Theodore Madrid on Christian education for Salt & Iron:

The Antidote to Apathy in Christian Education

Questions of meaning, for the individual and for the broader reality enmeshing him, have arisen in all generations. From this agon of great souls wrestling with these questions, we receive the abundant wealth of the liberal arts patrimony. It serves as a constant font of inspirations or answers to the fundamental questions that continue to present themselves in new forms. One era gives way to another, and the fundamental questions are cast in a new light that demands fresh and sincere engagement.

That is, perhaps, until our own era. Our culture reflects a listless existentialism, a mass of young people utterly unsure of themselves and of the meaning of the world around them. This malaise threatens to erase the nexus of authentic engagement with reality, which is necessary for the unveiling of deeper meaning. To meet the existential demands of a robust and heartful encounter with the fullness of reality, we must practice magnanimity. We foster magnanimity particularly in education that aims at cultivating moral and intellectual virtue.

Man’s fallen nature and all the attendant small-souledness endemic to the human experience will always present challenges, but our era erects an additional barrier to man’s true engagement with reality. It offers the soothing anesthetic of immersion in the torrent of virtual life.

The Life of an Educator

Modern technology may not be incompatible with a life lived at the level of the truest and most fundamental elements of the human experience. Its innate tendencies and the effects of commercialization do present the risk of creating conflict in this area, however. Julian Carron said that education is “introducing young people to the relationship with reality.” This task is increasingly difficult because “young people do not appear to be interested in this relationship, because of that mysterious inertia that turns into an unassailable boredom.” Young people “appear to be interested in everything; never before have they had so many opportunities. Why, then, after rapidly consuming every kind of stimulation, do they fall into a state of passivity and boredom? Because without meaning, reality loses its attraction.”

His conclusion is that the life of the educator testifies to the attractive meaning of reality. The sterility of ink on a page, seen as the mere transmission of concepts and “indigestible knowledge stones,” is insufficient to pierce the hardened hearts of a fundamentally disinterested generation. We might say that a fundamental task of the educator is to manifest for their students the transformative power of a sincere and soulful engagement with reality. This demands at the outset a contemplative attitude capable of maintaining a “long, loving look at the real,” as Burghardt would describe it. Only within such an attitude can the full richness of the world present itself.

If we practice habitual recognition of the tension between this habit of contemplative looking and the opposed stream of endlessly variable and fleeting entertainment offered by modern technology, it may well aid us in choosing the former in our daily lives. We then integrate the latter at the service of our humanity, rather than allowing it to be a mere distraction. 

Habits of Generosity

 A necessary corollary to this fundamental attitude is a habit of generosity. This is where the rubber meets the road and where the demands of daily life try the rosy optimism of the world of thought. Teachers are often discouraged by the lack of receptivity in their students. Faced with a cold lack of engagement, their initial passion for education can dwindle into an effort to get through each lesson. Content once new to the educator and full of freshness and wonder becomes all too familiar and loses its splendor. Busy-ness, tiredness, and all the technical and practical demands of teaching—and of life writ large—sap our energy and threaten to replace enthusiasm with mere endurance.

Most educators have encountered this moment, and none ought to feel shame for it. They ought, we pray, ever feel hope that the opening of the soul to the richness of human life in all of its meaning is ever possible. It requires a great generosity to meet these obstacles valiantly. Thankfully, we have a model who is ready to impart his radical selflessness to our own hearts. 

 From the beginning, he gazed on all of creation and spoke his Word of affirmation over it, declaring, “It is good” (Genesis 1:4). It is Christ, the Word of God, who reveals the true character of Christian education. He is its source and summit, and he teaches us to share in his loving gaze at what he has made, so that we might glorify him before others. Christian education presupposes as its authentic ground and well-spring an encounter with the loving gaze of the master. There the meaning of our own life and of the created order—an integral whole in which we have a particular place—becomes fully known to us. All of Christian education ought to retain Christ as the cornerstone, while enthusiastically repeating the words spoken since the beginning, as it aims towards a knowledge of the world in which he has placed us. 

A Profound Encounter

We realize the full witness of the educator to the true goodness and beauty of reality when the splendor of God’s glory shines on the world before our eyes. We need this witness to pierce the hearts of a hardened generation, to announce that there is one who knows our names and makes all things new. He is the very logos sought for in our agon to wrest meaning from the mystery of human life (John 20:16).

This is emphatically not a pietistic reductionism, seeking to circumvent the ineluctable elements of the human experience. We need not sunder Athens and Jerusalem. Rather, as the man emerging from the darkness of the cave and the illusions within, the Christian pupil will see all the wonders of reality in their authentic meaning by the light of the sun itself. Then, “last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.”

Let us respond valiantly to our call to Christian education. We anticipate a profound encounter with the attractive meaning of reality itself, which is first and foremost found in the loving gaze of Christ. He reveals the goodness and beauty of the created order that we seek to know.

Author: Theodore Madrid

Theodore Madrid is a PhD student at Hillsdale College where he studies politics. He is especially interested in American political thought, classical political philosophy, personalism, phenomenology, ethics, and education. He writes to share the fruit of his contemplation and help the work of cultivating institutions that promote virtue and the common good.

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