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The importance of philosophy

| Wednesday, February 24, 2016

If the Core Curriculum Review Committee had proposed taking away the theology requirement, it may as well have had one of the cranes from Campus Crossroads come to Main Building and rip off the statue of Our Lady from the dome and toss it into St. Mary’s Lake, where one day students would ask, ‘Who is that lady all grown over with algae?’ We would no longer be a Catholic university.

Given that we have kept our two-course theology requirement, it seems we do care about our Catholic identity. But then why do we not implement what we have learned in those classes from the great thinkers and saints of our tradition? That is, why do we not recognize rigorous philosophy and theology function together?

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Pope St. John Paul II wrote those words at the beginning of the encyclical “Fides et Ratio.” As he went on to explain, faith and reason in a university setting are incarnated in the disciplines of theology and philosophy. The whole Catholic worldview relies just as much on philosophy as it does on theology. Thus, if each constitutes a different wing of the human spirit, then reducing our immersion in philosophy is akin to clipping our wings. We drop from the heights and fall into the water next to Our Lady.

The draft report released by the committee explains well the rationale for having philosophy courses, and I believe such goals need more than one required class. How can we consider the meaning of life, the nature of the human being, the nature of truth, the good life or the problem of evil in a rigorous and systematic way suitable to a university student with just one introductory course? How can we understand Augustine without Plato or Thomas Aquinas without Aristotle? How can we see how the Catholic faith is to be lived in the world without learning about the enormous changes that Enlightenment thought brought with it?

I do appreciate the attempt to draw Catholic thought into the classroom through the integration of various disciplines, but the classes mentioned in the committee’s report that might fall into the Catholicism and the Disciplines (CAD) category are not philosophy, making a choice between the two arbitrary. Art history or a Catholic approach to finance is not necessarily philosophy. The CAD course looks fantastically Catholic on the outside, but in reality it undermines the integral relationship between philosophy and theology when it replaces a philosophy course. I support one integrated class choice as included under the six required liberal arts courses. Why not make that integrated course the CAD course and leave two required philosophy courses?

Philosophy acts as the mediator between the sciences and other disciplines and theology. Philosophy asks the questions that theology answers. Without hard and important questions, theology is not satisfying. For example, if we want to know about the world itself, we go to science. To ask questions about why that world of which science speaks exists at all, we go to philosophy. If we want an answer to that question, we go to theology. We cannot cut out that middle step: The questioning that is intrinsic to our human nature.

Indeed, science used to be called natural philosophy, because the natural world was one way of elevating the mind to the good, true and beautiful, an end that is shown to be a relationship rather than an intellectual ideal in theology. Philosophy thus brings science into contact with theology.

We should not exist in a dualistic university that separates the sciences from the humanities. Keeping a two-course philosophy requirement assures this separation will not be the case. Philosophy courses help us build the foundation and provide tools and methods for bringing other disciplines together. Once readied, we can then implement such lessons in some kind of integrated class outside of the two required philosophy courses. One required course simply is not enough time to adequately construct a foundation.

Modernity has turned us away from philosophy, turning our attention to science and materialistic answers to questions about our experience and the world. We keep theology because we believe it to be true, but all too often we treat it merely as another discipline. We have to understand philosophy as one of the two wings that raises the soul to contemplation. If one is chopped off or maimed, we are not going to flourish.

We should listen to John Paul II. Not only is he a saint, but he is also a better philosopher than you or I may ever be. His life manifests that intimate union between faith and reason, between theology and philosophy, so we should learn from his example and take it to heart.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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