Historic Main Street and Taft’s Lincoln (Part 3)

West Main Street from downtown to Lincoln Avenue is of the most enchanting and historic few blocks’ drive in Urbana. Nearly canopied by the surrounding trees in full leaf, the old brick-paved street is an experience to savor on a summer day. A host of lovingly-restored Victorian and Queen Anne residences that line the way draw you back in time.

In this episode of “Historic Sites Re-visited,” we set off from Urbana’s birthplace along the Boneyard Creek (see previous post) to find a cluster of homes in the 500 block of West Main that received the official 1976 designation. A few blocks from where Main Street and Springfield Avenue separate, on the north side of Main, three residences in a row (510, 508, 506 W. Main) were designated Historic Sites #41-43. The 1976 Historic Sites book called them the Wahl (510), Yearsley (508), and Marriott (506) Houses after the three men, connected by marriage, who built them in the early 1890s.

The City of Urbana’s Pastcast Tour identifies Louis Wahl as “a local saloon owner.” Brothers-in-law Emmett Yearsley and Frank Marriott were “farmers and real estate speculators.” Wahl purchased these lots from original owner Samuel T. Busey and built his striking Queen Anne home there in 1890. Emmett and Alma Yearsley built their home in 1893. The Historic Sites description reads, “The basic form of this house evolves from the Victorian Italianate style [with] details and finishes from the Queen Anne style.” This house, like the other two, originally had a Queen Anne tower that was removed sometime prior to 1976.

Wahl House (510 W. Main)
Yearsley House (508 W. Main)
Marriott House (506 W. Main)

The Marriott House was also constructed in 1893 in the Queen Anne style. It’s distinctive features include a “large, cubic asymmetrically placed tower [and] wide veranda” (Historic Sites). All three homes have been beautifully restored and maintained, with intact exterior and interior features exemplary of the time of their construction. When these three fine residences were completed, the Champaign County Herald proudly declared, “On West Main Street are three homes that would do honor to Chicago or any other city.”

Across the street at 505 W. Main is Historic Site #44, the Clark R. Griggs House (right, and also title photo above). Built two decades before the others, it is quite different than the elaborate ladies it faces. Historic Sites offers this description: “The Italianate style which the Griggs house exemplifies is introspective and solid. The detailing lends to a lively note: elaborate brackets set in pairs under the eaves, a ‘gingerbread’ front porch, and a bay window.” I like to imagine the Griggs House watching the three Queens being constructed across the street with a mixture of disapproval and curiosity.

An “Illinois Ancestors” biography has Clark Griggs arriving in Champaign County in 1859 from Massachusetts, where he served in the state legislature. A farmer, land speculator, and railroad developer, Griggs served in the Civil War and afterward as mayor of Urbana. He was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1866 and was instrumental in securing the location of the new “state industrial university” (soon to become the University of Illinois) for Champaign County.

Griggs also pushed for the creation of what became the Indianapolis, Bloomington, and Western Railroad, in which he was also an investor. This home was constructed in 1871 as a wedding present for Griggs’ son, Albert. He himself returned to the east that same year to pursue more opportunities in railroad development. In one of the few instances, the original 1976 Historic Marker sign remains intact at the site.

Two blocks down the street at 708 W. Main stands St. Patrick Catholic Church (Historic Site #40). St. Patrick originated as the “Urbana Mission,” a diocesan outreach to the Catholic laborers who brought the Illinois Central Railroad to town.  St. Mary in Champaign, organized in 1856, was the first parish to grow from the Mission. St. Patrick Parish was established as a separate parish in 1901. After first conducting mass at St. Mary, Fr. J. H. Cannon led an effort to build a wood frame building to serve the fledgling parish. It was completed in just 37 hours!

The old frame church sat to the north of the present brick building, which was designed by renowned church architect George P. Stauduhar and dedicated May 24, 1903.  In 2014 a major renovation and expansion turned the formerly north-south situated sanctuary to an east-west orientation, doubling the seating capacity.

The final landmark on this leg of our tour made a journey of its own down Race Street from downtown Urbana to Carle Park in the 20th Century. “Lincoln the Lawyer” (Historic Site #47), created by famous Illinois sculptor Lorado Taft, was commissioned with a $10,000 bequest to the city of Urbana from Mary Cunningham, the wife of Judge J. O. Cunningham. Historic Sites relates that Taft “gave careful thought to the theme he would follow: he decided to portray Lincoln as the young lawyer that Urbana had known, ‘an earnest good humored orator, stating his case.’”

Dedicated on July 3, 1927, the Lincoln statue was originally located on the east side of Race Street between Green and Elm, just in front of the Urbana-Lincoln Hotel. The hotel, which had recently been completed, was itself situated “on the site of the old Kerr Tavern, a favorite stopping place for Lincoln when he was riding the circuit” (Journal of the Illinois Historical Society Vol. 20, No. 2, July 1927).

This fortuitous placement was unfortunately short-lived. Urbana Free Library’s Local History & Genealogy Blog relates that because the hotel had “failed to acquire the deed of land on which the statue was built . . . a legal formality forced the removal of the statue from the hotel’s entrance the same year it was dedicated.” It was relocated to Carle Park (west of Urbana High School), and then moved again in 1955 approximately to its present location nearer to Race Street.

Lorado Taft was, of course, also the sculptor of the famous Alma Mater on the University of Illinois campus. His childhood home was originally located nearby at 601 E. John St. These two locations, along with several others on campus, will be featured in the next episode of “Historic Sites Re-visited.”

Originally featured in the Smile Politely online magazine (May 12, 2020).

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It all began by the Boneyard (Historic Sites, Part 2)

The next time you have a chance to stop in at the Courier Cafe, take a moment in the parking lot to glance down at the creek and imagine yourself standing near the spot where Champaign County began.

In this episode of “Historic Sites Re-visited,” we track down a few spots connected to founding and early development of Urbana, the seat of our fine county. The places and people in this story were first highlighted in a 1976 booklet, Historic Sites of Champaign County, our guide for this virtual tour.

Northwest of the Courier Building (111 N. Race), along the Boneyard Creek, the William Tomkins Cabin (Historic Site #38) once stood. Tompkins built a log cabin on this site in 1822 in what was then western Vermillion County. As did many early arrivals, Tompkins initially “squatted” on the land, finally entering an 80-acre tract in 1830. Later that same year, he sold the property to Isaac Busey and moved on.

Three years later, Champaign County was organized. Busey found himself entertaining two commissioners sent by the Illinois General Assembly to establish the seat of government for the new county. An existing small settlement farther north in the Big Grove, along the old Ft. Clark (later Bloomington) Road, was the most likely location to be selected. The Van Buren Post Office had already been established in the area. 

Busey’s property at the south end of the Big Grove was less developed, but his persuasive hospitality, legendarily attributed to generous amounts of whiskey, won the day. A public square was struck off a stone’s throw east of the cabin, streets and lots were laid out, and the town of Urbana became our county seat in 1833.

When journalist, judge, and later county historian J. O. Cunningham arrived in the mid-1850s, the cabin still stood and was described as “the oldest building in town.” Cunningham identified its location in his 1905 History of Champaign County as “close by the flour mill Eli Halberstadt built in 1866.” The long-gone cabin is commemorated, along with other iconic historical images, as part of a fanciful mural painted on the north side of the Courier Cafe in 2016 by artist Glen C. Davies (title picture above).

Judge Cunningham came to Urbana from New York in 1853. He purchased the Urbana Union, making him, according to a biography, “the only Republican and abolitionist editor south of Kankakee” at the time. After being admitted to the bar in 1859, he was elected county judge in 1861. Cunningham’s expansive and elegant mansion north of Urbana (Historic Site #35) was given to the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1894 and became Cunningham Children’s Home. It was torn down in the 1920s when the campus was modernized.

The Champaign County Courthouse is Historic Site #37. Court initially was held in Isaac Busey’s cabin, then another small log building was used from 1836-39. Court proceedings took place in local homes or businesses until “a one story wood building forty feet long and 20 feet wide” was built in the public square in 1841 (Cunningham’s History). This structure served dual purposes as a court and schoolroom until it was replaced in 1849.

Sketch by J. Zumwalt. Originally in the Champaign-Urbana Courier “Yesteryear’s Sketches” feature, dated August 1957. Image from the files of the Champaign County History Museum.

The 1849 building was the first to have a more familiar “institutional” courthouse look of the 19th Century, being “two stories of brick and wood construction with a center bell tower.” Cunningham wrote in his History that this building “gave place…to the third permanent house of the county.” The Historic Sites book says the 1849 structure “was remodeled and enlarged” so that “the altered structure was generally recognized” as an entirely new building.

Finally we come to the origins of the present courthouse, designed in 1901 by noted architect Joseph W. Royer “in a Romanesque Revival style with a central tower and carved sandstone ornament.” Its 135-foot-tall tower was damaged by a lightning strike in 1952, causing the removal of the top 50 feet.

A community fund-raising effort in the mid-2000s led to the restoration of the original clock tower, dedicated in 2009. Learn more about Courthouse history and design here


William T. Webber arrived in Urbana from Kentucky 1832. He purchased 640 acres of land in what eventually became Urbana Township. Some of this land, along with property owned by Isaac Busey, was donated for the location of the new county seat. Son George G. Webber built a house on the family farm in the 1850s. The Webber House (Historic Site #36, now 605 E. Main), “built of brick in the strongly planar style common at the time,” was still occupied by members of the Webber family when the Historic Sites booklet was published in 1976. It still stands today (pictured below) on the south side of what was once the Ft. Clark/Bloomington Road, which had been relocated to a more southerly route after Urbana became the county seat.

According to an online biography, George Webber was among the “foremost of our farmers and stock raisers” in the area. He and Judge Cunningham must have been polar cultural opposites, reflecting the broader realities of antebellum Illinois. Like most early settlers from southern states, Webber was “a democrat of stalwart principles” (which also meant, for many such folk, he was pro-slavery). He was also “of the Universalist faith,” a stark contrast to Cunningham’s more traditional Methodism.

We finish this tour just north of where we began, at Leal Park (Historic Site #39). This land was the first cemetery in Urbana, and perhaps even before that a burial ground for the Pottawatomie Indians encountered by early settlers. The first recorded interment was for Sara Busey (wife of Isaac) in 1833, the same year as our county’s birth. Another notable figure, Pottawatomie sojourner “Chief Shemanger,” was buried here in 1850.

The so-called “Old Urbana Cemetery” was never platted as such. Burials were unorganized and more a matter of necessity than a setting for dignified rest. Burials ended at the turn of the century, and in 1902 marked graves were transferred to Mt. Hope Cemetery. The following year, the Busey family deeded the land to the city for use as a park.

Urbana’s pioneer origins and modern history connect at Leal Park. When the Urbana Park District was organized in 1907, this location, named in honor of County Superintendent of Schools Thomas R. Leal, became Urbana’s first official park. The brick gazebo here was built in 1941 (above right). In 1976 a Greek Revival Cottage (above left) dating to the 1850s and originally located at 1205 West Springfield, was relocated here, but not quite in time to be pictured in the Historic Sites booklet.

Next time, we will head west on Main Street from downtown Urbana to find a trio of beautifully preserved Victorian and Queen Anne residences. Across the street from them sits an even older neighborhood landmark tied to the man who brought the State University to Urbana. We will also discover another Cunningham contribution to local history as we go looking for Lincoln.

Originally featured in the Smile Politely online magazine (April 28, 2020).

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Historic Sites Revisited (Part 1): Treasures in C-U

During “home sheltering” days of that first Covid pandemic summer, it was so important to find ways to get out of the house and take advantage of the increasingly warmer weather. People were flocking to one (or more!) of our community’s wonderful parks, but this project offered another idea: go hunting for some of the interesting historic sites and structures that can be found in Champaign-Urbana.

To commemorate America’s Bicentennial in 1976, the Champaign County Bicentennial Committee published a 50-page booklet titled Historic Sites in Champaign County. The little 6” x 9”, 50-page publication identifies 78 specific locations throughout the county (44 in Urbana and Champaign; 34 elsewhere). It includes a picture and brief description for each site along with maps marking their location with numbers that correspond to an official sign that commemorated the designation (unless otherwise indicated, quotes and information in this series come from the booklet).

The cover of the Historic Sites booklet features the prairie along the ICRR tracks north of Rantoul. Cover design by David Monk, 1976.
Map of the designated Historic Sites in Champaign-Urbana. Map design by Cynthia Durko, 1976. Images from Champaign County History Museum.

These little booklets are still available at the Champaign County History Museum, and many can also be found at local libraries. Unfortunately, those places temporarily closed at the time, so hopeful “history hunters” needed another option. As a project for the museum, I spent two summers visiting each of these sites to determine what was still around, what was not, and what condition existing structures were in. Destinations sometimes involved a bit of detective work, especially for the long-gone rural locations. Practically no signs remain at the rural sites, but some can still be found in Urbana and Champaign.

This sign was discovered while the iconic downtown building was being renovated to become part of The Venue CU complex on East Main Street.

This series of articles will identify these sites, explain how to find them, and provide a bit of the story behind each. I will begin here with a general overview of the project and pay homage to some significant locations that sadly are gone. The Runnel Fielder Cabin Site north of Urbana is #1 in the book. Fielder “squatted” on the site in 1822, becoming the first settler in what is now Champaign County. The long-gone cabin (Fielder moved on to Tazwell County in 1830) was located on a ridge west of what is now N. Cottonwood Rd., about one mile north of U. S. Route 150. It is a beautiful location to simply visit and imagine the past.

The last entry in the book, #78, is the Wilbur Mansion at 709 E. University Avenue in Champaign (pictured in the title photo above). Robert and Elizabeth Wilbur built this home between 1903-1907 for their daughter, Ella, who married in 1913 and lived in the house until the 1930s. It was the home of the Champaign County History Museum from 1974 until 1997. The grand house became a residence once again when the Museum sold it and moved to the historic Cattle Bank building (site # 59, which we will be featured in a future article).

In Urbana and Champaign, 13 of 17 residential sites are still standing. The expansive and elegant “Cunningham Mansion” (built in 1870 north of Urbana), which became the original Cunningham Children’s Home building in 1894, was razed in the 1920s when the campus modernized. Also sadly gone is the Jaques House (formerly at 207 W. Elm, Urbana). Severely damaged during a relocation attempt in the late 1990s, it was demolished in 2001. The Busey House (formerly at 503 W. Elm, Urbana), built in the 1860s, housed the local Baha’i Center from 1949 until it burned in 1987. 

Champaign’s B. F. Harris House (right, formerly at 809 W. Church) was one of the more recently lost historic sites. Constructed in 1904, this 25-room home was originally the family residence of B. F. Harris II, grandson of the local cattle baron and banking legend of the same name. It was the site of a notorious 1929 robbery that occurred during a lavish party that included many prominent and well-heeled guests. The story of the house and the heist was the subject of a fascinating exhibit at the Champaign County History Museum.

Photo from Champaign County History Museum.

In the late 1950s Harris House was renovated and became the Cole Hospital, which became part of Carle Pavilion in 1988. The old building was deemed no longer usable and torn down in 2012.

All of the designated commercial/institutional sites in Urbana and on the University of Illinois campus (nine total) remain intact. Champaign has lost a few. Its first house of worship (the Congregational Church) and its first train depot/hotel (the Doane House) were built around the same time (1855-56) near one another between the Illinois Central Railroad and First Street, north of what is now University Avenue. Both were gone by the 20th Century. When the Congregationalists moved to Park Street in 1866, their building (also known as the “Goose Pond Church”) passed to the German Catholic congregation and was relocated two blocks south in 1872. The Doane House was destroyed by fire in 1898.

A historic marker and “Looking for Lincoln” marker (background) commemorate the “Goose Pond Church” north of the Police Station on First Street.
A bench incorporating the corner stone of the original Central High School still marks the location along the west side of Randolph Street.

Champaign’s original schoolhouse, known as the “Little Brick” (southwest corner of Hill and Randolph) was also constructed around the same time (1855), but on the west side of the tracks. The school was also used for early church services and public meetings. “Little Brick” was razed in 1992 to make way for the original Central High School. The grand Metropolitan Building (219-225 N. Neil) was a more recent loss, destroyed in a spectacular fire on November 7, 2008. You can read more about that here.

Existing historic sites in Champaign-Urbana include the County Courthouse, five churches, six locations on the University of Illinois campus, the Cattle Bank, the Virginia Theater, the Burhnam Athenaeum (now Meyer Capel Law Offices), the old Vriner’s building, and numerous stately residences, as well as the Tompkins Cabin site (near Courier Café), Leal Park, the Lincoln Statue at Carle Park, Boneyard Creek, the Illinois Central Railroad complex, West Side Park, and workers’ cottages in Glenn Park Neighborhood (once associated with the old Bonner Tool Factory). Each will be featured in upcoming articles.

Originally featured in the online magazine Smile Politely on April 15, 2020. Next up: Urbana Beginnings

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A Historic Take on “Back to School” (part 2)

This story first appeared in the online magazine Smile Politely on September 9, 2020.

The past couple of weeks have seen the most unusual, unique, and creative “back to school” season in the history of local education. As school administrators, teachers, and families scramble to balance on site and distance learning, masking and social distancing, I thought this might be an interesting time to take a look back at the early years of local education.

Public schools in Champaign got their start similarly to those in nearby Urbana, as related in the first part of this story. In 1855, when the railroad depot town of “West Urbana” was just getting going, the Illinois General Assembly passed the “Free School Act,” which established guidelines for a statewide system of public schools. According to an online History of Champaign Public Schools, the area was initially divided into two school districts: District 1, west of First Street and District 2, east of First Street.

Little Brick, from Essays on the Historical Geography of Champaign County by Dannel McCollum

The first public school building, called “The Little Brick,” was constructed on the corner of Randolph and Hill streets in District 1. This building also was used for early church gatherings and town council meetings. Articles to incorporate the City of Champaign were drafted here in 1860. In 1868 local businessman J. P. White donated a parcel of land between University and Park streets, west of Lynn, to the public school system. Two years later, District 1 erected a three story brick building on the parcel that was called West High School. Champaign Central High School occupies the same spot now, but it took over 80 years for that to happen!

The first District 2 school building was constructed in 1860 at the southwest corner of Fifth and Clark streets, burned down a year later. A second building here met the same sad fate, but it was rebuilt in 1872 and became East High School (later Marquette School). The two Districts were combined in 1890 as Union District No. 6. High school students from both original districts now occupied the West Side building as Champaign High School. Two years later the “Little Brick” school was razed and a new building, originally called Central School, was erected in its place. This new building initially housed both primary and secondary classes.

Lincoln School building

Shortly thereafter, the former West High School building burned and was replaced by a new elementary school called he Avenue School. The close of the 19th Century saw a flurry of new construction. Lincoln Elementary (1894) still stands at the northeast corner of State and Healey, long since converted to apartments. In 1898 two additional elementary schools were built. Gregory School — named after John Milton Gregory, the first President of the University of Illinois — still stands at 202 E. Columbia, also preserved as an apartment building. Willard School (501 E. Church) was named for the renowned educator and reformer Frances Willard.

Gregory School building

Construction of new elementary schools continued through the first decade of the 20th Century. Columbia School (1103 N. Neil), built in 1905, is the oldest remaining Champaign school still used for that purpose. Colonel Wolfe School (403 E. Healey), built in 1907, was named for local attorney John S. Wolfe, who organized volunteers into what would become the Twentieth Regiment of Illinois Infantry in the Civil War. Still standing, it is currently owned by University of Illinois.

Columbia School
Col. Wolfe School building

Harriet J. Lawhead School (408 E. Grove) was also built in 1907. Harriet Lawhead was a prominent philanthropist and former educator who spent the last 25 years of her life in Champaign, serving as president of the local Dorcas Society. Her untimely death in 1900 led the school board to name this small 4-room school in her memory (thanks to Karla Gerdes at the Champaign County Historical Archives for this information). Lawhead School initially served the German and Italian immigrants in the neighborhood. In its first few decades, it was one of the few truly integrated schools in Champaign.

By the 1940s Lawhead had, along with the nearby Willard School, become 100% Black. White children who lived within the east Champaign attendance zones were sent to nearby Columbia School, which was all-white. Lawhead was replaced by Booker T. Washington School in 1952. The building was razed in 1990 and is now a parking lot. The Willard School closed in 1963.

Original entrance lentil from Dr. Howard School

Dr. Howard School, built in 1910, was named for Dr. Hartwell C. Howard, one of Champaign County’s first physicians, who donated the land for the building. Dr. Howard represents a genuine transition in local education, beginning as a typical 4-room “Prairie School” and expanding over time to reflect changes in local demographics and broader pedagogical theory and practice. The original building and subsequent additions were recently razed to make way for a modern building. One of the original engraved entranced lentils was placed in the lawn near the new entrance just weeks ago.

Edison Junior High (originally Champaign Senior High)

In 1914, a new Senior High School was built at the northwest corner of Green and State streets (the building that is currently Edison Middle School). The old Central High building was converted to an elementary school. So it remained until 1935, when the school district began to lease it to various businesses. The venerable building served as the local USO center during World War II and later became offices for Illinois Bell/AT&T, and thus known locally as “the Telephone Building”. It was finally torn down in 1974, and the site remains a parking lot to this day. A bench (below) incorporating the corner stone of the original Central High School still marks the location along the west side of Randolph Street.

Two more elementary schools were built in the 1920s: Southside (1924) and Lottie Switzer (1927), which was named for a pioneering educator in Champaign schools. Southside was closed in 1982 and occupied by the Champaign Park District until 1989, when it was reopened as a school. The building is currently undergoing major renovations. Lottie Switzer was closed in 1977 and then sold to Judah Christian School in the mid-1980s.

Lottie Switzer School building (now Judah Christian School)

In 1935, a junior high school built on the site of the old “Avenue School” became the final school building constructed in Champaign prior to the post-WWII “baby boom.” When the high school on Green Street was converted to Edison Junior High in 1956, the old junior high, with major additions, became the current Champaign Central High School.

Entrance to Champaign Central High

This development returned Champaign’s first high school to the spot where its “ancestor,” West High School, had been located 80 years earlier. Over those eight decades a public school has always occupied that spot, from West High to the Avenue School to the original junior high building that ultimately became what was, in 1956, simply called Champaign High School.

This location is undergoing yet another major transformation as this story is being written, but its roots in the early days of local education remain deep. In these challenging times for local families, students, and educators alike, perhaps we can find a bit of comfort in the enduring presence of so many historic school buildings in our community.

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A Historic Take on “Back to School” (part 1)

This story first appeared in the online magazine Smile Politely on August 11, 2020

With the start of a new academic year just weeks away, local school districts are scrambling to develop plans for COVID-era instruction. These are indeed unprecedented – one might say historic – times for local education. I thought this might be an interesting time to look back at the early years of schooling in our community and visit some of the historic structures where students once experienced, and some still do, their “school days.”

According to J. O. Cunningham’s History of Champaign County, “pay schools” began cropping up in the area during the 1830s. Parents paid subscriptions to tutors for their services. Instruction might take place in homes or in the log schoolhouses and occasional frame structures scattered around the county.

In Urbana, the construction of the first courthouse in 1841 allowed for its use as the city’s first schoolhouse as well. This one-story frame 20’ x 40’ building did double duty until a new brick courthouse was constructed in 1848. The old frame building was moved to the southeast corner of Green and Race streets, where it continued as a school until the Methodists built a church on that spot in 1856.

By then, two things had happened which led to a major shift in local education. In 1855 the Illinois General Assembly passed the Free School Act, establishing a statewide system of public schools. That same year, local Methodists funded the construction of a fine new building to house the recently organized Urbana Male and Female Seminary. This New England style building (below) with its impressive front cupola sat where Leal School is now on land donated by James Busey, bounded by Oregon, California, Birch, and Cedar streets.

Image from the 1859 Alexander Bowman map of Urbana and West Urbana.

An online history of Urbana High School relates, “Because of insufficient funds to operate the academy, it was sold to the citizens of Urbana for $5,000 to be used as a public school.  The upper floor of this building was used for the secondary school classes with the primary and intermediate grades on the first floor. Mr. T. R. Leal was the first principal.” After this building was destroyed by fire in 1872, the original Leal School was constructed on the same site.

Photo from Digital Collections, University of Illinois.

Secondary education in Urbana moved to a new location with the construction of a high school on land donated by John Thornburn situated on the banks of the Boneyard Creek. Thornburn was an Urbana banker who seems to have later mishandled school district funds. The beautiful building he helped make possible sat at the northwest corner of Springfield Avenue and McCullough streets where the Phillips Recreation Center is now. Thornburn School became a junior high when the current Urbana High School building was constructed in 1914.

Urbana High School entrance

The 1914 High School, which still stands proudly today, was designed by Joseph Royer in the Gothic revival style. Its unusual E-shaped footprint was an innovative design for academic architecture at the time. A 1925 expansion added a gymnasium, locker rooms, and one of the first high school swimming pools in the state.

Shortly before the new high school was built, several neighborhood elementary schools were constructed in Urbana. Webber School was built in 1905 112. S. Webber Street. It was replaced by a one-story modern building in the 1960s (now the home of Campus Middle School for Girls). Lincoln Elementary was an imposing square brick building that sat at the northwest corner of Main and Lincoln. It was two stories tall with a full basement and gabled attic space. Lincoln School was demolished in 1983.

The original Webber School (photo from Digital Collections, University of Illinois).

Hays School was built in 1908 at the northeast corner of Fairfield and Goodwin. It was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary in 1970 and replaced during a major renovation in the early 2000s. Hays School was the only integrated elementary school in Urbana prior to the 1950s, with generally about equal numbers of white and Black students in a given academic year.

Hays School/MLK Jr. School in 1989 (photo from Urbana Schools, Past and Present Album, Champaign Co. Historical Archives, Urbana Free Library).

In 1925 Washington School was constructed high atop the hill on Broadway overlooking Crystal Lake Park. This building most recently housed Urbana’s Early Childhood Education center. It has sat vacant and for sale since the ECE center moved to a new building on East Washington Street in 2013.

Washington School building

The last pre-WWII school built in Urbana has its roots in the beginning of our story. As related earlier, the original Leal School was built in its current location when the Seminary building there burned in 1872. Early on, it was called the Oregon Street School, but it was later renamed Leal School in honor of Thomas R. Leal, district superintendent from 1857 to 1873.  That building was torn down in 1835 to make way for the present building, which was constructed as a Public Works Administration project during the “New Deal” era.

Leal School entrance

Wonderful pictures of these historic Urbana public schools and classes that attended them can be found at the “Urbana Schools Past and Present” digital photo archive on the Urbana Free Library website. 

One last historic school in Urbana is located on the University of Illinois campus. University Laboratory High School (1212 W. Springfield Avenue) was designed by the famous Chicago architecture firm of (William) Holabird and (Martin) Roche. Construction started in 1917 during the First World War, and when the building was completed the following year it was first used as a general hospital for the Students’ Army Training Corp and School of Military Aeronautics. It began operations as a school in the 1921-22 school year. 

University Laboratory School

The Late Gothic Revival style of this impressive structure simply oozes academic gravitas.  Uni High began as a preparatory academy where students as young as 15 could begin focused studies in advance of taking college degrees. Over nearly a century of education, three Nobel laureates, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and numerous National Merit Scholars have made their way through Uni’s halls and classrooms.

Meanwhile, the railroad town of West Urbana, now Champaign, was taking shape the same year the General Assembly passed the 1855 Free School Act. In part two of this story, we will take a look at Champaign’s early “school days” and its many surviving historic school buildings.

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Christian Vision for Cultural Engagement

In his 2010 book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter called upon Christians to become “a faithful presence” in the world.  “Faithful presence” involves being an example of faith, hope, and love toward family, friends, neighbors, and even enemies in all spheres of life, from the classroom to the government, from the dinner table to the marketplace, from the neighborhood to the world stage.  “Christians,” Hunter writes, “should be a blessing in the context they find themselves.”

Just a couple of years prior to appearance of Hunter’s book, Andy Crouch prepared the soil for “faithful presence” in his book Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. At the time, Crouch was editorial director of the Christian Vision Project at Christianity Today magazine.  I remember anticipating with delight each month’s new essay as Crouch articulated a vision for Christian engagement with culture. 

In the September 2008 issue of CT, Crouch briefly summarized the key points of his book in an article titled, “Creating Culture.” It has been included in my Worldviews curriculum ever since and provides the framework for much of what follows here (not so much a review as an appreciation).

Crouch identifies four responses, which he calls “gestures,” that have defined American Christians’ engagement with culture.  His initial observation is that what begins as responsive gesture toward culture can too easily solidify into a permanent posture.  He considers the merits and consequences of each response and then offers a fifth alternative. 

Before we unpack all this, it might be good to think about what exactly culture and “cultural artifacts” are.  Simply put, “culture” refers to the customs, creative arts, social institutions, and achievements associated with a particular people, time, place, or nation.  These things are not just associated with such particularities; they provide identity and often even come to define them.

“Cultural artifacts” are the products of culture:  traditions, religions, moral codes, art & architecture, music, literature; even political, social, and economic structures.  These are the aspects of culture with which we engage.  Further, a distinction is generally made between “folk culture” (more traditional, provincial, unchanging) and “high culture” (more elite, sophisticated, “classics”). 

Today, most of our culture engagement is with “popular culture,” defined by scholar Tim Delaney as “forms of expression and identity that are frequently encountered, commonly liked, and characteristic of a society at a given time.” Pop culture is also highly commercialized and experienced on a mass scale.

Scripture seems to set the “cultural engagement” bar pretty high in Philippians 4:8-9: Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just … pure .  . . lovely . . . commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise, dwell on these things. Do what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

This passage offers us four considerations regarding “culture engagement”:  What does scripture teach us?  What does it give us?  What does it tell us?  What does it show us?

It teaches us to be discerning (Ps. 119:66; Prov. 15:14; Rom 12: 2)

  • Teach me good judgment and discernment, for I rely on Your commands.
  • A discerning mind seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools savor foolishness.
  • Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, perfect will of God.

It gives us liberty in a context of responsibility (Gal. 5:1, 13; 1 Cor. 10: 23-24)

  • Christ has liberated us to be free . . . only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love.
  • “Everything is permissible,”[a][b] but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible,”[c] but not everything builds up. 24 No one should seek his own good, but the good of the other person.

It tells some specific things (Ex 20 10 Com’d; Prov 3:5; Micah 6:8, Mt. 5’s “Beatitudes”)

  • No other Gods or idols, name in vain, murder, adultery, steal, lie, covet; honor the Sabbath and parents
  • Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own understanding
  • to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God
  • blessed are those . . . poor in spirit, mourn, gentle, desire righteousness, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers, persecuted

It shows us a “better way” and points to a “higher call” (1 Cor. 12 à 13; Phil. 3:14)

  • faith, hope, and love (but the greatest of these is love)
  • I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s high call in Christ Jesus

Scripture may not necessarily speak directly to every “cultural artifact” we encounter today, but it certainly gives us some specifics to consider and general guidelines to follow.

Now let’s go back to Andy Crouch. He describes gestures/postures that American Christians tend to adopt toward cultural artifacts:

Condemning Culture:  “Some cultural artifacts can only be condemned.”

  • Violence, lawlessness, pornography, blaspheme, taking of innocent life, exploitation, reckless environmental destruction
  • Scripture is certainly explicit about things we are not to do and should not countenance in our culture.  In Matt. 15: 18-20 Jesus affirms the 10 commandments and identifies “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies” as “things that defile a man.”
  • The proper “gesture” toward such things is an emphatic, “NO!”

Critiquing Culture:  “Some cultural artifacts deserve to be critiqued.”

  • Arts, music, media, theater, film, literature
  • These are cultural artifacts which most call for discernment.  Paul writes in Phil. 1 And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, 10 so that you can approve the things that are superior and can be pure and blameless in[a] the day of Christ.
  • These things, which are the most in need of discerning critique, are the “cultural artifacts” Christians are sometimes too quick to merely condemn.

Consuming Culture:  “Many cultural goods are simply meant to be consumed.”

  • Good food and drink and the fellowship they foster.  Amusements that lighten the heart and cheer the spirit.  Gifts that become personal treasures.
  • Psalm 16 11 You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures.  [liberty with responsibility]
  • Matt. 6 19 “Don’t collect for yourselves treasureson earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven . . .21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be.

Copying Culture:  “Borrowing cultural forms  . . . and infusing them with Christian content.”

  • Architecture, music, literature, film, education
  • This response has the potential to demonstrate “the better way,” but it also (too often so with Pop Culture) is characterized by shallow mimicry and imitation.
  • Romans 12 Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
  • Still, “at its best, it can be a way of honoring culture, demonstrating that every human cultural form is capable of bearing the Good News.”

Crouch’s 5th alternative:  Creating Culture

Crouch focuses his attention on two “postures” toward culture that “are most characteristically biblical but have been the least explored by modern Christians”:  we are artists and gardeners. Both begin with contemplation, paying attention to what’s already there. Both involve a posture of purposeful work:  a “calling. Both creatively tend and shape the world the original Creator first made

Crouch asks an important question:

Why aren’t we known as cultivators—people who tend and nourish what’s best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done?  Why aren’t we known as creators—people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming an thrilling and beautiful?

We will explore these questions in the future as we look more deeply at each of Crouch’s for gestures, the consequences of adopting any one as a permanent posture, and the potential that “Creating Culture” brings to each gesture. By God’s grace, we will hopefully cultivate a spiritually healthy, culturally impacting “Christian Vision for Cultural Engagement.”

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“Truth Be Told” – understanding how the Gospel resonates with and redeems our imagination, senses, intellect, and emotions

This is the final part of a six-week program, “Worldview as the L.E.N.S. of Life,” given at Life Community Church in Mahomet, Illinois

A healthy Biblical Worldview embraces the diverse ways God has gifted us to understand and navigate the world around us. The Gospel is the essential human story from Creation to Covenant to Christ to Church to Consumation.  It makes fullest sense of the Created order: it provides the fullest meaning and understanding to the Big Questions of life; it gives fullest expression to our deepest needs and longings. As Christ’s Church, we are all called to be “salt and light,” bearing and embodying God’s Truth in our fallen world

The identity, incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ is the ultimate “hinge of history”; the fulfillment of God’s design, purpose, sovereignty, love, and grace. A Gospel understanding of the world animates and reveals the Truth in the previous 4 themes of this series, while also providing the wisdom and discernment needed to navigate their claims in this fallen world.

In each previous discussion, we’ve looked at three ways we “know” the world (let’s give them a name)

  • Idealism: knowing through reason, logic, intellect. In this way of knowing the senses serve “Thinking Man.” We draw universal explanations from particulars in experience. This is the rational aspect of our identity—the basis for philosophy.
  • Realism: knowing through experience and the senses. In this way of knowing, senses and experience have primacy over reason, which serves to process, categorize, analyze experience. Universal experiences lead us to particular expressions of truth we call “facts.” This is empirical aspect of our identity—the basis for science.
  • Intuition: knowing through our imaginations and feelings. In this way of knowing, emotions, revelation, and faith transcend the limitations of Idealism & Realism. Universals truths are rooted in “essences” that undergird the particulars we experience and try our best to explain (they point us to something!). This way of knowing is a paradox: feelings and emotion alone can direct us to inward truths—this is romantic aspect of our identity. But faith and imagination can lead us to look outside of ourselves for answers—this is the religious aspect of our identity.

For most of human existence, this last way was considered to be a perfectly valid a way of knowing—perhaps the best way to know the most important truths. In more “modern” times, reason and science have gained exclusive claim to “Truth for All”; while emotion, imagination, faith are merely “Truth for You.”

Non Sequitur (c) Wiley Miller

Notice, though, how God created us with the capacity for all of these ways of knowing. We have Bodies (allowing us to experience the world through our senses. We have Minds (allowing us to understand the world through our reason). And we have Souls (we respond to the world through our emotions).

Plato described the human identity with a three-part image. Our head represents the mind, intellect, reason—our faculty for knowledge. Our chest represents emotions, feelings—our strength of will. Our abdomen represents our appetites and desires—the needs of our bodies. His idea of “soul” was expressed in the cultivation of virtues that rightly oriented ourselves toward transcendent truth, goodness, beauty.

  • Knowledge is perfected in wisdom (do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of
  • Will is perfected in prudence (My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death—i.e., sacrifice before self)
  • Appetites restrained by temperance (As obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires of your former ignorance)

The “wisdom” of Greeks is certainly valuable in pointed to a life rightly lived, but in the context of the Kingdom it is ultimately insufficient for transcending the consequences of sin in our lives and in the fallen world we inhabit. When we are redeemed by faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit enables by God’s Grace us to “walk according to the Spirit” and not in “the flesh” (Rom. 12:2; Phil. 3:10; 1 Pet. 1:14). Thus . . .

For though we live in the body, we do not wage war in an unspiritual way,  since the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Cor. 10: 3-5)

Without this integration of the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of our identity, we fall short. Our minds will focus at best on knowledge as the highest good. Our bodies will seek only pleasure. Our souls will be defined by our feelings.

Our true identities are not merely rational, nor physical, nor emotional. We are made in God’s likeness: we are like Him. That means, like the Trinity, we are relational. We can see the relational aspect of God’s character reflected in the three primary facets of philosophy:

Cosmology (the nature of existence) Father = Source; Son = Means; Spirit = Presence

In Him we live and move and have our being

Because we are made in His image, we are drawn toward the Beauty of God!

Ontology (the nature of reality)        Father = Creator; Son = Orderer; Spirit = Sustainer

God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth . . . He gives everyone life and breath . . . He has determined their appointed times and the boundaries . . . He did this so they might seek Him, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.

Because we are made in His image, we are drawn toward the Goodness of God!

Epistemology (the nature of knowledge)  Father = Author; Son = Word; Spirit = Discernment

Being God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination. Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.

Because we are made in His image, we are drawn to the Truth of God.

In thinking about worldview, I’m always drawn back to what Jesus says (in Mark 12 and Matt. 22) “is the most important” thing to know . . .

Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other command greater than these.

We love God—and our neighbor—by faithfully bearing witness to God’s existence, the reality of His created order, and the ability of every human being to truly know Him. Only then can we—and our neighbor—know who we truly are, how things are really supposed to be, and what is The Way to making things right again.

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“How Do You Feel About That?”–understanding the world through feelings and emotions

This is the fifth part of a six-week program, “Worldview as the L.E.N.S. of Life,” given at Life Community Church in Mahomet, Illinois

Feelings are perhaps the most direct, immediate, visceral of all the ways we interact with the world. Everything else we’ve talked about—imagination, senses, reason—evoke emotional responses in us. Emotions (love, passion, anger, fear, despair, excitement, longing) are inherently responsive to stimulus/experience. They also often consist of oppostions—love/hate; fear/courage, despair/hope, etc.

“Zits” (c) Scott & Borman

Why do we have emotions? I think they help us understand there is more to being human than just the material, natural, physical. They may be the part of us that most reflects – or distorts—the imago dei. They are also a primary facility through which we are drawn to God. Three important theologians from church history offer us some specific insights into the importance of feelings/emotions.

“Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you”

The Early Father Augustine wrote, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” He talks about the ordo amoris (right ordering of our loves). Material pleasures and relationship with other people are good gifts, but they were not designed to provide our lives with ultimate meaning. Our capacity to enjoy these things properly actually rests on whether or not God is central in our affections.

Medieval Scholastic Aquinas asserted: “The more man’s affection is withdrawn from temporal things, the more in perfection will his mind be drawn towards the love of God.” We here on earth are able to relate to things outside of ourselves–including God and others. Relationship is most perfected when we give ourselves to others and to God.

And from Protestant Reformer Martin Luther: “This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content.” God is to be loved in suffering as well as in blessing. God is hidden within the reality of the human condition, so that his goodness is seen in relationships and everyday life. We are best equipped to love God when we have experienced his love and mercy.

As we’ve already learned, Enlightenment Rationalism (18th C.) emphasized the “thinking individual” and his/her place in society over traditional structures of authority.  “Faith” was placed less in the reality of a loving God and more in the inevitability of human progress. The expectation became that man would ultimately understand and explain all things through the exercise of reason and scientific methodology.

Modern Romanticism emerged in the 19th C. as a cultural reaction to Enlightenment Rationalism. Romantics revived the place of the imagination, giving primacy to the “feeling self” as the sole interpreter of transcendental truth.  “Creative genius” was celebrated and the Arts were elevated as an alternative to religious experience.  Some characteristics of Romanticism include:

  • Concern that reason, science, and industry were aspects of social elites’ determination to control all aspects of life
  • Ideas spread from Germany to inspire British writers (Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth) and American Transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman)
  • Looks inward for universal truth, beauty, ultimate meaning; values freedom to interpret life on one’s own terms
  • Seeks a “universal truth” for the “human story” (but without the exterior forms & “dogmatic” expectations of Christianity)

Eileen Gregory, discussing Romantic poets in Invitation to the Classics, identified what she called “two central elements of a romantic ‘credo’:  a belief in an immanent spirit within nature [and] in the power of the imagination to apprehend it.”  Two things happened in the 18th-19th century that brought a turn toward a Romantic sensibility in Christian faith itself.

German Pietism emphasized personal devotion (scripture reading, prayer) in believers’ daily life. Anglo-American Revivalism raised expectations of an emotional response in conversion and worship. Each of these contributed to the 19th C. Holiness movement (sanctification and a “second blessing” experience) and from there into Pentecostalism (“baptism” in the Holy Spirit, exercise of spiritual gifts, healing). Second and Third Wave “Charasmatic” movements extended the emphasis on emotional response into the broader church world and through new evangelical movements.

For Christians, emotional response is understandably rooted in one’s love for God. But does that mean that emotions, particularly love, are meant to be the “ultimate” way of “knowing” God and His Creation? In 1963 C. S. Lewis published a book called The Four Loves, in which he identified four ways in which human beings express and experience love. (He used Greek words, but we’ll stick with English here)

  • Familial Affection is found particularly between family members, but also in very close shared relational experiences. It is naturally present as a kind of “built-in” aspect of the human condition and exits regardless of the perceived “value” of the object of one’s love
  • Fraternal Friendship forms around shared experiences, interests, or activities. It is the least “natural” of the loves because it requires something for friendship to “be about.” It is worthy because it focuses not on the loved, but on the “about,” for its value.
  • Erotic Love involves an emotional “giving of oneself over” to someone or something. It finds physical expression through sexual activity, but involves a spiritual dynamic that transcends mere “animal lust.” Any appetite can gain godlike status through idolatry.
  • Agape Charity is a love directed toward others which does not depend on any “loveable” qualities of either the object or circumstances of the love process. Lewis considers this the greatest of the loves, and he sees it as a specifically Christian virtue. All other loves must be subordinated to God’s agape love and expressed with Christian charity.

The idea of a proper “ordering of our loves” goes back to St. Augustine. In The City of God, Augustine makes a direct connection between Christian virtue and the proper ordering of our loves: virtu est ordo amoris (virtue is the “ordering of our loves”). To disregard this, he writes, leads to moral self-destruction. He offers a prayer to God that should be a daily prayer for us all: “Lord, set love in order within me”

Lewis expounds a bit on all this in his book, The Abolition of Man

“St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it.”

Simply put, we are to love the right things in the right way for the right reasons . . .

  • We must recognize God as the true source and giver of our “loves” (and, by extention, all emotions)
  • We must allow God to lead us in the proper “ordering” of our loves (and in discerning what to give love to)
  • Only God can awaken and enliven in us the emotions that “lead us home” and “gives us rest.”

And of course, scripture gives us a wealth of direction on the place love plays in our relationships with God, with others, and with the world. Here are just a few passages to consider:

  • 2 Corinthians 13:14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
  • Ephesians 5:1-3 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
  • 1 John 5 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his children as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.
  • 2 Timothy 3 But know this: Difficult times will come in the last days. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people!

Without a doubt, feelings and emotions play an important part in shaping our worldview, but as with all other aspects of our complex “selves” (imagination, senses, reason) it is not the exclusive (or even best) way to navigate the complexities of life. As the song goes, the world will know we are Christians by our love—but we are called to love God (and his world) with the fullness of ourselves (heart, soul, mind, strength)!

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“What’s on Your Mind?” – understanding the world through reason, logic & intellect

This is the fourth part of a six-week program, “Worldview as the L.E.N.S. of Life,” given at Life Community Church in Mahomet, Illinois

Classical philosophers in the Greco-Roman world, Asia, and Medieval Europe would all agree that the ability to think and reason is one of the defining characteristics of our humanity. Where they would disagree is this: what exactly is the source and purpose of that unique ability?

Let’s start with the “Big 3 of Classical Greece” . . .

  • Socrates (c. 470-399 bc) thought true knowledge comes from being open-minded. He believed that Truth emerges through the process of rational discourse (and motivate us toward the Good)
  • Plato (c. 428-348 bc) thought true knowledge came from understanding the eternal forms or ideas behind everything in the material, experiential world. Truth precedes (and transcends) experience.
  • Aristotle (384-322 bc) thought true knowledge came from experience in the natural world. We use reason and logic to categorize what we learn. Truth is found in the order and “natural laws” we observe.

The Chinese sage Confucius (551-479 bc) believed there was a proper order in all things (“natural laws”) to which all are called to obedience. Knowledge comes from study (of self, society, and nature) and cultivates the virtue. A virtuous person seeks proper balance and harmony in all of life. Thus:  Good in me = good in my community = good in the world.

Classical learning in the West flowed through Greco-Roman culture into Medieval Christian culture, providing two pillars for Western thought.

  • Early Church theology (most notably expressed by Augustine, 354-430 ad) drew from Plato’s philosophy, locating his “eternal forms” in the Trinity. God is the source; Spirit “illuminates” reason; Christ “redeems” creation (the Creed!)
  • Medieval Catholic theology (most notably expressed by Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274) drew from Aristotle: God’s natural law imbedded in creation; the Creator is evident in its order/design; the Church is the Body of Christ on Earth

Our rational capacity is an important part of the Human Identity in both Classical and Christian WVs, providing the basis for both philosophy and theology. In Matt. 22 Jesus calls us to “love the Lord your God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.” But Paul cautions us in Col. 2 to not be taken captive by “philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ.” God gave us our rational capacity, our intellect, and he placed us in an orderly creation that invites logical understanding.

What we must keep in mind is orientation. Do we use reason and intellect to seek God’s wisdom—or to elevate ourselves as “thinking man”? Three contrasting views expressed by contemporaries of Socrates and (known as “Sophists”) paved the way for “modern” worldviews . . .

  • Protagoras (c. 490-420 bc) famously decreed that “man is the measure of all things.” From this perspective, “truth” is subject to human interpretation & definition (the basis of modern scepticism)
  • Thrasymachus (c. 459-400 bc) observed that “might makes right.” In other words, “truth” is a matter of perspective, and the perspective of those with cultural power prevails (the basis fo modern relativism).
  • Gorgias (c. 485-380 bc) was resigned to the idea that “no absolute truth that can be known” since all things are subject to disagreement & difference of opinion (the basis of modern nihilism)

The “rebirth” of classical humanism in the Renaissance represents a more dramatic shift toward “thinking man” as the ultimate source of all knowledge. So-called “Christian Humanists” like Desiderius Erasmus in the Netherlands and Thomas More in England attempted to keep intellectual and artistic efforts focused on the glorification of God, but the tide was turning.

A bigger change came in the ideas of 17th C. French thinker Rene Descartes, considered the “Father of Modern Philosophy. His famous statement, cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” is celebrated in academia and pop culture as the ultimate expression of “thinking man” as the “measure of all things.”

What does he mean by this? More importantly, how did this statement transform culture?

Pope John Paul II reflected on how Descartes “radically changed” how we think in a 2005 interview published as Memory & Identity. His expression of this transformation went something like this . . .

 Before Descartes: “Self-Sufficient God” exists always (I AM) and gives “Thinking Man” existence; “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Paul in Act 17)

Descartes’ formula makes the cogito (“I think”) the source of the sum (“I am); In Modern thought, “Thinking Man” takes priority; God becomes an aspect of human consciousness.

Hence: “Man decides what is good or evil, [as if] there were no God.” also good/bad; true/false etc.)

(notice how JPII uses logic to reason his way to this conclusion!). What this means is we are the ones in charge, we are the ones who decide, we are the ones in control of our identity, condition, destiny!

The ultimate triumph of “Thinking Man” came in the 18th Century Enlightenment, where Reason joined hands with Science to become the new twin pillars of Western thought.

Historian Ronald Wells (History Through the Eyes of Faith) describes this empirical rationalism as “the modern worldview” and gives us fellow historian Crane Brinton’s (Ideas and Men) description of it as

a cluster of ideas that add up to the belief that the universe works the way a man’s mind works when he thinks logically and objectively, . . . therefore man can ultimately understand everything in his experience as he understands . . . a simple arithmetical or mechanical problem.

This is the mindset of the world we live in. With this in mind, “How then should we live?”

First, we must remember the “real story” and the proper order of things (going back to John 1, we must keep logos before cogito!) . . .

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through Him,  and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created.

Second, we must embrace the challenge Jesus gives us us to “love the Lord our God . . . with all of our mind.” The key word here is love. Christian philosopher Cornelius Plantinga unpacks this beautifully in a 1998 Christianity Today article, “I Pray the Lord My Mind to Keep” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/august10/8t9050.html): “To love God intellectually,” Plantinga writes, “is to become a student of God—a student who really takes an interest in God.”  This means . . .

  • Becoming “somewhat preoccupied with God” (making Him the center of your attention)
  • Giving God “the benefit of the doubt” (trusting Him when things don’t make rational sense)
  • Allowing “God to be God” (exercising “intellectual humility” in our desire to understand His ways)
  • Respecting “the works of God” (cultivating sensitivity to His presence in creation; be “mindful”!)

In conclusion, Plantiga issues a challenge I begin every year’s Worldview class with:

Becoming a real student of God and of the works of God—becoming alert, respectful, and honest in your studies—is an act of flagrant intellectual obedience because it is an act of flagrant intellectual love.

This, to me, beautifully sums up what we are called to do as “thinking people” created in the image and likeness of our loving God. How do we understand the world through our reason and intellect? We begin by understanding that reason and intellect are a gift from our loving Creator, given to us so that we might see Him in our ordered understanding of the world he created. But we also must acknowledge that this gift alone does not provide all the answers to the “Big Questions” of life.

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“Making Sense of Things” – understanding the world through senses and experience

This is the third part of a six-week program, “Worldview as the L.E.N.S. of Life,” given at Life Community Church in Mahomet, Illinois

A major shift in worldview during the Classical Age in the West can be traced to a single sentence, purportedly uttered by Greek philosopher Xenophanes (d. 475 bc): “Men have created the gods in their own image.”

The rejection of “the gods” as mythical realities was certainly not as abrupt as this. Ancient cultures long continued to revere mythic deities, but more as a matter of civil pride than of actual worship. If we no longer look to the heavens and our “gods” for our story, what’s next? Simply look around you and shape your “Story” around the things you can actually experience (touch, taste, smell, hear, see). This is the beginning of what we now call “science-based” worldviews: materialism & naturalism

“Science” comes from Latin skiente “to learn.” There’s no doubt God created us with intellectual curiousity and the ability to learn from our environment. The Big Question is: can we learn all there is to know about the human identity, condition, destiny only through experience and our senses?

“Natural philosophy” in many civilizations challenged imaginative stories and supernatural explanations as the valid ways of understanding the “real” world. Two big questions to begin with were:

  • Is there a basic substance everything is made of? If so, what is it? (the beginning of materialism)
  • Is there a constant order to everything? Or is there constant change? (the beginning of naturalism)

At first, though, the new “natural” and “material” stories were just as imaginative as the old ones. Basic elements (earth, wind, water, fire) or essences (phelm, blood, bile). By the 5th C. bc, Greek thinkers were getting little more sophisticated in their considerations:

  • Parmenides (c. 515-450) viewed matter as an essential, unchanging substance. Our perception of change in the natural world reflected changing conditions, not changes in substances themselves.
  • His contemporary Heraclitus (c. 535-475) viewed change itself as the constant. We draw conclusions from experience, then look for the universal order (logos!) that transcends the change.
  • Democritus (c. 460-370) with his “atom theory” reduced all reality to matter alone. All things can be divided until reaching an indivisible “building block.” These atoms were the essences of reality.
  • Aristotle (384-322) centered his metaphysics what he called the four causes of being (“causal explanations” of being). The material cause of a thing is its physical properties. The formal cause is the structure or design. The efficient cause is the catalyst or acting element. The final cause is the ultimate purpose for which a thing exists.

If the material/natural world is all there is, that reality determines how should we live. Three famous Hellenistic “schools” of philosophy (c. 300 bc to 300 ad) offered these possibilities:

  • Epicureans—life is to be enjoyed; the greatest good is pleasure (a hedonistic extreme)
  • Stoics—life is to be endured; the greatest good is perseverance (a fatalistic extreme)
  • Cynics—life is as it is; there is not greatest good; it’s all up to me! (an existential extreme)

The triumph of Catholic Christianity in the West restored the importance of spiritual realities, but in the context of Medieval dualism (suffering on earth, reward in heaven). The subsequent cultural and religious challenges of the Renaissance and Reformation, in different ways, shifted focus to man himself and the desire to bring “heaven” down to earth through humanism, the arts, individual faith, and personal piety.

In the 17th-18th centuries, pendulum shifted back toward materialism and naturalism with the “Scientific Revolution.” Three important figures give us a framework for what becomes a “scientistic” worldview:

  • Bacon’s scientific method—science will help us explain all things (modern empiricism)
  • Descartes’ universal method—reason will help us understand all things (modern rationalism)
  • Newton’s universal laws—mathematical precision will help us control all things (modern physics)

Darwin’s theory of evolution (19th C.) was the turning point toward a fully materialist, naturalistic, “scientistic” worldview. Naturalism focuses on what can be gleaned only by experience using the senses, leading ultimately to science as a primary foundation for explaining the world and the materialist presumption that only physical substances and forces constitute “reality”.

Is this all there is? Let’s think Biblically about what the material, natural world is created for and what role experience is supposed to play in our “understanding”!

We know from Genesis that God created the “heavens and the earth”—creation consists of both a natural/material reality and a super-natural/immaterial reality (and that is was created “good”). He created humanity “from the dust of the ground” but also “in His image & likeness” (and he breathed life into us—Spirit is immaterial!)

So our IDENTITY and the CONDITION of life consists of both a natural/material reality and a super-natural/immaterial reality. How does God use our embodiment in the natural/material world for our good

  1. To make Himself known to us (Romans 1: 18-20)

“God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse.”

  1. To provide sustenance and vocation (Genesis 1-2)

God placed the first humans in a garden “and caused to grow out of the ground every tree pleasing in appearance and good for food, including the tree of life in the middle of the garden, as well as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God gave them charge to work it and watch over it and to be fruitful: “multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.”

  1. To allow us to learn! Proverbs 15 tells us “The discerning heart seek knowledge,” but it also extends a number of cautions into that process lest we be consumed by hubris and think ourselves equal to God. We don’t want to be like the people described by Paul to Timothy as “always learning, but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.

4. To give us a reason to look to Him in the struggles of life (Genesis 2, Job, Ecclesiates)

  • The natural/material world is cursed because of the fall (consequences of disobedience)
  • Our faith will always be tested (can we say with Job, “Even if He kills me, I will hope in Him”)
  • All of our “worldly” experiences and achievements, while often beneficial, are ultimately insufficient in providing fullness of meaning and purpose
  • But there is hope! In John 16 Jesus promises, “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

The World in its present form has always been “passing away.” It is not where we are called to look for eternal truths or for answers to questions about meaning, purpose, destiny. Remember the admonition in Col. 3: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

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