Sunday 29 December 2013

The Centre for Faith & Culture

The Centre is above the art gallery in King Street, Oxford.
I was recently asked by Maica Rivera from Madrid (CEU San Pablo) to give a brief email interview about the Centre and what we have been trying to do in Oxford over the last twenty years. The year 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of our founding, so it seems like a good moment to look back. 

Q: What can you explain to Spanish Chesterton readers about the Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford?

A (Stratford): My wife and I founded it in 1994 as a partnership between Westminster College (later absorbed into Oxford Brookes University) and the Edinburgh publisher T&T Clark (later absorbed by Continuum). It was a research centre, its work being the organisation of conferences and the publication of books. Our aim was to explore the meaning of evangelization, and to understand the relationship between faith and culture. We were both

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Desolation of Smaug

Here is an interview I did for a Spanish conference on Lewis and Tolkien scheduled for 2014.

Q: How can your book The Power of the Ring help us to prepare for our cinema experience with the forthcoming film The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Smaug?

A (Stratford): Obviously the film can be enjoyed simply as an adventure or action movie, with lots of fighting, magic, monsters, and heroic deeds. In that sense it is not essential to read about the film or the book before going to the cinema. But my book is designed to explore the deeper meanings of the story and the intentions of J.R.R. Tolkien in writing it. These meanings and intentions add another layer of interest and enjoyment to the story. Unless you know them you will miss some of the pleasure you might have had in viewing the film.

My book aims to explain why Tolkien’s “Middle-earth” – the imaginary world in which the story is set – is relevant to us today. Tolkien created Middle-earth out of real-life places and experiences. His vivid descriptions of nature, which inspired Peter Jackson to design the world of the movie, draw on real life but help us to look at the world in a new way, with a keener appreciation of its beautiful qualities and a stronger love of nature. In the 1960s Tolkien’s writing even helped to inspire the ecology movement.

But there are many other ways in which Middle-earth throws light on the real world. For example, Tolkien was very concerned with the crisis in modernity caused by the development of technology and our over-reliance on it. The “Ring” and dark magic in general represents all the various types of machinery with which we try to control the world – often polluting it in the process – and force others to do our will. Most importantly of all, the tale of the Hobbit is about the transformation of a personality. Bilbo represents “Everyman” – that is to say, you and me – in a journey from a rather boring complacency to a much higher state of being, a state that Tolkien himself refers to as “nobility of spirit”. By this he means the possibility of heroism, a preparedness to sacrifice oneself and one’s own gain for the sake of others, as Bilbo is willing to do by the end of the story.

A fairy tale, like The Hobbit, as Tolkien well knew, is more than an entertainment. It contains a moral lesson – or many such lessons. G.K. Chesterton once said that "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten" (Orthodoxy, 1908). In the same way, the various dangers that the Hobbit and the Dwarves meet along the way to the Lonely Mountain, including the Orcs of the mountains and the giant spiders of Mirkwood,

Thursday 5 December 2013

The four rivers of meaning (2)

I have been writing about the four meanings of Scripture, a traditional doctrine revived in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (115-118): "According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church" (115).

We must start with the historical or literal meaning (the plain sense of the words, as they were evidently intended to be understood, taking into account the genre and context in which they were written), and then move on via an understanding of “typology” to the doctrinal message the words and events convey about Christ, who is the centre of Revelation. We then draw

Tuesday 3 December 2013

The four rivers of meaning (1)

All revelation has four dimensions, or can be approached from four directions, which we may call the historical (or literal), doctrinal, moral, and mystical. The doctrinal, moral, and mystical meanings taken together constitute the “spiritual” meaning of Scripture. The modern crisis over religion is due to the confusion of these four meanings, “fundamentalism” (whether Christian or Islamic) being an attempt to reduce all spiritual meanings to the most banal, most literal level.

The one River that springs up in Eden (which represents Christ, the Living Waters, the Logos, the source of grace) divides into four as it enters the Garden that God has made as a home for Man. Thus the Garden of Eden is fourfold, it has the four directions (West, South, East, North), which correspond not just to the four gospels but to the four letters of the divine Name, the four faces of the Cherubim, and the four arms of the Cross.

Saint Ambrose compares the four Rivers of Genesis 1:10-14 to the four Cardinal Virtues: “The Pishon which flows over gold is Prudence, the Gihon which bathes Ethiopia (whose name signifies impurity) is Temperance, the Tigris (in Hebrew the swift) is Fortitude, and the Euphrates (the fertile) is Justice” (cited in Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image, 110 fn.). St Augustine follows Ambrose in this, and so does St Bonaventure.

In the classical view, there are also four main types of explanation (Gk: aition) that we can give for things in general: final, formal, efficient, and material. The final cause is what they are for, or how their nature fulfils itself. The formal cause is the inner shaping idea that makes them what they are. The efficient cause is what brings something about, or makes it do what it does, or be what it is. The material cause is simply what it is made of. If we follow the same Augustinian/ Bonaventuran tradition, we arrive at the following list: [1]

TEMPERANCE – Material cause – Finding our starting point, stable base
FORTITUDE – Efficient cause – Generating the energy we have available
PRUDENCE – Formal cause – Tracing our path to the final goal
JUSTICE – Final cause – Arriving at the goal we are striving for

[1] Emma Therese Healy, Saint Bonaventure’s Artium Ad Theologiam (Franciscan Institute, 1955), p. 94.

To be continued...

Sunday 24 November 2013

Education open to God

A new book has gathered together Pope Benedict XVI's statements and writings on education in one place. Read about it here. "The editor has grouped 63 addresses on education by Pope Benedict under seven themes: the relationship between faith and reason; the compatibility of freedom and truth; education and love; pedagogy and learning; education in faith and community; culture and the university; and the relationship between science, technology and theology." Sounds important to all readers of this blog.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Remembering the present

In Beauty in the Word, I based my philosophy of education on three pillars or elements: Remembering, Thinking, and Communicating (roughly equivalent to the ancient categories of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric – the "Trivium"). The connection between these is not always obvious, but I think it can be explained in the following way.

Memory is foundational. On it is grounded not only our sense of personal identity, but our ability to think and communicate. One of the most profound comments on memory I have come across is in Pavel Florensky's The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. In it he writes, "That which in God is called 'memory' completely coincides with God's thought, for in God's consciousness Time is identical to Eternity, the empirical identical to the mystical, and experience is identical to creativity. God's thought is perfect creativity, and His creativity is His memory. God, remembering, thinks, and, thinking, creates" (p. 149). Thus for man, too, remembering is the highest form of thought. Education begins and ends with the awakening of memory – get that right and the rest follows.

It is not that we already know, or knew, every detail of what our teachers want us to learn. Rather, to remember the Being from which we come and on which we depend – to recall the Principle of existence – is to establish a context for learning everything else. It is to give thinking and communicating a place to stand. Again, in God, thinking is identical with remembering, and so, for us, to think correctly we must remain faithful to the memory of our origin and build upon it. Thought, science, argument, must be soaked in wonder to be authentic. Communication, too, must come from the heart where our most fundamental memories are pondered and treasured. The Beautiful, Ethics, and the Arts can only flourish when heart speaks to heart, which is when hearts stand on the same universal ground, the ground of Memory.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Image of God

Catholic schools have a big problem when it comes to teaching about sexuality and ethics. Society at large, and the government that helps to determine the curriculum, have absorbed the modern view of body and soul as essentially separate from each other, and the body as an instrument of the mind that can be treated as we wish. This view is false, but has been accepted as common sense. The task of the Catholic school is now partly to show why it is false, and to offer an alternative – an alternative beautiful and coherent enough to convince, and strong enough to provide the foundation for a Catholic way of life. This is what Blessed John Paul II tried to do with his "Theology of the Body", founding a John Paul II Institute in each continent (under the Pontifical Lateran University) to teach and develop further his rich vision of Christian anthropology – in a sense tackling head-on one of the strongest forces behind the Culture of Death.

Since then many people have tried to simplify and express the basic principles of the Theology of the Body in more accessible, less academic terms. Dr Christopher West has become well known for this, although his approach has been criticized by some of the faculty of the John Paul II Institute, partly on the grounds that it lays too much emphasis on sexual experience per se. I do not propose to survey all the alternative resources available in the field of sex education or marriage prep, but here are two examples of courses based specifically on John Paul II that readers may find interesting.

Imago Dei has been developed by a former professor of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, Dr Mary Shivanandan. In four seasons of six sessions each, her study guide, A New Language, takes participants through the scripture-based Theology of the Body to a joyful understanding of marriage, sexuality, consecrated celibacy, and single fidelity. A new element in the programme by Dr Jem Sullivan and Mary Ellen Bork will use works of art to help people understand the Church's teaching.

The Rich Gift of Love by Sister Jane Dominic Laurel OP and others – a collaboration between Newman Connection and Aquinas College – explores John Paul II's understanding of self-gift, loving through our bodies and doing it in the context of living for our families, our society and our culture.

I also recommend Called to Love by Jose Granados and Carl Anderson, a Study Guide to which can be downloaded from HERE, courtesy of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

Saturday 12 October 2013

A religious life

We all have limited time, and limited energy, and limited attention. The whole drift of modern technology is to reduce it further. Many dreamed it would free us for leisure – but we were not told it would dictate to us what our leisure would consist in: playing around on Facebook, posting images on Instagram or Pinterest, obsessively writing blog entries that no one will read, and catching up on viral videos. The trap is sprung, the rabbit caught, the lobster is in the basket. Every keystroke is recorded, and used to advertise another set of things we don't want or need.

How do we escape? What if there is no escape? Why do we assume there is always an escape? The answer is that unless we do, we will certainly never find it, or if we do, we won't recognize it for what it is.

There is perhaps an analogy here with what was happening in the days of the Roman Empire. The early Christians were drawn more and more into the lives of the City and losing their focus on the things of God, on the necessity of prayer and solitude. The reaction was an exodus, led by Antony and

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Reign of Quantity

Reign of Quantity refers to the title of a book by Rene Guenon, the Sufi convert from Catholicism. It was written in the 1940s, a book that played a seminal role for many people in the rediscovery of "metaphysical" thought outside the mainstream intellectual culture (just at a time when the logical positivists and analytic philosophers were destroying its last traces in Oxford). I have mentioned it several times, not for the trivial reason that it influenced me, but because there are insights in it that remain important, not least for educators. An article has recently appeared in Sacred Web journal by Patrick Laude looking back at Guenon's book.

One may bracket out the historical theory about repeating cycles (further developed by Robert Bolton in The Order of the Ages), or Guenon's tendency to confuse logic with ontology or Islam with Vedanta, while still retaining the thought that in today's world we are seeing a grand reversal or inversion that places Matter over Form, "quantity" over "quality" – amounting already in many places to the apparent disappearance of quality altogether.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Daring to imagine

Pilot of the Future
The imagination of the child is very powerful, and sometimes we can still recall the mystery with which it invested the pages of the comic books we devoured when young. There is an atmosphere, a richness, a whole universe associated with those now dulled and faded inks on cheap paper, as the fragrance of our childhood wafts from the page for a moment.

What did I see in them all those years ago? It is gone almost before I can ask the question. Yet it was something beautiful, uplifting, intriguing, amusing, enriching. Maybe even the artists and the writers don't have it any more, and maybe they – as adults – are trying to recapture it for themselves.

For me it was Dan Dare to begin with, the very "R.A.F." hero developed by Frank Hampson, who started life as a chaplain to the Interplanetary Patrol before being successfully relaunched as chief pilot of Earth's Space Fleet. Later I prowled the streets looking for American superhero comics, beginning with Batman and moving on to Marvel, where fantasy and humour were fully alive, thanks to the fun-loving personality of Stan Lee ("Nuff said"). I have

Friday 4 October 2013

Knowing the Good

In an interview with Eugenio Scalfari, published in La Repubblica on 1 October 2013, Pope Francis was asked, “Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?” He replied, simply, “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.” Scalfari pushes him: “The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that's one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.” Francis responds, “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them.”

The “subjectivity” of the Pope’s approach puzzled some, but what he said was perfectly in line with the rest of Catholic teaching. It did not aim to be a complete or systematic teaching on conscience, which can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to which the Pope adheres. It was certainly not an “authoritative” statement, of the kind that emerge when a Pope is called to speak from the “chair of St Peter” to resolve some matter in dispute for the whole Church. It was a conversation, an interview, a friendly engagement. It was one of the things that Pope Francis does best.

In particular, it did not mention our responsibility to develop and educate this “vision” or “idea” of good and evil that we may have. We do not just pick it off the shelf, or let another (whether it be a parent or a teacher or a newspaper) determine it for us. The Church’s teaching on morality is part of that process of self-education – that is, assuming we give any credibility to the Church as an authority for us, then we will need to take her teaching into account as we work through the arguments and concerns in our own minds, rationally. (She is one factor, but an important one.)

The statement is right, and corresponds to what John Henry Newman wrote in his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, in stating that we can only fight evil and follow the good according to our own best idea of what these are. Even if we are going to make mistakes, because we have not yet fully understood everything, we have to do the best we can in the given moment with what is available to us.

In a previous post (How We Know) I explored the way in which our minds know the world around us. This time I want to reflect on how we know Good and Evil, and discern between them. I take it that one lesson of the Genesis

Monday 30 September 2013

CGI Apocalypse: The Veiling of Nature

Will the world end with a bang, or just a whimper, as T.S. Eliot predicted? Or will nobody notice at all? An eerie silence, as everyone listens to an endless stream of digital music on their iPods.

Gradually, step by step, with the advance of computer technology, real things are being replaced by images of things—pixels on a screen, Computer Generated Imagery, now 3-D printing… special earpieces enable us to talk to each other from miles away as we walk down the street. When I was growing up, people gesticulating and talking to themselves in public were called “mad” and we tended to avoid them. Now it is as common as those white wires dangling from our ears were a few years ago. Electronic spectacles, and no doubt before long implants directly into the brain, enable us to access the internet anywhere and anytime, superimposing a world of (largely) commercial information over the world perceived by our senses. Every twitch of the eyeball, everything we look at, will be recorded and analyzed to assist some giant corporation in selling something to us more effectively.

The natural world has been replaced by something else—something “better” because more under human control (which always means, as C.S. Lewis would have pointed out, control by one small group of humans over the rest). Step by step, we are moving closer to the possibility of the complete erasure of the world our ancestors knew. Is that a bad thing, or is it just the next stage in evolution, as the Transhumanists insist? Not bad, just different.

How do we judge? Well, there is always common sense, but that is fast vanishing too. We judge according to our conception of what the world is, and what we are, and why we are here in the world. If that conception has been correctly formed by tradition, intellect, and revelation, we will quickly detect all around us a new form of the perennial heresy sometimes called “Gnosticism.” The Gnostics believed that our true nature was spiritual, and our job on earth was to transcend and escape the material plane. The new form this takes is, first, the belief that what we are is consciousness, understood according to the information-processing model as some kind of software that can potentially be downloaded elsewhere. Secondly, apart from consciousness itself, what is real is whatever can be

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Technology in the Home

The latest issue of the online review Humanum published by the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research (the research facility of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC), which I edit, is now online and has big implications for education. It is all about the impact of Technology in the Home. Not so much washing machines and vacuum cleaners (who could object?) but TV, the new information technology, and the social media. Is this stuff rewiring our brains? Is technology really morally neutral? Is it just a tool we use, or can it be said to be using us for its own built-in purposes? What are the implications for home life, for family time, for reading, for the atmosphere in which we live, for the disparity between rich and poor?

Most of the articles are book reviews, perceptively written to review the available literature, but the issue as always starts with a number of articles setting the scene and discussing the main questions. There is also a Witness piece by an English father struggling to make the best use of modern technology in bringing up his children.

Please explore the site, and subscribe by putting your name down for an email alert each time a new issue of Humanum comes online, so you don't miss anything. There is no charge – it is a free service of the Institute.

(The cover image, shown here, is a painting of St Clare, patron saint of TV.)

Saturday 21 September 2013

The Amplituhedron

Quanta magazine reports that "physicists have discovered a jewel-like geometric object, the Amplituhedron, that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality. The revelation that particle interactions, the most basic events in nature, may be consequences of geometry significantly advances a decades-long effort to reformulate quantum field theory, the body of laws describing elementary particles and their interactions. The new geometric version of quantum field theory could also facilitate the search for a theory of quantum gravity that would seamlessly connect the large- and small-scale pictures of the universe. Attempts thus far to incorporate gravity into the laws of physics at the quantum scale have run up against nonsensical infinities and deep paradoxes. The amplituhedron, or a similar geometric object, could help by removing two deeply rooted principles of physics: locality and unitarity." (Abridged from the Quanta report by Natalie Walchover. With thanks to Ben Olsen. For mention of a previous attempt to locate the underlying structures of physics in geometry by Dr Garrett Lisi go here.)

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Model school

Sometimes things go right. "Starting last spring, St Jerome’s began transforming itself from a debt-ridden, pre-K-8 institution into a showcase for one of the more intriguing trends in modern education. It is one of a handful of archdiocesan Roman Catholic schools in the country to have a classical curriculum. 'Classical' education aims to include instruction on the virtues and a love of truth, goodness and beauty in ordinary lesson plans. Students learn the arts, sciences and literature starting with classical Greek and Roman sources. Wisdom and input from ancient church fathers, Renaissance theologians and even Mozart — whose music is sometimes piped into the classrooms to help students concentrate better — is worked in." The article from The Washington Post from which this extract is taken is one of  several that have recognized the success of the St Jerome Academy after last year's makeover. To read more, follow the link, and look too at the Educational Plan listed in the column on the left.

Monday 26 August 2013


Why do we write books? In my case, it helps me to think. I would hardly know what I thought about something unless I had struggled to construct an argument and written it down. As I brought my seventh book to completion, a friend, Mark Alder, encouraged me to compile a list that gives some sense of what they are about and why I wrote them. (Incidentally, the bookplate on the left is by my grandmother, Florence Zerffi.) – Stratford Caldecott

The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings (Crossroad, 2005, 2011) 
Originally called Secret Fire when first published by DLT, the book was translated into several foreign language editions including Spanish, Italian, and Russian, and re-issued by Crossroad in an expanded edition in 2012. The Power of the Ring, unlike most other books published on Tolkien’s writing, explores the spiritual, theological, and philosophical meaning of the work – Tolkien’s faith, which was influenced by the Oratory of St Philip, his attempt to recover the spirit of England that had been almost lost in the two

Saturday 17 August 2013

How we know

This is a golden age of scientific discovery. Nevertheless, the most basic things about ourselves remain a mystery. What is consciousness, for example? It is clearly correlated with processes happening in the brain, but that’s not what I mean. What is it, in the sense of what is it made of? It obviously isn’t made of matter or energy. Matter and energy are things we think about, things we are conscious of, but they are not what we are conscious with.

And how do we know what is true or false? Not because one neuron has triggered another. The reasons we give for our beliefs depend on logic and the laws of thought, not on what happens to be going on in our head. If another neuron had fired, it wouldn’t have changed the truth or falsity of the statement I have just made.

Catholic philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas have a theory of knowledge. In one way, it is quite close to modern empiricism. It says we base our knowledge on what the senses reveal to us. (Nihil in intellectu quod non fuit prius in sensu.) But it is what we do with what the senses give us that make it interesting. The Thomistic theory says that we subject it to a process of

Sunday 11 August 2013

Tolkien and Hopkins

You might like to compare Tolkien's "Ainulindale" (the Elvish account of the creation of the world through music, in The Silmarillion), with the following meditation on the Exercises of St Ignatius by Gerard Manley Hopkins, taken from The Notebooks and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins (OUP, 1937), pp. 348-51.
"The angels, like Adam, were created in sanctifying grace, which is a thing that affects the individual, and were then asked to enter into a covenant or contract with God which, as with Adam, should give them an original justice or status and rights before God. The duties of this commonwealth were, for them, to contribute each in his rank, hierarchy, and own species, towards the Incarnation and the great sacrifice. Sister Emmerich saw this under the figure of the building of a tower: it might perhaps also be called a temple and a church. It was in fact the Church and the heavenly Jerusalem. It is also compared to a concert of music, the ranks of the angelic hierarchies being like notes of a scale and a

Friday 26 July 2013

WYD - 3

The last part of Sophie's talk in Rio, HUMANISING ECOLOGY.

 Taking all of this into account, it means that we need a humanistic ecological vision that takes account of the special nature of human beings, as well as the ecosystem in which we belong. This vision, as Pope Benedict said, should take in “not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations”; that is, our “duties towards the human person” (Caritas in Veritate, 51). For all these things are part of what we mean by the nature of human beings. We are social by nature. We are born into families. We find meaning in our lives through loving and serving others. We have a dignity that can be expressed in the form of rights and duties.

Pope Benedict taught us that Christianity tries to balance the value of the human person with the value of nature as God’s creation. The Book of Genesis – as well as the Psalms and many other parts of the Bible, which praise the glories of nature – teach Christians to be responsible and gentle and wise in the way we behave towards the world around us. The virtue of

Thursday 25 July 2013

WYD – 2

Sophie's talk in Rio continued.

One of the symbols of the ecology movement is a famous photograph of the earth from space that was taken by one of the Apollo spaceships on a lunar mission in the late 60s. It showed people very vividly that we all live on one extremely beautiful and delicate planet. It tells us that all creatures on the earth are dependent on the ecology and resources of planet earth. Political boundaries between one nation and another are invisible from space, and so the image also came to represent a way of transcending our national differences and our enmities in order to work for the preservation of the planet we share.

But the image also teaches us something else. We are just one among many

World Youth Day 2013

Sophie Caldecott (now Lippiatt) is representing her family at WYD this year, having been invited by Creatio to speak on Faith and the Environment to the young people there. It is a talk she and her dad wrote together, representing the concern of two generations for the world that we will hand on to the next. Ecology should be part of everyone's education. Taught the right way, without the intrusion of ideology, it can help to awaken a deeper appreciation for God's creation in its complexity and interdependence, as well as a sense of moral responsibility. In fact a concern for ecology and conservation runs deep in the family. Her uncle Julian is a professional conservationist. Leonie, her mother, also has a deep interest in the subject, and her great-grandfather, an artist, was involved in setting up the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Sophie's talk on 24 July began like this:

Through the pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, ecology has become an important part of Catholic social teaching. In 2011, Pope Benedict said, "The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly.” In his

Saturday 13 July 2013


The Spring 2013 issue of the international review Communio is on the topic of education. It includes a classic article by philosopher Robert Spaemann called “The Courage to Educate”, which presents a series of important questions about the state of education. “Why has it become necessary to point out something self-evident? Why has it become necessary to be courageous to educate?” Spaemann asks. He sketches an outline of what education really is—a formation of the human being—and then points out a number of ways this idea has been mistreated. It seems we no longer believe that education is about an affirmation of the future—in a word, that it is worth truly educating our children. He writes that “we must ask ourselves what resources we are actually living on, and the questions of how our children should live can only give impetus to do so. Many things that are being said publicly today can actually be said only by people who have no children or who have written off their children.”

Thursday 20 June 2013

Reinventing Jesus

Striking poses in a church is not Superman's usual schtick, but here he is in his own comic (4 June 2004) startling a priest by turning up for... a sort of confession. He is still wearing the classic costume, which was later redesigned for the "New 52" and the spectacular MAN OF STEEL, recently released. But why is it that Hollywood – and DC itself – keeps going back to the origins of Superman and reinventing him every few years? There is something archetypal here. Superman was the invention of two New York Jews. An answer to Nietzsche, some say; or an answer to the refugee's experience of being an outsider in American society. The new movie makes much of Superman as a "saviour" for mankind, sent by his father to "save them all."

Superman is the most consistently "moral" hero in the DC universe. The contrast with Batman is often made. The Man of Steel never lies, never kills the innocent – nor even the guilty, except super-villains in the defence of Earth. He is not a vigilante, or a soldier; more a policeman. He is always willing to sacrifice himself for others. He is just as heroic when stripped of his superpowers, as happens from time to time. In the comic series he has died and been reborn (it's complicated). In this frame the words in the little yellow boxes read "Superman – save me." Superman is rushing across the universe to answer a plea for help that turns out to come from another DC hero, Green Lantern. The director of the

Saturday 8 June 2013

Teaching the language of faith: 2

So what is mystagogy? (For much more on this see All Things Made New.) In mystagogy we are trying to understand and interpret the meaning of the Bible and Liturgy, the Sacraments and the world itself in the light of Revelation. It therefore affects the way we regard even the “secular” subjects of the school curriculum.

This approach corresponds in the field of biblical exegesis to the doctrine of the “four senses of Scripture” (Catechism 115-118). There it means in order to attain a broader understanding of Scripture, we need to look not only for historical (literal) and doctrinal (allegorical) meanings, but also for moral (tropological) and mystical (anagogical) meanings. According to a medieval rule: “The letter teaches what took place, the allegory what to believe, the moral what to do, the anagogy what goal to strive for.”

That was the understanding of the early monks and desert hermits. St John Cassian (d. 435) writes of the four meanings as follows: “History embraces the knowledge of things which are past and which are perceptible…. What follows is allegorical, because the things which actually happened are said to have prefigured another mystery…. Anagoge climbs up from spiritual

Friday 7 June 2013

Teaching the language of faith: 1

When our Catholic schools try to teach religion, and specifically the Catholic faith, they face a problem that is not often recognized. The material based on the Catechism is perfectly fine as far as it goes, and the Compendium of the Catechism and YouCat are of course readily available for use in schools. But there is a serious disconnection between these excellent summaries of doctrine, the teaching and use of Scripture in R.E., the school’s Catholic liturgy, and the curriculum in general.

The secular parts of the curriculum are generally regarded as separate from the more recognizably religious elements. Indeed how could geography or history or mathematics be taught in a way that "connects" with R.E. except by turning these subjects into an excuse for religious propaganda? (The

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Three books to read

To readers who have enjoyed or been intrigued by Beauty for Truth's Sake, I recommend three books in particular – out of all those you'll find in the Bibliography – for detailed study. (1) James S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (SUNY). See also this review and this interview with Taylor. (2) Louis Dupre, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (Yale). Explains better than almost any other book the deep origins of modernity. (3) Vance G. Morgan, Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics, and Love (Notre Dame).

Thursday 23 May 2013

The Slow School movement

The "Slow Movement" that started in Italy and comprises, most famously, Slow Food and Slow Cities, is now spreading to education.

The idea of Slow is to counter the rush and hurry in the modern world, and the emphasis on efficiency, by slowing things down, giving them more attention and love, and aiming at quality rather than merely quantity. You can read on Wikipedia about Slow Fashion, Slow Money, Slow Parenting, and even a World Institute of Slowness. In a recent issue The Sower, a magazine for Catholic teachers, Leonie Caldecott and I argued for the concept of "Slow Evangelization".

The application to education is an obvious one. Schools are subject to the same pressures as the rest of modern society – the pressure to churn out good exam results and employable citizens. The old ideals of a liberal arts education for freedom and wisdom have fallen by the wayside. In my two books on education I try to indicate the way this ideal might be reclaimed, and the importance of doing so. I don't explicitly link this approach to the Slow Movement, but it is an obvious next step. The Slow Movement website writes about education here. The article asks:
Where has the education system in schools gone wrong? It started with taking the responsibility for education away from parents and families and making it compulsory for children to go to school. While schools were accountable to the parents and community the education process had some chance of meeting students and community needs. But where governments have acquired central authority over education, education seems to have become a matter of outcomes – standardised test results.
The Times Education Supplement covered the topic on 2 November 2012. Teachers and parents interested in this approach will find much of interest if they pursue these leads.

We need to move away from the "fast food" model of education as quickly as possible.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

McLuhan and Radical Orthodoxy

An interesting new online journal appeared on 1 April. Called SECOND NATURE, it is for critical thinking about technology and new media in light of the Christian tradition. The first issue contains an interesting article about Marshall McLuhan's thinking on the Trivium (see also an earlier post on this site) and Radical Orthodoxy.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Summer School 2013

Second Spring Oxford is now advertising the 2013 Summer School of the Centre for Faith and Culture and Thomas More College. The dates are 12th-26th August. The summer school will explore the cultural crisis which has gradually overtaken the Christian world, by examining the historical events and perceptions in which it is rooted, particularly the English Reformation. We are also looking at the vocation of the Catholic writer in witnessing to Christ in a hostile environment. We touch on the deeper question of what it means to be human, how a vision of humanity was imperilled by the "tempest of the Times" which helped to create the modern world, and how the writers of the 19th- and 20th-century Catholic revival attempted to recover and reclaim that vision. Detailed information is now available, and a dedicated website will be announced shortly.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Beauty is the seal of truth

In his response to the Lenten spiritual exercises lead by Cardinal Ravasi, Pope Benedict pointed out that 'the medieval theologians translated the word "Logos" not only as "Verbum" [Word], but also as "ars" [art]: "Verbum" and "ars" are interchangeable. For the medieval theologians, it was only with the two words together that the whole meaning of the word “Logos” appeared. The "Logos" is not just a mathematical reason: the "Logos" has a heart, the "Logos" is also love. The truth is beautiful and the true and beautiful go together: beauty is the seal of truth.

Evil, of course, is always intent on spoiling creation and defacing it, but cannot succeed. 'The incarnate Son, the incarnate "Logos" is crowned with a crown of thorns and nevertheless is just that: in this suffering figure of the Son of God we begin to see the deepest beauty of our Creator and Redeemer; in the silence of the “dark night” we can, nevertheless, hear the Word. And believing is nothing other than, in the darkness of the world, touching the hand of God, and in this way, in silence, hearing the Word, seeing love.'

Throughout his pontificate, and right to the very end, this Pope has spoken of the Logos and helped us to see the meaning and beauty of the truth revealed in Christ. The 'Pope of the Logos' teaches that faith, reason, and beauty converge in love.

Friday 15 February 2013

Pope Benedict: Freedom in orthodoxy

The following article by Leonie Caldecott appeared in the Catholic Herald dated 15 February 2013.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope on the 19th of April 2005, I rejoiced and was glad. I knew what a great theologian he was, and that he was the person who understood most profoundly the mission of his predecessor, who poured himself out to the bitter end for the Church they both loved.

I rejoiced too because I had happened, a few years earlier, to observe the new pontiff at fairly close quarters, at a liturgical conference he helped to convene in the Abbey of Fontgombault in France. My husband had been asked to give a paper, and I accompanied him as his interpreter. The proceedings were held in the guest-house. The trouble was, no one at this traditionalist monastery had told us that this was technically within the

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Beauty in the Word - review

The following review and summary appeared in the journal First Things in December 2012, by Stephen Richard Turley, who teaches at Tall Oaks Classical School in New Castle, Delaware, and at Eastern University.
Beauty in the Word, Stratford Caldecott’s sequel to his Beauty for Truth’s Sake, surveys not the historical outworking of the liberal arts tradition but rather the inspiration that lies behind it. Specifically, the author—the director of Thomas More College’s

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Oxford Tolkien Spring School

Oxford University is offering a Spring School devoted to J.R.R.Tolkien on 21-23 March. Details here.

Monday 21 January 2013


Readers may notice I have slowed down on this and my two other blogs. Being seriously ill, I need to devote my remaining energies to paid work. But this blog contains a great many resources that I hope will continue to be useful, and I will continue to write occasionally as circumstances permit. Information on my two books on education can be found via the left-hand column. Information on the new Tolkien book will be found below. For other announcements please go to the Second Spring main site.