The Good, the True, and the Beautiful by way of John Senior, and Ben Cash
Have you ever heard of John Senior? If not, and you’re a Christian, you should make yourself acquainted with him. More Catholics than Protestants have heard of this teacher, but in this day and age we can all benefit from his kind. There is a fantastic biography of him by Fr. Francis Bethel, OSB called John Senior and the Restoration of Realism. During the 1970’s Senior was a professor at the University of Kansas and was instrumental in developing an Integrated Humanities Program there. Interestingly the college shut the program down after several students converted to Christianity, many of them becoming Catholic.
The ideas the Senior put forward were that we are only truly human when seeking and finding the good, the true, and the beautiful, and doing so with our minds and our senses. Not only were the classics taught in abundance, Senior and several other professors introduced the students to dancing, star gazing, poetry, and even singing. Truth was presented as it really is; fixed and real. Goodness as something to be pursued because it is rooted in truth. The flip side (rejecting Truth), Senior argued, results in depression and hopelessness, destructive personal behavior, which in turn leads to a breakdown in society and culture. Sound familiar? Maybe sound like what’s going on in Western culture right now? (Go check out the suicide statistics, study the trend, and then let that sink in.)
When I first watched Captain Fantastic, which I reviewed here just the other day, I instantly (and somewhat ironically) thought of John Senior and his method of teaching. As I mentioned in my review of the movie Ben Cash is the father of the Cash clan and his method of teaching included star gazing, anatomy, copious amounts of reading and debating, music and singing, and exercising one’s mind and body through physical encounters with the real world. I said “ironically” above because Ben Cash apparently despises Christianity (at least through much of the movie), which John Senior championed and also held up as the ultimate lynch pin of everything, including the true understanding of the humanities.
Both Senior and Cash seem to hold some key to the massive sense of… ennui we currently seem to have in our society. Technology isn’t evil, but I think we can all agree that in most cases what was supposed to draw us closer together either hasn’t produced that promise, or, perhaps worse, has made us all engage in compulsive comparisons which then results in depression. Keeping up with the Joneses has become global, and when the Joneses only post the highlights of their lives on social media it compounds the problem (folks, here’s the secret; Mr. Jones has a gambling addiction, Mrs. Jones is contemplating suicide, the kids hate each other, and they are in debt so far over their heads they’ll never get out… well, maybe that’s hyperbole, maybe not.) Consumerism has run amok, mental health issues are on the rise, and we are more divided as a people than ever.
Both Senior and Cash call us back to our senses; we are whole and complete creatures only when our physical selves are involved. Seeing someone’s picture or even a live vid of them is great when that’s all you can get, but isn’t a hug 100 times better? You can see the real person, feel them, heck, even smell them (hopefully it’s a nice smell!). How about nature? Seeing a picture or a vid of a tree isn’t anything like experiencing a tree with our senses. When our senses are involved it speaks to the concrete nature of our world, it gives us experiences that are more rich and steeped in truth. When you are out hiking and trip on a root or a rock and fall, you are experiencing gravity first hand, and yes, you experience physical pain.
We have become divorced from nature and nature’s God. We’ve even become divorced from each other. And, yes, I’m speaking in generalities, as there are those who actually make an effort to experience life first-hand, instead of through a screen (however, I know more people who gripe about tech and social media and yet still have their noses shoved up against screens 24 hours a day). How many of us still hike, stargaze, grow our own food, hunt our own food, write letters with a pen and paper, hold books in our two hands, bury our noses in roses, learn to actually dance with a partner in a manner that takes finesse and skill… The classics of literature are being trashed (sometimes literally), and cast aside. We read less and less (especially the males of our society) and watch TV more and more.
What Senior and the fictitious Cash calls us toward is a reconnect with what makes us human, something that gives us roots and wings. I think of Tolkien’s hobbits when I read of Senior as well; comfort, and parties, and food… a warm, dry house, and a full belly while strolling in the garden that you planted and tended. Sure, Bilbo and Frodo were grand adventurers and heroes, but that is because their roots were in the good, the true, and the beautiful represented by the Shire. Ben Cash’s kids were indeed brilliant, but lacked that incredible piece of the puzzle that makes us fully human; society. Now our society itself lacks the good, the true, and the beautiful, and it’s up to us as individuals to seek them out, and to offer them to others as much as we can. (BTW, Ben Cash, and his wife, both turned their backs on God and that was the other major piece of the puzzle missing… interesting how Cash’s downfall involved rejecting both key commandments summed up by Christ; Love God, and love your neighbor. So, as much as Cash reminded me of Senior in his teaching style, that’s the major difference and why Cash became so disconnected to the world he tried to teach his kids about.)
We need more physical activity, more time in nature, more unprocessed food, and to share that healthy food with others, more gratitude. Instead of basking in the glow of our electronics, perhaps a good ol’ fashioned cookout is in order, with the glow and the warmth of the fire reflected from friendly faces. When is the last time you read a classic? How about some poetry? Go visit someone you haven’t seen in forever, take ’em some home grown veggies, flowers, or just yourself. After it’s all over, find and acknowledge those feelings of gratitude. God hasn’t gone anywhere, perhaps spare some time for Him, and that’s to fulfill your needs, not His.
In other words, let’s remember what it’s like to be fully human in the world we inhabit; seek and find the good, the true, and the beautiful, share it with others, it’s still there.