Saturday, July 30, 2011

Looking Back, Looking Forward - First Studies

The day after I took First Vows, my provincial gave me my first mission--to live at Ciszek Hall in the Bronx and to study philosophy at Fordham University. A few months ago, after three years there, I finally graduated with, as we like to say in my community, the highly elusive and coveted MAPR (Master's in Philosophical Resources). The MAPR is similar to an MA in philosophy, except that its requirements are much different. We approach philosophy historically, starting with Plato and Aristotle and work our way forward. The program culminates with the De Universa - an oral exam administered by three philosophy professors who grill you for one hour about broad philosophical questions.

Many Jesuits strongly see this mission as a true act of obedience, as they would much rather be doing something else. They validly ask what how philosophy is relevant to their work as Jesuits, and some do in fact say that philosophy has little to no influence with their current work. Some tell horror stories of their time in philosophy--one had such a strong visceral reaction to first studies that upon visiting the old site where he studied many years before, he promptly threw up.

During my time at Seattle University, it was my own choice to study philosophy during my first two years there. I actually rather like the discipline, although I'm quite aware that I'm in the minority position here. So, I found myself in a privileged position, since some of my other Jesuit brothers hadn't studied philosophy before.

My approach to philosophy stems from the root meaning of the word. Philo in the Greek means love and sophia means wisdom. At its core, philosophy is a journey towards the love of wisdom, which is a helpful trait to have as a Jesuit. Indeed, love of God should not contradict love of wisdom -- these loves should very much be in harmony. Of course, that is a disputable point depending on one's perspective, but Christian thinkers I assume would not argue with me on that.

One of the lessons from my philosophy studies at Seattle University that I carried with me into Fordham was the importance of slow thinking. The questions that philosophers have asked throughout the centuries are not easy ones to grasp, and it necessarily demands a lot of time, energy, and patience if one is to plumb its depths of meaning. For me, I have never been satisfied simply regurgitating what ancient philosophers have stated about a particular topic. I seek to understand the importance of the questions being asked and to ponder why they are being asked in the first place. I also ponder whether the question being asked is relevant, which does not always seem so because some philosophers don't seem to know how to put forward a clear thought. At least it seems that way to the contemporary ear. And, to be honest, some of their questions are rather irrelevant today.

Some of the more compelling questions I encountered were: What does it mean to be a human being? How did the universe come to be? What can we know of the world around us? Can anything meaningful ever be said of God philosophically, or must we necessarily rely on Scripture? (The Catholic Church historically has used philosophical discourse to talk about God without relying on faith as a way of asserting that God-talk is indeed possible even without faith while stressing that reason alone can only take us so far) Why is there evil in the world? What is truth? What is justice? Are we truly free beings? The quest of philosophy is the quest for understanding, to set aside substantial time to reflect and meditate upon some of these big questions. In an age where so many can live an unreflected life spurred on by habit, routine, and technology, philosophy necessarily requires the person to step back and to consider the life one leads in light of these major questions.

For me, the most significant questions related to those concerning human nature, to God, and to an understanding of the created world (some claim the universe simply 'is' and never had a beginning point, a claim I don't buy). While most of the philosophers we engage with are dead, I would think about the type of questions I would want to ask were the philosopher alive today. For me, philosophy is not about looking back to the past and dwelling there ad nauseum. Minimally, it is at least entertaining the idea that the philosophers of the past might have something worthwhile to say to the present, which might challenge the way we look and understand the world in our own time and place. Might what they say uncover false assumptions and opinions that we hold today? Or, how might we respond to their questions and give clarity to our own thought?

So, the question is: why is philosophy studies relevant for a Jesuit? It is important to acknowledge that we live in an age where people more readily question their beliefs and no longer view tradition as a sufficient source for truth. The Catholic Church, as a result, continues to be in need of those who are willing to critically think and give well-reasoned responses to today's probing questions. As religious, people expect us to know what we are talking about, and they can smell bull**** from a mile away. Of course, studying philosophy will not magically give us all the answers we need. Indeed, sometimes it leaves us with more questions than answers. And sometimes it just leaves us dazed and confused. I think, though, that the practice of critical thinking is essential in our ministries, as I have witnessed many people who do not respect and who readily dismiss priests they deem to be incompetent.

Second, most of the philosophers we study are not people of faith. It is very easy for religious people to live in their own bubble and to expect that everyone should think the same way they do. It is much easier to converse and talk with those who share our same beliefs. Yet, in an increasingly globalized and diverse world, it is essential for us to be able to develop the skill to have honest and meaningful conversations with those who see otherwise, and one of the ways this is done is by truly making the effort to see as the other sees. Nothing is so maddening as those who pompously assume they are right without even respecting what the other has to say. One might be right, but what is gained if the other is alienated in the process? Philosophy truly is a time when we are forced to try to see things the way others see them. We don't have to agree, but the manner in which we disagree is essential to the way we relate to the world today.

Finally, Jesuits are challenged to find God in all things. I remember my provincial urging us who were going to embark in philosophical study to do our best to find God in our work. For me, this became an important interpretive lens as I sifted through various philosophers. If I was conscientious, I tried to ask where God was found in what I was reading and studying, and trust me, it can very much seem like God is absent in the studies. Thankfully, I feel that I was able to keep this challenge in front of me in many instances, as many of the papers I wrote reflected this struggle of finding God. If I may exaggerate, if one can find God in philosophy, then one can find God anywhere.

I can write so much more about the past three years, and indeed I have so much more to say. For example, there was so much I learned and experienced during this time that was really important to my growth and development and that has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy. But, this post is already getting long, so I'll restrict this post primarily to reflecting on the academic aspect of my previous mission. I'll end by saying that I find myself quite grateful for my time in first studies in spite of the numerous challenges I faced, and I was privileged to feel God's intimate presence in a variety of ways during the past three years.

On an unrelated note, tomorrow is the Feast of St. Ignatius day - a cause for celebration. I intend to do just that =p Happy St. Ignatius day!

1 comment:

Robin said...

Happy Feast Day, Ryan!

Fascinating posts. I greatly envy you your philosophy studies.