It was a muggy day in late July, and I had gone to the back of the church to rest on crutches and take some pressure off my sprained ankle. Taking advantage of my condition to stand in the way of one of the church’s too-few fans, I noticed a woman feeding candy to her little girls. The mother was not so young as not to know that eating in church is not permitted, but the name of the candy—“Bible Bar”—apparently was enough to excuse the lapse, as it excuses coloring books, so long as the coat of many Crayola colors belongs to Joseph. How many lapses in taste and judgment that single word “Bible” seems to justify: comic books, cartoons, and videos that are, apart from the biblical storylines, indistinguishable from what is shown on the Cartoon Network, ahistorical and un-Christian nonsense like The Prince of Egypt, and the bad puns and casual blasphemies that adorn the billboards of so many churches.
Christian faith is no guarantee of good taste, sound logic, or common sense—it is not supposed to be—and the Scriptures, suitably misread, have been used to justify polygyny and sexual license, liturgical dancing and grape juice for communion, both capitalism and socialism, going to church on Saturday or not celebrating Christmas, and all of the cults whose members spend their time not on prayer and good works but on calculating the exact date of the end of the world.
Matthew Arnold was altogether too smug when he declared that a man who knew only the Bible knew not even that one book, but he did have a point. The Bible provides the essentials for man’s understanding of what he must do to be saved, but it is not a textbook on mathematics or philosophy, much less an encyclopedia of all that has been known. Without some grounding in the principles of Greek philosophy, Christians may be led, on the basis of proof-texts, into the most destructive heresies. The heresies of Arians and Monophysites were refuted only partly by Scripture and tradition. Time after time, St. Athanasius relies on fundamental logical rules and on the Greek understanding of being. It is all very well for an educated and logical scholar like Luther to rely, as he believed, solely on Scripture, but Luther was made aware in his own lifetime of the dangers that uneducated people run when they set off on a biblical pilgrimage without the compass of reason and the map of tradition.
The Scriptures will be an important part of any program of Christian education, but how they are to be studied is an important question that has been answered in different ways. St. Augustine several times addresses the problem of interpreting the Bible, and while some may shy away from his preference for allegorical interpretation, we can do no better than to adopt his guiding principle: If an interpretation strengthens us in our commitment to carrying out the two Great Commandments, then it is, at least, wholesome if not accurate—and vice versa.
Augustine toyed with the idea of a strictly Christian curriculum, but the only period during which ancient Christian parents were willing to deny their children the fruits of classical education was during Julian the Apostate’s brief reign, when he forbade Christians to teach or study pagan literature and philosophy. When the emperor died, the project faded away, though it has echoes in Augustine and Cassiodorus and even in John Henry Newman’s discussion of a Catholic curriculum in England. The only educational choice, in Augustine’s time and ours, has been between the classical curriculum and barbarism.
There is a difference between a curriculum and a book or even a set of books. The Bible, studied with care and under supervision, may be the only book an uneducated Christian needs, but it cannot be the sole basis of a Christian education that is fitting people either for a useful career or for a civilized life; and if the Book will not suffice, how much more deficient are other books, no matter how great or how many? The collapse of classical education inspired many well-intentioned movements in the humanities, but most of them are mere lists of books. If the purpose of the old curriculum was to produce men like Cicero and Augustine and Burke—good men skilled in speaking and writing—what is the object of a Great Books curriculum?
“Well, obviously, to read great books,” a professor at one of the St. Johns Colleges might reply, “and, in reading them, to be exposed to what Arnold described as the best that has been thought and said.”
“And . . . ?” We persist until we reach the conclusion that the Five Foot Shelf or some other equally arbitrary set of books will mysteriously make us better persons leading richer lives.
This pious wish demands too much suspension of disbelief. The old curriculum aimed at training the mind and the tongue by teaching correct Latin and Greek and by holding up classical models for imitation. No one would claim that the speeches of Lysias teach the student anything more important than a few principles of Attic law or the conventions of Greek rhetoric, but Lysias was a valuable tool in teaching Attic Greek. The classical curriculum was a rigorous form of mental training and discipline in difficult formal languages that served as mental calisthenics; Great Books programs—for the most part—are amateur sports that teach students to be proud of their ability to talk of books they cannot read in the original language.
The test of any such program is the amount of Greek, Latin, and modern languages they require—and I do not mean simply on paper. Some Great Books programs require several years of Greek, but one of my students—a very bright refugee from a Great Books school where she had taken two years of Greek—
still did not know a complete paradigm of a simple verb. She might as well have gone to a seminary, where future ministers of the Gospel learn to use a dictionary to find the Greek words with which they will pepper their early sermons.
Another major problem with these reading programs is the eclectic selection of texts. One Catholic college of deservedly high reputation, after exposing its students to two years of the classics in translation, turns them loose—without the guidance provided by lectures—on Bacon and Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, Spinoza, Kant, Freud, and Jung. These same students, if they were not so busy sipping the poisonous inanities of Marx and Freud, might learn more Latin than is included in Wheelock’s simplified first-year Latin textbook, which (mirabile dictu) they take two years to finish.
Great Books programs tend to be heavy on philosophy and science and light on literature. Intellectual clarity is, of course, desirable, but the moral imagination is not fed on conic sections. The two Thomas Mores (unaffiliated institutions in Ft. Worth and New Hampshire) are honorable exceptions to this trend, and the small Ft. Worth college deserves special praise for offering more than four years of Latin and Greek.
There are Christians who will pooh-pooh any call for pagan learning. How important to Christians, they ask, can a merely literary education be? C.S. Lewis, when asked to specify the relationship between the poetry that was the subject of his professional study and the Christian faith he had embraced after years of reflection as an adult, replied that there was no necessary connection. This straightforward answer is true, up to a point, but it is an equally true response to questions about cleanliness or courtesy, beauty or intelligence.
Some good things in human life, such as the virtues of honesty, chastity, and courage, are taught explicitly in the Gospels, but the arts of civilization are of a more equivocal status. Wisdom is extolled in the Old Testament and inculcated, even in a philosophical form, in the New. And yet the vanity of human learning is also contemned as foolishness.
Christians have never spoken with unanimous voice on the value of the civilized arts. Some early apologists condemned pagan literature and philosophy as the snares of the tempter; others have treated them as indifferent—neither bad nor good except insofar as they are instruments of Christ or Antichrist; still others have seen good books, at least, as things good in themselves, though not necessary to salvation. C.S. Lewis spoke of a sub-Christian literary culture as a wholesome corrective to the anti-Christian culture of modern times and as a preparation of the ground for the planting of the Christian seed.
This topic has divided Christians of nearly every generation. Augustine and St. Jerome, for example, though they agreed on the possible dangers of pagan literature, went in different directions. Though Jerome repented of his classicism after Christ appeared in a dream and accused him of being not Christianus but Ciceronianus, Augustine—try as he might some times—could never be anything but a civilized man.
The early reformers were all classically trained, though many of their successors, in repudiating reason and order, also rejected humane learning. The difference of opinion may be seen in the Apostles Paul and Peter. Though Peter supped with Cornelius the Centurion, and Paul spoke frequently of human wisdom as foolishness, Peter remained, so far as we have any knowledge, an uneducated fisherman, while Paul, in preaching to the Athenians on the Areopagus, not only availed himself of the commonplaces of Greek philosophy but even quoted the pagan poet Pindar.
Christian obscurantism, though it may not always be dangerous to the soul, is an entirely destructive phenomenon. Many of the earliest Christian apologetic writings that have been preserved are naive or (what is worse) disingenuous attacks on the brutality and immorality of the Homeric gods and the irrationality and conflicts of different philosophical traditions—exactly the kind of stuff you hear from village atheists and high-school teachers today when they ridicule the story of Jonah, the parting of the Red Sea, the brutal genocide inflicted by the Israelites on the peoples of Canaan, the theological disagreements between Catholics and Protestants and among the different shades of Protestant.
The really bizarre aspect of these attacks is the apologists’ inability to understand how easily such arguments could be turned against themselves. Though some Roman citizens were attracted to Jewish monotheism and to the sublime writings of the prophets, the average Greek or Roman intellectual found the Old Testament, taken at face value, far more barbaric and absurd than any of the poetic fables in Hesiod or Ovid.
The Christian polemics, usually carried out by half-educated men, were not aimed simply at pagan religion but at all aspects of pagan civilization, including its literature and philosophy. Justin Martyr is unusually prudent and restrained in his apology addressed to the young Antonines, but even Clement of Alexandria, although he regarded Greek philosophy as a divine gift, fills his Protrepticus kata Hellenas with bitter vituperation, a harsh note that echoes through the succeeding centuries. It is a sign of the terrible cultural shock inflicted by the Goths, when they sacked Rome in A.D. 410, that Augustine fills page after page of De Civitate Dei with childish polemics against the evils of pagan Rome. Rome, he argued—and, by extension, all pagan civilization—was cursed from the beginning when Romulus slew Remus. Of course, Cain killed Abel, but that is because Cain represents the City of Man, while Abel was innocent. Remus, by contrast, was in a power struggle with his brother. That would be news to Livy, who represents the brothers as good friends up to the point that the light-hearted Remus leaped back and forth over the walls his brother was building. Such aberrations as murder or incest or bastardy are universally part of the founding myths of cities and nations, but Augustine, in his obscurantist zeal to repudiate the world in which he had grown up, was willing to tell any tale that advanced his cause.
Too many Christians today, when dealing with matters of science and history and classical literature, follow Augustine’s example. Perhaps it is because they know that our civilization is also collapsing around us. But ours is the God of truth, not the Prince of Lies. If the neo-Darwinists are right on the mechanisms of evolution, that is information to be interpreted by educated Christian theologians. To flee from scientific evidence, where it may be valid, is a sign of cowardice, not of faith.
Some Christians, in fleeing from the pagan inheritance, think they can be theological Christians and cultural Jews. The results—the evangelical subculture in the United States—are appalling. Religion, in this case, becomes a justification for philistinism. There are wealthy evangelicals—and Lutherans and Catholics—who own two cars and take expensive family vacations but express contempt for a “pagan learning” they have never experienced and will not take the time or spend the money to make available to their children.
The complex civilization that is disappearing so rapidly was not constructed solely from Christian materials, and unless the faithful are prepared to live in the desert, feeding on locusts and wild honey, they should be preparing themselves and their children to be stewards who will guard what is left of our precious inheritance. An affluent Christian who is willing to drive a car, surf the net, demand his rights in court, and eat with a knife and fork has no valid excuse for not learning Latin and Greek.