Something that was unimaginable 10 or 20 years ago has been happening in the philosophy department of Saint Louis University. While still a department with strong historical, ethical and medieval offerings by professors and with students from a variety of religious and philosophical stances, it has seen the eruption of a community of faith.
A few years ago some graduate students approached two faculty members, asking for help in forming what would later come to be called the Alexandria Society. Although agnostics or people of faith from any tradition remain welcome, the group soon focused on the integration of the Christian faith and the intellectual life of philosophers.
With a base of usually four faculty members and 20 or so graduate fellows, the Alexandria Society is into its third year of meeting every other Friday at the large Jesuit Hall community for fellowship, a “discussion meal,” formal prayer and “quodlibetal questions” (a term Professor Eleonore Stump highjacked from Thomas Aquinas)—such as “the philosopher’s vocation,” the relationship between philosophy and faith, the goal of teaching or the possibility of an afterlife. The prayer is representative of the group: psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures, songs mostly from the Protestant and evangelical tradition and the structure of Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, the “Prayer of the Church.”
That a group of young university intellectuals—philosophers, no less—would do such a thing would have been hard to imagine 10 years ago.
And yet, this phenomenon parallels a number of other movements not only on the Saint Louis University campus, but in institutions of higher learning throughout the country, from the University of Saint Thomas and the Franciscan University of Steubenville, to Santa Clara and Notre Dame, and yes, to Berkeley and Harvard.
I knew that, in addition to our thriving campus ministry programs of liturgy, service and internship, there were independent prayer groups, often led and supported by younger Jesuits on campus. One such group, starting as a handful but growing to 100, invited me to conduct a day of recollection. The topic requested was “Real Presence in the Eucharist and in Persons.” (It seemed that Catholics were not the majority in this group, which had been gathering for weekly eucharistic adoration, evangelical songs and vocal prayer.)
Recently I found out just how extensive this stirring of faith has become when I read The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, by Colleen Carroll, a reporter for The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, now a doctoral student in our philosophy department.
It will come as no surprise to me if some Catholics, especially those from 40 to 70 years of age who embraced the reforms after the Second Vatican Council and would like to see even more change find the book a bit alarming. It portrays, rather favorably, a groundswell of Christians in their 20’s and 30’s swept up in an “orthodoxy” that is strongly eucharistic in spirit, traditional in its piety and objective in its moral vision. It is also very evangelical in the deepest sense of the term—the Gospel, uncompromised by cultural domestication, relativism or trendiness.
It is true, as even the blurbs on the dust jacket of Carroll’s book suggest, that these “new faithful” can be easily identified with prominent conservative Catholic individuals and organizations. But that may be, it seems to me, due to the fact that the “new faithful” have found a more welcoming embrace from the right arm of the church than from the left. This is a little strange, since many of the “new faithful” have found great sustenance and support in the Christian radical writings and teachings of Stanley Hauerwas at Duke, Dorothy Day and Notre Dame’s Michael Baxter. Perhaps centrist and more liberal believers could learn something here.
In encountering the searching student, we cannot use the models or the contexts of the 1960’s or even of the 80’s. That’s the last century. We must encounter them in the context of their own experience and longing, not deny it, but see where it leads.
The old dichotomies of liberal and conservative just do not work. “Radical” and “countercultural,” however, are interesting terms that suggest those earlier times. What is truly radical, truly countercultural? Is it not the Gospel itself? And in these times, what truly is a “breath of fresh air”? Is it soft relativism or intelligent advocacy? Is it sexual capitulation to the mantras of the times or is it chastity, both within and outside of marriage? Is it Yeats’s “lacking all conviction” or “passionate intensity?”
Carroll’s book ranges over a spectrum of universities, Christian groups, lay and religious communities. She acknowledges the questions raised about long-range benefits, the complex motives of participants and possible dangers. It seems, however, the height of foolishness not to engage the faith of these young believers and witness how they flourish. Is the spirit saying something here?
Consider a student-friend of mine. She has a hunger for transcendence. Connected with Catholic history and tradition, she seeks a truth worth understanding, a good worth loving and a “faith to die for,” as Michael Baxter has titled one of his wonderful courses. She believes a life of sexual integrity, simplicity and service is possible. She reads the Gospels. She prays in solitude and in communal adoration. She pickets at capital punishment sites, abortion clinics and the School of the Americas. She is a student leader and a scholar.
She is not alone.
And that is worth a celebration.