Thursday, September 22, 2011

Secular Learning and the City of God

 Another good quote from the A Year with the Church Fathers app.   I linked to the whole address at the end, because I've read it before and like the whole thing.   The question was a large one in the early days of the Church -- should Christians study secular material using secular methods?   Related questions still come up quite a lot in the homeschool world:

  • Is there any value in education besides that of training to make a living?
  • Is education for girls valuable?  (this question often comes down to being a variation of the first one)
  • Should we read or study secular books?
  • Should we use secular methods?
Anyway, here's the quote, while I wait for my laundry to come out of the quarter-slot dryers.   Yes, I am at my sons' apartment in Oregon.   Aidan loves to walk across the parking lot with me, load the washers and dryers, and drop the quarters in.    

Secular learning is good and useful, says St. Basil, when we understand that our true goal is heaven. By understanding history and science and other things the world teaches, we exercise our minds for understanding the higher truths of Scripture.

Young men, as Christians we believe that this human life is not supremely valuable. We do not recognize anything as an unconditional blessing if it benefits us only in this life. Family pride, strength of body, beauty, position, universal acclaim, royal power, anything that might be called great in human terms—we see none of these things as worthwhile, and we do not envy those who have them. No, we put our hopes on what lies beyond, and do everything in preparation for eternal life.

If you were to bring together every earthly good from the creation of the world, it would not compare to the tiniest part of the possessions of heaven. Everything precious in this life falls shorter of the least of the goods in the other than the shadow or dream falls short of the reality. Or rather, as much as the soul is superior to the body in everything, so much is the heavenly life superior to the earthly life.

The Holy Scriptures lead us into the eternal life, teaching us through the divine words. But as long as we are not mature enough to understand their deep thought, we exercise our spiritual perceptions on the secular writings—which are not so much different, and in which we see the truth, so to speak, in shadows and mirrors. In that way we imitate those who do military exercises: they gain skill in gymnastics and dancing, and then reap the reward of their training in battle. We must believe that the greatest battle of all is ahead of us, and to prepare for it we must do and suffer everything.

So we must be familiar with poets, historians, orators, and in fact everyone who can help our souls to salvation. First we are introduced to pagan legends, and then at last pay special attention to the sacred and divine teachings—just as we might first get used to the reflection of the sun in the water, and then can turn our eyes to the sun itself.

–St. Basil, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature

At this point in our civilization's history it seems to me that almost any secular study is quite intertwined with Christianity.  Case most readily to hand:   driving the 700 plus miles from central California to western-central Oregon, we listened to a Teaching Company audio lecture called London:  A Short History of the Greatest City in the Western World.   While the thesis in the subtitle might be somewhat arguable, the lecture was quite fascinating as a sort of microcosm of and  focus for some of the Big Moments in Western Civilization.   It takes you from the Roman days of Londinium all the way up to Princess Di and "Milennial London". 

Since we are creatures who learn from our senses, often "sensible" representations are the only way we can extrapolate to immaterial truths.  This has all sorts of ramifications, but an important one is that learning (as opposed to ignorance) makes our understanding of ideas more sophisticated and subtle, more flexible and able to be transmitted to others.  

I can think of another way that learning makes us more aware that we live in the City of God -- it evokes mystery.   Sometimes when we meet something that is unknown and strange, we feel a shock of a kind of wonder --  which St Thomas classified as a species of fear, but good fear, perhaps analogical to the "fear of the Lord" --  something that attracts us to find out, to know and love.   We talked about this a lot in our study of Poetic Knowledge, and to me it seems to be one of the key reasons that Charlotte Mason  called Education the "Science of Relations". 

This helps me better understand a question that kept recurring to me when I read Splendor in the Ordinary.   Again and again in the book, Howard would juxtapose the modern lack of ceremony with the older, more ceremonial ways, in such a way as to show that the argument between the two, in his mind, was already settled in favor of the older ways.  But to me, the argument wasn't totally settled already.  In spite of my sympathy with tradition, I don't tend to reverence it for its own sake, nor am I by nature very suspicious of new things.  I usually LIKE new things if they seem good --  message boards, blogging, Kindle books, and Iphone apps being only the most recent in the line of new things in my life.

But I can see that doing things ceremoniously, with some regard for the old things, is a way of "intensifying perception" and giving the younger generation a sort of participation in their own past.   This seems to take us a long way from "learning", but after all, taking part in tradition is a gymnastic way of learning (to use James Taylor's word for bodily, active/sensory ways of learning), and after all, young people generally seem to rather appreciate these modes of carrying on tradition, so long as they aren't presented as either stultifyingly ritualistic, or plain silly and trivial.

Aidan, who has been watching the clock, tells me it is time to collect the laundry from the dryer, so I will end here! 

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