John Henry Newman, Monasticism, and the Teaching of History
by Greg Peters
Biola University was founded in 1908 as the “Bible Institute of Los Angeles” (hence the neologism Biola). It became a college in 1949 and a university in 1981. Today there are nearly 6,500 students being educated in six schools from the bachelor’s to the doctoral level. There are several hundred faculty members and twice as many support staff stuffed into 95 acres in the larger urban sprawl of Los Angeles, closer to Disneyland than the Disney Concert Hall. The beaches and the mountains are within easy driving distance as is Mexico, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. If you don’t mind people, asphalt, sunshine and heavy traffic then we are ideally located.
In addition to teaching at a great university, I also teach in one of the most exciting undergraduate programs on campus, and perhaps even in the country – the Torrey Honors Institute. Torrey is a liberal arts, great books based program that demands much reading, writing and discussion from its students. Since students do not take a major in the Institute, they add a specialized major in any area available at Biola University to the grounding they have received in the classics. As a result, Torrey combines the best of classical and traditional American university education; that is, we sit in a circle for six to nine hours a week discussing the classics of the western tradition (think Homer, Plato, Locke, Austen, etc.). I never have to lecture and I always get to work with the best and brightest students on campus.
Furthermore, as a scholar of monasticism and an Anglican I have the privilege of seeing what we do here at Torrey fit into the larger picture of monasticism, at least when viewed through the lens of the Anglican-turned-Roman Catholic John Henry Newman. In his article “Schools of the Lord’s Service: Benedictine Ideals in the Educational Thought of John Henry Newman,” [American Benedictine Review 57.1 (2006): 60-80] Denis Robinson, himself a Benedictine monk, writes that the
virtues of monasticism for Newman were enshrined in five basic ideals: (1) the significant bridge monastic culture formed with the patristic past, (2) the mixture of the active and contemplative ideals, (3) the notion of the central spiritual dimension in education, (4) an essentially Platonic epistemology, and (5) the expression of these in the practice of the Liturgy of the Hours [that is, daily prayer] (p. 64).
On the first point, “In [Newman’s] estimation the Benedictine tradition formed a bridge between the world of the Fathers and the modern world. Monks enshrined the values of the classical world by carrying forward the teachings of the ancient church in a way of life as well as in formal theology” (p. 65). Newman’s writings on the Benedictine’s are some of the results of this belief, as is his The Arians of the Fourth Century from 1833. Concerning the second point, Robinson writes that “Newman had little taste for rarefied academicism. In his estimation, scholarship had to be sound, but it also had to be mixed with a ‘practical frame of mind.’ In other words, theory had to spill over into action or it was essentially useless” (p. 67). Reflecting on the relationship of spirituality and education, Robinson believes that “Newman’s view of education was precisely discovery of meaning. Theory had to be infused with an existential regard, a spirituality that spoke to the dreams and hope of people where they lived…” (p. 67). Regarding Newman’s Platonism,
Theoretically, this intersection of the visible world and the invisible reality of the divine points to Newman’s essential Platonism. Although Newman was influenced by the work of the earlier group of Anglican scholars know [sic] as the Cambridge Platonists, he was somewhat distrustful of their overly rational and supernatural interpretation of Plato’s work. Newman’s project in the Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) in many ways can be attributed to his need for an epistemological rehabilitation of Platonic idealism. Without getting into too much detail, Newman posited the necessity of innate ideas, refusing to accept Locke’s sense-based empiricism. However, Newman also appreciated, in a way Plato undoubtedly did as well, the need for the incubation and expansion of these values in the lived experience of human beings. (p. 69)
Finally, concerning his fifth point, Robinson notes,
In Tract 75, Newman offered an apologetic for the Benedictine breviary… The lessons of the Liturgy of the Hours formed a compendium of prayers, doctrinal readings, Scripture readings and the poetry of the psalms. The Liturgy of the Hours was the ultimate catechumenal text in Newman’s estimation precisely because it did what any good educational and formational tool should do, that is, it shaped the life and thought of the person through continual re-presentation of the truths of Christianity in a varied and multi-dimensional way. (pp. 69-70),
As Robinson ably demonstrates, for Newman the Benedictines provided an educational model that was worthy of emulation. In fact, as Robinson explains, Newman used this model as the basis for an attempted renewal of the Oxford University tutorial system upon his appointment at Oriel College in 1826. It is my opinion that these same five observations are applicable to the educational task attempted today at the Torrey Honors Institute, aligning its program with that of both the Benedictine legacy and the educational philosophy of John Henry Newman as developed under the influence of his reading of the Benedictine tradition.
First, the Torrey Honors Institute seeks to connect its students to the past, including the Christian inheritance, by reading authors from the past 2,500 years of Western civilization. This reading and study of the past is what best equips students for life. The Institute also strives to connect the contemplative and active ideals of education into a cohesive whole. Though the bulk of a student’s time in Torrey is spent in the reading and discussion of assigned texts, tutors (as the professors are called) encourage students to participate in Institute-sponsored programs that reach others, such as Torrey Theatre, Torrey Music and the Torrey abroad programs.
Further, many students participate in short-term service programs administered by Biola University or other service agencies and/or reach out into the local community through local, community-based programs. The Torrey Honors Institute does not neglect the spiritual dimension of its students who are expected to have a “growing spiritual life.” Through the intentional mentoring program and inclusion of great Christian texts, primarily the Scriptures, into its curriculum, the Institute seeks to minister to the whole person. Conversations between students and tutors are personal and spiritual as often as they are academic.
Though not fully adopting a Platonic epistemology, the Institute does use the Socratic dialogue format, as exemplified in Plato’s dialogues, as the basis of its educational pedagogy. The Institute believes that all truth is God’s truth and is given to us as a gift from God; therefore, discussion of any text that yields an “understanding of the philosophical systems and worldviews of the greatest Christian and non-Christian thinkers in Western civilization” is worthwhile. Finally, the Institute’s educational goals are intended to develop the full Christian life of each student, including their prayer life. Sessions are often begun with prayer and students and tutors are encouraged to pray with one another.
Most importantly, just as the Benedictines have historically prioritized the use of the Sacred Scriptures in both their teaching and praying, the Institute also gives pride of place to God’s Word and strives to incorporate its teaching and truths into all class sessions and Institute activities. Like its predecessors Benedict of Nursia and John Henry Newman, the Torrey Honors Institute honors the Holy Scriptures as it strives to create whole persons with whole souls pursuing truth, goodness and beauty. It too, like Benedict’s monasteries, strives to be a school for the Lord’s service and I am happy to be involved in such an important task.
It seems important to me that scholars, especially those of Christian history, know where they have come from as much as where they are going. Though the past is always open to debate the future is completely hidden, despite our best attempts to predict it. Biola University knows where she comes from and has a fairly good idea of where she’s going should it work out according to plan. As well, the Torrey Honors Institute also understands its connection to the past by way of the great books of the intellectual tradition. We love books because we believe that
Unless great books are our very life, unless we look forward hungrily to the next opportunity to read them ourselves or to hear our students discuss them, unless by impulse and choice we are turning them over in our mind as we walk across the campus or through the school hallways, it is only a cold dish we are likely to serve up to our pupils, and they, taking their cue from us, will discuss great and noble ideas at a low temperature and on a low plane
(John Erskine, founder of the General Honors program at Columbia University in 1920).
It is my hope that all of us, as teachers and scholars of Christian history, be rooted in our respective traditions and histories so that we can be effective in what we do, inspiring those who will come after us. Again, I am happy and I love what I do. I hope you are too.