Wonder at Work: Part Two of Brad Bolt’s Reimagined Pedagogy

Wonder has to be experienced before anyone can hope to understand it. Unfortunately, the impersonal method of writing about wonder can at best offer glimpses of wonder instead of its encompassing embrace. If one hopes to experience wonder then I would advise them to wake up early in the morning before the world wakes from its slumber, gaze at the majestic stars above thy head, and allow the mind to ponder the beautiful illuminations and one’s position of adoration of the incomprehensible sky. As the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) realized, “when man looks at the stars he is struck with wonderment, and wonder, the Greeks said, is the beginning of the desire to know”­­ (Robert Carlson, Truth on Trial: Liberal Education Be Hanged. Location of Publication Unknown: Crisis Books, 1995, 33). The interaction with the stars opened the students up to a world which was blossoming before their eyes. This world was full of beauty, truth, friendship, love and all of the other sensory-emotional experiences a person hopes to fill their life. One may ask the question, “Is looking up at the sky all I have to do to start experiencing and understanding wonder?” The answer is, “Yes!” Experiencing truth and beauty firsthand through the use of one’s senses is how wonder begins. The medium can and will change, such will be the case of substituting stars with literature, person to person interactions, and so on. Long story short, the individual must come into direct contact with a medium for truth and beauty then allow the mind to love and appreciate the beauty and truth being experienced though the senses.

Another concrete example of wonder at work, once again, comes from the IHP:

The IHP also offered Latin, taught in the beginning entirely by the oral method, that is, without the use of a textbook or formal grammar. This course was, as everything was in the IHP, presented in the poetic mode. The students, by listening carefully and repeating what they hear, learned to speak very simple Latin from their memories much like children begin to learn their native language without any study of grammar, without any books. This was gymnastic in that it allowed for direct wrestling with the Latin; it was musical in that it brought forth much delight and laughter in the challenge and mistakes of trying to conduct an entire lesson without using any English, pointing, gesturing, acting out, the words and meaning instead. Books and grammar were not excluded altogether if the student decided to continue with Latin, but they were simply delayed so that the mind would not be filled with paradigms and rules and all the systems of a disintegrated language. Rather, the student would have in the memory the sounds of Latin words and phrases used in real conversation. Once again, the emphasis was to do Latin, not to study it (James L. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998, 152).

This “delay of paradigms and rules and all the systems of disintegration” can and will be said about learning any science or discipline. If the individual only has the disintegrated aspects of any science or discipline the individual will not and cannot love and appreciate it because the individual does not know enough about the science or discipline for love to overcome the lust. All things in this world can be lusted after but can fall short of love because the soul has not experienced it and the intellect has not come to understand it. If and when the soul and intellect experience truth and beauty, the fruit of the interaction is wonder. This wonder is experienced, not taught. The experience of raising a child illustrates this point.

The anticipation of the birth and joy of being able to hold one’s child soon begins to enter into a deeper love and sense of wonder as the raising of a child is experienced. Reading a book about paradigms and rules of raising a child when experience has been gained allows the individual to properly place the information into a lived experienced in which growth occurs. As in the case of learning Latin, it is through the direct experience of doing the discipline in which one begins to understand it and once it is understood love and wonder increases. The love of the child, gained through the experience of raising the child, far surpasses any disintegrated theory of how to best love a child. The experience of gazing at the beauty and innocence of the child, fills an individual with wonder. This is what can be said about wonder. The more time an individual spends living in a perpetual sense of wonder, the more love of truth, beauty and goodness the individual begins to experience. Yes, paradigms and rules eventually play a factor but the IHP knows in order to gain this appreciation and love of learning and knowledge it has to be experienced, not taught in theory, but practiced. May God give us all the grace to live in a perpetual sense of wonder.

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Brad Bolt.


Playing the Gender Game

Okay class, which of these two poems was written by a man and which by a woman? That question (and the poems themselves) made for an exciting opening salvo for a class on the distinction between gender and sex. Here are the poems I used:

Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer;
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ‘twixt vows and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas, why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say ‘Now I love you best,’
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Love is a babe; then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow?


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

In order for the exercise to work, I had to bet on the students NOT knowing the authors of these poems already. Turns out only one student had read either of these poems in high school. Midway through our blind attempt to discern which poem a woman had penned, this student “revealed” her knowledge and “helped” the rest of the students decipher the mystery. Ironically (perhaps fittingly) this student had misremembered the identity of the author, thereby plunging the class deeper into the abyss of unknowing. The students thought the exercise would be a cake walk. All the expected arguments were made and the common stereotypes bandied about, but the more we spoke the more arbitrary our decision seemed to be.

After revealing the true identity of the authors (Shakespeare and Browning, respectively) we discussed why we thought it would be easy. Wouldn’t one expect people of different genders to express the fundamental truths about human love in radically different ways? I mean Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, right? I think the fruit for the class (at least the lowest hanging fruit) was the discovery that men and women might be more similar than we thought. Different, yes, but not aliens from distant planets. Shakespeare and Browning express fundamental experiences of love, beauty, and goodness in unique ways, but not incommensurate ways.

For part II of this class session I ask the students to split up into men and women. Working together, they come up with a list of the ten most annoying characteristics of the opposite sex. (I borrowed this exercise from David Cloutier.) A representative of each group then proclaims these attributes and the fun begins. In addition to garnering laughs, this exercise tends to ruffle the feathers of students’ assumptions about sex and gender. Why? Because after the initial discussion about whether the attributes are true, false, or exaggerations, I ask each gender/sex group to work together again state which of the attributes are entirely socially constructed and which are entirely biological. Inevitably, the students come back from their attempt befuddled. It turns out that arguing for the complete social constructivist theory of gender is a lot harder than they thought. At the same time, the entirely biologically-centered theory of gender falls on equally hard times. Students come away seeing the relationship between biological sex and the category of gender in a much more nuanced way than they had before.

Thoughts? How do you introduce gender theory?

Wonder and Love: Fuel for the Engine of Intellect

“The purpose of the humanities is not knowledge but to humanize–it is the indispensable prerequisite to science because the love of the subject is the motive and purpose of science.”  –John Senior

Being a science, theology would seem to require the humanities as a prerequisite. What to do, then, when “non-humanized” students park themselves in a theology class? Can a student who does not already love theology even be taught? I think the answer is “yes,” and not just because my job depends on it.

The student who already loves explicitly the “object” of theological study (God, truth about God) is the one who comes to your office two hours before class with the following question: “You had us look at the Belgian bishops’ catechesis on the ten commandments, but I think they missed a couple of things. Look here in Exodus…”  This student wants to dissect the decalogue, understand how each tradition numbers it and why, what virtues and actions relate to each commandment, etc.? All because the student deeply loves the God toward whom these commandments tend.

On the other hand is the student who can’t believe we would be forced to memorize the ten commandments, let alone their different organizations and explanations. That’s what google is for! Certainly a love of some kind has motivated such a statement, but not the love for God and the truth about God.

Should professors simply “teach to” the first student, blossoming in the front row, while allowing the second to all the more wilt away in the back? I think John Senior would answer, “no way.” But how can this be? Didn’t Senior say that love for the subject was the motive for the science? He did, but he also adds that “love of the subject is the motive and purpose of science.” The statement suggests that, even if I enter the science from a foul motive, I might just end up loving its object and the science itself despite myself. But how does this happen?

I see it like this: Imagine the student is a vehicle. The engine of each student’s intellect requires fuel. The engine’s work is to acquire, understand, and systematize knowledge. The gears only turn, however, as a result of the small explosions that push the pistons. The combustion of the fuel drives the engine. So it is with students learning a science. The task of learning requires mental discipline, that is, work. The work, though, is fueled by wonder and love. When wonder and love encounters the spark of truth, it combusts and drives the intellect toward the acquisition, understanding, and systematization of knowledge in the science. The greater my love for the subject, the longer I can concentrate on the work of learning. In other words, I can drive farther on the road of understanding the greater is my tank full of Wonder and Love related to the science at hand.

What am I saying? What I am trying to articulate is the fact students need a full tank of wonder if they are going to apply the intellectual discipline of memorizing, comparing, contrasting, analyzing, etc., but sadly many pull up to the classroom running on fumes. They park in their seats asking whether this course will help them get a better job, or graduate early, etc. What do you do with that? That empty tank is a recipe for apathy.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve got a few ideas. I attempt to load every class with at least one or two “refueling stations” for wonder and love. For example, we’d been talking about two theologians arguing over how to interpret question 91 of the Summa theologiae I-II. I could tell the tanks were running low. I stopped the class session and said, “Get up, we’re going on a field trip!” I could tell by the drool one student was wiping from his face that we’d make the right move. Where did we go? Where else but the rare books room of the library. We pull in, jaws drop. They didn’t even know the place existed. I disappear for ten seconds and come back with an early 17th century manuscript of Aquinas’ Summa. Cracking it open to question 91, I begin reading out loud. No longer “studying” the Summa, we are doing the Summa. Of course, we bring along an English translation, and spend the rest of the class session taking a walk through question 91, the students reading and interpreting on the fly. After what seemed like a short while, I ask what time it is. We’ve gone well over time. No one cares. Students stay after for an hour roaming around. “When can we come back?” the ask.

For some of the theology majors in the class, the experience was a kind of lighter fluid to reignite the coals of their Latin studies. So this is why I’m struggling through the dative case! For non-majors, the experience played the chord in them that harmonizes to the beauty of “things old.” For a student in the digital culture of now now now, what better experience than to hold in one’s hands a 400 year old book that took years and years to write. Of course it’s a hyperbole, but some students unfailingly say, “I’m never using a kindle again!”

These are the experiences that energize the student for the discipline of study, of the science of theology. At the same time, however, they are the fruit of the good practice of teaching a science itself. The more we know about a subject, the more we encounter what is beautiful and lovable in it. Here’s to wonder!

When Love Is No Love at All

When teaching “love” to undergraduates, many wisely rely on Lewis’ The Four Loves. I recently discovered a less-read Lewis text that surpasses the former for pedagogy in moral theology. It is Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.

No Lewis expert myself, I had never heard of this text until a colleague of mine made the audacious claim that is it was Lewis’s best work. I could leave no such scandalous claim unchallenged. I knew I’d have to read it soon. That’s when God’s providence stepped in. As I walked past the “free books table” at the University’s library, what should confront me but a tattered old text so worn that the cover was illegible and completely torn from the book’s body. This book, literally, could not be judged by its cover. You’ll have no doubt as to its identity: Till We Have Faces. Not one to test God, I committed to read it straight away.

Two pages in, I knew I wasn’t in Narnia any more. This is no children’s book. Lewis reflects on the various truths and distortions in both Greek and “barbarian” culture and religion, refusing at every turn a facile reading of any character or any truth claim. Lewis retells the story of Cupid and Psyche from Metamorphoses, with some important changes. Sparing you the details, I will hopefully draw you into your own reading of the text (either for its use in teaching or your own meditation on the nature of love.

More than anything, the text tore at my heart by revealing to me ways that my own “love” for the people closest to me might not be love at all, or at best a distortion of love. Rather than willing and acting for the good of the beloved, I might (without even knowing it) be devouring the life of those I love for my own ends. The novel’s central character, Orual, discovers that what she initially considered an act of great self-sacrifice was in fact only a service to herself at the expense of her beloved. Let me explain.

Orual’s sister Psyche (a strange name, I know) believes she had been wedded to a god, a god who has created for her an indescribably beautiful (yet invisible) castle on a plain miles away from town. In the dark of each night this god visits Psyche, commanding her never to gaze upon his face. Let’s face it, one might more easily believe that Psyche has lost her sanity, or that she is being fooled by some criminal living on the lam.

Orual loves her sister more than life itself–or so she thinks. She thinks this love demands she rescue her sister Psyche from this foolish dreamworld. An attempt at reason fails, so Orual goes as far as stabbing herself through the arm to show she is willing to kill herself (and even her sister Psyche) if Psyche refuses to see things in the light of “reason.” Orual, then, compels Psyche to shine a lamp upon her sleeping lover in the night. Psyche, for love of her sister, betrays her new beloved spouse, disobeying his command to have faith in his goodness. In the light of the lamp, the god awakes, and as his splendor is revealed to all (even the unbelieving Orual) the castle crumbles to the ground and Psyche is banished to wander the world in eternal exile. At this very moment, Orual is given the beginnings (only the beginnings) of a realization that what drove her to compel Psyche into betrayal was not love, but jealousy and envy under the guise of love. Orual, who had been as a mother to Psyche, raising, teaching and caring for her, could not bear becoming second in Psyche’s heart. Neither could Orual bear the ease and innocence with which Psyche put her trust in the unseen, the unverified presence and truth of the god to whom she had been wed. Orual wanted Psyche’s faith, but rather than ask for and accept it, her cupidity for her sister’s love, her desire to be “god” for her sister, to be the central consuming love of her sister, would not allow Orual to believe that Psyche’s faith could be real. Psyche at once desired and hated her sister’s faith. Rather than embrace it, she could see only to destroy it, and in so destroying to recover Psyche to herself. Ultimately Orual’s plan failed. She discovers that the object of Psyche’s faith was real, true, and beautiful. The god was no dream. Her willingness to kill Psyche led to a fate worse than Psyche’s death–her sentence of wandering till death in exile.

Perhaps, though, Orual couldn’t be accused of having no love at all, merely not the fullness of love. Allow, if you will, an explanation from C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. In Lewis’s mind, we should likely accuse Orual of having a mere “erotic” love, the love of “eros” for her sister Psyche. This, of course is not reducible or synonymous with sexual love. It is rather a love of cupidity. A desire to possess and unite oneself with the other. It is a love that attracts me to the beloved passionately yet it is a passion to bring the beloved entirely to myself, to possess the beloved for myself as good in itself. It is a love that tends toward idolatry. This is how Orual loved her sister Psyche. When she saw that she could no longer possess her sister and her sister’s undivided love, she decided at that moment that no one else would have her either. Her love, this “eros,” ultimately devoured Psyche in its insatiable hunger. Orual lacked one of Lewis’s other loves, namely “agape,” or love that serves the beloved for the good of the beloved. Agape chastens the other loves, especially “eros.” Had Orual acted “agapically,” she would have patiently helped Psyche pursue the truth, and even been open to hearing the truth from Psyche. Instead her desire to possess closed her ears, mind, and heart to what the truth might really be. May it never happen to us!

The beauty of Lewis’ Till We Have Faces lies in the fact that the meditation on love carries through all the relationships in the book. I have merely scratched the surface of one relationship (the sisterhood of Orual and Psyche). What I hope to have accomplished here is to suggest a text that can be used in tandem with teaching on the four loves whenever an ethics or moral theology class might bring them up. As we all know, stories teach the good life better than any lecture or textbook. Let’s let a master do our teaching for us. Teach the four loves (storge, eros, philia, agape), then put students face to face with Till We Have Faces.

Of course there are endless novels and short stories inviting reflection on the nature of love and its distortions. I’d love to hear what is helpful for you in teaching love as well.

Teaching Catholic Moral Theology

Theology, Fides quaerens intellectum, is an academic subject like none other. Not only is it’s object unique but its sources and the very fundamental disposition of the student and teacher are unique. Furthermore, its object cannot be known as other objects, say, electrons. No, the object of theology is in fact not an object but a tri-personal unity of being, the most blessed Trinity. The Trinity can be known the same way I know a person, relationally. Theology, then, gives professors the incredible privilege and grave duty to invite students into relationship with the God who revealed his plan for salvation in Christ Jesus. This invitation is at once made by the movement of the intellect and the will. The teacher of theology must provide material not only perceived as true by the intellect but also perceived as good by the will. While insight moves the intellect, beauty moves the will. The marriage of both makes for compelling theological pedagogy.

All theological pedagogy requires formation in Christian perfection, continual conversion of the soul to Christ, but moral theology in particular lacks intelligibility apart from the grace of being in Christ. This fact is both the challenge and joy of teaching moral theology, where the enlightening of the intellect so often accompanies the reordering of the will and the passions, a conversion of heart. As all educators in theology, I work, hope, and pray to bring about both of these changes in my students.

Join me, then, in pondering and praying over the best methods for teaching not only about the way in Christ, but teaching them in the way of Christ. This blog will feature my own hypotheses, successes, and failures in teaching Catholic moral theology, teaching the way in Christ. I will post reflections on teaching various controversial and seemingly benign topics, as well as assignments, in-class exercises, syllabi, etc. I invite you to enter the conversation. Excellent practice requires a community of practitioners in dialogue. Let us together expand our capacity to achieve the goods of our practice in moral, intellectual pedagogy.