The spiritual benefits of studying literature

Peter Schultz is completing his post degree B.Ed. program at Trinity Western University.  This contribution is his reflection on how early Christian thinkers understood the value of studying non-Christian literature. 

Since I plan to become an English teacher, I wanted to find out the view of non-Christian literature by the early Christians themselves.  I looked at one early saint, Basil the Great, who was trained in the Hellenistic classics.  What is particularly significant about St. Basil is that while in his doctrinal treatises he is adamantly set on his theological positions (see On the Holy Spirit), he sources the majority of “pagan” Greek writers for examples of virtue.  He does not create some sort of theological synthesis with Hellenistic philosophy that we see in the Thomistic tradition, but rather creates a clear and distinguished relationship between Christian writing and secular literature.

While there are numerous examples of quoting from pagan authors in St. Basil’s letters, I found his “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature” to be most clear.

St. Basil argues that examples of virtue and wisdom can be derived from non-Christian literature.  Not only can this literature be useful, but it actually should be studied.  There is significant spiritual benefit in these studies: “We must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation.”  The approach to truth and salvation here is far more holistic, in that studying non-Christian authors is not merely for becoming culturally or historically aware, but has actual benefits on the soul.  This also relates to the prescribed learning outcomes of the IRP’s, which emphasize reading texts from a multiplicity of viewpoints.  St. Basil is also advocating this by having students read a wide range of writers.

While examples of virtue are not as clear as in the Christian writings, they more easily relate to beginners on the path of virtue.  Examples like Moses and Daniel are given, who began with the wisdom of the Egyptians and Babylonians, and then moved to the deeper spiritual life.  So there is much to be gleaned from the wisdom traditions of the world.  St. Basil writes that “indeed must we also, if we would preserve indelible the idea of the true virtue, become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself.”   Since St. Basil recommends that pagan literature be studied for the preparation of divine studies, then the role of the Language Arts or English teacher is actually quite important, because we prepare the mind and heart to study higher truths later on.  Similarly, there need not be any pressure on Christian teachers to “evangelize” their students, but rather to teach students discernment of the wisdom in the texts that are studied.

St. Basil emphasizes training the mind to discern the true and the good, in that only good examples and wise sayings from pagan literature should be studied, while selections from writings that show or glorify evil should be avoided.  He is adamant that “familiarity with evil writings paves the way for evil deeds.”  Yet St. Basil does not at all advocate avoiding texts, but rather demands reading with discernment.  This could be challenging for teachers in a number of ways.  First of all, what is appropriate and not appropriate material?  Second of all, if texts have little virtue or wisdom in them, and they are prescribed by the school board or subject department, how does a teacher make the most of these texts?  The third issue is balance.  In much of modern, North American literature, we have many examples of what happens when lives are not living according to virtue, for instance chaos and immorality of the relationship between Daisy and Tom in The Great Gatsby, or the self-destructiveness of materialism in Death of a Salesman.  However, students probably need examples of virtue more than tragedy, which is sometimes lacking in the literary options that schools give.  Even the Shakespearian corpus typically lacks substantial examples of virtue.  But there are many options for teachers, if only these works could have wider distribution in the school system.  Books like Lord of the Rings, with its emphasis on determination and friendship, as well as George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith, with their spiritual textures and otherworldly narratives, are ideal.  All of Wordsworth’s poetry, including his long work The Prelude, show a profound reverence for nature that is especially needed in today’s ecological reality.  Classics in translation should not be overlooked either.  There are innumerable works to choose from, two of the best literary forms being epics (for instance Aeneid and Beowulf) and philosophy (like Plato’s dialogues and the Tao Te Ching).

St. Basil’s essay can be found at:

By Peter Schultz

Curiosity killed the cat

The title of this blog is one of the last vestiges we have in our culture that points to the danger of curiosity.  Most people, especially educators and parents, view curiosity as a virtue.  It is something to preserve and nurture in children as a necessary ingredient for learning, discovery and engagement.  It is something to be applauded since it affirms each child’s unique approach to the world and their ability to interact with their surroundings.

I was first challenged with regard to my view of curiosity through reading a book by Parker Palmer (1983), To know as we are known.  This book explores motivations for learning and the natural ends of those motivations.  In particular, two motivations for knowing are contrasted – motivations of power vs. motivations of compassion.  To know for reasons of power is to view knowledge as “real estate” (reality) acquired for personal use, success and influence, something you own and the more you own the better -notions of greediness and consumerism quickly come to mind.   Words associated with this motivation include fact (something made), theory (something viewed from a distance or as a spectator), and objective (standing over against).   The end of such knowing is ultimately destructive to both the knower and the known.  To own something is to partition it off from all other things, to change its “being” from that of a public gift given to all and related to all to something controlled and manipulated by a scarce few.  To be an “owner” is to deny your own being as given and to cut yourself off from the giver.

To be motivated by compassion is to enter into a covenental relationship with whatever/whomever “sits in the center and can be known”.  The expectation is that the knowing will transform both the known and the knower.  There is a sense of mutual reciprocity and awareness of the known as gift and mystery – something that can never be fully known or owned.  Words associated with this view of knowing include truth (troth), understanding (standing under), humility, and wisdom (life giving knowledge).  The end result of knowing motivated by compassion absolutely preserves the other’s freedom to be other by refusing to control or manipulate, attending to the truth of the other, and refusing to remove the other from the public commons.  As mentioned before on this blog, truly paying attention to the other or known (being the most generous and free act you can give) makes it impossible for you to impose or violate or sequester.

Where would curiosity fit in this story of motivations?  For Palmer it  has motivational origins that are amoral – neither for power nor for compassion.  However, Christian spirituality stemming from theological understandings and pagan philosophical thought has long believed that unless curiosity becomes “catechized” or “rightly ordered” it has the propensity to become disordered and default into a motivation for power because it feeds our inclination to see the world from an individualistic/need satisfying perspective.  Curiosity forgets that there are some things not given for us to know and that all we do know is a gift to be offered back to God and others.

I sometimes wonder why some of my students don’t ask more questions.  Maybe it is because their curiosity is rightly ordered, but I don’t think a rightly ordered curiosity means that you don’t ask questions (maybe just fewer and better questions).  To have a rightly ordered curiosity is more to do with the spirit qualifying those questions.  Does the question come from a love for what is already known or a hatred for what is unknown?  Griffiths (2009) says in his book, The intellectual appetite, that “...the curious…do not really love what they do not know.  It would be better to say that they hate what they do not know, because they would like that set to be null, an ambition to be realized only by coming to know everything.  Therefore, they wish to extinguish all unknowns.” (p. 20)

To set learners on a path of curiosity (to extinguish all unknowns) is, I believe, to set them on a path of despair and ultimate passivity as the only way to manage that despair – the set of unknowns will never be null.  No wonder learners stop asking questions and the questions they do ask become more and more instrumental or power motivated.  “How many words does it have to be?”  “How much is it worth?”  “What criteria will you be using to measure what I’ve done?”  It is not their fault.  They/we have been conditioned.

Educating with reverence assumes that all kinds of knowing are not equal and that it is good to think about how our practices order the intellectual appetite of our students.  Stay tuned for more thoughts on this topic and please share yours.

Griffiths, P. (2009).  The intellectual appetite:  a theological grammar.  Washington, DC:  The Catholic University of America Press.

Palmer, P. (1983).  To know as we are known:  a spirituality of education.  New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

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