Maybe one of your new year’s resolutions was to get yourself off of social media. You might want to reconsider. You could reconsider. How about using it for good? Like it or not, it’s an Areopagus today.
So why not make good of it?
And so Chad C. Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (which happens to be my alma mater) is. This Thursday (January 12) starts a 15-week course on St. Augustine’s The City of God. We talk a bit about what that’s going to look like and how you can participate.
Lopez: What gave you the idea for a Twitter seminar on City of God? Twitter doesn’t seem the most natural place for teaching or reflection.
Pecknold: Twitter has become a new kind of public square. In some ways, it’s more wild west than the Roman forum, but it has nevertheless become an important medium for journalists, politicians, and even popes.
I embraced it skeptically two years ago on an experimental basis, but I’ve since found that it’s an instrument like any other, it can be used well or badly. The best uses seem to be where people have real exchanges over things that matter. I witnessed lots of good and bad exchanges over the presidential election.
I wondered what short 140-character dialogue would look like if the object being discussed wasn’t something fleeting but something classic and foundational to western civilization. I knew I would be teaching an actual seminar on Augustine’s City of God this spring at the Catholic University of America, so I decided to share the reading schedule on Twitter and see if anyone wanted to virtually join in.
I thought about 12 people would take me up on my offer. When thousands responded, I had to figure it out quick!
How does this seminar experiment work exactly?
The basic functions are simple. I think it’s important that people get off their screens for substantial reading. So I’ve asked folks to buy the Penguin Classics’ edition of Augustine’s City of God. It’s about $10 on Amazon.
There’s a reading schedule which gets us through a thousand pages in 15 weeks. It’s really ambitious, but it works, and it’s an achievement. That’s the main thing. The “seminar” part is partly for accountability, and partly to encourage greater understanding of what people are reading.
It’s a demanding read, and overwhelming at times, but having a chance to hear how others read and understand always helps. Every Thursday night from 8-10pm ET I’ll guide and moderate the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #CivDei (which readers chose as an abbreviation for the Latin title, De Civitate Dei).
It seems like a lot of work for everyone involved.
I think it’s not a lot of work. I think it’s better quality play. So many of us have become constant consumers of online articles that are timely but fleeting. You could spend a couple hours a day reading all the articles of all the links you like, and not be much better off for it.
But if you put an hour a night into City of God, you’d be much better off, you’d be more free in fact.
Who can most benefit from this experiment?
Everyone can benefit, some more than others. He tells us about ourselves, and about where we’ve come from.
Those who read in order to disagree with him, or to reassure themselves that he would agree with them, will benefit less than the person who just wants to know what Augustine knows.
He gives us something deeply genetic for understanding our world, so it’s the person who wants to be illumined who will benefit the most, the person who approaches Augustine’s City with a kind of trust that he is intelligible, and has something to teach us that’s worth our time.
Is Augustine for everyone?
It just depends on whether you think higher learning is for everyone. I teach Augustine’s City to freshmen, and they can understand him. You don’t need to have a PhD. You do need to be patient with the things you don’t understand.
It’s not always clear what Augustine is arguing on every page the first time you read him. So if you aren’t patient, then it can frustrate. But the Thursday evening seminars are intended to keep readers on track, comprehending this classic work as we make our way through it together.
What do you say to those who find him – or the book –intimidating?
Sapere Audem! Dare to know!
Life is boring without challenges, and so many of our cultural problems stem from the mind’s boredom. So be brave!
Think of this as a rebel mission to break back into the dynamics of western civilization. Think of it as Mount Everest. Think of it as the cheapest class you ever took. But dig in! Take it seriously. Be patient with what you don’t understand, and bank on what you do understand.
What about the person who has never used Twitter before: What’s your pitch?
I’ve got no pitch! As I say, I thought 12 people would join me on Twitter. No one was more shocked than me that thousands thought this was a good idea. People who have sworn they’d never get on Twitter again have rejoined just to be able to follow the #CivDei hashtag, and I don’t fully understand this myself!
I will say one thing. Twitter itself can be intimidating for new users. They come on knowing very little about how it works, or how to interact, or how to distinguish degrees of snark, or even how to mute “trolls.” But here the person new to Twitter is given a purpose, and the time is fixed to a couple hours one night a week. It’s low-tech, low-maintenance, and an easy entrance to the world of Twitter.
What can the Church heed from Augustine today?
The Catholic Church — and also all those venerable Christian communities which haven’t been eviscerated by accommodating themselves to every political whim — feels deeply the demands of her critics.
Augustine writes precisely in response to attacks on the Christian life. He wades deep into the waters of his critics, and shows how their own arguments defeat them. And then he proclaims the eternal truths which make glad the City of God.
In this sense, he offers Christians a blueprint for how they are to engage their critics, whether we win them over, or die trying.
At a time when higher ed is quite pricey, is there something in it for your employer, the Catholic University of America, giving a course away like you are?
I should say that this is a personal venture which I’ve undertaken as a kind spiritual work of mercy, quite by accident. But I think it does reflect well on the mission of The Catholic University of America, which aims to serve both Church and nation.
We have talked about the possibility of making this a university-supported massive open online course (MOOC), as places like Harvard and Yale have done, to good effect. Perhaps we can think of this as trial balloon for something like that.
But I do think, even as a personal endeavor, this speaks to our strengths as a university which serves the common good of the Church, and also the common good of the nation. Augustine helps us to see the common good, but more importantly he directs us to see the highest good, which we can call God.