Notes on Liberal Education and Eastern Christianity
December 5, 2011
Yesterday evening I gave a lecture here in Cleveland at the Lyceum School before an audience of ten people. It is, I confess, a somewhat haphazard discussion, having been thrown together in the past few days in the midst of my work teaching six separate subjects; I could wish that it were better. The Q&A that followed the lecture was, however, excellent; some very important topics were raised. The following is the text of the address, with slight revisions.
My name is Peter Gilbert; I have been, for the past three months, a teacher here at the Lyceum School. Because the manner in which I came to be at this school is, in some ways, pertinent to the subject matter of this lecture, I shall very briefly provide you with some historical background. In 2005, at the time that I was still teaching at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but was preparing to leave, I made the acquaintance of Luke Macik, now the headmaster of this school; at that time, Mr. Macik served as a lawyer in Gallup, New Mexico. I had heard of him through a mutual acquaintance, Mr. Joe Cieszinski, manager and proprietor of Cornerstone Books, who one day told me about a project that was underway to found an Eastern Catholic great books college near Chicago; he mentioned Mr. Macik, a parishioner at his church in Albuquerque, as one of the men spearheading this endeavor. Through him I obtained Mr. Macik’s telephone number; I called him, then drove down to Gallup to visit him, and the rest, as they say, is history. Eventually I became closely involved in the project to found what was to be called Transfiguration College; unfortunately, for various reasons, including the downturn in the economy, the college never managed to become a reality. At the time, I found it striking how often people who heard about this college would say what a great idea it was, and how it filled a real need. I still think that such a college is a good idea, that there is a real, felt need for it, and that a marriage of the traditional, theological content of Eastern Christianity with the methodology of great books, liberal arts education makes inherent sense. It is doubtless because he knows that I think this that Mr. Macik asked me, some months ago, to deliver this lecture, to talk about why such an education makes sense.
But I have to preface this talk by stating that to attempt to talk about both liberal education and Eastern Christianity, and to accomplish this in the space of a half hour or 45 minutes, is to undertake a fairly impossible task. There are too many things that must be left undefined and unexamined. What do we mean by “Eastern Christianity”? What do we mean by “liberal education”? One could spend well over 45 minutes trying to define just one of these two entities; to attempt to speak of both is perhaps foolish.
So let me start by saying that it is not my intention this afternoon to spend the time allotted to me making an apologia for this or that brand of Eastern Christianity. I am, myself, an Orthodox Christian, and am grateful for my baptism in the Orthodox Church; but I am also an Orthodox Christian who is convinced that many Orthodox arguments commonly used to justify the continued separation of the Churches do not measure up to scrutiny. I am quite a newcomer to Cleveland, but I have lived here long enough to notice that there are various neighborhoods in town where one finds, at one end of the block, a large church with an onion dome on top of it and a sign on the front gate saying “Orthodox,” while, at the other end of the block or the street, one finds another large church, perhaps equally splendid and ornate, with perhaps even more onion domes on top and a sign on the front saying “Catholic.” I could wish that reasons of frugality, if not the better motives of Christian love and peace, might dictate an end to such unnecessary duplication. It is, indeed, distressing to see Eastern Christianity as a kind of permanent illustration of Jesus’ words about a house divided.
Much of my research over the past half decade or so has been devoted to reading and translating people who also were distressed by this division and who sought to do something to end it. In particular, I have translated some of the works of John Bekkos, who was Patriarch of Constantinople during the short-lived Union of Lyons (1275-1282); he supported that union, and argued at length that it was theologically sound. Most Orthodox do not like John Bekkos; in contemporary Greece, he is commonly portrayed as an arch-villain, a sort of Judas or Benedict Arnold who sold his priceless birthright of Orthodox truth for a mess of Frankish porridge; mythological stories are invented about him having descended upon Mount Athos with Latin mercenaries, wreaking destruction and slaughter upon the courageous monks who resisted his impious doctrines; one particularly strident commentator on my blog maintained last year that he had seen, with his own eyes, John Bekkos’s bones, preserved somewhere upon Mount Athos in some sort of liquid medium, perpetually boiling as a sure sign of his eternal damnation; how John Bekkos’s bones ended up on Mount Athos when he was buried hundreds of miles away in an unmarked grave in Asia Minor, inside a government fortress, the ardent commentator never saw fit to explain, nor how he recognized the bones as actually belonging to John Bekkos and not to some other individual.
For myself, I have no special revelation regarding the eternal destiny of John Bekkos’s soul, but I am persuaded that Bekkos was a sincere Christian and a man who loved peace and truth. Bekkos was, I think, not only a good man, but a good liberal artist; indeed, I suspect that these two things, being a good man and being a good liberal artist, have something to do with each other. What these two things have to do with each other is perhaps the most important thing we need to clarify today. But, to say a bit more about Bekkos: he accepted the Union of Lyons because he sought to inherit Christ’s blessing upon the peacemakers, because he believed it was right, and in accordance with God’s will, to seek the unity of God’s people, and because his studies of the fathers had led him to conclude that the Greek-speaking fathers of the ancient Church were not as dogmatically opposed to Latin Christian formulations of doctrine as were later Greek Christians like Photius and Michael Cerularius; he thought that the later theologians, under the pressure of nationalistic rivalry and dogmatic controversy, had emphasized those things in which the churches seemed to differ and had minimized those things that might allow those differences to be seen in a better light. Bekkos even thought that he could see, in Greek patristic literature, a teaching on the Holy Spirit akin to the Latin doctrine of the Filioque; he found evidence for this in writers like St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Epiphanius, but also in the Cappadocian fathers themselves, in St. Athanasius, in St. Maximus, and in many others. When St. Cyril says that the Holy Spirit is “poured forth substantially from both, that is to say, from the Father through the Son” (De adoratione et cultu in spiritu et veritate, lib. I; PG 68, 148 A), and that the Spirit is “both proper to [the Son of God] and in him and from him, just as, to be sure, the same thing is understood to hold true in the case of God the Father himself” (Commentarius in Joelem prophetam 35; PG 71, 377 D), and when St. Gregory of Nyssa says that the Son “is conceived of as before the Spirit’s hypostasis only in concept, with respect to causality” (Contra Eunomium I; PG 45, 464 B-C), or when he compares the Trinity to three candles, in which the flame of the first is communicated to the third through the second one (Adv. Macedonianos 6; PG 45, 1308 B), John Bekkos infers from these statements, and others like them, that the fathers in question knew of a certain mediation of being within the Holy Trinity, that the order of the persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not merely based upon the order of the persons’ manifestation in time, but it has a basis in an eternal order of relationships within the divine Trinity itself. Undoubtedly, there are those who disagree with this interpretation of the Greek fathers; each side has its own set of proof-texts, to which it invariably appeals. But, for the purposes of this lecture, my point is basically this: John Bekkos is one example of an Eastern Christian who is also a liberal artist, a man who makes use of his intellect in the pursuit and defense of truth. He is certainly not the only example, and probably is not even the best one, but he is one whom I happen to know pretty well. He knew that texts have more than one level of meaning, that you cannot always rely upon the currently fashionable interpretation of them, that it is important to go back to the original sources and see for yourself what they are actually saying, and that this activity is not only intellectually but also morally good; it is one of the ways in which Christ the Truth is served. In reading the texts in this way, I think he has some insight into the mind of the fathers; they also were liberal artists, who served the Truth with their intellects; they knew that, while reason cannot get us to faith and knowledge of the triune God, reason does have its proper place in defending faith and in differentiating truth from falsehood. It is not for nothing that St. Peter tells his readers to yearn after “sincere, logical milk” (1 Peter 2:2, τὸ λογικὸν ἄδολον γάλα).
Of course, someone may say that the fathers were much more than liberal artists; they were saints, and their speech about God proceeded, not merely from a mastery of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, but from prayer and spiritual experience. There is a saying commonly cited in works on Orthodox Christianity, a saying which, I think, goes back to the fourth century writer Evagrius of Pontus, to the effect that the theologian is not, primarily, the one who sets forth a propositional system, but the one who prays. The type of the theologian is Moses, the man who ascends Mount Sinai, enters the darkness there, and speaks with God face to face. It is perhaps dangerous to say this in a school called the Lyceum, but it must be acknowledged that Aristotle is not universally held in high esteem in the Christian East; there were various attempts to baptize him (much of St. John of Damascus’s work The Fount of Knowledge, for instance, consists of a summary presentation of Aristotelian philosophy), and the fathers often rely on Aristotelian categories more than they care to admit, but, by and large, the one whom St. Thomas refers to as “the Philosopher” is not, in the Christian East, presented as a model for emulation; St. Gregory the Theologian says that we need to speak of God ἁλιευτικῶς, μὴ ἀριστοτελικῶς, that is to say, like a fisherman, not like an Aristotelian. Greek Christian hymnology is full of lines like those found in the Akathist Hymn, where the Mother of God’s miraculous childbearing is said render eloquent orators as mute as fish, and to shred to pieces the “word-webs of the Athenians.” One may also recall the response of a certain Georgian delegate to the Council of Florence to the Aristotelian argumentation of the Dominican John of Montenero; he said: “What’s this about Aristotle, Aristotle? A fig for your fine Aristotle…. What is fine? St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Basil, Gregory the Theologian; a fig for your Aristotle, Aristotle.” (Cited by Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence , p. 227.) More particularly, the idea that theology should be thought of as a “science of revealed truth,” a rationally adumbrated propositional system, is almost universally looked upon within the Christian East with suspicion and misgivings; this, I think, probably holds true for many Eastern Catholics as well as for most Eastern Orthodox.
All of this makes one wonder whether the subject of Liberal Education and Eastern Christianity is genuinely a fruitful topic, whether these two phenomena can be related otherwise than by mere negation. I think that they can be, although we have to be careful not to misrepresent one or the other. I remember that, when we were having our discussions about a curriculum for Transfiguration College, a proposal was made that we should structure our whole theology curriculum around the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Probably the thought behind this was that some figure was needed comparable to the role St. Thomas plays in Western Catholic thought, that is, someone who gives the East a “Neo-Platonic” synthesis, parallel to the Aristotelian synthesis Thomas supplies the West; the fact that Thomas quotes Pseudo-Dionysius so frequently was probably an added benefit. I fervently sought to shoot down this trial balloon before it got too far off the ground. First, because I am not persuaded that the Dionysian corpus is all that representative of Eastern Christian theology; it probably arose in Monophysite circles, and only became fully accepted in the Byzantine world through the interpretations of St. Maximus. But, secondly, I don’t know how many of you have actually attempted to read the works of the Pseudo-Areopagite, but I have; they make Kant’s and Hegel’s writings appear as models of expository clarity by comparison. This does not mean that one should ignore them; they are in fact important. But, as in mountain-climbing, one should start on smaller hills, and only attempt the Matterhorn or Mount Everest after one has worked one’s way up and gained a certain facility, so likewise it seemed to me folly to be sentencing undergraduates to four years of prolonged exposure to the Pseudo-Dionysius, with his super-this and his hyper-that, and his paradoxical affirmations of God as not-Being and not-Love; I could think of no surer way to guarantee high attrition.
One way to approach this subject of Liberal Education and Eastern Christianity might be to give a brief historical survey of the kinds of education Eastern Christians have actually received over the years, in their various home countries. Such a survey would not be without interest, and perhaps it would help to balance exalted philosophical claims about what constitutes an ideal education; one would like to see such speculations grounded in facts and history. For instance, I find it somewhat curious that even the very expression “Liberal Education” [rather, the expression: “Liberal Arts Education”] seems to be confined mostly to American educational discourse: people in Europe do not seem to know what a “liberal arts college” is, or at least, they have very few institutions that would answer to that description. Earlier in my life, I spent two years studying in England; one of the things I observed there is that the British educational system directs young people into an academic specialization much earlier than the American system does; in America, most students do not choose a college major until about their Junior year; in Britain, students are already taking specialized tests, their “O-Levels” and “A-Levels,” in their mid-teens, at a time when most American students are muddling through high school. It seemed to me at that time that this British system, with its earlier specialization, reflects the fact that Britain is a smaller country, there are fewer openings within the economy and more competition to fill them; thus, the competition perforce starts earlier, and children are allowed a shorter time in which to grow up. They are forced earlier to decide who they are, and are given less opportunity to explore different possible futures. Perhaps that makes for a certain maturity, or perhaps it creates, in some cases, a certain grim acceptance of inevitability, an inability to imagine new possibilities. On this point, I prefer the American system, with all its faults; I like the fact that we allow ourselves a little more time to grow up, in spite of the danger this entails that some of us will never grow up at all.
Some of the early Christians of the second century went about in the habit of philosophers, like St. Justin Martyr; these men were generally recognized as teachers and accepted students. But it is not till nearly the beginning of the third century that we find the first Christian school, and we find this in Alexandria; the catechetical school there, founded by a man named Pantaenus, featured in time famous teachers like Clement and Origen, and, later, Didymus the Blind. Of Origen’s teaching methods we have a detailed description from his student St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, who gave a panegyric on Origen in the year 238; by this time, Origen had relocated to Caesarea in Palestine, but his teaching there probably followed the same pattern as at Alexandria. St. Gregory describes Origen as an inspired teacher who brought people to Christ, not by keeping secular knowledge from them, but precisely by engaging with it, accepting in it whatever was good and rejecting what was bad, but all the while subordinating all worldly knowledge to the inestimable prize of knowing Christ. At times, St. Gregory compares Origen to Socrates, probing the students’ ideas and cutting down anything of feeble growth, so that the ground could be cleared for genuinely worthy fruits. He says that, along with giving instruction in dialectic and in the mathematical and physical sciences, Origen also introduced his students to every school of Greek philosophy, “selecting and setting before us all that was useful and true in all the various philosophers, and putting aside all that was false.” “He deemed it right for us to study philosophy in such wise, that we should read with utmost diligence all that has been written, both by the philosophers and by the poets of old, rejecting nothing, and repudiating nothing (for, indeed, we did not yet possess the power of critical discernment), except only the productions of the atheists, who, in their conceits, lapse from the general intelligence of man, and deny that there is either a God or a providence.” (In Originem oratio panegyrica, 13; PG 10, 1088 A-B; tr., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6, p. 34.)
Origen’s Christian school, nevertheless, was not widely emulated in later times. It cannot be stressed enough that, in the Christian East, the idea that Christians should avoid secular schools never obtained much currency; quite the opposite. In the fourth century, it was quite normal for Christian teachers to teach secular subjects, and numerous saints of the Church attended secular schools and had pagans among their teachers; this was the case, for instance, with St. John Chrysostom, who studied under the pagan rhetorician Libanius, as well as with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian, who studied at Athens during the decade of the 340’s; one of their teachers of rhetoric was the Christian Prohaeresius; the other was a pagan named Himerius. Among their fellow students was a member of the imperial family, named Julian; while at Athens he became a secret pagan, and he openly espoused paganism at the time that he became emperor (360/361). One of Julian’s acts was to issue an edict commanding that all public teachers be approved by the emperor; the intention of this was to exclude Christians from the teaching profession. Julian’s reasoning was that the ancient classics are pagan literature, and do not belong to the Christians; Christians have no right to teach such things. St. Gregory of Nazianzus retorted that classical literature belongs to us in respect of our being human; letters are a gift from God, just as language is, and the proper cultivation of the mind cannot be rightfully withheld from any person. One result of Julian’s edict was that Christians increasingly sought to provide Christian substitutes for the classical literature that was the traditional basis for instruction; two men named Apollinarius, father and son, set to work translating the Bible into classical meters, St. Gregory the Theologian, likewise, composed great quantities of classical verse, and, in the Latin-speaking world, men like Pope Damasus and Prudentius and St. Ambrose wrote hymns and poems and epigrams; even St. Augustine tried his hand at this, producing some verses against the Donatists.
Nevertheless, in spite of all this literary work, the basic classical curriculum did not change much. Nearly a thousand years after the Cappadocians and St. John Chrysostom, John Bekkos, in the thirteenth century, still received basically the same kind of liberal education as these fathers did when he studied under his tutor George Babouskomites; he read Homer and the other Greek poets, studied grammar, logic, rhetoric, perhaps a bit of mathematics and the sciences; a similar kind of education was received by Bekkos’s chief adversary, George of Cyprus. Neither of them saw such an education as conflicting in any way with traditional Orthodox belief. One has to remember that, until the final capture of Constantinople by the forces of Mehmet the Conqueror in the year 1453, the Eastern Christian world had never known the same sort of extinction of classical learning that the West had undergone in the succession of barbarian invasions from the fifth century onward, until learning finally began to revive under Charlemagne. The East did not experience such a hiatus, and consequently the Church was not looked upon in the same way as the sole repository of knowledge — although later, during the Ottoman period, it was indeed the parish priest who was mainly responsible for keeping the Greek language alive.
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Is there, then, a specifically Eastern Christian form of education? Should there be? Or should an Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic believer simply receive the best education that is available, from whatever source, and leave the specific details of Christian doctrine to what can be picked up at home or in church?
As mentioned earlier, I still think that the idea of an Eastern Christian great books college, or some application of great books methodology to the study of Eastern Christianity, is a good idea. There have been at least two attempts that I know of to make that idea a reality; one of them, Transfiguration College, I have already spoken of; an earlier, Orthodox attempt, Rose Hill College, actually opened its doors in Aiken, South Carolina in the late 1990’s for about the space of a year; it finally had to close down because the president of the college, a man named Owen Jones, who had bankrolled the whole operation, had essentially spent all his fortune on it and was going broke. Currently, an Orthodox professor of philosophy named Bruce Foltz, who teaches in St. Petersburg, Florida, is one of the main people pushing the idea; he makes the claim that an Orthodox Christian, by virtue of being an Orthodox Christian, will be a better reader of the great books than other people, a claim which seems to me theoretically bold but not easily verifiable; it is not, in any case, a claim that I would be prepared to defend. Another man who still publicly argues in favor of Eastern Christian great books education is the sometime dean of Rose Hill College, Dr. James Cutzinger; my worry is that he seems a bit too enamored of the religious theosophy of Frithjof Schuon, whose works are sometimes to be seen in New Age bookstores and which teach the doctrine that all religions are one.
My own claims about the liberal arts and liberal education, claims that were embodied in the Transfiguration College Statement on Educational Policy and which I would still be prepared to defend, are the following:
Education is necessary for our humanity. Unlike frogs, which cannot be more or less frogs, or oak trees, which cannot be more or less oak trees, human beings can become more or less human; being human is a task to which we are called. We can fail to live up to our nature. One way of speaking about this difference is to say that, unlike frogs and oak trees, human beings are created in the image of God; we possess that image as our birthright, but we can also fail to live up to it, in which case we are judged by our Creator.
Part of our being made in the image of God consists in our ability to speak; the first thing we find Adam doing is that he gives names to the animals. We have what the Greeks call λόγος; we have reason. This reason pertains to our being in the image of God; just as God speaks, so do we, and we are, perhaps, most rational when we recognize God’s speech, echoing in manifold ways in the world around us, when we hear God’s word and do it.
In hearing and doing God’s word, all of us, children of Adam, have fallen short, all of us have in various ways disfigured the image of God that dwells within us. To restore that image, God sent his Image, his Word, his Son, into our midst, so that we, by believing in him, might again be rendered reasonable and be reckoned children of God.
Being restored to the image of God is not a thing which any liberal education, as such, is able to deliver. The only truly liberal education, that is able to free us and restore us to our proper humanity, is that education which is afforded in Christ’s Church, that school in which Christ is not only the Teacher, but the daily bread on which the students feed.
But this does not mean that liberal education, in the common sense of the term, is useless. Our nature as thinking, deliberating, moral beings has to be educated; we cannot make right choices if we deprive ourselves of the means of knowing what choices there are to make. We need to learn how to read, to weigh evidence, to test possibilities; this also is part of learning to recognize God’s word in the creation. And we need to learn how to speak, so as to persuade others of the truth and dissuade others from fallacy and wrong; this also is part of doing God’s word. We cannot do these things, or at least, cannot do them well, if we are illiterate and ignorant.
St. Paul is very clear: the world, by its wisdom, did not know God (1 Cor 1:21); and, he says, he does not come to the Corinthians with excellency of speech, or enticing words of man’s wisdom; he knows that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:25). Those of us who are in the business of education need to remember this, that there is no inherent guarantee that a person who studies the liberal arts, who has read all the Great Books backwards and forwards, who perhaps speaks with the tongue of men and of angels, may not turn out to be an utter scoundrel. It is a sad fact about the fallenness of our nature, that intellectual excellence is able to coexist with moral depravity. But St. Paul also says that “that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them: for the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom 1:19-20). Even if the world, in its wisdom, did not know God, it had no excuse for not knowing God; God had, in fact, left sufficient evidence of himself in the world, for anyone who had eyes to see. It pertains to a Christian education to have the eyes to see, to point out the hand of God in his works, to remind those who might not see or hear that there is in fact a Creator who will judge us. If that is what a Christian education is supposed to do, then that is also what an Eastern Christian education is supposed to do.
I need to end this talk; there is much more that could be said about this subject; we have hardly touched at all upon large questions, like the meaning of “freedom” that is implied in the word “liberal” (what is it that liberal education purports to free us from?). And much could also be said about the ambiguous stance that various thinkers, both within Byzantium and in later Russia, took towards the value of the liberal arts; if Dostoevsky famously said that, “Two and two makes four; yes, but, ‘Two and two makes five’ is sometimes also very charming,” what does this tell us about his estimation of the claims of rationality? But these are eternal questions, and a lecture, fortunately, is not eternal, but has a time limit, so I shall herewith bring this talk to a close. Thank you.