The Eclipse of ReasonDENNIS BUONAFEDE
Early on as a religion teacher I realized that it wasn't so much a lack of faith I was dealing with in my students, it was a lack of reason.
A frequent lament I hear on talk radio is that "common sense" is not as common as it should be. We should not be surprised, however, because no one is teaching "common sense". Now you would think that "common sense" would not be something that has to be taught, that it is something that arises from simple experience, but in our relativistic and pluralistic culture very little is "common". This is the point Pope Benedict is trying to make.
Over the last 500 years, a shift from a common worldview has gradually eroded the foundational "common sense" that everyone shared and learned through cultural osmosis. What replaces it is a nebulous relativism where all opinions are held to be equally true and valid, and where there are no universal truths, just different preferences. In short, there is no true/false, good/bad, moral/immoral, but rather an all encompassing and ever changing legal/illegal framework that determines what is permissible.
When it comes to teaching religion and philosophy, this poses a dual problem. Since the faith is not practiced weekly by a majority of students, they lack the experiential commonality needed for any coherent transmission of the elements of the faith. Simultaneously, since all non-empirical statements are processed by the students as being mere "opinion", they lack a rational foundation for any body of truth to be conveyed. This state of affairs undermines the attempt in high school to convey a nuanced and mature understanding of the Catholic faith and results in students concluding that it is all myth and thus not "true".
As mentioned above, it is a sad reality that most of my junior students are non-practicing Catholics for the simple reason that their parents, like the vast majority of Catholics in North America, don't practice. This does not change as they become seniors; in fact, most seniors work on Sunday. In spite of this lack of religious practice, many students say they believe in God when they start high school in Grade 9. The story changes dramatically starting in Grade 10. Most of my students went to a Catholic elementary school and received the Sacrament of Confirmation in Grade 8. Granted, many of them did so because it was the expected thing to do and their parents "made" them; they are still at the age where their 'faith' is that of their parents. In short, they possess a childish faith that is vague and unreflective. This "childish faith" does not survive high school adolescence. If students do manage to preserve their faith by the time they graduate high school they most likely won't survive University.
One student who recently finished a semester of philosophy with the highest mark in the class expressed this reality in a presentation to the class. With her permission I share her insights here.
She continued to attend Mass weekly out of respect for her parents. When she went off to University she probably would have stopped attending Mass. Religion had become merely a course necessary for graduation; and what it taught was mere opinion to be accepted or rejected as it suited. Like so many of my students, she took Philosophy because she was tired of "taking religion". Her story is unique only in that she came from a practicing family. For students who do not practice their faith, this switch is almost instantaneous after the first year of high school. The current scandals and oft-repeated "sins" of the medieval church – such as the Inquisition or the Crusades – merely solidify their distrust of the Church.
I learned early on in my career that my real dilemma as a religion teacher was in finding a way to overcome this situation so that what my students learned was not just an academic necessity for graduation, but a life changing reality. I came to realize that it wasn't so much a lack of faith I was dealing with, it was a lack of reason.
The first year of my teaching philosophy (the third in my career) was a learning process for both my students and me. The way I taught the subject that first year rendered it too abstract, disjointed and un-engaging. One student described it as worse than watching golf and watching paint dry, simultaneously. Sadly, I only contributed more to the sentiment that there is no right or wrong answer outside of the hard sciences.
While mulling over this dilemma during the summer break I came across the phrase "ideas have consequences". I had heard this phrase long before, but now the lights went on upstairs. I immediately adopted this phrase as the theme of the philosophy course and set about making a few structural and thematic changes. Remaining faithful to the mandated curriculum and the provincial expectations, I started to tie the ideas and philosophies we were studying to the consequences that result from these ideas. Human Nature was replaced by Metaphysics as the beginning unit, with Aquinas' warning in mind that a small error in the beginning leads to a large error in the end. Human Nature follows, then ethics and political/social philosophy. A unit on the Holocaust, which is a curriculum requirement, closes up the semester. Providentially, I came across an article by Ray Cotton entitled "The Holocaust: Ideas and their Consequences". It was a perfect way to tie it all together.
As I started to teach using this framework, I started to notice a small transformation. We spoke of "God" only in a philosophical sense, as the first uncaused Cause, or the first unmoved Mover, or we would examine the argument from Design. I would link philosophy to Catholicism only where reason supported a Catholic doctrine or dogma, such as the Eucharist and Aristotle's Categories. I would not allow my students to answer any question or dilemma with an appeal to the Commandments, the Bible or Church teaching – it had to be resolved by reason, and reason alone.
Many students came alive with this approach with debates based on substance rather than "feelings". Several would come up to me and tell me that they started going to Mass, some radically changed their lives for the better. My yearbooks contain statements from students like:
These kids are hungry!
Over the years I found the more focus that is placed on the consequences of ideas, the more confident students become with the possibility of there being universal, objective and eternal truths. As the student above put it:
Admittedly, not all of my students were as enthusiastic about philosophy as those quoted above, but it appears that the more comfortable they become with universal truths as grasped by reason, the more confident they become in accepting the proclamation of the Gospel. Good, solid, objective philosophy is not the only solution to the current crisis of faith – nothing replaces good catechesis and personal witness, but it is a necessary component if we are to equip our children to survive this crisis with their faith intact.
Dennis Buonafede. "The Eclipse of Reason." The Integrated Catholic Life (February 25, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of the author and The Integrated Catholic Life.
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Dennis Buonafede has been teaching High School Religion and Philosophy in Ontario, Canada for the past 10 years. Dennis completed his B.A. in Philosophy at St. Peter's Seminary at the University of Western Ontario, his M.Div. as a lay student at St. Augustine’s Seminary at the University of Toronto and his Bachelor of Education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Prior to transferring to St. Augustine's, he studied at Holy Apostles Seminary in Connecticut from 1990-1992. Dennis has been married to Teresa for 15 years and they have two children aged 12 and 14. Dennis co-developed a leadership program for the K of C sponsored Ontario Catholic Youth Leadership Camp and was the camp director for 3 years. He is currently a Civilian Instructor with Air Cadet 242 Squadron where his son is a Sergeant.
Dennis is a voracious reader, likes to ride motorcycles and enjoys fishing. He follows hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs), football (Chicago Bears) and NASCAR (Dale Jr.). His family agrees that he makes THE best home made pizza ever!
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