Monday, September 16, 2013

A New, but Really Old, Vision for the Humanities

Disclaimer: This rethinking is for a Christian college/university setting. I cannot claim to speak for those parts of the Western humanistic tradition that aren't Christian.

Teaching the Humanities in today's academy can be hard. We are, essentially, teaching a history of Western civilization to many who have been so divorced from a pre-Enlightenment past that we seem to be nothing more than bemusing antiquarians. Why does the Theogony matter? Who cares about Homeric understandings of hospitality? Does it really matter that Roman social classes were based on an honor/shame dynamic? Everyone knows there aren't nine levels of Hell and so few of us live in Florence, so why read Dante? etc. Most of all, aren't these things in the past? We live in an ahistorical world, one that believes we have left home, so to speak, and that has made all the difference in our wild, wonderful, and utopian modern world.

And here the most bizarre element in student (and, I would argue, public and political) thinking comes out: we often reject the past because they didn't have it together, like we do. But, we don't have it together. The last century was the most violent in human history, with most of the deaths being administered by governments on their own people. So much for the equity and justice that will come from breaking old kinship ties and establishing the nation-state (this, of course, is not to argue that the nation-state has not brought some good things -- it is, however, to argue against the bizarre myopic utopianism that still accompanies pretty much anything out of the Enlightenment, even if it has been uniformly bad). We refuse, possibly because we are afraid to fall into in anomic Void, to see that the Emperor has no clothes, much less to call him on it (one risks being a "premodern" or a "fundamentalist" if this is attempted). It is precisely the power of the Humanities to bring on a clarity of vision that allows us to call things what they really are. Plato's Allegory of the Cave is apropos here: all that we see is not necessarily the true reality.

One of the greatest problems, though, is our way of teaching the Humanities as history. We bow to modern standards of what history should look like, how it should be told, and we wonder why students have no interest. History, alas, means very little to people, unless if it can be connected to aliens. I don't think we should abandon history, but it cannot be the framework in which we tell the story of Western Civilization. Part of the reason for this is because we lack a cogent Christian philosophy of history. While linear progression theories, popularized I'm told by St. Augustine, seem to make some sense, they fail for two reasons: 1) we disagree about what the ending will look like (pre-, post-, a- mill, for example) and this makes telling the story incoherent (see, for example, what happened to the show Lost, both before they knew what ending they were making and then after they determined a milquetoast finale) and 2) linear progression assumes, implicitly, a "betterification" of the world, that is, we have surpassed our elders and so can learn only from their mistakes (if that). I see this last one a lot in many Protestant views of Church History, calling the Fathers the "Church Babies" for instance, or in generally thinking that the Reformation put the Fathers right where they had erred (especially when they cannot hold a candle to the holiness of the martyrs and confessors). Until we rectify these things, our teaching of Humanities as an essentially historical discipline will fail.

Instead, let me harken back to a formula that still has some cultural cachet, goodness:beauty:truth. All Western humans, and Christians especially, have some sort of sense of these things. Yes, our understanding of each of them is hindered by emotivism, but often we attempt to reach beyond ourselves in getting a grip on them. The Western tradition could be classified as the search for these things, whether as universals (Plato), as discrete units (Aristotle), or as participation in the logoi of the Logos (Maximos). What that might mean, in practical pedagogical terms, is this:

Goodness is the study of philoethikos, of "love of ethics": each student would receive a grounding in the various questions about what it means to live a good, successful, pleasant life that reaches the human telos of glorification in Christ.

Beauty is the study of philokalia, of "love of beauty": each student would receive a grounding in the various questions of what it means to ascertain and use (in the Augustinian sense) beauty, aesthetics, proportion, and cultural artifacts.

Truth is the study of philosophy, of "love of wisdom": each student would receive a grounding in the various questions of what it means to connect to that which makes the world work on the human level, whether through asking questions about society, about human constitution, or about the "natural sciences."

It is possible to make this a three-course sequence, one leading to the other. They could be treated historically, or they could be treated in a "classics" or "Great Books" way. But they would, in a Christian setting, end in philotheos, or "love of God" in which we see how these things all are gifts from the Divine Benefactor who created all beauty, goodness, and truth so that He might sacramentally unite us to Himself in Jesus Christ. Theology, that is the study of God through prayer and ascesis, would take her rightful place as the apex of the sciences that transcends all science: for we must know God through created means while still knowing that He transcends all created categories.

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