From February 18 through the 19th, St. Michael Orthodox Church in Louisville, Kentucky, hosted the 2011 Climacus Conference of Thoughtful Ascent. This gathering, dedicated to the contemplation of noble ideas, featured lectures on education, literature, philosophy, patristic thought, marriage, and film. Speakers included David Wright, Rachel Leake, Andrew Kern, Vigen Guroian, John Granger, Bobby Maddex, Molly Sabourin, Aaron Taylor, Joseph Steineger, Evanthia Speliotis, David Bradshaw, Brad Birzer, Fr. Alexis Kouri, and William Weber.
It’s hard for me to express what an honor it is to be here, partly because I think so highly of David Wright and the work that he’s done organizing this conference, partly because, honestly, it’s a tremendously humbling experience to stand before the image of God and to speak to them and hope to be saying some wisdom. So I would like to ask you, if we could, [to] just take a moment and ask God to help.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.
There is a nude rugby tournament in Australia. One year somebody decided at this nude rubgy tournament that he was going to go streaking, so he got fully dressed and ran across the field and disrupted the event. Martin Cothran told me that story just today, and I thought it was very fitting, because you talk about a world turned over.
You talk about the ironies that David was mentioning before the last session. One of the things that leapt to my mind is the more we talk about love, the more we sing about love, the more we know we need love—the more we hate each other. And it seems to me that, biblically speaking—maybe that’s why we talk about it so much—it seems to me that the real problem with the world today is everybody hates each other.
It’s not that we mind each other. It’s not that we don’t feel pleasure in each other’s company, but in terms of the biblical concept of love, willing the blessedness of the other—where’s that? We see it in Christ on the cross, but where do we see it in the world today?
I’ve been asked to address the topic of raising humans in a post-human world. Try to imagine a world, if you would, in which the leadership, the educators, didn’t believe truth was knowable, and yet they insisted on running the schools, and they even made it the law that you had to attend school. They didn’t believe that you could know anything, but you still had to go to school. Might surprise you to know this, but that’s the world we live in right now. In C.S. Lewis’s great book, The Abolition of Man, which I believe in the English language is the most important book of the 20th century, he says on page 45 of my book that we live in a world of post-humanity.
...[a] world of post-humanity, which, some knowingly and some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present laboring to produce.
What an astounding and disturbing statement. Nearly all men in all places are laboring to produce a world of post-humanity. What on earth is he talking about? Well, it’s getting easier and easier to find instances of what he’s talking about. In fact, I was at the airport just the other day to get here, and I came across a Time magazine that perhaps you saw. Everybody see the cover of Time magazine? It says: “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.” Can’t wait! There’s a literary theory now in the universities called Post-Humanism. I found that really interesting.
But in this article from Time magazine, “The Year Man Becomes Immortal,” it talks about somebody named Kurzweil who, when he was 16 years old, was on a TV show called I’ve Got a Secret, and on that show—Steve Allen was the host—he played a short musical composition on the piano. Here’s what’s interesting: it was composed by a computer. But nobody could tell.
At the time, some people—most of the people doing the show didn’t think anything of it—thought, “Well now, wait a minute. If the computer can demonstrate creativity, then what is the difference between us and the computer?” That’s become a big issue, because maybe you saw that a computer was playing Jeopardy! just the other day. Who won? I didn’t… The computer did win. Rats!
Well, in this article in Time magazine, it says a few things that I think are worth reading. One of them says about artificial intelligence, “All that horsepower in the computer could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness.” There’s an awful lot of deep philosophical speculation in that sentence, rather summarily thrown out at us, in Time magazine, which is written at the fifth-grade level, I think. ” All that horsepower in the computer could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness.” Notice it is our brains that create consciousness. Whatever the brain is, we aren’t sure. The neuroscientists have convinced people that it’s a chemical sac that does all the work for us.
But he says in the article that if you can swallow that idea, then all bets are off. He then describes a bunch of theories about the computer and the human mind, and he says:
The one thing all these theories have in common is (listen to this now) the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011.
In other words, this is referring to the future. All these theories about what’s going to happen means that humanity is going to become something that you and I would no longer recognize. Just a couple of pages down, Kurzweil claims that:
We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s.
Can’t wait. Another couple pages down, he says something I thought important. He says,
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” W.B. Yeats describes mankind’s fleshly predicament as a soul fastened to a dying animal. Why not unfasten it and fasten it to an immortal robot instead?
There’s our immortality. Instead of your soul being attached to your body, you can have it attached to an immortal robot. That’s why I say, “Can’t wait.”
One more thing I’d like to read to you from this article, and that’ll be all we need.
[Kurzweil, it says,] does not see any fundamental difference between flesh and silicon that would prevent the [silicon] from thinking. He defies biologists to come up with a neurological mechanism that could not be modeled or at least matched in power and flexibility by software running on a computer.
Listen to this:
He refuses to fall on his knees before the mystery of the human brain.
One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate in the last few years, reading things like the Church Fathers and Wendell Berry and others—I know Wendell Berry isn’t a Church Father… One of the things I’ve really come to appreciate is ignorance: reverence before the things we don’t know. One of the things that is leading us to this post-human world is a reductionism about what human beings are, a reductionism that does away with all that we don’t and can’t possibly know, and the reduction to mere brains, mere physical phenomena, naturalistic materialism. We are extraordinarily sophisticated material objects. If we have souls, I think it was Descartes said it was in the pineal gland, and they found it was not there, so now all the scientists are looking all over for the soul and they can’t find it anywhere. It reminds me of the Russian cosmonaut. He went out into space, looked around a bit. He comes back and he said to a Christian, “We went out there. We couldn’t find God.” There [are] differences between differences in degree and differences in kind, you see. And there are kinds that we can’t approach. That’s why, if I may, I’d like to quote one more thing from C.S. Lewis, because this important practically, this post-human world. He says again in The Abolition of Man—and think about that title: the abolition of man, post-human world—
We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways, to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of (what Lewis calls) the Tao (he’s talking here about natural law, practical reason), or else we are mere nature, to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own natural impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny, or an obedience which is not slavery.
What he’s suggesting throughout this book is that the future, this post-human man, is fundamentally going to be a slave. He is fundamentally going to be reduced to something so subhuman that freedom isn’t even discussable. He shows throughout the text that you have two options when you don’t have objective values, when you don’t have a natural law, when you don’t have the law of God written in the heart. Two options, which end up becoming one. He says, when you’re teaching and when you’re raising children, when you’re in the classroom, here’s what you can do: You can either debunk your student or you can condition him.
That’s it: you can either debunk your student or you can condition him. There is no such thing as nobility. There is no such thing as freedom. There is no such thing, certainly, as the divine image. So your function as a teacher is to debunk students of these silly ideas from the past. Pre-scientific, you see. Pre-primitive ideas from the past. But you can debunk your student of those things, or you can condition, but here’s the horrible thought: If you debunk them, then somebody is going to condition them.
And what I want to talk with you about here tonight is that, as we are raising children and as we are teaching children, those are the curses we must not impose on them. If we treat them, if we insist that man is nothing but raw material, then raw material he will become. And if from early in childhood, they are treated like and told that they are nothing but raw material, then they will start to treat themselves like nothing but raw material: something to be experimented on. It is not just to experiment on human beings, and yet, so much of what we’re doing in our society is a stream of experiments, because we don’t believe there [are] any limits to what we can do to them. Our goal is to produce some kind of new utopian society that can never come to be if there is such a thing as human nature.
Our children are being systematically prepared for the cultural conditioners to form them into the kinds of social and economic units that the conditioners need them to be. And so are we. So are you and I. So have we been, by our culture for many years now, and we need [and] we are bound this time to protect and to equip our children to resist the conditioners.
In fact, I want to suggest to you that the fundamental charge of our day… I’ll use Lewis’s language. You may have heard the famous ending of chapter one, where he says, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” That essay, that first chapter, is called “Men Without Chests.” I want to suggest to you that what we need to be doing as parents and teachers is to restore our children’s chests, because everything in our culture is trying to remove the chest, to turn them into creatures that are so hungry for security, so hungry for comfort and health and material goods, so hungry for satisfaction of the appetite that they take pleasure in being conditioned.
You cannot be a martyr if you don’t have a chest, and you cannot be fruitful if you are a gelding. The problem I want to suggest to you is essentially and thoroughly one of knowledge, both content and theory. Do you remember the movie, The Lord of the Rings? Some of you might even remember the book, right? In the movie, there’s a line that I think comes from the book, but I couldn’t locate it, and I think it’s Liv Tyler saying it. There’s a beautiful, beautiful water scene, and there’s the dark and the light and the water, the drop of water falls. And in that really great actor’s voice she says, “Many things that should have been remembered were lost.”
“Many things that should have been remembered were lost.” I think Tolkein’s got something to say to us there. We have lost some things. We have forgotten some things that need to be remembered. After all, isn’t that one of the first things in education, is simply to remind people? And what have we forgotten, and what do we need to be reminded of? Well, first of all, I don’t think we know what man is. In fact, I would suggest to you that we are committed to blasphemously bad content in terms of our knowledge. Our cultural commitments about what we can know and how we can know are scandalously inadequate, which is to say not only are we committed to blasphemous content, we’re committed to horribly bad theory about what knowledge is. Because of that, we don’t know what man’s role in the cosmos is.
American education rests on the foundational premise that we cannot know the truth. That’s why students, by the time they’re in fourth or fifth grade, start saying things like, “Well, that’s true for you.” Do you understand that that is a statement of abject despair? Now, they use it as an excuse to do what they want, but fundamentally that is the soul giving up one of its ultimate satisfactions. Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know.” By the time they’re in third grade, most children in our schools believe that they can’t. That means that fundamentally what their nature desires can never be given to them. That’s the world we live in.
That’s the post-human world we live in, and this premise that we cannot know the truth isn’t just in our schools. I would suggest to you that it permeates our entire culture, through the colleges, through entertainment, through politics. I heard a very high-ranking politician recently say something to the effect of—I read it, actually—another politician basically was dangerous or not reliable because he believed the truth was knowable. That makes you intolerant, you see. If you believe the truth is knowable, you are intolerant, because, after all, the truth is so inflexible.
I’d like to know why people who don’t think they can know the truth bother leading. Why do they bother talking? What is there to talk about? But to explain what I’m getting at with this notion of knowing the truth and how it affects man, how it affects us, our perception of ourselves, let me do two things. First of all, I want to go back all the way to Genesis , and I want to interpret a biblical passage very speculatively. In other words, I want to look at the story of Adam and Eve, in particular of Adam, and I’m going to reflect on how he must have done, from what I can understand, what he did in Genesis 2.
I’ve only been Orthodox for four years, and so I want to offer this very humbly. I’m probably going to—well, I know I’m going to make some mistakes here. I’m going to make one on purpose. If anybody can identify the one mistake that I make on purpose, I’ll give you a free book off of Martin Cothran’s table. (He’s not here yet…) But I’m also certain to make other errors simply because I don’t understand deeply enough what I’m talking about.
I want to use this speculation not so much to argue a defense of a position, but to illustrate a position. So I’m going to talk about Adam specifically naming the animals. Then secondly, when I finish that, I want to compare what I’m speculating to some modern approaches to what and who man is and the powers of man. Let me take you back in time, all the way to the beginning of time. This seems like a good conference to be thinking about Adam and Eve. After all, Adam—doesn’t his name mean “man”? Something like that.
Adam in Genesis 1 is created, it says—God himself speaks, and I think it’s verse 25 of chapter 1 in Genesis.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.”
I’ll just say very briefly that if something is in the image and likeness of God, you can’t understand it. Agreed? You can’t understand it, but let’s go on.
“Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of heaven, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that moves on the earth.” So God made man. In the image of God he made him; male and female he made them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it.”
Now, jumping over to Genesis 2, there’s a bit of an expansion on this, and it tells us in verse 15:
Then the Lord God took the man he formed and put him in the garden to tend and keep it.
To tend it and to keep it.
And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying, “You may eat food from every tree in the garden, but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you may not eat, for in whatever day you eat from it, you shall die by death.”
And the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helper, comparable (or suitable) to him.” Also, God formed out of the ground all of the wild animals of the field and all the birds of heaven, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.
I love that. “To see what he would call them.” See, the assumption is that Adam is going to be obedient. He’s been created to have dominion, and now these creatures are being brought to Adam, and God, it says, wants to see what he would call them.
Thus whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.
This is our role in almost co-creating at that point. It’s sub-creating, at least, the world under and submitting to God, but being like him, naming the creatures.
Now this is where I get very speculative. Have you ever wondered: How did Adam name the animals? He didn’t have Greek and Latin, I don’t think so he couldn’t call them things like Homo sapiens or Asuina cornua. He couldn’t just pull Greek and Latin out of a list. Now, I know what we would do. If we were going to have our kids in our class name animals, what we would do is we’d give them a piece of paper, and on the left side of the paper would be pictures or line drawings of the animals and on the right side would be the names, and then it would say something like, “Match the animal on the left with the name on the right,” and we would think they’re doing something pretty exciting. Or we’d do something that’s measurable and quantitative, at least.
But Adam doesn’t have a test, and he doesn’t have names that he can just pull out of the hat, I don’t think, and he doesn’t have Greek and Latin. So where does he get the names? Well, this is where I get speculative. I want you to imagine—and I want you to do this with great reverence and with the full awareness that this isn’t what happened—this kind of thing. It’s a myth. This is how I see it: Adam is sitting on his throne, and in front of him is a grove of trees. Down the middle of this grove of trees is a path, so it’s right in front of Adam. He can see from where he’s seated to the end of the path, and then the grove of trees is in front of him on each side of the path. On the other side of the grove of trees are all the animals. They’re standing over there with the Lord, and they’re waiting. In line. And then the Lord says, “It’s your turn,” so one of them comes up next and comes up to Adam and he names it.
I let my imagination go on the lion. For some reason there’s something really great about the lion. I’m picturing the lion on the other side of the grove of trees, and the Lord says to the lion, “You’re next.” Can you imagine? Can you imagine: you’re a pre-Fall lion in all your own glory, and the voice of the Lord says, “You’re next. You are going next to meet the glory of creation”? I’m pretty sure that at that point the lion gets pretty excited, and he lets out this incredible Aslanic roar and bounds over toward the path. And as it’s coming toward the path, let your mind take in—your mind slows it down when things are happening fast, but this is what I see happening. So the lion comes toward the path, and while it’s approaching the path, first, Adam, who’s watching very carefully to pay close attention, sees the nose, and then he sees the snout, and the eyes, and the ears. And then, as the lion proceeds forward, the mane.
This is what I imagine would be so incredibly intense. As the lion’s whole figure, the whole form of the lion comes into the clearing, picture this: it turns to Adam, and the king of the beasts locks eyes with the glory of creation, and the two gaze into each other’s eyes, and the lion marches toward Adam. And as it approaches, it comes close, and Adam reaches out, and he puts his hands on the face of the lion. He pulls it close, and he smells it, and he runs his hands over the snout and over the eyes, like a child playing with his dog. And he runs his hands over the ears, and, of course—how could he not run his hands through the mane? Maybe even curls right up in it.
But now, you understand, Adam’s a boy. And he doesn’t do the next thing because he’s a sinner; he does the next thing because he’s a boy. He hauls off and he whacks the lion! And the lion, then, of course, takes off after him, and they’re running around and they’re wrestling, and they’re running along on a ridge with a river at the bottom of it, and it’s very beautiful—of course, it’s the garden of delights. As they’re running along, Adam is on the high side, and the lion is on the river side, so Adam puts his shoulder into the lion, they go rolling along into the river, and they start to wrestle. Again, that’s not because they’re sinners that boys do that; it’s because they’re boys.
So as they’re wrestling down there in the river, Adam is feeling the strength of the lion into his own body, and because the dander’s up and everything, he’s actually tasting the lion. Then after a while—they wrestle for a bit—and then Adam says, “Okay, I’m done.” He gets up, and he says to the lion, “You can go now.” So the lion gets up and says, “Thank you,” and walks away. And at that point, Adam sits down, and he takes the pose of the Thinker. And he begins to contemplate; he begins to reflect on this lion, and he thinks about things that he remembers.
The lion’s gone now, but he remembers it, and as he’s remembering it, he thinks about it in different situations. He thinks about when he was wrestling with it, and he thinks about when he was running his hands over it. He thinks about that moment when they looked at each other, eye to eye. He thinks about all the different situations and contexts that he’d encountered this lion [in]. And then he starts to think about the lion, and he compares it with a turtle and he compares it with the birds and he compares it with the leopard.
All this while, feeding on his memory, he’s contemplating the truth, the nature, of the lion. Then something happens in Adam’s soul, something that happens because he has played with the lion, because he has remembered the lion, and because he has contemplated the lion. It is something that I believe is entirely God-given, and I don’t think you can stop this from happening. The lion itself takes form in his soul. The truth of lionness enters into his soul.
And you know what he can do then? This just… The whole story amazes me, but think of this now: what he can do with that lion that is now in his soul is he can offer it back to God.
Remember, the task is to name the lion, and he takes that lion into his soul and, knowing it, he offers it back to God in the form of a name.
Here I get speculative, too, because, I mean, what kind of name? Well, we call it a lion. You know why we call it a lion? Because we’re in a hurry. We’ve got to get the word out and go on to the next thing; we’re practical people. And, yes, we are going to die, and because we are going to die, we don’t have time to fully invest the full meaning of a lion into our words. But think of Adam. He’s got all the time in the universe. He’s in no hurry. He doesn’t know that there’s a time when things might interfere with each other.
I try to imagine under those circumstances: how would he name this lion? Certainly, at least, entishly. Ents, in The Lord of the Rings, they take three days to say, “Hello.” So he needs the lion to come to him, so he calls the lion, and what does the call sound like? Well, it’s got to have a lot of the sound of lion in it, and it’s got to have the meaning of lion in it, but I picture, because he’s got so much time, he probably calls a whole orchestra together, and we have time for them to assemble, and he makes the name musical, and it plays out over a few bars. And then he gets somebody to come… Well, actually, he does it himself: he paints the lion. That’s another way to call it, to name it, and he does all these different ways.
Of course, I’m being utterly fanciful; you understand that. But I imagine him taking just as long as he would want to take to call the lion. And he would—notice this; see what he’s doing—he’s taking the truth of the lion, and he’s re-presenting it to God in all these different forms. He is representing lionness. He is speaking. You know what he’s doing? He’s embodying the truth. He’s embodying the truth, and the indication in Scripture is: in words.
But what I would suggest to you is that we do the same when we act in a God-like way, and we offer back to God the creation that he has placed us in, and we rightly name. And that’s what the purpose of the arts is. That is what we do when we paint, when we write a poem, when we sing a song. We are, when we are acting in a truly Christian way, I would suggest to you, simply offering back to God what he has given to us. We re-present to him what God presented to us.
Here’s what’s so important about this: we can do that—at least Adam could do that—because God made him to do that. He made him such that he could have dominion. He made him such that he could fill the earth and he could subdue it. Now, please notice something. When you and I think of dominion, unless you’re from Virginia, you probably think that that’s kind of a bad thing. Dominion: we tend to think of tyranny, of dominating, but that’s not Christian dominion at all, is it?
When our Lord gave Adam dominion over the creation, what was the reason for it? It was so that he could be fruitful and multiply, and he could have dominion that would lead to fruitfulness. The world was dependent, do you see? The world is, to this day, dependent on our dominion. We can shirk that responsibility and say that it’s arrogant to take it on, but it’s been given to us. We have no right to shirk that duty, any more than we have the right to say, “Because when I was a kid I was bad, I’m going to let my kids be bad.” It’s absurd! We have the duty placed on us to raise our children. Why? To fruitfulness! To blessedness.
Christian love, biblical love, is not feeling good in the presence of another person. It’s not even necessarily delighting in that person. Imagine our Lord, hanging on the cross, thinking, “What a pleasure it is to spend my evening in the presence of that centurion.” Maybe he could. But he was in pain. He was suffering. But he loved him. And what was the object of his love? It was that that centurion would attain a state of complete and utter blessedness, the beatific vision, the vision of glory. That is what we are created for; that is what we have lost.
That is why—thank you so much, Rachel, for talking about clothing in the first [talk]—what is the very first emotion that man feels in the Bible? It’s shame. Shame: that, I would suggest to you, is the fundamental emotion that we feel in our present state. That is why we wear clothes. That is why they went out and they grabbed fig [leaves] and they put clothes on: shame.
That is why, in Matthew 6, our Lord says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” What are the things that will be added to you? Clothing and food. Does that hark back to Genesis a little bit? Food: got us in trouble. So what did we do? Covered ourselves with clothing. I think what our Lord is telling us in Matthew 6 is, “If you follow me, you will not be ashamed. I will not allow you to be ashamed.” We say every week—is it Wednesday—we say to our Lord:
Many are those who rise up against me. Many are those who say of him, “There is no help for him in God,” but you, O Lord, are a shield for me: my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
This is what the Lord intends to do with us: to lift up our heads. We sow a natural body, and he raises an incorruptible, spiritual body. His intention for us is that when we get to the end of our lives in this world, we will stand in his glory, in the presence of his mother, in the presence of all the holy angels, in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses, and he will say to you; looking straight into your eyes, he will say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I challenge you to come up with any greater reward than that. Those words will echo in your soul for all eternity. I bet you won’t even ever need to hear them again. To hear the “Well done” of our Lord: that is what he wants to give us. Exaltation in his presence: that is what we have traded in for a fruit.
Things have changed. By the 19th century, a sea change was fulfilled in Western thought about man, and the fulcrum was what we believed about what it means to know and what we can know and what knowledge is. Notice: I was talking in the story of Adam; I was trying to highlight five faculties that God has given us. Let me summarize those faculties very briefly, and then talk about them in terms of modern thought.
We have five faculties that God has given us. I call the first “perceptive attention.” We have the capacity to perceive with our senses, combining that with our will. Did you ever notice that we decide what we pay attention to? That’s important, because you become like what you pay attention to. Paul tells us in Corinthians that we become like Christ. How? He says that we are transformed from glory to glory, and how does that happen? When we gaze on him. We gaze on Christ. When we gaze on Christ, we are transformed from glory to glory. In other words, the more we gaze on Christ, the more we ascend; the more we ascend into his glory. And we are transformed within us.
We are transformed by the renewing of our mind. How? It’s by what you pay attention to, by what you behold. You become what you look at. You become what you gaze on. You become like it. So what we attend to is the most important thing about us: perceptive attention. Notice the will is involved, and so are the senses. We perceive with the senses. Adam tasted, saw, smelled, wrestled with, touched, and heard that lion. And that’s how he came to know it. So perceptive attention is the first faculty.
The second faculty is memory. In order to contemplate, which is the third faculty, he had to remember. So he remembers. Amazing! A lion can be far from your presence, and you can still remember it. Now, I understand some of the higher-level primates can do that sort of thing, but lower creatures, there’s no indication that they can do that. But we have memory.
But then we go even further, and we can contemplate. In Adam’s case, in the story I used, he contemplated by comparing the lion with itself and with other creatures, but he came in that process to know the nature of it.
But the fourth faculty is what excites me the most, because I’m not really sure it’s a faculty. A faculty is something… I think a faculty is something we do, but in the fourth case, it’s more something that just happens, always, because we’re made this way. And that fourth faculty or that fourth thing that happens is that the truth is formed in our soul. At least, in Adam’s case, the truth was formed in his soul. For us, at best, we see through a glass, darkly. There’s so much we don’t know. There’s so much we can never know.
But here’s another irony or paradox: When we embrace our ignorance, when we embrace our folly, then knowledge and wisdom begin to grow in our souls. When we say, “I can’t know,” he begins to show us. When we say, “I can’t discover that, he begins to speak the truth into our souls. John 1:5 tells us, “The Word enlightens every man who comes into the world”: if anybody has ever learned anything, it’s because Jesus taught him. Isn’t that wonderful? It tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and when we fear God, we maintain this capacity to form the truth in our souls, for the truth to form in our souls.
And then the fifth faculty is that we can re-present the truth. We can offer it back to God. We can even give it to each other.
So the five faculties are: attentive perception, memory, contemplation, formation of truth, and re-presentation or representation. Every single one of those faculties is demeaned, if not dismissed, by the modern educator. Every single one of them.
Marilynne Robinson, in a book I want to recommend to you, which is at the Eighth Day table, called Absence of Mind, describes what we are doing to ourselves as a people, and when she says “absence of mind,” she’s talking about the way people don’t believe in the mind any more. If they do, they reduce it to the brain. In it, she says,
There is simply no way to reconcile the world view of Darwin with that of Freud, or either of these with the theories of Marx or Nietzsche or B.F. Skinner.
You probably recognize those names as extremely influential on the way we function in our culture today: Marx, Nietzsche, Skinner, Freud, and Darwin. Probably the five most influential people on the way you and I behave today. But listen to this.
The [only] thing they do have in common is that the assumption of what a human being is has been fundamentally in error.
Listen to these words from John Dewey in an essay called, “On the Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy.” He opens his essay with these words.
That the publication of The Origin of Species marked an epoch in the development of the natural sciences is well-known to the layman. That the combination of the very words “origin” and “species” embodied an intellectual revolt and introduced a new intellectual temper is easily overlooked by the expert.
I want you to notice two phrases there. According to Dewey, Darwin introduced an intellectual revolt and a new intellectual temper. If that’s the case, what was the revolt against? and what is the new intellectual temper? He doesn’t leave us to guess. The next sentence says:
The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years, the conceptions that had become the familiar furniture of the mind rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality.
What he means is: Things that last forever were regarded as better than things that don’t. I would say that’s a pretty good assessment of what we believe. How did Paul put it? that the things that the things that are visible are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal. He’s got a good summary here.
In laying hands upon the sacred ark (notice the religious language) of absolute permanency (things being eternal), in treating the forms that had become types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away (in other words, now that Darwin has said that eternal things aren’t eternal, they change, like human nature, for example), “The Origin of Species” (listen to this now) introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion.
Now, would you agree with me that if I said that if you change the way we think about knowledge, how we think about morals, how we think about politics, and how we think about religion, things would change? Dewey took it as his task to cause that change, to guide that change. Whether or not he’s right about Darwin, I don’t know, but certainly he used Darwin to overthrow 2,500 years of Western tradition. Certainly he’s using Darwin to overthrow the Christian heritage. Certainly he’s using Darwin to overthrow the notion that there are eternal things and that eternal things matter more than temporary things.
In fact, in the biblical and certainly in the Greek conception—and I think in this they are very much similar, and I’m subject to correction on this—in both conceptions, what you know, you can know because it is eternal. Things that are changing all the time can’t be known; what are they? The physical world is constantly changing, but there’s an inner essence, there’s an inner life to these things. There is a human nature. There is a lionness. And it can be known! It can be known, because the soul can perceive the truth. Let me say that again: In the Christian and the classical traditions, the soul can perceive the truth.
In the modern tradition, in the modern rejection of tradition, which is the new tradition—that’s the irony instead of the paradox—in the modern naked rugby game, your mind is constantly changing—it’s just a physical object—and the world outside your mind is constantly changing—it’s just physical. Therefore, there’s nothing that can know and there’s nothing to be known. What, then, is knowledge? Well, rather than read the convoluted way Dewey describes it, I’ll give you my interpretation of it. Knowledge is the adaptation of an organism to its environment. That’s what knowledge has become: pure pragmatism. It’s all about survival or power. It’s all about thriving in the environment. Nothing about rising above. Nothing about nobility. Nothing about infinite and eternal truth. Nothing about the soul at all. There is no soul to know.
This is the modern man. Do you understand? There is no soul! and there’s no truth to feed that soul, and there’s no goodness to feed that soul, and there’s no beauty to feed that soul. There’s just things you like and don’t like, there’s things you agree with and you disagree with, and there’s things that you think ought to be done or ought not to be done. But who are you? Who are you to tell another what’s true? Who are you to tell another what’s good? Who are you to tell another what’s beautiful?
I’ll tell you who I am: I’m the person who’d better be able to do that if I’m going to raise my children. I’m the person who has no right to teach if I can’t tell them what’s true. I’m the person who, if there isn’t any truth, can only either debunk my children or condition them, and I refuse to do both. But if there’s truth, I can feed their souls, and if there’s goodness, I can feed their souls, and if there’s beauty, I can feed their souls: by getting them to gaze on them. Do you see?
We are able to perceive truth, goodness, and beauty. Now, I’m not saying—please understand—that we can do it like Adam did. And apart from the Spirit of God bringing healing into our souls, probably we can’t do it at all. So maybe they’re entirely right. Maybe what Dewey is describing is exactly right: the natural man really is like that. But we don’t have to stay in that condition. We don’t have to stay there.
There’s a difference between the human world, the world that God placed man in dominion over, and the post-human world. I’ll just list a few of those differences, because here’s the thing: we live in an age of crisis. The question that our… Crisis means time of judgment. Crisis means judgment. We live in an age of judgment, an age in which one of the great decisions in human history is going to have to be made. It’s being made every day. The question is: Are we moving into a human world, or are we moving into a post-human world?
What’s the difference? Well, in the human world, you seek virtue. In the post-human world, you seek power; you seek practicality; you try to replace your faculties with technology. Why bother learning the math tables when you can use a calculator? Here’s why: because any time you replace a human faculty with technology, you weaken the human faculty, and when you weaken the human faculty, that faculty that ought to have glorified God is less able to do so. St. Irenaeus, I believe it was, said, “The glory of God is the man fully alive.” Part of the man fully alive must be, in my view, fully engaged faculties, fully developed faculties. When those faculties are developed, they become virtues.
So in the human world, we seek to perfect our faculties so that they will become virtues. In the post-human world, we don’t care about our faculties; we just want power and comfort. In the human world, we honor those faculties; in the post-human world, we replace them with technology. In the human world, we believe that it is possible and therefore we try to perceive truth. In the post-human world, we just adapt to the environment. In the human world, we worship God. In the post-human world, we worship either the self or society. In the human world, we honor tradition. We honor what Lewis called the Tao. We honor the law of God, the teaching, the tradition of God. In the post-human world, we seek to satisfy appetites.
In the human world, we seek to embody truth so that we can offer the creation back to God. In the post-human world, in politics we build abstract utopias that can never be realized, and in the arts we either seek self-expression or we try to impress the audience. We’re either expressionists or impressionists, but we’re aren’t truth people, truth-seekers. We aren’t trying to express truth; it’s about me, or it’s about you. Then you and I both suffer for it. In the human world, there’s a greater emphasis on the personal and the local. In the post-human world, everybody’s a global citizen.
What is the post-human world? It’s the world of natural man. It’s the world of naturalistic, material man: man reduced to only very complex physical things. What’s a human world? Man is the divine image. You and I, the image of God.
There’s no greater boast, and there’s no greater shame. And because our world can’t stand the shame, they cast aside the honor. But that’s the world we want to live in. That’s what we want to be: the image of God.
Now I think I’ve abused your time, so let me get practical here. What must we do? Honestly, you know what the first thing we need to do is? We need simply to think about it. We need to get back to valuing thinking, because if you can know things, it’s worth it to think. We need to think about what it means to be human. We need to make this our curriculum: Philippians 4:8-9 teaches us everything we need to know about what to teach and how to teach. Philippians 4:8-9. Paul says:
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble…
Notice “noble.” An aside, very brief: one of the ways you can protect your child’s dignity in the image of God is when he watches Bible stories on videos, they don’t demean the Bible stories. Daniel wasn’t a cowardly asparagus.
...whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue, and if there is anything praiseworthy, meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.
Can you say that to your students? The things which you learned and received and heard and saw—not from me, please notice—in me, these do. Because as teachers we need to embody the true, the noble, the just, the pure, the lovely, that which is of good report, that which is virtuous, and that which is praiseworthy. And when we present great literature, when we present books to our students, when we present art to our students, that’s what we need to be presenting to them. It doesn’t matter which books you read. It doesn’t matter how many you get through. It doesn’t matter how many checkmarks you have on the list. What matters is: are those books and are those works of art and is that music lovely? praiseworthy? Just and noble? That’s what matters. Let them think about that. Don’t keep introducing them to new books every two weeks.
Contemplate Philippians 4:8-9. First we need to think about these truths. Secondly, try to understand the situation that we are in as man in the world today. I urge you to read C.S. Lewis’s book, The Abolition of Man, I urge you to read The Absence of Mind, but even far more than those books, I would urge you to read the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen. I’ve been able to read a few pages, but every page is so penetrating in its perception, its clarity on what man is. I also recommend Wendell Berry, although he’s not a Church Father.
Third, understand the Orthodox Christian response or tradition about who and what man is. Remember, we are the divine image, and what does that mean? I don’t know what that means! I think it has something to do with reason and it has something to do with our sovereignty. Vladimir Lossky, in his Orthodox Theology, gives a wonderful list of many of the things the Fathers said it means, about 15 different things. It means far more… But it doesn’t mean that there’s some part of you that’s the divine image. It means that you are the divine image, and it has everything to do, certainly, with you being personal and with you being a person and with you having the capacity to live in communion and being able to love, and being able to love in such a way, not that you enjoy another’s presence but that you bless the other, that they become more human because they spent time in your presence.
So understand that tradition, and understand this: our goal is virtue. St. Paul puts it so beautifully in Timothy. The goal of our instruction is what? Love. The goal of our instruction is love. Again, not a sentimental feeling, but a dying to self, commitment to the other; from a pure heart and a sound mind and a sincere faith. That’s the goal of our instruction.
Fourth, embody the truth of Christianity in your thinking, actions, home, and schools. Don’t be afraid of transcendent knowledge. Don’t be afraid of knowledge that can’t be reduced from or even derived from the senses. But especially don’t lose confidence in that noetic ability to perceive the truth which requires, first and foremost, purity of heart. Contemplate. Slow down. Contemplate. It’s so much more important than getting through the material. Contemplate.
Now that seems to begin with knowledge of the world around us, and then it seems, as I understand it, to rise on a ladder—climacus—to the knowledge of God. It seems, as best as I can understand it, to do that, but don’t look to me for counsel on that.
There are some practical steps I think we need to take, some practical things that we can do. Understand that narrative precedes reason. The story comes first. Always, the story comes first. I’m part of this Christian Classical Renewal you may have heard things about, and sometimes it strays back to a Dorothy Sayers essay. I would say that’s close, but really it’s sprung from C.S. Lewis. It comes from the Chronicles of Narnia, because you have Christian classical education turned into stories. There’s our tradition.
But here, even more practical: read children’s literature of the highest quality. Read. Be extremely fussy and particular, downright Germanic, about children’s literature. (I’m German. I had to throw that in.) Teach grammar! You know why you should teach grammar? Nietzsche put it well; he said, “We will not be rid of God until we are rid of grammar.” Since we want God, let’s teach grammar. Teach logic! Logic comes from logos. It has to do with an ordered, organized world. Teach rhetoric! And remember that second faculty of memory. It’s a good thing, because it’s human.
Memorize and remember, especially in the early years. Learn by heart. What they call rote memory now: learn by heart. And also during oratio, when you read a story to your children and just have them recite it back to you. It’s amazing what that does to arouse their faculties of remembrance and interpretation.
Teach contemplation by discussing and praying what you read. In so doing, guide the formation of truth in your child’s and student’s soul. Thereby, teach them to offer back to God and to each other, through re-presentation, the world that God has given us.
Finally, eat sacramentally. John Granger’s going to talk more about that tonight, but eat sacramentally. He also gave a talk a couple years back that I heard where he said something incredibly valuable. He said, “Do not focus on cranial intelligence, but focus on noetic intelligence,” intelligence of the heart. That’s the contemplative. If we keep reading book after book after book really fast, what are we teaching? We’re teaching the brain. We’re teaching the conscious mind, but we need to teach deeply into their noetic intelligence, which means we need to stop and contemplate what we’re reading. I wish we would read four books a year instead of fifty.
Let me wrap up with a bit of a call to action, I suppose. As we proceed, the main thing we need to do is settle in our minds that we will not compromise either in ourselves or our children the fact that we are the image of God. We need to re-encounter everything with this in mind. When you read a book, ask yourself, “In this author’s view, what is man?” If you’re doing a science experiment, ask, “What is the presupposition here about what man is?” What is our capacity to know? What are our faculties? And always be asking yourself this question: Are the people and the technologies that influence my children and my students debunking them or conditioning them, or are they cultivating virtue?
Are they debunking or are they conditioning or are they cultivating virtue? If they’re robbing their soul’s sense that there can be heroism, if they’re taking the patriotism out of their hearts, if they’re making them laugh at nobility and honor, they’re debunking them. If they’re raising cynics, they’re debunking them. Do you know what the trouble is with being debunked? You have no resistance to the conditioner. So don’t let them be debunked. Fill them.
Fill them with the true, the good, and the beautiful, and participate in the sacraments, so that they can grow in faith. Continue to feed on the Orthodox tradition with confidence. It is life-transforming. It is saving. It is saving. It is glorifying.
Two weeks ago, we celebrated, we contemplated the Sunday of the Publican, the tax-collector, and the Pharisee. Last Sunday, we celebrated or contemplated another publican, Zacchaeus, who—did you notice?—climbed a sycamore tree, a fig tree, so that he could see the Lord. This coming Sunday, we’re going to read the story of the Prodigal Son.
I want to close with just a few verses from that story. In verse 17, it says, “When he came to himself, he said…” Notice, “when he came to himself.” When he realized his situation. When he realized what he was. When he realized how far he had fallen.
When he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger?”
Listen to these next three words, five words:
“I will arise and go.
“I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ ”
And he arose and came to his father.