By Michael Martin
In the final scene of Terrence Malick’s 1998 film The Thin Red Line we hear the thoughts of Private Edward P. Train (played by John Dee Smith) as he and his surviving comrades sail away from the battle of Guadalcanal: “Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes, look out at the things you’ve made. All things shining.” Throughout Malick’s film (indeed, throughout most of his films) the director discloses to the audience a shimmering beauty, a presence, as that shimmering beauty and presence is disclosed in actual human life—despite the hardships, the sin, and fallenness that characterize our contention with the flesh. Often in the film this presence appears in the beauty of nature—the wind blowing in seductive waves across the island grass, the churning of the waves, sunlight shining through the jungle’s canopy—even as men die horribly painful deaths and mortars disrupt the landscape with volleys of desperation. Just as often it shimmers forth in sincere encounters between human persons.
Malick learned these lessons about being from the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Malick, before abandoning academia for filmmaking, had been a doctoral student working on Heidegger and even translated the philosopher’s Vom Wesen des Grundes as The Essence of Reasons. Heidegger, especially in his later work, was particularly attentive to moments of immanence in its appearing, above all in poetry, a quality Malick has turned into a cinematic art form.
Hans Urs von Balthasar describes this disclosure as a phenomenon which “causes worldly beauty gradually to become metaphysical, mythical and revelatory splendor.” Splendor is an important term here: it points to illumination, a shining-through the things of this world. The 17th century physician and mystical philosopher Robert Fludd called this phenomenon “DEI patentis soboles” (shoots of God’s access), considering it as that which makes God’s presence in the world known to us. In my own work, I have called this phenomenon Sophia, the Wisdom of God. It is my contention that such a sophiology should be the centerpiece of any truly Catholic education.
I have spent most of my life in and around Catholic education, though I did spend a few years of both elementary and high school in public education and received my Ph.D. from a public university. It really doesn’t matter, though, because there is virtually no difference between two. One has prayers at the beginning of the day and has its inmates attend Mass upon occasion, and sometimes it has a crucifix in the room or a statue of the Virgin. But that’s it. Though mission statements often attest to institutions being rooted in “Catholic traditions” of service or social justice or some other abstraction, comparing the Catholic educational model to its secular counterpart is by and large an exercise in dissecting minutiae (and what are mission statements anyway—outside of requirements of accrediting bodies run by well-meaning if misguided people upon the MBA model?) Indeed, the secular educational institution has become the superego of contemporary Catholic education, pre-school through university. It does not have to be this way.
In early 2014, I began corresponding about education with my friend, Stratford Caldecott. Here is what I wrote him:
I hope you are well—we pray for you and Leonie every night.
I am currently working on a new chapter for my Sophia book. Its working title is “The Noble Failure of Romanticism and the Sophianic Retrieval of Rudolf Steiner.” This, especially the second part of it, should go over big in some Catholic circles! The section on Steiner will first juxtapose his imaginative but pretty unconvincing ideas on Sophia in his more esoteric writings and lectures. Then I plan to show his real, vital sophiology in his ideas about education, agriculture, medicine, economics, and beekeeping. As a Catholic—and one who received a “Catholic” education that lasted all the way through graduate school—I have often felt that Waldorf education (I was a Waldorf teacher for 16 years) is much closer to what Catholic education should be. I think most Catholic educational models amount to a secular education with prayers added at the beginning and end of the day, religion classes, and occasional visits to Mass. It is dead and deadening, for the most part, and probably succeeds in creating more agnosticism than Catholicism. A number of years ago, a former Anthroposophist I knew who had returned to the Church suggested I start a Catholic education initiative inspired by Waldorf. I probably should have, but that’s another story. Anyway, I will be turning to your work on education in that section, pleading for a creative reimagination of Catholic education. Unfortunately, I feel as if I will be screaming at the ocean and have the same impact. It’s too bad we are so far away from one another, because I think we could really do something united on such a project. I am not asking you to join a movement—Lord knows we both have other issues at hand—but perhaps my little chapter can unite itself to your work, at least in spirit, and perhaps we can get people to think about how to change. Catholic education needs a resurrection from the dead.
Much warmth to you and your family.
Here is Stratford’s response:
If you want to summarise in a para or two for my Education newsletter, I could maybe give it some publicity, and others might want to join you. Distance doesn’t matter too much these days.
This was March 7, 2014, and the last time I heard from him. He died July 17th of that year.
I did manage to prepare something for Strat’s newsletter. What follows is a reworking of that brief foray into the battle.
What’s So Catholic about Catholic Education?
Catholic education, I would suggest, which once was the model of innovation and spiritual renewal has pretty much stagnated since the Jesuit reforms in education during the early modern period. Though John Henry Newman contributed some wonderful insights, they really have not been taken up—or at least they’ve been abandoned. Catholic education, at the elementary level, often strives in the direction of apologetics (for example, the almost obligatory Pro-Life speeches rehearsed in high school), certainly a noble aim. At the college or university level, unfortunately, the project is often aimed at proving how un-Catholic the intellectual climate of the school is, as a way to prove legitimacy in the eyes of the secular educational archons. As a result, far too many people come away from Catholic educational settings as agnostics, if not headed in the direction of atheism.
We, as Catholic educators, really could take much inspiration from the spiritually nourishing forms of Catholicism implicit in Waldorf education and explicit in the work of Stratford Caldecott. The place to begin with Catholic education is in the experience of beauty and goodness which leads to truth. For some reason, and this may be a palimpsest of the intellectual commitments of the Enlightenment, contemporary education begins with truth (doctrine, apologetics, reason)—which does not necessarily lead to an experience of beauty and goodness.
My claim is that we can train students, kindergarten through university, to discern the splendor shining through the universe, Sophia, by an education grounded in beauty in its synergy with truth and goodness. I fear, inspired by the Enlightenment fetishization of reason and a poorly-applied ethos of deconstruction, we have preferred to tear down culture rather than to build it up.
Not long ago I was visiting the University of Notre Dame to give a talk on sophiology. During the question and answer period, a graduate student in theology asked me how I could pay so much attention to Sophia, beauty, and all this business while people lived in poverty and starvation, while individuals faced sexual abuse, war, and disease. She was right, of course. The answer I gave her may not have satisfied her. Unfortunately, sophiology won’t make original sin go away. But, like the beauty that bleeds through the evils of war in The Thin Red Line, beauty still bleeds through the universe. Indeed, even through crucifixion.
A Final Note:
Once when my daughter Zelie was seven, I found her weeping uncontrollably in her room. Trying to find out what was troubling her, all I could get from her was a lot of lamenting about what a great sinner she was and that God could never love her and that she would be sure to go to hell. “Who told you all this?” I asked. She told me she’d read it in a book. I asked her to show me the book. It was a children’s version of The Baltimore Catechism (the same book I, thankfully, slept through during my grade school catechism classes). Some may say that she “misread things.” Very possible. She was a child after all. Nevertheless, I threw it out.
Catholic education can do better.
“And we have the more firm prophetical word: whereunto you do well to attend, as to a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.” 2 Peter 1:19
Anyone wishing to reimagine Catholic education along with me should feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2016 Michael Martin
Michael Martin is author of The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics and Meditations in Times of Wonder.