The Eclipse of Reason

St. Thomas Aquinas by Botticelli

Ideas Have Consequences
– The Eclipse of Reason

Pope Benedict’s 2010 Christmas Greeting to the Roman Curia, a Catholic version of the American “State of the Union Address”, was notable for the emphasis placed upon human reason. His Holiness did not so much focus on the loss of Faith occurring in Western Democracies as he did the loss of Reason. At one point in his address he stated: 

“To resist this eclipse of reason and to preserve its capacity for seeing the essential, for seeing God and man, for seeing what is good and what is true, is the common interest that must unite all people of good will. The very future of the world is at stake.” 

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. 

“As the years of high school have gone by, my faith has gone down a steep slope. Despite being raised in a strongly Catholic family, I came into this course as a non-believer. Being a logical person, the answers that my parents would give me about my faith were never enough to satisfy me. … Eventually, I stopped asking questions. … With biology being my favourite subject I had come to accept Charles Darwin as a prophet who had brought forth the good word of Evolution.”  

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. 

Ideas have consequences… 

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: 

“You drove me crazy! I’d go home ranting to myself, having deep conversations with my sisters like never before!” 

“Philosophy is actually more important than I originally thought!”  

“Taking philosophy has been honestly life changing. I truly loved every part of it because it taught me a lot about life and myself.” 

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: 

“Classical metaphysics gave me a strong, reasonable foundation to base my reality on. After all, what can I believe in if I don’t believe in common sense? … What I never realized was how Darwin’s logic was flawed and what consequences had come of it … The unit that provoked the most thought in me was that of social philosophy. Here I really saw what “ideas have consequences” meant … In conclusion, philosophy has taught me to think outside the limits that have been set for me. … I have been dragged out of Plato’s cave and into the sunlight to see both the beauty of truth and how damaged our world has become.  … It is up to us to stand up for truth and not fall victim to the “-isms” that have led the world to where it is today. Philosophy is not just another high school course.”  

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.

This article is a part of the ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences – by Dennis Buonafede. We value your comments and encourage you to leave your thoughts below.  Please share this article with others in your network.  Thank you!  – The Editors

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About the Author

As of February, 2011, Dennis Buonafede has been teaching High School Religion and Philosophy in Ontario, Canada for the past 10 years. Dennis grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia before moving to Ontario where he 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 is an active member of his parish and has been a member of the Knights of Columbus since 1995. He was a Charter Member of Council 11708 and PGK of Council 8851. He co-developed a leadership program for the KofC sponsored Ontario Catholic Youth Leadership Camp and was the camp director for 3 years. Dennis 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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19 Comments

  1. Dennis,

    I think your insights are excellent. Our youth are indeed hungry and like any other generation, the light of Christ will attract them for he is exactly what they hunger for. What is missing from their experience is the proclamation of the Gospel by the lives of people (saints) who are on fire for God. As you noted, add to that an absence of critical thinking passed on in their academic and social lives, and you have a recipe for disaster.

    But my experience has been that if you present the Gospel to them honestly, passionately and with a voice of personal testimony, what we have for them will resonate in their souls. It provides only a start, but, coupled with our faithful prayers for them, that is all the Holy Spirit requires to begin to make headway against the tide of the culture. They already know in their depths that the ways of the world that constantly call them lead only to momentary pleasure and not lasting joy.

    I can’t wait to read your next installment.

    Deacon Mike

  2. Deacon Mike,

    You’re right on with your comments, which is why I ended my article by saying that nothing replaces good catechisis and personal witness. High school philosophy is, in a way, a back door approach. You teach them about God while they think they’re learning something else :)

  3. Dennis,

    A different approach certainly needs to be taken in teaching the faith in Catholic High Schools across America. My daughter attended private school at an Anglican all girls schools for grades 7 and 8 while we lived in Canada for two years. There, we saw her losing interest in her faith. Upon returning to the states we enrolled her in an A-rated public high school and there she unraveled completely. Not only did she become defiant and disobedient when it came to following trends we did not agree with, but she refused the Catholic faith that she was born and raised into. We are faithful Catholics, attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days and have put our children through religious education. We strive to live out our lives as Christians, challenging ourselves even more as the tide is turning against Christianity. Those two formative years in Canada, however, were deplete of faith formation outside of the home. This year, our daughter now a sophomore, is at a Catholic High School in Florida and while she earns top grades in Religion and Latin, and attends monthly Mass (strange that it is only offered monthly), she has declared herself to be an agnostic on a good day, and an atheist when she is being defiant. She claims that everyone is hypocritical and that she would rather be at the public school. This is all very sad. However, your article gives me hope and I will share it with the Religion teachers at the high school.

    In the meantime, I have been reading just about every book I can get my hands on as to how to present Jesus Christ in a way that our post-Modern children will understand. I have discovered a magazine called Relevant whose tag line reads: “God. Life. Progressive Culture.” It is helpful, although I am cautious as it is not the Catholic message I had hoped to convey to my teen. It has proved to be eye opening and offers insights to the culture that baffles me.

    Please keep writing. I will always remember my Philosophy 101 class my freshman year of college. I believe our kids need Philosophy more than Religion classes. I believe they need peer prayer groups and Bible Study, as opposed to studying the New Testament for a grade. These are rough waters we are navigating, we need to match their creativity in order to present the faith in a way that they will know and love their Creator.

    God bless you and keep writing!
    Jacqueline Grant

  4. Jacqueline, I can appreciate the concern you have for your daughter. Some times children use religion as a means of rebelling against their parents because it is something that is being imposed on them, rather than being freely chosen. Stay firm in your beliefs and do not compromise for the sake of peace because the message you’ll be giving is that while we say faith is important we don’t walk the talk.

    At the same time, add to your prayers the intention that God place in your daughter’s life someone whom she will listen to. A prophet is not accepted in his own house, said Jesus when he was in Nazareth. Sometimes children do not listen to parents because it is their parents, but will listen and accept the same advice from someone else.

    I will keep your daughter in my prayers.
    In Christ,
    Dennis

  5. Jacqueline,

    Thanks for adding to the discussion of this important topic.

    I agree with you regarding the study of Scripture in Catholic high schools. While there is a need for an academic component in courses on the bible, there is also a need for classes that proclaim the content of the bible and provide the connection relevant to the student’s daily lives and encourage their reflection on these eternal truths.

    Deacon Mike

  6. Dennis and Deacon Mike,

    Thank you for following up on my post. Both of you while acknowledging my concerns as a parent also reminded me to “stay the course”; that “preparing the soil” and investing in the care of a child’s soul and intellect in the early years, will reap a fruitful harvest in adulthood. Raising kids in this culture is incredibly challenging; raising children to be followers of Christ in this culture requires putting on spiritual armor and staying strong in the faith.

    Dennis, you are right to suggest that it might just take “a Catholic Village” to raise a child who will be choose to be a practicing Catholic in adulthood. I will look to finding strong Christians to mentor and positively influence my daughter.

    Integrated Catholic Life with its contributions made by a diverse and gifted team of prolific writers has broadened my scope of understanding of our Catholic faith. I will continue to share your eMagazine with Catholic leaders in my community.

    Once again, thank you!

    Faithfully in Christ,
    Jacqueline

  7. Thank you for the great read! I am currently hoping to be hired by a Catholic school as their new Biology II teacher for their juniors and seniors. What makes me most eager for this position is my love of apologetics and my faith – I think I might be the happiest person in the world to find myself in a job where I can help students come to love their faith and approach it with sound reason and logic by helping them meld the religious with the scientific, bringing them back to the real concept of natural law and how they can divine so much of Church teaching merely by really looking at the world around them.

    I think I’ll be following your work because it speaks to I want to do. Ideas do indeed have consequences, and it saddens me so much that people can’t see those consequences for the world-views and truths they want to see. I’m in so many discussions right now with people trying to show them how birth control and a contraceptive mentality towards sex has truly damaged marriage and our general relationships with each other, how birth control feeds into abortion and divorce and its so frustrating when they can’t see the link.

    God bless you in your work, I might be coming to you one day for teaching advice!

  8. Sandtigress,

    If I can, I’d like to suggest a book to read which would be great for a science teacher. It’s written by the late Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. and is entitled:

    The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet.

    It is published by Ignatius Press.

    I use parts of it in class when we examine the Design Argument in Metaphysics and Darwinism in Anthropology.

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