“As they come to be, so will they teach”

A peculiar, and not easily spotted, danger that classical Christian teachers face is what Eric Voegelin called “immanentizing the eschaton.” This is just a fancy way of noting how idealists (and aren’t we in the classical education world all idealists in some significant sense?) are prone to generating grandiose schemes of what the world should look like, and then to varying degrees coming to believe that through their efforts they have in fact begun to make the world look that way.

As the Late Great Culture War (TM) has heated up in America over the last few years, numerous classical Christian educators have positioned themselves as providing a top-to-bottom, beginning-to-end total paradigm for instantiating a Really Thoroughly Legit and Completely-Consistent Christian Culture (also TM) against the encroaching dark night of the slavering boogeyman they call “Secularism.”

The more I read the output of these types of classical educators, the more difficult it is for me to distinguish the things they say from an almost Manichaean dualism – which, not an ironically, has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity in any form, and so certainly cannot function as the foundation for a healthy renewal of a Christian culture.

It’s in this light that I want to share and briefly comment on these words of C.S. Lewis, from an essay in God in the Dock:

The State may take education more and more firmly under its wing. I do not doubt that by so doing it can foster conformity, perhaps even servility, up to a point; the power of the State to de-liberalize a profession is undoubtedly very great. But all the teaching must still be done by concrete human individuals. The State has to use the men who exist. Nay, as long as we remain a democracy, it is men who give the State its powers. And over these men, until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow. Their minds are formed by influences which government cannot control. And as they come to be, so will they teach. Let the abstract scheme of education be what it will: its actual operation will be what the men make it. – p. 117

What do these words have to say to us as we try to pursue the path of wisdom in recovering the riches of the classics that have been for so long lost to us?

Mainly this: although Lewis is here talking about State education (part of that great boogeyman of “Secularism” I mentioned earlier), the concepts he employs are equally indicting for any classical Christian educator who does not with the utmost of his energy attempt to self-consciously examine his own assumptions about himself, the world, and what it means to pursue God’s truth and wisdom.

It is a supreme irony that those who are most worried about the apparently intrinsically and unalterably evil impulses of the secular world outside of themselves are often seemingly unaware of how the outside world has deeply conformed themselves to its rhythms. While they fancy that they are giving a thoroughgoing, fully consistent Christian education, they forget that themselves not ever having had such a thing they cannot, as Lewis points out give it to others.

No matter how Grand their plans, no matter how many Bible verses they cite, no matter how many “brave” stands they take against the godlesheathenbarbarians beating on the doors of their little pedagogical enclaves, they can only give to others what is already inside themselves. To adapt Lewis’ words, “Their minds are formed by influences which [they] cannot control. And as they come to be, so they will teach.”

In point of fact, there’s not a single one of us living in this decadent phase of the West who is not already conformed in many significant ways to the prevailing ethos of materialism, anarchistic understandings of personal liberty, and what Carl Truman has lately called “expressive individualism.” And since we are in fact ourselves so conformed to the world in ways we generally don’t even notice, how is it that we could ever come to think we have escaped all that and are giving students a radically different enculturation?

In other words, there isn’t a single classical Christian educator anywhere on this planet who can actually give the sort of ideal education that the hyper-dualists among us insist they are in fact already giving. They are, rather than living in the actual present in which God’s Providence has put them, “immanentizing the eschaton”, and so, fooling only themselves and those who follow them to thinking that they already possess that which only God knows the location of – Wisdom.

This overrealized eschatology is a peculiar hubris to which our communities are vulnerable, and it needs to be the first thing that we repent of if we wish to really see in our time some faint, halting steps towards a possible restoration of at least a couple of bricks in the foundation.

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