Best of Afterthoughts, Educational Philosophy

Thoroughly Christian — CM’s 20th Principle

October 3, 2013

20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

–Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, Preface

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] know there are families out there who do what they call a secular version of Charlotte Mason. I have no doubt that their children are receiving a wonderful education. This post is not written to those folks, though I still recommend reading it because I’m talking about an experience that was very formative for Miss Mason.

As a Christian, it is important to me that my children’s education be comprehensively Christian. I don’t mean that we tack Bible study on to the beginning and end of our day and call it good, but that the whole thing, from beginning to end, comes under the authority of Christ.

The irony in all of this is that Miss Mason’s philosophy — though Miss Mason herself declared education to be nothing other than the handmaid of religion — is sometimes accused by Christians of being non-christian, or at least not Christian enough.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the Christian critics who say this either (1) haven’t read Mason’s original works (a real possibility), or (2) have within themselves the exact separation between intellectual and spiritual life that Mason’s 20th Principle warns us against.

Abraham Kuyper once wrote:

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’

This is the sort of view Miss Mason prescribes.

Charlotte Mason once experienced what she called a “great recognition” in this regard, and says in her second volume that this same recognition is required of parents. What sparked this great recognition? This moment of awakening? It was a fresco from the Spanish Chapel attached to the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

The fresco which inspired Charlotte Mason’s “Great Recognition.”

In chapter 25 of her second volume, Mason quotes John Ruskin’s explanation of the fresco from his book Mornings in Florence.

Beneath the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit in the point of the arch beneath are the three Evangelical Virtues. Without these, says Florence, you can have no science. Without Love, Faith, and Hope — no intelligence. Under these are the four Cardinal Virtues …Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude. Under these are the great Prophets and Apostles …Under the line of Prophets, as powers summoned by their voices, are the mythic figures of the seven theological or spiritual and the seven geological or natural sciences; and under the feet of each of them the figure of its Captain-teacher to the World.

Miss Mason then takes the pains to describe the figures of the Seven Liberal Arts (which Ruskin calls the “seven geological or natural sciences”) and their Captain-teachers (such as Euclid at the feet of Geometry) in detail. She then concludes:

[H]ere we have the breadth of minds so wide in the sweep of their intelligence, so profound in their insight, that we are almost startled by the perception that, pictured on these walls, we have indeed a true measure of the thoughts of God. (Vol. 2, p. 270)

In her time, Miss Mason saw an attempt to philosophically mutilate this beautiful Christian vision of learning. It was as our own day, in which a big black marker has drawn a thick dividing line between the level which holds Thomas Aquinas enthroned with the Law, Gospels, and Prophets on either side, and the level which holds the areas of study. These areas of study are all well and good, we say, but what have they to do with God, and what has God to do with them?

This is nothing less than a failure to understand who God is, and what He is like.

Do we really think we would find ourselves studying grammar and arithmetic if such things did not originate in the mind of God Himself? And do we really think we can know anything without His grace giving us the insights we so desperately desire?

Miss Mason goes on:

Many Christian people rise a little higher; they conceive that even grammar and arithmetic may in some not very clear way be used for God; but the great recognition, that God the Holy Spirit is Himself, personally, the Imparter of knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius, is a conception so far lost to us that we should think it distinctly irreverent to conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child’s arithmetic lesson, for example. (Vol. 2, p. 270)

Before we go on, allow me to tell a little story. I’ve been on the lookout for real, well-written science books (living books, not text-books) written by Christians that believe in a literal, physical act of creation on the part of God. You know what? I can’t find what I’m looking for. Now, I’ve had some people tell me that this is because no one could believe that and be a scientist because the science doesn’t hold up. Others have said that it is due to bias — that it’s hard to get a paper peer-reviewed when there is such discrimination against the dissenting view.

I’m going to hypothesize that it’s because we’ve had the dividing line between sacred and secular for too many generations. It is no longer really respectable for a Christian to love science. Christians are supposed to stick to “sacred” subjects like music and theology.

Am I right?

How many schools out there echo the thoughts of the great, God-fearing scientists of the past? Imagine what the world would be like if scientists could say with Johannes Kepler:

I was merely
thinking God’s thoughts after him.
Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God
in regard to the book of nature,
it benefits us to be thoughtful,
not of the glory of our minds,
but rather, above all else,
of the glory of God.

Oh, how far we have fallen from a thoroughly Christian vision of education and of study. We sit around in fear, worrying about the gods in mythology, or the magic in fairy tales, or the mere idea of pagans like Plato or Plutarch possessing any wisdom, because our vision of education is too small, and we fail to see that God has always and ever been upon the throne, and that every word of wisdom echoes His great thoughts, regardless of whether the person speaking them ever recognizes the fact or not.

People have feared that a Charlotte Mason education was not Christian because it did not feel obligated to pin a Bible verse on every single page, while failing to see that her vision of God’s sovereignty was so great that it actually encompassed the whole thing. She could say to her students, “Go. Study math because it is Good. It is Good because God made it and to learn to do math well is to be more like Him.”

“Go. Study grammar. Our great God, whose Son is the Word incarnate, makes sense, and therefore language makes sense. Insomuch as you study grammar, you study the things of God.”

Even grammar is His. There is no square inch that is not His, and the cry of the Christian teacher’s heart is to see Him made known in every inch of the classroom.

Thus was the cry of Miss Mason’s heart.

[T]he Florentine mind of the Middle Ages went further than this: it believed, not only that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct outpouring of the Holy Ghost, but that every fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or grammar, or music, was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired named himself by the name of God, or recognised whence his inspiration came. All of these seven figures are those of persons whom we should roughly class as pagans, and whom we might be lightly inclined to consider as outside the pale of the divine inspiration. It is truly difficult to grasp the amazing boldness of this scheme of the education of the world which Florence accepted in simple faith. (Vol. 2, p. 271)

Every good and perfect gift comes from above.

Even geometry.

But Miss Mason does not stop there (though admittedly this alone was enough for me). She goes on to say that the Holy Spirit can help a child in his study, that the Holy Spirit has a daily interest in the growth of the child, that His activity is not relegated to a few great preachers or missionaries or to some “spiritual” area of life, as if all of life were not lived in a united whole.

In the things of science, in the things of art, in the things of practical everyday life, his God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the Divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child …

[snip]

And what subjects are under the direction of this Divine Teacher? The child’s faith and hope and charity — that we already knew; his temperance, justice, prudence and fortitude — that we might have guessed; his grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic — this we might have forgotten, if these Florentine teachers had not reminded us; his practical skill in the use of tools and instruments, from a knife and fork to a microscope, and in the sensible management of all the affairs of life — these also come from the Lord, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working. His God doth instruct him and doth teach him.

This has great implications for the teacher. Not only is there no division among subjects, there is no division among teachers. There is One Teacher, at Whose feet we all must sit. This vision of teaching is so humble, and it tells us that the prayer of the teacher can be one of real faith in God’s real activity and interest in this child, right here — in this classroom, right here — in this subject, right here. We do not have to wait for Bible time for God to come down and teach us great things.

This is the most important lesson of all.


You can find my conference talk on this fresco here.

Click here to go to the 31 Days of Charlotte Mason series directory.

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38 Comments

  • Reply At College with Charlotte Mason | Afterthoughts December 28, 2018 at 11:39 am

    […] on the walls, including a portrait Fred Yates had done of Miss Mason. A copy of the fresco The Descent of the Holy Spirit was hung in the classroom, an ever-present reminder of the sacredness of the task set before […]

  • Reply Prudence: A Thinking Love | Afterthoughts April 11, 2018 at 5:20 pm

    […] Prudence is  pictured in the fresco of The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, under the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  She carries a book, a symbol of an education which […]

  • Reply RaeAnna February 12, 2018 at 3:54 am

    Since this post have you found something you like for science living books?! If you’ve blogged about it, please share the link! (Our group is almost done with the study! We’ve been at it for the past 2 school years! LOL! FYI – the parts of Volume 6 not covered in the study are:
    Chapter 1 and 5, pages 235-279 and pages 279-349.
    We’re spending March, April, and May reading and discussing these last bits of Volume 6 before moving on to our next book! 🙂 Thank you so much for the Start Here guide! It has been wonderful!

  • Reply Lauren Thompson February 9, 2018 at 11:18 am

    This is amazing. You’ve spoken directly to my heart.

  • Reply Dottie October 17, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    “People have feared that a Charlotte Mason education was not Christian because it did not feel obligated to pin a Bible verse on every single page, while failing to see that her vision of God’s sovereignty was so great that it actually encompassed the whole thing.” Brilliant. Thank you for your thoughts.

  • Reply Heidi July 11, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    We started Kindergarten last year with our oldest and it fell apart within the first 4-6 weeks and I abandoned ship so to speak. I then spent much of the year rethinking our homeschool. What our ultimate goal was. What kind of learners we had. What kind of “teacher” I was. What kind of approaches there were to homeschooling. I was nervous that as I journeyed I would end up in a different place than my husband, but that was put to rest. On this journey I stumbled on Charlotte Mason and AmblesideOnline. Even that became a HUGE journey as I looked into sooo many different curricula and approaches to the Charlotte Mason philosophy. I finally landed in a place that I was comfortable and excited to start this year with my two sons however, I haven’t really felt like I could explain it to people when they asked. That is until now. Thank you for this series of posts! I love your blog and am only through the first few posts in this series, but already you’ve helped to clarify what was in my heart and my mind but could not put into words. Thank you! I am even more excited now to begin AmblesideOnline and apply Ms. Mason’s principles!

    There are still a couple of things that I would like to have a better handle on and hope you touch on them in other posts. Narrations, Timelines and Handicrafts for boys…I think I understand the Narrations and Timelines, but think I could use some further clarification for my own confidence and peace of mind. The Handicrafts for boys though is one that I am having a difficult time wrapping my mind around beside woodworking.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 12, 2017 at 8:58 am

      Heidi! Welcome to Afterthoughts, CM, and AO! ♥ I’m so glad you’re here!

      My favorite handicraft for little boys was one I did with boy my boys in first grade: knot tying. We used The Klutz Book of Knots but there are other resources out there. They loved it and it actually came in handy as well! Also, I hadn’t heard of paper sloyd when my oldest was little, but I think that, too, would work wonderfully for boys. My boys weren’t into sewing very much, but they loved little things like learning to patch a hole or learning to sew on a button that had popped off.

      • Reply Heidi July 12, 2017 at 3:32 pm

        Oh THANK YOU!!!! That’s a great idea, theyd totally love knot tying and I’ll look into the other!

  • Reply HOUSEFULLOFFOXES May 19, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Four years later…
    This is fantastic! Reading for our local groups last meeting of ‘Start Here’ THANK YOU!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 19, 2017 at 12:08 pm

      ♥ Oh, my heart just swelled to think of your group! May the Lord bless it! ♥

  • Reply Amy January 1, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation Brandy. I will definitely look into that book.

  • Reply Amy December 30, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Wow. This is amazing. Just. Wow. I am struggling with choosing a curriculum/homeschooling “style” for my daughters. CM is on my list to research further, and this is wonderful, thoughtful info that I will definitely consider. I just came across your blog from Sarah’s “Most Post” link up 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 30, 2013 at 10:21 pm

      I’m glad this was meaningful for you! If you aren’t up for wading through CM’s volumes, my favorite basic CM book is For the Children’s Sake. If you haven’t checked it out already, it might be a good place to start! 🙂

  • Reply Tina Marie December 19, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    Hello Brandy,

    Any idea where I could get a copy of that fresco to hang on the wall, its official name would be a great help I’m sure. Thanks so much!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm

      I have never seen a copy, but I think there are a number of places to get the image for free and you could print it for your personal use. You can read more about the Fresco on the AO site here: http://www.amblesideonline.org/triumph.shtml Tim Laurio actually went to the chapel and took his own photos. They are copyrighted, but he allowed AO to put them up on the site since he is an AO grad. 🙂

  • Reply Umm Safiya October 27, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    I really like your post, though we are not christians, we are muslims and have started to use a lot of CM’s principles and techniques. Being spiritual and connecting it to everything in life is so important to us. Instead of using verses from the Bible (eventhough we do believe in the original Bible, as we believe it’s from the same source) we just use verses from the Quran. It just makes nature study and even geometry (like bee hives) so much more amazing, you feel so connected to the Creator.

    I can’t wait to read the others posts from your 31 days.

  • Reply Danielle October 19, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    This is really, really excellent. Thanks for putting all of these thoughts into words. We were already planning to use CM, but reading more about her convictions about the Holy Spirit’s involvement in our everyday lives just makes me so excited for our family to follow her ideas.

  • Reply Brandy Vencel October 7, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Hi! I got waaaaay behind on comments for this series when we went out of town for a few days. It was all on autopost! Anyhow, I do not have time to respond individually to each one, but I wanted to thank all of you for sharing your thoughts. I always love to hear what you think!

  • Reply Dawn October 4, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    This. Post. Is. BRILLIANT. You have written several magnificent pieces, Brandy, but this ranks up there among the best. I love how it all ties into the name of this blog, too:). I won’t waste any more words attempting to express how very much I like this post. I couldn’t possibly do it justice.

  • Reply Rebecca Dolores October 4, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    Brandy, almost everything you write resonates with me- even if at first I think it might not. I just had to deal with an issue with a family member who said I wasn’t giving my kids a foundation of anything “real” when I was talking about something I was studying (which actually didn’t have anything to do with homeschool). I had to point out that this is a Christian character building curriculum. And, although you talk about how the content doesn’t “have the verse pinned” type of obvious thing going on- I feel like the presence of “Godly” material does indeed abound within the CM philosophy and curriculum. When it comes to the secular CM issue- I will admit that when I first started researching curriculum- I was afraid of finding those which try too hard to make it a Christian curriculum and therefore discredit (or fail to even acknowledge) certain theories or branches of study (much of this you covered in a different way) and I even considered a secular way of doing CM – content wise. BUT- after careful consideration- I realized it would be completely changing the fabric of CM- I could have easily just used a classics booklist and some parenting advice found somewhere if I changed too much! All this rambling is just to say that I appreciate the time you took to so thoroughly discuss this and you really did help me understand the subject much better than I had before. Like another commenter mentioned- you helped to clarify thoughts I already had- but I didn’t make this much sense of them! Thank you. 🙂

  • Reply livingstonesacademy October 4, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    I’m going to try to be clear, but I’m exhausted after a bad week with sick kids so forgive me if it doesn’t come out right. 😛
    I love this post, but I beg to differ on just two points.
    First of all, those that are doing secular CM, really are only adopting her ideas of how to teach. Yes, from our view that seems incomplete without the spiritual side. But I don’t believe in discouraging a person from doing that, because I pray that by continually reading her works the Holy Spirit may eventually lead them to understand God’s works. I think it leans toward elitist to say a person cannot do secular CM in their homeschool. It’s like those that wanted to boycott the movie “End of the Spear” because the actor playing the main missionary in the film is gay in real life. I would think we could be pleased that he wanted to play this role, and that perhaps in playing this role, and by experiencing the love of the Christian community, he might be drawn to God. But instead we’d rather he wasn’t involved in “our world”. Anyway, that’s just my thinking on the secular CM thing. Sorry if that bothers anyone.
    Second, I think the reason why people accuse Charlotte of not being Christian is a little more basic and, in my opinion, silly. You did point out that the use of pagans like Plato and Plutarch and fairy tales bothers some folks. But in talking to people and reading comments, even those things do not hang them up nearly as much as the acceptance by CM and the PNEU in her day of the new Darwin philosophy. In fact in reading living science books of her day, books that were used in the PUS curriculum and recommended by her, I find something that creationist writings would have you believe didn’t exist back then–a ready acceptance by Christians of Darwin’s findings combined with scripture. For instance, Le Fabre’s book “The Story Book of Science”, praises God for His creatures, gives God glory for this world . . .and then speaks of millions of years and the various “ages” (stone age, iron age, etc). The model for the Book of Centuries encourages starting at a date prior to a literal biblical understanding of Creation. So for a lot of Christians, this one little thing–a belief held at the time–turns them off. I call it silly, though, because it doesn’t matter WHAT she thought about evolutionary theory or that it could work in harmony with scripture. YOU don’t have to. And to call her un Christian because of this is to be ignorant of the way things generally were at the time. So that’s why I say it’s silly, and why I have found it to be the main reason that, in spite of her other writings on spirituality, some people reject her philosophy as unChristian.
    Still loved this post AS a Christian, and am looking forward to more in the days to come. 🙂
    Tanya Stone

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 4, 2013 at 3:46 pm

      To be clear, I do not mean for this post to discourage *anyone* from adopting CM’s practices. I hope it didn’t sound that way! My purpose here was merely to explain how thoroughly Christian her philosophy was {to defend her against her *Christian* critics}. I think I’ll go back through and make sure there isn’t a place where I can make that more clear.

      I completely agree with you that it is silly to reject CM over evolution. This is sort of getting off topic, but in general, Christianity has always had its primary, secondary, and tertiary issues when it comes to defining who is orthodox and who is not (i.e., who is in a cult). It is only the primary issues that are a test of actual orthodoxy, but I think many modern Christians are not familiar enough with Church history to make this distinction. Secondary issues often define a local church body because they can be such divisive issues (infant vs. believer’s baptism comes to mind here). It isn’t that one belief is orthodox and another not, but that the local church often likes to require conformity for the sake of natural unity, not for the sake of saying that those who believe otherwise are not Christians.

      And then there are the tertiary issues like young earth v. old earth creationism, theistic evolution, women in the ministry, etc. Here is my deal with the tertiary issues and the way some people judge CM: I actually think that good, well-meaning Christians can be misguided! They can believe something that is not true! {Gasp!} I firmly believe that I have in the past been misguided, and I’m probably misguided on some issue now, but of course I’m not aware of it because then it would be willful, which is something else entirely.

      The thing with CM’s evolution is that she did not define a child from evolution, nor did she look to evolution for her practices. She was still solidly standing upon the rock of Scripture. I agree that if she had built her philosophy upon her belief — with which I do not agree — that would have been a problem. But she didn’t, and I wish people would get past that! I know that you do, also. I am preaching to the choir here. 🙂

      My hope is that this post tries to give people the broad view of CM’s Christianity, rather than nit-picking at her minor doctrines.

      And Tanya, I agree with you that it is silly. 🙂

      By the way, the point to made about the gay actor reminded me of the story I once heard of a man who decided to mock Jonathan Edwards by standing up and reading his Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon in a crazy voice. About halfway through he repented and became a Christian. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 4, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      Tanya, I want you to know that I read back through the first part of the post, and I can see why you took it that way, so I made a few changes that I hope clarify what I was trying to say. I’m intending to address CM’s *Christian* critics, not those doing secular CM. You can let me know if you think I am still not clear. Thank you for pointing that out!

    • Reply livingstonesacademy October 4, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      Thank you, and that’s a funny story about Edwards! I have to tell that one to my husband when he gets home, he’ll get a kick out of it! Same thing apparently happened to the man who wrote “St. John In Exile”, a one man play about John on Patmos. Supposedly he was an atheist, and challenged by a Christian friend that he couldn’t possibly write a play about a Christian theme. He converted the first time he saw his own play performed by actor Dean Jones. 😀

      I wasn’t sure where you were on the secular CM thing, so thanks for the clarification. But I was more concerned about other comments that seemed to indicate secular CMers were not welcome. And I’ve seen other discussions on other pages about that, making fun of or being derisive of that approach. But I appreciate your openness and clarity of thought. 😀

  • Reply austen_n_burney October 4, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    Reminds me of an essay I read by Michael Cochran, I think, on grammar. His main point was that the progressives have slowly weeded out the study of grammar because truly studying grammar would bring us to the logos and order of the universe. If truly studying truth we can’t get away from god.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 4, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      I love that point about grammar! I think I’ve heard Andrew Kern make a similar point before–that grammar actually can reveal God to us and that is why the schools are uncomfortable with its study.

  • Reply Serena October 4, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Amen! Thank you for sharing this today. 🙂

  • Reply Dana Wilson October 4, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Brandy, great post! I so agree with you and am always amazed how people want to do ‘secular Charlotte Mason,’ — just ignoring the basis of her philosophy! I wrote about that a while back on my blog, as well: http://epikardia.com/blog/charlotte-mason-and-the-bible/. I LOVE all the quotes you added in your post -thank you!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 4, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      Dana, thank you for the link to your post. I love it and I’m sharing it to my sidebar.

  • Reply Carol October 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Inspiring stuff, Brandy!

  • Reply Elizabeth October 4, 2013 at 6:57 am

    Reading this made me think of Mark 9:38-40.

  • Reply Julia October 4, 2013 at 1:35 am

    Excellent post, Brandy. Thank you.

  • Reply Nelleke Plouffe October 3, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Yes, YES! I especially love that last paragraph…I’ll be thinking about those implications.

  • Reply sara October 3, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Brandy,

    This is so well done. I like when other people’s writing helps to clarify my own thinking, and you’ve done that here.

    As an aside, while reading Minn of the Mississippi today, I got to explain the Theory of Evolution to my eight-year-old. I think I did a fair job. “Some people think that blah blah blah, common ancestor, blah blah blah.” He said, “I think animals have probably changed over time, but not into completely different animals.” Now, that’s a thinking boy.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 4, 2013 at 2:55 am

      I love your son’s response. That is great thinking!

  • Reply Anonymous October 3, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Beautiful!

    Thank you,

    JoyH

  • Reply Anonymous October 3, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    I would add that the reason we have such extensive knowledge of science is that we believe in an intelligent Creator-God who made the world in a way we could deduce through reason. This is why so many monks studied creation. Cells are named after the cells that monks stayed in in their monasteries. I see Charlotte Mason as so compatible with a Classical Christian education.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 4, 2013 at 2:54 am

      I didn’t know cells were named after monasteries! That is amazing!

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