Cathedrals of Learning: A Lament for the Liberal Arts

We built grand cathedrals. The arches and vaults reached toward heaven. Cathedrals of theology, art, literature, history, music. Cathedrals for the growing of souls.

But the barbarians came with their budget officers, reducing souls to earning power. They took machetes to theological questions, because they mistook faith for blandly arrogant certainty. They mistook music for entertainment, history for antiquity, literature for bedtime stories. They did not know that we are souls created in the image of God. With hubris they thought their concept of reality was the limit of what is true. 

So they threw rocks through stained glass windows and pulled down organ pipes. Precious carved stones were chucked out gapping holes in the marble walls, and oaken beams were burned for roasting marshmallows. They hoisted a tin roof to shade the sun, and mosaics disappeared under blowing sand. Cactus and mesquite encroached on what was once nave and cloister. 

With walls crumbling, scholars could more easily be shown the door. No more debates. No more uncomfortable questions. No more passion or pathos. Only certainty of a certain kind. No more art, music or story. The barbarians win. The cathedrals of learning crumble. 

And we who tried to build souls have been sent away. We who sang and painted, remembered and wrote, spoke and gave Communion, have been dismissed as irrelevant and troublesome.

But we have not forgotten that humans are souls, and souls will not be denied the search for truth. The passion for beauty and goodness cannot be quenched.

We are left clinging to the hope that we taught some cathedral builders along the way. And that the spires will one day rise again.

* Photograph of Kings College Chapel, Cambridge University, England.


11 thoughts on “Cathedrals of Learning: A Lament for the Liberal Arts

      1. Dr Ellis,

        I volunteer to be a cathedral builder in my preaching, in my sunday school class and in my service among the incarcerated; to crack open the pages of history and genre. As I was invited to discover the distinctives of diverse cultures by participating in them, i’ll give the same opportunity to others. I will make space for theological questions to freely be explored and for supportive evidence to be heard.

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  1. Bob, there have always been philistines who dismiss what they will not comprehend and therefore fear, and storm what they suppose the storehouse of the liberal and the fine arts, and having crumbled the walls, discover they have reaped only rubble. Poetry, Music, Art, Theology and Philosophy, History, Psychology and Sociology, the “passion and pathos” of all open-minded disciplines, their Beauty and Truth prevail and sustain.

    You know I have grieved, continue to grieve, with you and our colleagues. In what I think may be my final entry in https://athinsilence.com: “‘In The World . . . ’” posted 31 August 2021, I wanted to celebrate the hope of Light overcoming Darkness. I am now completing a poetry book manuscript “Welcome The Song: In the Time of Coronavirus COVID-19.” There is much to celebrate.

    Bob Fink

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  2. This meant so much to me. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? Still figuring out how to do that, but I will forever be changed by my liberal arts and theological education that built my soul and empowered me to build cathedrals. Thank you Dr. Ellis.

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  3. Profound thoughts beautifully written. Eager to see how our Heavenly Father can turn a travesty likes this into something that will glorify Him. You are loved. Praying for your continued ministry through the pastor search committee.

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