Adapted from a talk given for Perspective Student Weekend at New College Franklin, Spring 2017
There are times when a song is in my head, or more precisely, part of a song–a refrain which I repeat over and over.
No matter how lovely or stirring such a refrain may be, it is imperfect apart from the whole, and it usually becomes quite irritating (to myself and to those around me).
But what I have found is that there is a way of meditating, even upon a part, which can lead me, almost unconsciously, to a rediscovery of the whole. Somehow, in returning again and again to the part, even though it seems to be ever broken off from the larger harmony, more of the whole can be and is recovered. And this process of re-membering or re-collecting can continue until part after part, that which was once lost,that which had been broken, has once again been restored.¹
Perhaps, the Christian has no greater or more wonderful work than that of re-collecting a broken harmony or a lost unity. Each of us, perhaps, will have the experience in our life of finding we have this task before us, that of recalling a unity or a harmony which has been lost or broken, which has somehow become hidden to us or to others.
And it will only be in our faithful presence to that which yet remains that we shall ever succeed. But if we are attentive to that remnant in the right manner, we shall discover that however small, however broken, the whole yet stands, and ever has.
It is the great work of man to discover this again and again: that the whole which has been broken is not yet lost, and even that it is yet ever present, however secretly. It is our great task and privilege to seek with diligence to recollect this whole, till, someday, it no longer needs finding out, but shines forth as the sun in the kingdom of our Father (Matt. 13:43).
In this great discovery of lost unity, what wondrous thing shall we find?
I will suggest an answer at the end of this talk, but before doing so, I want to consider the habit of seeking, our manner of being present to the part (or parts), and suggest that a true Christian Liberal Arts education is a preparation in just this kind of work of remembering.
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Greek is Regular
You have before you a chart of Greek verbs and their principle parts. Some have been left out. As we chant these verbs, it is my hope that their pattern will begin to work upon you, to enter into you. We will test that by having you fill in the principle parts which have been left blank.
Notice we need to move both horizontally and vertically, establishing a relationship between the parts of a single verb and the like parts of another. In doing so, we begin to discover a kinship among the of kinds, and begin to get a picture of the whole, although a very fuzzy and limited one.
[The correlation between our horizontal and vertical attention/motion may be a clue to our work, more generally understood.]
This is the real work of science. Science is not first and foremost the scientific method, calculations, or theorems. One might say that we take the empirical way of life even more seriously than many scientists. Science, which in the classical sense means knowledge, is first and foremost our contact with and connection to reality.
We become knowers (not experts, but something far better), not when we have merely memorized facts (though we will need to do much of this), but when we have lived with and in the reality which such facts signify. We are concerned today with certain grammatical realities.
[It is perhaps no accident that the complexity, nuance, variation, and incalculability of language should reflect that of the created world and what can be known about it.]
When we have lived for a considerable time amid these realities, when we have lived actively, thoughtfully, prayerfully amid them, something begins to happen.
They begin to reveal themselves to us, to show us their peculiar characteristics and familial natures. We begin to be able to name them, to recognize and know them as only a lover can.We begin to develop an art or relation to the truth of them as a horse-rider does of the horse or the doctor of the human person.
One who gets upon a horse for the first time will not be very good at understanding the movement of the animal. Such a one can hardly tell the difference between a cantor, a trot, and a limp. At these early stages, we are too busy trying to hold on for dear life, getting accustomed to what seems the unpredictable bumps and jostles, the terrible and distracting stumbling movements of the great animal.
On the other hand, one who has ridden a horse many times, who has perhaps also groomed and cared for the animal, studied her, sat with and watched her, and even watched her with other horses, such a person has what Aristotle called the principles (the beginnings and causes) of a science forming within him.
Such an individual will come to anticipate and understand the movements of this creature, and others of her kind. Such a one will no longer be jostled about, but move with the movements which are the life of the animal, and he will be able to recognize the different stages, aspects, and perfections of a horses nature and work.
In the same way, it is not the doctor of textbooks alone that serves her patients well, who can walk into a room and take all the vast information she has learned and hold that loosely in one hand, while in the other weigh the incalculable (the patient whose is a phenomena of infinite complexity) that stands before her.
In every case of life, there is no substitute for the the knowledge which comes from hours, years, sometimes a lifetime of study. In this case, study means nothing more than having placed oneself habitually and actively in the presence of a given reality.
Notice, neither science nor techne are overnight affairs which can arise without the metaphorical (at the times literal) blood, sweat and tears of discipline, habit, and prayer.
Yet do we not have glimpses, even early on, of the marvelous harmony, the whole which we pursue in our studies?
- Does not the rider, even before the first ride see the great creature before them?
- Does not the doctor behold that being which she is to serve? One would hope.
This little exercise in Greek which we have done has been a manufactured and contrived attempt to demonstrate this process writ small. But to suggest that the real aim and end of our studies is simply the development of a sophisticated means of guesswork would be misleading.
The real end of our studies (the development of an internal science or system of knowledge), I am not yet ready to describe. But I will say it has more to do with coming face to face with the principles themselves of which and by which we have been learning all along.²
Greek is Fun
Before describing the end at which our studies aim, I want to touch upon a second aspect of the practice, one which involves memory in a different way.
It is not enough to deductively discern the patterns and rules of a language. This is because patterns do not of themselves explain fact. Patterns may suggest why an apple tree looks like an orange tree, but will never explain the fact of an orange tree. The orange tree exists, not because it has a certain relation to other trees, or because it follows certain rules, but simply because God was pleased to create it.
Language presents us with much brute fact, and we must do our best to assimilate. But remarkably a similar principle of re-membering is at work in this aspect of our learning. We do not learn such facts best in isolation, but by placing them facts in dialogue with one another.
The whole which we seek, that harmonious grasp of a thing (the Greek language in this case), begins, even in our perplexity, by bringing parts into dialogue with each other.
One of the most difficult aspects of Greek, or any language, is learning the prepositions, particles, and little elements which pepper the study. They seem not to have the distinctive character of nouns and verbs which can be remembered more readily.
Yet, I find when I place these mystifying little elements in relationship with each other (and in relationship to other things I know), I do not become more overwhelmed, but rather begin to enter into what begins to look like a world to me–no longer just an inhuman and demoralizing catalog which defies the mind.
I have given for example ‘Pinw’ (to drink) which the wine I am familiar with helps stabilize in my memory, and its principles parts (‘pepwka’ and ‘epwthane’) which are the potions of the apothecary.
‘Piptw’ (to fall) is no longer confused with ‘pinw’, because one hurts one’s piptw when one falls, feels pessimist (‘pessoumai’) afterwards, and needs a pep talk (‘peptwka’).
The hand out also includes a swarm of particles and interrogatives, such as ‘who’, ‘hopou’, ‘ekei’, ‘hdh,’ hwde’, and ‘hote’ which when put in rhythmic and associative dialogue take on the character of a learn-able cosmos.
Even the most irregular and abstract elements begin to take their place in the organization of a language which can only be compared in character to that of a world.
Inhabiting a World
The title of this mornings talk, Greek is Regular; Greek is Fun, I borrowed from a hero of mine, Scott Hafemann, who teaches at the University of St. Andrews. He is a masterful Biblical Greek teacher, and I highly recommend his courses. Another one of his aphorisms is that “Everyday is Greek day!”
The daily study of Greek, like the careful study of many things, ultimately reveals to us that God has indeed made this world for us. He has made this world for us to inhabit, even if we have lost or forgotten the habit of doing so.
True science, true art, true learning is the result of rediscovering this forgotten habit.
Education (in the truest sense) means finding that we have indeed been given a very wonderful place to dwell, and that we may hope for yet greater things.
The experience of the student who perseveres, who presses all their faculties and resources, and habits, their very heart into the service of study can best be described as one who has come to inhabit a world.
Memory and the Muses
A sign of this is the origin myth of the Greek Muses who represent the arts and sciences (all that the learning and purpossive doing of man is capable).
Such arts and sciences were not thought to be the product of merely spontaneous creativity, but the fruit of those who had come to know the world they lived in by close and caring contact with it. This is why the Greeks allegorically envisioned the arts and sciences, the Muses, as having been born into existence by Memory, their mother.
True science, true art is the product, not of sporadic genius or the flourish of technique; it is the fruit of some whole having been formed in the soul of one who has put themselves in regular contact with world in a habitual and active manner. This is the true suffering or pathos of all learning, the suffering of being changed by our experiences and then of struggling to give voice to what we have seen.
What we shall Find…or Whom
Such an education, one which comes to discover that all one has really learned is but a re-membering of some part of the truths of the creation, is a rediscovery of our kinship with all things. Such an education, I must say yet again, is not the work of a day, nor even of years. It is not a work which a college can ever promise to bring to completion in any individual. Rather, this education truly is the discipline and privilege of a life time–it is the discipline and privilege of every rational creature.
At the end of such a life, even one most perfectly lived, the business must remain so incomplete and imperfect, that it will seem to one as if he has but trifled, dabbled in disorder in their work. At the end, one will be constrained to long for and to hope for its true completion only in that distant country.
Yet, we can trust that if we diligently attend to our work, to the structures, the instances and aspects of the realities of this creation as they have revealed themselves to us, that one day, however far off, but often mercifully sooner than we might have hoped, we shall begin to glimpse what it is we have truly been learning and looking at. We shall suddenly have the sense that through these broken pieces and parts which we have sought to unify in our understanding, we have somehow, all along been gazing into something very much like a human face!³
This is the hope and prize of all Christian intellectual pursuit. And as I have said, it is the work and study of a lifetime, and so no less a grace than it is a wonder.
Yet another Task
Let me conclude by re-membering that there is another work than the intellectual.
There is another calling, infinitely more important, which has been laid upon each one of us, and it is this calling which reduces all that we do here at New College Franklin, (except in so far as it touches upon that it) to a kind of play.
I refer of course to the calling of Christian ethics, which is a life of active love.
We will find, I hope we will find…I know that I have found, that all the work and play and habits of the intellect are yet a true preparation for this greater calling. The tears of Greek are yet a prelude for the true work of love.
But in the work of love there is an analogous hope to that of the intellectual life.
In a manner akin to that of study, if we remain close to the realities of our condition, to the creation, and ever closer to the Truth which God reveals to us in his Word and by his Spirit, we shall however brokenly and failingly, yet make a most wonderful discovery.
We have the hope that, however fruitless it may seem at times, in the course of the active work of love, which is the work of prayer, and attention, and habit…in our striving to love as God has called us to, we shall yet find one day, to our utter amazement, starring back at us in the face of our neighbor, the face of God.
We shall find that there has been recovered a harmony, a unity, a love which has never been lost. No, nor ever can be.
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In a post to follow, I will discuss how a scientific attention to the details of reality, as described here, is a mark of a truly Christian Education.
¹ There is a mysterious relation between true parts and wholes. I have spoken about this work of remembering as a re-collecting. It is no accident that the verb form of logos (legw) means to ‘collect’ and provides the terms etymological origin (co-legw). What is being explored in this talk is, in some sense, the nature and power of word.
² As I write this, I have looked back over the handout, I see that my daughter Beatrice has filled it out. Although she is seven, she has grasped several aspects of these patterns include vowel endings and reduplication. The principles of learning and science work upon us and guide us from the beginning, far earlier than we can be articulately aware of them.
³ Consider Psalm 27