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How are faith and reason doing in the 21st century? Terribly. Worse than you think. But there’s real hope.
That is what theologian Larry Chapp (pictured above), Bishop William Joensen, author Theresa Farnan and a faculty panel said at the Sept. 16 conference “Faith & Reason in a Post-Truth Era: Celebrating 25 Years of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio” at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Conference organizer Paul Burghart said the effort was part of the college’s Transforming Culture in America plan because “St. John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio cuts right to the heart of our culture’s dysfunction.”
The master of ceremonies for the event was Benedictine College’s Jared Zimmerer, who in addition to teaching in the college’s Great Books program, is expanding the college’s efforts to Transform Culture in America. He hopes the conference is the first of many “both in-person and online opportunities to think through the crucial questions of our time.”
Columnist, blogger and podcaster Larry Chapp, a theologian, spelled out the difficult straits the world is in after severing the relationship between faith and reason.
“Our disbelief is different from the atheism and agnosticism one often found in the premodern context. Previous generations saw fire-breathing atheists like Nietzsche who still took the faith seriously enough to engage it and to ravage it, and whose gave a backhanded importance to the question of God,” he said. “Our era by contrast merely yawns at the faith and treats it like a quaint antiquarian curiosity.”
The hope he had was that the current state of affairs is not sustainable.
“As Madeleine Delbrêl puts it, writing retrospectively of her time as an atheist: ‘And because you were not here, the whole world seemed to me small and silly and the fate of all men stupid and cruel,’” he said, citing the French author addressing Jesus.
Des Moines Bishop William Joensen, who left the study of medicine for the seminary and taught philosophy as a priest, warned about being satisfied with continually critiquing modernity and challenged participants to counter it.
“I hope to prompt you ever more to engage and evangelize your local and greater cultures, including the cultures that compose the Church,” he insisted. Citing Chicago Cardinal Francis George he warned, “An evangelizer of culture brings up evils only to show the power of God’s word to heal and to uplift, to unify and to bind with love. A program for evangelizing American culture therefore begins and continues and ends with love for the people and their culture.”
Ethics and Public Policy’s Theresa Farnan began that process, telling conference participants:
“To really focus in on how we got here I think it’s important to return to Fides et Ratio and its diagnosis of how our culture went wrong. This broken relationship with reason is manifesting itself in so many ways,” she said. “But before you get to how things went wrong, maybe we should take a moment and understand what it looks like when you get your understanding of who the human person is correct.”
A faculty panel described how this is being done, from the Vatican to the classroom.
Benedictine College theologian Matthew Ramage led a panel that discussed what a healthy connection between faith and reason looks like. Ramage is the director of the college’s Center for Integral Ecology and author of books applying Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts on the hard questions at the intersection of faith and science.
Benedictine College astronomer Christopher Shingledecker who was a member of one of the first teams of astronomers to work on NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, shared words of St. John Paul II that sum up Fides et Ratio — even though they are from a letter 10 years earlier, to the leader of the Vatican Observatory.
“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish,” said the Pope.
Benedictine College theologian Mariele Courtois described how that approach guides her work as part of the Vatican Center for Digital Culture studying the impact of Artificial Intelligence.
“We engage with scientists and theologians who are looking at some of the problems we can anticipate and what are the resources we can use,” she said.
Benedictine College philosopher James Madden who has spoken recently about neuroscience and the soul at Harvard, Vanderbilt and Princeton, spoke of the need to provoke students to address the 21st century tensions between faith and reason.
Conference organizer Burghart said “The speakers demonstrated how our Centers can target specific areas of the culture to bridge harmful divisions, and the faculty panel showcased the great work that professors are doing in the classroom every day to bring students to a deeper understanding of truth.”
Zimmerer agreed. “I’ve been to a lot of conferences, both popular and academic. I was so impressed with the depth of the presentations, but also the very practical ideas moving forward,” he said. “Transforming the Culture will not be easy, but these are the kinds of resources we need to move the needle.”
In particular, he said, “Larry Chapp’s call to ‘re-wild’ Christianity should be echoed in every Catholic institution.”
“Let Christianity be weird,” Chapp said, describing an image from the Book of Revelation (5:6) to express the hope that remains: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.”
“Did you ever notice that the Lamb who was slain is standing?” he asked. “Here we see the precise nature of the Christian revolution, in the conjoining together of images of butchery and glory, of death and its transformation into life. This is our revolution. Indeed it is our only revolution, it is the revolution of a world turned upside down by the crucified God. And it is the Christ of the wooden Roman gibbet that is the world’s only hope.”