Teaching One’s Convictions

Finding consensus on anything beyond the obvious is a difficult task in today’s world. In fact, even on matters that one might take to be obvious it can be a challenge. Nowhere is this difficulty more present than among professors, particularly in the liberal arts. Jacques Maritain once quipped that agreement is so rare among philosophers and theologians that it is only by a rare miracle that one even agrees with oneself on these matters.

Curiously, one area where professors do seem to agree quite widely is in the conviction that they should not reveal their own personal views to their students on the subjects that they teach. Over the years I’ve heard many colleagues take pride in the fact that their students could not figure out what views they held on the topics they presented in class. In fact, this seems to be a pedagogical approach that is largely taken for granted in the humanities and social sciences.


There are certainly some excellent pragmatic reasons in favour of such a method. Most importantly a professor who shares his personal convictions on the topics being taught risks undermining students’ efforts to think through the subject for themselves. Once the professor has pronounced judgment on a position or interpretation, students may understandably be reluctant to take up a competing point of view. This would, indeed, undermine one of the most important goals of a liberal arts education. Moreover, it may raise questions of fairness in the mind of students. Those who disagree with the professor’s preferred approach and do poorly may well wonder if bias played a role in determining their grade.

While I certainly respect my many colleagues in academe who take this approach to teaching, it is one that I have always been uncomfortable with. Instead, I tend to think that students have a right to their professors’ personal synthesis of the material they teach. While I don’t want to underestimate the risks of teaching in view of one’s own philosophical and theological judgment, I think the risks of not doing this are likely much greater.

In subjects such as philosophy, theology, history, sociology and so forth students are expected not only to master a certain amount of content, they are also expected to analyze and assess it. This means that their professors expect them to judge the cogency of the arguments and evidence put forward for the various views under consideration. How then does the professor who withholds his or her personal assessment from students teach this?

Clearly, simply teaching “content” without any assessment is not viable. A philosophy professor just can’t teach Plato and Aristotle, and then move on to the Sceptics and Stoics, reciting what they said without ever making assessments of their arguments, if for no other reason than what they say is often criticism of competing viewpoints alive in the intellectual culture. Nor is this a peculiarity of philosophers, who admittedly provide us with an unusually argumentative body of work. Historians, sociologist, literary critics and others all take issue with the work of their peers and present competing explanations that students have to grapple with.

It is also curious that most professors who take the position that they should withhold their personal views from their students, nevertheless, do not take this to mean that they shouldn’t point out the more significant and obvious weaknesses in the arguments they teach. I don’t imagine that even the most impersonal professor thinks that while teaching St. Anselm’s controversial argument for the existence of God that he is obliged to make no mention of the widely accepted criticisms of it. Of course, such professors might protest that these criticisms are not their own, but those of Gaunilo, Aquinas, Kant, etc. Indeed, but why stop there with these objections and not look at attempts to refute these objections made by various scholars as well? Perhaps there is no time given the rigours of the undergraduate curriculum, but it is more likely that the real issue is that extending the debate indefinitely in this way would not yield fruit, because the argument is generally thought to be unpersuasive.

The professor who hides her or his personal judgment on the topics under discussion as a matter of principle has a limited number of options. First, to present arguments without any assessment at all, which, as I have said, would be to abdicate an essential part of the task of any discipline or, second, to present arguments along with objections, but without giving a judgment about the success or failure of either, which inadvertently gives priority to the objections and makes the discipline appear to be nothing other than a studied of failed theories.

The only remaining alternative would appear to be to present arguments and provide objections only when they appear cogent, following out the argument to what the faculty member sees as the logical conclusion. But then the teacher is just refraining from sharing the personal judgment, which has nonetheless already been argued for, that the view in question is right or wrong. However, in this case withholding one’s personal opinions is rather artificial, for the professor’s personal judgments are fully operative here; they just aren’t explicitly spoken.

a medieval class

This points to the most significant concern I have with the notion of holding back one’s own personal judgment in teaching. Such a pedagogy poses a significant risk of making the entire process appear to the student like an intellectual game. One theory after another is articulated and defended, but only to be knocked down by a set of objections. No theory is ever found to be cogent, for no positive assessment that flows from the professor’s own personal judgment is allowed to enter into the discourse. This seems to me to be not only a recipe for scepticism or relativism, but to undermine the very intellectual life about which faculty in the humanities and social sciences are rightly so passionate.

A professor of mathematics or physics could hardly expect to keep her or his job while professing not to know the truth of the subject he or she is commissioned to teach. Yet, a professor of humanities or the social sciences is thought to be a fanatical extremist if he or she claims knowledge of the subject. As the great historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson once noted “The only dogmatic tenet still held s valid in such philosophical circles is that, if a philosopher feels reasonably sure of being right, then it is a sure thing that he is wrong.”

This prejudice is by no means restricted to philosophy alone, but can be found throughout the social sciences and humanities. While in such disciplines it is certainly the case that the truth is only arrived at progressively and in varying degrees, unlike the truths of arithmetic that can be discovered definitively, certainly progress can be made in them as well. But this progress can’t occur without risk and personal commitment. The professor who holds back from sharing his or her personal judgment about the subject takes a matter that calls for personal engagement and turns it into a merely logical or descriptive exercise. These are important parts of the academic process to be sure, but they can hardly claim to exhaust it.

A preferable alternative to pedagogical neutrality, I would suggest, is to simply accept that a bias free classroom is a utopian impossibility. Since there will inevitably be different points of view when teaching the liberal arts, it is far better if the perspectives of all, including (indeed especially) the instructor, be explicitly stated. This should, of course, be accompanied with a sincere indication that the point of a liberal education is surely not just to agree with the judgments of the professor, but to master the modes of reasoning of the disciplines studied in order to make one’s own judgments and to engage intelligently with the range of views on offer in the discipline. This, I would suggest, is an approach which is more intellectually honest and likely to better serve the aim of a liberal arts education than feigned neutrality.


Does Hell Exist?

In contemporary theology few topics give rise to as impassioned yet ill-informed discussion as the topic of hell. The traditional position, with roots in St. Augustine, holds that not only is hell real, but it is likely the destiny of most of us. (Enchiridion, Ch. 24.  City of God, Bk. 21) The path to heaven is the “narrow gate”, while broad and easy is the path to destruction. Aquinas, following in this tradition, went so far as to suggest that the punishments of the damned would be a source of rejoicing for the saints, who would see in it the manifestation of God’s perfect justice. (ST, Suppl. q. 97, a. 1 c.)  It is not surprising that this somewhat dark vision of the general lot of humanity is out of fashion in these kinder, gentler times.

Hell bosch

In the twentieth-century we find great theologians in the Protestant tradition, such as Karl Barth, questioning the very existence of Hell. While his position on the question is complex (some argue he leaves undecided the question of whether all actually are saved), Barth seems to argue that the power of the Cross puts a definitive end to the debt owed due to sin. He writes, “All pain, all temptation, as well as our dying, is just the shadow of the judgment which God has already executed in our favour. That which in truth was bound to affect us and ought to have affected us, has actually been turned aside from us already in Christ’s death.”

The Anglican philosopher of religion and renowned Ockham scholar Marilyn McCord Adams provided one of the most compelling arguments against the possibility of hell, by claiming that it would not only be contrary to divine mercy, but also contrary to divine justice. Any human sin is merely a finite violation of the divine law, as no human being is capable of performing an act that is infinite in nature. Yet, the doctrine of hell holds that some sins are punished for eternity. This would mean that God imposes an infinite punishment for a finite transgression, a view that presents God as manifestly unjust.

While Adams’ argument sounds very persuasive, I think it is in the end unconvincing. In discussing the gravity of sin, St. Thomas Aquinas notes that a sin against another becomes more serious in proportion to the greater dignity of the one we offend. For example, to strike a peer is a serious matter, but to strike someone in authority such as the Prime Minister or a Bishop is even worse. This is relevant to the present problem, since all grave sin is an offence against God, in addition to any others who may be affected. Since God’s dignity is infinite, this entails that all serious (i.e. mortal) sin is of infinite gravity, and thus deserving of infinite punishment. This seems to show that Adams’ argument is insufficient to prove that a universalist theory of salvation is the only position compatible with Divine justice.

In a much discussed work, “Dare we Hope that All Men be Saved” the renowned Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar rejects the possibility of affirming definitively a universalist position. His argument is, rather, that an analysis of scripture makes it reasonable for us to hope that all will be saved. He insists we cannot know if this will be so or not, as Hell is a real possibility. However, it is reasonable to hope that God’s mercy will lead all to be saved. While I don’t think we can rule out this position as impossible, I find it improbable. It seems to me more logical to suggest that it is reasonable to hope that any particular individual can be saved. When we are speaking of the totality of humanity throughout human history, I find it harder to say that it is reasonable for all to be saved. Why would Hell have such a prominent place in scripture, particularly in the teachings of Jesus, if it were merely an abstract possibility? Scripture exists to teach us what is necessary for salvation, not theoretical possibilities that in all likelihood will never be realized.  Further, while it is certainly correct that the Church has never taught that we can know that a particular human person however evil has been condemned, the Church does teach that a plurality of spiritual beings, angels, did definitively turn away from God and have been condemned. Thus, some beings are in hell, it is just a question of whether any human beings will end up there are not.  But presumably divine justice must be just as fair to angelic beings as it is to humans. So a doctrine of universal salvation with regard to humans doesn’t solve the problem after all.

el greco hell

However, speculating on the population of Hell is not a very profitable enterprise. Of more interest is the nature of Hell. On this score, I think it is safe to say Christianity has moved far past the view of hell as a place God throws sinners to undergo torture and fire. In the Confessions St. Augustine makes an astute observation when he suggests that the greatest punishment of a disordered mind is its own disorder. This fits well with St. John Paul II’s famous, if somewhat oblique, teaching that Hell is “more than a place”. Far from being a fiery pit, Hell is more profoundly the state of separation from God. This state is the necessary and inextricable consequence of serious sin. It involves precisely that unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, the refusal to accept God’s merciful and forgiving grace. This is a critical point, as it shows that regardless of what the population count happens to be, the condition of being in hell is none other than the condition of the person who freely and knowingly has separated him or herself from God and his loving mercy. The punishment is none other than the very condition that one has embraced.

In keeping with this the damned do are not punished as much by external agents sent from God as by the free acts of their own will.  Their greatest punishment is to get what they want.  Neither does this frustrate the divine plan.  While God does not will evil or that anyone should be lost, this is permitted through his respect for human freedom.  Yet, in his providential will for the world even the lost have a role to play.  One of the greatest recent poets in the English language, Geoffrey Hill expresses this evocatively in the second stanza of his poem “Ovid in the Third Reich”:

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned.  They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love.  I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

This, it seems to me, seems to fit well with Aquinas’ position that God permits evil, in part, because the world is better if every degree and kind of goodness is allowed to exist and flourish, rather than merely the perfect good alone. I think that this provides a way to respect the place of the teaching on hell in Scripture and the Church’s magisterium, while showing in a profound way how even God’s justice is a reflection of His merciful love.

The Challenges of Ecumenism

When we think of Church teachings that are uncomfortable to discuss and difficult to live up to these days our minds tend to go to controversial issues like that of contraception, homosexuality, gender and so forth. Yet, in many ways the Church’s views on ecumenism are for many even more uncomfortable. On this topic, however, it is all to easy to say yes, yes with one’s lips, while denying and undermining this teaching in practice.


Ecumenism is the attempt to strengthen unity between the diverse Christian Churches through dialogue about doctrine, prayer in common, cooperation in good works and other means that deepen mutual understanding and growth. In the case of the Catholic Church these endeavours are also motivated by a desire that our Churches may unite in full communion, however remote that hope may seem to our eyes here and now.

A key to the possibility of any ecumenism lies in a few basic realizations. The first is that we are all genuinely Christians, baptized into the body of Christ. This entails that there is always more that unites us than what divides us. The important essentials of the faith: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the role that baptism plays in drawing us into the participation of the divine life are all unifying features of Christian life. In this respect we should be grateful for the profound unity that already does exist among the majority of Christian communities. (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3)

A second important requirement for ecumenism is the conviction that we can learn from one another. That in some respects our Christian sisters and brothers in other communions have achieved solutions to our shared problems that transcend our own, that paths of holiness have been nurtured there, in some instances, more effectively than in our own home. We have much to offer, but we also have many things to learn. It is undoubtedly this claim that can be so challenging for us as Catholics.

Here our language, which is true as far is it goes can also hold us back. We are accustomed to saying that the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church, while other Christian churches possess aspects of the truth. Likewise the Catechism states:

“Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church.” (CCC, 819)

These statements could be misread to mean that whatever truth has been discovered already exists within the Catholic Church as the earthly institution we witness here and now, or that whatever holiness is found in other Christian Churches is already present within the Catholic Church as a human institution and brought about by it in all the others. Such a reading would, however, make ecumenism irrelevant and unnecessary, a fact that likely accounts for a good deal of the discomfort some of the Catholic faithful feel with it. On such a view the Catholic Church has nothing to receive or learn from its sister Churches, and what we call ecumenism could be nothing other than a kinder and gentler proselytism.

The key to resolving this problem is to be found in two further facts. First, the Catechism’s recognition that the truth and grace of all Churches, Catholic or otherwise, flows from Christ. Whatever truth or goodness any of us possesses has been received through the life, death, and resurrection of our Saviour. Second, the Catholic Church that possesses the truth of revelation and the means of sanctification and salvation is the Church in her subsistent and supernatural personality which transcends that of her members. (See Ut Unum Sint, 3, Maritain, Church of Christ, Ch. 3)


Just as we can profess in the Creed that the Church is holy and one without denying the sins and division that exist among her members here on earth, so too we can assert the Church has the fullness of truth in its supernatural reality, while recognizing each of us as her members is lacking in many areas that our fellow Christians may understand better. Likewise we can recognize that the Church herself is holy, yet each of us as her members falls short of being “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”, and can find examples of holiness in our fellow Christians that outstrips our own, even while insisting that this holiness has its origins in Christ and is transmitted in mysterious and wonderful ways through the Catholic Church understood in her supernatural fullness.

These are, I take it, a few of the principles necessary to understand if ecumenism is to function well. They are considerations that I’ve had occasion to reflect upon often as I have co-chaired a local ecumenical dialogue between the Archdiocese of Edmonton and Edmonton members of the Lutheran Church of Canada, as well as through the process of developing a Certificate in Anglican Studies at Newman in collaboration with the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. Such encounters simply are not possible or fruitful if begun from the assumption that we have the fullness of truth and the means of salvation and that whatever small share our partners might have in these really comes from us.

Such misconceptions can be fostered by our tendency to point to the ecclesial institution. We are never, after all, claiming that it is ourselves personally who have the fullness of the truth and the means of salvation. But, then the Church as it is present in this world consists precisely of the individual members who make it up and the grace that animates them, and none of us however saintly are so filled with truth and holiness that we are the source of it in all others. It is only the Church as the body of Christ in her supernatural personality that can make this claim, and all of us are merely a part of this glorious reality.


This can also be confirmed if we look at instances of ecumenism closer to home. It is all too easy to think that ecumenism is a matter for professional theologians and leaders in the Vatican or Archdiocese. But, a moment’s thought makes it clear that ecumenism is a daily task we are all engaged in a variety of ways. Who among us doesn’t have a family member with a spouse from another denomination? Which of us doesn’t have friends and neighbours who belong to other Churches? When we relate to these people we know as fellow Christians we are engaging in ecumenical acts in which any personal claim to have the fullness of the truth and holiness would be unimaginable for us. We have no trouble learning from a Baptist mother-in-law or an Evangelical colleague at work who we know to be more learned and earnest than ourselves. In a similar way our ecclesial community as an earthly body learns from and can grow through the example of other Christian Churches. They have lessons to teach us and gifts to provide that genuinely come from Christ (CCC, 819), and which we could not learn from our fellow Catholics.

This of course has nothing to do with watering down the faith or seeking to find a lowest common denominator to which everyone can agree. That would be a cop-out and defeat the very purpose of authentic ecumenism, for it would undermine the possibility of the genuine learning and unity that can come from dialogue with our fellow Christians. Genuine ecumenical engagement should lead us to become more fully immersed in our own faith, not less; for only if each is fully committed to their faith, and genuinely interested in learning and living the truth come what may, can true dialogue occur. Only then can we hope to realize Jesus’ wish that “they may all be one”.


Faith Seeks, Understanding Finds


Welcome to my first blog.  My hope is to provide a regular (at least monthly) reflection on matters of interest to the community of Newman Theological College.  My hope is that this space may provide opportunities for less formal theological or philosophical reflection, as well as a chance to let people know about things that have been going on at the College, or the special accomplishments or contributions of members of our community.

Given this range of purposes, it seemed fitting to use the motto of Newman Theological College as the title for this blog: Faith Seeking Understanding.  As is widely known this phrase was famously used by St. Anselm to encapsulate his account of what theology is all about.  What is less known, is that this approach has profound roots in St. Augustine.  Indeed, St. Anselm goes so far as to claim that everything he wrote can be found in St. Augustine, particularly in his work on the Trinity.

In one of my favorite passages in the entire theological tradition, St. Augustine puts it this way:

“Why then look for something when you have comprehended the incomprehensibility of what you are looking for, if not because you should not give up the search as long as you are making progress in your inquiry into things incomprehensible, and because you become better and better by looking for so great a good which is sought in order to be found all the more delightfully, and it is found in order to be sought all the more avidly?

Faith seeks, understanding finds; which is why the prophet says, ‘Unless you believe you shall not understand’.  And again, understanding still goes on seeking the one it has found.”

This is one of the most profound reflections on the proper disposition of the Christian theologian.  And since every Christian, insofar as she or he is called to understand the faith they profess, is a theologian, this is relevant to us all.

What is clear here is that theology cannot be reduced to a list of absolute truths about God.  This isn’t to doubt that there are such truths, but rather that any such list will be incomplete.  The articles of the faith, professed in the Creed and through the Church’s magisterium are the points of departure for theological thought, not its conclusion.  However, much we have understood, the very nature of the one we wish to encounter is inexhaustible; thus, we must go on seeking the one we have found.

This can be a cause for frustration.  Some want to achieve truth about God in the way we do in math or science.  We discover it, know it for certain and then move on to something else.  But, God is not that sort of thing.  In philosophy and theology the truth is disclosed progressively, in an ever deepening way.  It is much more like understanding the beauty and meaning of a complex poem than like finding the answer to a particularly difficult math problem.

We would probably never dream of coming to a definitive and final understanding of T.S. Eliot’s poem the Wasteland, such that any further reading of it would be a pointless task.  Yet, we expect to find definitive solutions to theological problems that will compel all rational people, and are surprised when we fail.  If this is the kind of answer we are looking for in our theology, we are very likely looking for the wrong thing.

To say this is not to throw upon the doors to the cancer of relativism, any more than denying a definitive reading of the Wasteland would require one to say the understanding of a casual reader is on par with that of the scholarly expert:  that would be nonsense.

The progress we make in understanding our God is definitive and real.  It is simply progressive and admits of ever further development.  Accordingly, the best advice for the Christian is to take on the role of a seeker throughout this life.  To embrace the stance of faith is to not to embrace a position that puts an end to inquiry, but is to inhabit the perspective which allows us to look for truth and encounter it precisely where it is to be found most deeply.