Dwelling on Delphi: Thinking Christianly about the Liberal Arts, by Robert Woods (Westbow Press, 2016)
We live in a curious moment in Western history. Despite the past few decades’ real technological and material advances, which the overwhelming majority of us enjoy, most of us feel that something is seriously wrong. Smart phones and spectator sports have failed to alleviate our lingering anxiety about the future. In a presidential election year, absolute majorities dislike both major-party candidates, whom they consider crooked and/or buffoonish. Recent polls indicate that upwards of two-thirds of us believe America is “on the wrong track.”
For the most part, conservatives understand the need for cultural renewal, and they understand that educational reform must be part of whatever form that renewal takes. In Dwelling on Delphi, Robert Woods calls Christians back to the Great Tradition of the liberal arts as a primary means of achieving that reform. Mr. Woods, currently the headmaster of the Covenant School in Dallas and a tutor in Faulkner University’s graduate programs in the Great Books, has effectively promoted this vision for a long time. For the past dozen years and more, I have labored in the academic trenches alongside him, designing and teaching courses and struggling to maintain a beachhead of liberal learning in a broader academic and institutional environment that is too often bogged down by utilitarian concerns. Reading this book is like sitting down for an informal conversation with him, gleaning his insights from the long years of fighting the good fight.
The book’s title is inspired by the question of the relationship between Christian faith and secular learning that Christians have confronted for millennia. Tertullian’s framing of the question—What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?—is the best known, but Mr. Woods in his opening essay poses the question this way: “What does Delphi have to do with Golgotha?” His answer, in a nutshell: “Quite a lot.” Repeating the age-old saying that “all truth is God’s truth,” Mr. Woods reminds us that the Incarnation of Our Lord calls us to the things of this world. Christians are to harness the knowledge and wisdom of the world and redeem as much of it as can be redeemed, bringing “into captivity every thought for Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
For Mr. Woods, this “thinking Christianly about the Liberal Arts” is the only viable way to preserve the Great Tradition in the twenty-first century, a time when the academy is increasingly controlled by people who are either ignorant of or actively hostile to it. He writes, “If the Liberal Arts are to survive in a meaningful manner, or even thrive with new and significant scholarship, it will be among Christians, unique communities, and institutions shaped by Christian conviction. While I know and trust in the presence of those old-school humanists still fighting the good fight, their days are numbered.”
Dwelling on Delphi is a collection of short essays organized into four major sections and a handful of standalone pieces. The first (and longest) major section consists of treatments of significant works by the “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” both pagan and Christian, attesting to the value of the humanistic tradition. Mr. Woods shows how writers from Cicero to Eric Voegelin offer key insights into the process of learning. For example, Basil the Great models how Christians can learn from the virtuous pagans. Hugh of St. Victor shows that contemplation of truth and practice of virtue provide the foundations of education. Simone Weil recommends developing the “faculty of attention” towards the ultimate end of loving God. Mr. Woods’s target audience here is most obviously teachers and administrators at classical Christian schools looking for resources to inform their pedagogy, but autodidacts and teachers in other settings could also benefit greatly from a greater familiarity with the authors discussed here.
The emphasis on classical Christian schools as well as the homeschool model is evident in the third major section, “The End of the Academy?” Rather than writing a diatribe about the problems with today’s educational establishment, Mr. Woods here presents glimpses of authors like Russell Kirk and Ray Bradbury who offer alternatives to the methods that have resulted in those problems. Perhaps the most prominent of these figures is Mortimer Adler, the foremost champion of the Great Books movement in the twentieth century. Mr. Woods writes that Adler “would have been the best academic dean ever” for promoting a unified curriculum without textbooks, where students are immersed in primary sources and where every class session is an oral exam.
The second and fourth major sections, “Liberal Arts as a Way of Knowing” and “Recovering the Lost Pearl of Great Wisdom,” offer thoughts on defending liberal learning from the attacks of scientific/materialistic reductionists and culture warriors of both the anti-Western and pietist Christian varieties. In the former section, “Our Christian Obligation to Be Intelligent” stands out as a needed call to believers to reject the anti-intellectual stance too often seen in churches and Christian homes. In the latter section, I particularly enjoyed the discussion of Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, which Mr. Woods offers as a model of how history should be written in defiance of fashionable trends in the profession.
Like any book, Dwelling on Delphi has its flaws. Some mechanical and stylistic problems made it through the editing process. The absence of footnotes and endnotes will, no doubt, frustrate some who wish to track down the author’s sources. We get the occasional hasty generalization, and I was saddened to detect a note of bitterness in some passages in which Mr. Woods recounts frustrating exchanges with colleagues and others who have challenged the legitimacy of his endeavors, people who in most cases should have known better. However, having had a front-row seat to some of those exchanges, I certainly understand his feelings.
For Christian readers, Dwelling on Delphi is a fine introduction to the Great Conversation and the Great Tradition of the liberal arts. If Mr. Woods is right, the educational program it describes is one of the best chances we have to bring about a much-needed cultural renewal, and Christians are the ones who will need to carry the torch in the foreseeable future.
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