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Get Human!

The Use of the Humanities (Second Sight)

It never fails. Whenever I introduce an item from the humanities into my teaching, people sit up and renew their attention.

As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom...
Daniel 1:17

Whether it’s a work of art, a slide of a poem, or a snippet from a piece of literature, something about the humanities strikes a receptive chord in the brains of learners, and they feel themselves suddenly more alert and more interested in the subject as a whole.

This shouldn’t surprise me, and I guess it doesn’t surprise me as much as it delights me. There are few temporal experiences more satisfying than studying a work of art, catching the point, and understanding the dynamics of a musical composition, or exploring the meter, rhyme, and other devices of a well-crafted poem. Human beings are made for the humanities, for God intends these disciplines—art, literature, architecture, music, philosophy, and so forth—to speak to us of His Truth, and thus restore us to His image, in ways that straight narrative can’t quite achieve. As Czeslaw Milosz once famously put it, writing about verse, “One clear stanza can take more weight/Than a whole wagonload of prose.”

Disciplines in trouble

But the humanities are in trouble these days, and have been for years. They have been shoved aside in the curriculum of many schools to make room for more courses in math, technology, and the hard sciences. And humanists have cut their own legs out from under them through the widespread pursuit of “inter-disciplinary studies,” which have the effect of minimizing the importance of the individual disciplines to create a pot-pourri of humanistic fields from which each learner can choose what he or she likes, thus making the humanities as a whole relative and subjective—which means, irrelevant.

Most people today will not take the time to read a good short story, contemplate a poem, study a symphony, or try to understand the works of an artist. When they aren’t working or surfing the web, they’re occupied with other diversions that offer a more immediate emotional rush but have little, if any, lasting value. Television may relax us for an evening, but it cannot launch us to altitudes of wonder, contemplation, and soul-searching like Bach, Hopkins, Wyeth, or Chekov can. Apprehending these latter is hard work; however, the spiritual and emotional payoff can be vastly more rewarding than the pop diversions of the day.

The role of the humanities

The current issue of Critical Inquiry is devoted to investigating the state of the various academic disciplines, among them the humanities. In his article, “Art, Fate, and the Disciplines: Some Indicators,” W. J. T. Mitchell makes the traditional case for the humanities in a brief celebration of a curious work of art spread across the campus of the University of Chicago.

Random entries from indices of books by John Dewey and Jane Addams adorn the walls all over the campus in an effort to recover something of the “spirit” of the humanistic motivation which gave birth to the University. This seems to be an attempt to re-assert the traditional role of the humanities in the university curriculum, by reminding students in every school of the debt they owe to these founding disciplines.

Mitchell writes, “The humanities has a higher mission with respect to that deeply contested entity known as the human species, namely, to find out what it is, has been, and can become.” In another place he insists that the business of the humanities “is to engage in ethical reflection, analyses of the grounds for the making of wise decisions, responsible interpretations, logical deductions, accurate estimates of aesthetic quality, the critique of religion, culture, politics, the arts, the media, languages, texts, and so on.”

If this is so—and, at least in the past, it certainly was—then the humanities would seem to be of singular importance in preparing people to live well.

Nebuchadnezzar must have known as much. It is instructive to note that the curriculum for the preparation of servants in the wily king’s court consisted of the study of literature and wisdom. Nebuchadnezzar evidently understood that men who study the works and lives of other men, and contemplate them in the light of contemporary circumstances and needs, will be more likely to understand how best to relate to the men they are appointed to rule.

More than this, however, the humanities can lift our souls to the contemplation of God. As Calvin wrote, “Indeed, men who have either quaffed or even tasted the liberal arts penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom” (Institutes, I.v.2). There are insights into the nature, motivations, and wonder of humankind to be gained from immersion in humanistic studies; but we may also expect them to raise us to new heights of understanding and experience of God.

Why the humanities work

How do the humanities do this? First, because all gifts of culture are from God, even among those who do not know Him or who count themselves among His enemies (Psalm 68:18). God is the Giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17); thus, it is reasonable to expect that, in every product of the humanist’s art, there are insights to be gained concerning the beauty, goodness, and truth of God, whether or not the artist intended them to be there. Certainly the craftsman who struck the coin with which Jesus taught about our debt to Caesar had no intention of making a statement about God. But Jesus saw more in that simple work of art, and He did not hesitate to point it out.

There is a second reason why the humanities can bring us into contact with God. All people are made in the image of God and are, like Him, creators. Paul Johnson argued this point magnificently well, and backed it up with a wide range of illustrations in his book, Creators. Why don’t ants paint? Or zebras write poetry? Or apes delight to compose symphonies? They lack the image of God, that divinely-instilled reflection of the Deity which impels us to imitate Him in seeking transcendence, defining ethical standards, and creating beauty. Even an artist like Andrew Wyeth, who, by his own testimony, was not a particularly spiritual man, can give us insights into the importance of spiritual realities, insisting that we take seriously the reality of beauty, goodness, and truth in the everyday circumstances of life. Being made in the image of God, we cannot help but resonate with those things that reflect divine notions of artistic and moral excellence.

The final reason the humanities work to connect us with God is that the various disciplines of humanistic studies are devoted to discovering abiding principles, precepts, and forms that resonate with the souls of all people. Made in the image of God, people have an inherent sense of things beautiful, good, and true; and, while we do not all agree on what these mean, the ideas of such concepts linger in the souls of all of us.

The humanities work best when they play—whether consciously or unconsciously—to absolute standards in these areas rather than to fleeting ones. More people will line up to see an exhibition of the works of Vermeer than of Andy Warhol for just that reason. Bach is a more enduring composer than Cage, Milton’s work will long outlast Ginsberg’s, and the parables of Jesus still speak to more people all over the world than the quips and fables of all the world’s story-tellers combined.

The humanities work best to teach us about ourselves and give us a glimpse of glory when they follow the proven standards and guidelines that generations of readers, listeners, and viewers have found the most appealing and useful.

The humanities are important to us, both as avenues along which to discover things about ourselves and as prisms through which to gain brighter, clearer glimpses of God. We neglect the disciplines in this area to our great impoverishment, both as human beings, and as believers.

Recovering the humanities

Where to, then, from here? For the Christian seeking to grow in a biblical worldview, some engagement with the humanities is essential. No one can gain a mastery of all the disciplines in this area, and those who concentrate on only one or two of them miss out on the benefits that can come from the whole, wide range of studies. I suggest that believers eager to learn from the humanities determine a broad curriculum for their studies and establish a course of life-long learning in order to maximize the potential of this rich resource.

For example, you might take a course from The Teaching Company, which offers excellent studies in music, art, and literature, as well as in history and philosophy. The courses come with convenient study guides and can be listened to over and over. Such courses can provide the framework or skeleton for more specific and more reflective studies to follow.

Or, if your approach to surveying a field of study is more “hands-on”, you might purchase one of the series of studies in The Adult Great Books Program from The Great Books Foundation. The studies in each volume in this lengthy series are grouped around themes, using excerpts from the best works of the Western canon. A helpful reader’s guide with each volume can train you in reading and studying these materials for maximum benefit.

Beyond survey studies you may wish to explore a little more carefully the lives of great thinkers, artists, and leaders in the humanities. There is no shortage of biographies on composers, painters, sculptors, inventers, poets, philosophers, and other leaders in the various disciplines of the humanities. I find that the most helpful biographies are those which include plenty of exposure to the works of the person, investigating themes, forms, and the historical context in which these works were produced.

You might take up the study of a particular discipline, let’s say, poetry. Begin with a concise introduction to what poetry is and how it works—such as Mary Oliver’s, A Handbook of Poetry. Here you’ll learn to think and write like a poet, be exposed to some excellent examples of poetry, and begin to see why so many people find reading poetry to be an enriching experience. From there you can begin to sample various poets.

You might purchase an anthology of poetry in English, which will include some of the most enduring works in the English canon. That will lead you to explore more deeply the work of particular poets. Along the way you might pick up a book of poetry criticism—Seamus Heaney, Octavio Paz, Billy Collins, Molly Peacock, and Helen Vendler are quite helpful—which can help you in learning to understand more about how poetry works and how you can read it profitably.

We should make some aspect of study in the humanities a part of our regimen of spiritual disciplines. By reading through two eyes—as Petrarch might say—we can gain the most benefit from our work in this area. First, we want to see what the object of our reading or study can teach us about humankind. What kind of being are we? How do we act, and why? How do people look out on the world, and does that help or hinder their appreciation of life? In what ways can we see evidence of the fall into sin or God’s common grace or His work of redemption in the person or subject we’re studying?

Second, we want to keep an eye on God, and what He may be trying to tell us about Himself through the humanities. The detailed realism of Wyeth’s paintings makes us remember that there is beauty—even glory—in everyday, ordinary things. Our job is to search it out and give God praise for it (Proverbs 25:2). The poetry of Billy Collins can make us laugh and lead us to greater appreciation of the everyday blessings and joys that God brings into our lives. The soaring worldview of Augustine, the love poems of Petrarch, the philosophical meditations of Kierkegaard, and the sonatas of Mozart—all these have something to teach us about the wonder, grace, beauty, and mystery of God. But we must be willing to resort to them, and take the time and make the effort to do so. We will be rewarded by our study of the humanities with delight, understanding, and wisdom. No, it won’t come easily; but press on, be patient—it will come. The more we work at getting human in this way, the greater will be our experience of the full and abundant life God has provided for us.

For reflection

Where would you like to start in beginning to become more familiar with the humanities?

T. M. Moore is dean of the BreakPoint Centurions Program and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition, or sign up at the Colson Center to receive his daily study, ViewPoint, studies in Christian worldview living.. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, Va.


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