Enchanted by Plato 


 I’ve been listening to a Yale Philosophy Professor who begins a series of lectures on the soul by saying that we do not have one. Which is a little off-putting. Nevertheless, because of his engaging style, and because I think it important to read contrary points of view, I have kept listening. 

 But as I listened, I kept thinking about freshman philosophy students who might, in another context, have become enchanted to learn from Plato’s work, The Phraedus, that human beings are actually soul bearing creatures and not merely physical or material beings, and who therefore by virtue of their nature as spiritual beings, have an enormous capacity for spiritual awakening. 

 In other words, students taught by a lover of Plato, might have had an experience of philosophy in their first year of university studies that was truly uplifting and inspiring.

 They might have come under the intoxicating spell of Plato’s work, the Phraedus, where it is said that all men have the unique capacity to grow the wings of their souls by focusing their attention on the beautiful in the form of truth, beauty and goodness.

 And these young students might also have been warned that to ignore the  dimension of soul would mean a terrible loss, affecting the quality of their present lives and of the life to come.  

 For from Plato’s perspective, nothing could be more tragic than the case of human beings who make the wings of their souls shrink and disappear by a focus upon “foulness and ugliness.” 

 Now, as important as it is in a philosophy class to teach critical thinking - and I don’t think we can be critical enough - I think it is also crucial to inculcate that spirit of inquiry that leads to spiritual discovery, which involves by its nature the experience of wonder and enchantment.

 I can hardly think of a more dismal sight than to behold a cynical, jaded freshman or sophomore, already soiled and corrupted because of philosophy courses that killed her spirit of inquiry.

 My hope in sending my child to university would be to see her catch fire with spiritual aspirations, and not to become yet another ordinary human being walking around with either drooping or non-existent soul wings. 

 And so there is for me something very sad here about courses in philosophy that put out the spirit of inquiry, causing disenchantment. 

 I’m thinking of an 18 year old who after several weeks at university calls home to his Mom and Dad. His parents ask: “How’s it going, Tom? How’s the Philosophy course you were so excited to take?”

 And the first thing Mom and Dad hear is: "I’ve learned that I have no soul, Mom and Dad. Nor do you. Nor anyone. I’m a physicalist now, a materialist, like my Professor. I’ve dropped my interest in all of that spiritual stuff.” 

 My thought in response is that perhaps the $50,000 a year could be invested in some other school.

 A quick glimpse back in Yale’s history reveals that there have been times when a very different emphasis held sway on campus. 

 In the 1790’s, for example, during a time when the Christian faith was often mocked at Yale, it was regarded as a crisis.

 A spirit of cynicism had been dominating the school. It had become popular then to invoke the name of the French cynical philosopher, Voltaire. Students  had even been naming themselves after rationalists like Diderot.  

 The pervasive atmosphere of cynicism was deeply upsetting to the President at the time, Timothy Dwight, a distinguished scholar.

 Revelatory of his character is this statement: “In Dwight’s mind, all his effort as president was worthless if those he nurtured left Yale intellectually filled, but spiritually poisoned with soul-destroying philosophies.” (Stephen Gorham, Timothy Dwight and Yale)  

 And thus began a battle at Yale between spiritual believers and the rationalists.

 In 1801, the entire senior class of Yale decided to challenge the President to debate the trustworthiness of the Bible.

 To their surprise, the President agreed to meet them head-on.

 He took the time to reason with the students by taking on and refuting the cynical French philosophers one by one, and in the process, defending the faith.

 The outcome of his efforts could hardly have been imagined. In 1802, a religious revival swept through the campus, resulting in the conversions of one third of the student body. 

 A writer described the Yale of 1802: “Yale College is a little temple: prayer and praise seem to be the delight of the greater part of the students, while those who are still unfeeling are awed into respectful silence.”

 A parallel is my own experience when, in 1977, my wife and I transferred out of a theological seminary where the cynical spirit had taken hold. 

 We had felt such despair there in response to its barren and bleak atmosphere.

 After struggling for a while, we ended up transferring to another school where an entirely different spirit reigned. We transferred to Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Across the street was Asbury College, which has now become Asbury University.

 The transfer came about because we kept meeting students and Professors from Asbury who were so deeply impressive. In particular, I was impacted by the holy life of the supervisor of my hospital chaplaincy studies, the Rev. Powell Royster, a graduate of Asbury Seminary and his wife, Helene, the first woman to receive a Master of Divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary.

 The final straw had been when my wife came home from a Bible study that had been led by a Professor of Old Testament from Asbury, Professor John Oswalt. She came home in tears. These were tears of inspiration. She could barely talk.

 We decided then and there that we would transfer to Asbury.

 Almost as soon as we arrived at Asbury, we began to hear about the Asbury College Revival of 1970. There, too, as at Yale in 1802, the unimaginable had become a powerful reality. A spiritual revival had broken out on the campus.

 A chapel service in 1970 that had been scheduled for fifty minutes, ended up lasting one hundred and eight-five hours - and it was non-stop for twenty- four hours a day.

 Even after that, the revival continued intermittently across the United States and Canada. 

 Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, the school’s President, had been in Banff, Alberta, when the revival broke out. He received the startling news in a Banff phone booth. He decided to take the next plane home out of Calgary.

 As he travelled back to Kentucky, Dr. Kinlaw felt cautious. He could not help but worry that if somehow things got out hand that he, as President, would be held responsible. 

 Dr. Kinlaw arrived back at Asbury College in the wee hours of the morning, at around 2:00 a.m. He says that as he got closer to the chapel he experienced a certain incomparable heaviness, a heaviness that got heavier and heavier

 Dr. Kinlaw felt that the sense of “heaviness”  was somehow an indication of the presence of God. 

 He had never experienced anything quite like it.

 Upon arriving at the chapel, instead of taking his rightful place as the school’s leader at the front of the chapel, he slipped quietly into the back row of the balcony to observe what was happening.

 It did not take long for him to conclude that whatever was happening in the school chapel was for real.

 Interviewed in the early morning by a reporter he said: “Well, you may not understand this, but the only way I know how to account for this is that last Tuesday morning, about 20 of 11, the Lord Jesus walked into Hughes Auditorium, and He’s been there ever since, and you’ve got the whole community paying tribute to His presence.”

 The reporter’s response was to become very quiet.

 Adding a personal detail, Dr. Kinlaw relays that for the next week his wife basically gave up cooking. She spent almost all of her time at the chapel. 

 Dr. and Mrs. Kinlaw were two of the most impressive people I have ever met.

 I heard Dennis speak many times and in particular recall when he was the guest speaker at the graduation of Medical students from the University of Louisville. His message was, as always, spellbinding.

 Anytime I ever heard Dr. Kinlaw I would resolve to deepen my spiritual life.  

 Inspired by the Asbury revival, two students travelled to another school across the country to ask the school administrator if they could speak with anyone who would care to listen.

 At first the administrator thought that the young people were crazy, but felt that there was something about their "complete lack of pushiness" that compelled him to agree, "against his natural administrative inclinations." 

 He thought to himself: "Oh, what would be the harm in giving them five or ten minutes at an assembly tomorrow evening."

 As it turned out, one student spoke for one minute, the other, for a minute and a half. They then sat down and the chapel program continued.

 But not for long. A staff member interrupted the proceedings to say that he had something to say. He spoke about something happening in his soul, an awakening of warmth there. And he asked those around him for forgiveness.

 And that was only the beginning. The service went on all night and into the next day, as person after person experienced an awakening of soul.

 The Asbury revival spread across the country. For instance: “When Asbury students gave their testimonies at the Miridian Street Church of God in Anderson, Indiana the church experienced a spontaneous revival that lasted fifty consecutive nights.” (A Revival Account, Asbury, 1970.)  

 When my wife and I arrived at Asbury six years after the revival, the college and Seminary were still feeling its effects.

 There was such a sense of enchantment at Asbury Seminary and Asbury College. And I still feel the impact.

 When I began to prepare this article, I had been studying the writings of the philosopher, Eric Voegelin. I had intended to write about the difference between a classical and a modern education

 I was, however, wonderfully side-tracked into recalling the Asbury revival. But that diversion took me to the heart of what I wanted to say about the meaning of a classical education.

 Which has very much to do with the sense of inner awakening that I continue to feel. As I was writing this article, for example, I had to fight off tears. As I wrote, I also forgot to eat. (which I never forget to do!) 

 Professor Voegelin had said 'that something would often happen to students of his who studied Plato.’ They would become “enchanted by Plato” (Richard M. Gamble, The Great Tradition - Classic readings on what it means to be an educated human being - p. 656)

 That is, in response to the spiritual emphasis of Plato, their souls would awaken. 

 There is therefore a world of difference between an approach in education that honours God and the soul - like Plato - like President Dwight of Yale in the 1790’s - like the students of Asbury College in 1970 - and that approach which is dismissive of the spiritual dimension. 

 At the heart of a truly classical education is the experience of soul enchantment.

 If somehow somebody reads this article who happens to be attending a school where there is no emphasis upon soul enchantment, well, based on this article, you will know what to do!

 (Get out and get out fast!)