You know that thing when you can’t get a song out of your head? A friend sent me this lyric from a band called Dumpster Divers and though I still have not listened to the song, the words themselves echo as I mull them over.
Come now and join the feast,
Right here in the belly of the beast
Much has been debated recently about the so-called “New Alarmism” in the mood of Western faith. Books such as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes have sparked heated conversations about the role of community and activism in a hostile culture. Frankly, these conversations are as ancient as the believing community reacting to the panic of civil authority within hours of the resurrection of Our Lord, but to Western Christians, they feel new as we awaken to life in a secular wasteland that, at best, resists the faith upon which we build our lives. The final reckoning has not yet come, so people of thought and faith wonder how to encounter this present darkness.
Christian classical education orients itself to transcendence
In the language of the song lyric, what does it mean for those of us in the Christian classical education movement to engage life in the belly of the beast? I propose that it means everything. It breathes life-giving purpose into our mission as educators. Most of us are not intellectuals or activists by trade. We are practitioners. We directly invest in the rising generation. Charlotte Mason famously compared education to a feast, and we agree. We claim to be keepers of a rich tradition that acknowledges current controversies, but offers ideas and practices that transcend them. This has everything to do with the metaphor of feasting, because the fundamental difference between Christian classical education and secular education is that we practice our vocation from a culture of abundance instead of the prevailing culture of poverty of the soul. If we live within the belly of the dark beast of a hostile, vapid environment, we invite our students to remember and celebrate beyond themselves through feasting on wisdom and virtue.
To secular educators, education is a portioned meal, not a feast. Secular education offers access to material resources by cultivating skills that translate into useful and fulfilling careers, salaries, and social advancements. These results are good; they can even be holy. They promote important aspects of our humanity. But material resources are limited, so a materialist education is inherently directed toward either acquiring a bigger piece of the pie or, in the case of popular progressivism, mandating that everybody receives equal portions of the pie. In either case, secular education cannot avoid a culture of material poverty (since the pie will eventually run out) and spiritual poverty (since we probably do not have souls or spirits anyway). The inner longings and inquiries of searching souls fit nowhere within a materialist educational framework. There is no feast for those who love the beast.
Christian classical education, however, orients itself to transcendence. Because we are Christians, we believe that God, who is eternal and therefore abundant, created humanity in His image and loved us so abundantly, even in fallenness, as to die and rise again for the life of the world. Because we are classicists, we believe that a great tradition of wisdom and virtue exists that will enrich and enlarge the redeemed Image of God within us. Christian classical education assumes a culture of abundance that can nourish all expressions of our humanity, from developing a career to tuning our souls to the music of the spheres. These enduring resources will neither abate nor decay, nor will our capacity for greatness wither. With these happy, counter-cultural assumptions in place, Christian classical educators perform our vocation not as meal-planners, but as feast-givers.
Feasting is an act of joy, and so is education. Historically, civilizations feast to remember, as Americans honor the pilgrims yearly with turkey and pie at Thanksgiving, or to celebrate, as Odysseus and Diomedes salute their successful spying mission with meat and wine in Book 10 of The Iliad. Both remembrance and celebration apply to the metaphorical feast of a classical education. We bring students to the feast of knowledge to remember who we are and what has gone before as well as to celebrate the mighty victory of resurrection and the promise of restoration. Christian classical educators approach this mission with joy, confident that we offer knowledge that nourishes and faith that flourishes.
Christian classical educators are doing holy work in a collapsing culture. Indeed this world often feels swallowed by darkness, yet we find ourselves feasting alongside the community of faith in the belly of the beast. This kind of feasting is a courageous and counter-cultural act of war against darkness. Christian classical educators offer memory and celebration in a world that is intentionally forgetful and utilitarian. We participate in the work of the kingdom of God by inviting hungry souls to an abundant feast.