Faithful learning

[ 18 ] March 12, AD 2012 |

When older sister and I were finishing up middle school, my parents decided that the local public high school (in a very liberal town) nearby would be better for our faith than the nominally Catholic high school nearby. Better to experience a frontal assault on our faith than to absorb a watered-down version that would only inoculate us against the real thing.

And then when we began looking at colleges, a well-known Catholic professor told us that the most Catholic college in Michigan was a small, non-Catholic college called Hillsdale. Better to obtain a serious liberal arts education at a nondenominational (but faith-friendly) institution than to obtain an inferior education at a semi-Catholic one.

Here’s my conclusion from both schools: Education is defined more by the student than by the teacher, because what you bring into the classroom affects what you get out of it. If you bring faith into your secular studies, each realm can light up the other. History, literature, art, politics, philosophy — your faith gives you a new perspective on all these, and all these give you a new perspective on your faith.

Science, too, belongs in that list. To quote Marilynne Robinson: “We live in a time when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it.”

All knowledge — whether obtained through reason, empirical observation, historical research, or artistic inspiration — is inter-connected within one Truth. All roads of learning lead to God. A Catholic education is catholic in the sense of “universal”: it comprehends and applies to all disciplines.

Of course, learning and passing on the Catholic faith is more difficult than merely learning and teaching (say) calculus. Faith formation consists not only of ideas (doctrine) but also of action (practicing the virtues), contemplation (prayer), and the sacraments. It demands constant practice and re-dedication.

And it’s even harder to pass on, because it’s almost always tarnished by our attempts to share it. Our sins undermine our message. Even with faith, “we see through a glass darkly.” We cannot explain mysteries to our own satisfaction, much less to the satisfaction of nonbelievers. So how can we claim that the Catholic explanation of reality is the true one?

I answer with Walker Percy: No other explanation suffices.

This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.

 

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Category: Catholic Education, Columnists, Symposiums

About the Author ()

Anna Williams is a junior fellow at First Things magazine, a former Collegiate Network fellow at USA TODAY, and a recent graduate of Hillsdale College.
  • richard

    A wise posting. I myself have found that frontal assaults are good discipline and prepare one for everyday combats in matters of Faith.

  • http://www.gadel.info GADEL

    God bless you Anna. I highly relate to this post as well. I became an Apologist in the Methodist University. That’s where I started to know what is and is not Catholic. I was challenged, provoked, educated etc. I love how you put it here: “Education is defined more by the student than by the teacher, because what you bring into the classroom affects what you get out of it. If you bring faith into your secular studies, each realm can light up the other. History, literature, art, politics, philosophy — your faith gives you a new perspective on all these, and all these give you a new perspective on your faith.” Thanks.

  • Scotty Ellis

    I find this to be quite unconvincing, but I recognize it would be convincing to someone who already accepts the superiority of the view of reality presented by the faith. But what if someone finds humanism to be ultimately more rewarding? What if someone finds the struggle of humanism – man struggling, not against an ultimately loving or benevolent deity, but with the indifference of the cosmos itself – to be more heroic, and, in the end, to be more truthful? Or, to put it another way: what if the shortness of mortality, accepted by the humanists as the whole of our existence, is precisely what makes it so sweet? They could write a mirror image article with an equally valid (and equally invalid) argument that because they find the account of man’s struggles and triumphs from a humanistic perspective so fulfilling, no other explanation suffices.

    After all, truth is not determined by what makes us feel the most fulfilled, by what coincides with our tastes, or what fits the bill of giving us a subjectively satisfying meaning (and, indeed, if the achievement of a subjectively satisfying meaning is the best argument one can rustle up for faith, it makes for a poor show), but rather with what corresponds with reality. I worry that these arguments only serve to obscure a reasonable search for truth, rather than enlighten.

  • Steven

    I think when discerning which world-view is ‘best’, we should adopt a heuristic grounded in the probability calculus. One such method is inference to best explanation which this post seems to allude to. But, is it the case that Catholicism scores better on explanatory power, explanatory scope, illumination, plausibility, (etc.) on reality than say atheism? I couldn’t disagree more. But, it’d be such a vast project to show this one way or the other that this kind of discussion seems best understood as either rhetoric or some kind of memoir.

  • Delory King of Ithaca

    Percy is not saying “this is how I feel about life.” He is saying “it is the case that anything less will not do.” He uses the word “axiomatic” to make the point even more clear. He posists that this life is mysterious, which does not mean “containing truths we will one day understand through scientific method,” but indeed is supra-rational in some of its conditions. Love is not to be merely explained, but to be “Delighted” in. His claim, of course in a short, rhetorical nutshell instead of the multi-volume book that would be required to explain every detail, is that scientific humanism does not leave room for these two realites, either through hyper-rationalism, or through materialistic fatalism.
    Additionally, “scienftific humanism” does not see the cosmos as “meaningless” and humanity heroically struggling against this meaninglessness–that is the nihilistic “will-to-power” of Nietzsche, and he does not give to cares about whether science is “right,” but only if its allows humanity to enact “arts mastery of life.” But of course, Nihilists do not care about “truth” because for them, there is no truth, only what obtains through the will.
    Between these two (scientific humanism and nihilism), you have one that has a thirst for truth but no ulitmate explanatory power as to why we should seek it (the first scientists had metaphysical assurances that truth was worth looking for), and another that has explanatory power but no belief in the truth, which undercuts its explanatory power.

  • Scotty Ellis

    Delory,

    Humanism does embrace mystery in the sense of leaving room for things that cannot be explained through science. Now, of course, if you’ve gone ahead and defined scientific humanism as that which denies this claim, then fine: but that hardly deals with the wider variety of humanists and scientists who recognize both the power of the human mind to construct and manipulate more and more perfect models of reality and the limitations of man vis a vis the cosmos; the most important of these limitations beings simply the limitations of perception and lifespan. All that being said, this is still perfectly fitting with a struggle against an indifferent cosmos and a constructivist epistemology. You don’t have to be a nihilist to believe in the struggle for meaning.

    But all that aside, your comment still does not answer my primary objection to this article: the article has a preconceived notion of what constitutes a satisfying meaning or explanation for life (a notion that is born out of the Christian religion) and then pretends to discover that the Christian religion is the most satisfying meaning or explanation for life.

  • http://virtuouspla.net/ Anna Williams

    Scotty and Steven – Yes, definitely a fair point. The belief (like humanism) that inspires one person is what could induce despair in another — it’s a subjective measure. I wasn’t intending to ground an argument for the reality of faith (or the insufficiency of atheism) on merely my experience, though I see how the end of my post reads that way. I was more intending to say that, although we (Christians) hear so much about how our worldview is not only false but also repressive, for us it’s freeing and fulfilling, a confirmation of the ultimate significance of all the good and beautiful things we experience. I think atheists/agnostics sometimes fail to acknowledge this fact, just as Christians fail to see how (say) humanism could be fulfilling for someone else. The argument about which is true (Christianity, humanism, nihilism, whatever) is rather too large for this forum :)

  • Scotty Ellis

    I can agree with that, Anna. There is certainly much to admire within the Catholic tradition, even from a humanistic perspective, and there is no doubt that such a tradition and belief could provide meaning. Your comment serves to underscore the importance of true intellectual freedom – the freedom to pursue truth and meaning in a way unconstrained by what others deem repressive.

  • Peter Amaral

    The Christian stands in a different place in discussions on faith and philosophy because something so extraordinary happened 2,000 years ago. The Creator of the universe, the Being of which none greater can be imagined, manifested Himself on earth and told us in sometimes confusing but plain language what it means to be human.

    Everything from Socrates to Sartre can be interesting but it cannot be the Truth unless it squares with the Doctrine taught by Jesus. That will offend the secular humanists but that is just too bad.

  • Scotty Ellis

    Peter,

    A humanist may wonder on what basis he should accept the veracity of the claims you are making.

  • Alex

    Scotty,

    I can sense you are of sincere intent. Your posts indicate that you are a humanist. Is this correct? It would aid the conversation in disclosing where you are coming from.

    True love cannot be coerced. Physical miracles and signs can convince those who need this. For many the simple presence of love within us and to each other is enough to seek a place where it is completely fulfilled. A return to its origin. If the resurrected Christ allowed you to put your fingers in His wounds would you believe?

    The problem is, many people would either continue to deny and/or hate Jesus anyway. Despite the teaching, despite the miracles, the resurrection, the claim that HE is the TRUTH. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and the Pharisees only found reason to conspire his death. And Pilate asking Christ apathetically and rhetorically, “what is truth?” Christianity is not about the abstract worldly human idea of “humanity.” It is an appeal to the sincere individual heart. An invitation extended to every human being.

    Eternal life is not the only prize of the Christian. Eternal life in REUNION with Christ and those who truly love and follow HIM is the ultimate reward. Immortality without God is empty and meaningless by our faith’s understanding. This is not to deny that many people, even professed Christians see the faith as a get out of death ticket. You can usually tell by their their sincerity of heart.

  • Alex

    And to underscore what you and Anna have stated. Discussion and freedom is greatly desired here.

    The Church wishes to dialogue and explain the truths it holds while listening and examining ones objections and thoughts. The Church is oft seen as presumptuous. But it does not deny that humanists, pagans, deists, atheists, Muslims, Hindus, etc… can give meaning to their lives and derive conclusions satisfying to them from the world about the world. And indeed older revelations (Judaism). What it does say is that it is refracted. Incomplete at best. Why stop on the way to ultimate truth?

    But we do not claim Truth of Christ for ourselves or of our own creation. It is something which we testify to having been revealed or disclosed. A testimony verified in history. It is like being told great news and wishing to tell everyone who will listen. If you do not accept this testimony or at least honestly care to seek out any truth to it, than you indeed will not see God. That is the truth. Choosing not to decide is a choice. Uttering that there is no truth is declaring a truth.

    “After all, truth is not determined by what makes us feel the most fulfilled, by what coincides with our tastes, or what fits the bill of giving us a subjectively satisfying meaning (and, indeed, if the achievement of a subjectively satisfying meaning is the best argument one can rustle up for faith, it makes for a poor show), but rather with what corresponds with reality. I worry that these arguments only serve to obscure a reasonable search for truth, rather than enlighten.”

    I agree 100% and I think you you’ll find so does cathlikos (universal). Catholics do not cherry pick teachings. We acknowledge death with ashes on our heads. We do not ignore difficult intimate subjects of relationships and sexuality. The subjects of selflessness, responsibility and accountability in ourselves, to each other AND the God we believe put us here are the truths it seeks.

    Pagan Polytheism, worships objects attributing them human emotions and therefore admitting fabrication or limitation in any search for an ultimate cause and true complete deity because, by mere fact of multiplicity, many gods have strength and weaknesses. Buddhism seeks to eliminate suffering by eliminating pain in an attempt to reach a blissful solipsist Nirvana. Its ultimate aim is escape or numbness. Comparable to morphine. Christianity is all about reunification. Catholics are ultimately called to perfect themselves. To give up their passions like lust and anger, often masquerading to be love or justice. Rather than give in to them or rationalize them like a rebellious child against loving parents, we humbly understand that we are not perfect but are not content with that state.

    God encourages and challenges us to recognize and live in the real world while teaching us to love ourselves divinely. He laments at human superstition as much as any skeptic. And he tells us not to judge one another for on our own, hypocrisy and duplicity, which you accurately sense, abounds. “Hate the sin, not the sinner” St. Augustine.

    Also, if you’re offended by any of this (which I would hope you are not)or at least suspicious, ask yourself? Does it mean that it presumes to tell you something you could not arrive at or understand on your own? Is it because it does not allow you to live in however way you wish? Is it because it insults your intelligence because its either too simple or seemingly too exclusive? Is it because you believe it is the work of man’s wishful thinking and a desire to escape death? Is it because it does not de-facto present itself to everyone as the truth? Is it because other religions and beliefs lay claim to the truth also and so how can this one be trusted? Is it because it does not satisfy every human being’s definition or better yet, understanding of love? Is it all a matter of perception so how can you trust yourself?

    Peace be with you

  • Alex

    A note of clarification about my statement of Judaism. Christianity is the fulfillment of the Jewish Testament. We deeply identify with that heritage and the completeness of the Old and New Covenants. For as Jesus spoke, ‘you cannot come to the Father if you do not come through me.’ Clarification can be made if you see this as polytheism. While Judaism in light of Christianity is incomplete, it is NOT false as far as Catholics and most Protestants are concerned. It is vital to testifying the truth in Christ. Jesus, the Word of God, is present throughout the history of the Jewish narrative, however not incarnate yet.

  • Scotty Ellis

    Alex,

    I appreciate the response and the questions. The sentiment you are expressing is not unfamiliar with to me; I converted to Catholicism years ago with similar convictions. I started questioning those convictions over a year ago as I begun to realize that if I had been born to a different family, a different time, or a different place, it was quite likely that I may have believed with as much fervor that the gods of the Nile brought life and bounty, or that the will of Allah brings all good and evil, or that the sun would only rise each morning with the appropriate sacrifices; that, whatever my convictions were, there was a way in which I had taken them on without any deep reflection on the role of my social and historical circumstances played in their formation. So, then, I began a search for a deeper reason, some sort of evidence or rationale to cling to that made sense of why I was Christian rather than Buddhist or Muslim that didn’t boil down to “I was born here rather than there, or to these parents rather than those, or I went to this college rather than that one.” I also began to wonder why we accept the authority of the Church, and I realized that the the rationale upon which I had accepted the Church’s authority was quite faulty. I had believed the Church had authority because it received this authority from Christ, who is God made man. But I realized that my belief in this entire narrative is founded upon accepting the authority of the Church. My faith, it seems, was founded on a circular argument.

    I do not mean to say that you or anyone else’s belief or acceptance of the Church’s authority is faulty in this way; only that mine is, and as of yet I cannot think of another way to think of the whole situation. Every argument that is given to me seems to be couched from “inside” Christianity; that is, you have to already have accepted some point of the faith in order to be convinced of any other point of faith.

    In any case, I appreciate the time and thoughts you have shared.

  • Alex

    Scotty,

    Firstly, I really appreciate that you have not written off what I tried to explain. And in honesty, I AM coming from the ‘inside.’ My writing is with the intent and purpose to help you see. To clarify. I’ve never met you but can’t tell you how it pains for me to see someone in your position.

    A friend of mine and former band mate comes from a Catholic family. He is I believe agnostic or deist. He asked my brother if he would be as fervent in another belief if born to a different background. But understand, this is a truth. Background and family heritage indeed have an important effect on religion and belief. You and my friend are indeed asking this question BECAUSE of your backgrounds. A reaction to a reflection. No doubt it can be compelling. But everyone’s background effects them. God entered spacetime as a Jewish carpenter during the Roman era in a relative backwater of its empire near the cradle of civilization. Quite specific. The writers of the Bible were of incredibly diverse backgrounds. All effecting the context of God’s revelation throughout thousands of years but not effecting the truth of its content. This is verified by centuries scholars of all backgrounds studying the most widely printed book in history.

    You will have to figure this out whatever conclusion it leads you to. The majesty of freewill and God’s desire for true love from you is the beauty of the struggle. But know that you are NOT alone. St. Austine’s mother was Christian and he lived the decadence of the antithesis of the Christian life. He eventually turned from his past on a spiritual AND intellectual journey.

    Philosophy Professor Edward Feser was nominal Catholic who became a nihilist in college and literally thought his way all the way back to the Church. Not to mention the spiritual aspect of that journey.
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/

    St. Justin was pagan. St. Paul Persecuted Christians. Mother Theresa lived in a predominately Hindu culture and nation.

    Christianity owes no cultural heritage except to the Jewish revelation and history. It should technically be exclusive. Instead it invites ALL. And it has been listened to by prince and pauper, philosopher and man of simple understanding and found to have reason and accessibility.

    Doubt is experienced by people of the strongest faith. St. Peter shall testify to that. To say otherwise is a denial.

    As for Church authority, I accept Church authority because I first accept Jesus’ authority. You must trust that Christ wanted the Church to exist with authority because He understood that his teaching would need protection from manipulation, refraction, and heresy about His teachings and identity (Gnostics, Mormons, etc). Real problems of the world that you, I and even the most hardcore secularist would acknowledge in other subjects.

    And he was generous enough to entrust it to men. A symbol of his faith in human beings. If you accept Scriptural testimony, you can see that He gave the apostles power to forgive sins, baptize, reconciliation, etc. He wanted us to have clarity and authority and religious tradition in order to give strength to each other in times like you’re facing. And NOT to accuse or threaten each other if in doubt. Everyone suffers this at times. But try to imagine or understand the Church as the field where the Shepard can meet his flock.

    Keep reflecting and searching. I as your brother, baptized in Spirit, shall pray for you. And always remember that True love is patient.

  • Edward Radler Rice

    Ms. Williams,

    I am late in commenting on your article.

    In particular, I enjoyed reading this: “All knowledge — whether obtained through reason, empirical observation, historical research, or artistic inspiration — is inter-connected within one Truth. All roads of learning lead to God. A Catholic education is catholic in the sense of ‘universal’: it comprehends and applies to all disciplines.”

    On the other hand, I have a question and a comment.

    You write, “Here’s my conclusion from both schools: Education is defined more by the student than by the teacher, because what you bring into the classroom affects what you get out of it.”

    Here’s the question, which is simply a clarification: The two schools are your public high school and Hillsdale College, right? The question continues, however: Is it not true that in your educational experience, you are emphasizing the role of the student precisely because you, the Catholic, were taught first in a public high school and then at a private, non-Catholic college?

    Now, imagine being in a high school or a college where all the teachers are “more Catholic and virtuous than you” and are actually able and willing to clearly articulate the faith in their respective disciplines, while fully respecting and being expert in their disciplines…and since the teachers are all Catholic and in communion with each other, the education is thoroughly interdisciplinary…

    It would look like an educational endeavor in which education is not – again, not – “defined more by the student than by the teacher”… but rather, an endeavor that is “defined” by The Teacher – Jesus Christ, who intimately knows each of his students.

    Now, you’re valid point is about bringing the Catholic Faith into the classroom, into one’s studies. Hence, you write, “If you bring faith into your secular studies, each realm can light up the other. History, literature, art, politics, philosophy — your faith gives you a new perspective on all these, and all these give you a new perspective on your faith.”

    My point? The Catholic Faith in itself is defined by Jesus Christ through his Holy Church, Mater et Magister. While it is true that what I bring into the Church affects what I get out of it, I still bring so little and receive so very much…

  • Edward Radler Rice

    I wrote (in the last post), “The Catholic Faith in itself is defined by Jesus Christ through his Holy Church, Mater et Magister.”

    That statement should end with “Mater et Magistra”.

    Eddie

  • http://virtuouspla.net/ Anna Williams

    Mr. Rice, thanks for your comment, and great point. Yes, I was referring to my public high school and Hillsdale, which is effectively Christian (most professors are committed Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic) though technically not religiously affiliated.

    I actually thought about including a disclaimer like “when available, a great Catholic school is preferable to an academically good but non-Catholic school” in my post, because you’re quite right that education should be defined by the one true Teacher rather than the (very fallible) student or instructor. I didn’t feel qualified to say much about that distinctively Catholic type of education, however, given my personal lack of experience with it. In any case, the best take on Catholic education I’ve ever seen is Bl. John Henry Newman’s “Idea of a University.” You’re likely familiar with it already, but if not, definitely read it when you can.

    All the best,
    Anna