Higher education should not neglect the personal formation of students. In the past, particularly in small institutions, there was a concern for the moral well-being of what were perceived to be young people in transition to full adulthood. Tutors thought of themselves as charged with the responsibility of helping students, as it might have been said in the last century, “cultivate virtue.” This way of thinking would almost certainly be derided nowadays as paternalistic, patronizing, and an infringement of student autonomy.
Indeed it might even be considered positive abuse of students. Not so long ago I attended a conference on Catholic schools in which much of the discussion took the form of grumblings about Catholic childhood and Catholic education. Indeed an auction developed reminiscent of the Monty Python skit about the “Self-Made Yorkshiremen,” each speaker outbidding the last in the privation and cruelty of his upbringing. I found it difficult to believe that the reports were accurate and not the familiar exaggerations of group therapy sessions. But they obviously served some socio-biographical need in the speakers, and that fact forces us to two considerations. The first is how their religiously founded educations failed the speakers, leaving them with such a deep unfulfilled need. And the second is the more general and more important question of what a religiously founded education ought to do for its students. I write as a Roman Catholic, but the question—and its answer—is one that must concern all Christians wondering how to rear and educate their children.
Briefly stated, the main point of a Christian education should be to lay down the foundations of a good life and a good death. The pagan Romans could say “death is the gateway to life,” yet these days many Christians seem more disposed to say “life is the gateway to personal self-fulfillment.” The four last things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—are in danger of being seen as unhelpful and perhaps removable intrusions from the Dark Ages. But life in the natural order is conditioned by death, and human activity should be measured against this end. It is not morbid to think often of mortality when the point of doing so is to reflect back on one's present condition and actions. One might say that those best love life who know its meaning, and since for the Christian a key to its meaning is the inescapable fact of death, no one can love life who seeks to deny its finitude.
It is within this context that a Christian philosophy of education should be developed. Education is an activity or process. As such it is defined by its goal, what it aims to achieve. Chesterton had this in mind when he wrote that “Education is only truth in a state of transmission,” and raised immediately the rhetorical question “How can we pass on truth if it has never come into our hand?” For Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas the theory of education belongs to the domain of practical reason, and both philosophers thought that such reason should work backward from the desired ultimate aim through the intermediary circumstances until one arrives at one's present situation. What this sort of exercise in reverse syllogistic usually reveals is that the steps necessary to realize any ultimate aim are many and complex. Once one appreciates this, and turns to consider the purpose of human life in communion with God and the role of the Apostles and their successors in bringing people to this goal, it begins to become clear why the Church is a complex and multifaceted institution. The destination may be simply described as Heaven; but the journey and the modes of transport reflect the complexity of the human condition—a condition of inherited fallenness and sin.
The point of these reflections is to suggest that the traditional patterns of Christian life and formation that those in their forties and older will recall had their rationale in a definite and well-developed moral theology. Recalling religious texts from the 1950s and before, it is easy to form impressions of dull and doctrinal Catholic scholasticism or of petty Protestant rigorism. If you actually take the trouble to look at this material, however, you will find much of it impressive and instructive. It is dangerous hubris to suppose that the fruits of two thousand years of doctrinal development, liturgical devotion, and spiritual reflection and discipline should lightly be considered outmoded impediments to religious well-being. Yet it is precisely this tradition that the conference participants were keen to distance themselves from.
Nowadays there is a marked tendency to distinguish and separate three broad approaches to religious belief: the spiritual, the historical, and the philosophical. Those who follow the first emphasize experience, emotion, and contemplative reflection; followers of the second concentrate on sacred Scripture and Church tradition; and those partial to the third favor abstract and general argument.
Part of what is implied in distinguishing these approaches is some tension or opposition among them. Currently, for example, there seems to be a preference for the spiritual approach, often under the description of personal renewal or integrative healing. Those who are drawn to it will often say that they are not tied to any particular church or scriptural revelation but have a more personal or experiential understanding of religion. Such people are inclined to regard philosophical theology as dry and overly rationalistic. This same complaint about philosophy is also voiced by the advocates of Scripture and ecclesial practice, but they take issue with the rootlessness and self-absorbed individualism of New Age spirituality. Finally, the philosophically disposed tend to be suspicious of uncritical reliance upon emotion and similarly regard Scripture and Church as going far beyond what reason warrants.
Doubtless these tendencies reflect different personalities, and it is true that each approach appeals to a genuine aspect of the religious life. The division of religion into these three approaches, however, is neither necessary nor desirable. Indeed, I believe that its effect is generally malign and we have a pressing need to reintegrate the spiritual, the historical, and the philosophical.
Praying for the dead, for example, is a characteristic Catholic practice around which rituals and liturgies have been developed. But this does not make philosophical questions about the possibility and nature of an afterlife irrelevant. On the contrary, the meaning of prayer for the dead is given in part by the metaphysical idea that natural death is not the end of personal existence. So if there are philosophical objections to the ideas of disembodiment, reincarnation, or resurrection then the point and value of the religious practice are threatened. As St. Paul noted in writing to the Corinthians, “If there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ has not been raised . . . and your faith is in vain.”
Similarly, although the “god of the philosophers” is characterized in abstract terms—as a self-existent, eternal, immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, immaterial creator and sustainer of the universe—it is a serious mistake to sever the links between spiritual reflection, revelation, and philosophy. Each has a part to play in the task of coming to know, to love, and to serve God.
Consider the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . all things were made through him. . . . And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. . . . And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” In the space of a few lines John informs Greeks and Greek-speaking Jews that what the philosophers had long sought after—the Logos, or the ultimate account of things—has been with God from all eternity and is that through which all things were made; and that this Logos was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth—the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Thus are philosophy, history, and spirituality united. To separate them would diminish each, for what John teaches is at once metaphysical, revelatory, and a theme for meditation. A further example, this time from liturgy, supports the same conclusion. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins gives the following English rendering of a eucharistic hymn traditionally ascribed to Aquinas:
Godhead here in hiding whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more;
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart,
Lost all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly, or there's nothing true.
What is believed of the consecrated host rests upon the words of Scripture. The text itself is a testimony of personal and ecclesial belief—but couched in poetic terms and adverting to the philosophical and theological doctrine of the real presence.
Some religious believers take pride and comfort in the idea that their faith owes nothing to reason, historical testimony, or doctrinal authority. Perhaps they believe that by treating their belief as a personal relationship with God they incur fewer troublesome burdens. Such an attitude, however, is quite alien to the central traditions of Western and Eastern Christianity (as it is to those of Judaism and Islam). The three monotheistic faiths are all religions “of the book,” but neither value nor sense can be attached to discerning and trusting the word of Scripture unless it is possible to specify which writings and interpretations are to be accepted and which rejected. Every faith of “the book” presupposes a canon of authentic and authoritative Scripture, and one need only ask the question of how such a canon came to be determined, ratified, and transmitted to realize the ineliminable role of reason and general understanding.
G. K. Chesterton said of philosophy that it is “merely thought that has been thought out” and added that “man has no alternative, except between influence by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out.” Holy Scripture—and the Creeds and biblical spirituality it inspired—is religious experience that has been thought out. Nothing less would be worth transmitting across the centuries, and the religiously disposed should not settle for anything else. The spiritual, the historical, and the philosophical are no more separable in reality than are the three sides of a triangle—or the three persons of the Trinity.
One consequence of all this is that Christian education needs to attend to the integration of these three aspects of faith, and my sense is that we are failing in our educational task with regard to them. It used to be the case that Catholics knew that the Church placed great emphasis on reason, and that theology was closely identified with philosophy. They were aware of the great figures of the Middle Ages such as Aquinas and Bonaventure; and they knew in very broad terms the two main styles of argument for the existence of God: from the contingency of the world and from the order within it.
Of course their knowledge in these matters was from testimony and they deferred to the expertise of others. But that is no disqualification. Just as my scientific knowledge rests on the say of others whom I take to be expert, so my knowledge of dogma is based on the word of those who have it from those who know. Certainly this assumes that someone somewhere does know or that the knowledge is set down and may be recovered. I would recommend the following counsel of prudence to all Catholics: you should cultivate the habit of thinking that if the Church teaches it as a matter of faith and morals then somewhere there is a good case for it drawn from revelation, tradition, or natural reason. This may seem obvious, but there are many who would regard what I have said as intellectually naive and as encouraging an attitude of docility.
Similar points of contrast may be drawn in relation to historic practice. It once was the case that Catholic children were taught a reverence for the sacraments and the liturgy. This effect was produced by pious devotions, modes of dress and behavior, stories of heroic devotion, and so on. One benefit of these efforts was to prepare children for the idea that amidst the ordinariness of life there are channels of transcendence. It is much easier for a child to believe that God is present on the altar if the setting is physically special, if the demeanor of older children and adults is reverential, and if the priest later takes evident care to clean the vessels and consume the residue of the body and blood of Christ.
Talk of the Mass as merely a family meal encourages quite different ways of thinking. It is unsurprising when later in life those raised in such a “get-together-with-Jesus” style wonder why the Church should make so much fuss about restricting the Eucharist to Christians in communion with Catholicism. Again, they are liable to regard caution against participation in the religious services of other denominations as mean and prejudiced. It is as if having been taken regularly to McDonald's one were to be told that one's friends who eat at Burger King are not free to share one's meal, and moreover that one should not eat there oneself. Yet the well-educated Catholic knows that the Mass is not a religious service, a family meal, or a community feast. It is an event in which heaven and earth come together, as mundane time and sacred time are united. In it the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a Divine Person, is made really present—not reenacted or remembered, but made actually present as a means of sacrifice by which our sins and those of mankind generally are atoned. The Messiah whose voluntary death opened the gates of Heaven is presented to us as the priest speaks the words of consecration. Children cannot be taught this sacred doctrine all at once, but they should be taught it instead of the deflationary and desacralizing account of the Mass as a devotional service akin to that of other religious occasions.
I can imagine it being said that my recommendations would make Catholicism seem esoteric, supernaturalist, and exclusive, whereas we should be celebrating the complexity and beauty of the natural order and opening children's eyes to the universally shared features of all religions. Certainly creation is wonderful, but in order to appreciate the extent of its glory one has to understand how limited are scientific and naturalistic accounts of it. The most compelling evidence for God's existence comes precisely as one realizes that the natural order is not self-explanatory and that preternatural causes are effective in it. The “supernatural,” as Catholics should know, is not merely a scientific or metaphysical category: it is primarily a theological one pertaining to the order of Divine Grace. This, not spooky magic, is what is made available through the sacraments. Furthermore it is exclusive in as much as it—unlike french fries in fast food restaurants—is freely and electively bestowed by God and is not an entitlement to all who feel benignly disposed towards the universe or to the ground of its being. If these matters have been confused or lost sight of it may be because too much attention has been given to comparative religious education and too little to Catholic religious knowledge.
Earlier I pointed out that activities are identified by reference to the goals toward which they aim—not any goal, but their proper objects. The goal, in this sense, of spiritual development is union with God. Such union is in part a mystery, but to the extent that it can be understood it is well described by the great teachers and mystics of the Church. Modern ideas of spirituality typically characterize the spiritual goal in terms of becoming a certain kind of person (a fully integrated one, perhaps), or of deepening one's understanding of reality. But unless these are just elliptical ways of talking about union with the Divine Persons, they are at best misleading. Certainly, as the journey proceeds the travelers are changed and their understanding becomes more profound, but these are effects and not causes or constituent features of increasing proximity to God.
In the past when there was still a lively sense of the strangeness and dangers of unknown terrain, travelers sought out experienced and prudent guides, and where these were not available in person they studied any maps and topographical writings they may have left behind. It is unsurprising that the Church Fathers and those who succeeded them, thinking of human life as a journey towards God, often used the metaphor of the guide to describe one competent and willing to lead others along the way. In earlier days the names of the great Catholic spiritual writers and the titles of their works would have been fairly well-known, even if most people had not read them: Augustine's On True Religion and the Confessions, Benedict's Rule, Gregory the Great's Dialogues, Catherine of Sienna's Dialogues, Catherine of Genoa's Purgation and Purgatory, Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ, Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, John of the Cross' The Dark Night, Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, and Jean Pierre de Caussade's Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence. (I wanted to add “and one could go on.” But there are reasons to hesitate, one being the familiar feature of any list of “greats” that it is a product of the judgment of time, and the nearer the past the less determinate the judgment. So let me leave the list as it stands.)
The last named of these classic writers on spirituality, Jean Pierre de Caussade, has a phrase that I have always admired: “the sacrament of the present moment.” Caussade was born in 1675 near Toulouse. At the age of eighteen he entered the Jesuit novitiate there and eleven years later was ordained a priest of the Society. In 1720 he was transferred to the preaching missions, and in 1728 he was sent to Nancy where he began work as spiritual director to a convent of Visitation sisters. He left Nancy twice, in 1731 and again in 1739, and after tours of duty in various Jesuit houses he returned to Toulouse as spiritual director, dying there in 1751. Exactly a decade before his death he published his Dialogues on the Various States of Prayer, but the works that contain his greatest teachings are his posthumously published letters to the Visitation sisters and, particularly, the treatise known as Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, which reads:
God still speaks to us today as he spoke to our fathers, when there were no spiritual directors or set methods. Then, spirituality consisted in fidelity to the designs of God. . . . Then it was enough for those who led a spiritual life to see that each moment brought with it a duty to be faithfully fulfilled. . . .
If the work of our sanctification presents us with difficulties it is because we do not look at it in the right way. In reality holiness consists in one thing alone, namely, fidelity to God's plan. And this fidelity is equally within everyone's capacity in both its active and passive practice.
The active practice consists in accomplishing the duties imposed upon us by the general laws of God and the Church, and by the particular state of life which we have embraced. Passive fidelity consists in the loving acceptance of all that God sends us at every moment. Which of these two requirements of holiness is beyond our strength? . . . Not active fidelity, since the duties imposed by it cease to be such when they are really beyond our powers. . . . What excuse can we plead? Yet this is all that God demands of the soul in the work of its sanctification. He demands it from the high and the low, from the strong and the weak; in a word, from all, always and everywhere. . . .
The passive part of holiness is even more easy, for it consists merely in accepting what most frequently cannot be avoided, and in suffering with love, that is to say with resignation and sweetness, what is too often endured with weariness and discontent. . . .
Perfection does not consist in understanding God's designs but in submitting to them. . . . They are God working in the soul to make it like himself. . . . The whole essence of the spiritual life consists in recognizing the designs of God for us at the present moment. . . .
Souls who walk in the light sing the hymns of light, those who walk in darkness, the hymns of darkness. They must both be left to sing to the end the part and the motet which God allots to each.
The more we seem to lose with God, the more we gain; the more he deprives us of the natural, the more he gives of the supernatural.
The meaning of the expression “the sacrament of the present moment” will be clear. For de Caussade the search for God begins, and in a sense ends, exactly where one is at any given moment. No occult incantations, no esoteric diagrams, no strange exercises, no theatrical props, just a call to sanctity through willing service and acceptance.
I am struck by the contrast between this and many contemporary calls to spirituality. Let me quote an advertisement from a well-established religious order that appeared in a recent issue of a prominent Catholic periodical. The advertisement featured a circular logo showing three joined figures stretching upwards towards a smaller circle in which a winding road or river heads towards the sun-rayed horizon. The accompanying text reads:
Sabbatical Challenge For Women Religious
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdo-
ing there's a field. I'll meet you there.”—Rumi
Experiential program; process oriented.
Call to inner growth; self-empowerment, inner
wisdom. Supportive, loving community; safe environ-
ment to grow wholistically.
Surrounded and supported by a variety of
Powerful, deep healing; loving integration
leading to inner freedom.
The Rumi quoted in the advertisement was a thirtieth-century Sufi poet whose disciples formed the fraternity of Mawlawiyah, better known as “Whirling Dervishes.” I must confess to not having read the writings of Rumi, but I suspect that those women religious who respond to the challenge will receive rather different guidance from that offered by Father de Caussade to the Visitation sisters.
Recall Chesterton's remark about education being truth in a state of transmission. Then ask what truths we know about the spiritual state and about how to advance it. Young people at school and college live in times where spirituality is often equated with pantheistic psychobabble. This generally involves vague injunctions to be at one with oneself and develop holistically in accord with the unity of nature. Like the command “do something,” these offer little direction and it is hard to think what they could exclude. Caussade, by contrast, tells us exactly what to do: first, obey God's will as communicated through Holy Scripture and Holy Church; and second, within the structure this creates, accept what comes each moment as part of gracious providence.
The theology of acceptance is at odds with a culture that has extended the idea of consumer rights to the conditions of life itself. A few years ago commentators and politicians wrote of a “dependency culture” in which people expected resources to come to them from the state. Now we are taught to be self-confident claimants to various moral entitlements. We have rights to be upheld: rights of ownership, of association, of free expression, of respect; in general, rights to fulfillment on terms chosen by ourselves. Ironically, since it wears the mantle of virtue, this ideology of entitlement undermines the notion of an objective moral order, for it treats subjective preferences as the determinants of value. Crudely, what is good (for me) is what I want. Any appeal by others to independent standards of right and wrong then appears as a threat to frustrate my efforts at self-fulfillment. It is, in other words, a violation of my rights.
This twisted logic of entitlement can be seen operating daily in discussions of abortion, adoption, care of the elderly, euthanasia, genetic therapy, human reproduction, sexual orientation and practice, and so on through the familiar list. My impression is that young Catholics are often no better equipped to deal with such issues than are others of their age and general level of education. Given the riches of Church teaching and magisterial moral theology this is an indictment of educational practice. But I am not blaming the schools as such, for the explanation lies at an earlier stage in the failure to substitute sufficient lay expertise at the level of higher education in place of seminary clerics. In consequence the current state of religious knowledge among teachers is often frighteningly limited.
There is little point, though, in continuing to condemn the failures of the past. The question is how to make our way forward to something better. One might try to begin with doctrine, or by retelling the story of Christianity. Both are important, but before people will attend to these they must first be brought to the point of recognizing that doctrine and Church form part of a single Divine answer to a deep human need—the need to be united in love with an unfailing companion. This is the role of spirituality in education.
Identifying the destination and the starting point and tracing the route between them, de Caussade makes the point that we need to travel for no longer than the present moment and no farther than the spot on which we already stand. Slow the pace of discussion to this, lower the volume of talk, and teach children to discern what the moment calls for—sometimes action to change the world, sometimes patience to accept it. With these habits acquired, it will quite naturally occur to them to ask what we know about God and of his will for us. From that point on, education will construct itself in accord with the Aristotelian-Thomistic pattern of practical reasoning, working backwards from ends to means. I have faith that this will bring true happiness and contentment as well as other, less important, forms of success. Any education that could achieve this would be a great gift to future generations.
John J. Haldane is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. This essay is adapted from the 1997 Education Sunday Lecture delivered at St. Andrews College, Glascow.