Wisdom Is Vain Without Divine Love

St. Bonaventure begins his treatise on the mind’s ascension to God by warning the reader that curiosity without a love for God is dangerous. The reader must approach this journey by the “exercise of the affections more than the instruction of the mind” (Prologue, The Journey of the Mind to God).

He continues,

Wherefore, it is to groans of prayer through Christ Crucified, in Whose blood we are cleansed from the filth of vices, that I first of all invite the reader. Otherwise he may come to think that mere reading will suffice without fervor, speculation without devotion, investigation without admiration, observation without exultation, industry without piety, knowledge without love, understanding without humility, study without divine grace, the mirror without divinely inspired wisdom” (Prologue).

Bonaventure puts this essential truth another way a few sentences later,

The mirror of the external world put before them is of little or no avail unless the mirror of our soul has been cleansed and polished” (Prologue).

This view of education is markedly different from our current data-transfer model. Bonaventure’s invitation to learning is far more attractive, more desirable–and much more human.

John Calvin’s Prayer for Learning

David Calhoun’s excellent Knowing God and Ourselves begins with a prayer for learning from John Calvin. I plan to incorporate it into my medieval humanities course next year:

O Lord, you who are the fountain of all wisdom and learning…illumine my understanding, which of itself is blind, so that it may grasp the teaching that will be given to me; please strengthen my memory to be able to remember well, dispose my heart to receive what is taught willingly and with due eagerness, so that the opportunity you present to me may not be lost because of my ingratitude.
To do this, please pour out your Holy Spirit on me, the Spirit of all intelligence, truth, judgment, prudence, and teaching.

Grant that I may direct my study to the true purpose, which is to know you in our Lord Jesus Christ, to have full confidence of salvation and life in your grace alone, and to serve you rightly and purely, according to your pleasure.

Hear me, merciful Father, by our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Leave Nothing Out

Note: This article was originally posted on the Scholars’ Forum at PetraAcademy.com.

One evening this summer, I sat on my front porch and began a short volume of poetry by Wendell Berry.  The first poem was only three lines long, but its powerful image forced me to stop reading and to think about its implications.

Though this poem consists of a single image, it contains many wise lessons that all of us—teachers, students, and parents—can seek to apply as the new school year approaches.

Like Snow

Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly,
leaving nothing out.

The poem’s single metaphor is an exhortation for us to work as the snow works.  By contemplating what it means for snow to “work”, we can draw four lessons from Berry’s exhortation.


Slouching Toward Selfishness

Augustine on American Culture

Reading through Augustine’s powerful case against Roman paganism in City of God, I came across a passage that seemed eerily prescient of our culture:

Let nothing be commanded and nothing shameful be prohibited…Let provinces be subject to kings not as directors of conduct but as lords over their fate and providers of their pleasures…Let the din of dancing resound on all sides, and let the theaters boil over with cries of indecent delight and with every kind of cruel and shameful pleasure carried to the highest pitch. If anyone disapproves of this kind of happiness, let him be branded a public enemy. If anyone tries to change or do away with it, let the uninhibited mob stop his mouth, toss him out, kill him off. Let those be considered the true gods who see to it that the people get this sort of happiness and who preserve it for them once they have it…Just let them make sure that such happiness has nothing to fear from any enemy, any plague, or any kind of calamity at all” (II.20, emphasis added).

Two Cities, Two Loves

Augustine’s ability to describe two cultures separated by two millennia proves his larger thesis: that all of history resolves into two cities. Driven by love of the self (cupiditas), the City of Man enshrines whatever gods will justify its lust for domination and pursuit of pleasure. Because the City of God is motivated by a love of God and neighbor (caritas), it worships the One True God and seeks to align its desires with God’s will.

Augustine assumes that the role of kings and governors is to deal with the people’s actions—to punish bad conduct and approve good conduct (Rom 13:3-4). Civil authorities rule in a way that makes it possible for their citizens to attain virtue and live good lives.

But eventually this role degenerates in a predictable way: governors begin acting as “lords over [the people’s] fate”, and the people start looking to their governors as “providers of their pleasures.” Instead of serving others by pursuing virtue through discipline, the people serve themselves through a disciplined pursuit of pleasure. Personal pleasure becomes the highest good, and the self becomes the highest god.

As in Rome, so in America. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Slouching Toward Selfishness

In such a hedonistic culture (whether Rome or modern America), every “indecent delight and…every kind of cruel and shameful pleasure” is acceptable. The only heresy is to question whether such pursuits actually improve humanity. And the penalty for this heresy is censorship (“stop his mouth”), exile from the public forum (“toss him out”), and ultimately death (“kill him off”).

All cultures punish blasphemy of their gods—by exclusion, by exile, or by execution. In a culture that worships the self, the blasphemers are those who argue that human happiness comes only through the death of the self. In every hedonistic culture, faithful Christians are going to blaspheme the gods of their culture–so they must be prepared to face the consequences of such blasphemy.

Since Augustine’s two cities are moving in radically different directions, the citizens of the City of God will at times have to endure “the worst and most depraved republic” (II.19). But such endurance and suffering is what Christ has called them to. And by their endurance, they will “win for themselves a place of glory in the most holy and majestic senate of the angels, so to speak, in the heavenly republic whose law is the will of God” (II.19).

Thanksgiving Special: The Love of Story Class

One year ago, I opened registration for my first online literature class: The Love of Story. In celebration of this one year anniversary, I’m offering this class again at a 40% discount until December 2.

This class studies the role stories play in shaping us, our work, and our vision of the world. We read and discuss works by Salman Rushdie, Oscar Wilde, and Wendell Berry.

I had a great group of students last year and some incredible discussion in this class. The best outcome of the class, however, was the way it changed the students. Here’s what one student wrote about it:

I really learned a lot from this class. A lot of the application hit me hard and that is good. Change is not a fun thing, but change is often a necessary thing. Working through these books has helped to remind me of the kind of person I need to become. I would be motivated to sign up for another class based on that alone.

The full price of the Love of Story class is $99. But until December 2, the tuition for this class is only $59. That’s a 40% discount!

You can learn more about this great course by visiting the course description page on my new website designed specially for my online students.

This course is self-paced, so it doesn’t led to any “purchased stress.” You can work your way through the books and videos in your free time. You’ll have immediate access to the entire course as soon as you register. You’ll also have lifetime access to the entire course, so even if life gets busy (or is busy now!), you’ll still be able to enjoy all the benefits this course offers.

The holiday time gets busy fast, and it’s easy to turn this meditative season into a time of stress and unrest. This class will give you some structured time this holiday season to read, think, mediate, and learn how to live a better story.

I hope you join me in the Love of Story class! Click here to learn more and register!

Happy Thanksgiving!


How Augustine Finds a (Small) Place for Literature

This is the third post in a series of three. Be sure to check out the first post and second post as well!

In two previous posts, I explained Augustine’s argument against literature. This argument comes from Augustine’s Confessions, which is probably his most widely read book.

In this post—my third (and final) post on Augustine—we will look at Augustine’s small book Teaching Christianity (or De Doctrina Christiana). In this tiny volume Augustine explains how Christians could—and should—study all profitable areas of pagan learning.

As he develops this theology of Christian learning, Augustine also finds a place for literature in the service of the Church. It is a small place, though, and it fails to realize literature’s full power to do good in the hearts of its readers.

Vision of St. Augustine  by Vittorio Carpaccio

Vision of St. Augustine by Vittorio Carpaccio

My Debt to Augustine

Before I begin, I first need to say that I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to this fourth century African bishop.

Abelard raised a very foolish question when he asked:  ‘What has Horace to do with the Psalter, Virgil with the Gospel, Cicero with the Apostle?’  The answer is simply that Horace, Virgil, and Cicero clarify the human situation to which the salvation of God is addressed through the Psalter, Gospel, and Apostle.”