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To Love and Understand: The Classical Vision in Controversial Times

January 10, 2024
By Taylor Craig, Class of 2014

A decade ago, I was in my senior year at Rockbridge Academy. A lot has happened in that time, but through it the things I learned here have been a significant and treasured influence in my life. While I would be remiss not to remark on the dear mentors and close friends I made here, I want to focus this brief reflection on the vision of the world I learned from Rockbridge, with an eye to how it eventually landed me where I am now, in the theological academy.

When Nietzsche wrote that “Whoever really wishes to become acquainted with something new (whether it be a person, an event, or a book), does well to take up the matter with all possible love,” he was only repeating something that classical educators had known for millennia—that the process of learning is first a moral, and then an intellectual endeavor, or rather, that any distinction between moral and intellectual endeavors is as specious as the anthropology it undergirds is facile. 

This paradigm is deeply entrenched in the Christian intellectual tradition. The Greek Fathers understood the intellect as a desiring faculty that intrinsically (if often unconsciously) sought after God and was fulfilled only in prayer; in the Latin west, Augustine’s trinitarian theology (tragically neglected by American Christians in recent years) emphasized that the very structure of the human mind pulls it towards its one end: the worship and enjoyment of God. 

This is the anthropology at stake in the classical understanding of education as moral formation and within which tools like the Trivium can flourish. Its profundity is that it reflects an entire vision of the world as the theater of God’s glory. Education is formation because curiosity is a form of generosity, of hospitality towards the new and the strange; but this is merely the anthropological reflection of the objective fact that all created truth and goodness beckon us onward to the eternal wellspring that is Truth and Goodness: God—Who is Himself Love. The only light that illumines truth is the generous light of God’s creating goodness sealed in the steadfast love of redemption. And as in the archetype, so in the ectype: for Christians, to know must always mean to love.

This is the anthropology at stake in the classical understanding of education as moral formation and within which tools like the Trivium can flourish. Its profundity is that it reflects an entire vision of the world as the theater of God’s glory. 

In other words, classical and Christian are not separable modifiers of education, but a cohesive way into studying the basic and unifying God-ward-ness of the world. We study the classical texts as Christians, not out of abstract adherence to a canon, but because in that canon we can inherit the practiced eye of centuries of Christians who have repeatedly and delightedly found that God’s truth, goodness, and beauty precede them there. These texts provide a fertile training ground for the virtues of wisdom, patience, and generosity required for learned cultural engagement today, indeed, for any faithful Christian walk—which is only the repeated referring all our lives to the giving and grace of God. 

In other words, classical and Christian are not separable modifiers of education, but a cohesive way into studying the basic and unifying God-ward-ness of the world. We study the classical texts as Christians, not out of abstract adherence to a canon, but because in that canon we can inherit the practiced eye of centuries of Christians who have repeatedly and delightedly found that God’s truth, goodness, and beauty precede them there. 

Indeed, it is those who thought that Christ and culture were most sharply opposed who likewise opposed the reliance on Greek models inherent to classical education. Conversely, Paul models the classical vision in Acts 17, in seeing that God got to Greece before him, and his job is to name the unknown God, in whom the Athenians already knew that they lived, and moved, and had their being. Similarly, the first Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, argued that Plato had dimly pointed to Christ, that Jesus was the proper fulfillment of the way of the Stoics—that it was the Christians who followed true philosophy. Christians have always most profoundly challenged the cultures around them by finding seeds of the Word and by naming Jesus Christ as the true fulfillment of those seeds. 

On a personal note, these themes have been the common thread (perhaps the only one!) in my own continuing education. Studying theoretical physics at MIT, I found that a guiding intuition of much of this research was that the elegance of a theory is not just an arbitrary aesthetic value but also an indicator of the depth of penetration into the mysteries of the universe. Truth, goodness, and beauty coalesce at precisely the point where being itself becomes most transparent to the properties of its Creator. 

Similarly, my study of theology at Yale, integrating as it does philosophy and cultural studies, would make little sense if one did not believe that all the activity of man’s mind is animated by the restless heart searching for rest in God, and that that search must leave its mark on all knowledge. Indeed, this most recent trajectory felt like the response to the turmoil of 2020 that would be most faithful to the vision Rockbridge has given me: to leave my stable job in finance for the life of the mind pursued in service to Christ; with the faith that commitments to justice, to generosity of interpretation, and to truth are always finally commitments to God Himself; and in confidence, alongside Paul and Justin, that the sharpest apparent conflict of worldviews opens upward in the possibility of the most incisive work of the gospel.

Similarly, my study of theology at Yale, integrating as it does philosophy and cultural studies, would make little sense if one did not believe that all the activity of man’s mind is animated by the restless heart-searching for rest in God, and that that search must leave its mark on all knowledge. 


This is not to say that classical Christian education is fundamentally optimistic about human culture. Quite the opposite: if God is the proper end of all intellectual activity, then the subjects of education can be corrupted by human rebellion far more pervasively than if these studies were something morally neutral. But the conditions of this corruption are also the possibility of restoration. Evil is always parasitic, and thus only parasitic—masking an ever-prior God-ward-ness. The constructive, God-centered vision of Christian education means that “the culture” as such can never be the enemy. 

The great method or technique of this ongoing discernment can only be the imitation of God’s love. If the goodness of the world stems from the generosity of God, then it is to evoke our generosity as well. Nietzsche continues: One “does well to take up the matter with all possible love, and to avert his eye quickly from all that seems hostile, objectionable, and false therein—in fact to forget such things; so that, for instance, he gives the author of a book the best start possible, and straightway, just as in a race, longs with beating heart that he may reach the goal.” If the God who is Truth is also Love, then formation in His image is the only possible pedagogy.

Taylor Craig, Rockbridge Class of 2014, is in his 3rd year of a master’s degree in Theology at Yale Divinity School, where he also works as a research assistant to Prof. Miroslav Volf. He is especially interested in trinitarian theology, early Christian interaction with Greek thought, and postmodern theologies of culture and language.

 

Posted in Upper School

5 Lessons I Learned on Grand Tour

May 17, 2023
By Olivia Reardon, Class of 2022

It is the trip everyone looks forward to from kindergarten, the capstone of classical Christian education at Rockbridge Academy: Grand Tour. Grand Tour is a seventeen-day trek through some of the most historic places in Greece and Italy, where we spend nights in seven different hotels and a ferry, eat amazing food, and experience ruins, churches, museums, and breathtaking views. I'm grateful for the incredible experiences and learned valuable lessons along the way.  

1. The priorities of man have not always been the same. 
What a society creates says much about what they value. For instance, the Parthenon is a Greek temple in Athens whose construction began in 447 BC and is mostly still standing today. Clearly this temple was built to last. Many of the cathedrals, chapels, and basilicas we see in Italy are multiple centuries old and still in use today. We don’t have anything like that in the United States. In fact, we usually have the exact opposite. Our culture values efficiency, not longevity. We mass produce cookie-cutter houses in huge neighborhoods, get our coffee in cardboard cups without leaving our cars, and Amazon Prime just about everything. It is easy to forget that our priorities were not always the priorities of the past and still aren’t the priorities of people in other parts of the world. I went to restaurants where we ate dinner for three hours and saw buildings that are three times the age of our entire country. It was fascinating to step into another culture and experience their different values and priorities.

2. Man’s creations do not last forever. 
Despite such an emphasis on longevity, it became abundantly clear that man’s creations do not last forever. Even with the impressive efforts of the ancient Greeks, there are extensive portions of the Parthenon missing and much of what we saw in Greece are now in ruins. The fact that any of these temples, villages, and buildings still exist in some capacity today is incredible. However, the ruined state of man’s labor serves as a humbling reminder of man’s limitations. The fallen pillars and marred stones stand in stark contrast to the giant mountains in Delphi, clear water on the Gulf of Corinth, and beautiful countryside in Assisi, all of which remain majestic and unscathed. This is God’s creation, utterly immovable and long lasting, and it is far greater than anything man could dream up himself.

3. All of man’s creation points to the ultimate Creator.
Although man’s creations are unimpressive beside God’s majestic work, we continue to create. It would be absurd to assume that anything man makes is entirely from his own volition and ideas. All that is in this world was inspired by God and is under His dominion. This being the case, everything we create points to the ultimate Creator. This fact was incredibly evident on Grand Tour. Greece’s many ruined temples are evidence of the emphasis placed on a supreme being, and the art and architecture of the Enlightenment is steeped in religion. One can not walk out of the Borghese Gallery without at least contemplating a higher power. The way Saint Peter’s Basilica constantly drew my eyes heavenward or the way Michelangelo's sculptures celebrated God’s greatest creation reminded me of the one whom we all will ultimately glorify. Creating is a gift unique to mankind, and it is a gift that magnifies the true Creator.

4. “All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (Ecclesiastes 3:20).
Possibly my favorite site we visited on Grand Tour was the Catacombs. The Catacombs of San Callisto is an ancient burial site in Rome where approximately five hundred thousand Christians were buried. We were able to descend into the Catacombs, walk through a few of many passageways, and see now empty graves and burial chambers which used to hold ordinary Christians as well as popes and martyrs. At one point along the way, I saw a glass case that held the disintegrated remains of a boy who had been buried in the Catacombs. What had once been a walking and talking human like me was reduced to powder, and all I could think of was that verse from Eccesiastes: “all are from dust, and to dust all return,” (Ecc 3:20).  In Genesis 2, God created the first man out of dust from the ground and breathed life into him. It was a quieting experience to walk where my brothers and sisters in Christ had once laid their dead and remember that even the bodies of God’s people will one day return to the ground. However, it was also a joyful reminder of God’s grace and faithfulness that the dust of our bodies is not the end of our lives, but rather the beginning of our soul’s eternity with Him.  

5. Beauty is essential. 
If you go on Grand Tour and your jaw does not drop at least once a day, you are missing something. Beauty is everywhere, but it is incredibly evident on this trip. It was present in the Grecian countryside, in the main temple ruins, in the middle of the Adriatic sea, and in every painting, church, and sculpture. As we began to see these churches, I wondered about the morality of putting so much money and resources simply into making something beautiful. After all, Christians can worship God in a hole in the ground just as well as they can in the Sistine Chapel. However, the further along we got, the more convinced I was of the importance of beauty. I will not pretend to know the motives behind all of the beautiful churches, paintings, and sculptures we saw, but I can speak to the reaction they evoked. I and those around me were continually in awe. The beauty of these places created an environment that demanded reverence. Yet, for me, it was never toward the beautiful thing itself or the man who made it, it was always for a God who allows beauty such as this to exist. Man was created to marvel, and it seems that proper beauty evokes its siblings, goodness and truth, in such a manner that makes our God simply undeniable.

I could not be more grateful for the opportunity God has given me to go on this trip and learn these lessons along with many others. Grand Tour is a time to learn: learn about yourself, learn about your classmates, learn about God, and learn about His majestic creation. Grand Tour is truly unique, and its blessings are beyond words. I look forward to seeing what future Rockbridge students learn in Europe!

Olivia Reardon, ‘22, is attending Messiah University where she continues to pursue her passion for reading, writing, teaching, and dance. While she loves learning, quality time, and ice cream, she is particularly passionate about serving Christ in all that she does and says.

 

Posted in School Culture

Making Room for Beauty

April 27, 2023
By Heidi Stevens

“Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” If you’ve been around Classical Christian Education for more than a minute, you’ve probably noticed that we love to say these words. These three transcendentals, lauded by the philosophers of classical antiquity and rightly located by theologians in the very nature and being of God, are an apt rallying cry for the work of classical Christian education.

Still, some of us may have a more ready apology for truth and goodness than we do for beauty. We point to God’s Word as the source of truth and acknowledge Him as the One who defines all the reality of the cosmos. “All truth is God’s truth,” we rightly say. We recognize how God reveals Himself as we happily pillage the best sources of knowledge from across the ages. Likewise, we acknowledge that goodness is in and of God, both in terms of morality and blessing. The Greeks conceptualized “good” as that which fulfills its own purpose, and we find in our Creator one whose perfect purpose is actively revealed to us in His character and His work of redemption. Just as with truth, we recognize God wants us to know and explore His goodness; in fact, we cling, like David, to the comfort that “surely goodness and mercy” will pursue us all the days of our lives.

But what of beauty? Do we defend and cleave to beauty with a similar conviction? Do we remember that this third member of the triumvirate is also located in God and that He uses beauty in His pursuit of us? After all, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” rolls so easily off the tongue, and experience tells us that there is variety and gradation in people’s aesthetic preferences. Since there’s no accounting for taste, don’t we hit a dead-end with beauty?

Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar commented on this tendency to quietly sideline considerations of beauty when he said:

Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty … without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, [is] a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world.

Even many Christians, Balthasar says, have functionally jettisoned beauty from the realm of the essential. He gives a somber warning about the consequence of this devaluing:

We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.

We can be grateful that there is a conscious intention at Rockbridge Academy—and in the broader classical Christian education movement—to guard against the easy “disposal” of beauty about which von Balthazar soberly warns. “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” isn’t just a catchy slogan. It’s a shorthand reminder of a Trinitarian truth: we are made in the Imago Dei, with intellectual, moral, and aesthetic sensibilities and desires. Thus, in the classroom, asking “What is Beautiful?” is just as worthwhile as asking “What is True?” and “What is Good?”.

Classical Christian education allows breathing room for such discussions. On the one hand, our “classical” bent reminds us that, in the tradition of the best thinkers from across the ages, pursuing a better understanding of beauty helps us explore what it means to be fully human. On the other hand, our unapologetically “Christian” emphasis reminds us that the answers we seek are ultimately found outside ourselves. While God created us with individually nuanced tastes and pleasures, He is our ultimate reference for what is beautiful. Embracing this juxtaposition of imminence and transcendence in the beautiful, good, and true (and valuing their inescapable connection to one another) is a part of the very good work—the “courage and decision”—going on at Rockbridge Academy, by the grace of God.

Embracing this juxtaposition of imminence and transcendence in the beautiful, good, and true (and valuing their inescapable connection to one another) is a part of the very good work—the “courage and decision”—going on at Rockbridge Academy, by the grace of God.

Heidi Stevens taught art and humanities courses for twenty years and now serves on the Rockbridge Academy Board of Directors. She and her husband, Rick, have two grown daughters, both Rockbridge graduates.

 

 

Posted in School Culture
1 comment

Reading Original Sources

January 29, 2019
By Denise Hollidge, Grammar School Principal

During my many years at Rockbridge Academy, I’m often asked what curriculum we use for science, history, math, or Bible. While we provide many resources to our teachers and have a few typical textbooks for occasional student use, for the most part we use original sources. An original or primary source is evidence from the past. For example, diaries, letters, constitutions, wills, naturalization papers, treaties, and military papers are all primary source documents. A secondary source is developed from primary sources. It tries to make sense of the past and can be very helpful, but our bias is to encourage our students to go ad fontes. Ad fontes is the Latin phrase which means “to the sources.”

Even the average man or woman on the street can see the benefit of going ad fontes. A more common paraphrase of this idea nowadays is when you hear folks say they got their information “straight from the horse’s mouth.” This indicates that their knowledge is from the highest authority. We say this to make the point that our source can personally verify the fact in question because they were there. In our court system, we get after truth by excluding hearsay from witnesses and desire only what they themselves have witnessed or experienced.

Of course, there are weaknesses with original source documents. An original or primary source is likely biased in one direction on the issue at hand. The identity of the author may even be in question. Often in our school selections the author is usually no longer alive so they can’t be questioned further to verify what was meant. Semantic range often changes over time, and older writings can be difficult to read and even more difficult to understand. So why not just give the student the Reader’s Digest version of the facts and move along?

What some consider a weakness about ad fontes, we consider a strength. Primary source documents must be evaluated within their context, compared with other evidence from the time period, and students must think and reason out their conclusions. Sounds like a dialectic or logic exercise, right?  Right! So what does this have to do my third grader? Well, grammar school students gather facts in preparation for later learning. A well-informed foundation in history makes research and evaluation of original sources easier and more familiar. As grammar students grow and are able to read to learn, they learn about The Histories by Herodotus who tells of Demosthenes the great orator (384-322 BC). Later when they read Patrick Henry’s moving “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, it makes sense that the founding fathers called Henry the Demosthenes of his age.  Fourth graders memorize the Nicene Creed, and read excerpts from Augustine’s Confessions and Marco Polo’s The Travels. Fifth graders read from Poor Richard's Almanack by Benjamin Franklin and memorize the Mayflower Compact, the famous beginning to the Declaration of Independence, and the Preamble to the Constitution.  Sixth graders read from the Constitution, the Monroe Doctrine, refer frequently to its amendments, memorize the Gettysburg Address, and read MLK’s I Have a Dream speech.  In Latin, these students translate from Livy the Younger’s letters. The gift of reading original source documents gives the flavor of the times, which not only enlivens the facts but gives emotional insight into the zeitgeist of the times being studied.

While going ad fontes gives a foundation for the past, the greatest original source document to read, re-read, memorize, and meditate on is, of course, the Bible. This text builds a foundation for all our lives. Our first graders begin to read from the translated ancient text during this trimester. Second graders read from it with help from their teachers. Third graders read from it daily as a class. Fourth through sixth graders read from it daily, either as a group or individually. While we teach older students about Bible dictionaries and commentaries, we try to keep the main thing the main thing.

As your child’s primary educator, you can reinforce this love for first things by reading original source documents together or even going to visit some of the most famous. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are a Metro ride away in our National Archives.  There is a floor in the Bible Museum that traces the history of the Bible ad fontes. A day trip for your family may help you develop more of an appreciation for a curriculum that is filled with original source documents, especially that most authoritative document of all.

Posted in Grammar

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11/8/23 - By Dr. Marc LiVecche

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