One of the more helpful books I read last year on education was St. Bonaventure’s On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology. Over the course of the next couple months I hope to write a series of posts on this book. Each post will provide a brief summary of the content followed by reflections on how his insights in the 13th century can help us educate better in the 21st century. All page references, as well as the 26 section breaks, come from the Franciscan Institute’s publication in the Works of Saint Bonaventure Series.
Bonaventure uses James 1:17 as the foundational text for his work. He argues that this passage not only shows that the Father is the source of all illumination, but it also suggests that other lights (gifts) “flow generously from that fontal source of light” (37). These “lights” are knowledge, which Bonaventure divides into four: 1) exterior, pertaining to mechanical arts and leading to artifacts; 2) inferior, pertaining to sense perception and leading to natural forms; 3) interior, pertaining to philosophical knowledge and leading to intellectual truth; and 4) superior, pertaining to the sacred Scriptures and leading to saving truth. This brief survey already sets forth Bonaventure’s central point: all knowledge leads back to the Father, thus placing theology above all other knowledge and arts.
In our context today, theology, far from being the mother of all arts, is completely excluded. The majority of American school children are raised to believe that vast amounts of “knowledge” are available to them if they will learn their school “subjects” (telling that the term arts is abandoned). However, if God is the Creator, then all truth is God’s truth and can only be fully apprehended if that which is learned leads back to God. Any education that does not acknowledge that all knowledge is a good gift coming down from the Father of Lights and meant to lead us back to God, therefore does the opposite—it separates us from God.