Lou Markos on The Catholic Vision of a Protestant Milton — The City Online - Houston Baptist University

Lou Markos on The Catholic Vision of a Protestant Milton

by Benjamin Domenech on December 5, 2008

By popular request, we will on occasion reprint select articles from prior issues of The City. This article from the Summer 2008 issue was written by Louis Markos, a professor of English at HBU, and originally published under the title “The Thorny Road to Truth.”

As a Professor of English at a Baptist university, I am one of many Protestant educators who more often than not finds himself looking to Rome for a fuller and more integrated vision of Christian higher education. It is Origen, Aquinas, Erasmus, Newman, and the great architects of the Medieval university, rather than the founders of my own tradition, that have inspired me to believe that Jerusalem and Athens, faith and reason, orthodox theology and humanistic letters can function synergistically to guide the student toward that at once divine and human, transcendent and immanent Truth that must ever be the goal of the Christian university. Too often, my fellow Protestant academics have torn down the Catholic Christian-humanist bridge, preferring either to relegate faith to a private concern that does not impinge or set limits on the pursuit of secular learning (humanism divorced from Christianity), or to cast suspicion on those areas of learning—the arts, pagan literature, the sciences—that seem difficult to square with biblical revelation (Christianity divorced from humanism).

Nevertheless, there is one among the early Protestants whose vigorous embrace of both Christianity and humanism afforded him an intellectual and aesthetic grasp of the unity of Truth that rivals (and complements) that of the Catholic Dante. I speak of John Milton (1608-1674), a radical, even revolutionary Protestant of prodigious faith and learning who devoted six years of his post-graduate life to a systematic reading of all the seminal works available in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Italian, and English. Like Origen, Aquinas, and Erasmus before him, and Newman after him, Milton understood, in a way more Catholic than Protestant, that all truth is God’s truth. Indeed, so strong was his belief that Christianity could not and must not be divorced from humanism, that, although he pledged his allegiance to the flag of the Puritans (they who closed down the theaters), he was himself one of the earliest and greatest opponents of censorship.

To this day, his logical, eloquent, and deeply felt defense of the freedom of the press, “Areopagitica” (1644), remains one of—if not the—crowning expression of the need for a Christian society to ensure liberty in the humanistic realms of thought. And, as such, it offers as well a timeless meditation on the status of Truth in a fallen world that has direct relevance to any modern university that would designate itself as Christian. As we embark on Christianity’s third millennium, we who claim as one of our goals the study and dissemination of Truth would do well to consider carefully the chief claims and arguments of “Areopagitica.” For, traced along its bold and often esoteric metaphors are the lines of a map that can direct our modern Protestant and Catholic universities on to a royal road toward which the former (sadly) has been reluctant to travel and from which the latter (tragically) has strayed.

In choosing his somewhat obscure title, Milton calls us back to the birthplace of humanism, fifth-century B.C. Athens, where the Areopagus, a council of elders, would, like the Parliament of Milton’s day, hear cases and render judgment. He calls us back as well to the early days of Christianity, when the Apostle Paul (Acts 17) invited the members of the Areopagus to open their hearts and minds and to make a smooth and natural transition from their limited pagan belief in an unknown God to a fuller faith in an invisible Father who has made himself known through the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of his Son.

Despite his sympathies with the goals of the Puritan Revolution, Milton could not condone any abridgment of man’s right to study and seek after truth; his Christian humanist view of truth was too vigorous for that. “Truth,” he writes, “is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.” Truth, like the Bible itself, is ever active and alive, sharper and swifter than any double-edged sword:

she needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious, those are the shifts and the defenses that error uses against her when she sleeps, for then she speaks not true, as the old Proteus did, who spake oracles only when he was caught and bound, but then rather she turns herself into all shapes, except her own, and perhaps tunes her voice according to the time, as Micaiah did before Ahab [1 Kings 22], until she be adjured into her own likeness. Yet is it not impossible that she may have more shapes than one.

To censor truth is to all-but compel it to mingle itself with error, to hide itself even further from our view. Rather than try to suppress it, we must allow it to follow its own winding course; then only will we be able to seek it out in all its forms.

For truth, though it entered our world in a perfect form and shape was later torn and scattered to the four winds like the limbs of the Egyptian god, Osiris. “From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them.” Should it not be one of the functions of the Christian university—whether Catholic or Protestant—to play the role of Isis, to help in the re-gathering and re-assembling of truth?

That Milton would surely agree is attested to in part by the fact that his greater vision of truth as a living if fragmented presence in our world included a more specific view of the Great Books of our tradition as vivid, animated vessels of this truth:

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth, and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.

Milton did not merely study books; he dined, conversed, and struggled with them as he would with living, breathing men. Reading the ancients was never a passive activity for Milton. On the contrary, as he took into himself the ideas incarnated in each work, he would actively measure and square these ideas with the truths he knew from his personal and intimate encounter with both the Bible and the God of the Bible.

Milton took seriously the freedom granted him by his Creator to choose and to discern what is right and wrong, good and evil:

when God gave him [Adam] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions [puppet shows]. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force. God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes; herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence.

When a student at a Christian university wrestles with a Great Book, when he seeks to extract from it its essence of God-born truth while simultaneously guarding his mind from error, he is exercising those very faculties of mind—consciousness and reason, conscience and volition—that most closely mimic the nature of that God in whose image he was created. Indeed, to make a proper and effective use of those faculties is to move closer to God and to that Truth of which he alone is the source. To choose rightly, and to show ourselves capable and worthy of such choice, is to grow in Christ and to recapture, at least in part, that glory that was ours in the Garden.

As a Christian humanist, Milton believed that such choosing was real and possible, and that it justified any risks that the freedom of the press might entail. After all, Milton reminds us, Moses and Daniel “were skillful in all the learning of the Egyptians [and] Chaldeans,” and Paul “thought it no defilement to insert into Holy Scripture the sentences of three Greek poets [Acts 17:28, 1 Corinthians 15:33, and Titus 1:12], and one of them a tragedian.” The true Christian, Milton assures us, whose eyes are fixed on the pure love and truth of Christ, need not fear defilement from pagan works, even as God released Peter (in Acts 10) from the kosher laws of the Old Testament with the liberating command that he not call unclean what God had made clean. To illustrate further this assurance, Milton then recounts a tale from the early Church that all who serve in Catholic or Protestant universities would do well to keep in mind:

Dionysius Alexandrinus was, about the year 240, a person of great name in the Church for piety and learning, who had wont to avail himself much against heretics by being conversant in their books; until a certain presbyter laid it scrupulously to his conscience, how he durst venture himself among those defiling volumes. The worthy man, loth to give offence, fell into a new debate with himself what was to be thought; when suddenly a vision sent from God (it is his own epistle that so avers it) confirmed him in these words: Read any books whatsoever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter. To this revelation he assented the sooner, as he confesses because it was answerable to that of the Apostle to the Thessalonians, Prove all things, hold fast that which is good. And he might have added another remarkable saying of the same author: To the pure, all things are pure; not only meats and drinks, but all kind of knowledge whether of good or evil; the knowledge cannot defile, not consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defiled.

Milton expresses here a three-fold faith that must ever function as the backbone of any university that would invite its students to explore both Athens and Jerusalem:1) that it is more the state of the mind/soul that considers than the object that is considered that purifies or defiles; 2) that the saint, unlike the sinner, is qualified by God to examine and judge whatever is presented to his mind; 3) that, in fact, “a wise man, like a good refiner, can gather gold out of the drossiest volume, [while] a fool will be a fool with the best book, yea, or without book.”

If Christian educators cannot rest on this three-fold faith, then truly must they fear the introduction of pagan texts into the classroom. Indeed, if they are fair and consistent in their fears, then they must exclude even the Bible itself from their curriculum: “for that oft-times relates blasphemy not nicely, it describes the carnal sense of wicked men not unelegantly, it brings in holiest men passionately murmuring against Providence through all the argument of Epicurus.” Thankfully, though, we can have faith in our native—though, alas, oft unexercised—ability to discern good and evil, can believe with assurance that God can and does trust us “with the gift of reason to be [our] own chooser.” And, if we will but treasure and explore that faith, we just may discover that the most vital skill that a Christian university can bequeath to its students is this very ability to discern the true from the false, the light from the dark, the gold from the dross. The postmodern educator—like the radical egalitarian—allows all books (all texts) into his classroom on an equal basis because he believes that they are all of equal value: that is to say, equally non-authoritative, equally non-binding, and, finally, equally worthless. But the true Christian educator includes all manner of fare in his banquet of learning for he knows that the properly-trained palate will be able to distinguish the Velveeta from the Camembert, the hamburger from the filet mignon.

And this leads us to what is perhaps Milton’s greatest contribution to our understanding of the proper pursuit of truth: a contribution that renders a Christian humanist education not only possible but essential. For, to Milton’s mind, the true Christian, if he is to grow in wisdom and mature in virtue, must employ all his natural and acquired skills of discernment not merely to separate the true from the false, but to encounter the true in and through the false:

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labor to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil. As therefore the state of man is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian.

Milton’s point here is not only brilliant but vital. As sojourners in a fallen world, we must understand—and develop strategies for dealing with—the sad fact that pure goodness, pure beauty, and pure truth no longer exist on this earth. Of course, these things were partially restored by the entrance into our world of one who was (and is) pure Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, and yet, even for him, the road to the spotless glory of resurrection lay through the shame and horror of crucifixion. The stable yet finally futile laws that control our present, temporal existence are such that the wheat and tares not only grow up together, but that the latter cannot be fully weeded out without damaging or even destroying the former (Matthew 13:24-30). True, when the telos is reached, the wheat and the tares will be properly and eternally separated, but, for now, we must learn to recognize and handle our earthly reality as it is.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I am not (nor is Milton) advocating a relativistic, post-modern position on the nature of truth. Absolute Truth does exist and is, at least in part, knowable and communicable, but the rising path that carries us upward toward that Truth is a thorny one in which good and evil, truth and error are cunningly and often deceptively interwoven. Further, and this is the essential point I am attempting to extract from Milton, if we refuse or are prevented from exploring the full stretch of that path, if we allow fear or guilt to stop us from “dirtying” our hands with pagan or “sub-Christian” or even heterodox literature, if we shy away from that which is painful, disturbing, or impure, we will miss out on a host of higher truths that can only be reached through such problematic avenues of investigation. The puritanical, legalistic desire to withdraw completely from the world may shield us from many sins, but it shall also, in accordance with the earthly nature of truth, close us off from an equal number of virtues:

They are not skillful considerers of human things who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin . . . Suppose we could expel sin by this means; look how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue: for the matter of them both is the same; remove that, and ye remove them both alike.

Such a thought may inspire sorrow or satisfaction in those who consider it; nevertheless, such is the condition of our existence, and the Christian educator—whether Catholic or Protestant—must acknowledge this condition if he is to prepare his students for life in a fallen world. Though Truth dwells above, and though there are moments when it is made known to us directly through the revelation of the Spirit, it is more often the case that such truth reaches us not outside and apart from, but through and in the midst of human wisdom. Indeed, even when our spirits are vouchsafed such a vision, we must, like our fellow mortals, trudge our way through the thorny path if we hope to interpret that vision in a way that is compatible with our lives and our work on this imperfect planet we call home.

Milton, who lived and participated in a volatile age of schism, rebellion, and reform, calls out to us from across the centuries to see and to accept that “there must be many schisms and many dissections made in the quarry and in the timber ere the house of God can be built. And when every stone is laid artfully together, it cannot be united into a continuity, it can but be contiguous in this world.” May we adopt Milton’s metaphor of the contiguous house of God, rather than the egalitarian and relativistic metaphors of postmodern educators, as our distinctive badge and emblem. Only then shall we be empowered to seek after Truth in a way that would please both the Protestant Milton and the Catholic Newman; only then shall we be enabled to build a Christian humanist university that is worthy of itself, its Lord, and its high calling.

Louis Markos is a Professor in English at Houston Baptist University; and the author of From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians should Read the Pagan Classics (IVP, 2007) and Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Victorian Age (Sapientia, 2007).

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