“Christ Animated Learning” is an inspired title for this blog, for Christ the Logos (“word, thought, rationality”) is always the one who animates (from Latin anima, “spirit, breath of life”) the journey toward Truth that we call “learning.” The same Spirit who effected my conversion to Classics as a college sophomore, immersing me in the world where Jesus lived, effected my conversion to Christianity as a rising senior. Thanks to Perry Glanzer’s gracious invitation to be a regular contributor, I am looking forward to telling that story and to exploring in this space some of the myriad ways Athens and Jerusalem have enriched each other.
The challenge facing the earliest Christians was to spread the revolutionary good news to a world that had never heard anything like it. Our own era, jaded by long familiarity with the visible Church’s obvious failings, faces the opposite problem. How can we re-awaken the explosive power and beauty of the Gospel for people who have already judged “Christianity” and found it wanting?
We can start with a prayer from Jesus, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Mt 11:25). Babies live in a world of wonders, where each blade of grass (and live spider) is a fascinating discovery to “taste and see.” Teaching and evangelism are most effective when they can rekindle that receptivity and awe, coaxing familiar things to reveal the wonderful that is in them. I experienced that thrill seven years ago with the discovery of intentional acrostics in familiar ancient texts, which electrified my scholarship and teaching. In this my first post, I shall use an acrostic, PETRA (Greek “rock”), to provide a brief preview of the discoveries that have electrified my faith, and which I hope to unpack and expand upon in the months to come.
A significant amount of morality can be reduced to the Golden Rule. The principle is simple enough to be understood by a three-year-old (“How would you like it if someone did that to you?”) and incontrovertible enough to withstand the machinations of the most sophisticated ethicist. Taken to its logical conclusion, it leads to the idea of the equal dignity and value of all human beings. Though in practice we tend to be biased against those who differ from us (whether in nationality, class, race, gender, or developmental stage), we can be brought to recognize, through reason, that this bias constitutes a flaw in our moral intuition.
Where Christianity surpasses reason, however, is in its embrace of paradox. Our faith is grounded in the inseparable union of apparently incompatible things: man and God, immanence and transcendence, the finite and the infinite. Every uniquely Christian truth is therefore guaranteed to confound our moral intuition until we have been transformed by grace. Blessed are the poor and the persecuted? Babies are closer to the truth than philosophers? The best thing that ever happened—and what we are all supposed to emulate—is a perfectly innocent man being tortured to death before his mother’s eyes? Reason scoffs at such nonsense!
On the other hand, thinkers who take the trouble to observe the world as it actually is will have to scratch their heads about two phenomena that seem to defy rational explanation. One is the universal human pleasure in incongruity. The other is the manifest joy of those who give up everything, even their own lives, to follow Jesus.
God is infinite. He stands outside of space and time, which he created, and is not confined by their rules. He takes particular delight in demonstrating that physical size and properties have no correlation with importance, as when he packs his whole divinity into a human embryo (in Mary’s womb) or a breadcrumb (in the Eucharist). Infinity Math holds that the operation of grace in a single soul is a greater good than the material cosmos, and that one drop of Jesus’s blood atones for the sins of all humankind.
In C.S. Lewis’s epistolary masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, a veteran demon’s instructions to his nephew in the art of seducing humans away from God, Screwtape smugly remarks, “Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations.’ You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game.”
For me, that was the thunderbolt.
Until that time, I had felt much like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Each year, he has a conversation with a different religious leader that includes a query such as this: “I consider myself a Christian, for I admire Jesus’ teachings, but I doubt the virgin birth, Resurrection and other miracles, and it does seem complicated to be a Christian who questions the Resurrection. So: Am I a Christian?” I, too, was attracted to Christianity, had experienced God working in my life, and had felt the “resurrection” of an inexplicable joy arising out of intense grief. At my Episcopal high school, I duly recited the Nicene Creed with no problem, except…I always choked on the line, “Born of the virgin Mary.” Everyone knows that is not how babies are made!
The moment I became an actual Christian was the moment I came to realize (through the gracious gift of God, who spoke to me through C.S. Lewis’s words) that this Christian truth claim is true. The virginal conception of Jesus is an historical fact. There is nothing irrational about believing in miracles: the uncreated Creator of the universe can do whatever he pleases with the atoms he brought into being ex nihilo, and which remain in existence only because he holds them there as a singer does a song. What is irrational is “Christianity appreciation,” seeing Jesus as a great moral teacher but not as divine. Sane (mere) humans do not say, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” If Jesus is not God, then to Hell with him. If he is God, then the only rational response is to give him your life.
The Trinity is a community of love. The purpose of human relationships—between parents and children, masters and servants, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and friends—is to teach us about God and bring us into relationship with him. What love does is give life: the cycle of marital intimacy, conception, pregnancy, labor, and birth is the Bible’s controlling metaphor for the deepest mysteries of human existence. The necessary complement to marriage is religious celibacy, the highest and holiest vocation, flummoxing the world’s sensibilities and showing the spiritual fruitfulness of nuptial intimacy with God himself.
The (mere) human who is the best model for us of this intimacy is Mary. As I have argued at length in an article based on close examination of Scripture, a fuller understanding of her role in salvation history helps to elucidate many puzzling biblical passages, clarifying who we are and who we are meant to become.
The most perplexing question of all may be the mysterium iniquitatis, the “mystery of moral evil.” If God is love, and has offered us the all-fulfilling joy of everlasting intimacy with himself, why do we refuse his invitation? Why do we cling to the world’s tinsel and treat God and one another so badly?
The hypothesis that best fits the data is the one revealed by Scripture, namely, that the human race is under constant attack by a malevolent spiritual being. He and his minions—angels who chose at their creation to worship themselves rather than God—usually operate by seducing people with lies. (The cartoons showing people with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other are actually a fairly accurate representation of the spiritual life.) Demons also have an objective existence outside of human psychology, as shown by the “legion” who infest and drive to its death a huge herd of swine after Jesus exorcises them from a man.
The Incarnation defeated the Enemy. Nevertheless, for reasons that we will never fully comprehend in this life, God still permits him to make trouble. We know that God allows evil only in order to bring about a greater good, and that the story has an ending happier than we can possibly imagine. As we help students and others navigate the wondrous journey, we should always keep that ending in sight.
For a CSR discussion about the Immaculate Conception of Mary see: