Presbyterian To The Back Teeth

Nov 24, 2015

Know thyself? Late last year, NPR ran a story about online dating sites adding new gender options for user profiles. A professor from Cornell’s Sex and Gender Lab described a workshop he ran for high school students wherein all participants were asked what gender they were and one young woman said, “Squiggly.” When asked what she meant, she replied, “Well, I feel like that’s what I am in terms of my gender and sexuality. I’m squiggly.”

I was amused to hear this, though there’s an aspect of what the young woman said which is similar to an educated classics prof proudly describing himself as “a Constantinian free market neo-Burkean social libertarian.” If you don’t believe me, the next time you’re talking with someone who claims some bizarre, esoteric, recherché political sympathy, say, “Oh, me, too,” and note the look of disbelief and disappointment in their eyes.

A classical education presumes a host of trials, temptations and terrors will come our way, but also mercy and gifts and good fortune. We must be prepared for both, for a man can be destroyed through success and failure alike. Consider the popularity of abortion and ask yourself if we know how to handle a blessing.  When our students suffer heartbreak, or a friend abandons the faith… when our students get married, have children, lose children… when our students lose grandparents, parents, spouses… when our students become rich, obtain celebrity and power… we don’t want to see them destroyed. We don’t want suffering to bring about bitterness toward God, and we don’t want pleasure to cause them to forget God. We don’t want them to feel abandoned, isolated, as though they can do as they please with impunity, because in so doing they will only hurt themselves further.

The more carefully articulated and precise your self is, the less human history has anything to do with you. If you are a man and your father dies, you may look at how holy men of the past have suffered through becoming orphans and do likewise. If you are a woman and your child dies, you may look at Mary weeping for her Son, Rachel weeping for her children, and know what is required of you. But how does a Constantinian free market neo-Burkean social libertarian deal with his parent’s divorce? How does a squiggly person deal with the terror at noonday? The more particularly a man understands himself, the more alienated he becomes from the conversation about human excellence, for great men are mere men, great women are mere women, great teachers are mere teachers.

I have written before about the problems which attend any discussion of classical literature wherein everyone merely voices their own prejudices about the past, for classical literature really ought to grant us some reprieve from the tyranny of needing to say something interesting, and the awfulness of having to judge.  A Socratic classroom is entirely unlike a Facebook conversation wherein the teacher interrogatively posts status updates on behalf of great philosophers and sees which students give it a “like.” Truthfully, it doesn’t much matter what a sixteen year old high school student or his thirty-four year old teacher think of Aristotle.

Put a different way, though, it does matter for the student that the student love Aristotle and Burke and Rousseau. It matters that a student love Jane Austen and Mary and not merely the sound of his own voice. It matters that a student love St. Paul and Charlemagne and not merely his approval of the past as it suits him. I am still regularly amazed to find students on the verge of graduation, after years spent in classical schools, who still speak of “the importance of being yourself,” and value a liberal arts education because it “allows you to figure out who you are.” If even John the Baptist, of whom there is none greater born of women, said of Christ, “I must decrease that He may increase,” then I swear it matters nothing that I figure out who I am. It matters everything, though, that I figure out who Jesus is, and who His friends are, and what they want of me.

Know thy limits. I’ll grant that the multiple choice test question is typically a waste of time. “Which one of the following women was not one of Henry VIII’s wives?” is a painfully dull way to fill the grade book. Multiple choice tests are quick and easy to grade, clean, no messy clean up, no need for blood in the margins. Precious little in academia reminds me of Gradgrind quite like the standard multiple choice test question.

On the other hand, a teacher looking for students to take a more personal stake in history should not flatly poll students on tests— as though any and every opinion were equal. “What do you think of Henry VIII?” is not a reasonable test question; the question too easily invites the squiggly and the Constantinian free market neo-Burkean social libertarian out to play havoc on tradition. “What do you think of Henry VIII?” also puts undue and unbearable pressure on the student by requiring them to reinvent the wheel. As opposed to striking out on his own, I would hope a classically-minded student would respond to the question with, “Well, I don’t know… What are the major schools of thought on the fellow?” or that an Anglican student would say, “Let me speak with my priest about this before I answer.”

The wise teacher must strike a balance between the profound distinctiveness and uniqueness of every individual student, and the manner in which classicism and Christianity call individuals into established, dogmatic patterns of thought and living. Students need to understand that they are not free to think and say whatever they like, for that is bondage to the self, captivity to what is passing and fashionable. When the batholithic preoccupations of the Western tradition are on the line— questions about sin and law and grace and war and justice and mercy— a classical student should be comfortable with the fact that one cannot simply invent a valid and venerable thought on the spot. Classicism presumes that the student who invents a wholly original theory of the atonement should at least be smirked at, not praised for his inventiveness. If theology and philosophy teachers opened the year with, “In this class, we’re not going to spend time discussing theories or opinions which are less than fifty years old,” they would likely save themselves weeks every year which could be devoted to Augustine or Plato or Pascal.  And this, not because every theory or opinion of the last fifty years is invalid, but because the theories and opinions of the last fifty years are primarily what life outside of academia is devoted to. If school is going to be a safe place for anybody and anything, it ought to be a safe place for those long gone, because in our bridge-burning Enlightened age, few people have it harder than the dead.

Elsewhere I have argued that a student ought to learn something while taking a test, not merely learn something while studying for a test. Of late, I’ve experimented with asking students to reconcile their own opinions to more traditional opinions, and then explain that reconciliation. On a test I recently gave modern European literature students, I asked the following:

Reflect on the state of your own soul for a moment. Let us assume that you are not merely the product of your environment, but that there is something transcendent about your being… that while you might have been born in a different time and a different place, nonetheless you still would have been you. Under which of the following historical circumstances would your soul have stood the best likelihood of being very, very righteous?

a. I would have done best during the Age of the Martyrs; I believe I have the faith to survive the martyr’s test; given the sins to which I am tempted, I would have thrived in a situation of intense, violent, terrifying persecution.

b. I would have done best during the Medieval Era as a poor onion farmer; I would not have had access to a Bible, but I don’t read the Bible much anyway; I would not have been aware of apostasy and infidelity to God, for everyone I would have known would have been a Christian; given how my life is likely to turn out, I wish the possibility of denying the faith really wasn’t a possibility; I would be willing to trade all the freedom I have as a 21st century American for a life of ignorance, hard work and spiritual mediocrity

c. I would have done best during the Renaissance Era; I have the kind of faith that would not be shaken by witnessing the highest ranking officials in the Church become avaricious dictators; I am fairly comfortable with having corrupt clergymen in my church; I am fairly corrupt, after all

d. I would have done best during the early Modern Era; when faced with the complexity of decisions the common man had to make about theological matters, I doubt I would have been intimidated into disinterest in religion; I am also the kind of person who has the faith and stamina (and cares enough about theology) to pack up my belongings and move to a new part of the world, probably to become considerably poorer, simply because I refused to accept a doctrine about the Lord’s Supper which I didn’t believe and which the local magistrate was coercing people into believing

e. I would have done best in the early American West, where there were no churches; I don’t need to go to church to remain faithful to God; my love of God can sustain itself without the support of anyone else

f. I would do best in contemporary America; despite the endless temptations and distractions from the things of God, I still devote several hours every day (even during the summer) to reading my Bible and performing works of charity and mercy; I rarely spend time on amusement and entertainment; I primarily use the great freedom afforded to moderns for cultivating a virtuous soul

Explain your answer.

I then afforded the students forty blank lines in which to explain their answer. What I received back was some of the most aptly introspective work this year.

I will gladly concede that the options I gave were only somewhat fair, and that despite the number of possibilities offered, many others might have been included. During the exam several students said they felt chagrined to pick any of the options listed, or else they said they wanted to pick a certain option but not for the reasons given. However, the success of exam was bound up in the realization that none of the options was perfectly agreeable.

The students were being trained to choose from a list of “unenviable options” (not really) as opposed to suddenly inventing their own option, although the students who were hesitant to choose at all ended up reconciling their choices to their own desires with remarkable flexibility in the essay portion which followed. If the rising generation will enjoy any unity or cohesion, it will need to submit its particular and unique desires to the well traversed paths of tradition. “You cannot be whatever you want to be. You can be a Baptist or a Methodist or a Lutheran or an Evangelical or a Catholic… there’s a few others, but to be honest, not that many. Not just everything is negotiable. And there is an Anglican tradition to the problem of war, and a Lutheran answer to the question of the law and the will… and if you’re a Lutheran, depend on the Lutheran answers to those questions. And if you don’t like them, work harder to submit your desires to those centuries-old Lutheran intellectual traditions.”

I am Orthodox, which means that the creeds and dogmas I confess have more in common with certain Christian denominations than others. Despite those differences (or similarities), I would far rather teach a student who says, “I’m Presbyterian to the back teeth, baby. No shadow of turning. Westminster till the wheels fall off,” than a Presbyterian who says, “Well, I guess I'm Presbyterian, but whatever, I don’t get why we always complain about "Catholic idols" and stuff…” even if I believe the student’s complaints about iconoclasm are legitimate. Even as an Orthodox Christian— the kind of Orthodox Christian who will be heartbroken if his children do not remain Orthodox up through their funerals— I always hope for strong Baptists, confident Lutherans, unapologetic Catholics. I can do little for a lukewarm Lutheran, even if their lukewarmth is born out of beliefs I think sound. This isn't to say denominational moves are not legitimate, however, few high schoolers are sufficiently familiar with their own traditions to be incredulous of them. But why prefer dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian students to skeptical ones?

Because the student who is Presbyterian to the back teeth might someday say to Christ:

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.

 …and in so saying, not only raise the dead, but uncover the “old paths” of Jeremiah which have been overgrown with rationalist, individualist weeds for the last hundred years. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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