The place of theology in liberal education

A friend and former classmate from my grad-school days recently wrote to me about the role of theology in a liberal education. He explained that he has been turning over in his mind an old, familiar argument for why theology should be the heart of a liberal education, but he has begun to wonder whether this argument is after all the best one. The argument goes like this:

A genuinely liberal education will principally consist in the study of sacred theology. For liberal education aims at the knowledge proper to the free man. Now the free man, in contradistinction from the slave, is one who lives not for the sake of another, but for his own sake; hence his life consists in activities choice-worthy in themselves. The kind of knowledge that he will pursue, therefore, will be knowledge worth exercising for its own sake, and this will be theoretical knowledge rather than practical knowledge. But theoretical knowledge is desirable because it perfects the knower as a knower; to engage in it is to exercise one’s intellect in the most perfect way. But knowledge, considered in itself, is defined by its object; hence the most perfect knowledge will be knowledge of the most perfect object. And this is God. Hence liberal education will principally consist in the acquisition of the knowledge of God. But the science whose proper object is God is sacred theology. Hence liberal education will principally consist in the study of sacred theology.

My friend’s unease with this seemingly ironclad reasoning is that the motive for studying theology ends up being so that I can perfect myself—while the real motive for theology seems to come from the supernatural virtue of charity, of love for God. As it happens, in our efforts to define the role of theology at Wyoming Catholic College my friends and I have wrestled with the above argument for a long time.The argument as summarized above is familiar from those Great Books schools that hearken back to the 13th-century university as their model, but I think it is helpful to remember that there is an older account of liberal education than that one. Originally, in ancient Rome and before that in Greece, the education of a free man meant just that: the education of one who was literally not a slave but destined to have a part in the governance of the people and in the affairs of state. It was focused on man as citizen and leader; it emphasized rhetoric as persuasive communication and literature as entrance into the life of a people. It was, in a word, an education for relationship to others.

This was the model of education that transmogrified into monastic education, which continued to be an education for citizenship but now for a citizenship in the Mystical Body of Christ and for a relationship with God. It was not until the high middle ages and the rise of the university and of scholasticism that Aristotle’s writings dominated learning and a “liberal education” became widely conceived as an education centered on philosophy and the individual’s pursuit of intellectual fulfilment. And before long before the decadence of scholasticism prompted the rise of humanism, which sought a return to the older model of liberal education centered on literature and rhetoric.

Modern recoveries of the medieval university vision benefit from the clarity and force of scholastic reasoning, but they are liable to miss the ways in which liberal education really is about relationships. They tend to underestimate, for example, the real importance of tradition to the intellectual life and the human importance of rhetoric and poetry.

And so it is with theology. While the ancient Roman idea of liberal education rolled over into monastic loving pursuit of God, contemporary adherents of the thirteenth-century university vision sometimes struggle to move past the pursuit of God as a perfection of the human intellect, as my friend suggested. Nonetheless, the scholastic tradition itself provides excellent tools for moving past its own limitations. We can start from man’s natural desire for personal relationships.

Man’s natural desire for relation seems to be founded simultaneously on imperfection and perfection. It rests on imperfection insofar as man is a part, imperfect in himself and needing others—spouse, children, neighborhood, society—to complete him; it rests on perfection insofar as the better good, as such, is the more common good, and so the best goods by their very nature call for community, for sharing with others. Both paths lead one from scholastic premises to the language of the contemporary magisterium, which ceaselessly repeats that man was made to live in relation. Our relationships with spouse, with children, with society, complete us.

But notice that such relationships complete us not as private goods but as common goods. I do not become more human by clinging to MY citizenship as MY good but by submitting my own merely private good to something greater, namely my country. And I do not become more human by asserting MY friendship as MY good but by yielding myself together with another to something greater than both of us. These goods that are the best goods in my life are not merely MY goods but something better: they are common goods. And so to be perfected in relationship is not finally a turning in on myself but an ecstatic going out of myself to the other.

The moment we see all this, we see that the arts of communion—rhetoric, dialectic, literature, and so on—are very important for education. But we see an even deeper effect on education when we begin to appreciate that man is made for relation all the way down to his center, to his intellect: our very minds are made for personal relations. Our very intellects are social things. Truth is a common good, and we need to know it with and from others.

The fact that our intellects are social by nature also comes out in our experience of knowing other people. In the entire material universe, nothing is so knowable as a human being because nothing has so much interiority, such depths to be known; and for exactly the same reason, nothing else in the material universe is capable of knowing us right back. When we know the best thing in the material universe, we stare into the microscope only to find the specimen on the slide staring right back at us.

But the experience is obscured by the fact that we are, after all, imperfect, parts of a whole. My wife, my best friend in the entire world, is not everything that humanity can be; really to know everything about her humanity, I have to look at many individuals both living and dead and then rise above all of them to something more than any one of them, and of course at that point I am not looking at an existing mind that can know me back. I’m looking at an abstraction. And even the whole of humanity is imperfect, a part in relation to the material universe, taking the chief role but only one role in the cosmic scene: the whole universe taken together is better than humanity taken as a whole. In my effort really to know another person I end up past the personal.

When we get all the way up to the top, to the very best object of the mind, to God, we find that we have moved past this divide. God is not a part; his personhood includes every perfection of whatever species or genus one might try to put him in; we stare at the very best Good, and we find ourselves not staring at an object but locking eyes with another knower. I remember once teaching a freshman class on that passage of Revelation where John says we will see God “face to face”: I pointed out that “face to face” means not only that we look at God but that he looks back at us, and students jumped in their chairs. We tend to think of the beatific vision as seeing the Divine Nature, as though the Divine Nature were a Thing apart from a face, apart from those terrible eyes returning the gaze. No, the final perfection of the intellect is a personal relation, a mutual thing.

If we pursue the argument described at the beginning of this post, we will conclude that liberal education is about relationships to others and ultimately to the Other. We will find that pursuing our own perfection means going out of ourselves in an ecstatic embrace. And we will realize that such an embrace of God himself is beyond our nature, something we would not even have conceived without revelation, and so the desire for that embrace is not a remote interest in the First Mover but an act of the theological virtue of charity.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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