Moral theory of Thomas Traherne, with special attention to the pro-formative role of nature in the moral formation of children
Rimmer, Chad Michael
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In the mid seventeenth century, Thomas Traherne claimed human beings must retire into creation in order to fully know the virtues, including goodness, peaceableness and care. In this thesis I review Traherne's moral theory in light of recently discovered manuscripts of his work. For Traherne, because God's Divine goodness is the efficient cause of creation, creatures are naturally good. He uses Paracelsian optic and atomic theories to indicate how creatures communicate their goodness to one another. By retiring among creatures in their natural place, he argues that persons create a relational theatre in which they develop their capacity to sense creaturely communication. In this 'communion' persons perceive their mutual 'interest' with creatures in the relational nexus of creation. This knowledge provides motivation for 'blessed operations' of care for persons and creation. Because the human relationship to other creatures is morally significant, retiring among creation is a critical part of Christian moral formation. For Traherne this sensual engagement with a relational creation is necessary in the moral formation of children, who apprehend nature with their senses. Their innate wonder equips them to form their moral identity in relationship to a peaceable, caring creation. Traherne's account of the role of nature in moral development raises significant pedagogical questions in an age when scientific knowledge and the senses were increasingly disassociated from moral reasoning. For Traherne an education that denies the role of the senses in moral formation 'murders' the child by distracting her attention from the virtues of peace and mutuality that are present in creation. In conversation with phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, child psychologists Colwyn Trevarthen and Darcia Narvaez, and educational philosophers David Carr and Carol Gilligan, this thesis demonstrates the contemporary significance of Traherne's claims. Through the wonder of play, contact with the natural environment helps children develop an 'ecological' identity based on their relationship to other creatures. The perception of care in these early relationships is the basis for forming an inter-subjective moral identity and the virtues of care. Many 'care' ethicists and psychologists emphasize the early experiences of care taking. Environmental educators emphasize the caring relationship to creation. Hence they give substance to Traherne's claim that play, wonder and a sensory relationship with other creatures at an early age contribute to the formation of moral identity. Traherne's ideas also have pedagogical implications for theories of Christian moral formation. Theologians and ethicists, such as Rowan Williams, Michael Northcott and John Inge, have suggested place-based programmes of moral formation are needed in the parish context. This thesis demonstrates that Traherne's moral theory provides a rationale for understanding the theological significance of a child's natural wonder and the need for its cultivation in programmes of Christian education. A relationship to the local ecology of the parish can help a child perceive the care of creation, and play a proformative role in developing a moral identity in relationship to a caring Creator.