The Lost Transcendental: Moral and Theme

In my last post, I examined the so-called ancient Greek “transcendentals,” truth, goodness, and beauty, and suggested that if these concepts are meant to describe qualities that bridge the gap between heaven and earth, we might be missing one. And, in fact, this lost transcendental should stand in front of the other three, like a lens that necessarily colors our attitude toward them. I am talking about grace, which recognizes our condition as flawed human beings and understands that perfect truth, goodness, and beauty can only exist in the Godhead. Grace accepts that the three traditional transcendentals are not standards we can fully attain in our fallen state, and out of that recognition flows mercy and compassion for our fellow humans and—perhaps more importantly—for ourselves. 

I suggested that this lost transcendental affects the way we view education, making our pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty a blessing to be enjoyed, rather than a burden that influences our value in God’s eyes. Or as my mother-in-law recently put it, “a teacher is not the master of knowledge, but one who has, in a sense, been mastered by it and gained in the process the humility necessary to model the posture of a lifetime learner.” A good education relieves us of the need to know all and be all, instead filling us with humility and giving us permission to be insufficient.

However, I believe grace not only influences our view of education, but also our very act of reading.

In my three years of teaching literature, I have noticed a pandemic among my students. If we are reading Pride and Prejudice and I ask for the theme, they are likely to answer, “Don’t be prideful like Lizzy.” If we are reading The Lord of the Rings, it’s “Do be courageous and loyal like Sam.”

You might wonder why this is a problem. After all, is not the study of literature intended to build character, showing us examples of right and wrong ways to behave and feeding our desire to be virtuous? I hear this a lot in my travels through the Christian homeschooling world. And to be fair, stories are supposed to change our hearts, and we often do leave a good story desiring to be better, truer, and more beautiful.

And yet, the very best stories do something more wonderful on top of all that. In reading Pride and Prejudice, I learn that I am prideful and quick to judge just like Lizzy, but I also learn that, in spite of her failure, Lizzy still finds someone who loves her. In reading The Lord of the Rings, I learn that I am weak and needy just like Frodo, but I learn that in spite of his failure, Frodo finds someone who will come to his aid.

I don’t know about you, but I identify with Frodo much more than I identify with Sam. I’m always slipping that ring back on or laying face down in the dirt, unable to move one more inch. And no matter how often I try to change myself, I identify with Lizzy one hundred percent of the time. The sad truth is if you disagree loudly with one of my opinions, I’m going to have to wait until the fire burns down before I can respond with dignity. However, when I read, I find I am not alone in these failures and that there is hope, or at least companionship, for those dark times.

It is true that sometimes we need to be chided or rebuked. But how many of us enjoy friends who only ever point out our flaws and tell us how to improve– those who, instead of being vulnerable about their own failings, only hold up a standard? I am certainly not noble enough for that kind of friendship. Why should my friendship with books be any different? It is no wonder I come across so many students who hate to read.

We are often asked here at CenterForLit if we think we might also be “killing the puppy” or analyzing stories to death by asking our students to find the theme. But I think it is extremely important to define our terms. And I also think this is where the lost transcendental comes into play.

If we are striving after ideals like truth, goodness, and beauty without the lens of grace to put our efforts into perspective, then we will always search for “morals,” for dos and don’ts, in our stories. When our value and identity are on the line, we will be frantic to find as much instruction as we can so we do not mess it all up. Hence, the discouragement: we have already failed to do what the story is supposedly requiring of us, and we know in our hearts that we will fail again tomorrow.

But if a story is read through a lens of grace, we will find a “theme,” not a moral. I have a suspicion that this is what the great authors have wished for us. A theme says “you are,” not “you must.” It communicates to us what is true about the world, and about ourselves. And because truth is universal, we will often find that deep inside we already knew what the author has found and feared we were alone in our discovery. We were worried that we were the only failures. C.S. Lewis once said that a typical expression of friendship would be “What? You too? I thought I was the only one!” This is the kind of friendship we should expect of reading. And rather than a discouragement, it is one of the most exhilarating experiences in the world. What a relief to discover I’m not crazy, that I’m not the only one who is struggling!

You may or may not know that “CenterForLit” is an abbreviation of our full company name, “The Center for Literary Education.” (Introducing ourselves with four syllables is just way easier than twelve.) However, in spite of that abbreviation, literary education is something we are all very passionate about. We do not think of ourselves as curriculum developers or literature teachers only. We are first and foremost advocates of an educational reform, and believe that there must be a revolution in literary theory and philosophy. That reform is built upon the lost transcendental, and it is critical for a good education whether you adhere to classical education or Charlotte Mason, unschooling or STEM.

We believe that a solid literary education, grounded in reading through a lens of grace and listening quietly for an author’s themes instead searching for morals, is a critical foundation for a student even if he never intends to study or work in the field of literature. In fact, while I’m making bold proclamations, I might as well say it is the most critical foundation of all.

A good literary education will produce teachers who lead students into an understanding of their limited personhood with humility and hope. It will produce doctors who see their patients as souls instead of just limbs and organs. It will produce mathematicians who wonder at their smallness in the face of a perfection that is completely other, researchers who understand the human consequences of their findings, and parents who are free to recognize God’s utter sovereignty in who their children will become.

There is freedom in “is” instead of “ought.” It lets truth, goodness, and beauty be God’s business, and not ours. It gives us permission to need. Morals are necessary. When practiced, they can give us a rich and peaceful life here on earth. But more often than not their greatest work in my life is to shove me to my knees in repentance, holding tightly to that loudest theme trumpeted by the best authors—to look to the hills, whence comes my help.