A friend recently gave me a Star Wars button with the the phrase “I find that answer vague and unconvincing.” While wearing it at school the other day, I realized that a large part of my job is communicating this to students, helping them see why it is the case, and what a sufficient answer or endeavor to answer might look like.
Why is Achilles angry? Because he is prideful.
Why is Ms. Elton in Emma so awful? Because she is selfish.
Why is faith pleasing to God? Because the bible says so.
These answers are indeed vague and unconvincing. Perhaps because they are platitudes, that is, because they are true, they are all the more stifling of real thought and discovery. They sidestep whole sciences and suggest the most banal abstractions suffice to arrive at clarity of communication and understanding which satisfies the intellect and heart.
This is not necessarily a student’s fault. It is not easy to search for words and explanations, to think our own thoughts–or even to think well the thoughts of others. It takes vulnerability to lay what we think, feel, or wonder before others, particularly those inchoate intuitions and connections we can hardly give word to, much less explain.
But a teacher who accepts the vague and unconvincing (or answers which come from students who are themselves unconvinced/or convinced in the worst way) ultimately fails the student and betrays the depth which underlies the creation, the liberal arts.
In fact, people who refuse to attribute any science or knowledge to the liberal arts are often those who have studied them only superficially, who think of real study and knowledge as primarily dealing with definitions, facts, figures, and formulas–who believe largely only in what they can see and touch. In the Sophist and elsewhere, Plato refers to such people as the most loutish and uncouth, as something akin to the Titan’s of Greek mythology who attempt to throw heaven down to the earth.
But let us look elsewhere. Consider Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the circle of lust, we find Paolo and Francesca. These two lovers, we are told, closed the book they were reading and with locked eyes, entered into their liaison. In so saying, Francesca communicates that they had read far enough–literally finding in each other the end of their reading. Dante, explicitly drawing from Augustine’s Confessions, is alluding here Augustine’s conversion. When finally Augustine’s heart is turned to God, he closes the Book–he needed to read no more at that moment. But this was only because he had found that being who is the true end of the book which was before him. In a grotesque imitation of that moment, the act of these lovers suggests that lust closes the book on truth–it reads but does not understand–it seeks not true meaning, but total fulfillment in the creature.
Dante would not disagree with the idea that at bottom, pride is behind or a cause of every sin, but he would be aghast at the imprecision and ignorance that would label every sin pride. It would be the mark not of discernment, but of one who knew not how to make distinctions.
It would be like one who watched a great swimmer or dancer and who could only remark, “what fantastic muscles.” Such a person fails to distinguishes between the circus strong man and the acrobat!
The psychology, the spirit, the causes of sin are complex–even though they are indeed united under the category of pride. To disregard this truth is to produce theology which is wholly violent to the human person. What does such wisdom offer, but “quit it!”?
Good pastoral counseling, biblical wisdom, precise and satisfying stories, a vision of life which is truly personal, fruitful, and pleasing to God, which is humanizing, must strive for the sake of mercy, truth, and love to be as far as possible “living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, [so that] it pierces even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
This is not simply about getting the right answer or overcoming the vague and unconvincing. Rather, it is about becoming embodied beings who live not on abstractions and platitudes, but upon the manifold wisdom which alone answers
In digging deep, in searching for words and seeking out the meaning of the words of those giants who have come before us, we continually discover that the Bible and truth wherever we find it is not banal or cliched, but like the great lake who stillness belies its depth. Such truth is indeed sufficient, but it must be sought out, ultimately with much more, but in the classroom, at least with the whole of one’s mind.