How Should Christian Classical Schools Regard and Respond to American Politics and Culture?

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Note: It was a joy and privilege to contribute with several others in the pre-conference track “Leading Schools Amidst America’s Contentious Cultural Climate” at the 2022 Annual Conference of the Society for Classical Learning. Below is a written version of the presentation that I gave (which I share here with full footnotes). A talk by Joelle Hodge from this same track was also posted here.

So how are Christians regarding and responding to American politics and culture? In short, I am concerned that we are responding blindly. We are generally unable to see either the degree to which we have lost our way as Christians in a secular world, or the great blessings with which we are, nonetheless, still surrounded. While wanting to consider our blindness, I’m also convinced that classical Christian schools are uniquely positioned in ways that truly can offer hope and help to Christian cultures in America and even worldwide. Our schools should be the best at pointing out all of our country’s truest treasures (which will often show up in the most marginal or overlooked places). We should also articulate better than any others what is so beautiful about the best of Christian culture—both current realities and those from across past times and places.

It is never possible to go back to what has come before, but new life in new forms can always be inspired by the beauty of what has been done and ultimately by what Jesus Christ offers to us from his kingdom: a kingdom that transcends this fallen world and yet always participates with us now in every aspect of our lives. Because of what we are already doing and learning to see in our classical Christian schools, they are better equipped than any other type of organization in our country to help with these two tasks of seeing and making—and I say this boldly even in comparison to our churches because our churches may need to be led, to some degree, by the needs of their families and their children.

To defend my claim that we have much to learn regarding how we came to be where we are today, I’ll summarize three ways in which we have gotten off track from the best of the various Christian cultures that have come before. We should not expect to agree on the vast issues involved with these examples, but our school faculties (“the school within the school” as David Hicks says) should be places where such questions are welcomed and considered regularly so that the insights spill out appropriately to students over time. The first way that we’ve gotten off track came about as we set up a terrible false god during the late scholastic period in whose image we eventually reimagined ourselves as autonomous individuals defined, first and foremost, by our independent wills. The second way that we went astray involves the invention of the secular nation-state followed by our over-reliance upon it. Finally, the third way that we damaged ourselves is through our loss of a dwelling place with Lady Nature.

I have collected theories about the origins of secularism since high school, starting with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his equally harsh criticisms of both Russian Communism and American Commercialism. This search continued as a history student in college at Geneva in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and in graduate school at St Andrews, Scotland. One common thread across the most compelling theories is that secularism is a Christian heresy. Consider, for example, David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009) or Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018).1

While there are many variations on this thesis, I think that the most elemental and damning is from John Milbank with Beyond Secular Order (2013). I also appreciate that his thesis lines up with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) where we learn how the porous and vulnerable pre-modern self was replaced by the autonomous modern self.2 Milbank argues that today’s secular world order is fundamentally the result of a false image of God that showed up in some late medieval theologians with the idea that all moral goodness is good simply because God declares it to be so and that humans therefore cannot further evaluate the good or consider it rationally. God’s goodness is simply good by inscrutable divine decree. This new understanding of God was called voluntarism and was first associated with John Duns Scotus. Ultimately, it gave rise to new ideas about ourselves as beings made in the same image to be products of our own free wills or autonomous decisions.

Divine voluntarism is contrasted with an older understanding of God in Thomas Aquinas (and all before him) that is known as intellectualism because it places the capacity to see and to know (rather than to will or decree) at the heart of both divine and human personhood. God’s goodness is a result of God’s own delight in his trinitarian life of mutual self-emptying love. God makes decisions based on His knowledge of and love for His own goodness as well as His love of creation’s goodness. Because God’s will is rooted in God’s knowledge, it is possible for humans to reason about God’s goodness and His will. This older idea also came with a classical understanding of freedom that is not negatively understood as an unobstructed will but that is instead understood teleologically as our capacity to pursue our greatest good (i.e. communion with God by means of all that God had made).

With this idea of God as essentially a product of His own will, God became a tyrant more terrible than any ancient despot. In fact, no concept such as the absolute monarch existed in the ancient world until these ideas showed up shortly before the modern age. Ancient ideas of authority, even at their most grandiose and insane, were grounded in principles of growth and flourishing.3 Now, however, the idea of the absolute monarch took on aspects of divine sovereignty which was good simply because it was unobstructed and which ultimately determined our understanding of ourselves as autonomous individuals who are synonymous with our own unimpeded self-interests.

Implications for all of this are sweeping. We went from being people who understood ourselves as sharing life in communion with a God who was delighted with His creation to being people that understood God to be the ultimate decision-maker in a world of little decision-makers. The world went from being the gift of God’s presence to being a set of resources to be used as effectively as possible to benefit ourselves. Another outcome of placing the will before vision and knowledge was that this inevitably placed God’s will in competition with our own will. Two wills with a shared vision are not in conflict, but two wills in complete isolation are inevitably at odds. Friedrich Nietzsche, in this regard, was simply playing out the logic of late Christendom’s own theology when he declared that we must kill God and then learn to be gods ourselves.

We might also notice that this story calls into question our cherished libertarian ideals of individual freedom and the goodness of the free market as a tool for best allocating limited resources and realizing our individual potentials. In so far as we can free our schools from the tyranny of our contemporary political camps, our students should be able to study and appreciate books like The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity by Eugene McCarraher or understand why David Bentley Hart says that Karl Marx became an arch-capitalist by the end of his career, wanting to turn the entire world into a factory. More and more, the joy and gratitude at the heart of our lives together as Christian classical schools should offer alternatives to the consumerism that dominates so much of our world today.

But how does all of this help to guide us as school leaders or to make our lives together in our schools more peaceful and flourishing? For one, having large and challenging stories about the origins of secular modernism can give us perspective. When we are discouraged by the endless series of crazy choices that our students and families might make, it helps to realize that these patterns started almost eight centuries ago and came from within Christianity as a distorted view of our loving Creator. This misunderstanding of God and of ourselves has only expanded and grown more irrational and alienating, with an endless series of specialized commodities and ideologies now on offer from which we are supposed to select our own unique combination to ensure that we achieve our best life. Understanding this story that we all share, we can also help teachers, families, and students to consider other ways of thinking about their freedom and of exercising their wills in pursuit of the many good and beautiful realities that we have in common. This is the point of classical education: to teach students to see the vast array of good and beautiful gifts of God’s presence in which we can all delight together. Finally, reminding ourselves regularly of this other way of seeing the world can also help us to avoid allowing our school cultures to drift in the default direction that secularism dictates: offering just another set of commodities or resources to our families and students for their own self-improvement.

The second way in which Christian culture got lost is through a good but powerful invention: the secular nation-state.4 It first appeared at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which brought to an end the Eighty Years’ War and the German phase of the Thirty Years’ War. Like modern science,5 the nation-state is an invention with the potential both to be a blessing and to be a powerful and ubiquitous idol. The secular nation-state came directly out of the idea that we need to be free from as many impediments as possible so that we can choose our own future. In Europe, the nation-state replaced a host of ancient authorities with one secular mechanism. Before the invention of the nation-state, Christendom was governed by a layered network of authorities that included craft guilds, teaching guilds, merchant guilds, municipalities, various ranks of local nobility, kings, emperors, the influence of many different monastic orders, and the church’s various clerical rankings. Many if not all of these authorities were understood in sacred terms. In 1648, all of these layers came under the one overarching and secular authority of the nation-state. Many of the old authorities quickly disappeared entirely from society, but even those that remained were radically impacted by their relationship to the secular state.

Again, what does this have to do with our schools? One answer is that every organization under a secular state is tempted to function as a mini secular state. Our schools can easily slide into becoming self-perpetuating bureaucratic machines whose only purpose is to maximize the freedom of the individuals associated with us. On the flip side of this, we might notice that families and students expect a kind of professional distance from us as simply a specific kind of service provider. Also, the secular nation-state can only pretend to be neutral, and it ultimately thrives on a variety of ideological commitments and mythologies that are actually religious in nature (as Jolie Hodge will give more examples of later today). In many ways, our two-party political system feeds into this (as George Washington foresaw), and we tend to get two superficially opposed sets of ideologies that demand our passionate allegiance within a never-ending culture war. However, the only outcome of this culture war is that we feel more and more desperate for the “great solution” that will eventually come to us as we successfully leverage the authority of the nation-state. This is a fairly obvious enslavement or idolatry from which we should work to free ourselves and our students.

For one thing, we can look for a variety of forgotten authorities to whom we can turn. For us today, what might be the equivalents of craft guilds, merchant guilds, clerical structures, monastic orders, and other kinds of authorities with whom we can partner? This does not mean avoiding any collaboration with the secular nation-state. We simply need to remember that the state is truly only one small part of our lives together, and we need to make the higher authorities tangible to our students. This is especially true in our lives as Christians where higher allegiances should be obvious and should set apart our communities in a host of warm and welcoming ways.

Finally, a third means by which Christian culture came off the rails is with the loss of one of our greatest teachers, Lady Nature. Wendell Berry tells the story of how we drove out this wise older sister in his essay “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation.” In the course of a careful survey of her place within the full history of English literature, Berry concludes:

What I am sure of is that we have lost the old apprehension of Nature as a being accessible to imagination, linking Heaven and Earth, making and informing the incarnate creation, and requiring of humanity an obedience at once worshipful, ethical, and economic.

Berry’s entire quest in this essay was at first inspired by his reading of C. S. Lewis, who is also a wonderful advocate for a living creation that can instruct us.

Whether or not we can recover a home together with our places (and with any other creatures who might share our places, including fairies and nature spirits), there is a basic sense in which this certainly cannot be done alone. In a book from the past year that I loved, a dog named Roland6 gives the following wise assessment of our situation:

In an age of unbelief, everyone is an unbeliever to some degree. Belief now requires a decision, and a tacit application of will that never for a moment relents. That’s why the fiercest forms of faith in the modern world are actually just inverted forms of faithlessness—forms of desperation masquerading as faith. Arch-traditionalism, I mean, and of course fundamentalism, which are in fact manifestations of a morbidly impoverished power of belief, a faith wasted away by inanition and hardened by desiccation, and of a frantic attempt to hold onto relics or remains that one mistakes for living possibilities. …Well, the regress is infinite. It’s simply the case now that almost everyone of your race today—in the modern world, I mean—even the most devout and convinced of them, is more profoundly an infidel. Real, guileless faith in the divinity that shows itself in the evident forms of creation has become catastrophically attenuated, like the fading scent of a chipmunk on the porch after two days of rain. And that’s a tragic condition to be in, because the divine dimension is real, and is moreover the deepest truth of your own natures. To be estranged from it is to be shattered within yourselves… to become something less than machines… fragments of machines… a heap of springs and sprockets.

When we consider the desperation and the harshness of so many interactions that we moderate between the various members of our school communities, we should remember that we have all become something less than machines in the absence of our sister and teacher, Lady Nature. Finding simple opportunities for gardening together or routinely taking walks in our own neighborhoods can help to mitigate this loss.

As we continue to mature in the renewal of classical Christian education, we have many great opportunities. I was encouraged when Carl Trueman wrote at the end of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self that perhaps the need for formative human communities “is where the church can learn from the LGBTQ+ community” because they have been models of “a real community where real people look after each other in terms of meeting very real needs.”7 One example that I’ve experienced of how community ties can be found in unexpected ways, comes from hosting Fr. Moses Berry at our school. He is a descendant of Daniel Boone’s son Nathaniel and his slave mistress Maria. In a hundred ways, including welcoming any students to try on the heavy iron neck manacles of his ancestors, Fr. Moses showed how we can learn about American slavery in ways that dignify every student. Slaves and former slaves in American history provide a wealth of astounding examples of human dignity, and these examples are riches that belong to every American. Our schools should be exceptional examples of places where unexpected treasures are celebrated and where old hurts are given the dignity of biblical lament (within simple community practices such as poetry readings or special recitations of Psalms and prayers in chapel services surrounding appropriate dates connected to national or local people or events worth remembering). We can offer ways in which such practices connect nuclear families back together, forming a sense of local community with a shared story. If you have not, please read this history of the nuclear family covered by David Brooks in his essay “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake” (The Atlantic, 2020).

When we begin to imagine Christian life outside the confines of secular modernity, our opportunities are extraordinary. For example, our schools are better positioned than any others for the recovery of religion as a universal human virtue. The Latin root religio involved “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods; conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation; fear of the gods; divine service; sanctity, holiness.”8 In the context of a world opposed to all of this, we might need to amend Tertullian’s question. What do either Jerusalem or Athens have to do with secular modernity? Christianity, having unleashed secularism upon the world, should also take the lead in returning to an appreciation for the ancient religions and wisdom traditions of the world as potential sources of help to us. One of the greatest examples of this in history is the way in which Platonism was grafted into Christianity and contributed greatly to our understanding of all that is revealed in Jesus Christ.9 This should be able to continue happening with other great faith traditions, but secularism prevents it by placing all religions into a kind of competition. Our schools could be at least small exceptions where great Taoist, Buddhist, or Vedic texts might be read with appreciation.

Without thinking that our hope lies in a return to any purportedly golden age of the past, our teachers and students should excel at pointing out a myriad of beautiful modes of human life and Christian culture that have come before us and that represent a broad and blessed inheritance. In this way, we can continue to find ways to enjoy our modern lives together in communities of faithful Christian presence as James Davison Hunter has so wisely identified the task.10 This is a modest vision for engagement that, ironically, has the best potential of restoring shining examples of Christian culture even within our volatile and hostile modern world.

End Notes

1. For further reading on this topic, consider:

  • Rémi Brague’s The Kingdom of Man: The Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project
  • William E. Connolly’s Why I Am Not a Secularist
  • Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer
  • Louis Dupre’s The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture
  • Tom Holland’s Dominion
  • Michael Allen Gillespie’s Theological Origins of Modernity
  • Exorcising Philosophical Modernity: Cyril O’Regan and Christian Discourse after Modernity edited by Philip John Paul Gonzales
  • Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
  • Johannes Hoff’s The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Theology and the Philosophy of Science and Anthropology in Theological Perspective
  • Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, Paul Tyson’s Defragmenting Modernity
  • Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
  • Jason Blakely’s Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism
  • James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor
  • Rod Drher’s The Benedict Option
  • Byung-Chul Han’s The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present (and many others)
  • Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
  • Augusto Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity, The Age of Secularization or The Problem of Atheism

2. Note that The Corinthian Body by Dale Martin covers much of this same material regarding our porous bodies as understood within the premodern anthropology of the Apostle Paul and others in his day. Also note that Charles Taylor’s tome has been summarized by James K. A. Smith in How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor as well as substantially referenced in Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

3. See, for example, “Authority vs Power” in The Crisis of Modernity (translated 2014) by Augusto Del Noce and originally published as the entry “Autorità” [Authority] in Enciclopedia del Novecento [Encyclopedia of the Twentieth Century] (Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1975), 1: 416–26. See also What Is Power? (2018) by Byung-Chul Han.

4.See also Talal Asad’s Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason and William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

5. Modern science is probably the second greatest invention of modernity after the secular nation-state, and it has its own fascinating story of course. Modernity fabricated and perpetuated a powerful and now widespread myth that science has long been at odds with religion. Faith and science, we are told, have been at odds since the first early efforts of some brave Greek philosophers to shake off the old superstitions about the gods. In the standard telling, these early efforts were tragically undone when Greek culture came under the sway of Christianity and was dragged hundreds of years backwards and then held there throughout the dark ages by the benighted Christians. This is all a fable as several recent scholars have demonstrated: Ted Davis (see his course on this topic here), James Ungureanu (Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity, and How the Conflict Thesis Fooled the World, 2021 as well as Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict, 2019), and Derrick Peterson (Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes: The Strange Tale of How the Conflict of Science and Christianity Was Written Into History, 2021). Such scholars and their works should be well known in all classical Christian schools. We also have this same case made by many on the side of philosophy and religion. See Stephen R. L. Clark (Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy, 2013), Dale B. Martin (Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians, 2004), and David Bentley Hart (Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 2009). Closer to home, I also highly recommend A New Natural Philosophy: Recovering a Natural Science and Christian Pedagogy by Ravi Scott Jain, Chris Hall, and Robbie Andreasen. Part of this story, as well, is that modern science has profoundly diminished or flattened our sense of what is real or our metaphysical horizons. This diminishment took place in the popular imagination almost accidentally (or at least for no real reason at all). Modern science was originally advanced by Christians with deep metaphysical visions. In fact, science would not have come to flourish as it did were it not for the extraordinarily full and confident metaphysical assumptions that came with the Christian faith. However, as the discipline of science legitimately requires a narrow metaphysical lens from a purely methodological standpoint, this strictly limited method became, over a couple of centuries, a strictly limited vision of reality. Once Christian scientists had started to achieve great success, many of the famous methodological limitations of science (such as a focus on mass in motion) came to be understood as metaphysical descriptions of reality. Nonetheless, modern science, in and of itself, still makes no metaphysical or theological claims. With this reduced vision of what was real, our world now had two parallel catalysts in its disenchantment. The collapsing of a world shrinking under the desacralizing or disenchanting of human places was accelerated as modern science almost inadvertently joined forces with our new understanding of people as free and autonomous individuals supported by the benevolent state in productive competition over innert resources.

6. From Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart, page 328.

7. From The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, page 405.

8. One of the important stories of modernity that has not be notice or told very well is how profoundly secularism and the nation-state has changed the nature of all religions worldwide. It has changed how we think about religion in general and how religions behave toward each other and toward their own communities. While I’ve not found a specifically Christian treatment of this story (with the recent Tradition and Apocalypse by David Bentley Hart being the closest, although only in passing), several books are very helpful on this story from a more generic scholarly perspective: The Meaning and End of Religion by Wilfred Cantwell Smith; Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities by Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin; The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism by Tomoko Masuzawa; and Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri.

9. This story is also a vast and critical topic of its own that is also not widely recognized. I recommend starting with some of these articles and then considering some of the books listed next:

  • Christian Platonism: A History: An Interview with John Peter Kenney” by Matthew Barrett (executive editor of Credo Magazine). John Peter Kenney is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Saint Michael’s College and co-author of Christian Platonism: A History (2022).
  • “The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology” by Fr. Andrew Louth (the 2021 Robert Crouse Memorial Lecture at University of King’s College).
  • Why Should We Affirm Christian Platonism?” (Parts 1 and 2) by Craig A. Carter (Credo, 2021).
  • All One in Christ: Why Christian Platonism Is Key to the Great Tradition” by Hans Boersma (2020).
  • “Pushing Back: ‘Greek Thinking’ vs. ‘Jewish Thinking’ is a Dualistic Error” by Brad Jersak (2016).
  • “A Massive Sea Change in Recent Theology” by Philip Gonzales in Church Life Journal: A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life (24 March 2021).
  • Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition and Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry by Hans Boersma
  • Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite and Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition by Eric Perl
  • Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger
  • Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry and Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis by Owen Barfield
  • God, Religion and Reality and Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: An Introduction by Stephen R. L. Clark
  • The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss and The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth and Tradition and Apocalypse by David Bentley Hart
  • Christian Platonism: A History by Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney
  • Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premoden Exegesis and Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism by Craig A. Carter
  • The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims by Peter Kreeft
  • Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times and De-Fragmenting Modernity: Reintegrating Knowledge with Wisdom, Belief with Truth, and Reality with Being by Paul Tyson
  • The Iconic Imagination and Living Forms of the Imagination by Douglas Hedley
  • From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith by Louis Markos
  • Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics by Robert Merrihew Adams
  • Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education by James S. Taylor
  • Aspects of Truth: A New Religious Metaphysics and Platonic Poetics (forthcoming) by Catherine Pickstock
  • Origen Against Plato by Mark Edwards
  • Aristotle and Other Platonists by Lloyd P. Gerson

10. See his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010).

Jesse Hake serves K to 12 educators and parents at as the director. Before that, he served for seven years at Logos Academy in York, PA as academic dean and principal. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have three children, Nessa, Tobias and Tabitha. Jesse has taught college courses in history, philosophy, and ethics as well as upper-school history, literature, and rhetoric. He grew up in Taiwan as the oldest of nine children. He has a BA from Geneva College in history as well as an MLitt in history from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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