Holiness and the Humanities

Church of Saint-Eutrope in Clermont-Ferrand, stained glasses. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Over the past week, I've discussed a few essays (one by Fr. Raymond Schroth, S.J., in America, another by Samuel Goldman in First Things) which have lamented the decline in the humanities. Those essays were long commentaries on reports that echoed the same concerns. Among a few differences in outlook, pretty much all the authors  and reports agree on one thing: the humanities are important in forming us as human beings. 

In my recent posts, I've asked variations of these questions, "Are the authors right? Do we need the humanities to help us to be human?" I come at the question as someone who is solidly in the pro-humanities camp. However, I weigh the question about the value of the humanities not only from my own intellectual background but also from the perspective of the acts and words of Jesus and the holy figures of the Gospel and Christian history. Some of the saintliest people I know are the least educated, at least according to the dominant understanding of what being educated means. In other words, they haven't read the classics, they haven't attended prestigious colleges (or in some cases any college), and they can't detect allusions to the Book of Job or Paradise Lost. But they are men and women as generous as the sun is bright, ceaselessly loving and humble, hard working and sacrificial. They embody the Beatitudes. They "go, and do likewise."


When it comes to the issue of what makes us human, or what teaches us the roundedness of the human spirit, I would never say that those who fall in this group are deficient because they haven't read "Hamlet." This isn't to say that they shouldn't study great works of music, literature, or art, but their reason for doing so cannot be because they don't know what it means to be human. If the fullness of our humanity is in living and loving like Christ, oftentimes those who are least intellectually credentialed are the ones who can teach us the most.  


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Joris Heise
5 years 3 months ago
The underlying truth for those of us who follow Jesus is that God calls each one by name. I am highly educated and that is my "calling." Kirk Neace (R.I.P.) was severely retarded, involved physically in ways that made him entirely in need of feeding, moving, clothing, etc., and yet was my greatest teacher. That was HIS calling. The same is true for wise and uneducated people. And for wise and educated people. God calls each one, individually. In that sense there is no "class warfare."
Matt Emerson
5 years 2 months ago


Thank you for your comment. So, so powerful.  People like Kirk are the reason why we must be careful how we frame the value of the humanities.  

Frank Lesko
5 years 3 months ago
Wow, this article asks some really good questions. Are people who study the humanities better at . . . being human? It's hard to even spit that question out without feeling immediately snobby, but if all we assert about the humanities is true, then aren't we sort of saying that? Is a room full of art students "better people" than a room full of marketing students? That creates a disturbing class difference between people, as another commenter Joris Heise mentioned. It's hard to know what makes someone a "good person." I think there's a grace there. You can lead a horse to water, but it's grace alone which makes him drink. Still, it's worth leading horses to water so that if the fancy strikes they are within range to drink. Perhaps it is worth saying that studying the humanities is not limited to those who take formal coursework. I would imagine that Mother Theresa's life was a living study of the humanities, whether she stepped one foot into the classroom or not. I'll step out on a limb and compare the humanities to the sacraments... perhaps they deepen and intensify a grace that is already there. The humanities can't make you a good person... only God can do that. As Joris says, God will speak to everyone in every situation. But with that seed of grace, a study of the humanities can help shape, augment and nurture that seed. In other words, the humanities can't make me a good person, but they can make me a better person... if that makes any sense! :)


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