Everything But the Elephant

Nineteen years ago I began my teaching career by attending a conference hosted by the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS), a Protestant organization devoted to promoting the establishment and development of Christian education in the classical tradition. In the course of my career as a teacher in two ACCS schools I attended a number of those conferences where I joined a throng of like-minded folk to listen to inspiring speakers, gain an awareness of resources, and learn the nuances of classical pedagogy. At the end of July I had the opportunity to attend a conference with a similar agenda. The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE) is committed to establishing Catholic schools in the classical tradition, and their conference was very much like the ACCS conferences I’ve attended in the past.

At both conferences I rubbed elbows with pious bibliophiles whose collective zeal for the historic orthodoxy of their tradition suffused the worship with a heavenly sublimity. The worship at the ACCS took the form of sonorous singing of obscure sixteenth century hymns while the daily Mass at the ICLE included beautifully chanted responses in Latin. Both conferences emphasized the trivium as the most effective approach to educating children through high school, and both conferences featured critiques of the current educational system by plenary speakers and seminars on teaching particular areas of the curriculum classically. Much of the fair on the vendor tables was identical as was the camaraderie among the attendees who shared a common vision as well as common struggles in their mission to reseed western civilization. The similarity even extended to the heroes referenced multiple times in the talks and discussions: St. Paul, Augustine, Jerome, Aquinas, Dante, Lewis, and Chesterton to name a few. However, there was one notable difference.

Like the ICLE, the members of the ACCS hearkened back to the High Middle Ages (ca. 1000 – 1300 ad) as the apex of western civilization because in that age one finds the fullest flowering of the yet imperfect Christian culture. The ACCS conferences are even entitled “Repairing the Ruins,” an unmistakable allusion to this fact. Naturally, then, it is to the Christian Middle Ages that the classical education movement looks for instruction and inspiration in implementing the trivium, an innovation of that age. And like the ICLE the ACCS draws a chunk of the content of its curriculum from the Scriptures, the writings of Church fathers like Augustine and Jerome, the poetry of Dante and John Dunne among others. But none of the Protestant advocates of classical education ever acknowledges the elephant in the room. The architects of this great civilization were Catholic. The Mass was their form of worship, they believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, defined the Church in terms of Apostolic Succession, and saw righteous living as a key component of salvation.

This salient fact seems at odds with the classical Christian conviction that Theology is the “Queen of the Sciences” and the foundation of truth. To many of the conservative and Calvinistic members of the ACCS, Catholic worship and soteriology are heretical (or heterodox, at best), and yet they aspire to reconstruct a civilization rooted in Catholic theology and practice.  How did unprecedented cultural riches emerge from people and institutions that were flawed at the root? Even the oft-quoted G.K. Chesterton, a more recent demigod within the movement, was a convert to the Catholic Church (see his book “The Catholic Church and Conversion”). Where did such great thinkers go wrong in their theology?

In contrast, among the Catholic educators at the ICLE conference I sensed a natural coherence between who they are, what they believe, and what they are working toward. The students are immersed in a theology that is robust and comprehensive and able to sustain a civilization. There is precedent for it in contrast to Protestantism which was born of rationalism and individualism, two philosophical streams that continue to play a part in the erosion of Christendom. Catholic teachers and students can accept Irenaeus, Cyprian, Augustine, Aquinas, and Chesterton, as sources of unalloyed truth since they wrote in submission to the Church, and their ideas have been vetted and refined by the magisterium of that ancient Church. What is more, the teachers are free from the burden of having to construct explanations for why they revere and count as fore bearers, men and women who would not be permitted to teach in their schools.

Despite these observations, at this point in the “war” the two wings of the movement are engaging a common foe with the same weapons and strategies. They share resources and ideas while mutually encouraging one another. One of the plenary speakers at the ICLE conference was a Protestant, a healthy sign in my opinion. This makes them more than allies, and who knows, history has proven on more than one occasion that differences tend to evaporate amid shared adversity.





3 comments on “Everything But the Elephant
  1. Taylor Craig says:

    If one could show that the specific ideas in theology that ground the classical model are exclusively Catholic, then we might be confronted with inconsistencies within the ACCS. As it is, the Catholic church and the reformed churches still agree on a lot, and it seems perfectly plausible to me that the classical model stands on that shared foundation. In fact, it seems possible that the reformation (whose corruption perhaps led to individualism and rationalism) improved upon certain key ideas in the foundation for education, such as the relationship between nature and grace. The Greeks came up with democracy, and perhaps atheist proponents of democracy have to answer for an elephant, but Christians don’t because democracy is rooted in shared moral values, and in fact Christian values enhance democracy. Likewise, I think this model of education can be rooted in Catholic theology, but works even better in a Protestant model because of our conception of grace and nature.

  2. Andrew Seeley says:

    Taylor, I am interested in your last comment, because as a Catholic I would have said exactly the same thing – “it works even better in a Catholic model because of our conception of grace and nature.”

  3. Taylor Craig says:

    Herman Bavinck, important Dutch reformed theologian, argued that grace restores nature whereas he saw the Catholic model as saying grace perfects nature. In the donum superadditum given to Adam, the way in which the bread and wine are no longer bread and wine but Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist (Alexander Schmemann, an Eastern Orthodox writer, made this point), the relationship between reason, faith, and general revelation (cardinal vs theological virtues, for example), and the inevitable practical split between clergy and laity, I see repeated the idea that there is a higher life than that accessible just from Creation, fall or no fall, whereas Bavinck would have salvation restore (and perhaps fulfill, but not add to) the goal of the first creation.

    As modern evangelicalism has come a long way from Calvin, especially in its sacramentology (though here I am perhaps closer to Schmemann than Calvin, but somewhere in the middle), there are certainly streams of Catholic thought that have it more correct than certain streams of Protestant thought (and so I should have specified Reformed over merely Protestant in my first post), but I see the best home of classical education as residing in a theology that fully embraces creation rather than one that is constantly adding to it. Certainly the idea of beautiful churches adorned with worshipful art is an area in which Protestants could learn from Catholics, to name just one example.

    I realize that this is all very broad brush strokes, and I think such is the nature of the nature-grace debate, unfortunately, as it takes the form of trends of thought rather than dogmatic declarations. Hopefully it’s enough to explain myself, even though I can’t imagine convincing anyone by such a whirlwind tour.

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