In today's morning session of the "Faith and Reason 2009" conference at Fordham University, participants were treated to a presentation by noted historian John W. O’Malley, S.J. The University Professor at Georgetown University, O'Malley specializes in the religious culture of early modern Europe and is author of many articles and books, including The First Jesuits, Trent and All That, What Happened at Vatican II, and Four Cultures of the West.
O'Malley's topic this morning, in keeping with the general conference theme of faith and reason, was "Reason in Four Cultures: the Prophetic, the Analytic/Scientific, the Humanistic, and the Artistic/Performative." More specifically, he spoke on the ever-topical question first posed by Tertullian in the third century: "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" In other words, can (and where do) a culture of reason and a culture faith intersect?
In speaking of the four cultures mentioned above, O'Malley noted that most academics and university personnel exist in culture two, the Analytic/Scientific culture, while historically it has been cultures three and four, the humanistic and artistic, which have dominated and distinguished the life of Christianity and the Church. O'Malley also pointed out that medieval universities traditionally were rather secular enterprises, in the sense that their goal was largely the practical education of students, and it was only with the humanist-inspired development of the "college" that the notion of training well-rounded students for the benefit of the common good became popular. The Jesuits in particular excelled at the development of these smaller colleges devoted to a Renaissance curriculum, and by the time of their suppression in 1773 were operating over 800 such schools around the globe. Most of today's Jesuit colleges and universities are the descendants of these enterprises, or at least their intellectual heirs.
O'Malley also offered closing remarks about the nature and mission of contemporary American Catholic universities, stressing that they not only had a social responsibility, but that part of that responsibility was to teach and treat the subject of religion honestly and with rigor. While professional schools and graduate programs might seek to train students for specific careers, the humanities should retain their pride of place at the undergraduate level. It is still possible, O'Malley noted, for a university "to be both secular and Catholic." And finally, it behooves all scholars to retain a bit of modesty about the imperfect nature of their efforts and enterprises.
To hammer home this last point, O'Malley quoted from a long-ago Jesuit who once offered some young Jesuits the following three points for their meditation:
1. This ain't heaven.
2. You ain't God.
3. Don't be an ass.
Words to live by whether we're academics or not!
Jim Keane, S.J.