You Gotta Have Faith

Another academic heavy hitter spoke at yesterday's afternoon session of the "Faith and Reason 2009: A Dialogue at the Heart of Jesuit Education" conference at Fordham University: Fr. Michael Himes of Boston College. His courses at BC on "Twilight of Belief" and "Golden Age of Atheism" are renowned for their sophisticated analysis of the relationship between belief and unbelief, and he has also published widely, including Doing the Truth in Love and Fullness of Faith: The Public Significance of Theology (with his brother, Kenneth Himes, OFM, also of Boston College).

Speaking on "Faith and Its Adventures since the Enlightenment," Himes noted yesterday that faith itself can be an act of reason, at least in the sense that it is a movement toward what is not necessarily immediately perceived via our presumptions and our senses (what Aquinas would call a "deiformity" of the mind, an inclination to love God that is reinforced and strengthened by the act of loving God). For Himes, faith is also an act of allegiance and an incorporation into a body of believers more than simply a statement of "I believe," making one's faith community an essential element of the assent of faith and its practice.

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Since the Enlightenment, faith has been seen in conflict with reason not only because the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries spurred a desire for a "universal religion" based on reason, but because a growing awareness of other faith traditions and new understandings of psychology and philosophy made it increasingly difficult for any religion to assert its own unique access to truth at the expense of others. And yet reason, too, has been caricatured through the centuries by believers, and sometimes neglected as an inadequate means to the attainment of truth, particularly after the "turn to the will" in Western thought popularized concepts like Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" or William James' "will to believe."

Himes idenitified two cultural phenomena which might be instructive to any dialogue on faith and reason. First, contemporary Islam's struggles with modernity offer us an opportunity to reflect on how Western Christianity has dealt with our experience of post-Enlightenment reason; and second, the sudden emergence of a gaggle of authors sharply critical of religion (even if Hitchens, Dawkins, et al are not exactly of the caliber of their atheist forebears) testifies to the continued misunderstanding between faith and reason in our own time.

Himes concluded with a moving reflection on the role of educators in the Christian tradition, noting that a primary goal of every teacher (and educational institution) should be to foster the imaginations of our students via a rigorous and sustained conversation with the widest possible range of conversation partners, Christian and otherwise. Comparing the intellectual tradition of humanity to a cocktail party where every teacher works as a host, inviting each new and perhaps uncomfortable guest to come and mingle with history's greatest minds and most generous souls, he reminded participants of one of the great joys of education. With a phrase that resonated strongly with my own experiences in the classroom, he noted that teachers are uniquely blessed in that "we have the privilege of helping others to love what we fell in love with ourselves."

Jim Keane, S.J.

 

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