College is no place for teaching

An irritating blog I follow is one called Daily Theology, which is run by grad students in Catholic theology departments. For them, theology is not studied for its own sake but for political purposes which magically align with the platforms of the Democratic Party. They are a center-left version of Jerry Falwell Jr. I suspect they will all eventually fall to dpmonahan’s Fourth Law: when being a good Christian is the same as being a good member of a political party, only idiots stay Christian. But Daily Theology is pretty much what mainstream American theology is all about, politics and burnishing credentials. The same can be said for liberal arts in general.

The Dante scholar Anthony Esolen recently left Providence College. He had this to say about the teaching environment there:

“Teaching is a political act,” said a former nun who used to teach at my school, Providence College. She had lost her faith along with her habit, and so what was left to her if not politics? Back then, she sounded like a chic radical uttering an empty slogan. Her dictum could now serve as the motto for quite a few of our departments and programs and many more in colleges across the country. Though perhaps it would sound too cautious, at that. Not only, in the minds of many professors, is teaching an act with political ramifications; without the political, their teaching has no raison d’etre. Even the political then loses its special but subordinate character. The political becomes a cloak in human form, draped over emptiness.

And elsewhere:

… when I was a little boy I wanted to show people things, just because I liked them and wanted to share them. Teaching, for me, has always retained much of that happy boyish enthusiasm; it’s why I find it hard to understand people who turn teaching into politics by other means. Why would you do that? Wouldn’t it be like sitting on a Rembrandt while holding forth about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

As it becomes harder and harder to teach subjects like literature or theology without having to follow a political line, the serious study of these disciplines will have to be done outside of the traditional college environment. Maybe modern colleges were never a good place for studying theology, since colleges are concerned primarily with building prestige, not so much with truth.

Serious study, in theology, implies a good grasp of ancient languages, history, literary criticism, textual criticism, philosophy, and lots and lots of reading, writing, and discussion. Critical appropriation of the tradition has to be the core effort of all students before they can specialize. But what environment would be ideal for the study of theology?

Besides the obvious things like books and teachers I would suggest the ideal situation would be a community setting with a group of a couple dozen students living either together or in proximity, with time set aside for communal prayer and works of charity. I basically imagine a semi-monastic community with a soup kitchen attached. The idea is to combine the essential attributes of Christian life – prayer / liturgy, community, and charity with a serious program of study. Theology strikes me as the one field that has to be studied in the context of a lifestyle. It is impossible to study the Christian God without living at least a somewhat coherent Christian life.




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