Author Archives: TEnloe

Nobility Lost (Part 1)

From time to time as a teacher of classical literature, I’ve tried to get students to engage with the idea of nobility as it appears in most of the Greek and Roman texts we read. Almost without exception I have found that the word nobility means very little to the modern student – almost as if I was asking them to say something really meaningful about the word humbug or jabberwock or razzamatazz.

Almost without exception I have found that upon asking students reading classical literature to describe the idea of nobility, they cannot come up with anything other than standard, modern dictionary definitions that call up vague, connotatively displeasing notions of snobbish “upper class” people who more often than not prey upon the lowly ordinary people and so must, from time to time, be subjected to revolutions that show them just how fundamentally useless aristocracy really is.

This spectacularly limited horizon regarding the word nobility recently prompted me to do some quick dictionary work of my own, which produced a very interesting result that I now share with you.

First up was the online Merriam-Webster’s, which told me this:

1: the quality or state of being noble in character, quality, or rank

2: the body of persons forming the noble class in a country or state ARISTOCRACY

Next I tried that amazing, little-questioned go-to source for this debased age that confuses rapid access of information with possession of wisdom, Wikipedia, which has this to say:

Nobility is a social class normally ranked immediately below royalty and found in some societies that have a formal aristocracy. Nobility has often been an estate of the realm that possessed more acknowledged privilege and higher social status than most other classes in society. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles or may be largely honorary (e.g., precedence), and vary by country and era. Membership in the nobility, including rights and responsibilities, is typically hereditary.

Finally I turned to Dictionary.com, which offers this:

1. the noble class or the body of nobles in a country.

2. (in Britain) the peerage.

3. the state or quality of being noble.

4. nobleness of mind, character, or spirit;

5. exalted moral excellence.grandeur or magnificence.

6. noble birth or rank.

Lastly I tried Collins Dictionary online, which produced this very similar result:

 SINGULAR NOUN [with singular or plural verb]

The nobility of a society are all the people who have titles and belong to a high social class.Synonyms: aristocracy, lords, elite, nobles   More Synonyms of nobility

2. UNCOUNTABLE NOUN

A person’s nobility is their noble character and behaviour. [formal]

What these searches confirmed was what I knew from experience with students: the definition of nobility has, by the vapid reductionisms of “Social Studies” classes, the caricatures of popular media, and the “just the facts” denotations of popular dictionaries been just about wholly restricted to a mere designator of an arbitrary social class, meaningful only in societies that believe in such intolerant notions as a really-existing hierarchy of goods, the necessity of good people providing examples for others to imitate, and an actually definable thing called human nature which is capable of aspiring to excellence or sinking down below the level of base animalism.

Yet, since I began with the Merriam-Webster dictionary, watch what I found when I turned to the once-upon-a-time much-cited 1828 Webster’s:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

2. Antiquity of family; descent from noble ancestors; distinction by blood, usually joined with riches.

3. The qualities which constitute distinction of rank in civil society, according to the customs or laws of the country; that eminence or dignity which a man derives from birth or title conferred, and which places him in an order above common men. In Great Britain, nobility is extended to five ranks, those of duke, marquis, earl, viscount and baron.

4. The persons collectively who enjoy rank above commoners; the peerage; as the English nobility; French, German, Russian nobility

What do you notice as you look over the entries I’ve reproduced here? What I immediately noticed was that the newer dictionaries prioritize the merely functional class-designator, which is driven solely by artificial badges like titles and privilege while the older definition (1828) priorities a set of high-minded – that is elevated – qualities of character. While this definition does appear in several of the other sources I cited, it is lower than the merely social, class-designator one.

You know, the only one that I’ve said most of my students have any familiarity with as they try to read ancient literature chock-full of high-minded ideals that seem, pretty literally, like unintelligible gibberish to the modern, merely functionality-oriented mind.

Needless to say, I find this phenomenon – the debasement of the definition of nobility quite alarming. In this short series I’ll try to recover some bits and pieces of the older, more humane definition of nobility, in the hopes that you will find it useful in your own thinking about matters of the human condition, the problems that ail our society, and what may possibly be done to work on restoring the real excellence of motivations and deeds that has been grievously lost in our time.

Clay-Footed Heroes

If your homeschooled children are much like mine, they’ve been imbued from an early age with a passion for reading. They’ll read anything you let them read – and smile and ask for more. And, oh, the things they learn and remember from good books, things that make you and I as parents only wish we’d had that kind of education growing up!

But if your a homeschooling parent much like me, you realize that a passion for reading is not enough, for the object of the passion must be, as just noted, good books. Not just any books. Good books. Books, say, about great men and women (and sometimes children, too) of the past. Books that feed the child’s soul with images of the True, Good, and Beautiful. Images they can store up in their memory, revisit, learn from, and, hopefully, as God gives the increase, imitate in their own lives.

My children devour books, and we do our best to make sure those books are good for the reasons just stated. But every so often, on a trip to the library, a book slips in that we, regrettably, haven’t vetted sufficiently and so the precise contents of which we don’t find out about until the children bring us questions because something they read confused them.

My children recently encountered such a book which quite suddenly turned from what seemed to be an inspiring story of black nurse in the Crimean War into a simplistic, emotion-laden tirade against one of the greates heroines of the time, Florence Nightingale.

The book in question is Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield, by Susan Goldman Rubin. It tells the story of Mary Jane Grant, a mixed-race girl from Jamaica. From the start of the book (showcased by our library during Black History Month), much is made of Mary’s skin color and how proud she was of it and how from her early teens she encountered nasty people who judged her because of it. (You can see where this is going already).

Mary’s major interest beginning as a child was practicing medicine, a love she got from her mother, who trained her in such arts as she possessed. At 31, she married an Englishman, Edwin Seacole, who unfortunately died of sickness despite all her nursing of him in 1844. A series of events led to her becoming widely recognized in Jamaica as very knowledgeable in the healing arts. Yet all was not sweetness and light. Bravely battling bigotry all the way (it’s mentioned six times in 8 pages), she plied her healing arts in various places, at last ending up in Crimea in 1855, determined to set up her own convalescent home for soldiers dying more from disease than bullets.

It is while relating this process that the book begins its not-so-subtle attack on Florence Nightingale, noting that although she, a white woman, had little trouble getting into the War as a lead nurse, no one in authority wanted a “yellow woman” to do the same. Upon arriving in Constantinople, she met Nightingale, who, as the book has it, was extremely rude to Seacole and refused her services because of her skin color and certain medical practices she had (giving sickly soldiers swigs of sherry or wine-lemonade) which Nightingale said made Seacole a “woman of bad character.”

Nightingale, we are told (on a page picturing a compassionate looking woman-of-color confronting a prim, sour-faced white woman) flatly refused even to allow the exhausted Seacole a bed among the other nurses, since such “associations” were “absolutely out of the question” (a purported quote from a letter of Nightingale’s). Later on, Seacole was successfully treating many diseased men in Balaclava when Nightingale, recently arrived there, herself fell ill with a form of typhus. As the book has it, Nightinglae “was revolted by the idea” of allowing a woman-of-color to treat her illness with “quack” Creole medicines.

This is the final image of Florence Nightingale that we receive from Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield. Although at the outset of the account of the War, the book does mention that Nightingale is justly famous for pressing for greater sanitation in the sick wards, the overall effect given is that she was in reality just another nasty, privileged-and-prejudiced White Woman looking down on a member of an “inferior race” despite the latter’s clear competence in the medical arts.

What to say about this, especially since Florence Nightingale is often held up as a great heroine of reforming battlefield medical practices? I’m no expert on the Crimean War or Nightingale herself, and I’ve learned that Nightingale’s collected works, including numerous letters from which a more accurate picture of her person and work might be built, run to 16 volumes. A small bit of Googling (not recommended as a substitute for actual serious research, and I don’t represent my Googling here as counting for that) turns up that there’s been a fairly learned controversy for some years now over the Nightingale-Seacole rivalry. (National Geographic, for instance, isn’t quite as glowing in its account of Seacole’s medical prowess and motivations – but as I haven’t researched the topic, I can’t say myself.)

What concerns me – and I think what should concern you, homeschool parents, as well – is how this apparently very complex situation from the past is now being marketed to young children as a political weapon aimed at destroying someone justly famed as a heroine merely because she (might have) had some views on certain issues now considered sacrosanct by a palpably self-righteous segment of our degraded society. Here are some take away points in need of further consideration, then:

(1) There’s a subtle irony in a book like Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield attempting to destroy a major example of a strong woman making her own way in a male-dominated world. For Mary Seacole does this by orienting attention to skin color rather than merits, and so tries to use one strong woman to destroy another. In other words, the great cause of Women’s Rights, which otherwise needs all the heroines it can get, is in a book like this being summarily fed to the great cause of Racial Justice – and apparently the incongruity is not supposed to be noticed. Why ought it to be this way? Why not simply supplement acquainting children with the greatness of Florence Nightingale with also acquainting them with the greatness of Mary Seacole? Leave self-righteous, virtue-signalling, destructively cynical political crusades out of it entirely, thereby enriching the childrens’ store of images of greatness to imitate in their own lives.

(2) Should someone attempting to tear down a hero / heroine’s legacy need to demonstrate a thorough competence in all the relevant sources before being taken seriously? Consider that as noted earlier, there are sixteeen volumes of letters and other materials extant from Florence Nightingale. From what I have found, these are very expensive volumes (upwards of $90 each), and some run to over 1,000 pages. The book I’ve been referencing, Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield, cites a few choice, seemingly damning phrases from Nightingale in reference to Seacole, but aren’t we entitled to ask for more context? Of course, it’s a children’s book, not a scholarly tome – but that’s all the reason to be eminently careful in the selection of material so as to not damage young minds and hearts. If all one read was this book, one would get a very negative picture of Florence Nightingale. But I wonder what’s in those sixteen volumes of original material of hers. What qualifications might we find about her views on race? How can we be sure this very obviously politically-motivated book, showcased during Black History Month, is accurately representing Nightingale’s views?

(3) And yes, what of selection? Owing to the overwhelmingly vast amount of historical material available on all manner of issues nowadays, every historian must select what to include, what to leave out, what questions to organize an account around, what directions to pursue an inquiry, and so on. It follows from this that no historical account will ever be “just the facts,” but will always be a relatively-accurate reconstruction of the materials used. It may be that other books on Nightingale have not emphasized racial issues in play during her era, and so we should acknowledge that they existed and be honest if we find them operating in a hero or heroine. But the answer to a selectivity that never tells children about a great person’s Flaw In Area X ought not to be a simple mirror-image selectivity that seeks to just destroy the great person, period, and inculcate in a child a dark cynicism that the world always has been only about prejudicial power relationships. Stories should feed the soul, not rot it.

(4) And from a Christian point of view consider this: the Bible, at least, is one book about ancient heroes that never scruples to tell us directly about the great flaws of the men and women it holds up as examples of faith. Whether Noah’s drunkenness or Abraham’s mistreatment of Hagar and Ishmael or Moses’ cowardice and anger or David’s adultery and subsequent indirect-murdering of the woman’s lawful spouse or Solomon’s massive idolatry or Peter’s reckless impetuosity, the Bible doesn’t present us with Ideal Heroes so that later we can be all shocked and become cynical when someone says, “But did you know that this ‘great hero’ was guilty of ____?” The upshot for my topic here is that even were we to discover that Florence Nightingale harbored views we now call racist and did treat a competent nurse in a rude and prejudiced way, we should just say, “Oh, so now we have direct evidence that she’s like all our heroes: a sinner in need of grace.”

In short, what I think a children’s book like Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield wants to do – encourage children to broaden their acquaintance with the world, get a larger, more holistic picture of the wonderful diversity of virtuous human examples they can imitate, is quite laudable and ought to be done more. Add new heroes to the stock of old heroes, and there’s so much more to celebrate! But there’s just no need for a vast project of cynical revisionist history that is only going to issue in a sort of reverse-bigotry against Whites, and really just hollow out kids’ souls by teaching them instead that all the older heroes were just Bad People Who Arbitrarily Got Power and Shamefully Oppressed Others.

Heroes are special people who do extraordinary things. But whoever said they aren’t humans just like the rest of us? Why should we be so astonished to find out that they, too, had feet of clay?

Who Says Political Philosophy Isn’t Practical?

Sometimes it may seem like getting too deep into the philosophical end of the classics just isn’t “practical,” since so much of it seems airy-fairy, high-falutin’, divorced from “the real world” of everyday experience. But then you read things like this, from Plato and you suddenly realize that even the philosophical material in the classics is very practical because it is rooted in the real world of every day experience:

“When offices are filled competitively, the winners take over the affairs of state so completely that they totally deny the losers and the losers’ descendants any share of power. Each side passes its time in a narrow scrutiny of the other, apprehensive lest someone with memories of past injustices should gain some office and lead a revolution. Of course, our position is that this kind of arrangement is very far from being a genuine political system; we maintain that laws which are not established for the good of the whole state are bogus laws, and when they favor particular sections of the community, their authors are not citizens but party-men; and people who say those laws have a claim to be obeyed are wasting their breath….Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.”

Laws 715a-d

To be sure, questions arise from these thoughts, particularly regarding what the phrase “for the good of the whole state” means. (Won’t that be precisely one of the things that even “party men” claim lies at the root of their sectarian programs?) And does the passage really enjoin that any citizen, upon deciding that some laws promulgated by the government are “bogus laws” made by “party men” and therefore no one who doesn’t wish to has to obey them?

Still, these are very provocative words, and again they illustrate that even the more philosophical parts of the classics really ought to be carefullly studied right along with all the other supposedly “more practical” parts.

Rumor, Swiftest of All Evils in the World

Say what one will about mythology; there are times when it is an incredibly deep store of verifiable human knowledge drawn from experience and made more powerful through allegorization.

Take Virgil’s remark in Book IV of the Aeneid that as soon as Aeneas and Dido have, according to Juno, been married, immediately “Rumor flies through Libya’s great cities. Rumor, swiftest of all the evils in the world.”

Who is this Rumor? What happens if we pay attention to the mythology and not just assume we know what it’s saying because we know the English word?

As it turns out upon close inspection of Titan genealogies (how many of us ever really bother to look at those things, let alone learn the Titans as well as we know the Olympians?), Rumor is the cousin of the god Apollo, famously known as the god of Truth via prophecy. Apollo’s true words are frequently misunderstood, which is precisely why they cause so many problems. By contrast, Rumor’s words are very easily understood, which is precisely why they cause so many problems. Ironically, both sets of words, the true and the false, operate on already existing desires within the hearers. 

Herotodus tells us how Croesus of Lydia wants to destroy the Persians. He asks Apollo’s Oracle if he should attack and if he’ll win. The Oracle tells him cryptically, “If you attack you will destroy a great empire.”  Exceedingly happy at his divinely-given fortune, Croesus attacks, but is himself defeated by the Persians. Angry at the Oracle for supposedly lying to him, he confronts it, reminding it that it told him he would win. To which the Oracle calmly replies, “You didn’t pay attention to the words I actually said. I told you that if you attacked you would destroy a great empire. You are the one who failed to ask which empire you would destroy.”

Thus does the god of Truth subvert human plans because human folly hears only what it wants to hear.

Likewise, Apollo’s cousin Rumor flies forth proclaiming to all of Africa that Aeneas and Dido have contracted a marriage which is now blinding both of them to their respective royal duties, and so threatening everyone with disorder. Virgil’s phraseology here is interesting: “…terrorizing the great cities, clinging as fast to her twisted lies as she clings to words of truth. Now Rumor is in her glory, filling Africa’s ears withtale on tale of intrigue, bruiting her song of facts and falsehoods mingled.”

The result of her mixed song, her spreading of reports to every itching ear, is that a petty African lord, Iarbas, who was already angry at Dido for spurning him, and so is easy game for Rumor, who “stokes his heart with hearsay, piling fuel on his fire,” finds himself”driven wild, set ablaze by the bitter rumor.” Iarbas then denounces Jupiter for allowing all of this to happen, asserting that Jupiter’s own temples are merely “hollow show,” which prompts Jupiter to compel Aeneas to leave Dido in order to pursue his destiny. Distraught Dido subsequently commits suicide, cursing all of Aeneas’ future descendants to eternal war with Carthage.

Thus does the goddess of twisted words subvert human plans because human folly hears only what it wants to hear.

The allegorized-mythological connection between truth and rumor points to surely one of the most profound human experiences. Words matter. Accurate reporting of words matters perhaps more. And in this light it is all the more interesting that Rumor is usually the Latin word “fama,” which also has the connotations of reputation and fame. Apparently the line between truth and lies can very, very thin.

It leaves the thoughtful person uncomfortably aware both of the necessity of moderating his speech and properly interpreting that of others. Human folly knows no bounds – there is no reason why even someone with “the correct worldview” in his head couldn’t easily fail to use words well or fall prey to the distortive power of Rumor while blindly believing he is only listening to the very voice of Truth Itself.

It also leaves the thoughtful person wondering whether reputations and fame are inevitably some sort of odd mixture of truth and lies – and so what that might mean for our epistemic and moral duty when we encounter fabulous reports reports, pro or con, concerning important people and events. I doubt there is anywhere that Rumor flies faster than on this great and powerful technological terror that we call the Internet.

Ontology 101

Ontology is “the study of being,” or, “the study of existence.” Things that exist share the quality of “existing,” and ontology studies what it means to say that a thing “exists.” The term “ontology” comes from the Greek words ontos (being) and logos (the study of). Ontology answers questions like these:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What is a “something” in the first place?
  • What kinds of “somethings” exist?
  • How can we organize, or classify, the kinds of “somethings” into groups so we can better understand them?
  • What happens to a “something” when it experiences a change? How much can you take away from or change “something” before it becomes “something else”?

A being is just a thing that exists. You are a being, I am a being, cars are beings, houses are beings, tables and chairs and pencils and footballs are beings, and so forth. Anything that exists is a being. Some beings exist outside of your mind (such as other people). Other beings exist only in your mind (such as unicorns and other products of your imagination).

What about God? God exists, right? Doesn’t that mean that God is a being? Actually, Christians think of God as being in a different class than all the things mentioned above. God is not a being. Rather, He is Being. What does that mean? To answer that question, we first need to discuss a few more terms that are used in ontology.

  • Immanent BeingTo say that a being is “immanent” means that that being exists inside the world. Immanent means “inside of.”
  • Transcendent BeingTo say that a being is “transcendent” means that that being exists outside of the world. Transcendent means “outside of.”
  • Finite BeingA finite being is a being that has limitations, such as size, weight, color, abilities, lifespan, and so forth. Another term for finite being is contingent being, which means a being that was made to exist by something else.
  • Infinite BeingAn infinite being is a being that has no limitations.

What does all of this mean? Why is it important? What relation does it have to how we as Christians think about God?

A great many books outside of the Bible that you read as part of literature classes were written by pagans. (A pagan is someone who believes in many gods rather than just one God.) In pagan religions, the gods and goddesses are beings who exist inside the world. They are immanent beings, not transcendent beings. The only real difference between the gods and human beings in pagan religions are that the gods are a lot more powerful than the human beings. Otherwise, like human beings, they are limited, finite beings.

The God of Christianity is very different from all pagan gods. The God of Christianity is infinite, not finite. Unlike the pagan gods, our God is both transcendent and immanent. Because He made the world, He exists outside the world (Genesis 1; Psalm 90:2; Ephesians 1:4). Yet He also exists inside the world (Psalm 139:7-10; Jeremiah 23:23-24).

What these things mean is that the Christian God is not just a being. He is not like all the other things that we call beings. He is not like you and me and houses and cars and tables and chairs and pencils and footballs. Nor is he like beings of your imagination, like unicorns. And He is utterly unlike all the beings that pagans called “gods.”

According to classical Christian thinkers, God is not just a being. Rather, God is Being. All other things that exist exist imperfectly and with limitations. God exists, but unlike all other things that exist He exists perfectly and without any limitations. All other things that exist have being, but God is Being. This means that all other beings are dependent on God. In classical Christian literature, particularly philosophical works, there is a whole class of arguments for the existence of God known as ontological arguments because they focus on this issue of being.

In Genesis 1, the Bible tells us that “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” By itself, this verse does not prove that nothing existed before God created the world. But when we add to it John 1:3, we find that “Through Him [Jesus Christ] all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”

The Apostle Paul writes, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Hebrews 11:3 tells us that “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” God made everything out of nothing (see the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in Chapter 20). Thus, everything that exists is dependent (or contingent) upon him.

Ontology is a very important part of any worldview. What a worldview says about ontology affects what it says about all kinds of other issues, including how human beings know things and what is the destiny of all things. Some worldviews do not emphasize it much, but at the bottom of any claim that they make about the world is some kind of ontological assumption.

Philosophy 101

The term “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philos (love of) and sophia (wisdom), so it means literally “love of wisdom.”

Philosophy begins with asking questions. When we start to reflect upon – that is, to think seriously about – ourselves and the world that we live in, we quickly realize how BIG everything is and how SMALL we are. We realize that we do not know very much at all, and that certainly we do not know as much as we like to think we know!

Something you will come to appreciate as you get older is the saying “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I still don’t know.” Once we realize that we do not know very much, we are in a position to start asking questions about the things that we do not know.

Many people believe that Socrates (469 B.C.–399 B.C.) was “the father of philosophy.” Socrates was famous for saying that true wisdom consists in knowing that you do not know. He was also famous for saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

According to Socrates, most people do not know most of what they think they know. In fact, most of what they think they know consists of prejudices that they have not exposed to the light of inquiry on the basis of reason.

According to Socrates, most people regularly confuse appearance (what only seems to be the case) with reality (what actually is the case). By asking questions and exploring them to try to find answers, Socrates encouraged people to think philosophically – to seek true wisdom rather than just what seemed to be wisdom.

Philosophy does its work by means of reason. Philosophy starts with our ordinary, daily experiences, asks questions about them, and tries to logically figure out the answers to the questions. Philosophy is, therefore, concerned with matters that we can figure out for ourselves – that is, matters that we do not need special guidance from God to figure out..

Using Socrates as a model, we can see that for the Greeks, philosophy was defined simply by three statements:

  • “Know yourself.”
  • “Do not do anything to excess.”
  • “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Like all the wise men of the Bible, Socrates knew that he was not much at all, and that most of what he thought he knew was wrong when compared to God’s knowledge. In this sense, philosophy is something that all Christians can and ought to be interested in, for it is a path to wisdom. When you follow this path, you will know, with Job, that a human being is “Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.” (Job 14:2) You will also realize the truth of what God said to Job about how pitiful Job’s knowledge was: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4)

Also, recognizing that you do not know puts you in a frame of mind to learn things because you do not think that you already know. If you already know something, do you try to find it out? Of course not. Only by recognizing that you do not know are you ever able to start trying to find out. This is the beginning of a philosophical way of thinking. Scripture teaches the same thing: “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:1).

The second point of philosophy is “Do not do anything to excess.” When you know that you do not know, you will also be prepared to live your life avoiding excesses. Too much food, too much playing, too much working – all of these are excesses. Scripture tells us to control ourselves, which means, among other things, to avoid excesses (Proverbs 13:3; Proverbs 21:7; Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:10-12, and others).

Philosophy can help teach you to understand the difference between the mere appearance of Good and the reality of Good. You will often find that what appears to be Good to you the first time you look at it is not what really is Good. More often than not, the things that only appear to be Good will be excesses of one kind or another, while the thing that really is Good will be something moderate, something that is not extreme.

The third and last principle of philosophy teaches you to live your life with an attitude of examining everything to see whether it is true or false. You cannot know yourself and avoid excesses if you do not examine your life carefully and weigh your experiences in this life in the light of principles that come from a higher place than this life. The Bible tells us the same thing:

  • Philippians 4:8 – “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”

“Facility of Education Will Lead to Indifference To It”

More from T.S. Eliot, foreseeing the impasse of the modern educational ideal:

People can be persuaded to desire almost anything, for a time, if they are constantly told that it is something to which they are entitled and which is unjustly withheld from them. The spontaneous desire for education is greater in some communities than in others…It is possible that the desire for education is greater where there are difficulties in the way of obtaining it – difficulties not insuperable but only to be surmounted at the cost of some sacrifice and privation. If this is so, we may conjecture that facility of education will lead to indifference to it; and that the universal imposition of education up to the years of maturity will lead to hostility towards it. A high average of general education is perhaps less necessary for a civil society than is a respect for learning.

– as cited in The Great Tradition, ed. Richard M. Gamble, p. 620

“A Swollen Number of Candidates”

T.S. Eliot, writing about 72 years ago, presciently observes:

…the ideal of a uniform system [of education] such that no one capable of receiving higher education could fail to get it, leads imperceptibly to the education of too many people, and consequently to the lowering of standards to whatever this swollen number of candidates is able to reach.

– Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (as cited in The Great Tradition, ed. Richard M. Gamble, p. 621

Education is About What Things are For, Not How They Work

Education is not job training; it is not even schooling. Education, in so many words, is knowing what things are for, not simply how they work. The truly educated person understands the proper uses to which such things as bodies, brains, governments, art, and sport are put, not merely how to eat, how to execute difficult mathematical computattions, how to win an election, how to paint a still life, or how to hit a curveball.

The difference between these knowing what things are for and merely knowing how they work is the difference between wisdom and information, between knowledge and data, between knowing and knowing about. Those who acquire the former are genuinely educated; those who gain only the latter are technological functionaries, replaceable by the next generation of machines.

From Michael Bauman, The Second Death of Socrates: Why Public Education is the Enemy of Learning

Theology

The English word “theology” comes from two Greek words, theos (God) and logos (the study of), so it literally means “the study of God.” Things that Theology is interested in are: (1) the nature of God (what kind of being is God?), (2) God’s attributes (God’s characteristics and abilities), and (3) God’s relationships with His creatures.

The basic meaning of the word “theology” is “the study of God.” However, often the word “theology” is used in a more expansive sense than this, to describe the studies of different teachings of the Bible. These kinds of theology have their own special “-ology” names:

  • Theology Proper (the study of God)
  • Anthropology (the study of man and the created universe)
  • Christology (the study of the person and work of Jesus Christ)
  • Pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit)
  • Ecclesiology (the study of the Church)
  • Soteriology (the study of salvation)
  • Hamartiology (the study of sin)
  • Eschatology (the study of the final purpose of all things)

The source for all of these “-ologies,” all of these particular “studies of,” is the Bible. The things that the Bible says about these topics are scattered throughout its pages, not presented all in one place for each issue. We go through the Bible, look at the things it says about each of these issues, and then try to put all those things together into a single “picture” that makes sense. When we do this, we are doing theology, and we are each and every one of us theologians.

Why Is Theology Necessary?

First, no man is an island. No one lives all alone with his own personal copy of the Bible. No one should act as if he or she can figure it all out without ever consulting anyone else. Christians are called to be in community with each other (the church). It is in the context of our lives together in the church that we read the Bible, talk about it, try to figure out what it means, and work to apply its teachings to our lives. Theology is what we all do together as Christians who all love the same Lord and read the same Bible.

Each of us has different gifts, different strengths (1 Cor. 12:12-20). We need each other, especially when it comes to understanding the Bible. Sometimes one person can see something that another does not see, and the first can help the second to see. As Christians, we are a body (Eph. 4:4-16). For each person to try to figure out the Bible all by himself would be like the foot saying to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or the head telling the stomach, “You have nothing to say that I need to hear. I can do it all by myself!”

Second, the Bible itself tells us that not everything in it is easy to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). Sometimes what you read in one part of the Bible seems to say something different than what you read in another part. When this happens, you have to try to reconcile the two places.

One of the jobs of Theology is to reconcile parts of the Bible that seem to contradict each other. Theology uses tools to do this. Some of those tools are: (1) knowledge of the original languages of the Bible, (2) knowledge of the cultures of Bible times, (3) the thoughts of past generations of Christians on the texts in question, and (4) the beliefs of your church.

Third, Theology helps you to grow more mature in your faith. There is nothing at all wrong with “just” reading the Bible. Every Christian should read the Bible regularly. But there is a difference between just reading the Bible and studying the Bible.

Studying the Bible is a much more serious task than just reading it. Studying the Bible requires you to pay much closer attention to its words, and it often requires you to confront things in the text that seem to be difficult to understand. When something you read in the Bible is difficult to understand, and you “wrestle” with it for a while trying to reach a conclusion, you are thinking theologically – that is, you are engaging in the process of trying to figure out what the theology of the Bible on this particular point is. The process of “wrestling” with the Bible this way helps you to grow more mature in your faith and makes you stronger as a Christian.

Theology can help you see where your own views come from, and also help you better understand why other Christians think differently than you and your church think about particular issues, so that you can be more charitable to them.

In the Middle Ages, theology was called “the Queen of the Sciences” because Christians thought that all other kinds of knowledge owed allegiance to the basic truths of the Christian Faith as summed up by the discipline of Theology. This is a view that has fallen on hard times in our age, because we often do not want to do the hard theological work of relating what the Bible says to every area of our lives.

We need to remember that God’s Word has something to say to us about every area of our lives. All of our studies should be done with a nod to the “Queen,” whose decrees we read about in the pages of the Bible.