07 June 2011

Romans 12:1-3 & Paideia

This is a text I have written up based on the notes for a speech I gave at the graduation of my 6th-grade students, who are moving on from the Grammar stage of the classical trivium to the Dialectic stage (in fact, I am moving up to 8th grade next year, and so will be making the same transition myself as a teacher!). The Biblical passage with which it begins was read by one of the students just prior to my taking the podium. I dedicate this post to Kaye Wilson, who was quite vocal and insistent that I produce a written copy of the speech for her to peruse at leisure.

Romans 12:1-3: ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.’

When I was probably twelve or thirteen years old, my dad wrote the first part of verse 2 of this passage from Romans on a hand-written note to me: just ‘And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.’ Now, although I don’t recall him ever explaining it, I think I know why he did this. When I was that age, I was a bit of a rebel, a nonconformist—and I think dad thought that Romans 12:2a could show me how a rebellious spirit could be ‘baptised’ and made subject to Christ.

I must admit I still have a certain fondness for such a use of the verse, but having come to know me a little bit over the past year, you might well expect me to offer a more complicated exegesis. That’s just what I’m going to do. Like C.S. Lewis, but to a much lesser degree, I am a bit of a dinosaur. In talking about this passage, I will, of course, use some Greek and talk about the Church Fathers a whole lot. You have Mr Carr to blame for this speech taking such a turn. He suggested the idea of having a student read a bit of Scripture, and I immediately thought of this passage, and then this whole speech just kind of snowballed from there. The only comfort I have to offer is that this is the last time you’ll have to listen to me waxing on about Scripture in this way all summer.

So, to begin just taking the passage one thing at a time:

When St Paul calls our bodies ‘a living sacrifice’, among other things we might say that he is emphasising the importance of taming our unruly passions, a particular problem for youths.

The phrase ‘reasonable service’ in the King James is a perfectly passable rendering of something which is to me much more interesting in the Greek—logiken latreian—which we might also translate ‘rational or logical worship’. In other words, by disciplining our bodies, we our enabling our minds to participate in the glorification of God.

When St Paul speaks of not being conformed to ‘this world’, the word he uses is not the usual biblical word for ‘world’, kosmos, but aion (‘aeon’), which might also be translated ‘age’. Elsewhere, in Galatians 1:2, St Paul uses the same word when he speaks of ‘this present evil age’.

The ‘mind’ that is to be renewed is a word with a very interesting history: nous. In the Scriptural context, it can usually be pretty well translated as ‘mind’ in something like our modern sense, but in the Fathers the nous is much more. It is the ‘eye of the soul’, in other words the human faculty for perceiving God and ultimate truth.

When St Paul speaks of proving [dokimazein] ‘what is that…will of God’, the word he uses specifically means ‘to put to the test, examine, or prove by testing’. And when he exhorts us ‘not to think more highly, but soberly’, he is of course indicating the importance of exercising the mind in humility and temperance.

Now, I would like to suggest that Romans 12:1-3 be read tonight as an illuminating description of the effect of initiation into what we might call culture, or education, or that paideia which St Clement of Rome says ‘is in Christ’ (I Clement 21:8), calling it the ‘oracles of the paideia of God’ (I Clement 62:3).

By the taming of the passions, reason is incorporated into the glorifying of God (which as we have all heard many times is ‘man’s chief end’!).

Our aion (age) is completely opposed to this, ergo we turn away from ‘this present evil age’.

We are moulded by our mind being made new in a prosaic sense, but even more by the cleansing and renewal of our faculty for knowing God and Truth.

With such a mind, we examine and prove through testing what is the truth and how to act.

But even at the pinnacle of learning, we must preserve our humility (the sine qua non of learning) and the cardinal virtue of temperance or self-control.

Now, I hope you see the application of all of this to your Christian classical education.

In all three stages of the trivium, many ‘subjects’ are of course studied, but the first of these is Holy Scripture, which is why I maintained the practice in the 6th-grade class of daily reading directly from Scripture. So I will use this ‘subject’, the subject par excellence of Christian pedagogy, to illustrate what I’m talking about.

In his De doctrina Christiana 2.9.14, St Augustine beautifully describes the move from the Grammar to the Logic or Dialectic stage in the reading of Scripture: ‘The first rule in the laborious task [of studying Scripture] is…to know these books; not necessarily to understand them but to read them so as to commit them to memory or at least make them not totally unfamiliar.’ [1]

This is the Grammar stage—represented by the Veritas Press cards, worksheets, and tests, but most importantly, reading and memorising the text itself. St Athanasius the Great, under whose banner Joel sits now, says of the young St Anthony, ‘For he paid such close attention to what was read that nothing from Scripture did he fail to take in—rather he grasped everything, and in him the memory took the place of books.’ [2] So the recitations and memory work we do has clear patristic precedent.

Next, St Augustine says, ‘Then the matters which are clearly stated in them, whether ethical precepts or articles of belief, should be examined carefully and intelligently. The greater a person’s intellectual capacity, the more of these he finds.’ [3] Here we see the transition from Grammar to Dialectic—still familiarising, but also ‘examining’ (dokimasein) ‘intelligently’ (with reason—logiken latreian—and nous). I’ve tried to do this more and more over the last year: hence the sometimes mystifying essay questions I’ve given!

To complete the progression, St Augustine goes on to write:

Then, after gaining a familiarity with the language of the divine scriptures, one should proceed to explore and analyse the obscure passages, by taking examples from the more obvious parts to illuminate obscure expressions and by using the evidence of indisputable passages to remove the uncertain of ambiguous ones. [4]

Here we have much more pure Dialectic. I have tried to do this above all with our recent study of Revelation, where I was greatly assisted by the many notoriously obscure passages in that book! We did not of course entirely do away with the Grammar approach, but we had little choice but to begin moving into a more dialectical mode of reading.

But pay attention to the next line: ‘Here memory is extremely valuable; and it cannot be supplied by these instructions if it is lacking.’ [5] Did you see when we were reading Revelation how much easier it was to follow when you recalled the Old Testament references, the connections to other parts of the New Testament, or just earlier parts from Revelation itself? Grammar, which relies on memory, is the foundation, while Dialectic builds the structure of true knowledge on top of it.

Joel, you have a powerful imagination, when you’re not forgetting your work.

Ethan, you ask some penetrating questions, when you’re not distracted by Read.

Read, I thought for a long time about what I was going to say about you! You have a quick mind, which is a great help for picking up on exactly what you need to know and accessing it immediately, but this is only truly an asset when you’re not abusing it with corny jokes.

All of these things can serve well at the Dialectic stage, but for them to do so you must:

First, tame your passions.

Second, glorify God with your reason, not from emotion or habit only.

Third, resist the lures of ‘this present evil age’ (Gal 1:2), something we’ve learned a lot about in history, literature, and most recently, in Revelation.

Fourth, ask God’s grace to renew your mind and clease the ‘eye of your soul’ to perceive Truth.

Fifth, pose questions, think things through, and examine the facts before you to know what is true and how to act.

But above all, sixth, no matter how much you think you may know, no matter how keen your intellects become, acquire a spirit of humility and self-control.

St Gregory the Theologian, speaking at the funeral of his 'bff' (my apologies for the slang!), St Basil, said:

Who had such power in Rhetoric, which breathes with the might of fire . . . ? Who in Grammar, which perfects our tongues in Greek and compiles history, and presides over metres and legislates for poems? Who in Philosophy, that really lofty and high reaching science, whether practical and speculative, or in that part of it whose oppositions and struggles are concerned with logical demonstrations, which is called Dialectic . . . ? [6]

But he adds that his friend had become ‘excessively puffed up by his abilities’. [7] Interestingly, it took a woman—his sister, St Macrina—to cure St Basil of that, but cure him she did, so that he himself wrote: ‘I wept many tears over my miserable life, and I prayed that guidance might be vouchsafed me to the doctrines of true religion.’ [8]

I pray that the Lord grant all three of you such guidance as you embark on this new stage in your education.

[1] St Augustine, On Christian Teaching, tr. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford, 1999), p. 37.

[2] St Athanasius, The Life of Antony & the Letter to Marcellinus, tr. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980), p. 32.

[3] St Augustine, p. 37.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Oration 43.23 (here).

[7] The Lives of the Three Great Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, & John Chrysostom, compiled & tr. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles, 1998), p. 8.

[8] Ibid., p. 9.


Le Panda du Mal said...

As someone who works in public schools, I am really straining to imagine 6th graders following this essay. That must be a remarkable bunch of kids you've got.

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, they really are a remarkable bunch of kids, capable of following much deeper thought than most of my classmates when I was in 6th grade! That said, however, I would add two points: first, the majority of the audience was made up of parents, grandparents, & school staff, so the speech was in large measure for them as well; and second, my philosophy about these things is that it's not absolutely crucial that they follow every single point or grasp the deep structure of thought that I've put into it. My approach to producing this sort of thing is very imaginative, more poetic in some ways than analytical, and I would not feel that I had failed completely if a young listener came away with more of an impression of what I had said than a clear mental reproduction of it. The use of Greek, the quotes from the Fathers, the light humour, the reiteration of points, and the exhortations to virtue all have an effect that I believe transcends mere 'understanding' in the usual sense. They know that they are being summoned to a serious task, and that there is a deep, well thought-out reason for it, even if they themselves wouldn't be able to explain it just yet. That's enough for me, I'd say.