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    Book Club: Poetic Knowledge {Chapter 4, Part 2}

    May 19, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    [A]fter the Council of Trent, when a more systematic approach to explaining the faith is adopted to accommodate and call back the populations of fallen-away Catholics, there is more reliance now on method, and the appeal is now more to reason and the rigors of apologetics. There is, as a matter of fact, a movement toward the scientific idea of knowledge in all this…Within two hundred years of this great split in religion in Europe, the Cartesian influence is present in the Catholic approach to education and handing on the faith, a faith now presented more as a problem to be explained, a demonstration that requires proof.

    James Taylor

    When I was in seminary, we used to joke and call it “cemetery.” The interesting thing is that we were only half joking. The years a person spends in seminary are said to be the hardest of their spiritual life. Seminaries are like hospitals, only in hospitals the body dies; at seminary, if you aren’t careful, you lose your soul.

    During the second half of my first real year there, I was planning my wedding, so I can’t say I died. In fact, I was too excited to concentrate fully on my studies. A number of classes I tolerated, while many others were quite good {in my opinion}. I don’t think I spent enough time there to be a good judge of whether seminary can really kill your soul.

    In general, studying theology can be rough. It can be systematized, mechanized, and analyzed. It can exhaust you, and isolate you from the whole. It gets to where you can define grace, but experience none of it, if that makes sense. I was reminded of this tendency when Taylor quoted Mill:

    Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of EducationI saw…that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has, when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analyzing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives. (emphasis mine)

    Men who study at seminary while living real lives in the real world probably do better than gals like me, who, at the time, are still living on campus and barely qualify to be called graduate students.

    Why am I talking about all of this?

    Well, while I was in seminary, the school was just beginning to experiment with a more contemplative style. To some extent, it was so mixed up with modern psychology that it felt–I don’t know–fabricated. I thought it was suspect. {Have you ever noticed that the more a person says the word “authentic” the more unreal the situation feels? But I digress.}

    Anyhow, they were beginning to encourage their students to spend time meditating on the Word {what an idea!}–and I was even given a poem once to think about. They were starting to slow down. They also did a bit of psychological profiling. All of this was because their rate of “failure” {defined, I believe, by graduates falling into grievous error} rate was too high.

    A good question to ask is: why? Why such a high “failure” rate? How is it possible to spend two, three, even four years immersed in study of theology, the Queen of knowledge, and leave only to stumble, and fall, and fail?

    For starters, none of us is perfect. This is a given. But I think it goes beyond that. No one told me in seminary that theology was Queen. Shouldn’t this be touted from every corner in a place like that?

    But no. I didn’t know that theology was Queen until I studied classicism and Charlotte Mason and friends.

    Many of the Bible classes I took in college were studied the way most public schools teach history. They were dead and dry, full of lifeless facts to be memorized. They couldn’t kindle life in the soul because they themselves were dead.

    I don’t say this to demean my alma mater. I am grateful for what she gave me, I would do it all over again if I could, and I think she tried very hard to be the best she could be at the time. But she existed in the stream of modern, post-Industrial education. She was more impacted by John Dewey than she knew, hence her limitations. This is also why she excelled where and when she least expected it–in the strange quiet times when no one in authority was planning anything.

    Throughout this second portion of the chapter, Taylor delineates some of the many tragic results of the Cartesian revolution:

    • Knowledge and learning are reduced to mere “facts”
    • The universe becomes an object to be conquered {rather than something we learn from}
    • Feelings are more and more distrusted
    • Faith becomes a “problem” to be explained
    • Some folks, such as Rousseau and the Romantics, overreacted to a near anti-intellectualism in an attempt to recover what was lost {poetic knowledge}
    • Man is now viewed materialistically and his existence is defined by doing rather than being

    I haven’t quite pinpointed it, but I think the “failure” of “Christian” education lies here: that she approaches her students with a Darwinian {for Dewey’s philosophy was applied Darwinism, remember–that really is an important point} methodology. Oh, not every teacher or professor in every classroom. But the method and the structure are an imitation of the modern “multi”versity–fragmented knowledge based upon fact accumulation and analysis, success determined by standardized measurements, etc.

    Is there a test that can measure an increase in wisdom? I don’t think so. This is why we measure other things instead. They are easier to quantify.

    Seminary can only kill the soul to the extent that its methods are rooted in Darwinism, the ultimate soul-killer.

    Read more:
    -More book club entries are linked at Mystie’s blog

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  • Reply Shari May 20, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Good points, Brandy. While Christianity can be defended “logically” and should be on some occasions, too much logical thinking can dry the spirit. To quote Miss Mason in School Education,” We are inclined to make religious aims subjective rather than objective. We are tempted to look upon Chritianity as a ‘scheme of salvation’ designed and carried out for our benefit; whereas the very essence of Christianity is passionate devotion to an altogether adorable Person.” I find this an interesting use of the word ‘tempted’!

  • Reply Silvia May 20, 2011 at 12:28 am

    And the same applies to posts and any reading.
    I guess then this week wasn’t a lazy non productive but a wisely slowed down time!

  • Reply Mystie May 19, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    “It is ironic to me that speeding through *more* books means *less* thought…”

    *punch in the gut*


    It’s true.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts May 19, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    I have found theology to be a thrilling study as a non-student, and I really think there is something to that. As I look back, I think a huge problem is not just that many of the classes separated the head from the heart, so to speak, in seeking memorization of dry facts apart from the life-giving story, but also that there was no time to ponder or make those connections that Mason says are so crucial for education. So instead of getting to soak in what I was learning, I was on to the next thing, planning for the next test, hurrying through the next book, and so on.

    I never thought about it before, but that seems connected to how things are most likely to fall apart here when I start hurrying through and just trying to get done.

    It seems there really is no way around the idea that learning requires time to think. I know that colleges have to be realistic and get their students through in a reasonable time, but I am guessing that colleges *could* be like a CM school–where you don’t have to read a million books if you find the one or two best books, and so you have time to think more.

    It is ironic to me that speeding through *more* books means *less* thought…

  • Reply Mystie May 19, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Interesting connection.

    While I wanted to defend the Reformed, Calvinist stream against Taylor’s criticism, there certainly is the tendency for over analysis and over precision, that can kill the spirit. When you scour the Bible for “points” and “defenses” instead of reading it to be spoken to (I’ve been there), things won’t go well. However, though that’s the pitfall we are most prone to, that doesn’t mean that it’s a necessary part of the tradition. 🙂

    There has always been a part of me that’s very nervous about talk of changes like you mention. Often because it starts sending off my “psychobabble” red flags. 🙂 My brain and self is definitely geared more toward analytical than emotional, so I have a hard time comprehending what’s really meant. This chapter really cleared things up for me by showing that shift in thinking, and I saw the ways that I had been informed by the modern ideas, especially of duty as being necessarily difficult, and difficult being Good. I’m prone to that — though so far to believing it more than actually living it. 🙂

  • Reply Sallie @ A Quiet Simple Life May 19, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    Loved your comment about cleaming to be authentic and being just the opposite. That word is on my list of “Words I No Longer Like Because People Have Ruined Them For Me.” Waaaay overused.

    I agree with your assessment of seminaries. I think it has a GREAT deal to do with the seminary and faculty. I think I know where you went and I’m not surprised by what you wrote.

    It seems to me that the seminaries that are constantly redefining truth in order to be relevant would be the most dangerous places to be. A study of theology where there is a sure foundation would be much better, IMHO. Personally I’ve found studying theology to be incredibly enriching of my spiritual life, but that is because my primary mode of worship is my mind. I can see how it might be troublesome for people who are wired differently.

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