Order Your Loves: Keeping Classical “Christian” Education Christian

Jul 8, 2019

“Two loves, then, have made two cities. Love of self, even to the point of contempt for God, made the earthly city, and love of God, even to the point of contempt for self, made the heavenly city. Thus the former glories in itself, and the latter glories in the Lord. The former seeks its glory from men, but the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of our conscience.” (City of God, Book XIV)

Augustine’s City of God is a theological retelling of the history of the world as the unfolding of two concurrent stories: the story of the heavenly city, which strives most ardently toward the lover of its soul, and the story of the earthly city, which plunges most feverishly into its own privation. Our venture here will be to extrapolate from City of God a model for conceiving of how we might stay true to the story of the heavenly city in cultivating a truly and distinctively “Christian” classical education.

First, a distinctively “Christian” classical education is concerned with the formation of persons around the singular desire and affection for the utterly unique and Triune God. The heavenly city is first and foremost a city of lovers who sigh with incomparable wonder and longing for their Beloved to return in glory. This city of lovers is so absorbed in affection for their Beloved that they reflect the One whom their heart loves. The proper ordering of loves is integral to Augustine’s theology and it begins with the love of God and then the love of self and neighbor on account of God. In Book I of his On Christian Teaching Augustine writes, “A person who has ordered his love . . . does not love what it is wrong to love, or fail to love what should be loved . . . every human being qua human being should be loved on God’s account; and God should be loved for Himself. And if God is to be loved more than any human being, each person should love God more than he loves himself.”

Let us linger on this point a while longer lest it be misunderstood that the cultivation of love of God is not a possibility with us but a possibility only with God. A Christian education cannot cause the love of God in a person, but a Christian education can create space for the Holy Spirit to inculcate the love of God. We create space for the Spirit when as a community we commune with God in prayer. Prayer is the heavenly city’s language of love and prayer occurs when the community of the heavenly city withdraws together into that secret place in the soul where as lovers we go to be alone with God. In that secret place the Holy Spirit orders and directs our loves toward God. In this way, our prayer is inherently Trinitarian—we become enraptured by the Spirit and participate in the divine life as we beseech the Father in the name of the Son.

Secondly, and in union with the proper ordering of one’s loves, a distinctively “Christian” classical education is concerned with the formation of persons around the enjoyment of God: “For the good make use of the world in order to enjoy God, but the evil, in contrast, want to make use of God in order to enjoy the world” (XV.7). Augustine’s use/enjoyment ethic animates his City of God and it is understood as follows: “Use” means to treat something as a means of obtaining what one loves, whereas “enjoyment” means to hold onto something in love for its own sake. Accordingly, a classical Christian education is truly classical and truly Christian only when it makes use of classic texts for the purpose of enjoying God who alone is enjoyed for His own sake. Our great models for practicing this discipline are the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers made use of Greek philosophy in order to give expression to our most precious theology of the Trinity and of the person and nature of Christ. But this process was messy: Greek philosophy was offended by the idea that the Logos became flesh and made His dwelling among us, thus the Fathers had the difficult task of reshaping their received philosophical categories in light of the story of the Gospel.

The Fathers were wise when they did not accept Greek philosophy indiscriminately because Greek philosophy is not a different kind of intellectual activity than theology but rather theology by a different name. As theologian Robert Jenson says, it is “a historical illusion” to think that Greek philosophy was anything other than “the historically particular Olympian-Parmenidean religion, later shared with the wider Mediterranean cultic world” (Jenson: 1996). The Church Fathers knew this. They knew that the “qualification of truth taught by Plato or Aristotle [was no more] ‘natural’ or ‘rational’ than truth taught by Isaiah or Paul.” Thus they proclaimed the truth of Isaiah and Paul by making use of Greek theology in order to help them speak truthfully of the God they adored and enjoyed. We honor our Fathers of the Church when we as the heavenly city remember and imitate them. We do so by extending the spirit of their determination to use what the earthly city offers but for the heavenly city’s purposes. And so to that end we devour the works of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, or Chaucer, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare, or Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.

We devour classic texts because we are the City of God who as lovers of God celebrate and use truth, goodness, and beauty wherever it may be found for the supreme enjoyment of God. When our children imbibe the story of God’s heavenly city and the Spirit shapes their affections and orders their loves in prayer so that they learn the difference between use and enjoyment, then we will have kept classical Christian education Christian.

Matthew Prechter

Matthew Prechter

Matthew was educated in a classical Christian school called Veritas Christian Academy in Fletcher, NC. He graduated from Wheaton College with a BA in Theology and he is currently completing his MA in Divinity at the University of Chicago. He is hoping to teach at a classical Christian school after graduation.

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