May 10th, 2005

Loyola Faculty Portrait

Theological Notebook: the Roman Didaskaleion

I'm going through a packet of readings for a discussion in Barnes' never-ending Augustine seminar tomorrow. We want to specifically examine and assess something we've been discerning through the semester and which may be something of a new direction or emphasis in Augustine scholarship, and this is the extent to which he is tied to the Roman didaskaleion. This is one of the features of ancient Christianity: a study-group gathered around a significant spiritual teacher, sometimes a clergy member, sometimes not. Origen would have been one notable example. One can also think of the group of Roman women who gathered around Jerome during Augustine's lifetime. Augustine himself had a group gathered around him that followed him from Africa to Europe and back again, and in Rome one is well-aware of the influence of Pelagius during Augustine's career.

So far I've read something alternately brilliant and perhaps a bit wacky by Peter Brown, and a set of selections of great spiritual interest by Gregory of Nyssa On Perfection, which have to do with a spirituality of "name." He is examining in some detail the implications of taking on the name of Christ--"Christian"--and how a focus and meditation on that name and the names associated with it--"the Wisdom and Power of God" (1 Cor. 1:24)--can be the roots of the formation of a powerful Christian spirituality and identity.

More later.
Loyola Faculty Portrait

Theological Notebook: A Brilliant Essay on How We Think

What I include here is one of the most flat-out brilliant, cuts-through-the-dust, essays I've read in a long, long time. Many people might not like it at all.

The hardest thing about learning to think, I've found over the years, is in learning to identify your basic presuppositions, much less to analyse or question them. They obviously wouldn't be presuppositions if you hadn't already assumed them, whether from a personal or cultural source.

It took me most of my undergraduate Intellectual History education to begin to be able to pry off the tops of the jars of Enlightenment thinking that I'd inherited as an American. Further years of graduate study have continued to empower me in this task, but as is the case when you're fencing with invisible opponents, you can't take anything for granted. I still surprise myself every few months with weeding out some major assumption of my thinking that I had yet to notice, much less hold up to intense scrutiny. This essay, it seems to me, goes right to the heart of some of our central cultural assumptions and may be a very useful thing in the future for me to use in some way in my "Introduction" kinds of courses in order to get students right to some of those necessary insights. I always have thought that that was my most important task as a teacher, to get students to be able to do that same kind of analysis: to give them some chance at the freedom to see if what they really think is what they really want to think, after all.

And thanks to frey_at_last for bringing this gem to my attention. She rocks with major rockage.

A Peculiar Little Test

Philip Zaleski

Every two or three years, at a small, elite New England university, I offer a graduate-level course on "Nature Writing." The students, as you might guess, exhibit a keen interest in birds, blossoms, bugs, and bears. Despite shared tastes, the composition of the class is impressively diverse, a patchwork of amateur entomologists, high school science instructors, budding Thoreaus, Lake Poets manque. Participants show little mercy towards environmental degradation (strip mining, whale-hunting, and the felling of the rain forest are anathema), but, thankfully, no more than one or two Earth-Firsters-fanatics who applaud Edward Abbey's bitter saying that "I'm a humanist, I'd rather kill a man than a snake"-sign up each year. As our classroom discussions make clear, the students also have in common a keen religious sense, directed, it is true, more towards the awe induced by a streaking meteor or a rutting moose than, say, that of the Resurrection of Christ or the Parinirvana of Buddha. In sum, my students are, by and large, a representative sampling of post-1960s educated America.

In many ways, the highlight of the course is a peculiar little test that I administer about mid-semester, when students' heads are abuzz with the conflicting claims of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Darwin, and Gould: Is the natural order a theophany or the battleground of rabid genes? What is man, that he is mindful of nature? As we all agree afterwards, the quiz tells us something-but we're not sure just what-about how we apprehend the world, ourselves, and (for those students so inclined) the Creator.

The quiz is simple enough. I offer a list of fifteen items (it varies from year to year): mouse, boy, sun, angel, ant, crab, Norwegian pine, corn, amoeba, hamburger, potato, Moby Dick, Taj Mahal, Rolls Royce, the idea of the good-and I ask students to rank them, using whatever scale they deem most important. Without fail, one or two refuse to take the test, rejecting the legitimacy of any and all gradations. The rest plunge in. Predictably, there is always one-a tease, perhaps, although suspicion lingers that he means it-who gives the edge to the crab or the Rolls. There's frequently a Platonist who opts for the idea of the good. As a rule, only one person puts the human being at the peak, as crown of creation and imago Dei: the teacher (for I participate in the listing, and share my results with the students). Invariably, the great majority put the sun on top.

When I ask why, something remarkable happens. The students understand what I am after with this test, for they never rank by height or mass or population or any other gross physical aspect. No, they do so according to a scale of values. But what values? When pressed, the students allow that they order according to what we must call being. And here the strangest part of the test emerges: although I believe that there are right and wrong answers, I cannot imagine giving a grade, for my most fundamental premises are not shared by my students-or, more exactly, are shared in such a strange way that our common ground turns to quicksand, and teaching threatens to become (as it often does when teachers do not respect their students) trench warfare.
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