Sunday, September 23, 2012

Moor the Vessel with Silken Thread

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with silken thread; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man. (John Henry Newman-- The Idea of a University)

Being smart is not the same thing as being good, and being well educated doesn't make us virtuous. It may even make us more prideful and devious, or as C.S. Lewis says, "a more clever devil." Newman is challenging here the enlightenment assumption that knowing the good leads to doing the good.

That assumption is still very prevalent in our culture today. I see it when someone tells me after our kids do something wrong: "I thought a Catholic school taught kids better than that." We see it underlying the belief that "ethics" courses in M.B.A. programs will lead to more ethical business practices. Young parents naively believe that "talking to" their naughty child, without further consequence, will change their child's behavior the next time.

Christianity challenges that naivete through its understanding of human sinfulness. St. Paul talks about it in in very poignant terms: "For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate." (Romans 7:15). We may know right from wrong, but in weak moments, we choose what is wrong because it's easier, more attractive or simply more fun.

In Christian thinking, we become good through conversion, aided by the grace of Christ. That conversion is not instantaneous, but is rather a lifetime process of stumbling, seeking forgiveness, and getting up again. Saints become saints through years of building good habits, punctuated by numerous failures along the way.

There's nothing wrong with being well educated, and John Henry Newman was both brilliant and well-educated. But he reminds us, in this beautifully phrased quote, that knowledge alone can't contend with our pride and passion. We need grace for that. 

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