by Sean A. Riley, PhD
I quit playing piano when I was in my early teens. I had gotten just good enough to play Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” but hit a wall when I tried to play “Fairest Lord Jesus.” At the time, my passion was for sports. I was focused on football, basketball, baseball, and tennis. Sports came easily to me, and I loved them, while piano was difficult. It was becoming a burden; so, I convinced my parents that I needed to give it up so I could focus on sports.
Fast-forward to this past summer. My desire to play piano, which had been building for years, began to gnaw at me to the point where I just had to buy a new piano. I was going to play Bach. I needed to play Bach. And, I had to play Bach on an easily-moveable (because at SBS we change houses like most people change their socks), always in tune, Quinn-proof (Quinn is my three year-old), beautiful instrument. So, we decided to break the bank on a Roland digital piano with a drop-down lid. All this to scratch an itch, to do what I saw my grandfather do in his later years – learn to play the piano with ease.
So, I sat down at my new piano with Minuet in G, one of Bach’s easiest pieces, and I tried and tried and tried. It was painful. It sounded painful. It felt painful. Fortunately the digital piano came with headphones! Sure, I could still fake competence by playing Für Elise from muscle memory, but put a new song in front of me and I was hopeless.
But I stuck with it. I practiced forty-five minutes every day all summer. Measure by painstaking measure, I found myself getting better. I felt my finger joints start to loosen. I felt myself becoming free as I played.
Freedom from and Freedom to
We moderns tend to think of freedom as freedom from external constraints, as license to do whatever we want so long as it does not harm anyone else. This sort of freedom is easy and natural. We have it so long as no one takes it away from us. It is good, but it is cheap.
There is another type of freedom, though, the type of freedom discussed by the Ancient and Medieval philosophers: freedom to do something excellently. I am now free to play Minuet in G . I am not yet free to play Moonlight Sonata or Canon in D. To get there, I need to practice for hours and hours. I need to be disciplined to become free. I need restraints. I need rules and books and mentors. This sort of freedom does not belong to me automatically. I have to earn it.
Glimpses of Heaven
While I gave up on piano prematurely, I stuck with my studies and with sports and those two arenas have afforded me wonderful glimpses of Heaven, experiences in which I felt like I was doing something excellently effortlessly. I have had some football throws that can only be described as beautiful. I say this to make a point, not to boast. Everyone watching noted the objective excellence of these throws. The laces zipped off my fingers, the ball sang through the air in a perfect spiral and then landed softly in the outstretched hands of the receiver. The best way I can describe the experience is to say that it was as if I was gently placing the ball in the receiver’s hands forty yards away. Similarly, I have had experiences teaching in which I have entered into a different plane with my students, where what I was saying was flowing off my lips naturally and connecting with students at a very deep level, where our minds became one and the conversation took on a life of its own.
Of course, most of my football throws and most of my teaching experiences have fallen far short of those few ideal experiences. Glimpses of Heaven are episodic, transitory, and rare in this life, but they are what a liberal arts education aims to make possible.Education is meant to free us to do things that are really worthwhile, like playing the piano, thinking deep thoughts, reading great literature, solving problems and equations, and creating beauty. When we think of freedom strictly in terms of freedomfrom, we lose track of what our freedom is for. We replace the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness with the pursuit of whatever we happen to want, and what we happen to want is usually power, wealth, fame, and pleasure. The problem is that such pursuits are ultimately unfulfilling and frustrating. The discipline it takes to reach them quickly becomes a joyless chore, an undesirable means to an unworthy end. If we can find a shortcut, we will take it. On the other hand, the sort of discipline we need to pursue truth, beauty, and goodness brings joy and fulfillment. There are no shortcuts on that journey. A liberal arts education aims at transforming the student so that the student can do things that are good in and of themselves, good beyond their immediate usefulness.
Christian Liberal Arts
Christians can affirm all that is good in a liberal arts education while going one step further. St. Paul teaches us that even the liberal arts way of thinking about freedom is not quite enough. In Galatians, Paul writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” The slavery Paul speaks of is our slavery to sin. Gospel freedom is both freedom from our internal slavery and freedom to be what God has called us to be, to live the way God has intended us to live. We can practice our way to playing the piano well or solving a math equation, or doing a science experiment. We need God’s grace, however, if we are going to live life well.
A Christian Liberal Arts education, then, must include discipline, hard work, exemplary teachers, great books, and great ideas. But it must also be humble and prayerful. We cannot free ourselves from ourselves. We are, however, once saved by grace, called to train our bodies, minds, and souls in service of God.
I look forward to the day when I can sit down at the piano and experience little glimpses of Heaven, where discipline and grace open up a new world of freedom and joy to me, where I can participate in God’s truth, beauty, and goodness at the piano as I have done occasionally while teaching or throwing a football. My hope for our students is that they will “set [their] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Col. 3:2).
With St. Paul, I often implore them, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9 ESV, emphasis mine).