We talk loosely about the moral emptiness of the modern world – perhaps particularly at this time of year when consumerism is so much in our faces. “Me-me” has become the central driving force and egocentricity the name of the only game in town. An increasing question for many of my generation is how to develop a coherent set of stories and messages capable of persuading our societies of the need to change track – and in what way? To some of us it seems that a rediscovery of the ethic of social responsibility is an important part of the answer. But our educational institutions seem unable to deal with values
We are by nature, says de Botton in Religion for Atheists, "fragile and capricious - beset by fantasies of omnipotence, worlds away from being able to command even a modicum of the good sense and calm that secular education takes as the starting point for its own pedagogy". However, he continues -
...ideas need not just to be presented, but also repeated. The Christian calendar does this, as does the set daily liturgy.
Secular society, on the other hand, leaves us free - presenting us with a constant stream of new information, and prompting us to forget the lot. It expects us to spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us, and gives us weekends off for consumption and recreation. It’s the ‘news’ which occupies the position of authority in the secular sphere which the liturgical calendar has in the religious one. Matins become the breakfast bulletin, vespers the evening report. Its prestige is founded on the assumptions that our lives are poised on the verge of transformation due to the 2 driving forces of modern history: politics and technology. Religious texts, by contrast, are written on stone, books are few and thoroughly absorbed.We are familiar enough with the major categories of the humanities as they are taught in secular universities – history and anthropology, literature and philosophy - as well as with the sorts of examination questions they produce: Who were the Carolingians? Where did phenomenology originate? What did Emerson want? We know too that this scheme leaves the emotional aspects of our characters to develop spontaneously, or at the very least in private, perhaps when we are with our families or out on solitary walks in the countryside.
In contrast, Christianity concerns itself from the outset with the inner confused side of us, declaring that we are none of us born knowing how to live; Christianity is focused on helping a part of us that secular language struggles even to name, which is not precisely intelligence or emotion, not character or personality, but another, even more abstract entity loosely connected with all of those and yet differentiated from them by an additional ethical and transcendent dimension - and to which we may as well refer, following Christian terminology, as the soul. It has been the essential task of the Christian pedagogic machine to nurture, reassure, comfort and guide our souls. p112-13
I rarely miss an opportunity to castigate the modern university for its ever-increasing compartmentalisation of knowledge and marginalisation, indeed stigmatisation, of inter-disciplinary work. If ever an occupation deserved the accusation of insidious conduct of the “trahison des clercs” it is the modern academic – in their ivory towers and, with a few honourable exceptions, being indifferent to the fate of humanity. As de Botton puts it -
The modern university appears to have little interest in teaching emotional or ethical life skills, much less how to love their neighbours and leave the world happier than they found it. Scripture used to do this; and since the C19th the hope has been that culture could replace scripture in helping people find meaning, understand themselves, behave morally, forgive others and confront their own mortality. So we could turn to Marcus Aurelius, Boccaccio, Wagner and Turner instead. It’s an odd proposition – but maybe not so much absurd as unfamiliar. Novels do impart moral instruction; paintings do make suggestions about happiness; literature can change our lives, philosophy can offer consolations.But while universities have achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual info about culture, they remain uninterested in training students to use it as a repertoire of wisdom. ‘So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.’ (page 111).
Christianity meanwhile looks at the purpose of education from another angle, because it has an entirely different concept of human nature. It has no patience with theories that dwell on our independence or our maturity. It instead believes us to be at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the verge of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death - and most of all in need of God.
John Wesley used to preach on being kind, staying obedient to parents, visiting the sick, caution against bigotry. He said ‘I design plain truth for plain people: therefore… I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations; from all perplexed and intricate reasonings; and as far as possible, from even the show of learning. My design is… to forget all that ever I have read in my life.’ (page 120).
‘We on the other hand have constructed an intellectual world whose most celebrated institutions rarely consent to ask, let alone answer, the most serious questions of the soul.’ (p 121) Maybe we need a new kind of university, one which had a dept for relationships, an institute of dying and a centre for self knowledge.Then there’s the method – impassioned preaching makes a difference to the engagement and impact. ‘Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.’ (p131). Summary: Religions teach wisdom; secular societies offer information.This was a good post - exactly two years ago - on some lessons from trying to build the capacity of democratic institutions in transition countries