This article first appeared in Current.
Love of God and neighbor are at stake in the battles over liberal learning
In his journal entries for September 8 and 9, 1960, the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton explores the importance of “being able to rethink thoughts that were fundamental to people of other ages, or are fundamental to people in other countries.” Always struggling for clarity about his vocation—seeking to understand what would justify his long silence, his solitude, his reading, and his writing—Merton settles upon the following account of why he feels obliged to “absorb, digest, and remember” the thoughts of others: “For me it is an expression of love for man and for God. An expression without which my contemplative life would be useless.”
This is an answer we seldom hear to the question of why we should study the humanities. Within the Christian tradition, we ordinarily offer variations on twin themes of knowledge for its own sake and knowledge for the sake of something else, insisting that the humanities serve both ends. Study in the humanities both disciplines and furnishes the mind, and this is a good thing, since we should cultivate God-given capacities to reason and to delight in the beauty of this world. Strengthening the mind is an end in itself. But of course the study of what others have thought and done and made also requires the development of certain arts and skills of close reading, analysis, and interpretation that enable us to do a variety of things well in the learned professions as well as the worlds of business, politics, and industry. What we learn through a study of the humanities is good for all sorts of things. But these instrumental goods are secondary to cultivation and comprehension, as Newman so persuasively argued in The Idea of a University.
Nevertheless, in today’s world educators, Christian or not, are compelled to stress the utility of a liberal education in general and of the humanities in particular. How else to justify the expenditure of large sums of money on a college education? In this context it would seem initially as though Merton’s answer would fare even worse today than it might have in his own time as a justification for contemplation of any sort. Can we not express our love of God in countless ways? And don’t Christians do this all the time? What is so special about humanistic study conceived as an expression of love?
An activity does not have to be distinctive in terms of its sacred character in order to be faithful. Nor should we claim for humanistic study some privileged place among vocations as an expression of love for God. We should note, however, that Merton construes humanistic study as a fulfillment of the Great Commandment, as an expression of love of God and neighbor. Moreover, to the extent that love of neighbors requires some understanding of them, humanistic study enlarges both the scope and the depth of Christian neighborliness. Loving my neighbor as I love myself also requires a good deal of self-knowledge, yet another fruit of humanistic study.
Acts of piety and obedience require no further justification. This means that the standard construal of the knowledge that comes through liberal learning as good for its own sake should perhaps be more questionable for Christians than the construal of such knowledge as being good for something else, such as professional success. Allegedly self-sufficient goods with no reference either to the Creator or to fellow creatures should always be suspect to Christians. And of course the understanding of study as a Christian vocation, as Christians through the ages have understood it, suggests that all such study should be for the sake of serving others in need.
Understanding humanistic study as an act of obedience to the Great Commandment also removes the odium of elitism, sometimes justifiably attached to liberal learning generally. The contemplation of the thoughts and deeds of others and of works of art and music belonged for a long time exclusively to the leisured classes, to those unburdened by the need to provide for life’s necessities. The charge of elitism remains today, even though the knowledge of the history that gave rise to it has largely vanished. However, most of the colleges and universities that now offer a required course of study in liberal or general education are quite expensive and therefore quite exclusive. Christian colleges and universities by contrast, have a mandate, even a divine mandate, to insist on a liberal education for everyone and to make provisions for it in their faculty appointments and curricular requirements.
We are in a sense back to utility—but of a higher order. Liberal learning rightly done both renders obedience to God (and thus is good in itself) and empowers us to love well our neighbors near and far, across both space and time. So the idea of humanistic study as obedience to a divine mandate does not really replace ideas of the goodness of knowledge both for its own sake and for the sake of something else. Rather, it perfects those ideas by absorbing them into a higher and better purpose. Notice that Merton thought that if he did not regard his studies as a form of obedience to the Great Commandment, they would be “useless.” Soli Deo Gloria!