Sunday, April 17, 2011

Where'd All the Time Go?

Another year is ending at OLSWA. Classes are over and exams are started in a few days. It just seemed like we were neck-deep in snow and still throwing out the Christmas garbage. It does not seem like summer is just around the corner. Part of the thing is that the university semester is so short - a mere 13 weeks. It's not all that springy right now around here. In fact, right now it's kind of sleetey-snowy-rainy. Yesterday was sunny but chilly. It never fails, though, graduation day at OLSWA is always terrible weather. But I'm not going to complain: it will always be better than Spring in Halifax.

So, what have we done? Have we shaped lives for the better? Has knowledge become virtue?

Who knows!

Part of the calculation must involve this: original sin brings in a constant downward pull into vice and error. So, in that light, for young people not to become worse is itself an accomplishment. What a pessimistic way to look at life! But true nevertheless.

Christian formation is a funny thing. What are you expecting from it? What are you expecting to give out? I don't look at it so much as what do I have to offer, what do I do? I look at it this way. I present material, much of it very good in and of itself, and some of it challenging, that requires that we take steps into a new world of understanding. I can't help them with the step from knowledge to virtue, but I can present the truth. The truth is attractive.

What's unique in what I do is that I don't present it simply. I don't connect all the dots for the students. Some people are not ready to think through deconstructing and reconstructing the mental landscape, but they will all turn out the better for it in the end. If they persevere.

Why? It's simple and true to say that the truth makes better. But it's also not very explanatory.

The two errors are equally destructive: faith over reason and reason over faith. Fideism leads to radical deviations from commonsense, especially phronesis, practical wisdom, prudence. In fact, its danger cannot really be exhaustively described since its chief one is arbitrary impulse-driven reactivity. It does not confirm its presumptions with reference to universal moral principles. Rationalism, as I am using the term, is akin to positivism or materialism. It does not understand the essential disparity between the needs of man and the understanding of man. It assumes that they are - at least potentially - equivocal. Yet this is not the case, by far. Mystery penetrates every dimension of the life of man, and needs to be respected so that man himself might become an object of reverence, a necessary component for his moral life. In this way arbitrariness, social-construct-thinking are the enemies of his moral dignity.

All that said, how do we arrive at the correct relation of faith and reason? There is no certain formula; these two must, in our present state, act and react with each other so that each man might figure out according to his ability and grace what is truth. Absolute moral and religious principles take the lead. All answers to the 'why' of life are referred to the latter, while all answers to the 'what must I do' follow from the non-categorical moral principles: do good, avoid evil, love your neighbour as yourself, do unto other as you would want done to you, give to each man his due... Of course the 'why' and the 'what' constantly intersect, for that is their function in fulfilling man's nature as a rational and moral being.

It might appear that my idea of education consists especially in reflection on the general principles of morality. That is my idea! But there is much more to it than learning a set of abstract formulas. It includes everything that relates to their true comprehension - which is theoretically everything! The first question that follows from what must I do? is what am I? From this we can see that education is essentially humanistic, not technological.

This understanding of education keeps cognizant of the essential good that is (and hence need for) abstract contemplation. The same naturalism that is at the base of humanism's superiority to 'technologism' in arriving at knowledge of the good and the true is also at the base of its greater ability to satisfy man's physical need for intellection. All of this just reinforces how important a true conception of man really is.

So that leads us back to our beginning: the end of another year at OLSWA. How have the dangers of fideism been avoided, the dangers of rationalism? And to avoid these errors of excess, is that to be well-educated? No. But to avoid these things, and, to present the material of man's intellectual tradition effectively, because the truth is eloquent - it speaks to and develops man's potentialities for the true and the good - and when these errors are avoided, the results cannot but be positive. Yet they might not outweigh the influence of evil habit and the false inferences motivated by it.

There is no way for one to know what's going on in an other's soul (save conjecturally, says St. Thomas). We hope that the truth will find purchase, but, as St. Paul tells us, whether it does or it doesn't is none of our affair (cf. 1 Cor 3:7). My particular take is one that tries not to underestimate the influence of false ideas. They too can possess a certain eloquence, but not one that derives from the correlation between the nature of man and the nature of the truth itself. It is one - take Nietzsche, for example (it is really obvious in his case) - that appeals to man's ego, or appreciation for novelty, for outwitting others, showing up truism, cultural norms, etc. Vanity speaks more powerfully to fallen man than does the truth, sometimes, all the time, well, often enough, anyway, and so that is why I want to never shortcut the confutation of error. Let's take an example, again, Nietzsche. He opines that the idea of God is an assault on man because it ascribes to God the greatness that is rightly man's to seek and attain. There is a certain amount of truth in this. I do not believe that one has properly refuted it by laughing at it in some kind of ritual manner by like-minded people. That too often is what happens in the Catholic school, a real tragedy, because produces few long-term benefits. Even - relatively speaking - the absurdities of the homo-erotic setting of the Symposium should not be derided, but understood insofar as it effects Plato's argument. As with Nietzsche, again, it is not enough to deride him by stating that Christ's way of humility is better and more human until one has accounted for its intrinsic attractiveness to men (gender specific here). Christ's doctrine of love leaves a lot to be desired intellectually. Yes, I wrote that, but don't misunderstand me. It is possible - indeed, I insist that it is necessary - to ask how is it possible to follow an ethic so self-destructive as Christ's. Truly it is a stumbling block, as it was intended to be. I was thinking about this today, about Christ's refusal to come down from the tree amidst the taunts, because a sign of contradiction is necessary to education.

But a sign of contradiction does not refuse to submit itself to ratiocination; it simply refuses to submit too easily, and that is the best kind of tutelage. It is not to scandalize, it is to protect the exalted position that wisdom must maintain. Yet neither is it enough to ask questions, however profound their subject-matter. Consider Christ's parables: these are not paradoxes which are meant merely to confuse the mind; they are invitations to enter into more profound understanding. The Gospels reveal how Our Lord was working on a few levels at once. Man was differentially able to understand these important, deep things. He didn't refrain from asking them because there were some who would not be able to comprehend them, nor did He only ask questions fit for the intellectual elite. Everyone can and should be brought to a deeper awareness of truth, for it makes lives better: it frees men from narrowness, bigotry, and utilitarianism. It is not merely an intellectual movement (learning more truths), it is also an ethical movement (to be confronted by and to respond to the truth anew).

In the end, it is not GPA that determines the success or failure of the academic year, but the degree to which one moved away from the sins of the mind: bigotry, rashness, egoism, etc., and embraced its virtues, circumspection, docility, industry, perseverance, love of truth and the good, etc. This does not always translate into good marks, but is certainly not opposed to them.

So, what do I think about my students' performance this year? Did they get closer to their end? I think they did. For, to begin good in innocence, and then to remain good in experience, is to grow in virtue, both morally and intellectually.

No comments:

Post a Comment