The following document, the Statement of Educational Purpose (sometimes referred to, for no special reason, as the “Red Book”) of Transfiguration College, was drawn up in the summer of 2006 by a group of educators who were working to start up a great books college in the Chicago area. (See its website here.) The idea was that the college should embody both a dialogic, great books education, on the one hand, and elements of Eastern Christian tradition — in particular, a serious study of the writings of the Church Fathers — on the other. It was to be an ecumenical venture under Eastern Catholic auspices, and had the blessing both of Bp. John Michael Botean of the Romanian Catholic Church and of the late Archbp. Vsevolod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA. The hope was that it would be a place where Orthodox and Catholics could learn to engage in informed theological dialogue while at the same time receiving a solid training in the liberal arts. Unfortunately, the project proved unable to find the necessary funding; its development, as its website states, is “currently on hold.” Since I had a significant hand in the writing of the following document, and since the hope is still not completely extinguished that the college might eventually take concrete shape in some form, I thought I would publish this statement here.

Statement of Educational Purpose, Transfiguration College

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transfigured by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

In saying this, St. Paul gives a principle of true education. True education involves a transformation of the human person into the likeness of God, a transformation both moral and intellectual, a transformation made possible by God’s own taking on our humanity in Jesus Christ. The God who has been made man shows us the goal of our transformation when on Mount Tabor he is “transfigured” before his disciples, his face shining like the sun (Mt 17:2), an event which, from the very earliest days of the Church, has been understood as revealing to us the divine light of Christ shining through his humanity; it is the divine confirmation of the faith of the Church that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). For Christians, the transfiguration of Christ is not simply an event that happens to someone else; Christ, who has taken on and healed our nature, shows us that glorious divinity to which we are called. An authentically Christian education must keep in mind our ultimate goal, to be refashioned into the image and likeness of God.

In the true and ultimate sense, Christ is the teacher. He is the one who leads us, on every step of our transformation, into the divine likeness and into the liberty of the children of God. But he grants to human beings a share in his work:

For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching . . . (Romans 12:4-7)

St. Paul exhorts us to use our gifts. Among those gifts, he lists teaching. He does not say that, as teachers, we replace Christ: Christ is the Teacher. But he points out the need for us, as followers of Christ, to cooperate in Christ’s activity, with whatever gifts we have been given. In listing “teaching” among human gifts, St. Paul makes it clear that the growth and transformation to which we are called includes intellectual growth. The renewal of the mind Paul speaks of undeniably implies moral and spiritual renewal, but it also, most certainly, includes a renewal of the intellect.

We propose to found a Christian college. In all humility, and with full consciousness of our human limitations, we see it as our responsibility to cooperate with Christ in his work as teacher. We understand that it is impossible to cooperate with Christ in his work as teacher outside the context of his teaching Church. We propose to found a Christian college within the one body of Christ, the Catholic Church. We do so, however, as Christians with a particular tradition within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, the tradition of the Christian East.

The question may be raised: If there is one body of Christ, the Catholic Church, why bother about the “East”? If the Church is Catholic, and the truth is universal, what need is there for a specifically “Eastern” Christian education?

We make no claim that the word “Eastern” is synonymous with “true.” To claim this would be to assert that whatever is not Eastern is not true — that the only true Christianity is Eastern Christianity. Such an assertion is inherently schismatic — it limits and rejects the universality of Christ’s body, the Church. The same limitation would be implied if one equated “true” with “Western.” “East” and “West” are terms of geography which have come to designate ways of life and thought that subtly differ from each other, whose differences are deeply rooted in history. Yet, in Christ, who has reconciled us in one body by his cross, and broken down the walls of human division (Eph 2:14-16), such differences do not assume an absolute character: they are differences, rather, of gifts, and, as such, are particular goods that are to be preserved and nurtured for the good of all.

The need to encourage and preserve the tradition of the Christian East within the wider communion of the Catholic Church was one of the central themes of the Second Vatican Council, and, more recently, was reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II of blessed memory in his encyclical Orientale Lumen. He writes:

“Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each.” [1]

In the same document, the late pope advocates the establishment of centers of learning to promote the study of the Christian East. (See OL 24.) Pope Benedict XVI has, similarly, made it clear that he is committed to furthering the dialogue between the Churches of East and West [2]. And, as an essential part of that dialogue, there is need for Eastern Christians in communion with the See of Rome to gain a better understanding of their own traditions, not so as to create new barriers but, on the contrary, so that they may better witness to the oneness of the faith both of East and West.

As Eastern Catholics living in America, we find ourselves in a special position both of need and of responsibility. We are Eastern in liturgical rite and (in many cases) in ethnic heritage; we are Western by virtue of being fully immersed in, and (in most cases) born into, the most Western of Western societies. If our Eastern tradition is not to lose its character in the environment in which we find ourselves, it cannot be appropriated only by habit and osmosis; it needs to be something that we approach also with our minds. That is, we have to take St. Paul’s words about “the renewal” of our minds seriously. We also have a responsibility to our own children, to bring them up in the faith, as well as to our neighbors, both Christian and non-Christian, to be better able to communicate our faith to them. For all these reasons, an Eastern Catholic undergraduate college has been a long-standing need in this country.

We intend, in what follows, to describe more particularly what we see the content of an Eastern Catholic undergraduate education to be. For the present, we should say that it is both a liberal education and an education rooted in the theological teachings of the Christian East — or rather, because it is rooted in the theological traditions of the Christian East, it must be a liberal education, that promotes the freedom and dignity of the human person. The idea that living a fully rational and humane life is in any way at odds with Christian faith is definitely not an idea characteristic of the Christian East. Worshipers of the Logos do not make an idol of irrationality. To cite St. Gregory the Theologian, “it is faith that gives fullness to our reasoning.” Or, as St. Thomas Aquinas expresses it, grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. Because grace does not destroy human nature, but perfects it, the human intellect, an essential part of human nature, must be respected and fostered by any Christian education worthy of the name. Human beings are unlike most creatures in at least one important respect: our nature is both something we are given from the start and something we have to work at to acquire and preserve. A frog does not have to work at its frogness, and is in no danger of losing it; human beings, by contrast, have to learn how to be truly human, and can fail or succeed at it. A good example of this need to acquire what we naturally are is language: all human beings are born with a capacity for speech, but that capacity becomes actual only by our learning a particular language; those people who have had the misfortune never to have learned to speak are seriously deprived in an essential part of what makes a human being human. Although the human being has many capacities, some of which become actual and some of which do not, there are certain capacities which, more than others, are seen as essential to being human: the ability to read, write, and speak intelligibly is thought to be more essential to one’s humanity than the ability to catch a baseball, valuable as the latter may be in some circumstances. Reading, writing, and speaking intelligibly are said to be “liberal arts”: they are learned abilities that are, nevertheless, proper to human nature, and characteristic of free human beings. Since even spiritual goods presuppose natural ones, any Christian education worthy of the name must, before it is anything else, be a liberal education; that is to say, before people learn other skills, arts, or subject matters, they have to learn how to be free human beings. (This remains true, even though, from a Christian point of view, all of us have fallen short in being free human beings, and cannot really become so without divine help.)

Liberal education and freedom

What does it mean to be a free human being? Given that a liberal education is meant to render human beings free, one’s conception of liberal education must depend very much upon how one answers this question.

A common view of human freedom is that it means having the right and the ability to do as one pleases, without being hindered by anyone else. This view of freedom has had a long history, and is probably the view most widely held, reflectively or unreflectively, in our society; it increasingly finds embodiment in all kinds of ways in public life, including, in the first place, in laws, but also in the structure of higher education. Higher education is thought to cater to freedom and advance it the more it presents students with a variety of educational options; to propose that there is a single course of studies that all students should follow because of those studies’ inherent worth is thought to be undemocratic, and even to hinder students’ personal development and social responsibility.

Moreover, to the extent that freedom means having the right and the ability to do as one pleases, without being hindered by anyone else, people will seek, not only the abstract right to do as they please, but also the effective means for this end. Since a most effective means for doing as one pleases, in most areas of life, is money, and without this one’s options in life are very limited, higher education in America is largely geared towards preparing young people to make a living in the world.

Such practical considerations are not to be despised. Human beings have always had the need to eat and clothe themselves and find a roof over their heads; until these primary needs are satisfied, human beings have little chance of living a humane life. A person burdened by poverty is unlikely to be seen, and to see himself, as a free human being; for such a person, a truly liberal education may well be, in large measure, a vocational or practical one, since this is the best means of lifting himself up from his impoverished condition.

There are more kinds of poverty than one, however. One sees this increasingly nowadays, at a time when the pursuit of wealth — always an important aspect of American life — has become a kind of all-consuming global frenzy; one increasingly hears of stockbrokers, bankers, lawyers, professional people of all kinds who, in the midst of successful and lucrative careers, suddenly quit their jobs and move to a small farm or take on some humble occupation in order to escape from the “rat-race”; such people have learned to their astonishment that money does not, in all cases, allow one to do as one pleases, if what one pleases is to live a full and happy life.

The question about the meaning of freedom is a very old one. It is raised most profoundly in the New Testament; yet, even before that, there are important discussions. In ancient Athens, for example, at the time of Socrates, the view people held of freedom was very much like the one that is common today: people saw freedom, in a practical sense, to consist in an ability to do as one pleases, without being hindered by others. On this view, the unjust man, who can do as he pleases and get away with it, is more free than the just man who is hindered in his actions, perhaps even persecuted for doing right. Socrates thought that there was something wrong with this view. He argued that the unjust man, even if he gets away with what he does, is not a free man; injustice, he argued, is a condition of soul, a condition no rational man would want to be burdened with. The unjust man is not free in some more essential way than the way he is free: he is free to do what he wants, he is not free from himself. His own wants are disordered, and he cannot escape from them. [3]

We see here two different conceptions of freedom. In the one case, freedom has no necessary connection with truth; it simply means a lack of external constraint. In the other case, freedom necessarily involves an ordering to the true. This is an important distinction; we would do well to try to make it clearer, as two different understandings of liberal education turn upon it. Both accounts of freedom take it for granted that there exist certain constraints. Where the one account of freedom differs from the other is in recognizing, besides external constraints, internal ones as well. All people, it may be said, are constrained in some way in their actions; the important question is, By what? There are constraints of passion, egotism, and unenlightened self-interest, and there are constraints of truth. To ignore the constraints of truth is not freedom, but enslavement, in the deeper sense in which a tyrant, though outwardly free, is really a slave.

A genuinely liberal education, therefore, will concern itself, not primarily with rendering students able to do as they please, but with rendering them pleased with what is truly good. That is to say, a genuinely liberal education is an education that makes people aware of, and care about, the constraints of truth.

How is such an education possible?

As was said at the beginning of this essay, the true teacher is Jesus Christ. He is the one teacher who, by sending his Spirit, can actually change the human heart and mind in those areas where it is most in need of change. Because Christ is himself the teacher, the Church, his Body, has a teaching character; in its doctrines, its sacraments, and its liturgical life generally, the Church redirects fallen man towards a knowledge and love of the true. We at Transfiguration College are fully convinced that liberal education finds its fulfillment in a life in Christ, and we are fully committed to making that life the defining characteristic of our college.

That Christ is the true teacher does not mean, however, that the human mind, even at its most fallen, is without its own natural resources towards knowing truth. The human intellect is a truth-knowing faculty; we cannot cease to have a care for truth without ceasing to be human. As was said before, being human is both something we are born with and something we learn; we learn to be human by activities and experiences which develop in us habits, skills, and arts that make actual and effective those abilities with which we are born. We are born with the ability to know truth; our freedom is, indeed, predicated upon this ability. Because truth is not always self-evident, but must often be approached through reason and argument, calculation and deliberation, hypothesis and experiment, there are arts appropriate to such ways of knowing: they are called the “liberal arts.” These arts are called “liberal,” that is, freeing, or characteristic of free men, precisely because they make the constraints of truth known in matters accessible to human reason. By making the constraints of truth known, they enable us to act as free and responsible human beings. [4]

The liberal arts free to the extent, and only to the extent, that reason frees. The liberal arts are nothing else than fundamental forms of human reasoning. Grammar, rhetoric, logic, and quantitative reckoning are involved in all the thinking we do, hence in all of our free, rational action. To say that these arts are involved in all our thinking does not mean that these arts are all we ever think about; most of us consciously think about these things very little [5]. The claim is being made, however, that we cannot think at all without bringing these things, or some version of these things, into play, and that we are likely to think more clearly, and be better judges of the claims of truth upon us and of our responsibilities as free, moral agents, when we are aware of these arts than when we are ignorant of them.

In areas like logic, number, geometry, and in the formulation of scientific law from observed fact, truth makes claims that compel assent. The constraints of truth in these areas have relevance for the constraints of truth within Christian faith; if one thinks otherwise, one should read St. Augustine, who was led away from Manichaeism thanks in part to his recognition that, in questions of astronomy, the teaching of this sect was incoherent; or, again, one could read the Cappadocian fathers, who argued against the heretic Eunomius, not that he was being too rational in his theology, but that he was not being rational enough — if he were more rational he would have known that reason has its limits in delivering a knowledge of God. It is one of the glories of the Catholic Church that, while acknowledging that there are things we cannot fully comprehend, it respects human reason and holds that the truth is one: it steadfastly resists the idea that we can have one truth for faith and another, unrelated truth when we go about our everyday, practical business. Because of this unity of truth, the liberal arts can have an important, though limited, place in our coming to know God. By learning to respect the claims of truth in everyday things, we can better appreciate the claims of truth in more ultimate matters.

Liberal education and great books

Liberal education has truth as its end and justification. To be a liberally educated human being means to be a person for whom truth matters more than anything else, a person who, because of this love of truth, has striven to acquire the means of knowing it and acting upon it. And just as it would be wrong to pretend that, in all cases, truth is universally agreed upon, or that all truths have the same kind of self-evidential character (the truth about man in the play King Lear has, for instance, a very different character than the truth about triangles in the Pythagorean theorem), so it would also be wrong to pretend that, because of differences of opinion, truth cannot be known, or that all points of view are, in all matters, to be accorded equal weight. To treat all opinions as equally valid does not, as is sometimes thought, show people proper respect; it rather gives the false impression that no one has anything to learn.

Nevertheless, it is also proper to truth to acknowledge when one does not know. When these two things are present — an acknowledgment of truth, and an acknowledgment of one’s not yet knowing it — a most fruitful and distinctly human activity results, the asking of real questions. When that distinctly human activity becomes a common enterprise, one has a conversation.

A conversation needs to be distinguished from two sorts of human interchange with which it might be confused: it is neither a rap session nor a debate. Its purpose is neither, on the one hand, talk for the sake of talking, or a sort of hanging out of one’s psychological laundry; nor is its aim, on the other hand, the demolishing of one set of antagonists by another. Rather, conversation, like freedom itself, is ordered to truth; it has the common acknowledgment of truth as its goal. It is both an intellectual activity and a moral one: it cannot really take place in the absence of a good will. Conversation makes particular demands upon those who engage in it: without the continuing exercise of good will and hard thought, it easily degenerates into competing or colluding monologues. Like other learned matters, conversation is an art; it is one of those activities which are proper to human nature, and characteristic of free human beings, but which nevertheless have to be learned. It is a sad reflection upon our times, that so few people seem to have learned it.

At Transfiguration College, teaching will occur by way of conversation. Students will learn the art of conversation by engaging in it. Having good conversations requires having suitable matter about which to talk and think; at Transfiguration College, this matter will be provided in the books the students will read. A good book, thoroughly read and digested, produces conversation naturally; it does this because it is itself a conversation in a virtual form. A really good book converses with the reader even before he or she speaks about it with others; it challenges the reader to make up his or her mind. A book worth reading makes claims to truth; it possesses ideas. Ideas are like seeds; as anyone knows who has lived in the desert, seeds can lie dormant for a very, very long time; but give them light and moisture and soil in which to grow, and they can suddenly change the face of the earth. If certain books are called “great,” it is because they contain remarkably potent seeds. They can take root even in that most intractable of soils, people’s minds.

The idea of an education that would revolve around the reading and discussion of seminal texts — “Great Books” — has been around for a long time. It is arguably the original basis of higher education: every literate civilization has possessed its classical texts, texts that embody the seeds from which that civilization grew, and which it was the province of educated persons to know and pass down — whether that passing down occurred by way of recitation, or transcription, or spoken or written commentary, or by new creation, inspired by the old, or by living out, in the present, the life of which the texts spoke. This is a process that has been going on, in one way or another, in every literate society since writing was invented, and it is going on still.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, there was considerable debate among American intellectuals over the form higher education should take in this country. Some philosophers saw the idea of a “classical” education as retrograde and not suited to life in a modern democracy. Progress demanded attention to the here and now; the past could have meaning for us only when explicitly and consciously related by us to our present concerns and experiences. For this reason, more was to be learned by attention to man in his present social environment than by a bookish infatuation with the past. Others saw a fallacy in this line of reasoning: what if our present concerns are misguided and our experiences shallow and unformed? What if devotion to progress is itself an assumption in need of examination, especially if it is expressed (as it generally is) without reference to an end to which progress should tend? Is it true that we, with our present presuppositions, are the measure of all reality? Is it not reality, in the final analysis, that measures us? Those who asked these latter questions (including men like John Erskine, Alexander Meiklejohn, Robert M. Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan) tended to see the free elective system, introduced in American colleges and universities in the late nineteenth century as a “progressive” measure, as amounting to a denial that liberal education has any definite content.

Both schools of thought, it should be said, were committed to educating young people for life in a democratic society. But, while the progressive or pragmatist school tended to view democracy as implying a view of truth that was inherently experimental, and saw any affirmation of eternal truths as an infiltration of theocracy, the advocates of a classical curriculum saw democracy itself as resting ultimately upon a transcendent basis; without the communication, from generation to generation, of humane traditions and principles that support man’s transcendent good, democracy, it was claimed, would ultimately degenerate into a form of totalitarianism, like those totalitarianisms that confronted America in the first half of the twentieth century.

From the debate between these different schools of thought there emerged Great Books “core curricula” at places like Columbia University and the University of Chicago, then, subsequently, the phenomenon of the “Great Books college,” first at St. John’s College in Maryland (with a later campus in New Mexico), then at other places, including a prominent example at Thomas Aquinas College in California. Great Books programs come in various shapes and sizes, but they tend to show certain family resemblances. In virtually all cases, they embody two distinct principles, a material one and a formal one. The material principle of the education is the actual books that are studied, the “Great Books,” however these are defined. The formal principle is the manner in which these books are discussed in common, a pattern of free and cooperative enquiry after truth on the basis of a close reading of the texts, guided by tutors employing what, for want of a better name, may be called “the Socratic method.”

Since Transfiguration College aims to be both a Great Books college and a college within the Byzantine Catholic tradition, it will be worthwhile to consider in what ways it will adapt these material and formal principles to its own purposes.

Great Books and Eastern Christian tradition

As mentioned earlier, Transfiguration College is a Catholic college that, while providing students with a rigorous liberal arts education, seeks at the same time to encourage and preserve the theological and spiritual traditions of the Christian East. Since it sees the Great Books approach to education as conducive to both of these ends, one must ask: What books embody the seeds from which the civilization of Eastern Christianity has grown? In other words, are there distinctly Eastern Christian great books, and, if so, what are they?

A preliminary answer to this question would be that, yes, there are distinctly Eastern Christian great books, and the most obvious examples of them, aside from the Bible itself, are the writings of the Church Fathers and the texts of the Eastern liturgies.

One should state from the outset that “the Christian East” cannot be defined over against “the West” in a strict and absolute way, as though these were two completely impermeable entities. Although Great Books reading lists have generally rested upon some understanding of what constitutes “the West” and its intellectual tradition, texts and authors are commonly read at Great Books colleges which most “Eastern” Christians (i.e., Orthodox and Eastern Catholics) would immediately recognize as part of their own cultural inheritance: not only the Bible, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, but Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Euclid, Epictetus, and Plotinus as well — in a word, the whole intellectual culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world (including such Latin writers as Virgil, Tacitus, and St. Augustine). For better or worse, some modern Western authors, such as Marx, Darwin, John Locke, and others, have also had an incalculable effect upon the world in which present-day Eastern Christians live; in truth, the whole of modernity, with its scientific, materialistic culture, has had an indelible impact. It would be foolish to think of Eastern Christians, any more than Western ones, as living in isolated, medieval bubbles.

Still, if one wishes to draw a line delimiting Eastern civilization from Western, a likely geographical candidate for this line would be the border which finally came to demarcate the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius. It is commonly argued these days (e.g., by Samuel Huntington) that this political division of the Late Roman Empire produced a cultural fault line with political and religious consequences that have persisted to this day. Consequently, what one means by the civilization of Eastern Christianity, or Eastern Christendom, would be primarily the Christian civilization that took shape to the east of the line of Theodosius (more properly, to the east of that line itself and a northerly extension of it passing through the Carpathian mountains and the Ukrainian steppes to the Baltic). It would include, in the first place, the civilization of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire and of the Russian Empire that was, in some ways, its successor; it would also include those Christian societies that were further east still, e.g., the Thomas Christians in India, and the Nestorians whose settlements extended as far as to China. Even if groups like the Nestorians, the Copts, the Assyrian Christians, the Armenians, and so on, vary in their theology, both from one another and from the Christian Church of the Eastern Roman Empire, the debates that defined their theology took place largely within the confines of that empire. It is, accordingly, to the writings of the early Church of the Roman Empire, especially of its eastern half, that one must look to find the unifying features of Eastern Christian civilization as a whole.

Hence, to understand the Christian East, one must read the Christian fathers.

If it were only for understanding the Christian East that a reading of the Church Fathers had value, the writings of these fathers might lay claim to some historical significance, but little more than that. It would be hard to see them as “Great Books” in anything but a narrowly parochial sense; they might be important cultural artifacts, but they would make no universal claims to truth. The fact that Great Books programs have, to date, almost completely ignored them testifies that this is, indeed, how they have generally been regarded — as books for persons with a special interest in Christian history, texts for “patrologists,” but with nothing important to say to most people. It might also imply the view that these books are unimportant for understanding the intellectual inheritance of the West.

We disagree with this assessment of the fathers. We see the fathers as making a universal and historically important claim to truth, which has become a permanent part of the intellectual inheritance both of East and of West. Their universal claim to truth is Christ himself, whose interpreters they were to the ancient world. The fact that the fathers have not been included on Great Books reading lists testifies to a forgetfulness, on the part of the West, of its own beginnings, and to a misunderstanding of Christ’s body, the Church. If the Church were a voluntary assemblage of persons who, having read the Bible, come to a certain agreement about what it means and who take Jesus as their personal savior, then it would make sense to see the Bible as a Great Book (or the Great Book), and to disregard what follows it. There would be no necessary mediation between the Bible and today, between Jesus and the believing soul. There would be no necessity for doctrine — none, at least, apart from what the believer, on his or her own reading, believes can be found in the text of the Scriptures.

Great Books programs, by and large, have presupposed that understanding of what the Church is. Because that is neither a Catholic understanding of the Church, nor an Orthodox one, an Eastern Christian college has to approach things in a different way. That is to say, an Eastern Christian Great Books college has to take seriously the claim that the Church, by the Holy Spirit, mediates Christ through time and space, makes Christ present here and now in a way that merely reading the book does not. The fathers are essential witnesses to that mediation. That is why it is necessary to read them.

Not to read the fathers is to leave oneself open to the error that supposes that Jesus is, like Socrates, a philosopher, who can be understood the way a philosopher is, i.e., by consideration of his ideas alone. The fathers do not understand Jesus in that way. They do not see him merely as a man who speaks the truth. They know him as the truth. They have a peculiar sort of science. Their science, theology, is a science of knowing a person, because God is a person.

The fathers are, generally speaking, paradigmatic examples of how the liberal arts can cohere with a life of faith. Most of them are both saints and consummate liberal artists. They are patterns of virtue and learning which we, at Transfiguration College, shall strive to emulate. By their writings and doctrines, they baptized the culture of the ancient world, and in doing so laid the basis of the civilizations of Byzantium and of the Medieval West. They are also aware of liberal education’s limitations: they know that reason, in the absence of faith, only leads persons and societies to a dead end.

One reason for reading the Church Fathers has particular interest for Eastern Catholics. Many of the long-standing disagreements between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians have to do with how the fathers are interpreted. If Eastern Catholicism is to serve as a bridge between these two communions, it must try to promote understanding and dialogue on this very issue. Transfiguration College aims at being a vehicle for such dialogue. It is hoped that the conversations fostered within the walls of the college will have a salutary effect outside it.

The study of the Church Fathers at Transfiguration College will occur primarily in the context of the Theology Tutorial. In this class, under the guidance of a tutor, students will follow a sequence of readings intended to illustrate some of the major themes of Christian doctrine through an examination of the historical controversies in which these doctrines were elaborated. The general structure of the study is a trinitarian one. Study of theology will begin with, and will constantly return to, a reading of the Bible. Also, since the early, pre-Nicene Church had, as one of its major concerns, a defense of orthodox Christianity against gnosticism, and since gnosticism could be said to attack the oneness and fatherhood of God, the first year may be said to focus on the person of the Father. The second year will focus upon the person of the Son; students will study both the Arian controversy and the various christological debates that succeeded it. The third year will focus upon the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, both as regards the Spirit’s being and as regards the Spirit’s working in us. Thus, in the first semester, after surveying the orthodox fathers’ response to Pneumatomachianism, which demoted the Spirit to the status of a creature, the class will turn to the vexed question of the Holy Spirit’s procession; in the second semester, readings will begin with Eastern ascetic and monastic spirituality, and will end with questions about the vision of God, especially in connection with the Palamite controversy of the fourteenth century. The senior year will have, as its focus, questions about salvation and the Church. All of these questions will be approached through a direct encounter with classic texts, most of them from the early Church.

It should be stressed that the reading of the fathers at Transfiguration College is only one part of its Great Books curriculum. But it is something that distinguishes it from other, similar programs already in existence. We think that, after the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church are essential Christian reading. Although it is God who saves and to whom all glory is due, we see these fathers as God-bearing men who, in Christ the Teacher, are themselves guides and teachers of salvation. They are recognized by the Church as faithful expounders of a catholic point of view. They are, as the hymnody of the Church sings, “pillars of the Church” and “teachers of the universe.” Because of this, we see a study of them as altogether suited to leading people to spiritual maturity and towards the goal of transformation and deification in Christ.

Faith and questioning

The above remarks may suffice for a sketch of the “matter” that will be read at Transfiguration College, at least within the Theology Tutorial. What, then, about the “formal” aspect of the curriculum, our use of “Socratic method”? One might think that there is some discrepancy between our use of this method, particularly in matters of theology, and our desire to be a Catholic college. How can one engage in a method of questioning about things which no Christian can question without losing the theological virtue of faith? This is a good question. To be a Christian is to believe certain things to be true. Doesn’t questioning get in the way of belief?

The Church teaches that the grace of God does not destroy or abrogate human freedom, but rather presupposes it, just as it presupposes the human nature which, although wounded, remains present in our fallen state, and which grace alone can heal. So also faith presupposes our ability to ask questions. In our fallen condition, our ability to question often produces a fallen sort of questioning, one that is not an expression of genuine freedom. Rather than being directed towards truth, questioning can become an end in itself, a kind of intellectual game. St. Basil the Great says something about this topic in his treatise On the Holy Spirit, written to answer the questions of a friend of his, whom he commends for holding the conviction “that none of the words used to describe God should be passed over without exact examination….” Basil is not afraid that questioning, in itself, will damage faith; rather, he is convinced that a thorough examination of the texts can lead to an understanding of faith. Questions are not the problem; the problem is the internal disposition of the questioner. Basil writes of his friend: “What I admire most about you is that your questions reflect a sincere desire to discover the truth, not like many these days who ask questions only to test others.” Questioning often merely serves the social or political agendas of the questioner. Basil continues: “There is certainly no lack nowadays of people who delight in asking endless questions just to have something to babble about, but it is difficult to find someone who loves truth in his soul, who seeks [through questioning] the truth as medicine for his ignorance” [6]. To question in truth means to be open to receiving an answer. For some people, and for some questions, the possibility of receiving an answer is the most frightening of all possibilities; it means an end to the ingrained habit of doubting. Faith faces that frightening possibility and accepts it. Upon recognizing the truth, faith embraces it and follows it.

There is, then, a good and proper way to question. This proper way may become clearer by contrast with two deformities of faith, skepticism (or universal doubt) and fideism. These extremes are actually mirror images of each other, since both deny that the sphere of reason and the sphere of faith have anything to do with each other. Fideism is to saying yes what compulsive doubt is to saying no. Fideism implies something less than a true affirmation, because it denies the legitimacy of the questioning for which faith is the answer. Fideism is the bogeyman that skeptics rail against when they rail against faith; it is the suicide of reason. Compulsive doubt or skepticism is no less the suicide of reason, since where fideism denies reason a role in faith, doubt denies reason an object. Doubt is easier to recognize, but both doubt and fideism are equally dangerous to faith. At Transfiguration College we deny both alternatives and choose a different course, where we will seek to understand the content of faith through reasoned questioning at the service of truth.

How then, practically speaking, does one steer a middle course between fideism and skepticism, in the course of a discussion? How is it that people of faith engage in questioning, in learning by conversation?

There are different kinds of conversation. A conversation may occur when there is a common acknowledgment of not knowing, that is, where both persons profess ignorance and are seeking for the truth. A conversation may also occur where one person knows and the other does not, or where both persons know, and what they are trying to know better is how to state their knowledge. In all cases, conversation implies a willingness to hear and learn from another.

Therefore it is not the case that, in a true conversation, teaching cannot occur. Whenever, within a conversation, one person knows something better than another, and the other person is willing to hear and learn from the one who knows, genuine teaching occurs. But, in a true conversation, teaching is not one-directional. It is, by and large, not the role of the tutor at Transfiguration College to be the “answer man,” whose job is to resolve all questions and close all discussion — although, sometimes, a tutor must do just that, when, for instance, a conversation degenerates into fruitless acrimony or competing monologues or empty chatter. A tutor has a certain authority to bind and to loose: he can both open a discussion and close it, and he needs to exercise that authority with discretion if conversations are not to die premature deaths through heavy-handed tutelage. Mostly, in the course of a seminar or tutorial, a tutor will exercise his or her authority, not by closing avenues of thought, but by redirecting the discussion, from time to time, with new questions that, ideally, lead students more deeply into the subject matter. Sometimes it is only by way of detours that an original thought can be revisited. A tutor is a fellow learner who may be assumed to have a somewhat better understanding of the issues under discussion than most of the students in his class; if the tutor is not also learning from the students — at the very least, learning from them what their opinions are, and, usually, learning about the thing in question — he is not doing his job.

Most importantly, a tutor should recognize that he is a fallible human being, and should approach the task of guiding discussions with humility. It is always a good idea to presume innocence unless there is proof of guilt; little will be lost, in a discussion, by treating even cynical questions as though they were serious and honest ones, but much damage can occur by dismissing an honest question out of the mistaken idea that it arises from cynicism and ill will. For this reason, a tutor will do well to steer a path between skepticism and fideism, not by judging students’ presumed motivations, but by addressing their arguments.

Liturgical life at Transfiguration College

The intellectual life is a gift of God, and is to be received with gratitude and fostered with care. Yet it would be a serious error to suppose that intellectual activity, by itself, suffices to lead human beings to their proper end of theosis, or that a full and genuine spiritual life can be fed by an intellectual comprehension of doctrine alone. Simply learning about God and his creation is not enough; St. Paul speaks of those who, “although they knew God, … did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22). Foolishness and mental darkening are what result when people profess to know God without giving thanks to him. But, contrariwise, worship (that is, honoring God and giving thanks to him) is essential to comprehending the doctrines of the Church, and it is an essential part of the life that Transfiguration College will try to foster. In other words, we see the activity of prayer as proper to genuine intellectuality, and we think that this is the unanimous view of Eastern Christianity. In the Eastern Church, the theologian is the one who prays, and liturgical prayer is an embodiment of theology.

The Eastern Church has always taken very seriously the fact of the Incarnation. Because we are embodied, God the Word, in taking on what we are for our salvation, took on a body. And the Church, which is Christ’s Body, reflects the embodied character of Christ in its worship. Having a body means having senses. In her worship, the Church leads us, as though by hand, through those things which are seen to a knowledge of those things which are not seen, through those things which are heard to a knowledge of those things which are not heard. The icons and music of the Church are meant to serve as windows upon what is unseen and unheard.

Man is a unity of body and soul, and having a body means having senses. We learn through our senses, so the senses are ordered to knowledge in man, since knowing the truth is the highest activity of man as intelligent being. But man as man is also a being that loves, and although loving is an act of the will, the will is prompted by the senses and can be moved by the passions. It is important then not to forget the senses (as it is likewise important rightly to order the passions).

We cannot simply use the senses until we have knowledge and then declare the senses as being beyond purpose. The senses are used by the church as avenues for further prompting and leading to affection for the very God we have used our senses to know. This is nowhere more obvious than in the Divine Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil. Sight is addressed by the many physical symbols in the church, but primarily by icons; the sense of smell by incense, touch by the administration of oils, hearing by singing and taste by the reception of the body and blood of Christ. Indeed, one communion verse commonly sung is “taste and see how good the Lord is.”

A further benefit to participation in the Liturgical life is the preservation of orthodoxy (right teaching) concerning matters of the faith. The propers and verses are often filled with theology, even sometimes explaining whom the saint of the day was combating and the errors held by the heretic that that particular saint vanquished. The Liturgy, if engaged, is itself a teacher of theology.

Since the Socratic method asks the students to treat each of the great authors as being a possible source of truth, even if the author is in fact teaching something contrary to the faith, the danger could arise that, by exposing the student to error and by allowing the Socratic method to lead the students to the truth, the student may be convinced by the text to hold an error concerning the faith. Even more concerning is the fact that Early Church Fathers sometimes used language that is open to misinterpretation. The reason for this is that prior to some particular heresies, some writers were not as careful or precise about the language they used.

An example of this kind of imprecise language is found where Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the combined nature of Jesus Christ as the God-man. While never denying either that Christ was God or that he was man, Gregory of Nyssa’s language leaves open to interpretation the idea of Monophysitism (the position that Christ had only one nature), a heresy that came up after the writings that used the imprecise language.

Another example of an error that the students will be addressing is Monothelitism, the error that holds that although Christ is both God and man, he has only one will. In considering Christ one might be tempted by a philosophical argument that since Christ is one person, he must therefore have one will, even if the student grants that Christ has two natures (provided that the student’s understanding of nature is unclear and indistinct).

In thinking carefully about what it means to be truly human and truly divine, the student can come to the conclusion that Christ must have a human will and a divine will, because having a will is essential to the nature of being human. To posit the existence of a being with a certain nature, but to deny to that being something that is essential to that nature, is a contradiction. Christ is not truly human if he does not have all of those attributes that are essential to being human.

Until the student has a clear idea of the distinction between what is essential to the nature of man and what is accidental to that nature, it might not be clear to him that having a will is one of the essential components of being fully human. Furthermore, if the student is tempted to grant some special “dispensation” to Christ for needing a human will even though he is human (since Christ is a “special” case in creation), he will hear from the church in her liturgy that this is not orthodox teaching.

“O Word of God and Lover of Mankind, Infinite and beyond description in your becoming Man for our sake: the noble assembly of Fathers proclaimed that You are both perfect Man and perfect God, one Person in two perfect natures, with two perfect wills. Wherefore we profess that You are one God with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and singing a hymn of praise to the Fathers, we adore You!” (Sunday of the first six ecumenical councils)

Because the students will be engaging the understanding of the faith as it unfolded across many centuries, there may be many opportunities to consider the same errors that the heretics of early church times held. The teaching magisterium of the church, through the liturgy, will be that anchor by which the students will hold to the true teaching, even if not understood fully at the beginning.

For two important reasons, then, we must make the liturgical life accessible to the students. First, the “need to praise and thank God lest their learning actually make them fools”; secondly, because the very errors to which they might be tempted are explained and denounced in the liturgy. So it is not only the necessity of giving thanks to avoid the “mind being darkened” but the added benefit of having access to the actual truths about God in the liturgy that convinces us, as founders of this college, that having access to the liturgical life is imperative.

Remarks on iconography

It is difficult to overstate the place of icons in Eastern Christian worship. To enter an Eastern church is to enter into the company of Christ, the Theotokos, the angels, and the saints, albeit represented in paint and wood. All would concede that icons play a central role in Eastern piety; should they also play a role in an Eastern Christian liberal education?

The liberal arts are those arts that are important for free people, that in fact enable them to be free. Their study allows the student to distinguish what is true from that which only appears true. Such discernment is essential to freedom, since we must know what is true in order to be able to choose what is good. Through reason and its cultivation, we are able to transcend appearances, what merely seems to be, and reach reality. Through iconography, the appearance of mere paint and board are arranged so that the viewer transcends the appearances to the genuine spiritual reality presented. Iconography is the practice, in color, of the liberal arts.

Iconography as a practical study will be beneficial to the students for many reasons, apart from its importance to Byzantine worship. It will be formative of the person; it is an act of spiritual midwifery, of bringing mere matter into an arrangement that reveals spiritual realities. It allows the iconographer to enter into a creative, generative relationship with the material world and with the Holy One depicted in the icon. Just as, through the Theotokos, Christ came into the world and was incarnated in matter, so, too, the saint becomes present to the faithful through the icon by means of the action of the iconographer. The artist helps the entrance of the divine into the world. An icon is theotokic. It is also eucharistic, in that through the action of the iconographer, the material elements of paint and wood are made, through symbols, to make present God and the saints, similar into the way that in the Eucharist material things, bread and wine, symbolize, and in fact become God. Iconography is sacramental.

Creating an icon demands much of the iconographer, a submission both to the demands of the medium, to the Church, and to the Holy Spirit. Icons are theological sources; a true icon pattern must have ecclesiastical approval. One is not free merely to paint whatever one likes, any more than in the living of a genuine free life one is able to do whatever one likes. This holy submission to truth, or to Truth, is essential both to Christian life and to genuine freedom. The freedom to do whatever one wants becomes slavery to those wants. The truly free human being must be able to discipline his or her will to the demands of truth in order to be free. Thus the submission that one must have in order to write an icon is a character trait worth having. The formative effect of iconography can perhaps best be illustrated with an anecdote. A woman learning to write an icon spoke of the process. One begins with prayer, and then chooses an ecclesiastically approved pattern. The surface is prepared, smoothed and whitened with great care. The colors are applied, beginning with the darker colors and ending with the light. The process mirrors salvation history, as the original goodness of creation becomes darkened by sin, but redeemed by the coming into history of Christ the Joyful Light. The woman tells of the great difficulty she had with one icon. “I couldn’t get the eyes right.” Finally, after much struggle and prayer, she surrendered her own will to God, saying “It’s clear that You want this icon to be different than I want it.” She allowed the eyes to be as they were, and through her surrender to God wrote a beautiful icon whose most stunning features are the eyes. Thus iconography is both an artistic exercise as well as a spiritual exercise, one we believe will be of great benefit to our students.

Remarks on great books and science

Why, in this age of great scientific success, would one wish to read old books? Why would one wish to read Euclid rather than a modern geometry book? Why read Newton or Galileo, Aristotle or Plato, when one could read the latest and best books on these topics? Why should one, in other words, go back to the very beginnings of a science? It is possible to reach a stage where the origins of a science, of a canon of thinking, become lost. The originators of the science were in possession of some insight into the essence of things, one that they were able to express in language accessible to the rest of us. This is a great benefit, and does allow the progress of technology and the conquest of nature by means of it—imagine if each user of a computer had to understand the inner workings of an operating system—but it is also problematic, in that it distances us from the essential insights. We can speak of a soul, for example, and either deny that it exists or assert that it does, and even argue that it is eternal. But what is a soul? What did the Greeks mean when they used the word psyche? What aspect of human experience were they speaking of? It can be easily forgotten, and a distorted understanding of some sort of ghost in the shell of the body can replace the original insight. The same thing happens in theology, when one can easily speak of grace or holiness, justification or conversion, without really knowing what these words refer to, or in physics when one, for example, treats forces as entities to be manipulated in equations, but not as descriptions of reality. Thinking can become so distanced from the original experience of reality that one can even think the sciences are merely about the relation of words, that they aren’t real. In other words, they are merely the construction of human minds, not discoveries, and therefore are in the end no better than opinions. The knower can become the skeptic if he or she is not attentive to the origins. Reading Great Books, by which we mean the books which are the primary and original bearers of the conversation about the universe and about being human, is a way to recover these meanings. Reading Euclid rather than a textbook about geometry puts one in the position to share in the insight of Euclid, not just to be able to describe in words the relationship between lines and curves, but to make one’s own the insight into reality described by the words “line” and “curve.”

What benefit is there in recovering these original insights? We can see that the sciences today have become fragmented and specialized, each with its own particular method and vocabulary. It is no longer the case that the educated layman can understand scientific journals, where it was possible merely a century ago. Scientists and those who work in the humanities or the arts do not speak to each other, at least not about their areas of expertise. It is because they don’t know what the other is talking about, and perhaps doesn’t even admit the existence of the entities their science presupposes (this is obvious in the case of the physicist and the theologian, but is also true with economists and psychologists, who tend to judge everything through the prism of their particular specialty). This fragmentation can be overcome by a return to the sources, facilitated by the Great Books, which helps the students to recover the original meanings of the concepts of the sciences, as well as the original unity of the sciences. The graduates of Transfiguration College will ideally be unitary in their intellectual outlook, able to move more easily between philosophy, theology and natural science. Having read Newton, for example, they will know what Newton presupposes, and will be able to critique the later development of Newtonian science by understanding what was presumed at its origin, rather than merely accepting it as a given, a tool to manipulate the universe. Through the recovery of insight, the students can also recover the sense of wonder, which Aristotle says is the origin of all philosophy. The world isn’t primarily a tool to be used, but an object of joyful contemplation.

Although the Great Books are the foundations of our modern culture, they are still in a useful sense alien to us. Consider the stories of the heroes of the Iliad, who may not seem like heroes at all to us. Yet this very strangeness is part of the greatness of the book. To encounter ancient Greek virtues and find them not to be modern virtues is to be shaken. To find others who think differently (not others who merely feel differently — nothing is learned from a mutual exchange of feelings) is to be confronted with the possibility that one is wrong, that one’s culture is wrong, or that perhaps one’s view is at least incomplete. It can save one from “the slavery of being a child of the age.” (Chesterton) Of course it is not enough to challenge one’s preconceptions; skepticism is not a desirable state. But the path to wisdom requires first admitting that one does not know what one doesn’t know, which should motivate us, as it did Socrates, to seek wisdom. Reading the Great Books are helpful in that they show us intelligent people who did not think as we do in the twenty-first century, and remove from us the disability of thinking that “modern” equals “correct.”

Concluding remarks

Let us recapitulate some of the major points of this essay. We think that, if a college is to pass down the theological traditions of Eastern Christianity, it needs to give its students at least an introductory awareness of the basic mysteries of the faith: the Trinity, the Incarnation, the sacramental life of the Church. We further think that such mysteries of faith can and should give structure to a theological curriculum. At the same time, Transfiguration College is not envisaged as a seminary or a monastery. It is envisaged as an undergraduate college, preparing young men and women for various walks of life, both secular and religious; it holds that a truly liberal education is one that liberates or frees people, frees them, particularly, from things which distort and limit their humanity. The things which distort our humanity are often subtle; they generally have their root in false ideas that, for one reason or another, we have come to take for granted. A truly liberal education forces us not to take our ideas for granted. Transfiguration College holds, with St. Thomas Aquinas, that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it; it holds, with St. Gregory the Theologian, that faith does not shackle reason, but gives reason its fullness. Transfiguration College proposes to introduce young people to a fully active and vigorous life of the mind. It proposes to do this, broadly speaking, by the method of the liberal arts, and by the matter of great books. It does not propose to re-invent the wheel; these are means and matter that have already proven their success in many American colleges. This essay has sought to address both of these things, that is, to give some justification for the college’s adoption both of “liberal arts” as a method and of “great books” as material for study. Also, since great books programs have generally presupposed one or another reading of the “West” and its intellectual traditions, this document has sought to indicate how this method and matter are to be appropriated in an Eastern Christian context. Most importantly, this document has tried to show that, underlying our proposed college, there is a coherent educational philosophy. We see in the theological and philosophical traditions of Eastern Christianity the intellectual grounds for a truly liberal education. The heart and soul of that education is Christ himself. He is the one who truly liberates; he is the true Teacher, the Wisdom of the Father, and the goal of our transformation. With St. Paul, we would be found in him, and we count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ. In that knowledge we see the grounds for a truly liberal education.

We ask your support for this project.


[1] Orientale Lumen, §1.

[2] On April 20, 2005, Benedict XVI, in his first homily as pope, said:

“Theological dialogue is necessary. A profound examination of the historical reasons behind past choices is also indispensable. But even more urgent is that ‘purification of memory,’ which was so often evoked by John Paul II, and which alone can dispose souls to welcome the full truth of Christ. It is before him, supreme judge of all living things, that each of us must stand, in the awareness that one day we must explain to him what we did and what we did not do for the great good that is the full and visible unity of all His disciples.”

[3] Admittedly, in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates does not express himself so much in terms of freedom as in terms of justice, happiness, virtue, and so on: in the Republic, the question is not so much whether the just man is more free than the unjust man, but more happy. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that a man who is not free would be called “happy,” in any genuine sense. In interpreting the Socratic dialogues as asking about human freedom, we acknowledge the influence upon us of the New Testament, where the question of freedom becomes explicit.

[4] Free action is reasonable action, and there are arts that are basic to reasoning. Reason has to do, in an essential way, with speech, and speech of a particular kind, namely, with affirmation and denial. The liberal arts all have to do with affirmation and denial, though in various ways. The liberal arts are traditionally counted as seven: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Of these, the first three have come to be known as the “Trivium,” meaning “the three ways”: they are the essential arts of predication — that is, of affirmation and denial in general. Grammar has to do with making speech intelligible, rhetoric has to do with making it persuasive to the listener, logic has to do with the validity of arguments, that is, with determining whether or not conclusions legitimately follow from given premises. The latter four arts, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, are concerned more particularly with affirmation and denial in matters of quantity; these arts have come to be known as the “Quadrivium,” or “the four ways.” (Music is here taken in the ancient sense of being a study of harmonic ratios, ratios which, while they remarkably correspond to pleasing combinations of sound, could also be manifested in other ways, e.g., architecturally.) Because truths about quantity can be abstracted from things quantified, these latter arts have a kind of learnability that is reflected in the name by which they are often called (“mathematics,” from a Greek word meaning “to learn”).

The liberal arts have been called arts of learning how to learn. They are tools; they are not the sole matters about which we are concerned to know. Yet they are essential for clarifying our thought about the things we are concerned to know.

At Transfiguration College, practice in the liberal arts will form an essential element of the curriculum. In the Language Tutorial, students will study, in the first two years, Ancient Greek, a language important for understanding both Eastern Christianity and the classical heritage of the Western World. The language will be studied in such a way as to give students an ability to read basic texts like the New Testament and some of the more accessible fathers of the Church, but, besides its usefulness for this purpose, the study of Greek will help illustrate the nature of language itself; issues of grammar, rhetoric and logic will be frequently raised and discussed, both in the works read and in the students’ own writing, and students’ progress in these arts will be an important consideration when it comes to evaluating their work. In the last two years of the Program, students will learn Russian, with the aim of being able to read some of the great works of modern Russian literature in the original. In the Mathematics Tutorial, students will approach mathematical reasoning, not simply as a practical tool (although it is this, and a very powerful one), but also as a possible source of truth; the works of ancient mathematicians like Euclid, Ptolemy, Archimedes, and Apollonius have implications for philosophical reflection, as witnessed by the inscription above the door of Plato’s Academy (“Let no one enter who has not first studied geometry”). The revolution in mathematics that, arguably, began with the invention of analytic geometry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which quickly led to the invention of the calculus, shall be examined through a reading of some of the primary texts (Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton); like ancient mathematics, the modern, too, has its philosophical implications, which also need to be examined. One of the mathematical questions that has most important implications in all kinds of areas is the question whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa; the revolution in astronomy that began with Copernicus and that received a particular confirmation in Newton’s Principia will also be studied in detail.

[5] Though it can be argued that some of the most important things to think about are the things that underlie our thinking.

[6] St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, David I. Anderson, tr. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), p. 15.

8 Responses to “Transfiguration College Statement”

  1. augustinos Says:

    I was made known of this well-conceived venture by a St. John’s tutor, Mr. Holland. I look forward to reading the statement in greater detail, and I hope the project eventually ‘gets off the ground,’ as they say, and finds its wings.

    I’m nursing an related idea at the moment – an ecumenically-minded patristics great books MA program (based loosely on the Graduate Institute at SJC) focusing on the first millennium of the church. I was thinking that a preparatory semester (or year) could be spent on Holy Scripture with a preceptorial-style offering on key works of Greek philosophy. Students would choose Greek or Latin starting their first semester and continue while in the program.

    It might be more conceivable than a complete undergraduate college, as it could be housed on an already-existing campus. Ideally, it could begin as a program for working students with classes at night. The tutors would then need a day job to make a reasonable living. However, if the program began working it might be feasible to transfer it to a full-time program (perhaps even a seminary – everything, after all, including all one would need as far as pastoral formation, would be dealt with in discussion-style classes in which the fathers were the teachers).

    I think we need a like-minded cadre of potential tutors to all move to the same city (or rural area – my preference, but I’m open to the necessity of an urban location). Let me know what you think! (email if you want, or keep it on the blog).

  2. bekkos Says:

    Dear Augustinos,

    I’ll send you my email address; we ought to be in correspondence about this. Thanks to Christian Holland for passing on the information.

    The Transfiguration College project has stalled, but it is, I think, fundamentally a sound idea. The approach you outline might well be a way towards getting it moving again. Most things do not spring into being whole and entire, like Athena from Zeus’s head, but grow by stages. Perhaps a stage as a “graduate institute” would be a way of getting the idea of such a college into physical embodiment.


  3. Frank Says:

    Are there any updates concernng the organization of the College? Is there any contact person available to discuss the College? Thanks.

  4. bekkos Says:


    Unfortunately, not much is happening in connection with this college. Most of its original planners have had to devote their time to other things, to make ends meet. The best advice I can give you is to visit the Transfiguration College website; on the left-hand column, this gives a contact phone number. There is also a form at, which you can use for getting more information.


  5. Frank Says:

    So sorry to hear; thank you for getting back to me.

  6. James Says:

    I would like to make private contact with Peter Gilbert to talk about an Orthodox/Catholic blog, a little online school for Eastern Rites students and others.


  7. Laura Weinberg Says:

    I think there are already enough “great books” colleges — while each serves a wonderful purpose, a great college does not need to follow that same thread of pre-Christian philosophies to produce well-rounded or even well-educated.citizens. Let us start with the saints. A school well-grounded in hagiography would slice through the intellectualism which sometimes, unfortunately, can obscure or even neglect the Christian mission. Especially in the East, we should be careful not to become overly “scholastic,” even in an academic environment. Without virtue, knowledge is worth very little. As the mother of 6 young Byzantines, I do wish you the best of luck — and prayers — for your endeavors.

  8. Timothy Woods Says:

    Ms. Weinberg, an interesting idea. Read the writings of the saints, and other Christian authors, especially Eastern authors, who would be worthily included in the Great Books category. I would be interested to know what ‘hard core’ great books educators think of such an idea.

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