee peek at the Epicureans and Stoics; truth be told, it also allows the philosophically challenged like me to find a network time killer in the third week of classes).

But it occurred to me this morning while preparing for class that Epstein is also useful for exposing the posturing of transformationalists as either theonomists, fundamentalists, or both.

Epstein talks about the value of a liberal education in ways that seem impermissible to many neo-Calvinists who employ the language of w-w:

The death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial. The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.

Notice that Epstein makes these assertions without any reference to God, special revelation, or regeneration. (Why would he? He is not pretending to be a Christian.) He is thinking entirely as a human being. Some might say he is doing so — gasp — autonomously. But can anyone who is serious about literature and learning (Christian or no) really take issue with Epstein’s notion of a liberal education and its value? Someone like Bill Smith has questioned the idea of Christian math or Christian pedagogy with all the sense that common sense yields. But when it comes to a liberal education, are Calvinists really supposed to say that Christians know a liberal education better than non-Christians? Even though the liberal arts and their derivation from classical languages and letters by Christians predated Reformed Protestantism, we are now supposed to conclude that only faculty with a biblical or Reformed w-w will be the ones to yield a genuinely liberal education?

This is complete nonsense and amazingly smug, as if regeneration somehow gives Christians insights into tragedy, epistemology, or historical contingency. I have been around lots of Christians where those awarenesses have never shown the slightest signs of presence. And that’s because an education comes through lots of long hours of reading and reflection, and even then doesn’t necessarily take hold. You need a certain natural acumen for such things; regeneration cannot make a Christian intelligent (only God can and he does it through nature, not supernature).

And yet, transformationalists continue to opine that 2kers are the ones who are rocking the boat and upsetting the consensus of Reformed churches, as if a hyper-antithesis is not far more radical than anything 2k advocates are saying. Just yesterday I heard a podcast which described the Christian scholar’s task as one of bringing secular universities into conformity with biblical truth. The reason is that secular learning is illegitimate since it denies the fountain of all truth. Well, if secular universities are illegitimate, then what of secular governments? And if secular governments are illegitimate, what of secular persons? Is there a place in this world between the advents of Christ for non-Christian learning, non-Christian governments, and non-Christian persons (like Joseph Epstein)? If Epstein is wrong about sound learning and informed aesthetic judgments, if persons can only know good from bad literature by reading the Bible first, or can only form valid political arrangements by having Christians perform the political founding, or persons are not worthy of reading or hearing unless they are first regenerate, then Christians are in the same position as some forms of political Islam.

But Reformed Protestantism has never insisted on such a construction of the antithesis because it never questioned the legitimacy of contributions from non-Christians. Once you accept that people who do not know Christ, along with the institutions they found, are legitimate and reflect in some measure of the image of God in man along with the truths of general revelation, then you can aspire to be learned the way that Epstein is, or try to follow constitutional republicanism the way the founders of the U.S. did, or even read Plato and Thucydides for profit the way most college students in the West for centuries have (if you were rich and smart enough). If you appeal to common grace to free you from the polarities of such hyper-antithesis, by all means, go right ahead. That means you have to stop bellyaching about secular learning, secular governments, and secular persons because common grace is a way of affirming that all of those institutions and people have a legitimate role in God’s gracious ends. It also means giving up transformationalism because common grace has already done what you seemed to think transforming the culture would do.

But if you draw a line between the regenerate and unregenerate and extend it to intellectual life, or institutions, whether political or educational, you have removed yourself from the history of the West and taken a harder line than even some popes were prepared to go. You have not gone to the Land of Chocolatebut to the Twilight Zone.