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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Engaging the World

Yesterday was the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, my blog patron, so I had initially intended to write this post in his honor.

A few weeks ago I was doing an internet search for a project at work, and came across a book written by one of my college professors, Dr. Benjamin Wiker.  The book in question, 10 Books that Screwed Up the World: and 5 Others that Didn't Help, which takes on the work of Nietzsche, Marx, Hitler and others, invited me by the title alone to click on the link to My curiosity piqued by the numerous reviews, both good and bad, I decided to read a few to see what they contained and why this book seemed to be getting such extreme reactions (from many 5-stars to many 1-stars).

The positive reviews engaged the work itself and the research, contained some constructive criticism, some criticism that revealed the person in question had perhaps missed the point of the book but enjoyed it nevertheless, encouraged others to read it, etc. Some reviews were more detailed than others. Some were written by other professors, others by people just like you and I, mere pewsitters seeking to engage our intellects.

The negative reviews were often a mishmash of ad hominim attacks, strawmen, slinging labels around, casting aspersions upon Catholics specifically, Christians and Christianity in general. A few blustery people identifying themselves as professors ranted that Dr. Wiker's book is what is going wrong in academia today, and very few of the negative reviews were objective, taking on only the work and not getting personal. In other words, very very few of the negative reviews (of those I read) actually had any merit whatsoever.

As a disclaimer, I have not read Dr. Wiker's book so this post is not about its merits or disqualifications. Rather, I'm using this as an example of something I see in the Catholic world, to encompass the entire Christian worldview, as being a factor in why so many people seem to be making an exodus from Christianity, and I'm doing this because one negative review in particular stood out as something diametrically opposed to what we as Catholics have always done and need to do...but aren't doing.

Is your interest piqued yet?

One of the commenters on the negative side identified himself as a Christian (I think he called himself specifically an "Evangelical Christian" but I'm not certain) and said he read the book, thought it a waste of time and quite arrogant to take on such great minds. The gist of his opinion was that if one does not like those philosophers, one should not study them and leave them instead to others who agree with them. He did not see any value in taking a critical look at their thoughts and his review outright told people not to buy the book, but instead save their money and put it in the collection basket at Sunday services.


That one left me scratching my head. A Christian saying it is arrogance to be critical of the thoughts and writings of those who have had a huge impact on the world we live in today? A Christian stating it is a waste of intellect? Really?

Truly, that attitude was condemned long ago, for it was Tertulllian who decided that since philosophy was not divine revelation, it was useless. Instead of using philosophy at the service of theology, he threw it all out.

The Catholic Church has ALWAYS engaged the world, from the very beginning. She has used the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, has engaged philosophers both ancient and those emerging, throughout history, using what is good, refuting objectively what is contrary to natural law and Divine Revelation.

To state that we should not engage "great minds" is in fact one of the most anti-intellectual things I have ever read, and does not surprise me that a Christian would state it. I am grateful that it was not a Catholic who said such a thing, although it would not surprise me. As it is I know very few average Catholics who would even glance at such a book, much less ask why it is important or not important.

The commenter I cited above still gets some credit; he did, after all, read the book, and then simply gave his opinion based upon his own philosophy without wasting words. Fair enough. I'll not be taking his advice, however!

 Anti-Intellectualism in the Church

There seems to be an epidemic of this in some circles, although it takes different forms.

There are those who refuse to watch any television at all, for they disagree with the content, ergo it is all bad, every bit. There are those who refuse to go to movies because Hollywood produces so many immoral works, ergo, anything on the big screen is morally damaging.

There are books that contain bad theology, philosophy, or bring up moral issues in a way that is contrary to Catholic teaching...ergo they must be avoided at all cost and nothing like them ever allowed into the house.

Yes, I am giving some extreme examples, and I certainly am not trying to imply that those making certain personal decisions about these things is necessarily anti-intellectual. Rather, I am simply trying to give some common examples to illustrate my point - I leave it to you, the reader, to determine what fits.

I am going to give one specific example from my own position, and it's one that may shock some or many of you.

Over Thanksgiving, my brother introduced me to a Shotime production, Dexter.

For those who are not familiar with it, Dexter is a forensic technician; a blood-splatter specialist working in the Miami PD. He also happens to be a serial killer who takes out other serial killers and notorious criminals. In the show, we hear his thoughts, his interior struggles, the psychology of his condition, his attempts at normal relationships with others, etc.

I'll admit it; I was hooked!

Looking at the show through a theologian's eyes, I'm intrigued by the moral dilemma that makes us, the viewers, root for Dexter to get away with his objectively evil crimes. I'm intrigued by the other characters in the show facing their own moral problems, which seem to be exacerbated by a total lack of religion at all. It is almost a completely secular show, with only random insertions of Catholicism or other religions by way of symbols or celebrations that reveal the background of a character. Still, religion and spirituality do not play a part other than to set a particular scene - it is merely wallpaper having no bearing on the lives of the characters we see.

Now...I'll watch the show, and as an adult with a certain moral formation and professional background, looking at it through a particular filter, I see Dexter as an opportunity to engage the world and the culture, as I'm doing now by discussing it here in a place seemingly as unlikely as a Catholic blog. Yet, this is the PERFECT place for it is exactly what the great Catholic intellectuals would have done.

DISCLAIMER!  I would not, if I had children, allow them to see it, and I would never suggest that a sensitive person see it, someone who can't handle violence or is not prepared to handle the strong moral dichotomies presented. Therefore, dear readers, do understand I am not giving this show a blanket promotion, but rather, using it to illustrate the fact that we must engage the world if we are to convert it.

What do I mean? Why am I even TALKING about this?

I mean that we must be familiar with those things that are popular, and be prepared to discuss those things. Doing so is not necessarily apologetics, but simply an acknowledgement that there's a LOT of stuff out there that IS affecting people and their moral formation, both positive and negative. We cannot just stick our heads in the sand and pretend it isn't there, then send our children out to be traumatized. Parents are in a delicate place, trying to protect their young, yet needing to prepare them for what will bombard them when they leave their homes.

Those of us who can, should be taking note of what's going on around us, and using the intellect that we have to engage it, to think critically about it, to see what is good, what can be used as an illustration, what can be used an an example of moral degeneration.

All too often, shows such as Dexter reveal a great deal about our society as a whole, giving a snapshot, for example, of the truth that where religion is merely wallpaper, virtue cannot flourish.

It can't stop there, though; what does that tell us? How does recognizing that point drive us to action on behalf of the Kingdom of God? What does that cause us to realize about the moral condition of people everywhere, in a country where more and more faith is a mere decoration? What does that say about where we are headed, and what, as Catholics, can we do about it?

I'm no expert

However, if you want a great example of someone engaging the world on the world's terms, check out Fr. Barron's Word on Fire. He has several video commentaries addressing popular movies, shows, etc., and I admit that his way of doing this is what has inspired me to lose my own fear of confronting, head-on, things that I know up front are contrary to my own beliefs.

We can't run away from the problems in our society or what causes them, but we can confront them, criticize them, take what is good and in the light of the intellect God gave us, reveal the shadows that seek to destroy our souls.

Now, all that said...

I need to go find a copy of Dr. Wiker's book, 10 Books that Screwed Up the World: and 5 Others that Didn't Help because all the snarky, anti-intellectual, and outright nasty reviews tell me that a certain faction wants this book quashed, and the ethicist who wrote it quashed as well. Given the state of our world today, that means I should be reading this book so that I can better engage the bad philosophies that have done so much damage.  ;-)

St. Thomas Aquinas - pray for us! 


Stitchwort said...

"We can't run away from the problems in our society or what causes them, but we can confront them, criticize them, take what is good and in the light of the intellect God gave us, reveal the shadows that seek to destroy our souls."

This is spot on.

I picked up that book last fall, because I had leafed through it and decided I wanted it in my library, mainly because I want to get a better understanding of how our culture got into the mess it is, but also in the hope that my young adult children might read it and learn.

It is still sitting in the "books to be read" piles (yes, piles!) in my bedroom, but I hope to get to it soon.

Meanwhile, when my daughter and grandchildren (both under 3) come over, we shut our middle-aged cat in my bedroom. Cat has never been around young children and doesn't trust them, and they are too young to be cautious or to recognize her warning signs, so this keeps everyone safe and happy. Daughter went into my bedroom for something a few weeks ago, and when I let the cat out after their departure, I found that book open on my bed. (Insert smiley icon here.)

DS is in his 3rd year at university, studying Classics, including lots of Latin and Greek, and I know won't have time to read it if I give it to him. The trick with him is to casually leave it lying around in the bathroom for a few months . . .

I guess I'd better go read it myself!

And BTW, our DRE is using Fr. Robert Barron's series on the Eucharist for our Catechist Formation sessions this year. Good stuff!

Adoro said...

Stitchwort ~ Isn't Fr. Barron's stuff grand? I've seen his Eucharist series and wish I could afford for him to come in and catechise my people!

Adoro said...

oh, btw...I mean...personally! Not by mere DVD! lol