The Divine Roots of Human Learning

"Sermon on the Mount" St. Matthew's Church altarpiece by Henrik Olrik

“Sermon on the Mount” St. Matthew’s Church altarpiece by Henrik Olrik

“If we return to the educational pedagogy grounded on the Christian anthropology embodying the Imago Dei we will much better serve our children as we fulfill our Christian duty to educate them.”


The finest education known to man springs from the heart of Holy Mother Church. Catholic education by way of the medieval university beckoned its students forward by examining the best that man had said and done by use of the liberal arts known as the Trivium and Quadrivium. The pedagogy used in times past was centered on the Christian Anthropology. It was analogous to agriculture in the inner landscape by a proper development of the tripartite human soul. The methods of an authentic education are centered on cultivating virtuous habits of being.

Since the advent of the Enlightenment however, partially as a result of the scientific reductionism, the nature of education has been increasingly truncated. First, Theology, the Queen of the sciences was banished from the school and then her handmaiden philosophy was similarly exiled. Wisdom was first reduced to knowledge, then knowledge reduced to information.  As the arts of education shrank, reference to God and the great minds were replaced by self-reference. Intellectual development was reduced to the attainment of information. The appetites usurped a primacy of place as the pedagogy of self-esteem building replaced the acquisition of the virtues.

In modern classrooms there has been the increasing movement to have students serve as their own sources of truth. But by nature we cannot be our own sources of truth because we did not create ourselves or the created order, which means that far from being the arbiters of truth, we can only discover the truth and at best convey only parts of it.

However, modern schooling being steeped in relativism, is a system turned on its head and bound to operate by error. The modern schools teach their students that they are the arbiters of truth. This modern error demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of authority- the word which means that the laws of truth are governed by the Author, and therefore are objectively true. It stands to reason that if we claim to be the authors of truth and at the same time admit that we are not omniscient, then besides sitting comfortably with cognitive dissonance, we assume that we need to see it to believe it. However, this is a dangerous inversion that prevents real Catholic learning in fields like theology and those that were once called the humanities.

By converse, St. Augustine said, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” St. Augustine refers to the objective truths of the Faith passed on by revelation and the Magisterium. To say “I need to see it to believe it is a stance from skepticism that is appropriate when a source of authority is questionable. However, in authentic learning, it is appropriate to believe proper sources of authority while one uses apprehension and right reason to corroborate truth and therefore come to know.

In reality, it is by belief first that we begin to know and understand. The very precepts we choose to believe are the grounds that determine the truth or falsity of the collected claims we hold. If what we choose to believe is objectively true, like the teachings of Holy Mother Church, than we will come to know the truth. If we believe things that are objectively false, we will end in clinging to a false body of information. The belief is the root and the understanding is the fruit. All that is truly needed to begin to harvest an abundant crop of learning is to correctly identify the source of truth, the Author of Life and to believe the teaching. Then by experience aided by the gifts of the Holy Spirit we will come to know and understand the truth.

For a divine lesson on the proper order of belief and knowing, let us turn to the Holy Scriptures and look at the words of the One True Teacher, Christ Himself. In John 8:30, we see that Christ, “as he spoke thus, many believed in him.” This illustrates the belief that precedes knowing based on His authority.

If we take Christ at his word and in their proper order, we will learn as He says in John 8:31-32: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Clearly, when Christ says “if you abide in my word,” this implies the primary step of belief in His words and a recognition of His authority. This belief leads to discipleship, which then leads to “knowing” the Truth, and then, and only then can the Truth make you free. First belief, than discipleship, then knowing and finally freedom.

Apply this truth to a difficult truth, that of belief in the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Using the “see it to believe it” inversion of modern education, one will never arrive at knowing this profound fact. So many truths in Catholic education are not facts of the mind to be memorized, but truths written on our hearts to be discovered by us and revealed to us by grace. To know the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament begins as an act of Faith when we abide in His words when he says “this is my body.”  Then and only then will the Holy Spirit grant us understanding and then the Truth will make us free of the bonds of ignorance.

It is a most serious problem in the Church today to recognize that our faith formation programs have adopted modern methods of teaching in an attempt to pass on the faith. They have failed badly because the modern methods reduce learning to acquiring facts. By the “see it to believe it” pedagogy of skepticism, this leads the mind into further habits of error thwarting the ability to acquire an understanding of the truths of the Faith.

In our beloved Catholic schools, but especially in our faith formation programs, it is vital that we abandoned the pursuit of the inverted premises and methods used by the modern school. We must return to the rightfully ordered truth that when we believe it from the right authority, then we will come to understand. And let us carefully choose our source of belief to be simply the Logos, the Word of God conveyed by the Holy Scriptures, lives of the Saints, Church Doctors, the Magisterium, and confirmed by the well-formed conscience. Let us decrease and let Him increase because of the promise that by the gifts of the Holy Spirit we will come to understand. It is further confirmed that our belief first will yield abundant blessed fruit in John 20:29 when Christ said “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

If we continue to operate with modern methods of learning in our Catholic schools and catechetical programs we will end with the same product as the public schools, self-referencing skeptics. We must abandon modern pedagogy or we will end with our children expecting truth and tradition to conform to them, rather than teaching them that they must conform to the truth and tradition.

“Lex orandi lex credendi, lex vivendi.” How we pray determines how we believe which determines how we live. What we believe determines what we know. What we know is what we love. What we love is what we serve. Let us pray the traditional prayers and commit to the Holy Mass. Let us believe the doctrine and dogma of Holy Mother Church. By this, let us know, love and serve the Truth and let all this be the grounds upon which we teach in our Catholic schools and faith formation programs. Combine this with the proper training of the intellect by the use of the liberal arts and we will insure that right reason reaches its highest potential to cooperate with grace to form the human heart.

Let us recover our beloved Catholic schools and faith formation programs and eliminate the methods that have ruined the public schools. If we can’t abandon modern errors about human learning, we set up a stumbling block for ourselves and our children that keeps us from acquiring the truths of the Faith. If we rediscover the authentic notions of education we can return to the Christian anthropology that holds the potential to lead our children, brothers and sisters to the narrow path ascending to the communion of the saints. If we return to the educational pedagogy grounded on the Christian anthropology embodying the Imago Dei we will much better serve our children as we fulfill our Christian duty to educate them. Let us all strive to recover an understanding of the divine roots of human learning.

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