The Joy of Teaching Primary Sources

Excellent piece by Ben Myers:

For me, the most rewarding part of teaching is introducing my students to primary sources. Each of my classes involves a lecture period plus an hour of small-group tutorials in which the class works its way through a book that I have chosen. In the books that have come down to us from the past, we have access to Christian minds far more energetic and more accommodating than our own. It is a joy to find yourself in the presence of a mind that you cannot fully comprehend. This has always been one of the chief reasons for studying the humanities at all: to learn that the human spirit is larger and more interesting than one’s own poor spirit, or (this is the political benefit of studying the humanities) than the spirit of the age.

To read books from the past is also to encounter minds with their own prejudices, parochialisms, and blind spots. But students soon discover that they are able to discern these limitations and to address them. Such scholarly discernment is much more difficult (i.e. usually impossible) if one is reading contemporary authors, since in this case the blind spots of the reader and those of the author tend to be identical. (For more on this, see C. S. Lewis’ brilliantly perceptive introduction to Athanasius.) If students are given a book by Moltmann, they will simply absorb it; if they are given Augustine’s Confessions, they will be forced to argue with it. I have seen students walk away from my first-year theology class either infatuated with Augustine or infuriated with him; in both cases I am delighted to see that real learning had occurred. But when students read only contemporary authors – even if they are very good authors – something quite dangerous and enfeebling happens. The students come away feeling neither infatuated nor infuriated but only affirmed. Their own prejudices and parochialisms have been reinforced. Their blind spots have become even blinder.

Read the rest here.

A few years ago I read Augustine’s Confessions for the first time, and experienced exactly what Ben Myers talks about here. Previously I knew Augustine only second-hand, from other people’s summaries of his thought, and my Anabaptist reading had coloured my thinking about him. I saw Augustine as the first apologist for Christendom (fail!), one of the earliest defenders of a Christian just war position (fail!), the one who taught the rather strange view that babies are guilty of the sin of their forebears (and hence need to be baptized to wash away the stain of the original sin) (fail!). But I had not realized what a brilliant thinker Augustine actually was, or the depth of his spiritual insights into the human condition.

Reading the Confessions forced me to grapple with Augustine himself, not other people’s ideas about him, and I am grateful. I’ve had this experience with other old authors too – and not just Christians. Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, St. John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Povertyand the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

Reading Myer’s piece has reminded me of the importance of this sort of reading. I have a few other books on my shelves that I want to read or re-read: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Son of God, Thomas Cranmer’s A Defence of the True and Catholick Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, Bernard of Clairvaux’s On the Love of God, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (the shorter 1541 version, not the voluminous 1559 version, which I’ve tried and failed to finish!), St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life, William Wilberforce’s Practical View, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, and Peter Riedemann’s Confession of Faith.

Which old authors have you read that have challenged and enriched your thinking?