[Milton-L] Herbert's poetry and belief

Hannibal Hamlin hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
Fri Oct 2 17:25:25 EDT 2009

This is indeed a more complex question, one I've thought about for many
years in teaching a Bible course in an English Department. My conclusion,
not easily arrived at, is that those of us who teach "The Bible as
Literature" are kidding ourselves if we think we are not going to shake
certain kinds of faith, since some do not believe the Bible is literature --
that it isn't all historically true or inerrant, for instance, or that "God"
and "Jesus" can be discussed as literary characters, or that much in the
Gospels in fiction (Matthew's and Luke's childhood narratives can't both be
true, for instance, but that's missing the point -- each serves its own
purpose in the different stories). I also believe (!!) that to challenge a
position of belief is not to destroy it, and I have indeed had some devout,
even evangelical, students who have relished an open-minded discussion. And
yet, and yet. There will inevitably be students whose beliefs are more
seriously troubled, who go home and have difficult arguments with parents or
pastors (I've heard this). I think we're copping out as scholars and
teachers, though, if we shy away from this. Education is sometimes
challenging, sometimes even scary, for the very good reason that giving up
our comfortable received beliefs and opinions is unsettling. So be it. Do
our colleagues in the biological sciences worry that they are intolerant of
their fundamentalist students who favor Creationism or Intelligent Design
over Evolution? I don't think so. But that's perhaps an oblique analogy,
since we are not engaged in empirical scientific study (though we might be
if we were teaching biblical higher criticism).

As for the question of how best to guide students through the process of
open their minds to a larger world, I think we're lucky that we have writers
like Milton to do that for us. I've found nothing so effective for expanding
horizons in biblical interpretation than teaching the history of
interpretation. Then it's not me against them, but rather all of us together
looking at an undeniable fact -- the diverse range of responses to the same
texts. So too with Milton, who will inevitably challenge any orthodox
position of belief, however we teach him. Shifting to a more pedagogical
point, I've usually found humor a very effective tool, and I often enjoy
playing the heretic in a way that students seem aware is play (i.e., I am
not necessarily one or other brand of heretic myself) but which nevertheless
raises the questions that (as Ohioans say) need raised.


On Fri, Oct 2, 2009 at 4:59 PM, Jason Kerr <aelfric at gmail.com> wrote:

>  Well said. We call it a liberal education because it liberates us from
>> our particular circumscribed experience so that we can see the world as
>> others do.
> I agree that this is, and should be, the aim, but it seems to me that the
> larger question raised by Prof. Thickstun's initial post is how to guide
> students with sensitivity through a process that can feel--as Samuel Smith
> rightly points out--like they're being told to doubt things that they feel
> deeply and fundamentally to be true. I'm a Miltonist, and I believe with
> Milton that belief can be strengthened by being challenged, but not everyone
> feels this way. Sensitivity is important not so much for the sake of being
> PC or touchy-feely, but because the challenge won't work if students feel
> threatened and decide to turn off.
> Of course, sensitivity framed in this way sounds like political guile,
> which I suppose it is, but on the other hand there's the question of just
> what it is students expect to get for their tuition. For me, the point is
> not to breed heretics in the truth by directing students to preconceived
> ideas, but to help situate them such that they are sufficiently exposed to
> difference that they can start sorting things out for themselves. Simple
> reinforcement of what I already think to be true can be had for nothing more
> than the price of an internet connection or a cable TV subscription (not
> that these media necessarily work only to that end). Cheaper than college,
> in either case.
> I suppose the issue here is the same as in Of Toleration: everyone should
> be tolerated, except the Catholics, because they reject the system of
> testing ideas that makes toleration possible. If my classroom needs a
> certain amount of tolerance to work, to what extent am I justified in
> pushing an ideological agenda of tolerance? I realize that I'm talking about
> a minority of cases here, but isn't respecting minority views one of the
> tenets of toleration?
> Jason A. Kerr
> --
> The purpose of poetry is to remind us
> how difficult it is to remain just one person,
> for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
> and invisible guests come in and out at will.
>           —Czeslaw Milosz, from "Ars Poetica?"
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Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
The Ohio State University
164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall
Columbus, OH 43210-1340
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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