Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Humanistic and Theanthropic Educaton

Archimandrite Justin (Popovic) begins his essay on education in the book The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism with these words:
Education represents a fact, tried and constantly tested by sundry of mankind’s experiences: man is an imperfect and unfinished being. All philosophies, religions, sciences and cultures testify to this. Man is something that has to be perfected and completed. The main goal of education is, therefore, to perfect and complete man. But an irresistible question mercilessly obtrudes: through what can man become perfect and complete?
Fr Justin then surveys a number of great men, asking if they attained perfection and completion: Plato, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Kant, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche. Each he finds imperfect and incomplete. Only the God-Man, Jesus Christ, is divinely perfected and divinely complete: “Just try and imagine either a more perfect God than Christ or a more perfect man.” In a truly theanthropic education,
Education (enlightenment) is simply the projection of sanctity, the radiation of light; the saint shines and, thereby, enlightens and sanctifies. Education is entirely conditioned by sanctity; only a saint can be a true educator and enlightener.
Conversely, education without sanctity, without the perfecting and completing of man by the God-Man, was invented by humanistic Europe, having as its chief aim a world without God, without Christ. The Renaissance led to Rousseau’s emphasis on nature, which ceded to the rationalism of Descartes and Kant, who were in turn overtaken by Schopenhauer and Stirner, who finally gave way to Nietzsche: “From Rousseau’s embryo, humanistic man has developed into a superman,” albeit one who thrives on instinct alone.
After killing God and the soul within himself, European man has been gradually committing suicide over the last several decades, for suicide inescapably accompanies deicide. Education without God has drawn Europe into such darkness as no other continent has ever experienced. No one can recognize anyone in that darkness; no one recognizes anyone else as a brother.
Fr Justin concludes his essay with the following summary of the main characteristics of theanthropic education:
  1. Man is a being that can be perfected and completed in the most ideal and realistic way by the God-Man;
  2. The perfection of man by the God-Man is achieved by means of the evangelical virtues;
  3. An enlightened man sees in every other man his immortal and eternal brother;
  4. Every human activity: philosophy, science, trade, agriculture, art, education and culture receive their everlasting value when they are sanctified and given significance by the God-Man;
  5. True enlightenment is achieved by a holy life according to Christ’s Gospel;
  6. The saints are the most perfect educators; the more holy a man’s life, the better an educator and enlightener he is;
  7. Education is the second half of the God-Man’s heart, the Church is the first;
  8. In the center of all centers, of all ideas and activities, there stands the God-Man and His theanthropic collective: the Church.
Thus writes the Blessed Father Justin. I’ve had many occasions of late to reflect on the meaning of education, on what its purpose and meaning are. I come from a family that places a very high value on education: nearly all my relatives are professors, and I myself hold two graduate degrees (including one in Orthodox theology) and have taught undergraduates. I’ve long taken pride (in the sinful sense of that expression) in being highly educated.

But I’ve been sick for the past two years, and have spent a good bit of time in hospitals. These were times of depression and loneliness, of a search for meaning. And I found that my education, at such an impasse, did me no good whatsoever. What finally broke me out of my despondency was reading the Gospels with a simple and broken heart.

I see now that I’m in dire need of a reeducation, not an academic one, but a spiritual one, of the sort that Fr Justin speaks. I need to be formed, shaped, perfected into the image and likeness of the God-Man, Christ. And this will come about only through humility and obedience, not through the sense of superiority that comes with practicing criticism. I need to become a new man, or better, I need better to become who I am.

How does this apply more generally? In my reading of things, modern thought begins with Descartes locked up in his little oven, systematically doubting all things, beginning with his own existence. So, too, does today’s intellectual sit in judgment over everything, accepting only what filters through his critical skepticism. Such a method works well with the hard sciences, but it’s a disaster when applied to theology. A true education is a formation of the soul, and must be centered on the person of Christ. I agree fully with these words of Fr Alexander Schmemann:
It is a common mistake to think that education is on the level of ideas. No! It is always a transmission of experience. How much sadness, emptiness and banality there is in the game of academia and footnotes. People are not convinced by reasoning: either they catch fire or they do not.
Our sinful nature demonstrates that we need education. But this education should be an experience of God, even when the subject matter is something wholly this-worldly. Consider the words of St Anthony the Great, who speaks for all the Fathers:
Men are often called intelligent wrongly. Intelligent men are not those who are erudite in the sayings and books of the wise men of old, but those who have an intelligent soul and can discriminate between good and evil. They avoid what is sinful and harms the soul; and with deep gratitude to God they resolutely adhere by dint of practice to what is good and benefits the soul. These men alone should truly be called intelligent.
May God grant us such intelligence, and such an education!

(For some similar thoughts I wrote a year ago, see here.)


Apophatically Speaking said...

Good stuff. Thank you.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for sharing this with us, Father. I've always loved that essay of Fr Justin's. It had a great influence on me in college.

Anonymous said...

Olivier Clement, the French Orthodox, once said that in his time there were only three theologians : Justin Popovic, Vladimir Losski and Dumitru Staniloae.