Liberal Education and the Limits of Reason: The Incarnation Changes Everything

In the light of the Incarnation, nothing — especially higher education — can be seen in the same way.

“Keeping the beastly jungle at bay amounts to a small but not inconsequential triumph of art over nature.”
“Keeping the beastly jungle at bay amounts to a small but not inconsequential triumph of art over nature.” (photo: Mabel Amber / Pixabay/CC0)

Leaving aside the wonderful scent of freshly cut grass, the real pleasure in looking after one’s own lawn lies in the fact that, for at least another week or so, one has drawn the line on chaos, on the disorder that results from leaving nature to its own devices. Keeping the beastly jungle at bay amounts to a small but not inconsequential triumph of art over nature. 

And yet, there it remains, looming ever so menacingly on the far side of one’s perfectly-manicured yard. Waiting, as always, to pounce.

Let that be a metaphor for the life of the mind, of reason, which is the natural and obvious instrument for threading one’s way through a humane and liberal education. Consisting of what exactly? Of the knowledge of those things that keep us from returning to the jungle, of falling back into barbarism. Like the study of History, Literature, Philosophy and Natural Theology. So that “the Reign of Chaos and old Night,” as the poet Milton aptly put in Paradise Lost, need not always succeed. 

But there are limits to what reason may accomplish. Just as the effort to secure happiness in the next world requires exertions far beyond the reach of reason, so too will our understanding of this world — in its finality before God, that is — depend on arts greater than the merely liberal. Faith, for instance, will play a huge and decisive part. It will insert itself in ways that, while superior to reason, do not altogether supplant it. That is because it is the business of faith to supply insights that, drawn from a higher source, aim to complete and perfect the work of reason. Because grace, according to the immemorial practice of Catholic Christianity, does not set about denying or disavowing nature, but divinizing it. 

How else are we to going to cross that Great Sea of Being of which Plato first spoke in the Phaedo? By all means, he urges us, “learn the truth about these things … and, borne upon this, sail through the dangers of life as upon a raft, unless someone should make that journey safer and less risky upon a firmer vessel of some divine doctrine.” Only God, therefore, can save us now. Not nature. Not reason. And he does so by choosing to cross that Great Sea, encamping about us in the world he made, then remade. Only then will we be given that final victory which men have always and everywhere sought.

Here, then, is where we locate the heart and soul of Catholic higher education. Here we find the solution that transcends the limits of reason. It is the Event of Jesus Christ, including the Church he founded in order to prolong that saving presence and power in the world. These are the realities that enable us to cross that infinite sea, and thus come safely home to the other side. Here are both bridge and bridge-builder — Pontifex Maximus — thrown across that absolute sea. They provide the point of perfect mediation between two worlds — that of time and eternity, history and heaven. Here all the polarities meet, converging upon that “still point of the turning world,” says T.S. Eliot, “where past and future are gathered.

…Except for the point, the still point, 

There would be no dance and there is only the dance.

It is Christ, therefore — and, by extension, his Body and Bride, the Church — that create that open and blessed space for God and man, for divine Revelation and human reason to intersect, to come most deeply and intimately together. 

In fact, they are that open space. And it falls to Catholic Theology to affirm that fact. Then to set about in confident search of all the signs and wonders left by God in the world, in order to rivet the attention of the student precisely upon that divine and eternal Word, who first fell out of heaven into our world to rescue and redeem the human race. Because God wishes to assimilate us into the life of his Son, into his glorified and resurrected body. “For the glory of God,” writes St. Irenaeus of Lyons, “is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God.” We are truly, therefore, the amazement of God. 

If students take anything from the course, I tell them, let it be the following two points: One, that Christianity is nothing less than a totally new and entirely unexpected Event in human history. There is not, nor could there ever be, anything remotely like it in this or any other world. Once the Incarnation happens, nothing remains the same. The faith we profess, which is Ground Zero for whatever understanding we may build upon it, is not a matter of our reaching for the Mystery that lies on the far side of history. It is instead the Mystery itself reaching into history in order to take loving possession of us, turning all our stories into so many variations of His-story.

And, finally, there is this, which is, as Romano Guardini once said, “the fact that in the experience of a great love everything that happens becomes an event related to that love.” Including even that education we designate as liberal, which is to say, those subjects fit for free men and women. Within the horizon set by Christ, in other words, who remains God’s final and most perfect Word spoken into the world, everything that is true or good or beautiful — or however painful and sad — is in some mysterious way already contained and encompassed by that love. Everything human, including the aims of Liberal Education, and the struggles you have in mastering them, is destined to happen, to unfold, against the backdrop of the Event of Christ. After all, he already occupies the stage of your life. Let him now write and direct the script.

Because the Word became flesh and dwells among us.