April 25, 2011
(Photo: Bema in Ancient Corinth)
In early spring the scarlet poppies of Greece fill the cracks of the marble ruins. They crop up alongside the dust of tourist paths, and mix with the thistles in the open grasslands, not so much in clusters but in scattered blossoms, like drops of blood sprinkled over the fields.
When I visited Ancient Corinth some ten days ago there were a few poppies growing between the rust-colored stones of the Bema, or the public rostrum, where the Apostle Paul appeared in 51 A.D. before a Roman tribunal, accused of “persuading people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” The proconsul—brother of the philosopher Seneca—dismissed the charge even before the defendant had an occasion to speak. This was, after all, an intramural quarrel, weighty perhaps for the poor Jewish community but irrelevant to the edicts of Rome.
Much of what survives at Corinth bears the stamp of Rome. Dozens of stone torsos, their heads long shattered, were dug out of the clay when the site was excavated just over a century ago. Until then, about all that you would have seen on the historic locale were the seven surviving Doric columns of the Greek Temple of Apollo, chiseled more than 300 years before the Romans arrived and more than a half-millennium before Christ. That ruined temple still commands the site, standing at the foot of a great monolith of volcanic rock.
But all around the temple archeologists have now exposed a vast cityscape, built by the Romans over the wasteland of the Greek city that they sacked in 146 B.C.E. That Roman city is now rubble itself, a victim of recurrent earthquakes. It actually requires some imagination and a good guidebook to envision the temples and theatres that once stood where today there are only broken stones. First-century mosaics and goblets, many depicting Dionysus and sexual play, fill the local archeological museum, along with the statue of a toga-clad Augustus Caesar and that of his adult grandson Gaius Caesar, nude, muscular, uncircumcised, bearing the regal confidence of a young heir who could not know that he would be dead from the wounds of battle before the age of 25.
The train from Athens had slowed slightly as it crossed over the narrow, steeply sloped Corinth canal. During the last half hour of the journey the rail lines had gradually edged closer to the shores of the Saronic Gulf: enormous white cruise ships and cargo vessels filled the open waters, a stark contrast to the goat herds that meandered through the shrubs and olive groves on low hillsides. Dug in the late nineteenth century, the four-mile canal had been a dream of the Emperor Nero. Corinth is set on an isthmus between the mainland of Greece and the large peninsula of the Peloponnese. It also rests on the thin strand of land that divides the Aegean Sea from the Gulf of Corinth. Not surprisingly, then, it became a gateway for trade. Remnants of an old stone road built in the sixth century B.C.E., known as the Diolkos (literally, “haul across”), still mark the route where Corinthians rolled ships and transported goods over the isthmus. That place at the center of first-century commerce fueled the city’s wealth, feeding the indulgence and licentiousness that Paul would assail in his letters to the young Corinthian church.
Most everyone comes to Greece with hopes of seeing something of the origins of western culture, even if only in the ruins on top of the Acropolis. I had hoped to catch some echoes of the liberal arts ideals that are often traced to classical Athens and Rome. My trip—an accreditation visit on behalf of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges—acquainted me with the crosscurrents within the modern Greek university, including the bureaucratic measures taken to shield the professional guilds and the public institutions. Private higher education, often the nerve center of the liberal arts in the United States, is deemed invalid by the Greek constitution. I met faculty with graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard but who were unable to register with the Ministry of Education in Athens or to secure public university jobs, merely because their undergraduate degrees came from private Greek colleges.
Not that the Greeks lack an independent spirit. Taxi drivers routinely complained about the size of the public payroll or described the rising “euroscepticism,” the mounting fear that weaker nations like Greece were being manipulated by the European Union. Many telephone poles, cinder-block walls, and kiosks bore posters depicting the U.S. and the E.U. as vultures hovering together over Libya. But the idea that citizenship and public service require liberal learning—the breadth of the “septem [seven] artes liberales” once embraced by the ancient Athenians and Romans—seemed an echo of another age.
I had saved the trip to Corinth for a free day after the accreditation work in Athens was done, with hopes of walking over a few more lanes in the New Testament. It was also a way to prepare for Easter. After all, it was to this church that Paul wrote his great letter about the Resurrection: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed . . . For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
I needed the reverberation of that promise. This has been, in many ways, a difficult season for me, not the least because we have all been reminded of the vulnerability of our bodies. Multiple surgeries in our community. Cases of cancer. The loss of a beloved cousin, my age, her spine crushed by tumors. I was anxious for that mystery of hope.
But Corinth also gave me a new lens on the liberal arts. No doubt, I was set up for this by several days of pondering the status of general education in the European Union. But walking through the physical remnants of Greek, Roman and Christian cultures in the old city also stirred thoughts about the crosscurrents in our own project. Ancient Corinth was, at least for an interlude in the first century, a place where Jerusalem did meet Athens—and imperial Rome.
Few people turn to Paul to start any conversation about the liberal arts, in part because the Apostle is better known for warning about Greek sophistry and the foolishness of the wise. It is far more common to view the Christian liberal arts as the synthesis begun in late antiquity, when writers like Augustine melded classical eloquence and the quest for knowledge with Christian doctrine and virtue. The study of the liberal arts became a means for faith to seek understanding, drawing not only from the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures but also from the well of Hellenistic and Roman philosophy and practice.
The Greeks had never actually settled on a unified theory of the liberal arts. Plato and Aristotle favored liberal learning as the pursuit of knowledge. For both of them, speculative philosophy and vigorous “mathematical” inquiry—namely, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—would lead to virtue and wisdom. Others, especially the sophists, saw eloquence rather than inquiry as the prime goal. They wanted a pragmatic wisdom, one that shaped and improved society, even if that opened them to charges that they elevated persuasion above truth. The liberal arts were often the way that “liberal” or “free” persons, in other words the social elite, could cultivate skills for leadership; in that vein, rhetorical brilliance could become a means to manipulate others and secure power. On the other hand, the liberal arts did genuinely aid the rise of democracy in the Greek city-state, as leaders now needed to prepare themselves for the give-and-take of political debate, even if that debate was still centered in corridors of office and not in the public square.
In the century or so before Christ’s birth, the Romans readily adapted the Greek educational practices for their own republic. Cicero describes how philosophy flowed from “the Greek Adriatic Sea of many ports” and eventually “cascaded upon our wild, craggy, inhospitable Tuscan shore.” Known primarily as an “orator,” Cicero still argued for education that blended eloquence with knowledge. Like many of his Roman contemporaries, he maintained that the end of learning was to prepare good citizens to lead the good society, though those citizens were still the children of privilege, as the liberal arts were reserved for those with private teachers and the leisure to study. That remains, of course, one of the challenges today, as the liberal arts are most frequently championed on the high-rent campuses in America. As with the Romans, a good dose of the traditional texts and instruction in virtue is great nourishment for service and leadership, though we can too easily celebrate a liberal arts pedigree as a badge of character and wisdom without acknowledging that it can also be the legacy and license of power.
That may be one reason, perhaps, why I thought about our project in the Christian liberal arts when I sat among the remnants of Ancient Corinth. If Christian thought can indeed add to the mix of inquiry, eloquence, and cultural power embodied by the septem artes liberales of the Greeks and Romans, it may be best represented by the appeals for humility, charity, and hope that distinguish the high points of Paul’s letters to the young and often cantankerous church at Corinth.
Corinth was not at its economic or cultural pinnacle when Paul spent a year and a half there, though the new community of believers drew largely from the city’s less fortunate. Not that Paul was opposed to converting the powerful. In his epistle to the Romans, for instance, he passes along the greetings of Erastus, the Corinthian treasurer. I followed a museum brochure to find one stone in the ruins that bore Erastus’ name, most likely the mantle of a building he funded. But many of the people whom Paul cherished at Corinth—notably, Aquila and Priscilla—were Jewish exiles banished by Rome. Paul probably wrote several letters to the Corinthians, but the first one that survives—full of counsel about factionalism, egos, promiscuity, and tongues—offers prudent advice and survival skills to a community on the fringe of a prosperous and cosmopolitan society. He is not worried that the church will worship at the Temple of Aphrodite, but he does fear that the prostitutes in the city could lure the unwary believer. And it would be a needy people, not the wealthy, who might be tempted to eat the meat left over from sacrifices to idols.
As that letter soars towards its finish, though, Paul moves beyond the immediate ethical dilemmas in Corinth toward his more luminous themes—the image of the church as a body, the great prose poem about love, and then the reassurance of the Resurrection. These are among the grandest claims in the new gospel—and, as such, are the very themes that should raise a Christian approach to liberal learning beyond some of the well-sculpted conventions of the modern academy. In many ways, for students entering colleges and universities, the choice is still often between knowledge and eloquence. You can strive for the prowess offered by increasing specialization or the leadership skills implicit in intellectual breath and critical acumen. But education is more than simply the refinement and preparation of the individual for leadership; it is also the humility to recognize that the scholarly community itself requires different parts of a body, each gifted in distinct ways, to resolve any major intellectual or cultural challenge.
Admittedly, Paul has a local quarrel in mind. He stresses the diversity of gifts to counteract the Corinthians’ overemphasis on “tongues,” whether those tongues were ecstatic utterances or the linguistic virtuosity evident in such a cosmopolitan center. Corinth, apparently, had both: multilingual believers and those who claimed that they actually uttered the language of angels. We may be far removed from that kind of triumphalism, but we have our own varieties, whether it is the arrogance of the pulpit, the specialist, or the ideologue. Paul’s vision of the church may also be far removed from the liberal arts academy, but the humility needed to honor one another’s gifts and wisdom may foreshadow the highest promise of an interdisciplinary community of believers and learners.
And then there’s love—the much-admired thirteenth chapter about agape, the highest form of love in the Greek language. That prose poem about a love that “endures all things” is adored in the church but a strange concept for a university, and perhaps a dangerous one, since facile notions of love generally lead to compliance rather than courage, evasiveness rather than wisdom. Intellectual communities, like the democracies they often support, need the doubters, the antagonists, the skeptics, and the restless. But we can also too easily decide that the checks and balances that we put in place to insure democratic governance and scholarly advances are the highest moral end in themselves. The audacity of the Christian liberal arts project is that it can embrace those concessions to prudent governance and intellectual foment while calling the community to something higher.
What struck me reading First Corinthians in Corinth is that this is a different kind of integration than we usually envision when we are striving after an intellectual fusion of faith and learning, refining our “worldview,” as valuable as that can be. It is a project far messier, paradoxical, and irresolvable. We need scholarly ambition and even competition to learn, but also the willingness to offset that with a love that “does not envy” and “does not seek its own.” We need the dedication to build on layers of inquiry and knowledge fully aware that this knowledge will, in time, “vanish away.” In the end, it will not be the programs and proposals that I remember most, but the moments when someone put agape above their own priorities and interests to walk alongside me when I needed it most. We will never get the balance right: the Pauline vision of love is always beyond our grasp, but no less relevant to the Christian liberal arts or the modern academy because it cannot be legislated.
It took just under an hour to make the long walk uphill from the Agia Paraskevi metro stop to my residence, and along the way I would occasionally stop briefly in a small new Greek Orthodox Church. On the Friday when I returned from Corinth, workers on ladders were tying palm branches above the mosaic icon over the church portal, in preparation for Palm Sunday. I was struck by the contrast. The icon, with its intermittent gold inlays, is an image of the eternal, its very artifice signaling that there are beauties and mysteries beyond our comprehension. The dry branches, already brown at their stems, were a preface to crucifixion and death, a citizen’s tribute, rustic, certain to wither quickly in the urban sun and smog. When my taxi to the train station had left the hilltop of Ancient Corinth, it drove by a palm grove, a couple orchards and a tilled field, and I recalled a few of my favorite lines from Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer, which I have always enjoyed for their cagey spirituality:
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
I understand misdirection. We do, at times, need to lose our minds, our habits of thought. Sometimes the best promise of the Christian liberal arts is to run against the grain. The gospel should be a check on power and wealth, not simply a conduit.
But I cannot understand resurrection. No amount of science-and-religion dialogues will help us know how cartilage and bones recover tissue, enzymes reverse their damage, fluids return, cells recompose. Against the limits of our wisdom and knowledge, we have the Apostle’s witness to the risen Christ and the promise that we will be changed in death. It was the “mystery” offered as assurance to a Corinthian church tempted by temporal pleasure and prosperity. It remains the mystery that keeps alive our hope for meaning beyond the massive achievements of our own more scientific and cosmopolitan age. Until the mystery of rebirth is finally revealed, agape may be our only means of practice.