A Space for Inquiry: Catholic universities and the search for meaning
Religion is flourishing in the United States in the number of adherents, but so are religious ignorance and religious intolerance. Both can be linked to the systematic exclusion from public discourse and intellectual life of a healthy examination of the religious impulse. With its deep foundation in humanism and its legacy from St. Ignatius Loyola on the discernment of spirits, Jesuit education offers a vital forum for the study of theology, which is not the catechesis of the young, but the intellectual exploration of the human need to probe the meaning of life. “Education is integral to the mission of the church to proclaim the good news,” Pope Benedict XVI insisted in his April 2008 address to U.S. Catholic educators. “It is timely, then, to reflect on what is particular to our Catholic institutions. How do they contribute to the good of society through the church’s primary mission of evangelization?”
A student who had never spoken in class came to my office at the end of one semester to say that she was having trouble with her final paper for my class “Faith and Critical Reason,” one of two theology courses taken by all undergraduate students at Fordham University. She sat down and went over her ideas for the assignment, which was to discuss how God is experienced by the characters of Evelyn Waugh’s classic, Brideshead Revisited. I listened and told her that these were good ideas that she should put to paper. She said she didn’t know where to begin. We again reviewed the assignment and her ideas for it, but she was still unsettled. I said, “Fatima, help me here. I don’t think I’ve understood your question.”
“That’s just it,” she exclaimed, as both her biography and her concern came pouring out of her. “I don’t know what I’m asking. Everything is in flux! I’ve gone to mosque every week. Everyone there always had answers. They told me they were God’s answers, and that if I didn’t accept them I would be damned. I’ve worn the hijab [the veil many Muslim women wear] since I was six. I’ve taught Arabic to small children so that they could read the Koran, and now I don’t want to take Arabic as my modern language in college! I’ve come to think of God and God’s place in my life in a whole new way. This course has convinced me that God is real and that God is in my life, but now I don’t know what to make of my religion.”
For the first time as an adult, in an intellectually challenging but spiritually supportive milieu, Fatima had asked about her life and the role religion plays in it. She wanted another person to hear the question and affirm her right to ask it. Pope Benedict has insisted, “Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom.” For Fatima, faith and reason had encountered each other in freedom, with unsettling, but, one hopes, fruitful results.
Who would have heard the same question on a secular campus? An essential difference between Catholic colleges and their secular counterparts is that the source prompting questions about God is also the one that stays to seek an answer. For all the considerable good they do, Newman centers stand at the periphery of intellectual life on secular campuses. Classrooms pose difficult questions, leaving students with only a hope that campus ministries, regularly excluded from the conversation, can support them as they seek answers. Even when they do, the system’s essential structure of separation subtly suggests that the answers sought are marginal, particularly personal and therefore more therapeutic than true.
I told her: “Fatima, I know that this is a very confusing time, but it’s also a wonderful time. What’s happening to you is what should happen to every college student. You’re asking your own questions, which are unsettling but good. They might lead you to claim your Muslim faith in a new way. They might lead you somewhere else. You remember, I’ve said from the beginning that my task in the classroom is not to convert anyone.”
“I know,” she interrupted. “You accept even unbelief. You’ve said there are parts of you that don’t believe. I’m very grateful for that. I just wish I knew where I was going.” I told her that knowing the final answer is not nearly so important as finally asking the right questions.
There are those who would argue that I should not have left Fatima with her questions—indeed, that we had arrived at the very moment when the Catholic faith should have been presented “unadulterated and vigorously,” as several conservative students had argued earlier that semester in one of Fordham’s student newspapers, The Observer. But if I had gone the unadulterated-and-vigorous route from the beginning, Fatima never would have been in my office. She would have perceived me to be like the religious leaders whom she had previously encountered, having all the answers and no tolerance for questions. She might have continued to suffer the separation of religious impulse from intellectual scrutiny.
Some might be even more disappointed to learn that my reticence was not tactical; this conversation was not setting the stage for “the sell.” I have nothing to sell. I am not reluctant to share my Christian faith, but I will not join the rush to label it “authentically Catholic,” as though the experience of God were simply one more commodity and Catholic higher education only a question of truth in packaging. Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely, that each and every aspect of one’s learning community reverberates with the ecclesial life of faith.
The truth is, I don’t know the answer Fatima is seeking. How could I? How can anyone claim to comprehend what God is doing in the depths of another’s soul? Yet Fatima shared her question with me because both of us were in a place, within a community of faith, where it could be asked.
Jesuit Education and the Spiritual Exercises
Jesuit education shares an essential premise with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. It is founded upon trust, faith that God is active, and leads us, if we allow that to happen, through prayerful self-scrutiny. Ignatius explicitly warns the would-be director of the Exercises not to hamper God’s work and not to confuse the director’s insights with those of the Spirit. The director “should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his Creator and Lord” (No. 15). Considering the profound influence that a teacher can sometimes have upon a student, the pedagogical role is not far removed from that of the spiritual director. Each must trust that God is the primary agent of growth; each must eschew manipulation and coercion of any kind. I do not know where God is leading Fatima. I have to wait and watch, just as she does.
Many students come to Jesuit schools for the same reason St. Ignatius made the personally arduous decision in 1528 to attend the University of Paris as an adult learner, because that is where the best minds would challenge his own experiences, including his experience of God. Ignatius had learned that disquietude itself could be revelatory, that growth comes from questioning. He went to Paris expecting difficult questions, yet trusting that the Spirit would lead the way to ever deeper answers.
Coercion and control have little warrant when trust is present. Trust does not suppress questions, because trust does not fear them. The faith that animates Jesuit education, trust both in God and in the essential goodness of human learning, especially as it finds expression in the humanities, has a timely role to play in contemporary America.
The premise of Stephen Prothero’s acclaimed book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t is that the United States has become a nation of religious illiterates. In the desire, and historic decision, to keep church and state separate, the United States has essentially banished religion from the public sphere. Religion is therefore also exiled from civic debate and communal scrutiny, but to what effect?
Consider another insight of the Spiritual Exercises, that evil “seeks to remain hidden and does not want to be discovered” (No. 326), that the work of the Spirit is accomplished when what is dark is brought into the light. Isn’t that insight as true corporately as it is individually? If so, what has happened to religion in America away from a truly public forum, apart from the intellectual rigor of higher education? What happens when, as Pope Benedict notes, “the value of the church’s contribution to the public forum is questioned”?
The Wall of Separation
Some argue that religion is flourishing in the United States because of the wall of separation, but strength in numbers cannot be the sole criterion of religious vibrancy. Adherents can be numerous while faith itself remains anemic. Separation between church and state should not mean the banishment of religion from public discourse. That separation may protect the state—though the growing number of politically active Christian fundamentalists gives reason to challenge that premise—but it leaves the church itself intellectually impoverished, insulated from rigorous inquiry.
The irony of contemporary America is that both those who reject religion and those who fervently preach it often know little about it. By contrast, Prothero notes, Western Europeans believe less but know more; they can accurately describe the rudiments of the Christian faith and other world religions.
Treating religion as an essentially private affair exposes it to the twin dangers of darkness: ignorance and intolerance. This is why higher education should not repudiate the deeply human vision that created the liberal arts curriculum, which included theology. It emerged in the West as the first Jesuits were being sent on mission, and it still has an essential task: to liberate the human person from ignorance, from prejudice and from the intrinsic limitations of a merely personal perspective.
The study of theology in Catholic institutions of higher education has never been more essential or more intimately linked to the liberating arts. Today it must help both students and faculty steer between the shoals of uninformed and prejudicial rejection of religion and the equally ignorant and intolerant option of fundamentalism, whether that is based on religious scriptures or on teaching authority. “Far from undermining the tolerance of legitimate diversity, such a contribution illuminates the very truth which makes consensus attainable, and helps to keep public debate rational, honest and accountable” says Pope Benedict.
Jesuit universities seek the best people for their faculties. Today that may mean recruiting some who have been trained to see religion itself as essentially irrational and thus profoundly antihuman. That prejudice needs to be met with learning, patience and trust. Many religious young people are tempted to reject anything that questions belief, retreating into the intellectual ghetto of fundamentalism. They need to be challenged by faculty who do not believe, but they also need the same learning, patience and trust given by those who do. The graced strength of Jesuit education, and that which separates it from its secular and its more conservative church counterparts, is that everyone is given the right to speak.
I preside weekly at the Eucharist on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus in midtown Manhattan. The main portion of the chapel is separated by curtains from a private area where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. I rarely enter the chapel without finding a student alone in its privacy. One day, as those of us who had gathered for the midday Mass were reciting the penitential rite, a veiled Muslim student emerged from behind the curtains. Had she come to offer her own midday prayers? After all, a quiet spot in midtown Manhattan is a gift from God, however you conceive of God!
I took comfort in knowing that, although our religions separated us, we were united in our desire to seek God. More than that, simply by being at Fordham, a Jesuit university at the crossroads of the world, we shared with St. Ignatius the conviction that education and its questions could help one to listen, to be attentive and to trust.