The start of the Spring Semester at Sattler means the beginning of the College’s sequence of Core Curriculum courses on the history, literature, philosophy and art of Western Civilization. I am privileged to be the students’ guide on their journey from Ancient Greece to twentieth-century America.
These courses form an important component of the Core Curriculum’s Humanities program. Other colleges have also developed multi-semester programs immersing students in the “great books” of the “Western intellectual tradition,” but those programs are typically reserved for honors students. We want all our students to hold the experience of reading treasured texts in common.
I believe two further principles make Sattler’s approach to Western Civilization distinctive.
First, our interest in Western history and philosophy is based on our concern for Christian theology and moral thought, not national or cultural glory. Second, we are teaching classic works of literature and art in order to help students become more effective communicators about the difference the Christian gospel makes in their lives, both in their home cultures and abroad.
1. We teach Western history and philosophy as context for the history of Christian theology and moral thought.
We live in a moment when there is considerable anxiety among some Americans and Europeans about a “decline of the West” or a “clash of civilizations” between “the West and the rest.” Sadly, this anxiety has led many to put up mental barriers that make them less open to encountering people from the Global South—regions of the world not historically familiar with the Roman Republic or American-style democracy, perhaps, but where the Christian church is growing rapidly and vibrantly. Some have emphasized that our nation’s young people must learn the classic texts of Western Civilization so that they will identify more strongly with distinctive “Western” customs and appreciate the accomplishments of European people-groups. At Sattler, we want to appreciate examples of men and women from any people-group who follow the advice of Proverbs 4: “Get wisdom” and pursue relationship with God, the source of all wisdom.
We will read selected texts from European and American history because we find affirmative examples among them of people who “guarded their hearts” (Prov. 4:23) and made unpopular stands for moral rectitude or built institutions that helped others to develop habits of self-restraint and “keep their feet from evil” (Prov. 4:27). But we are not interested in studying Western Civilization in order to assert the superiority of European and American ways of living. We hope our students identify not with “the West,” but with “the Church,” wherever it sojourns.
Because the Church is sojourning so fruitfully in Africa, Latin America, and Asia today, Sattler features a course in its Core Curriculum on “Global Christianity.” It will equip students to appreciate the history and life of the Church in non-western societies. But if we realize that much activity in the Church has moved to the South and the East, the question then arises: Why should we still devote so much time to old European ideas?
“Indeed, what has Athens got to do with Jerusalem?” That was the timeless question that the early church father, Tertullian, already posed to his fellow Christians in the third century—concerned, as he was, that Christians not become so enamored of Greek philosophy that they scorn the simplicity of the Hebrew Scriptures and Gospel texts or argue about them on the basis of pagan philosophers’ terminology. When it comes to assigning students hours of reading of Greek epics and tragedies, Tertullian’s question still confronts us today. Is it really an edifying use of students’ time to read about the plots and conspiracies of the pagan gods in Homeric poetry? Will students really benefit from learning the subtle differences between Plato and Aristotle, or the Stoics and the Epicureans?
Our answer is yes, because we want students to understand exactly what Paul was facing when he stepped up to the Areopagus and proclaimed that he knew the Greek philosophers’ “Unknown God.” If Paul had informed himself sufficiently about Greek culture to be an effective missionary among the Greeks, we believe that our students will become more perceptive missionaries to their own society by also learning the key philosophies that have shaped Western culture.
We believe we should remain interested in Western Civilization in order to understand the context in which Christianity emerged, faced the tests of persecution, and, once embedded in the political order of the Roman Empire and the kingdoms of medieval Europe, faced the test of authenticity. We believe we should remain interested in Western Civilization because it documents the dynamic power of the Scriptures to inspire people in every age to seek the greater fidelity of the Church and become witnesses to Christ ever further from Jerusalem (Act 1:8).
2. We teach classic literature and art to help students become more effective communicators about the distinctiveness of Christian beliefs.
Greek and Roman literature and art supply many metaphors that are still widely referenced in our language today. By building their “cultural literacy” through direct encounters with classic literary and artistic sources, Sattler students will be able to draw on a richer storehouse of cultural reference points to relate to people who are unlike themselves.
We are taking an approach to history that can be found among the Renaissance- and Reformation-era educators who called their students “back to the sources” (ad fontes) of the Early Church, both to nourish their souls and to reform the major social institutions of their day. They revived the study of ancient Greece and Rome along with the Early Church because they appreciated the rhetorical models they found in ancient texts. Teaching history as an auxiliary to rhetorical instruction, they held up the classically-trained orator and letter-writer as a model for both public and spiritual leadership. They considered rhetoric and history to be gateways into the morally deliberative life. These subjects, they claimed, prepared students to rise to a wide variety of occasions in public life and expanded their capacity for community responsibility: they helped students to make moral choices in moments of decision, formulate persuasive arguments during opportunities for advocacy, and share judicious words when asked for counsel.
For these reformers, learning to be a good writer and a good speaker involved forging a bond with one’s audience by evoking common aspects of the human condition. And they believed the best literature of Greece and Rome provided timeless insights into our universal human condition by highlighting—with examples from Gentiles that reinforced the examples from the Hebrew Scriptures—our common aspirations and shortcomings, our abilities to stand on principle and our tendencies to give way to the crowd, our moments of charity and our oft-consuming pride. Rhetoric and history thus helped students to understand humanity better, and in the process, they hoped, become more humane.
As a Christian college, we understand that we are restored to our intended humanity only through Christ’s atonement. Even the moral rigor of the Stoics will not do. Yet we can become more effective communicators about the distinctiveness of Christ’s sacrifice by learning about the moral systems and exemplars that are guiding others who try to lead “the good life” on their own. As we seek to equip our students to be faithful leaders for the Church and its service organizations, in particular, we expect that wisdom about our world and about the power of our words will run a course through both Jerusalem and Athens.
Hans Leaman is Assistant Professor of History. In the Fall Semester, he taught "Expository Writing," introducing Sattler students to college-level writing by studying key texts that set out the ideals of liberal arts education.