Mike draws our attention, at Sacramentum Vitae, to an essay in the online version of America, the Jesuit magazine, by Terrance Klein of Fordham University. The essay’s subject is the question of the role of the Catholic educator in a pluralistic society, and Klein argues (surprise!) that the Jesuit tradition itself suggests that Catholic educators, in teaching about matters of faith, should avoid the sort of “coercion” and “manipulation” that appear to constitute the modus operandi of more “conservative” forces in the academy. A good educator, one who has taken the time to establish a relationship of trust with a student, has no warrant for coercion or manipulation, Klein argues, and trust does not suppress questions or, indeed, a spirit of questioning. Hence, the “conservative” who, apparently, just wants her students to memorize the Catechism and be done with it, does not foster that spirit of inquiry and intellectual curiosity that is at the heart of genuine Christian humanism as it was conceived of by St. Ignatius of Loyola and continued in the Jesuit tradition. For good measure, Klein concludes his essay with some whining about “fundamentalism” in the political sphere that misunderstands what the Separation Clause really means.
As I read through the essay, it occurred to me that Klein has confused a distinction between a method of teaching, on the one hand, and a conception of the essential nature of Catholic educational institutions on the other. Because of this simple confusion on Klein’s part, the advice that he gives to educators and philosophers of education is simply confusing. While it is easy to agree that, when talking with a student about personal matters of faith and religious practice, it is probably wise to maintain a healthy outward neutrality expressed in the form of benign listening and emotional support. In most academic settings it is fair to say that this is not the sort of thing that educators ought to be talking to students about in the first place but, as most educators know, students have a tendency to come to their teachers with all sorts of problems and questions of a personal nature that are far afield from the average teacher’s area of competence qua teacher. In short, we are often approached not so much as educators but as human beings, and although that is not, in itself, out of bounds, it does put the educator in a rather sensitive position. It does not follow from this, however, that a capacity–and willingness–to defend the Magisterium with intellectual rigor amounts to a kind of fundamentalism that can be glibly compared either with right wing evangelicals in the U.S. or Muslims world wide.
It seems to me that Klein sets the bar of confusion rather low right from the start, when he writes about an encounter with a student whom he calls “Fatima.” (It is difficult to avoid thinking that the entire episode is merely a literaty conceit on Klein’s part–virtually every element of it seems hackneyed and contrived–but I will leave that discussion for another day.) “Fatima” is described as a Muslim student who comes to the office with a question about a class paper but who winds up confessing that she is struggling with questions about her faith. She contrasts the open and intellectually stimulating environment of her coursework at Fordham with a stifling Islamic education where “everyone…always had answers. They told me they were God’s answers, and that if I didn’t accept them I would be damned.” Klein’s answer to “Fatima”, sadly, sounds like a line from an Aerosmith song: “I told her that knowing the final answer is not nearly so important as finally asking the right questions.” (Dude! How high can you fly with broken wings? Life’s a journey not a destination! You have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk!) That is sloganeering of the worst kind: to students, who often don’t know any better, it sounds deep (that’s why they like Aerosmith, after all) but it’s complete bullshit. It’s true enough, I suppose, that you have to know what sorts of questions to ask if you want to actually get the right answer from somebody who knows it but may not be connected with you well enough to understand you and, hence, to tell you what you want to know, but that is a far cry from the claim that knowing the question is more important than knowing the answer. I can’t think of a single instance in which it is really true that “knowing the final answer is not nearly so important as finally asking the right question.” Being able to ask the right question is merely a utilitarian consideration: if p is the answer to question q, then to get p I must first ask q. The connection here between p and q is a purely hypothetical one. On the other hand, suppose you don’t really believe that there is any such thing as p–suppose you think that no answer is genuinely final, because nobody has any genuine claim to epistemological certainty about the answers to any important questions. If that is your attitude, then you will find q, the question, much more interesting from a methodological point of view. It will no longer really be a question in search of an answer, but more of a hermeneutic, a talking point, something to get a conversation going. In short, it will no longer be a question at all, but an attitude. If this is how one views the relationship between p and q, then it will seem natural to put the point in the Aerosmithian way.
This seemingly innocent confustion between a utilitarian consideration and a dialogical one betrays some of the underlying assumptions behind Klein’s essay. Most other educators, I think, would be willing to agree with Klein when he says
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.
We would agree because, in most university settings, it goes without saying that you can’t know everything you need to know about a student in order to answer her most personal questions, and even if you did, it isn’t your place to answer them. I teach philosophy of science, I’m not a personal counselor. Klein is a priest, so his role may be somewhat different, but if he were to assert that it is, he would undermine his own position, which is that the ideal relationship between student and educator is one of neutrality, and a priest in the Roman Catholic Church qua priest can hardly claim to be neutral in the relevant sense without appearing to be either a liar or a fool.
Klein appears to want to resist this dichotomy, however, because his essay continues with a consideration of what it means to be an educator in “a community of faith” where such questions as “Fatima’s” can be asked, and in his analysis he makes it clear that Fordham–nominally a Catholic institution–is really just a university like any other and, as such, ought to adopt a position not merely of neutrality with respect to matters of faith, but of critical inquiry:
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.
This is where the confusion between the sensitive neutrality during office hours and some kind of dogmatic objectivity, for lack of a better phrase, begins to seem especially banal. Throughout his essay Klein hints darkly at “conservatives” within the Catholic tradition who seem to think that the Catholic educator ought to teach “truths” from the Catechism or some such place of dogmatic slumber. In this passage we see that he views even Jesuit institutions as simply one sort of institution among many others. True enough, in a value-free marketplace, every university conducts searches for new faculty by trying to attract a very large, very highly-qualified applicant pool, and the most academically qualified applicant is–usually–the one who gets the job. When you conduct searches in that way, you run the risk of getting faculty who are not only not Catholic, but who are openly hostile to Catholicism. This will only happen, of course, if you structure you criteria in a certain way. If the only criteria that make a person eligible for a certain position are strictly academic ones (where did you get your degree, how much teaching have you already done, how much have you published and in what venues), then you run that risk. But then you also cease to be a distinctively religious–let alone Catholic–institution. On this set of criteria there is no real difference betwen the Jesuit institution and any other institution of higher learning. Indeed, on this set of criteria you are unlikely to have very many Jesuits on your faculty. If your only concerns are academic ones, you ought not to care about a dearth of Jesuits in the classrooms, but presumably Jesuit institutions think there really is a place for Jesuits in the classroom, and since Jesuits, qua educators, don’t differ from non-Jesuits in any way, the only rational reason for preferring a Jesuit to a non-Jesuit will be doctrinal or religious reasons.
Possibly Klein’s misunderstanding of the Jesuit mission (a mission that he laughably tries to associate with Ignatius himself, comparing his own mush-headed approach to things with Ignatius’ sense of feeling challenged intellectually at the University of Paris) is grounded in an a priori political assumption that he betrays in the course of his essay.
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.
It is easy to agree with much that is here: there is no reason to think that religion has no place in public discourse, and the Separation Clause was clearly intended to insulate public discourse from the sort of totalitarian impulses that so dominated Church-State relations in England. Whether these facts in themselves entail the final point–that the Church itself is intellectually impoverished by being left alone–is something we can discuss another day. At present I simply want to consider the seemingly throwaway aside Klein indulges in here: “the growing number of politically active Christian fundamentalists gives reason to challenge that premise” [the premise that it is not salutary to ban religion from public life]. The suggestion is, of course, that certain “Christian fundamentalists” subscribe to views that are so abhorent that it is actually a good thing to exclude them from public discourse. Well, what “Christian fundamentalists” does Klein have in mind? As one ponders this question, one cannot help but suspect that he speaks, not so much as a good old-fashioned Jebbie coming to the Defense of the Faith in the face of the Protestant heresy (sadly those days are long gone, though one is happy to note that Avery Cardinal Dulles is on the same faculty as Terrance Klein–perhaps sound thinking is contagious enough to give Klein a leg up while he’s there), but as a liberal bemoaning the influence of the right wing religious nuts in our midst. You know, like Sarah Palin. The only folks that I know who could reasonably be labelled “politically active Christian fundamentalists” are folks who want things like the abolition of abortion, school vouchers, and other perfectly benign social programs that have fully secular arguments in their defense in addition to whatever religious ones there might be and that have absolutely nothing to do with either (a) Christian fundamentalism as such or (b) the scurrilous suggestion that “Christian fundamentalists” are rather like those scary Muslim ones who want to blow us all up and destroy our culture because they “know all the answers” and believe that the “answers are from God.”
So here lies the worst of the confusions in Klein’s thoroughly confused and confusing essay. He appears to think that an attitude of doctrinal certainty is per se an impediment to academically rigorous and intellectually honest critical thinking about religion and public life. Almost as though he is writing in defense of Rosemary Radford Reuther’s “right” to teach theology in a Catholic institution he says
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.
The suggestion here is clear: just as “Christian fundamentalists” violate the principles of Jesuit–and by implication Catholic–education in assuming the Sola Scriptura principle, so too do those Catholics who uncritically hold the Magisterium’s authority to be final and appeal to that finality in their teaching. In spite of liberal quotations from Pope Benedict XVI (note, too, Klein’s use of the word “liberating” here in place of “liberal”–a pun designed to leave the impression that his own brand of academic discipline will set us all free from the quaint attitudes of the “conservatives”), Klein equates a trust and faith in the Magisterium as a teaching authority with ignorance and intolerance.
Now, clearly one does not trot out the Catechism of the Catholic Church and start reciting sections from it when a young Muslim girl comes into one’s office with questions about an essay she is writing. That would be as counter-productive as it would be silly. Nor does one trot it out when debating various theologoumena with one’s co-religionists, unless they explicitly ask you something like “How do you know that the Church actually teaches this?” But this is all very different from pretending that you don’t actually believe that what’s in the Catechism is literally true and authoritative. Unless of course you don’t think that it is literally true and authoritative. But if you do think that it’s literally true and authoritative, you don’t think that merely by virtue of the authority of your own private judgment about the reasonableness of its claims–that would also be silly and counter-productive. And yet it is that sort of critical attitude that Klein appears to be endorsing in the name of academic rigor and intellectual honesty (not to mention political correctness).
This sort of thinking seems a little dated to me: it was very popular when I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s (just about the time that Aerosmith was at the top of their game). Nowadays it seems not merely quaint, but intellectually bankrupt. The attempts to enlist the support of Benedict XVI in his support fall very flat, seeming more like desperate proof-texting of the sort that “Christian fundamentalists” are prone to than genuine appeals to, um, an authoritative source. I don’t think that there is any doubt that Benedict XVI thinks that the Magisterium is authoritative, whatever else he might think about the desireabilty of interfaith dialog and critical inquiry. If you believe that the Magisterium is authoritative, why would you pretend that you don’t, if a student happened to come right out and ask you?
I guess that would be one of those “wrong sorts of questions” that we’re supposed to try to avoid asking, since it might lead us to think that there is a “final answer”.