I went home last weekend for a wedding and, naturally, had an argument with my parents about Theology. It happened quite accidentally – my dad and I have differing views on a high-profile issue that Christians everywhere are arguing about very publically, and we’ve debated it on and off each time I’ve gone home for the past six months. Broadly, he thinks that the church is jettisoning years of established tradition too casually, while I think that the church is trying to steer a new path through culture by questioning that tradition to see if it really stands up. It should have been a constructive discussion, one that brought resolution and greater clarity for both of us, but what happened instead was that our two positions crystallised into frustration and anger and the whole thing got rather less pleasant than it could have been.
It exemplified my frustration with the way debates are increasingly conducted in the church, where people seem to divide quickly into one of two polarised camps and start criticising their opposite numbers. I’m exhausted by it; I’ve been in conversations where people visibly flinch if you mention the names of certain theologians. It’s the same in education, and it gets nobody anywhere, which is why I was so glad last year to read Martin Robinson’s excellent (and resolutely non-theological) book Trivium 21c.
In it, Robinson outlines the concept of the Trivium, a series of ‘core’ disciplines that used to make up the curriculum, as a way of liberating education from those polarised positions. The Trivium was made up of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, which broadly equate to tradition, questioning and speaking, although there’s significantly more to each of them than that, and each of those arts in tension with one another was supposed to equate to a ‘complete’ education. It’s worth dwelling on those parts of the Trivium in a little more depth before moving on, as they’ll be important in a bit:
Grammar: Not just how to speak, but more than that. Tradition, and the way things have been done. The accumulated wisdom of ages on a subject, and the best that has been thought and said about it. The ‘proper’ way of doing things; the established, the conservative.
Dialectic: The critical, the analytical. Challenging what is included, challenging the ways of studying it, defining different examples, discussing the importance of the whole endeavour. Setting up identities. Satirising, exploring and undermining.
Rhetoric: Turning outwards. How to communicate your thoughts clearly, thoughtfully, logically. How to be involved in your community, and how to find the place of your discipline or subject there.
It was born in Ancient Greece and ultimately adapted by Christianity as a way of teaching faith. I’d never heard it explained that way, but in truth, that’s how I’ve ended up exploring faith too – and it really worked. I became a Christian in a conservative church (grammar), I explored other traditions through the cross-cultural camps and youth events, before discovering the emergent church (dialectic), and then I learned to preach and be trained and express myself in a church community, as a leader and an intern (rhetoric). Each of those schools has been profoundly valuable to me individually, but it’s in their combination and interplay that they’re of most value.
What has frustrated me about some of those very public discussions about ‘issues’ lately is that people insist on entrenching themselves into one of those camps – like me and my dad did – and then arguing from there. That’s much more pronounced now that the internet exists, too, and on any issue there are staunch grammarians (read: conservatives) arguing their point, which I can see, with staunch dialecticians (read: liberals, sometimes) arguing their point, also coherently and clearly. Yet because it happens on the internet, in the ether, it doesn’t translate into true dialogue; none of us are really changed by it, just educated, because we’re not really talking. All three of those arts need to exist in one place, in community, or the whole thing falls apart.
The way Martin Robinson lays it out, the Trivium is a stool with three legs, and so in the places where there’s only been two or one of those legs it can become unbearable. The staunchly conservative churches where you believe the right thing and don’t question it are doing a good thing, but they can become suffocating and cult-like if there’s no space for dialectic. The challenging, progressive churches engaging with culture are powerful, but become empty and cynical if they don’t have grammar to discuss and explore. The great storytellers of some of the conference circuits (admit it, they exist) may have extraordinary rhetoric, but do they have the ideas underpinning them?
The Trivium has got me thinking. I like the idea of it, and I like it because, for all those frustrations I and others feel with the church, it bridges some of those divisions. A good church needs all of these things in unity, in discussion with one other, and from that comes clarity and perspective. The best places – say, off the top of my head, Soul Survivor, arguably, and New Wine – have that interplay of differing views. You will likely gravitate towards one of those areas of the Trivium more than another, and that’s fine; that doesn’t need to change, as you’re part of a community. Even Paul acknowledged that would happen. But you need to be willing to listen, as those churches that become toxic can emphasise one or two of those things and chuck out the others, and then they become self-reinforcing and vilify people with different views as the ‘enemy’. That’s the danger of discussing theological ideas on the internet; we read in isolation, not in community, and we can too often feed one art at the expense of the others because that’s where our inclinations lie. I don’t want that, and I have to fight that too, or else I end up in conversations like the one I had with my father – angry, frustrated, and feeling like someone who’s on the same side is against me. That’s no good for anyone.
I can only hope that the Trivium might provide some kind of a solution to those kinds of conversations happening everywhere these days – a way back, perhaps, from something destructive towards something constructive. I have to hope for that, as the alternative makes my heart sink.