Earlier this week, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a “stay at home” order in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. As a result, many people have taken on new responsibilities and challenges in addition to their existing duties. For those working in what have been deemed “essential businesses,” this has meant additional professional requirements. For those working in jobs deemed “non-essential,” employers and employees have either had to transform the nature of their work creatively or reduce—and in some cases, tragically, suspend—their business operations.
In this time of anxiety, when so many have both so much and so little to do, there are real opportunities for reflection and deeper learning.
Learning on your own can be a challenge, but teaching is both a noble and universal calling. In a time of quarantines and restrictions on travel, meeting a teacher in person can be challenging. The wide variety and disparate quality of online education can be overwhelming. Teaching ourselves runs the risk of falling prey to the autodidact’s curse of overlooking the implicit wisdom known, but not necessarily explicit, in a discipline’s writings.
Under such circumstances, our time is best spent reflecting, renewing, and deepening our understanding of the things closest to ourselves: the sacred writings of our religious tradition. Through their divine inspiration and authority, these texts have the power to work directly on the reader. As the Apostle Paul tells us, “Faith comes from what is heard” (Rom. 10:17). In the sacred scriptures, we have the very oracles of God (Rom. 3:2, Heb. 5:12, I Pet. 4:11).
I recommend beginning with the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Grounded in these three great texts, which since antiquity have been held as a faithful summary of the Christian faith, you can now begin to study with confidence.
The Old and New Testaments are ancient and complex. In some places, they are difficult to understand. When you come across a difficult passage, take time to pause and reflect. Does viewing the text through the lens of the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, or the Lord’s Prayer bring clarity? If not, then consult a good set of cross-references. If the cross-references fail to shed light, try framing your question around a particular topic and consult a good topical Bible. If questions remain, make a note of it and continue reading.
Keep your questions in mind as you continue to read, and bring them to God in prayer. What is more important than the answer to any particular question is your learning, growing, and reflecting on God’s Word—becoming a student of the sacred scriptures. Even the most learned scholars continue to have questions.
Next to the sacred scriptures, the best subjects of self-directed study are the great books. Much ink has been spilled on just what makes a book a “great book” and which particular books are or are not great books. These debates, while worthwhile and fascinating, are beside the point. Any book which has survived from antiquity and is still widely read must have something to commend it by virtue of the perennial interest people take in it. These would include the sacred writings of other religious traditions, the writings which have come down to us from the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome, those of the medieval world, and those written as recently as 100 years ago which remain widely read.
The great books remain interesting long after their original audiences are dead and buried. They remain influential in their disciplines after thousands of other books and articles have faded into obscurity.
I believe certain works endure for two reasons. The first, wonderfully articulated by C.S. Lewis, is that it is easiest to learn from the source. He wrote, “The great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.” Accept no substitutes!
The second reason—a suspicion best articulated by the economist Peter Boettke—is that I “believe that knowledge that was once held in our possession has been lost due to intellectual error or insufficient memory.” We are never done learning from the masters.
In times of uncertainty, we have a duty to reflect upon and deepen our understanding of ourselves and our world. The best way to do that is to bring our careful and mindful attention to the sacred scriptures and the enduring works which have shaped, and will continue to shape, our civilization.
(Photo credit: Public domain.)