Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas: Wonder at the Incarnation

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'") And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. - John 1:1-5; 9-18 (ESV)

Christmas is a celebration of Christ, The Word, who was made flesh. This incarnation (God becoming man) is the center of this festival and apart from this miracle, there would be no salvation for any man; all have sinned against God and deserve his just and holy wrath. Praise be to God that he saw fit to send his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for my sins.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Leisure, Usefulness and Education

As I write, my students are diligently taking their mid-year humanities exam. We finished the semester by reading Plato’s Republic, which is an allegory for the soul. In the book, Socrates asks his friend Glaucon about the nature of the Good, and Glaucon explains that there are three senses in which something can be good:

(1) “a kind of good we should be glad to have for its own sake alone, not because we desire what comes from it,” (2) “one kind that we love both for its own sake and for what comes from it,” and (3) “a third king of good… [that]… we should not care to have them alone for their own sakes, but for the sake of the wages and the other things which come from them.” (The Republic, Bk. II)
The discussion between Glaucon and Socrates then turns to consider to which of these three categories Justice would belong to. Glaucon surmises that Justice is good in the second sense, because of what it causes, and not for its own sake. Socrates disagrees with this, saying instead that Justice is good in the third sense: for both itself and its consequences.

When we read that particular passage about a week ago, my students’ opinions about what falls into which category were very fascinating. They were divided on where to put education; a majority of them thought it good for its consequences, while the rest thought it good for both its consequences and for its own sake. The students never found something to put into the first category of things good for their own sake. In summary of their opinions, as best I understand, something good needs be so for its consequences, regardless of its intrinsic value.

Over the last few weeks, I have been discussing Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture with my coworkers. The philosopher Pieper, writing in 1950s West Germany, argues that Western Culture has become a “work-a-day” world in which we live to work and only break from work for the sake of returning to work rested. In such a culture, one’s value as an individual is based on his ability to work and contribute. He is not so much a human being as he is an economic variable. The more he works and produces, they greater his value. A thing is good only if it is the consequence of something else. In this world, “usefulness” and “utility” are the most important criteria in deciding how one ought to spend his time. That which derives no practical benefit is necessarily not good.

Pieper notes that Western Culture has lost its sense leisure. In the Ancient World, leisure was something that only the wealthy enjoyed. To be at leisure meant that a man had the means to support himself through others, such as his servants. In a world where most men worked from sunrise to sunset to earn their livelihood, one who had time to “not-work” stood apart. In its original context, leisure is the freedom from work in order to pursue those things which are not essential to living from one day to the next. One would spend this time pondering this good in themselves: the Virtues, philosophy, and poetry.

Theology, philosophy and poetry are all things done for their own sake. Reading T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses from the Rock” will not make you a more productive working, nor will reading Anselm of Canterbury’s argument for the necessary, non-contingency of God in Monologion result in a higher wage. If anything, reading Plato might result in earning less money, since the time spent reading The Symposium could be spent doing something much more “useful.”

I must be careful here so as not to try to argue that reading Augustine or The Ballad of the White Horse is somehow useful. To do so would be antithetical to the idea of something being good for its own sake. Chesterton’s poem about King Alfred needs no justification, least of all from me. He who has eyes to see and a willingness to take up and read will find that it is a reward in itself.

In The Apology, Socrates states that he hopes to cause the men of Athens to be more concerned with their souls than with their possessions or reputation. The man himself, not what he has or owns, is what truly matters. In our time it is important to recognize that man too, is an end in himself, and ought never be treated as the means to some other end. He is good by virtue of his existence and special creation as imago dei, the image of God. Our value as individuals must never be defined by what we produce or contribute.

The utilitarian spirit has done much to assault the ramparts of education. Higher mathematics are called into question by those unlikely to have any need of trigonometry or calculus and often labeled as “impractical.” Teaching Aristotle might seem to have no merit unless one it can be clearly show to be somehow relevant to a student’s desired vocational goals. I have come to despise these sentiments and pity those who utter them. Education is not concerned with what kind of car one will drive, where one lives, or the number of zeros on his paycheck. Education is about the human being and helping him to relate more fully to all of reality, from the created to the Creator.

The charm of leisure must not be the indolent vacancy of mind, but the investigation or discovery of truth.” - St. Augustine