Education and the Longing For God

CSLewis.jpgIn his remarkable essay, “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis writes in an Augustinian vein about the human condition. We are created by God and for God. We are fundamentally desiring creatures, and our desire, whether we recognize it or not, is for an eternal and infinite good: God Himself. Or, as Augustine famously put it in the extended prayer that is the Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

In addressing this desire, Lewis says that he is “trying to rip open the inconsolable secret” in each of us. It is a secret, he says, “we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.” “We cannot tell it,” Lewis explains, “because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.” But we cannot hide it “because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.”

This secret, which is really our inborn longing for the Creator by Whom and for Whom we have been made, is often suggested by our experience most poignantly and profoundly in our encounters with true beauty. So much so that we may try, in vain, to recreate those encounters. In one of Lewis’s most haunting passages, he tells us why such efforts always fail:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Sensing his success in evoking the very experience he is describing, Lewis asks, “Do you think I am weaving a spell?” Perhaps so, he grants. But in the old fairy tales, Lewis reminds us, spells can be used to break enchantments as well as to induce them, and, he adds, we need the most powerful spells to break the enchantment modernity has placed upon us. “Almost our whole education,” Lewis writes, “has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to
convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

This is a striking indictment of education in Lewis’s time, and we can be almost certain that Lewis would find the general situation today far worse than in his day. But he might take some comfort in the modest revival of classical Christian education we have witnessed over the last three decades.

Indeed, by inverting Lewis’s indictment of modern education, we get a pretty good purpose statement for classical, Christian schools: introducing students to the world in such a way that their desire for the eternal and the infinite is kindled and then directed toward our Creator and Redeemer.

Pre-Christian classical education knew that the well-ordered soul would be attuned not only to Truth and Goodness, but also to Beauty. The tradition of Christian classical education understood that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty were not abstract principles of being but rather reflections of the nature and character of God. In this light, the well-ordered soul is the soul that has found its rest in God.

May it never be said that we have silenced in our children the very desires that will lead them toward the God Who is their source and their fulfillment. Rather may we take every opportunity to awaken in our students a longing for their own “far-off country,” the “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God,” and each lesson in Language, Math, Science, History, Art, Music, indeed in any subject can be just such an opportunity.

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