There is so much to say about the topic of dualism. I started it thinking that I could cover it in two or three blog posts. But, that is not going to work. As I move this topic towards education, there are three ideas I think we should think about: 1) the problem of interpretation, 2) the problem of confusing terms from our current culture with terms from past cultures, and 3) the problem of trying to merge ideas to make a past comment or idea sound “Christian.” There are probably others that should be dealt with, but at the moment I want to address these.
Even in our discussion of Charlotte Mason, we can misinterpret her theories and practices because we have not truly delved into her context. For example, do we really understand her thoughts on habit formation from within her Victorian and Edwardian cultures? Were her theories of the formation of habits developed from good science of the brain and mind; or because of her time, did she use science that is now outdated? Florence Nightingale made revolutionary changes in hospital practices of her day, but would most nurses today still want to practice what she taught or would nurses want to read current understanding of nursing practices based on recent science? Do we want to develop habits in our children based on what Mason understood about brain science or do we want to develop habits based on what current science is telling us? For example, we now know that it is not as simple as developing habits, but first, we must understand brain maturity which was not in Mason’s frame of reference. We could find that when we truly dig deep enough that we might accept Mason’s beliefs about the benefits of habits, but her approach in developing them may cause us to switch to more current methods. Further, because of new understanding, we might prefer to see habit development as it is related to brain development through brain maturation. So, the point is that interpretation is very complex and takes a lot of work. Otherwise, we begin to do problem number two.
We begin to use terms used by past writers based on our modern-day understanding of words and ideas. I frequently hear people in lectures (in fact, I just heard one a few nights ago) in which people refer to Plato’s use of the word, ‘god’ and equate it to the same as the Judaeo-Christian concept of God. This could not be further from the truth. What was Plato’s god? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Sacks, 2011, pp. 44-45) points out that the Greek culture in its search for truth used their own rational thinking. John Frame (Frame, 2015, p. 51) calls this rational autonomy. In other words, humankind could use their intellect to figure out the truth about who God is. But the Hebrew understanding is that we know about God because of his revelation to us. Thus, Plato’s god was impersonal, distant where as the Judaeo-Christian God is personal and intimate. The Greek culture developed “philosophers” in their “rational autonomy” search for wisdom. On the surface, this sounds wonderful—the search for wisdom. But Sacks reminds us that the Jews did not have such a term as philosophy because they knew who they were. They were not searching for truth or identity. It was given to them by God in the Scriptures (revelation). They were made in the image of God, therefore, for them “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures for ever” (NRSV, Ps. 111:10). In other words, the Jews did not search for meaning, it was given to them. They knew who they were. Thus the search for meaning is a search for God. So we have two different cultures. One produces philosophers who gain wisdom through the use of their own minds or “rational autonomy,” and the other had revelation. Thus we see that when we use words that mean one thing in our context such as the word God, it can mean something quite different in another context. This can either deliberately or unwittingly confuse or misguide people. This was done quite frequently to the Israelites in the Old Testament.
When we misinterpret and use language the wrong way as described above, we then can cause confusion on the part of the learner. To progress further with the example in the previous paragraph, the learners then are hearing the word “God,” and because it is a familiar word with loads of meaning for them, they apply their understanding of the word as it is used in a given text (Plato’s writings). In other words, when someone refers to Plato’s ‘god,’ with no context given, a 21st century Christian can easily and unwittingly apply their own definition of God to the text they are reading. This is wrong and can mislead the reader.
Here is another example. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius who is usually referred to as Boethius lived from about 477 to 524 AD. He wrote De Consolatione Philosophia and other works. Some say he wrote this particular work in a dungeon but Lewis disagrees. Lewis says the tone of the book does not match someone in prison or someone being persecuted (Lewis, 1964, 2013, p. 77). But that isn’t our point here. My point here is what is implied in these two quotes from Lewis.
Now Boethius was undoubtedly a Christian and even a theologian; his other works bear titles like De Trinitate and De Fide Catholica. But the ‘philosophy’ to which he turned for ‘consolation’ in the face of death contains few explicitly Christian elements and even its compatibility with Christian doctrine might be questioned. (Lewis, 1964/2013, p. 76)
In the following quote Lewis is referring to the character in De Consolatione Philosophia, Philosophia. Here is what Lewis says,
When Philosophia, speaking of Providence, uses the words ‘strongly and sweetly’, from Wisdom viii, I, Boethius replies, ‘I am delighted with your argument, but much more by the very language you use’ (Lewis, p. 79, III Pros. XII, p. 290). But far more often Boethius is saying what Plato or the neo-Platonists would have confirmed. Man, by his reason, is a divine animal (II Pros. v, 200); the soul is fetched from heaven, and her ascent thither is a return (III Pros. XII, p. 288). In his account of creation (III Met. IX, p. 264) Boethius is much closer to the Timaeus than to Scripture. (Lewis, 1964, 2013, p. 79)
Here we have the problem. If we read Boethius, who Lewis and others have identified as a Christian; in fact, he is honoured by our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church, without considering the meaning of his words from his context, we can misunderstand what he is saying. To say it another way, if the reader of Boethius’s works engages with his texts using word meanings from her 21st century culture, the reader is going to be misled. Lewis, a mediaeval scholar, knows the time period he is writing about well enough to get behind the words of the writers and understand their meanings. If a modern day reader is not conscious of the language within Boethius and his Platonic leanings; and if the reader brings her own word meanings from the 21st century to the text; and brings her own Christian understandings to the text, then there can be a lot of misinformation between the reader and the text. The point here isn’t to necessarily criticise Boethius, but to point out that we have to be careful of how we read a text.
Now, with these understandings, in the next blog post, I promise we will get to education!
Frame, J.M. (2015). A history of western philosophy and theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
Lewis, C.S. (1964/2013). The discarded image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sacks, J. (2011). The great partnership: Science, religion, and the search for meaning. NYC: Schocken Books.
Carroll Smith lives with his wife Andra in Roanoke, VA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2019 Carroll Smith