Edifying and Educational Meditations

As is my custom, I am currently reading two books of vastly different genres and topics. Despite knowing that it makes for a much longer reading time on both, I continue to to do it anyway.Thankfully, that is not all I am currently reading.

It is commonly known by regular readers here that I am great admirer of both Joshua Gibbs of Circe Institute and Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks. Both have offered mentally stimulating food for thought in recent posts, so I thought I would share portions of them here in the optimistic belief that you will be intrigued enough to click over and read the articles in their entirety.

Joshua Gibbs discusses the question of whether Rousseau and St. Augustine should be taught in the classroom alongside, or perhaps replaced by, the works of contemporary theologians such as John Piper. In this partial dialogue, he explains why such a move is not appropriate in a classical educational setting:

Parent: I wanted to tell you that I read this really amazing book by John Piper recently and it blessed me so much that I thought I should tell you about it. I think it would be a great fit in the school’s theology curriculum.

Dean: I am sure the book is quite good, but given that John Piper is still alive, the book does not meet the basic criteria which this school uses for admitting new titles into the curriculum.

Parent: What criteria would that be?

Dean: For starters, curriculum books ought to be old.

Parent: How old?

Dean: It is best if the author has been dead for a hundred years.

Parent: Why a hundred years?

Dean: After a hundred years, it is safe to assume no living person ever met the author. If the author is still considered worth reading after he has been dead for a hundred years, it means he speaks from the grave. It means there is something immortal about his wisdom, something divine.

Parent: I know the book I am recommending was written recently, but it is good and true. Don’t classicists care about truth, beauty, and goodness? If so, does it really matter how old a good thing is?

Dean: Yes. Classicists do not simply care about the truth, beauty, and goodness of a book, they also care about who is claiming the book is true, beautiful, and good. Classicists are not content to trust their own judgments, but act in harmony with the judgments of their ancestors. We might judge a recently published work of theology to be good, but that judgment could not be made in harmony with our ancestors, because our ancestors never read the book.

You can see how the conversation unfolds by reading the entire post here.

In Must We Treat Every Bad Idea With Respect and Patience?, a discussion of whether a general consensus on modern art is enough to consider said art worthy of being taught in a classical setting:

McLaren: Some students told me that you were not covering Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, Franz Kline, or any of the great 20th century abstract expressionists in your art history class. Why is this?

Gibbs: This is a classical school, and I don’t take that kind of art seriously.

McLaren: The larger art world takes them seriously, though.

Gibbs: I don’t really take the “larger art world” seriously, either.

McLaren: You style yourself a conservative, though. Is it not strange for a self-professed conservative to reject the majority opinion on significant, well-respected artists?

Gibbs: Respect for Pollock and Kline is not really a majority opinion, though it is certainly a fashionable opinion over the last several decades. I can’t imagine someone like Caravaggio or Rembrandt having any respect for Pollock, and I try to align my tastes in art with the tastes of artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt.

McLaren: Have you ever read an essay which unpacked Pollock’s art?

Gibbs: Yes, and I thought it far more brilliant than Pollock’s art.

McLaren: But you did not ultimately trust the essay?

Gibbs: No. One does not need a PhD to recognize that Pollock’s art is no good. I have showed Pollock’s art to my little daughters, who are 7 and 9 years old respectively, and they simply laughed at it.

McLaren: You’re not suggesting that little children are competent to judge art?

Gibbs: Children have common sense and knowing that Jackson Pollock’s art is no good is simply a matter of common sense. It’s just a lot of painted scribbles. The same kind of common sense informs little children that two women cannot marry each other and that eating an entire birthday cake will lead to a stomach ache. On the other hand, children have terrible taste, which means they think Thomas Kinkade and Bratz dolls are interesting. You have got to train them out of that kind of delusion by showing them things of real beauty, and a thing of real beauty can be appreciated by bishop and child alike. If I want to tell my children that Bratz dolls are ugly, I cannot, in good faith, tell them that Jackson Pollock is good.

Lastly, in Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate, Cal Newport discusses the supposed benefits of meditation, and why our unnatural way of life makes it a necessity for so many people:

What sparked the diversion in the first place is when, early in the conversation, Fry expressed skepticism about meditation. Roughly speaking, his argument was the following:

  • Typically when we find ourselves in a chronic state of ill health it’s because we’ve moved away from something natural that our bodies have evolved to expect.
  • Paleolithic man didn’t need gyms and diets because he naturally exercised and didn’t have access to an overabundance of bad food.
  • Mindfulness mediation, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be replicating something natural that we’ve lost, but is instead itself a relatively contrived and complicated activity.

Harris’s response was to compare meditation to reading. They’re both complicated (read: unnatural) activities, to be sure, but they’re both really important in helping our species thrive.

Fry, who is currently using and enjoying Harris’s meditation app, conceded, and the discussion shifted toward a new direction.

I wonder, however, whether Fry should have persisted. Rousseauian romanticism aside, there’s an important application of evolutionary psychology undergirding his instinctual concern.

He rounds out this article with some interesting insights:

Fry was instead correctly noting that meditation is an unnatural solution to a modern problem. Meditation helps, but it doesn’t solve the underlying issues .

What, Fry seems to be asking, is the cognitive equivalent of the natural behaviors like exercising and healthy eating that our species used to enjoy but are now missing in modern life?

I’m not the first to ask this question, and many people have proposed compelling answers (see, for example, Mark Sisson and John J. Ratey).

But something that became increasingly clear to me as I was researching Digital Minimalismand the reason why I’m bringing up this topic in the first place, is that in recent years, our relationship with our screens has almost certainly exasperated this modern separation from a more natural way of living .

I hope you all find these as intellectually provoking as I did.

More book reviews are coming soon!

 


5 thoughts on “Edifying and Educational Meditations

  1. Major Styles says:

    “Meditation helps, but it doesn’t solve the underlying issues.”

    So true. This is the issue I have/had with some Eastern religions. I traveled throughout Asia a bit and was very interested in the various cultures. And yet, it’s that Eastern focus on meditation – on passivity – that I was never able to adopt.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elspeth says:

    @ Major Styles:

    I never really thought of meditation as passive. I’ll have to ponder that. Is prayer passive? Being a Christian, I don’t really think so, and it does help me tremendously.

    I think the issue with meditation is just more of the same problem that results from our unnatural way of living. Occasional times of quiet and solitude, or even working in a physical capacity which allows time to…well, meditate, is so scarce in our culture today that many people have to actively carve out time to sit in quietness.

    Admittedly, I am ignorant about the intricacies of meditation, so I may be missing something. The whole idea of completely emptying one’s mind just strikes me as equal parts odd and impossible.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hearthie says:

    There are vast oceans of difference between a time of silence and prayer and Eastern meditation. They look less different on the surface than they are at the core, so to see the differences – start with the core belief.

    In Buddhism, there’s no god. (Buddha is not a god, he is a human who achieved perfection/Nirvana). The way to Nirvana is through a progression of lifetimes of suffering. Eventually you separate yourself from “the wheel” and then when you die you become nothing/part of the all. The purpose of meditation is to quiet your mind so that you can disassociate yourself from your desires.

    The purpose of Christian meditation is to focus on God. It’s to deeply digest His Word and spend time hearing His voice. Yes, there is quieting of the mind, but the quiet is not the end, it is the means to that end.

    Everyone who doesn’t explicitly say otherwise is using meditation sourced from Eastern traditions, regardless of whether they believe in those concepts or not. The point of meditating without a religion is to quiet the self down. Quieting down is useful – but then what?

    Like

  4. Elspeth says:

    @ Hearthie:

    Thanks for weighing in with some expanded thoughts. I always knew Eastern meditation was not anything to strive for and engage in.

    One thing I was having trouble with was my own immediate framing of the word “meditation”:

    In His word doth he meditate day and night.

    Which is, as you say, not what most people mean when they refer to meditation.

    Like

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