The Double Fruit of Knowledge
By Travis Copeland
If one of our aims in promoting classical education is to form and mature our students in Christian faith, we need more than a curriculum whose list of subjects is "classical"—or even spiritual.
Classical education has dwelt in many environments throughout history. It was born in the age of paganism, gradually found its way into Christendom, captivated the Muslim world for centuries, and has been seen in strictly secular dress in our own day. I am a Christian myself, and believe that classical education must be religious in order to be fully itself: the exclusively secular version of classicism is a recent invention, one that walks out of step with both ancient pagan ideals and the late antique and medieval fusions of classical education with both Christianity in Europe and Islam in Africa and the Near East. Moreover, classical education has spent the longest in Christian company. I accordingly think the religious element of all this should be Christian. But how ought classical education to relate to Christianity in any case?
Two weeks ago today* we commemorated the Crucifixion, a presentation of Christ to the world; this is an emblem before them of that covenant he instituted in the Upper Room the night before—a public exhibition of the Body and the Blood that had been made known privately in the breaking of the bread. Education (or rather, all of human life, and therefore education too) should derive its theology of man from Jesus’ command, “Take and eat.” Implicit in that directive is the working out of a biblical anthropology, one that echoes the Garden of Eden. In his final evening with the disciples before his death, Jesus institutes a ritual—one centered around, maybe surprisingly, food. Speaking to his disciples and to all Christians in the ages to come, Jesus commands a liturgical act, one which incorporates both the body and the soul; Christ-followers are to “take and eat,” and are to “do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus’ kingdom is not solely an intellectual or emotional one: it is physical, coming to bodies as well as minds. To borrow a motif from C. S. Lewis, his kingdom is to govern the stomach, the heart, and the mind together.
The Lord’s Supper, given to the church in the first century, was set down as a ritual that would combat over-spiritualizing tendencies of religious thought, which often scorned or even detested the body. (The various Gnostic sects were the first but not the last instantiations of this tendency.) Twenty centuries later, this sacrament again speaks to the body-and-soul fullness of mankind, in an age that, thanks to the philosophical and scientific changes of modernity, can be more excessively intellect-centered than it may seem. We can blame it all on the influence of Descartes and the “brain in a vat” atmosphere of his Cogito ergo sum if we like; regardless, contemporary public education does little but attempt to cram useful facts into students’ heads; even for all its focus on athletics and sex ed, it makes little recognizable effort to treat the body as a part of the person. It treats it more like a tool—or a toy. Education, as such, zeros in on the brain—which it tends to regard as almost equally mechanical, but perhaps we will return to that problem another time.
Neither in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve are told Do not eat, nor at the Last Supper when Jesus says Take and eat, does God center his commands around the intellect in isolation: obviously a mind is needed to understand these commands, but the commands themselves are, so to speak, unabashedly carnal. Jesus, “reclining at table” with the disciples, does not command them to come and know, but to “take,” “eat,” and “remember” (memory being so often intimately linked to the senses, especially senses like smell and touch). One thing this says—and says loudly—is that we humans are both body and soul. The act of eating is physical; it requires a tongue, mouth, throat, stomach, and colon. (God is far less squeamish than we are!)
Jesus’ command keeps the church from slipping into the spiritualism of the ancient Gnostics, or what James K. A. Smith calls head-on-a-stick philosophy, in which man is only a thinking thing. You may have heard the saying, “You have a body, but you are a soul.” Jesus says nothing of this kind. He asserts, as one of his last acts “on the night he was betrayed,” that man was made an eating and remembering thing. Human persons are not mere robotic information-based brains; we are made with a material splendor; Dante speaks of the final resurrection in the Paradiso as a time when we shall be reclothed in la santa e gloriosa carne, “the holy and glorious flesh.”
Which is fine, you may be thinking, but … what does this have to do with classical education? Is this an unusually long and theologically-minded case for gym class?
Biblically-rooted anthropology has three major implications for education. First, it ought to be the basis for classical education’s anthropology. This may seem obvious to some readers; however, the reason some schools struggle to remain classical is because they unwisely wander from “Take and eat” as a basis for education. They may ignore Christ altogether, falsely believing that old subject matter, just as such, makes a school classical; or they may think that including “Bible” as one of the standard subjects is all that’s needed—that simply including theological facts among those crammed into students’ heads is the answer. But no school can be classical without being holistic, treating the student as a whole human person, bodily as well as intellectual. The student’s senses need to be engaged, as they are by sculpture and painting, music and architecture; their capacity for movement needs to be incorporated, with everything from liturgical ritual to gracious etiquette. Not only does everything we do, soul and body, need to center on Christ, our whole selves need to be trained to move in self-harmony around that center. (And while gym class probably won’t be enough by itself to do justice to bodily reality, it won’t hurt!)
Second: you cannot have both a modern and biblical view of man. A school must choose, and it will. For just as you cannot love both God and money, so you cannot have both a modern and Christian view of mankind. A few teachers and many parents, anxious over their charges’ future in the workplace, might suggest that there is no problem with accepting or at least entertaining this modern notion of personhood. However, the issue is not just a squabble over minor niceties. You cannot have it both ways. “The ghost in the machine” does not mix with “Take and eat”; indeed, one of the salient traits of ghosts (which Jesus used to prove the reality of his body in Luke 24!) is their inability to eat. You may try to integrate the two approaches, but you will in fact oust one in favor of the other.
There is a caveat to this second point: re-educating parents and even teachers may be required if a classical Christian school wishes to be, and remain, meaningfully classical and Christian. We have all been swimming in the intellectual waters of modernity since childhood. Many (most?) people who come into the classical renewal movement enter as modern thinkers, seeking a perfected curriculum; it often requires some time and effort to transfigure our understanding of the nature and purpose of education.
Lastly. Everything—every assignment, every habit, every assessment—should be done with whole-person intentionality. This may not always be easy; instantiating the finer points of Kant’s ethical theory or applying the lessons of nuclear physics may even get one yelled at! But mere regurgitation should have no place in the classical classroom, any more than at the Lord’s table. To know, to love, and to embody are the work of a truly classical classroom. Lessons should be something that can be embodied, and practiced, something that can be “taken and eaten.”
*For Catholics and Protestants, that is; Orthodox Christians celebrated Good Friday one week ago.
Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
Published on 21st April, 2023.