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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Education and the Transcendentals: Orienting Our Kids to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty

Published Tuesday, September 1, 2020 By Ginny Owens

Be true to yourself. Follow your heart. Believe your truth. Love yourself. Don’t let someone else stand in the way of your dreams. Speak your truth. Take care of yourself first so that you can best care for others. Cut from your life negative people who cause emotional stress. Live the best life you can, work hard, and success will follow. Be yourself, own your flaws, and if people don’t accept you for who you are, that’s their problem.

We don’t have to spend much time on social media before we encounter at least one of these proverbs of the twenty-first-century urban American. Indeed, this kind of advice has found its way into circles more permanent and personal than social media; it represents some of the defining wisdom of a culture currently set on attaining self-fulfillment, self-actualization, and self-love. But of course, as appealing as these might sound, the problem with these contemporary adages is that they’re all only partially true. We can imagine scenarios in which each of these statements could be the right advice, given the right circumstances. Yet often they are not offered as negotiable counsel but instead as predications by which to operate if we are going to live a fulfilled life. And they sound attractive, so we want them to be true. To a frazzled mother of small children, “Love yourself, care for yourself first so that you can take care of your family” could sound like sweet words of liberation. To a young college graduate just embarking on life, “Be yourself, own your flaws, and if people don’t accept you for who you are, walk away” can sound empowering.

Yet underneath their attractiveness, these packages of current wisdom harbor a pernicious core of self-orientation. Do we recognize it? Are we equipped to discern truth from error, to recognize what is truly good from what is merely baptized in social endorsement? Contemporary culture is replete with distorted versions of truth, goodness, and beauty. Therefore, our ability to sift truth from error is critical, and this requires discernment. We’re being sold these imitation goods every day, and adults—Christian adults—often fall prey to their allure. If we buy into this pseudo-wisdom of self-fulfillment, then how much more likely is it that our young people will cash in as well? How can we help our children grow in discernment so that they recognize partial truths like these for the traps they are? These kinds of adages are merely indicators of our culture’s wholesale saturation in subjectivism. And with subjective definitions of what ought to comprise a culture’s core values comes an attending self-orientation: goodness is conceived as what makes my life better, truth becomes what I prefer, and beauty is no more than what I like. How can we help our young people aim at something higher than what merely pleases them?

It’s difficult to accomplish this when we are the heirs of sentiments like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” a slippery assumption that makes it easy to reject Beethoven on the grounds that his symphonies are too long and difficult to digest and therefore not worth pursuing. Beethoven might be good for some people to listen to, the logic goes, but we need music we can connect to. Music we can relate to is good music.

While we might be comfortable with this subjective treatment of music, subjective evaluation of the arts can easily trickle into other realms as well, a point C. S. Lewis makes in The Abolition of Man. The result is an effect we might (rightly) find problematic, for dismissing Beethoven on personal grounds can make it easier to likewise surrender ethical boundaries on personal grounds: “I wouldn’t get an abortion myself, but if that’s what you need to do in order to keep your life balanced, I can support you in that. You ought to do what you think best.”  In theology, it might sound something like, “A lot of people interpret the Bible in different ways. I’m not here to tell you what is true or not. That’s something you need to determine for yourself.”

These positions can sound healthy, fair, mature, and humble. And yet they walk away from objective truth, a practice that has never done anyone any favors. But this is the pulse of contemporary culture. Current wisdom says that it’s good to deny concrete goodness, true to relegate truth to opinion, and beautiful to endorse expression as art. Truth is made, not found; identity is built, not given. In a world that enshrines these concave virtues as necessities for civil life, how can we gain a solid footing on truth that doesn’t change? How can we help young people hold on to truth and equip them even to be lovers of truth? If we want our children to stand rooted in objective truth and work for the betterment of others over self, and to seek truth that doesn’t originate in themselves, how do we accomplish this when the culture they find themselves in aims in the opposite direction?

Education as Character Formation

One answer is education. Given, however, the wide variety of educational approaches available today—public, private, classical, classical Christian, faith-based, Montessori, home school, Charlotte Mason—we have to conclude that these methods diverge in critical and significant ways, creating a healthy marketplace of educational choice for parents, but also offering a diverse set of options that lead to diverse outcomes. This means that the end goal of a faith-based school will likely look quite different from the end goal of a public school, just as the end goal of a charter school will differ from the end goal of a classical Christian school. So, how do Christian parents choose the right educational model for their children? In some ways, the goal of education is rather simple: we want to train the next generation to lead successful lives as they find their places in the world. It seems like multiple educational paths can lead to this goal.

Yet our definitions of critical terms within this stated goal vary as widely as the educational aims that grow out of them, and for good reason. If “successful life” means getting into a good college and securing a stable job to provide comfortably for one’s family, then the educational trajectory that defines a student’s years at a given school will take on a certain shape. Likewise, if “successful life” means integrating into a community and helping it flourish because it is grounded in knowing and loving Jesus and the liberation afforded by the gospel, then the educational process for that student will assume a different shape. Every educational system has some vision of a desired product in mind for which it aims, whether that vision is explicit or not. So, when we think of choosing the best educational focus for our children, we have to start here, at the goal. What are we aiming for?

As Christians, we want our young people to become wise, discerning adults who know and follow Jesus. Solomon writes that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10 NASB) and that “the Lord gives wisdom” to those who seek it (Prov. 2:6 NASB).  This wisdom that is rooted in knowing God helps us read our culture, sift truth from error, and pursue what is worth pursuing, even when culture runs in a different direction. Wisdom is being able to see past immediate gain—achieving increased pay at work, earning a place in a social circle, enjoying the security of a relationship—to what is truly good. What if that increased pay means sacrificing time with family? What if gaining entrance into that social circle means sharing in destructive behaviors? What if the safety of a romantic relationship requires sacrificing core beliefs? We can make prudent decisions in complex situations when we are pursuing God, when we know his character and love what he loves. In other words, wisdom is using what we know to be true outside of a given situation to help us read specific scenarios and chart an appropriate course of action.

Gaining wisdom is part of spiritual growth. But gaining this kind of wisdom is not merely about knowledge, at least not about knowledge as we often think of it in our day. It’s about character formation. If we are after character formation, then it seems that mere data transfer won’t achieve this goal. Plato, whose works have shaped educational practice for centuries, offers some valuable insight. He famously declared that education’s goal is not just to train the mind, but to train the heart to love what is beautiful. To some, this might sound dangerously reductionistic (where does STEM fit here?) or even pagan (isn’t the goal to love God, not beauty?); to others, perhaps it sounds perilously detached from reality (why focus on loving beauty when the world is filled with so much suffering, and shouldn’t we devote our attention to helping the needy?). But of course, Plato—into whose works “God and his word keep slipping”—has more in mind here than mere aesthetic appreciation or sentiment; his quest for beauty is rooted in the divine (Augustine, Confessions, 8.2 [iii]). He is after the development of a certain kind of person whose heart has been shaped to respond to the reality of beauty. And importantly, loving what is beautiful then opens the door to character formation, the shaping of the soul to desire what is worth desiring.

Therefore, Plato’s vision of education has as its goal a person oriented toward a certain set of values, loves, priorities, habits of discipline, and virtuous characteristics—a person with a particular vision of the good life, a vision that includes self-denial, wisdom-seeking, and truth-following; a person who has learned to discern truth from error and deep from shallow. This is the kind of education our young people need to help them avoid the traps of modern subjectivism.

A virtue-focused educational approach like this is not widespread today. The ancient and medieval thinkers who shaped education prior to our modern era understood that certain transcendent realities should ground our actions, desires, habits, and character development. These are the three transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty that hang together in a tri-unity: If something is true, then it is also good and beautiful. Beauty will contain truth, and goodness will point us to beauty. Denying the objectivity of one (say, beauty) can lead to denying the objectivity of another (say, truth). They are intertwined. And they are transcendent; they are not grounded in specific cultural and geographical loci, applicable in some times and places but not in others, or real to some people and not to others. Rather, they persist despite time and place and preference.

This objective evaluation was common in the premodern era, but it is not often how we think as Americans today, even as Christians who believe that God is the source of truth, beauty, and goodness. We believe that these transcendentals are rooted in God’s nature, but we don’t always operate as if this is the case. Instead, we have been trained to traffic in subjectivity, comfortable with compartmentalizing truth, beauty, and goodness. But this tendency leaves us less able to discern partial truth or corrupted beauty. It can also handicap us when it comes to training our young people.

Education that aims at character formation, then, must target both the head and the heart. Students need to grow in both knowledge and virtue. Indeed, at the core of Plato’s educational philosophy in the Republic is the belief that if education should be aimed at the heart and loving what is worth loving, then it should also target the mind and develop the student’s ability to recognize what is truly worth loving, what is truly good. The end result of this kind of education should be discernment; the best education should focus on helping young people learn to sift through everything a culture offers and see through the packaging to recognize lasting, virtuous worth when it appears. It should also cultivate self-discipline, the willingness to resist immediate gratification in order to pursue a longer-lasting good. And ultimately, it should produce young people who hold fast to the truth of the gospel as they help their communities flourish.

I am suggesting that if we want to best equip our young people to live for something higher than what is available on their Instagram feed, to desire a life of pursuing God and the good things he has given us, and to resist the pull of modern subjectivism in multiple areas—the fine arts, ethics, literature, lifestyle choice—then education offers one of our best strategies. But not just any education will do. Education that stalls out at mere data transfer will shape our young people, but not into the kind of culture-makers we hope they will become. Helping our children see into the realities of their hearts, pointing them to the One who can change their hearts, and equipping them with the tools to fight their self-gratifying cores gives them the kind of education they need to be the kind of people they should be.

This is why a quest for truth, beauty, and goodness is such a sound educational goal. Truth, beauty, and goodness as transcendent, formative realities exert a powerful call upon us as individuals. Rather than let us create our own spheres of meaning and value, they call us outside ourselves, challenging us to align our conceptions of beauty, goodness, and truth with what is objectively beautiful, good, and true. In other words, they require us to submit ourselves to them, to rework our own allegiances and desires when they run up against these objective realities.

What modern culture offers us today, however, is profoundly different. Western culture today prioritizes individual definitions of happiness and identity, and it offers a life in an entertainment-saturated world that sets a premium on ease of access and ease of consumption. Our young people find themselves in a world that increasingly operates by preference—we can easily shape our entertainment, our communication platforms, our career choices, our relationships, our identity, our diets, and our body types according to what we prefer—we are groomed to maximize happiness and minimize effort. What we need, then, is an educational focus that prioritizes character formation, guided by and grounded in the transcendentals, over information acquisition and retention. We need curriculum and learning environments and teachers who are selected with hearts in mind, not just heads. This also means that we probably need different methods for assessing progress and learning: a student who can explain Alexander the Great’s Persian campaign better than anyone else in the class, yet secretly watches porn on his smartphone at night, is missing something critical in his education. Granted, education is not the final answer to the sin that so easily besets us. But a good education should target the heart—what is loved, what is pursued, what is chased after—more than we often give it license to.

What Does This Kind of Education Look Like?

This kind of heart-focused, character-shaping education can take multiple forms, but aiming at these transcendent realities as lodestones really calibrates education to expose what is at the core of every one of us: a treacherous heart that wants to run away from truth and that needs the gospel. Thus aiming at truth, beauty, and goodness becomes one of the forces of cultural opposition available to us. It gives students a way to think about themselves, the world around them, and their engagement with the world that inverts our current paradigm. It can help them see past the logic of self-fulfillment that runs rampant today. This kind of education will include hard but good things: things that run up against students’ desires, that plant roots deep inside them.

Take for instance the study of literature. When I encountered Beowulf in graduate school, we read the poem culturally and comparatively: culturally, as a means by which to understand not just how Anglo-Saxon culture functioned but also how the Beowulf poet purportedly wrestled a pagan past into suitable garb for a Christian audience; comparatively, how Beowulf informed Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Our discussions were interesting, engaging, informative, and helpful in honing literary critical skills.

It was only when I began teaching the text myself, however, that I began to see what was truly worth discussing in the poem, what really mattered. I started to see the deep moral truth woven throughout the lines. It’s not just that Beowulf is clearly written as a Christ-figure throughout the entire poem, including a descent into the Anglo-Saxon image of hell when he swims to Grendel’s mother’s underwater lair to emerge victorious, holding death’s head, rising to the surface to claim victory before a small number of loyal followers who remained by the water’s edge in hope, despite Beowulf’s seeming death. The significance and lessons are much more personal, and much deeper. The corrupt thane Unferth, for instance, attempts to tear apart Beowulf with his words upon their first meeting in the mead hall, just as the not-quite-human monster Grendel later attempts to tear apart Beowulf with his teeth and claws in the same mead hall. A monster in human form, Unferth tries to use his words as a weapon: “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21 NASB). A soul-shaping education asks students, “How are we like Unferth? How do we use our words to destroy others?” “How does Beowulf’s response give life?” Granted, education that aims at the heart shouldn’t merely seek to reduce great literature to a list of moral lessons, nor should it ignore the historical, cultural, and textual elements of a work of literature. But it certainly should take advantage of those moral lessons when they are present.

When we get farther into the poem and realize that the story’s central monster isn’t Grendel after all but rather the monstrous human heart that seeks bloody revenge in rampant blood feud, we see the disastrous results of harboring an inner monster, failing to recognize the monster within when it is so easy to recognize monsters without. We see our need for a savior to rescue us from our inner monster. The discussions that ensue, even among eighth graders, are wisdom-forming, soul-searching discussions that leave behind changed minds and hearts. A moral reading of a text, like this one, is largely absent in secular educational environments that prioritize data transfer over heart transformation. Asking a question such as, “Who is the central monster of the poem?” and expecting as the answer, “The Danes, the Frisians, and the Geats” is not safe—questions like that expose the darkness of the human heart and point to our need of a rescuer to come from another land, defeat the monster that besets us, and show us how to live a different kind of life. (All of that is in Beowulf!) Our academic temptation is to read literature “safely” (read, subjectively) and to avoid asking the hard questions that peel back protective layers of the self and expose what lies beneath. But it is precisely these “dangerous” questions that challenge students to see themselves for who they are and to therefore long for the truth, goodness, and beauty rooted in God.

C.S. Lewis’s classic novel Till We Have Faces offers another example of what this kind of moral reading of literature—borne of a desire to pursue goodness, truth, and beauty—can accomplish in students. Read “safely,” Lewis’s myth retold can become yet another exercise in comparative study (how does Lewis alter his source material and why?), fiction-writing strategies (why does Lewis have one of Psyche’s sisters narrate the story, and what does this add to our understanding of the plot?), or even understanding the interplay between faith and reason (though this would take us to the border of what is “safe”). But, of course, Lewis wants us to see Orual’s devouring love and its horrific ramifications; and he doesn’t just want us to see it in her—he wants us to recognize it in ourselves. And, of course, he wants us to feel exasperated at Orual’s jealous, willfully blind destruction of Psyche’s happiness; but he also wants us to understand that we too reject what should constitute certain evidence of God’s goodness and what motivates us to do so. Furthermore, he wants us to see the connection between Orual’s twisted love and her denial of the gods: that until she believes in the goodness of the gods, she will never be freed from her selfish love that devours those she cares for most deeply. Read this way, Till We Have Faces produces soul-revealing discussions aimed at finding truth to guide students through the maze of their own hearts.

The quest for transcendent value does not stop with literature: it moves into every discipline, math and science included. (In fact, Plato argues in the Republic that a student well-trained in mathematics will learn to see what is truly good and acquire the will and discipline to pursue it.) In the fine arts, teaching students to evaluate art objectively protects them from interacting with it along the lines of “I like this, so therefore it’s good” or “I don’t understand this, so therefore I don’t like it.” For instance, teaching students to evaluate music on the basis of what is lasting and beautiful—not merely pleasing, available, and relevant—helps them recognize what is shallow, misleading, banal, and self-focused in much popular music today. Doing so can shape them into discerning seekers of beauty, rather than indiscriminate consumers of trends.

Since our culture prioritizes popular music, classical music no longer occupies the cultural space it once did, and so it can be especially difficult to convince young people to include Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or Copeland in their playlists. But if we believe that beauty is a transcendent reality worth knowing, pursuing, and loving, then we should help our children (and perhaps even ourselves) hear the beauty in a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart sonata. Exposure to this great art is a first step, and there are plenty of platforms that make good classical music easily accessible. A second step is helping students understand not just why classical music is so much more complex than pop music, but how that complexity is tied to its value, meaning, and beauty. If we’re after shaping a certain kind of person who loves the right things, then these are crucial steps.

Education done well can help students love truth, seek goodness, and pursue beauty. It can shape students’ hearts so that when given options, they will choose well. When given the choice to spin through YouTube videos for an hour and a half or pick up a John Steinbeck story, they have the self-control and love of something more than ephemeral pleasure to choose the book. They recognize that the book offers lasting value, that time is a treasured commodity, and that their hearts and minds need Steinbeck more than they need TikTok. If we want our young people to impact culture in transformative ways—not march to the beat of the consumerist drum, or the self-care drum, or the politically correct drum—then we need to look for ways to shape their hearts now to be discerners of what really matters, so that they can be lovers of what really matters. The prophet Jeremiah, indicting Jerusalem prior to the Babylonian conquest, declares, “For from the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for gain. . . . Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:13, 16 NASB). As we endeavor to train our young people to love the right things and see past the distractions of modernity, the answer may be—to paraphrase The Hobbit’s Gandalf—to “look behind.”


Ginny Owens lives in Bozeman, Montana, where she teaches humanities, rhetoric, and music at Petra Academy.

  • Ginny Owens

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