Ten Times Better than the Magicians and the Enchanters: Christianity as a Framework for Higher Education
By Gene Edward Veith, Ph.D.
The relationship between faith and reason, the Bible and science, Christian revelation and secular knowledge, has vexed Christians for centuries. During the 20th century, especially, secularist scholars have put Christians on the defensive: Your religious faith, they say, is irrational and thus disqualifies you from any kind of serious pursuit of learning. Your dogmas prevent the free search for truth that characterizes the liberal arts and the scientific enterprise. Your narrow-minded embrace of what the Bible teaches keeps you from participating in the unshackled life of the mind that characterizes the Great Books of Western Civilization and the heritage of higher education.
Christian scholars and educators have labored to refute these charges, and Christian colleges have tried to prove them wrong. But then, especially in the 21st century, a funny thing happened. The secularists who once attacked faith are now also attacking reason. Some of the same people who rejected the Bible are now rejecting science. The liberal arts and Western civilization have themselves become anathema for much of today’s higher education establishment. Now Christians have been put in the position of defending reason and objective truth. As other academics reject their own intellectual heritage, it is increasingly up to Christians to champion the liberal arts, Western civilization, and higher education itself.
The place of the “Great Books” in the college curriculum is particularly instructive. As Christianity lost its authority and its presence in higher education, distinctly theological concepts were displaced onto secular subjects. “Inspiration” began to be ascribed not to the Bible but to poetry, art, and even business plans. Words like “Mission” and “Vision” were no longer credible in the church, but they were taken over by corporations, each of which now has its “mission and vision statements.” The word “canon” referred originally to the list of books Christians recognize as comprising the Holy Bible. But beginning in the late 19th century, for example, with Matthew Arnold, a secular “canon” began to be drawn up of books that were taken, in effect, to constitute an authoritative collection of secular scriptures. Through the 20th century, a consensus emerged—codified not only in an Encyclopedia Britannica collection edited by Mortimer Adler but more influentially in college textbooks and university curricula—of what books and authors deserve to be taught and studied. These were said to comprise the “canon” of Western literature and philosophy.
But in the late 20th century, the “canon” came under attack. Why? Largely because, by the principles of the postmodernist ideologies that came to dominate Western universities, the “canon” was insufficiently “inclusive.” Most of its authors were men. The “canon” became evidence for the new feminist scholars that Western civilization is intrinsically sexist, a vast construction of male power bent on marginalizing women. Another critique of the “canon” was that most of its authors were white. This played into the “post-Marxist” critique of Western racism and imperialism. The very fact that colleges were studying a “Western” canon violated the postmodernist call for “multi-culturalism.” The authors of these “great books” were mostly white, male, Europeans or Americans, privileging Western culture—with all of its crimes—over and against all of the non-Western cultures, which have been unfairly “marginalized” and whose contributions and alternative ways of looking at the world have been excluded in college curricula.
Thus, the so-called “canon” had to be revised to include books written by people of other genders, races, and cultures. Implicit, though, in the revision of the canon was that the classic criteria for a book being a “great book”—the value and influence of its ideas and its measurement by standards such as truth, goodness, and beauty—were no longer even considered. Once those prior concepts are jettisoned, the study of great or even near-great books has little point anyway. Postmodernist relativists have no basis for such concepts, except to view them with suspicion, as mere cultural constructions and impositions of power.
But Christians do have a basis for believing in truth, goodness, and beauty and in the greatness of Great Books. We can critique the “canon” too, and we do not confuse these “secular scriptures” with the canon of Holy Scriptures. But we have a basis for appreciating what is good in them. Furthermore, we Christians are about the only ones left who have such a basis. We Christians have an interest—which today’s secularist intellectuals have lost—in Western civilization, which Christianity did so much to shape. We thus find ourselves in the curious position of treasuring whole blocks of secular learning that today’s secularists are willing to throw away. We Christians may find ourselves in the position of keeping learning alive in a culture that has no use for it. We did this once already through the Dark Ages, after the Barbarians overthrew Rome and vandalized classical culture, when the Western intellectual heritage was preserved and passed along by the church.
Christians increasingly have an advantage in the educational enterprise. This is evident in the success of Christian homeschooled children, with their content-rich curriculum and serious cultivation of knowledge, as compared to their government-schooled friends who have spent their time in school constructing their own truths. Christians have an advantage in education because the Bible encourages learning in a way that contemporary relativism does not.
The Bible is explicit in teaching that believers may study so-called “secular” or non-revealed learning. Consider the first chapter of Daniel:
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king's palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:1-7)
Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple itself. Babylon was the antagonist of God’s people, to the point that the city became a type of the kingdom of the anti-Christ that will arise in the last days. And yet, these four young men were called to its court to learn “the literature and language of the Chaldeans,” shot through though it was with overt paganism.
Not all of God’s people were called to this work, only those “of good appearance, skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand [other translations say ‘serve’] in the king’s palace.” This may sound like Patrick Henry students, and indeed the qualities listed here—other than appearance—are the prerequisites for academic success: “Skills,” such as the ability to read, write, and think; “knowledge,” of the sort that allows one to attain more knowledge; and “understanding,” the ability to comprehend that knowledge. The University of Babylon, like Patrick Henry College, also focused on practical application and leadership-building, looking for students “competent to serve” in the halls of power. Implicit in this passage is the trivium of the classical liberal arts tradition, the grammar of basic skills and knowledge; the logic that leads to understanding; and the rhetoric of personal application in the world.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were given a full-ride scholarship to the University of Babylon, where “they were to be educated for three years.” Then they would have a final exam from the king himself. Studying in this pagan environment was not without difficulties for these faithful young people:
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.” Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king's food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.” So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food. So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. (Daniel 1:9-16)
These children of Israel understood the freedom they had through their faith in the true God. They did not even have any scruples about accepting Babylonian names with references to pagan deities—Bel, the sun, Shach, and Nego—but they refused to compromise on the commands of God’s Word, in this case the Hebrew dietary laws, which they had a covenant obligation to keep. This passage is a model of how believers should deal with problems they encounter in functioning in the non-believing world. Notice how the four dealt with the authority over them with respect, obedience, and a self-sacrificial willingness to do without and to accept a test. Notice too how God was at work in the whole enterprise: “God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs.” The difficulties these four would have at the court of Babylon would continue and intensify, of course—to the point of the Lion’s Den and the Fiery Furnace—but never did they back away from God’s Word.
Then came graduation time, and we find in Scripture a remarkable passage for higher education: As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king. And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom. (Daniel 1:17-20)
The Scripture could not be clearer in stating that education in its full range is a gift of God: “God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom”—even that of the pagan Babylonians. Moreover, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego understood the knowledge of the pagan Babylonians even better than the pagan Babylonians did. Scripture goes so far as to quantify these believers’ academic superiority to their pagan classmates: They were “ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters.”
Why is that? I would argue that these four believers in God’s Word had a better foundation and a better perspective for education than the magicians and the enchanters. Furthermore, I believe that this holds true for Christians today, that Scripture gives us Christian students and scholars a ten-fold advantage over the magicians and enchanters of our day.
Our non-Christian opponents often characterize us as narrow-minded dogmatists, afraid of following academic inquiry wherever it might lead. You Christians, they say, think you already know “the truth,” and so you are unable to learn anything that is not already in your Bible. Thus, they say, you cannot be a true player in the free-flowing marketplace of ideas. Ironically, we Christians often agree with our enemies in this, presenting our faith as just one ideology among many, competing against all of the other belief-systems. But I would argue that it is the secularists who have narrow-minded ideologies that inhibit education in its fullness, that Christianity is so comprehensive, so complex and nuanced and so much bigger than humanly-devised ideologies that it can serve as an educational framework for the whole range of learning.
Notice, to take another example, how the Bible describes the knowledge God gave to Solomon:
And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kings 4: 29-34)
Solomon was a philosopher and a botanist, a musician and a zoologist. We might call him a “Renaissance man,” that sort of multiple-faceted intellect that has always been the hallmark of a classical liberal arts education.
To be sure, we must be cautious about using Solomon as an example. His vaunted “wisdom” did not save him from falling into idolatry, though I believe that the Book of Ecclesiastes suggests that he finally returned to faith. Saving faith is not a matter of knowledge, contrary to the Gnostic heretics, and indeed the well-educated are often tempted to trust in their own intellects rather than in the Word of God. “For consider your calling,” says the Apostle Paul, “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards” (1 Corinthians 1:26). “Not many,” but that implies that some were. As Paul says, this is a matter of “calling,” of vocation.
But for those who do have the academic vocation, Solomon remains instructive because, as in all vocations, Scripture describes his powers and accomplishments as gifts from God: “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore.” God’s gift was not a narrow mind. This “breadth of mind” should not be confused with being “broad-minded,” as in that false tolerance that refuses to distinguish between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Nor is it that “open mind,” in which ideas flit in and out, coming and going as they please. This is “breadth of mind,” which Scripture describes as an intellect vast and capacious, comparing its scope and fullness to “the sand on the seashore,” an “understanding beyond measure.” And this, in fact, describes what the Christian mind is and has always been.
T. S. Eliot, in his essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” has traced what he calls “the dissociation of sensibility” after the 17th century, that is, after the Christian cultural consensus began to come apart. In the Christian eras, as evident in poets such as William Shakespeare and John Donne, thought and feeling went together and did not contradict each other. But then with the 18th century came the Enlightenment, the “Age of Reason,” which downplayed the emotions. That was followed by Romanticism of the 19th century, an “Age of Emotion,” which denigrated Reason. Ever since, thought and feeling have gone in different and opposite directions. This is but one of many examples of the fragmentation that plagues human beings trapped in a Godless and increasingly meaningless world. Eliot tried to find a way to put his “sensibility” together again. In his search for wholeness, Eliot—that most modern of modern poets—became a Christian.
The Christian worldview embraces the whole range of reality: the intellect and the emotions; objectivity and subjectivity; science and the humanities; facts and ideas; the natural and the supernatural. Today people construe these as opposites in conflict, but they were not so for pre-Enlightenment Christians.
Indeed, the scope and breadth of the Christian vision of reality encompasses wide extremes. Christianity can account for the depravity of human beings, the limits of the mind, the sorry record of failures and atrocities and evil that makes up much of human history. We name this “sin,” the abundant evidence of our fallen condition. But Christianity can also account for the greatness of human beings, the achievements of the intellect and creative powers, the heroism and moral examples that also constitute our history. This is because human beings were created in the Image of God, and thus are endowed with extraordinary value and potential. We can account for human sin and human greatness, as well as everything in between.
Similarly, we can grasp both the order in nature—which we know as God’s creation—and its disorder, caught up as it is in Man’s Fall. We know that God works through societies, cultures, and governments to restrain human sin, as Romans 13 teaches, and we also know why all utopian schemes and ideologies fail, since sinful human beings can never establish of themselves what we will only know in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Yes, Christians are dogmatic, and it is the dogmas of Scripture that preserve the breadth of the Christian mind. Christianity is always saying “both/and”: Jesus is both man and God; Scripture teaches both Law and Gospel; God’s wrath and His grace. Chesterton underscores the paradoxes of Christianity, how the church has always promoted both chastity and marriage, sometimes seeming warlike and sometimes seeming pacifist, promoting both fasting and feasting:
St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker thaqn Schopenhauer. Both passions were free because both were kept in their place. . . .By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence. . .things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are to vice. The spirits of indignation and of charity took terrible and attractive forms, ranging from that monkish fierceness that scourged like a dog the first and greatest of the Plantagenets, to the sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles, kissed the bloody head of the criminal.
It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the read and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray. . . .It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of a cross.
Chesterton’s point is that the Christian tradition is dynamic and complex, its polarities embracing the paradoxes of life.
Does this mean that Christians will accept every idea and just put it in some sort of balancing continuum? Not at all. Human beings have a tendency to set up their ideologies as alternatives to God and His truth, so that they become pretexts of evasion and excuses for their sins.
And yet, in the procession of intellectual, artistic, and scientific movements, there tends to be a reason why each one emerges when and as it does, and this reason is often one that Christians can affirm. The Enlightenment followed the religious carnage of the Thirty Years War, and we can recognize the sins of the church that gave rise to this reaction. We can appreciate the new emphasis on reason, especially in its conservative neoclassical mode, even as we decry its reductionistic and deistic mode, praising the American Revolution, while condemning the very different French Revolution. We can appreciate Romanticism as a needed reaction against the arid rationalism of the Enlightenment, while critiquing its subjectivism and its pathological focus on the Self. That is to say, Christians must practice and even go beyond the secularists in what is an essential element in higher education; namely, the capacity to be critical.
Though Christians can think in terms of “both/and,” in contemplating human thought and accomplishments, we must also say “yes/but.” Yes, we can appreciate Thomas Hardy’s depressing novels about the meaninglessness of life, seeing in them the tragedy of our lost condition. But, we also recognize how much of life he leaves out, the joys and meanings of God’s created order. Yes, we can appreciate Walt Whitman’s exuberant poetry about the wonders of simple existence. We go beyond him in knowing why existence has such value, since we recognize in every leaf of grass the creation of God. But we also recognize how Whitman’s cosmic optimism leaves out the reality of sin and the necessity of redemption, something this cheerful poet himself had to encounter during the Civil War.
A non-Christian, whose only resources are secularist thought, might agree with Hardy’s pessimism or Whitman’s optimism, but not both, since two such contradictory stances cannot both be right. A Christian, in contrast, can gain insights from them both. At the same time, a Christian sees each perspective as partial. The human intellect is limited. We can never know completely. “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” says the Apostle Paul, and much of what we see is our own distorted image. “But then,” he promises, after death, in the Kingdom of Heaven, we will know “face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Because we know in part, we must be critical in what we study. We must subject human ideologies to an appropriate critique, especially when they set themselves up as infallible, complete, and in opposition to God’s moral and created order. We can “know in part,” even from non-Christian sources, but we can never be fully satisfied with them. And our quest for knowledge will never be over in this life. No matter how much we learn, there will always be more. That means the educational enterprise will continue. We Christian students and scholars must be both affirmative and critical of what we study. We have such a breadth of mind, thanks to the revelations of Scripture, that we can learn from diverse, even opposite perspectives. Christians can appreciate the Enlightenment for its rationalism and Romanticism for its emotionalism. But Christianity always will see these human ideologies as partial, as narrow fragments of a complex truth that must be balanced by a more comprehensive vision of life.
Christian scholarship is thus dynamic, even contrarian. It will emulate the great Christian mathematician Pascal, who, in his planned defense of the Christian faith, made this resolution of how he would address the contradictions in the human soul: “If he vaunts himself,/ I abase him. / If he abases himself, /I vaunt him, / and gainsay him always/ until he understands/ that he is a monster beyond understanding.” Such an approach, of course, will drive the secularists crazy.
But it corresponds to the way we actually study the liberal arts and the Western tradition. The history of Western thought, in every field, is a sequence of one thinker or movement followed by another, which is usually a reaction against the previous one. Reading through the history of nearly every discipline, including the hard sciences, is as the Book of Proverbs says: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). Hobbes, with his cynicism about human nature and his skepticism that human beings can ever govern themselves, is followed by Rousseau, who glorifies human nature and idealizes the social contract. Modernism makes empirical scientific rationalism the measure of all things. Postmodernism rejects objective truth altogether.
The Christian thinker can recognize in Hobbes the reality of human sinfulness, but then, in Pascal’s terms, will vaunt humanity against his reductionistic nihilism. The Christian reading Rousseau can acknowledge the human greatness that he sees, as a trace of the Divine Image, but will then abase his naïve and destructive trust in human goodness. The Christian confronting Modernism can agree with its attention to the objective universe that God designed, but then critique its reductionism that rejects the objective truths that cannot be seen or measured. The Christian confronting Postmodernism can agree with its insight that the human mind is limited and biased, inextricably tied up in culture and power games. We do construct our own truths, which is why they are idolatrous. But against the postmodernists Christians can vaunt the human mind, insisting that truth exists after all, because there is a God who establishes and reveals it. We know better than the postmodernists that Western civilization is ridden with sin, but we can still appreciate its accomplishments. We agree with the postmodernists in rejecting humanism, in questioning the myth of progress, and in our openness to pre-technological cultures (which would include those represented in the Bible). But we do not reject humanness or our own time or our own culture.
According to the Bible, Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego proved themselves to be ten times better in their learning than the magicians and enchanters. Who were these magicians and enchanters? I suspect that the Babylonian magicians were the ones who pretended to be able to manipulate nature, who dazzled the average Babylonian with their “tricks” in which they seemed able to make nature do their bidding. Today, we average Americans are likewise dazzled by learned men and women who make nature do their bidding. We call them scientists and engineers, who work their magic by means of technology. The Babylonian enchanters would spin illusions, playing with the minds of average Babylonians by using words and strange arts to create unreal thoughts and experiences that nevertheless seem true and real. Today, we have enchanters too, from artists who create imaginary worlds that we come to inhabit, to thinkers who construct new paradigms that seem to constitute a new reality.
Today’s intellectual establishment might be understood as a realm of magicians and enchanters—of scientists and artists; modernists and postmodernists; empiricists and idealists. Like Daniel, we Christians can inhabit their world and learn from common sources. We can manipulate nature to an extent, though we dare not forget that ours is a limited dominion, a stewardship under the Creator and Sustainer of the natural order. We can make our own creations, since we bear the Creator’s image, but we dare not confuse ourselves with him. We can outdo the magicians and enchanters in their own games because we can see from a height much greater than theirs.
Pharoah’s magicians tried to imitate the miracles of Moses in turning staffs to snakes, but Moses’ serpent swallowed them up. Nebuchadnezzar’s enchanters could not recall or interpret the king’s dream, even upon pain of death, but Daniel, illumined by the Word of God, was able to proclaim the king’s vision and its meaning, bringing the scourge of Jerusalem to his knees (Daniel 2). Indeed, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, because of their education were competent and equipped to serve in the king’s palace, and they became rulers of the land. Service and authority in Babylon, though, was not a life of peace, status, and affluence; rather, it brought them into other kinds of conflict with the pagan world. Refusing to compromise their faith, Daniel was thrown into the Lions’ Den and the other three were consigned to the Fiery Furnace. But God delivered them and made them instruments to deliver His people from captivity.
Today, Christians too can be ten times better than our magicians and enchanters. The world of the materialist is small and constricted compared to that of the Christian, whose world is vast, embracing both the material and the spiritual and all of the rich complexities of life. The world of the enchanter is as narrow as the human mind, cut off from the objective truth, the objective goodness, and the objective beauty that issue not from our own but from God’s creativity. And today both the magicians and the enchanters are sinking into superstition, ignorance, and solipsism. Meanwhile, Christians who have the academic calling and the gifts of intellectual skill, knowledge, and understanding can flourish in the scholarly enterprise and can be equipped for service and influence in the unbelieving world.
Archimedes, the great scientist and engineer of the classical world, worked out the physics of the lever, showing that there is theoretically no limit to the weight that a person could move with the right fulcrum and a long enough lever. He said, “If I had a place to stand, I could move the world.” But, of course, there is the rub. He could not move the world because he could not stand outside of the world.
This is the constant human dilemma. How can we add to human knowledge if the existing human knowledge is all we know? How can we change our culture when we are part of our culture? How can we change ourselves when we are ourselves? We have no place to stand.
On April 17, 1521, a young university professor stood before the Emperor and his legislators. He had defied the current intellectual and religious establishment on the matter of the Gospel and the authority of the Word of God. After the authorities demanded that he retract his teachings, this young man—standing all alone against the world—said that unless someone could show him where he was wrong from a rational reading of the Word of God, he was unable to retract anything. “Here I stand,” he said.
Martin Luther had a place to stand, on the Word of God. And so do we. He was not trapped in the intellectual preconceptions, the cultural biases, and the spiritual entanglements of his time. He could stand outside them. And so can we. Because Luther did have a place to stand, he actually did move the world, toppling the medieval hierarchies, putting Bibles into the hands of ordinary people and opening schools so they could read them, schools that employed the education liberalis—the curriculum for freedom, known as the classical liberal arts, which in time would lead to social mobility and political liberty. God’s Word gives all Christians a place to stand, so that we too can move the world—whether that of academia, the culture, or ourselves—with His help.