Biblical Imagery and Educational Imagination: Comenius and the Garden of Delight

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Biblical Imagery and Educational Imagination: Comenius and the Garden of Delight
David I. Smith
The main aim of this chapter is to explore how a particular image from the early chapters of the Bible influenced a particular understanding of education that has in turn significantly influenced modern Western educational thought and practice and is well placed to speak afresh to our situation. The image in question is the “garden of delight” of Genesis 2, and the educational thinker in question is the great 17th-century Moravian John Amos Comenius, sometimes referred to as the father of modern education. Comenius’ reflections on the classroom, the teacher, and the learner as “gardens of delight” offer a rich case study of a biblically informed imagination at work. They also, as I will suggest in the closing sections of the chapter, have relevant things to say to current educational debates. Before turning directly to the garden of delight, however, I will first briefly sketch a further reason for taking an interest in Comenius’ musings, on having to do with how the connection between faith and learning is pursued.

1. Faith, Learning and Metaphor

Some accounts of the relationship of the Bible to learning have regarded that relationship as basically a matter of rightly understanding relationships between propositions. On the one hand, we have a set of propositions forming the content of Christian belief. On the other hand, we have the actual or potential propositions that provide the substance of the disciplines. Christian scholarship, then, involves tracing and stating the logical connections or discontinuities between the two sets of propositions. Alvin Plantinga, for instance, once stated the task of the Christian scholar in terms of working out and stating “a large number of propositions, each explicating the bearing of the faith on some part of the discipline in question.”1 Given this starting point, further debate focuses upon the kinds of relationships that hold – deduction, induction, permission, requirement, commendation, comportment and the like.2 This emphasis supports the desire to distinguish intellectually defensible points of contact between Christian theology and other disciplines from “pseudointegration,” where biblical references and images are used for the purposes of illustration or analogy but have little logical bearing on the scholarly topic under discussion.3 Careful Christian scholars understandably wish to avoid propagating imagined connections between Scripture and scholarship grounded in rhetorical flights of fancy rather than theoretical sophistication.

One factor that greatly complicates this picture is the renewed recognition over the past several decades of the constructive role of imagination in framing inquiry, and in particular the renewed recognition that metaphors can be theory-constitutive rather than merely decorative, and that a great deal of our theorizing is rooted in and organized by imagery that both guides and obscures our reflections.4 To understand the world is in many cases to see it as fundamentally this kind of thing rather then that kind, to see, for instance, the mind as a kind of computer or knowledge as a house with foundations or schools as marketplaces. In many areas of discussion, especially those dealing with basic questions of orientation, a significant part of what we do as scholars is to propose imagery to one another, imagery that invites shifts of viewpoint and bids to guide our collective perception of the matter at hand. This is very broadly the case, but perhaps shows up most forcefully in our attempts to understand intangible and normative matters such as love, knowing, spirit, mind, teaching, responsibility, virtue, and so on, matters which we are often greatly helped to see at all by seeing them as something other than themselves.

Not surprisingly, both theological and educational discussion has partaken richly of this metaphorical practice. Groups of metaphors drawn, for instance, from the economic sphere (schools as factories or marketplaces, teachers as managers, learners as consumers, the curriculum as a delivered product), the domestic sphere (teachers as parents, schools as families) or the horticultural sphere (teachers as gardeners, learners as plants, learning as natural growth) have given rise to and sustained distinct patterns of educational theory and practice. In education, as in other disciplines, the idea that metaphors are not merely decoration, but rather help to constitute and direct our thinking, has been widely noted.5

Given ongoing discussion from various points on the theological map of the role of metaphor and imagination in theological reflection,6 this invites an obvious question in the present context: what happens if imagery drawn from a biblical context migrates into educational discussion and begins to organize ideas there? What if theological imagination and educational imagination become intertwined? That this has happened at various points in educational history seems quite clearly the case – consider, for instance (in addition to the example discussed at length below), the tendency in British educational discussion to discuss extra-curricular concern for the emotional and moral wellbeing of students as “pastoral care” (there is even a journal titled Pastoral Care in Education which has nothing directly to do with ecclesiological concerns, still less with sheep and hillsides). But “has happened” does not entail “should happen”; is this merely “pseudointegration” or something more substantial?

I would freely grant that such practices may very often, if not most of the time, be dubious. It is possible to borrow images more or less at random from the Bible and use them in educational contexts, but this practice may have little, if any, theological or educational legitimacy, for several reasons. The Bible takes its images and metaphors from human experience, and there seems to be no reason to suppose that the images found in the Bible are in themselves specially authorized as images, apart from their particular discursive role in the thought-world of Scripture. In the Bible God is described as a fortress - but there seems little reason to suppose that thinking of the school teacher or the math worksheet as a fortress would necessarily be an especially ‘biblical’ thing to do. The particular force of a metaphor is, furthermore, conditioned by its textual context. An image may be used in a particular educational discourse, and may also happen to occur in the Bible – but the educational use in context may express meanings quite foreign to those of the biblical text. It should also be noted that harvesting imagery at will from the Bible may not be automatically helpful. The fruitfulness of a metaphor in one context is no guarantee that it will be illuminating in a different context. Even if a metaphor works powerfully in communicating a sense of how we should view some aspect of salvation, it may turn out to stimulate no particularly helpful lines of thought if we try to use it as a way of seeing, say, a school timetable. Taken together with the unfortunate tendency in certain kinds of Christian school textbooks to leap cheerfully from, say, the mechanics of short division to the need to flee worldly concerns because the time is short (an actual example from a middle-school math text), under the apparent impression that some meaningful connection exists by virtue of mere word association, these concerns give legitimate grounds for circumspection.7

Granting all of this, however, there do seem nevertheless to be instances where the metaphorical rope connecting biblical and educational discourse is woven of tougher strands. It is commonly noted that metaphors do not simply make single feature comparisons, but open up broader webs of meaning that become transferred to new areas of perception.8 It is also often the case that these webs of meaning depend not only on our personal experiences of the world, but on our experiences of other texts. For most modern, Western readers, for instance, the field of meaning opened up by “The Lord is my shepherd” is not rooted in direct experience of shepherds and sheep, but is mediated by commentary, preaching, the wider biblical context and various forms of general knowledge from various media; ideas and images from these other texts inhabit the resonances to which this metaphor gives rise when we encounter it. Sometimes metaphors that emerge from the Bible come to be used to talk about education in systematic ways that continue to evoke the webs of meaning associated with them in biblical interpretation, thereby causing at least some of the normative concerns of the biblical text and its commentators to become active in the educational imagination. This, I shall argue, is what happened with the garden of delight.

2. The Garden of Delight as a School

Comenius embraced his own equivalent of current notions of theory-constitutive metaphor, arguing for the necessity of three forms of inquiry: analysis, synthesis and syncrisis. The last of the three involved the making of apt comparisons in order to gain insight into the interconnectedness of reality.9 A central cluster of imagery in his writings on education has to do with gardens and the processes of gardening. He sees both the school and the learner as a garden, the teacher as one who waters, cultivates and prunes, the learners as grafts and saplings, and suggests that school textbooks should be named after parts of a garden. I have discussed Comenius’ appropriation of garden imagery in more general terms elsewhere;10 in what follows I would like to consider in more detail how the trail led from the biblical text to early modern educational theory.

The Great Didactic, one of Comenius’ most influential texts, is prefaced by a dedicatory letter that opens with extended and overtly theological commentary on the garden of delight11:

“God, having created man out of dust, placed him in a Paradise of desire, which he had planted in the East, not only that man might tend it and care for it, but also that he might be a garden of delight for his God.

For as Paradise was the pleasantest part of the world, so also was man the most perfect of things created. In Paradise each tree was delightful to look at, and more pleasant to enjoy than those which grew throughout the earth. In man the whole material of the world, all the forms and the varieties of forms were, as it were, brought together into one in order to display the whole skill and wisdom of God. Paradise contained the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; man had the intellect to distinguish, and the will to choose between the good and the bad. In Paradise was the tree of life. In man was the tree of Immortality itself; that is to say, the wisdom of God, which had planted its eternal roots in man.

And so each man is, in truth, a Garden of Delights for his God, as long as he remains in the spot where he has been placed. The Church too, which is a collection of men devoted to God, is often in Holy Writ likened to a Paradise, to a garden, to a vineyard of God. But alas for our misfortune! We have at the same time lost the Paradise of bodily delight in which we were, and that of spiritual delight, which we were ourselves. We have been cast out into the deserts of the earth, and have ourselves become wild and horrible wildernesses.”12

This passage prefaces an extended (and historically important) treatise on education in which the image of the garden of delight is regularly used to frame ideas about teaching and learning. In keeping with the opening passage just cited, in which human beings are seen both as placed in a garden of delight and as themselves being a garden of delight, Comenius goes on to figure both the learner and the educational institution as called to be ‘gardens of delight’ – the learner, like the first humans in paradise, is not only to inhabit a garden of delight in the guise of the justly ordered classroom, but also to be a garden of delight insofar as he or she grows in erudition, virtue and piety through learning.

We might easily leap to the conclusion that we have here a variant of the familiar Romantic appeal to nature in opposition to civilization – learners as little plants that will blossom on their own if exposed to the air and sun. We would be wrong; such a picture does not reflect Comenius’ thought. Although his own experiential delight in gardens does play a role,13 the image is first and foremost intertextual. Tracing its sources illuminates its particular shape, and the influence of Scripture on Comenius’ educational imagination.

Creation and Fall

The first and most obvious source is the description of the Garden of Eden in the opening chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures. The “garden of delight” is in fact identical with the Garden of Eden. The overt initial point of contact is Genesis 2:15, rendered in modern English translation as “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”14 The word “Eden” is, however, also a Hebrew noun for delight, and the phrase “Garden of Eden” can therefore be translated instead as “garden of delight.” This phrase in Genesis 2:15 is in fact rendered in Latin translations as “paradisum voluptatis”, or “paradise of delight”; this is the phrase that appears repeatedly in the Latin of Comenius’ Great Didactic. Talk of the “garden of delight” is thus a directly biblical allusion, reflecting Comenius’ extensive first-hand immersion in Scripture as a bishop and theologian.

This does not explain, however, the shift from the image of being placed in a garden to the idea that each of us is a garden. This shift can already be found early in Christian interpretation of Genesis 2. Saint Augustine’s literal commentary on Genesis provides a striking example. Augustine’s discussion of Eden shifts smoothly from the image of Adam cultivating the garden to that of God cultivating Adam. Commenting on Genesis 2:15, our key verse, Augustine offers the following translation: “The Lord God took the man whom he had made and placed him in Paradise to cultivate him (that is, to work in him) and to guard him.”15 This is (at least in linguistic terms) a legitimate translation from Augustine’s sources – the Greek and Latin pronouns can point to the person or the garden, “to guard it” or “to guard him.” The garden thus ends up functioning both as an environment that the human creature cultivates and as a figure for the human creature being (in Augustine’s words) “made just” as he is cultivated by God: Adam is in a garden and he is a garden.

It seems likely that the choice of “him” over “it” was aided by the allegorical approach to the early chapters of Genesis adopted by Augustine’s teacher Ambrose and also found in other church fathers and in Philo. Ambrose maintained that “by Paradise is meant the soul of man”, that the serpent represents the pleasures of the body, the woman is the senses or emotions, the man is the mind, the beasts are the irrational senses, the birds are idle thoughts, the fruits on the trees are the virtues, and so on.16 The allegorical meaning of Genesis 2:15, with its talk of Adam cultivating the garden, is thus roughly that we are charged with cultivating our souls by exercising mastery over the body and the emotions in order that virtue might grow. The common use of imagery of trees, gardens and irrigation to portray the spiritual growth and general wellbeing of persons later in the Bible in the wisdom literature (see e.g. Job 8:16, Psalm 1, Song of Solomon 4:14-16, among other passages), no doubt did much to support this line of thinking, both for Ambrose and for Comenius. The conjunction of literal and allegorical readings together with the presence of ambiguous pronouns gives us the image of the human creature both being in a garden and being a garden, both cultivating and being cultivated.

A further factor helped to connect Eden with teaching. Ambrose, with other early commentators, notes that Eve was not present when the original command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was given by God, and infers that the command must have been taught to Eve by Adam. Since Eve’s recollection of the command when questioned by the serpent appears faulty (she adds a detail about not touching the tree, Genesis 3:3), something may have gone wrong with the teaching and learning process, with disastrous results. The association of the serpent with false teachers that can be found in 2 Corinthians 11:2-3, where Paul worries that false preachers and apostles will deceive the Corinthian Christians “as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning,” and in 1 Timothy 2:12-14, where Paul says that women are not to teach since “the woman was deceived,” was also not lost on patristic commentators. Jager points out further the relevance of the desire to resist Gnostic teachings, according to which the serpent was the source of secret wisdom which was transmitted to Adam by Eve, resulting in the gain of God-like knowledge by both. On this heretical view, Eve represented a higher spiritual principle that first awakened Adam, or the soul, to awareness of its spiritual nature, and the serpent was commonly referred to as her “Instructor”.17 Patristic authors felt it necessary in response to emphasize the opposite teaching hierarchy, in which the male bishop is the source and guardian of correct teaching and there is no place for female teachers.18 In connection with this interpretation of Eden in terms of the legitimation of clerical teaching, paradise came to figure the church as well as the individual soul.19

If we add as final garnishes the tendency to see various details of Eden, whether the river or the tree of life, as representing Wisdom, and the influence of the classical idea of the garden as a place of philosophical dialogue, then we have a recipe formed from a potent mix of exegesis, allegory, heresy and history for thinking of the Garden of Eden as a school and for thinking of learners both as being gardens and as being in gardens. The story of the Paradise of Delight and the Fall into sin comes to include an educational drama occurring in a morally and religiously charged site of instruction. The use of imagery of the garden to figure the spiritual growth of the believer continues to appear in later Christian writers (as, for instance, in Bernard of Clairvaux’s discussions of the “garden of the heart” in his sermons on the Song of Solomon20), and continues to be associated with instruction, as in the twelfth century quasi-encyclopedia authored by the Abbess Herrad of Hohenbourg for the instruction of her nuns and titled Hortus Deliciarium, or Garden of Delights.21

In the Great Didactic, Comenius comments: “It is evident…that even before the Fall, a school in which he might make gradual progress was opened for man in Paradise”;22 here he explicitly works out of the tradition just sketched and transfers the imagery from the church to the day school classroom. In keeping with his wider turn to the world of experience in his pedagogy, he does not reproduce the patristic focus on correct transmission of doctrine, but instead draws from the Eden narrative the point that humans must learn from experience. With more experience, Eve would have known that snakes do not talk and would have suspected deception.23 Although the emphasis has shifted, however, Comenius does invoke here both the tradition of paradise as a school and the connection between the Fall and failed learning. Careful education is, he goes on to argue, even more necessary after the Fall, now that corruption has taken hold and opposes growth. Recall the emphases of the passage already cited from the dedicatory letter: since the Fall both the school classroom and the individuals in it fail to exist naturally as gardens of delight and are always caught up in the tension between garden and wilderness. This imagery and its biblical context frame key aspects of Comenius’ educational theory. His insistence, for instance, that erudition, virtue and piety cannot be separated, and that teaching and learning have to be conceived as always essentially moral and spiritual as well as cognitive enterprises, comports well with the tradition of the school as an echo of Eden.24


Before going further into Comenius’ ideas, however, there is more to be said about the biblical origins of his use of the garden of delight, and about ways in which it goes beyond the account sketched thus far. Another strand of interpretation of Eden can be found within the Bible, in the writings of the Hebrew prophets, in which the garden functions as an image not of pre-social innocence, conservative hierarchy or the individual soul growing in virtue, but of society ordered by peaceful relationships and characterized by flourishing. In the book of Joel, for instance, a metaphorical account of military invasion says of the incoming armies “the land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness” (Joel 2:3), offering a basic opposition of garden and wilderness that is echoed in Comenius’ rhetoric. In Ezekiel, prophecies of restoration echo this opposition in reverse:

“On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited” (Ezekiel 36:35).

These passages do not use the garden as an image of unspoiled nature; they refer to land that is cultivated to sustain human community. As suggested by the emphasis on human cultivation in Genesis 2:15, intentional, formative human activity has a key role in shaping the community of peace, or making it desolate. While God sends judgement, it is soldiers who will ravage the fields. While God promises to resettle, rebuild and cultivate it will be human hands that dig the furrows and lay the bricks. The land is like the garden of Eden when the fields are diligently cared for and produce good food, when people live together without fear of violence, when cities prosper. This state of communal wellbeing, in which relationships are well ordered and can produce delight, is brought about in significant measure by the care and diligence of people.

A related echo of Eden occurs without the war association of the above passages in the fifth chapter of Isaiah, where Israel is pictured as a vineyard planted with vines by an owner who hoped for a plentiful harvest. When he returned at harvest time, however, he found only bad fruit. In response the vineyard owner declares:

“I will take away its hedge,

and it will be destroyed;

I will break down its wall,

and it will be trampled.

I will make it a wasteland,

neither pruned nor cultivated,

and briers and thorns will grow there.” (Isaiah 5:5-6)

Here we see the same contrast as in the other passages: a garden, carefully pruned and fenced and cultivated, will because of hardness of heart turn into a wilderness, a place without shape or comfort or fruit. The passage continues:

“The vineyard of the Lord Almighty

is the house of Israel,

and the men of Judah

are the garden of his delight.

And he looked for justice,

but saw bloodshed;

for righteousness,

but heard cries of distress.” (Isaiah 5:7)
This is a tantalizing passage for present purposes, since the phrase rendered in English as “garden of delight” is in Latin versions not paradisum voluptatis but germen delectabile, and so it is difficult to be fully certain whether Comenius had this passage specifically in mind alongside Genesis 1 as he wrote the preface to his Great Didactic. I suspect, however, that it played a role in his thinking, largely because of the close similarity between its ideas and images and those of the preface (the sought-for garden of delight become a wasteland), and it is a clear candidate for being one of the passages he was referring to when he noted in the preface (expanding his own terminology) that “the Church too, which is a collection of men devoted to God, is often in Holy Writ likened to a Paradise, to a garden, to a vineyard of God.”25

Two points are particularly interesting about this passage. First, the tale is allegorical and the garden of delight is used as a metaphor for the men of Judah – here we have an antecedent within Scripture for at least some aspects of the patristic move of seeing the garden of delight both as the context within which people are placed by God and as an image of people themselves being cultivated by God. This does not necessarily justify the patristic exegesis of Genesis 2:15; it does suggest, however, that whatever the status of that specific piece of exegesis they were on to something that is part of the larger biblical tapestry. Second, however, note that the central point at issue in the contrast between the garden of delight and the unfruitful vineyard is not whether the individual soul is growing in virtue or whether there is spiritual growth in the inner life, but whether there is justice or violence in social relationships. This chapter of Isaiah continues with examples of the “wild grapes” that are leading to judgement; the first example in the list is a critique of land distribution, in particular the marginalization of the poor as wealthy landowners buy up increasingly large tracts of land: “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land” (Isaiah 5:8). The focus here is more on economics than spirituality, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that economics and spirituality are not regarded as separate or separable concerns. The garden of delight is a society of shalom, and that means a just society marked by ethical attentiveness and care for the distressed rather than by selfish acquisition and the flourishing of the powerful. This strand too is present in Comenius’ appropriation of the garden of delight for educational purposes, as we shall see presently.

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