Saturday, October 24, 2009

for students

A recent conversation made me look back at one of the novels of Charles Williams. The Place of the Lion is one of his earlier works, and it's actually the novel that introduced C. S. Lewis to Williams and sparked the strong friendship the two would share. It is, not surprisingly, a very strange tale, and I'll spare you most of it. But, the scene that I was revisiting this week came alive to me with the second reading in a way that it could never have before.

One of the main characters in the novel is a girl named Damaris, a young scholar who is primarily studying the works of Peter Abelard, a Christian philosopher from the 12th Century. Damaris is driven and ambitious, and she knows her stuff. However, while she knows Abelard's writings, the reader quickly learns that Damaris has no sense of the truths behind his work. For her, Abelard is just a figure, his writings, a corpus--they're ideas that lack any point of reference in reality.

Then Damaris meets Peter Abelard.
It was--it was Peter Abelard himself, Abelard, mature, but still filled with youth because of the high intensity of his philosophical passion, and he was singing as he came: singing the words that he had himself composed, and which a voice of her own past had spoken to her but lately:

O quanta qualia
sunt illa Sabbata

Against that angry sky he came on, in that empty land his voice rang out in joy, and she tried to move; she ran a few steps forward and made an effort to speak. Her voice failed; she heard herself making grotesque noises in her throat, and suddenly over him there fell the ominous shadow... Only for a few seconds, then it passed on, and he emerged from it, and his face was towards her, but now it had changed. Now it was like a vile corpse, and yet still it was uttering things: it croaked at her in answer to her own croakings, strange and meaningless words. Individualiter, essentialiter, categoricorum, differentia, substantialis--croak, croak, croak.

The "ominous shadow" and the thing that cast it are way too confusing to go into here, but the image is striking, nevertheless. The Abelard of Truth, after the shadow falls, is replaced by the only Abelard that this academic has ever acknowledged. He is merely a dead man, though still capable of spewing out technical, Latin, philosophical prattle.

So, this is my word to those of you (us) who find yourself reading through some of the greats in school--Saint Augustine, Sir Philip Sidney, Wesley, or whoever it is (we're actually studying Abelard next week in Church History). Don't let studies drain these people of their reality, of Truth. They are more than their dates and their 'key concepts', and they certainly wanted to communicate more. Listen; engage. Let their voices 'ring out in joy.'
The threat is no where more dangerous than in Biblical studies. The Bible is, of course, the most important piece of literature in Western Civilization, and there's still much to be learned about it. But, that has little bearing on the reading of scripture as the Body of Christ. As Augustine himself once put it: "Whoever thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build up the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all."

Study is good; an education in Liberal Arts or in theology is good. As you pour over these great minds and holy Scriptures from over the millennia, just don't forget to let them speak.


Andrew said...

"The Bible is not an en in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts."

A.W. Tozer

thanks for the reminder, brother. Hope all is well


Anonymous said...

Amen to that.