Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Re-Reading Augustine's Confessions on Augustine's Feast Day

St Augustine & St Monica, Ary Scheffer
This semester I'm teaching a graduate class called "Classics of Christian Devotion," and the first text we'll be reading is Augustine's Confessions.  I've read the Confessions perhaps a dozen times, and am re-reading the book again for this class.  Never do I get tired of this text.  Every time I read the Confessions I become utterly transfixed by the poetic beauty of Augustine's writing and theology.  Yes, there are aspects of the book, as well as facets of his thought expressed elsewhere, that I find deeply troubling.  But the Confessions is, to say the least, a remarkable text that wonderfully expresses the heartfelt longing of one person to experience the Beauty that is God.

On this feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, I thought I'd simply quote some lines from the first few pages of book I of the Confessions, in which Augustine asks the question, "What are you, then, my God?" and then answers the question with a poetic cataloging of God's attributes which is, I think, particularly stunning in the Latin and showcases the rhetorical gifts Augustine possessed:
You are most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing (15-16 of Boulding's translation).
summe, optime, potentissime, omnipotentissime, misericordissime et iustissime, secretissime et praesentissime, pulcherrime et fortissime, stabilis et incomprehensibilis, immutabilis mutans omnia, numquam novus numquam vetus, innovans omnia et in vetustatem perducens superbos et nesciunt. semper agens semper quietus, conligens et non egens, portans et implens et protegens, creans et nutriens et perficiens, quaerens cum nihil desit tibi.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Why do I Have to Study Anything Outside of my Major?": An Explanation for Undergraduates

At the liberal arts school where I teach, students are required to take courses in the fine arts, mathematics, philosophy, English literature, natural sciences, social sciences, and of course, theology.  These courses are in addition to the classes they need to take to fulfill the requirements for the degree in their major.  A frequent complaint I've heard from undergraduate students has to do with the number of classes they have to take outside of their major.  I want in this brief post to address this complaint, and hopefully shed some light for my undergraduates on the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education.  As I mentioned in a previous post, very little of this is original to me, but the subject is one about which I'm passionate.

"Why do I have to study anything outside of my major?"  At the heart of this question is an understanding of the purpose of higher education and indeed of the meaning of life that I question.  Some, perhaps most, students appear to understand the chief purpose of a university education to be the attainment of a job.  Please understand that I'm not at all opposed to the hope students have that they will attain gainful employment after university.  I understand that people need to make a living, and I understand that a university education should assist them in this goal.

What I oppose, rather, is that this is the primary purpose of a university education.  To suggest that one should only have to take classes in one's major is to posit that university is solely a training facility for employment, as if employment is the highest aim a human being can have for one's self.  Moreover, this attitude manifests an understanding of education as a burden, as something that one must endure only for the sake of getting a high-paying job at the end.

But a liberal arts education should be viewed as a tremendous opportunity for vibrant intellectual exploration.  When I hear students say that they wished they only had to take courses in their major, I want to say to them that they have the rest of their lives to focus on their careers and to devote their time and energy almost entirely to their careers if they so choose; at university they have the opportunity for diverse and exciting study in fields that has the capability to transform them.

See, I firmly believe that education's ultimate purpose is to transform.  A university, as the name suggests, is to be a seat of universal learning at which students cannot (or should not) limit their exposure to only one discipline, but are rather exposed to the tremendous diversity of academic disciplines and ways of thinking and are transformed in the process.  Blessed John Henry Newman, who wrote the definitive work on the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education in The Idea of A University, describes in an admittedly idealistic tone the way in which students can be transformed through studying the liberal arts (note: Newman uses, as was the norm in his 19th century context, exclusively male pronouns):
"This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of  universal learning, considered as a place of education.  An assemblage of learned [people], zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation.  They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other.  Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude.  He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses.  He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them.  Hence it is that his education is called "Liberal."  A habit of mind is formed which lasts though life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom" (76, emphasis mine).
Behind Newman's virtues associated with the habit of mind he describes is the cultivation of critical thought and humility.  Exposure to a wide array of disciplines and ways of thinking within an atmosphere of respectful dialogue can (or should) develop the ability to dialogue, an ability that can take place when one has the humility truly to listen to the other and the humility to recognize that one's own purchase on truth is necessarily incomplete.  Such dialogue demands critical thinking and respect for diverse disciplines of learning, and a liberal arts education, in which one studies a diverse range of subjects, is ideally suited for developing such qualities.

The importance of dialogue cannot, it seems to me, be overemphasized.  So much of the political and religious rhetoric I hear and read these days emerges from contexts in which people are absolutely convinced that the other has nothing worthwhile to contribute.  Those who think differently are therefore summarily dismissed, and any meaningful dialogue is made impossible.

In a meeting with Japanese students yesterday morning, Pope Francis highlighted the necessity of dialogue, arguing that we cannot be isolated in ourselves but  must "go in search of other people, other cultures, other ways of thinking, other religions," and in so doing, "we go out of ourselves and start that most beautiful adventure which is called 'dialogue'."  Only through dialogue can there be peace, according to Pope Francis.  True dialogue cannot lead to closure and conflict, "because we talk to each other to find ourselves and not in order to quarrel."  Such dialogue, he states further, necessitates both meekness or humility and the ability to ask intelligent questions (a brief video below shows the Pope making his comments):

The kind of dialogue about which Pope Francis speaks, I would argue, is the fruit of a diverse education that shapes and transforms students to become, not simply cogs in an economic machine, but contributors to the common good.  And this seems to me to be vitally important.

My next post will focus on the importance of studying the discipline of theology, even for those with no religious affiliation.

Picture of John Henry Newman from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Questions from my Undergrads

My school's incoming group of students - Class of 2017!

I've been a university professor teaching theology at a liberal arts school for five years.  When I first started teaching, I naively asked the students in my first class why they were taking my theology course, thinking that they were all registered for it out of enthusiasm for the subject.  I received blank stares until finally one of the students bravely replied that they were there only because the university requires all students to take two theology classes for their degree.  The rest of the students nodded their heads in agreement.  Students were taking my classes not because they were interested in theology, but because it was a hoop they needed to jump through as part of their curriculum.

And some of them haven't been happy about it.

I love teaching, and I thoroughly enjoy my students, even those who wish they didn't have to be in my class.  And because I think it is important to have open and honest conversations about education, and specifically about why I think students should study theology, I make time and space in my classes for students to express their opinions and thoughts openly without fear of retribution or judgement.  In these conversations, students often seem confused about why they have to take classes outside of their major, and are particularly confused about why they would have to study things like theology, English, philosophy, math, etc.  Others who perhaps recognized the value of studying the liberal arts still suggested that they shouldn't have to work as hard in their liberal arts classes as they do for the classes in their major, the unspoken assumption being that the liberal arts courses were less important for what really mattered.

Three questions continually pop up in my conversations with undergrads about a liberal arts education.  They are:
  1. Why do I have to study anything outside of my major?
  2. Why in particular do I have to study theology, especially since I'm not religiously affiliated?
  3. Why do you make us work so hard for your class when it isn't my major?
    I'm doubtful many (any) incoming students to Bellarmine University or any other college read my blog, but in the hope that even just one might happen to venture to this site in the coming months, I thought I'd address the above questions in the coming weeks.  Much of what I'll have to say is not overly original, but comes out of a deep passion I have for transformational education and for the discipline of theology.  Stay tuned...

    Photo above from

    Friday, August 9, 2013

    Walking for Allergy Awareness - Update

    I normally write on here about theology and/or baseball (the two being inextricably interwoven). 
    But I want briefly to focus some attention on food allergies, as my family and I will be participating tomorrow in an allergy awareness walk here in Louisville organized by the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) organization.

    My oldest son (he's 8) has a peanut allergy.  We found out about this allergy when we gave him peanut butter on a cracker when he was a year and a half old.  Although we hoped he might outgrow his allergy, it is clear now that this is a condition he has for life.

    I am, of course, aware that, in terms of child maladies, our oldest could be dealing with something far worse.  But, and this is the fear always in the back of our minds, the potential is always there for him to ingest peanuts accidentally or unknowingly, particularly given that peanuts lurk in many unexpected places.  Our fears are made more acute by our frequent contact with people and groups who don't understand food allergies or - and this is worse - don't care about them.

    There's been an exponential rise in peanut allergies in recent years; the number of children with peanut allergies in the U.S. tripled between 1997-2008.  Because of this rise in peanut allergies, the school district where we lived in Canada banned all peanut products from school lunches.  We quickly learned that such a step was a non-starter here in Louisville, as well as in many other regions of the U.S.  In fact, despite the fact that every three minutes a person goes to the E.R. due to a food allergy in the U.S., and despite the fact that contact with peanuts could be fatal for our oldest son, we've confronted a frustratingly prevalent lackadaisical attitude when it comes to our oldest's allergy.

    We're participating in the walk tomorrow to raise money for a possible cure for such allergies, as well as to raise awareness about the fact that 1 in 13 children have potentially fatal food allergies and that steps need to be taken to ensure our children's safety wherever they are.  If you are able and willing, would you consider sponsoring our walk?  I hesitate to ask for money on this blog.  But I do so out of love for my son and out of concern for the many kids and adults who face potentially life-threatening circumstances each day.  If you would like to donate, the website for our son's fundraising page is here: Isaac Fundraising Page - Isaac's Team Page for 2013 Louisville FARE Walk

    I'm excited to announce that Isaac raised $225, a full $25 over his goal! And the walk as a whole raised iver $26000!  My thanks to you for responding so generously to this cause. Very shortly after I wrote this post, a number of you contributed.  Thanks!

    Image from