This essay is the Introduction from Reforming Classical Education: Toward A New Paradigm, the most recent publication of The Davenant Press, available for purchase now.
CALLING THE WORLD BY NAME
When I walk into my living room each morning, the first thing that greets me (assuming I’ve awoken early enough to enjoy some solitude) is the mesmerizing spectacle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, tinged with violet and pink in the first rays of the sun, dominating the horizon outside my windows in a great arc from West to North. An awe-inspiring vista for anyone, but for me, the ridge is more than that. For me, each peak and trough in the great ridge line is not merely a pretty sight, but an old friend. When I first moved my family back here to my old family stomping-grounds, my children wanted to know the names of the peaks. Thankfully, schooled by my father decades ago, I could still rattle them off: Hogback, Rocky Spur, Melrose, Little Warrior, Big Warrior, Round Mountain, Tryon Peak.
Naming, of course, comes naturally to small children: “What’s this? What’s that?” are usually among their earliest words as they poke their stubby index fingers in the direction of anything in sight. Too often, we run out of answers embarrassingly quickly: “It’s a tree.” “What kind of tree?” “Who knows? A big one.” Naming, however, is the building-block of learning at every age. Even in describing complex processes, understanding comes when we are able to give things a name and rightly understand that to which the name applies. We learn not only to distinguish turtles from tortoises and annuals from perennials but also to distinguish the moderate Enlightenment from the radical Enlightenment and the benign tumor from the cancerous. As we reach out with the gift of language and lasso each new mystery with its own unique word or phrase, we render the murky transparent, the unfamiliar familiar.
Familiarity can breed contempt, as the saying goes; but familiarity can also engender love—one of the four loves that C. S. Lewis so memorably chronicled, in fact: storge, that is, affection. This love is not merely expressed through naming, it is also activated through naming: we call those whom we love by name. Moreover, I would argue, we come to love those things that we are able to call by name.
Why is this? Why is naming so important to us? If we turn to Scripture, we do not have to look far—no further than Genesis 2 in fact. When God planted Adam in the garden, the first task he gave him was to give every creature a name. Interestingly, God did not command Adam to name the animals; rather, “he brought them to the man to see what he would name them” (2:19)—he knows that Adam cannot help but name them. Our own naming of the world is the way in which we participate in the Adamic task. This Adamic task is kingly and even divine. Consider Psalm 147:4: “[The LORD] determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.” Naming things is a divine prerogative, and it is through our sub-creative power to name the world that we image the divine Creator who called the world into being through his Word.
This Adamic task must be at the heart of any Christian vision of education: we educate, above all, by equipping each new generation to name the world rightly. In this naming, I argue, lies one profound answer to the idea that we educate only to acquire concrete utility-maximizing skills—a reductionistic functionalism which characterizes so much of modern education. Within such a functionalist framework it becomes increasingly difficult to explain why everyone should be educated. After all, some function more highly than others. What is more, in a world of gadgets and search engines, machines function, for most purposes, more highly than any of us.
Increasingly, modern educators have been at a loss to explain why they should teach children to multiply instead of using a calculator, to spell instead of using a spell-checker, and to know history instead of merely consulting Wikipedia. Why, indeed, not simply accept the fast-approaching utopia/dystopia of a small, highly educated, code-manipulating “creative class” able to design optimal experiences for a vast dependent underclass?
There’s a favorite passage of mine from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring that gestures toward an answer, offering us profound insights into the purpose of education. The Fellowship are on their way south from Rivendell, and they awake one morning to find the Misty Mountains ahead of them rather than on their left. The following dialogue ensues:
“‘Dangerous or not, a real sunrise is mighty welcome,’ said Frodo, throwing back his hood and letting the morning light fall on his face.
‘But the mountains are ahead of us,’ said Pippin. ‘We must have turned eastwards in the night.’
‘No,’ said Gandalf. ‘But you see further ahead in the clear light. Beyond those peaks the range bends round south-west. There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them?’
‘Yes I did, sometimes,’ said Pippin, ‘but I don’t remember them. Frodo has a better head for that sort of thing.’
‘I need no map,’ said Gimli, who had come up with Legolas, and was gazing out before him with a strange light in his deep eyes. ‘There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of these mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales. They stand tall in our dreams: Baraz, Zirak, Shathur.
‘Only once before have I seen them from afar in waking life, but I know them and their names, for under them lies Khazad-dum, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue. Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead: Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Grey, that we call Zirakzigil and Bundushathur.
‘There the Misty Mountains divide, and between their arms lies the deep-shadowed valley which we cannot forget: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, which the Elves call Nanduhirion…
‘Dark is the water of Kheled-zaram,’ said Gimli, ‘and cold are the springs of Kibil-nala. My heart trembles at the thought that I may see them soon.’”
Pippin here epitomizes your typical modern student—“Frodo has a much better head for such things.” From the functionalist standpoint, why not let the high-functioning do the task of navigating for you? Or better yet, let your smartphone do it. The modern-day Pippin could’ve said, “Hey Siri, give me directions to Mordor.” Of course, even from within a functionalist framework, Pippin’s dismissal of the need for personal knowledge proves short-sighted. Occasionally, after all, you really will be left to your own resources and will regret not cultivating a basic knowledge of the path you may be called to tread—as Pippin later does in The Two Towers.
There is, however, a deeper critique here. Pippin’s lack of education leaves him not merely useless as a route-finder; it makes him miss most of what makes this journey through Middle-earth more than mere drudgery. Contrast the clueless Pippin with Gimli and the “strange light” in his eyes. For Gimli, these mountains are not just impressive peaks on the horizon or points on a map. They are more like cherished friends; he does not simply know about them, he knows them intimately and personally. And this despite the fact that he has almost no direct experience of them! Rather, Gimli’s knowledge is the result of what we might call a well-rounded dwarvish liberal-arts education. He has studied these peaks in geography and history; he has seen them in art, wrought in works of metal and stone; he has heard them in music, sung of in many songs, and studied them in literature, told of in many tales.
In short, we learn how to name the world, not merely for the sake of truth, but for the sake of beauty; not merely so that we can navigate the world, but so that we can delight in it. Such delight is an experience that we should aim to give to every son of Adam and daughter of Eve, according to their capacity. The vehicle for such delight, as Tolkien knew better than almost anyone, is language.
Tolkien’s love affair with language is on bold display in the passage quoted above, as Gimli indulges in a dazzling and excessive display of polyglot pleonasm, calling each of the geographical features by three or four different names. From a purely functionalist standpoint, such multiplication of names and languages is a massive inefficiency. A world with only one language, like the world before Babel, is the dream of every global capitalist. The multiplication of languages, though, was not solely a divine punishment but a divine blessing, as the affirmation of a many-tongued people of God at Pentecost and in Revelation suggests. We need many languages to name the world because no single language can do so adequately. Reality is ever so much greater and richer than our words for it, and so, we need as many of them as possible. This is the purpose of poetry, which re-names creation in language and image that is ever-new, trying to capture in word the inexhaustible richness of the world, the “dearest freshness deep down things” that both transcends human speech and depends upon it.
GIVING VOICE TO THE VOICELESS CREATION
But why “depends upon it”? Why, indeed, was it so important for Adam to name the world? Couldn’t the creatures have gotten along just fine without such a tedious ceremony? True, the catalyst for the naming of the animals is the need to illuminate Adam’s need for a suitable helper. God, however, brings the animals “to see what he would call them” (Gen. 2:19), and so it seems that Adam cannot but name the creatures, wife-finding regardless. For a more developed answer, let’s consider Psalm 119:1–4:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun.
We are all, I imagine, familiar with these lines. We all intuitively recognize that this is an elaborate metaphor. The day does not in fact speak. Nor does the night. You can stand there straining your ears all day long, and you’ll never hear the sun make a peep, much less communicate in any known language. Who does speak then? Well, the psalmist of course! Here in Psalm 19, David gives voice to the voiceless heavens. He does the same in Psalm 104 at much greater length, describing the glory of God throughout the world.
Few of us pause to ask ourselves why God gave us the power of speech. No other creature has it, after all. Other creatures can communicate—they can send messages to one another, conveying their emotions, warning of danger, or signaling the presence of food or a mate. But they, however, cannot and do not attempt to describe the world around them except insofar as it relates directly to them. Even dolphins, so far as we know, while they can communicate a great deal to one another about the herring they are trying to catch, have no ability or desire to talk about what herring are in themselves—only as potential edibles. From this standpoint, we can see that modern education seeks to reduce us to the level of animals. It wants us to learn to talk about the world solely from the standpoint of its utility for our human purposes. We know carrots as food, oil as fuel, silicon as potential microchips.
This animalian level of communication is not, I would argue, why God gave us the power of speech. God gave us the power of speech because he didn’t give it to the lower creation. The lower creation is shouting out God’s glory, but inaudibly and inarticulately. It is waiting for man to give it voice. That is why God can say of creation on each day, “it is good,” but only after the creation of man, “it is very good.” Without man to name and describe the voiceless creation, the glory of God will go undeclared. Creation is so rich and manifold that one name will not do—we need a world’s worth of languages to properly express creation’s glory. The comet, the rose, the eagle, is waiting for the psalmist or poet to give it voice—like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Hopkins says in another famous poem, but it is waiting for us to discover and declare that glory. The same is true for mathematics. The triangle was waiting patiently and inarticulately for Pythagoras to announce his glorious theorem. The planets were waiting for Kepler’s Law of Planetary Motion and Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. By rightly naming the creation, man brings to completion, to fruition, to glory, God’s work.
What about history and literature? The great deeds of men and women in ages past were great in themselves, but they are incomplete without a chronicler or a bard. They are waiting for their Homer or their Lord Macaulay to give voice to their voiceless deeds, and in so doing, to unfold the hidden glory of God’s providential action. Indeed, the deeds of God’s image-bearers do more than that—they point to Jesus Christ, “the express image of the invisible God.” Hopkins continues his poem:
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace; that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
CALLED TO MASTERY
And yet, much as we might like to, we cannot stop with poetry. We educate for delight, yes; we educate to glorify God, yes; but we educate also for a task that God has given the children of man: dominion. This means we educate in order to equip one another for mastery of the world. Such language is, of course, politically incorrect, since man’s multiplying and filling the earth has increasingly shown how readily mastery can become domination, and domination exploitation. Still, we should not shy away from this kingly task.
Nonetheless, it matters deeply how we conceive of this mastery. There is a kind of mastery driven by hate and a kind driven by love. In the latter, we feel ourselves mastered in the midst of mastering; the world forms us even as we seek to impose form on it. This is indeed the classical Aristotelian understanding of knowledge according to which the already objective, already active form present in the matter of a thing impresses itself upon the mere potency of our organs of perception, compelling our minds to shape themselves in response to the reality of the world outside of our heads. Contrast this with the paradigmatically modern idea of knowledge, in which the ever-active intellect of man sallies forth to impose order on the formless and shapeless raw matter of the world; thus, creating a world in his own image and for his own purposes.
Most of us are still old enough to be familiar with that old euphemism of the King James Bible, “And Adam knew his wife.” That euphemism was the product, not of prudish translators, but of a literal rendering of the Hebrew text in which yada’ (“to know”) could be used for the most intimate of human acts. To know, in biblical language, is to love: is to enter into intimate union with the thing known, a union of mutual indwelling. For modern man, however, the work of knowledge is more akin to rape than marriage. We have put the cosmos to death in order to know it properly—which is to say, to make better use of it for our purposes. As C. S. Lewis writes, “We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture. . . From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them.”
The modern ideal of knowledge resembles what the medievals would have dismissed as the vice of curiositas. Medieval writers understood the love of knowledge, like any other wholesome love, could be disordered—warped toward wrong ends or pursued in a wrong way. On this basis, they distinguished the virtue of studiosity—which every educator should seek to inculcate—from the vice of curiosity. Among the many forms of curiosity was one that seems to particularly characterize our modern age, which we might call impertinent curiosity—impertinent in the sense of rude or disrespectful. This occurs when we seek to know things in a manner more certainly than they can be known, doing violence to the object of knowledge by forcing it into a Procrustean bed that will shave off all its mysteries. Rather than being animated by love of the object of knowledge, we are driven by hatred of the unknown.
As Paul Griffiths argues in his brilliant meditation Intellectual Appetite, this is the paradigmatically modern mode of knowing, which Griffiths calls mathetic: “Advocates of mathesis imagine a world of discrete objects arrayed spatially on a grid, each related to others causally in various ways, but each definable and knowable exhaustively in itself, each, that is, fully transparent to the appropriately catechized gaze and passive before that gaze, there to be gazed upon and addressed without itself returning or exceeding the gaze.” This sort of knowledge, he argues, prefers the visual, schematic, and atomized to the continuous interwoven text that is the paradigmatic mode by which the studious know. Although easily confused with it, such mathesis is far from the Adamic vocation of naming, which understands that however much we might seek to provide a taxonomy of the world, the world as object always exceeds our gaze. Too often the curious modern believes he can know best of all through data arranged on a spreadsheet, while the studious seeker after wisdom understands that the object of knowledge must be grasped through a personal encounter, whether that object be a babbling brook or a profound theological truth. “The curious,” observes Griffiths, “inhabit a world of objects, which can be sequestered and possessed; the studious inhabit a world of gifts, given things, which can be known by participation, but which, because of their very natures, can never be possessed.”
THE SEARCH FOR WISDOM
I have just used the word “wisdom” for the first time in this introduction. Wisdom is at the heart of the educational task, and a constant theme of our work at the Davenant Institute—but what does “wisdom” mean? I have ventured several definitions over the years, but here is one that I think captures the heart of the matter: wisdom is a humble yet confident attunement to the order of reality that gives both delight and competence. The wise man is humble, recognizing that he stands on the shoulders of giants, but also genuinely confident because he has come to possess the truth through hard-won personal encounter, rather than merely receiving it secondhand.
The essays comprising this volume, Reforming Classical Education: Toward a New Paradigm, were originally presented at a conference subtitled “A Protestant Vision for Training in Wisdom.” What might we mean by such a sectarian adjective as Protestant? Well, many things might be said, and several of them will be said in the essays that follow. For now, it is worth stressing that Protestantism has always had a certain democratizing impulse, challenging both the explicit elitism of ancient classical education and the implicit elitism of modern education. As William Tyndale said to the Roman clergyman of his day: “If God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”
Thus a Protestant vision of wisdom stresses the hard-won personal encounter with truth and the confidence it engenders. My point is not to knock modern Roman Catholic education, which in many cases puts Protestant education to shame. At its inception, however, Protestantism set its face firmly against the intellectual elitism of the Roman church, and its doctrine of “implicit faith.” On this medieval understanding (understandable, to be sure, in a society where books were scarce and education was a luxury), it did not much matter if the believer’s faith had any clear grasp of the content of the Christian story and the hard truths of Christian teaching; so long as the believer trusted implicitly in his priest and his bishop, they could do the intellectual part of believing for him.
The Reformers hotly demurred, not least because this was a recipe for intellectual laziness on the part of priests and bishops as well, as Tyndale pointed out. Every believer must be trained, as much as possible, for a personal encounter with the Word of God—for a faith seeking understanding. Of course the Reformers recognized that there would still, of necessity, be an intellectual elite with special gifts and tasked with teaching. Contrary to Catholic caricatures then and now, the Reformers never sought to claim that every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s reading of Scripture was equal to St. Augustine’s. They did stress, however, that everyone had something to gain from reading the Scriptures for themselves and should be equipped accordingly.
From the beginning, it has been our contention at the Davenant Institute that this original message of the Reformation, this bold call for a society of sages, still needs vigorous restatement. In this, we cheerfully swim against the current of all of our age’s fashionable laments about the death of expertise and out-of-control individualism. When we look at the modern landscape, we do not see too many people willing to think for themselves, but too few. American evangelicalism is increasingly characterized by a search for authority in a chaotic world. Such a search lends itself to a frenzied intellectual outsourcing, a “guru syndrome” that has been intensified by the disruptive technologies of the digital age. Instead of actually opening their eyes to the world around them, most Christians, fearful of the sea of uncertainty in which they have been called to swim, turn to their favorite answer-man pastors or political talk show hosts to provide them with a pre-packaged and pre-digested account of the world, which they can share comfortably with all of their fellow followers. We have seen this phenomenon vividly in the epistemic whirlwind of 2020 and 2021, as most Christians have allowed their tribal allegiances, rather than the minds that God gave them, to determine their judgments about a pandemic, about racial violence, about an election.
The solution, of course, is not “going it alone”—striking off across the danger like some intellectual Abraham in a Kierkegaardian romance—any more than the Reformers called for an intellectual levelling that would put the complete novice on the same level as the seasoned scholar. We obviously need experts, in the sense of master-craftsmen in the various arts and sciences. We depend upon them through the technologies we take for granted every hour. But we do not need gurus. What, then, is the difference?
The path of wisdom is one of imitation, not the imitation of the mere copycat or fanboy, not the carbon-copy mimicry of the follower who retweets his hero’s every pithy insight or killer takedown. No, the path of wisdom is far narrower—there is no room upon it for the crowds that clamor after the guru. It is also far more difficult. The wise apprentice learns by closely observing and imitating the methods of a master craftsman—looking over his shoulder, as it were, as he works upon the world. The guru-follower fixes his enchanted gaze upon the face and lips of the guru, while the wise apprentice looks at his hands; or else follows the master’s gaze, learning to fix his own eyes on the same objects that the master is studying. Every good human master will urge our attention back to the words and the world from which he himself has gained his skill and insight. Only the great Master, Jesus Christ, radiates enough wisdom that we are invited to fix our eyes on him.
The guru-follower, on the other hand, obsessively seeks to download the guru’s every sermon, to read everything he has written, to memorize his canned slogans so he can recite them on every occasion. He tries to find the guru’s every opinion, so as to make them (seemingly) his own. While the disciple of the master-craftsman has a decent shot at actually surpassing his master, improving on his work, the guru-follower will never be more than a follower—boring, tedious, and slavish in the full Aristotelian sense.
WISDOM VS. WORLDVIEW
This brings me, at last, to the distinction between wisdom and worldview, a distinction central to the vision for renewing classical Christian education that the essays in this volume present, and one that has been a recurrent theme of our work here at Davenant. Reformed Evangelicalism’s turn to worldview is an understandable response to modernity’s separation of Word and world and fundamentalism’s decision to hunker down in the bunker of the Word to avoid the taint of worldly knowledge. Realizing that Christians must stake some kind of claim to knowledge of the world if their God created it, a generation of late-twentieth-century Christian thinkers adopted the German idealist concept of a Weltanschauung, “world-view,” as a kind of shortcut back to the holistic grasp of the world that the intellectual titans of an earlier Christian humanism had genuinely possessed. In most of its forms, however, this movement proposed simply to one-sidedly map Word onto world, conjuring from the pages of Scripture a comprehensive vision of reality that could then substitute for actual critical engagement with the world of nature and history, and often, one that could be weaponized against any insights that secular thought might dare to propose to the Church. The disconnect from earlier eras of Christianity, in which theologians had praised Plato and Cicero for both their wisdom and piety and leaned heavily on Islamic and Jewish philosophers to formulate their doctrinal systems, was jarring.
To be sure, the worldview concept can be used in helpful and nuanced ways, but much more often than not, it tends toward just the sort of pre-fabricated, pre-digested knowledge peddled by the guru, a Cliff’s-Notes-version of reality that excuses you from the hard work and rich delight of really reading the world. Indeed, for all its fulminations against the evils of modernity, it is characteristically modern in its haste to transcend the fog of uncertainty endemic to the modern condition and in its “mathetic” mode of knowledge. “Advocates of mathesis,” after all, as Griffiths notes, “imagine a world of discrete objects arrayed spatially on a grid,” and anyone who has been to a Christian worldview seminar or bought a Christian worldview curriculum will know just how much the genre loves to use diagrams and schematics.
Christian-worldview training is like a map-reading seminar in Elrond’s house—not useless, to be sure, and sometimes the best that you are going to get, but only a starting point, and deeply dangerous if you believe that the seminar has told you everything you need to know. Too often a “Christian worldview” becomes not an aid to, but a stand-in for, actually learning to view the world. There are tens of thousands of Christians who have been trained to walk around asking and telling each other what “the Christian worldview” has to say about any given subject, all the while never once pausing to actually observe the world to find out the truth of the matter.
But can we actually find out the truth of the matter? It’s a fair question, given that the “worldview” metaphor is often employed more in the sense of a set of lenses through which we view the world (rather than a map by which we gain an overview of the world). In this usage, worldview is often used to emphasize bias and the unreliability of perspective. Unbelievers misconstrue some aspect of the world because they approach it from a “secular worldview.” We, on the other hand, can look at the exact same issue and offer a radically opposed answer because we approach it from a “Christian worldview.” More adventurous intellectual voyagers might want to stop in and try out more exotic sets of lenses, such as a Buddhist worldview, a nihilist worldview, or an existentialist worldview. One of the most popular books on this topic was tellingly titled The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. Ironically, this style of thinking and speaking often goes hand-in-hand with un-self-conscious denunciations of “postmodern relativism.”
Of course, such writers are not wrong to emphasize the importance of bias and perspective. It is true that each of us can see a radically different landscape depending on our point of view. I recall how disorienting it was when I visited a friend’s house a few miles further along the Blue Ridge and he showed me his own stunning view of Melrose Mountain—but a Melrose Mountain all-but-unrecognizable from that to which my own eyes had been trained since childhood. Yet it is more important in our relativistic age to stress that, for all that, we are all looking at the same reality. How, then, do we see reality so differently? Well, many differences of perception owe to our divergent social locations and life experiences. There is no need to fancify all of these particular inflections of sight with the “-isms” so beloved by worldview diagnosticians. Other differences, however, do seem to go hand-in-hand with rigorous Christian belief, or lack thereof. There really do seem to be ways in which Christians are able to perceive the world differently (and better, we would argue) than unbelievers.
With these observations, we are on much firmer terrain than that of Kantian idealism. In Book I of his Institutes, John Calvin himself speaks of Scripture as providing “spectacles” for rightly reading the world and God’s glory in it. And Calvin is well-known for his rather dim view of unbelievers’ knowledge, a knowledge that has been damaged by what theologians call “the noetic effects of sin.” These effects are surely real—Romans 1 describes a terrifying (and terrifyingly familiar) pattern of mass self-delusion—but it is important to be clear about the source and nature of these effects. The Fall, after all, did not, as best we can tell, directly damage man’s higher rational faculties in themselves; at any rate, the feats of mathematicians and logicians, fallen though they may be, remain dazzling. Sin’s attack on our reason is more sneaky and subversive; it comes at us through the back door of our twisted will and depraved appetites. As a mentor of mine once put it memorably (if you’ll pardon the vulgarity), “The Fall didn’t so much impact our brains as our bellies and our balls.” If knowledge is always a form of love, the Fall attacks our reason by making us love the wrong things and fix our eyes in the wrong places.
A closer look at the “spectacles” metaphor is quite illuminating in this regard. Although Calvin himself casually uses the example of the aged, unable to read (usually a result of farsightedness), I would suggest that the more usual form of bad vision—nearsightedness—is an apt metaphor for our fallen epistemic condition. The world is still the same, God’s good creation, beautiful and ordered. And we are still capable of looking at it, and indeed, capable, in principle, of discerning its order and making sense of it. The problem is that there is so much of it, and we don’t have the patience to look properly. Worse still, our eyes have become curiously unfocused, only able to see clearly those shiny, glittery goods in the foreground that cry out to our appetites. In the far distance behind them loom richer, truer goods, blurry and out-of-focus, and beyond them still, the craggy uplands of the heavenly country that is our final end, but lost to our fallen eyes in a blue haze. The best philosophers, willing to go to the hard work of getting up, walking around in the world, and peering beyond the juicy, distracting fruits in the foreground, have been able to gain some real, though fragmentary, knowledge of the truth, goodness, and beauty of the world. But only with the aid of Scripture, which sharpens our focus and restores our vision, will we have any hope of an authentic view of the world as it is.
Even here, however, the metaphor can mislead. For this corrective vision is not a one-time thing: “Just put on your biblical worldview glasses and everything will become clear.” It’s more like when you are in the optician’s chair and they are incrementally improving your vision, constantly swapping out “Lens A” and “Lens B” until you are finally seeing every detail as a healthy person would. The task of Christian education is like a lifetime’s worth of optician’s appointments interspersed with field trips, as we return to the Word to have our vision sharpened a bit more and then head back out into the world to see what we can see. Of course, we speak here only of the role of Scripture in perfecting natural knowledge; as a source of supernatural knowledge, the spectacles of Scripture prepare our eyes to gaze straight at the Sun of Righteousness that illumines all else in creation.
This of course brings us back to my remarks about imitating craftsmen. Too many peddlers of Christian worldview hold up their worldviews as maps to be endlessly studied or lenses to be endlessly admired. They never seem to put the maps and the lenses to use in exploring the terrain. They forget that, useful as a good map or a good set of spectacles is when trying to follow old trails or blaze new ones, neither is a substitute for a good guide—especially if we want not merely to get from point A to point B, but to take dominion over all we see en route, naming and mastering the world. This we will do by learning to follow a master’s gaze—focusing our attention on those features of the dizzyingly complex landscape that he knows how to pick out. By following his gaze, we learn to ignore the distracting foreground features that are apt to consume the attention of the unwary and to grasp the true shape of the reality we are seeking to know. By naming the world rightly, as the adept guide and explorer has himself learned to do from his mentors, we are enabled to join the ranks of the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve on a voyage of wonder through the cosmos, staking a claim to every square inch of creation in the name of our King. This, then, is the task of Christian education, the Protestant vision for training in wisdom.
Reforming Classical Education: Toward A New Paradigm is available now for $23.95.
I would like to acknowledge my fellow teachers of Davenant’s “How to Read the Bible and the World” course for helping to stimulate many of these thoughts over the years: Peter Escalante, Alastair Roberts, Joe Minich, and Nathan Johnson. ↑
Thanks to my colleague Rhys Laverty for this insight. ↑
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 296. ↑
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 70–71. ↑
Paul Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 145. ↑
Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite, 151–54. ↑
Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite, 22. ↑
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.6.1. ↑