Dubious Disputes

Author: Jean Danielou, S.J.


Jean Danielou, S.J.

Today, under the title of protest men include the most diverse things. There is a perpetual dispute about injustice, oppression, falsehood, which arises from the affirmation of the dignity of man and the Christian. This type of protest is good. But there are other disputes which, on the contrary, are unhealthy and pernicious, because their source is not a love of truth and justice but rather partisan passions and a presumed superiority.

Among these controversial disputes, the first is that which perceives moral, cultural, and religious values simply as a reflection of particular conditions of technical and social development and which denies these values any permanent significance. This error brings us to the consideration of one of the most critical current problems, the politicalization of the university. It is claimed that today's university is no more than a reflection of the bourgeois society and since the bourgeois society is historically condemned, then the university should be condemned as a whole for what it represents and should be replaced by a university which is an expression of the socialistic society. The supporters of this thesis are very able in creating guilty consciences in those who do not agree with them and in weakening their will for resistance, giving those who resist the feeling that the reasons for their resistance are purely reactionary in the political and sociological sense of the word.

But it is a mistake to let oneself be affected by such a thesis. Certainly there is some truth in it on the strictly sociological level. In the past the university was attended mostly by persons from the bourgeois circles. Today the university is becoming more democratic and this is a good thing no one will deny. But it is another thing to maintain that since the university enters into a context which is that of a capitalistic economy and not a socialistic economy, it is consequently radically contestable. One must first prove that one of these economies is radically good and the other radically bad. It is exactly this that the Christian has always legitimately refused to do. He has always considered economic systems, according to their nature and not their abuses, as morally indifferent and as such to be judged according to their fruitfulness for a particular society.

But this is still not the essence of the question. This essence, in the last analysis, concerns the relation between human, moral, or religious values and the economic or political society. The argument of which we are speaking places the reality of things within the sociological infra-structure and considers these values as epiphenomena which have no value outside this context, but which are simply the projection of that context in the ideal sphere. This is radically disputable. A society cannot pass the last judgement upon values. Nothing is more frightening than a world in which those in power become the last judge. The guarantee of freedom rests on the certainty that those in power will be judged in the name of a higher authority.

Still more serious is the radical dispute which reduces intelligence to the critical function. There are many expressions of this at all levels—in art, in literature etc. Claudel, in criticising the verse of Baudelaire "... in the depths of the unknown to find the new", once said, "I don't need to go the depth of the unknown to find the new; I need to go to the depths of the knowable to find the inexhaustible". The word of the moment is "unusual ". The painters of the 16th century painted the same subject over and over again trying to penetrate it more fully. The writers of the l7th century rewrote Phaedra and Iphigenia and thus managed to penetrate more and more into the wonderful discovery of the depths of reality. In the current feeling of being annoyed with reality there is something which resembles those depraved stomachs which no longer care for healthy food! It is frightening to find this kind of nausea with regard to that which constitutes the wonderful and inexhaustible basis of reality.

And finally, there is a type of feeling of jealousy with regard to God. A feeling of being able to do better that, in reality, betrays an egocentricity, an impossibility of going beyond oneself, of opening oneself, and especially of admiring something.

And this is one of the greatest defects of today's mentality. In this matter professors, and especially literature professors, can have a tremendous influence on the formation of the minds, the sensitivity, and the judgment of young people. The method of approaching a literary work is of great importance. The purpose of education is to learn to judge—and not to impose dogmatisims—to judge according to opinions, not those imposed from outside but those as seen from within. And one of the most important works to be done today is to heal the mind, to re-awaken the youth, while they have not yet become depraved, to the values which they know and love.

The object of the mind is adherence to the truth. To be intelligent is above all to be able to say "yes", to grasp being. We should reread "L'Art Poetique" by Claude, where he talks about "connaitre" (to know) which is "co-naitre" "naitre avec" (to be born with). Intelligence is basically and radically contemplative, in the sense that it is cultivated from the real at all levels and has a naturaldisposition for nourishing itself on being. At a later stage the critical function comes in to correct that which was false in the process. The critical function signifies that to know is not simply knowledge, but conscious knowledge. And this function is of great importance in making spontaneous intuition move on to reflection. But the use of the critical function is only valid to the degree in which it is a method for knowing reality better and not for disputing it.

A third question which comes up along the same lines is the question of authority. Currently the teacher is "contested". We must reflect on this too. It is obvious that there can be abuses of authority. I am not speaking of the authority of government but of the teaching authority. We have all witnessed education courses about which we are pleased to see that our younger brothers and sisters have the courage to protest that we lacked. Sometimes there were professors who, once they had received a post, considered that they had arrived at the summit and they had very little interest in the wellbeing of their students. This is obviously intolerable. But today the protests concern something much more profound. They express a desire to learn everything by oneself—that which Henri Lefevre in his latest book calls "appropriation". The only thing that matters is to meditate on one’s own experience and anything that might imply dependence goes against this claim. In the Sciences and Law one naturally needs a minimum of knowledge, but I wonder what will be left to communicate in literary studies. Perhaps the professor will simply be the spectator of a psychodrama, and at the same time he will be the one who holds together and recognizes as valid that which we discover.

What is serious here is the contestation of confidence as a path to reality. But to have confidence in someone is a sign of the quality of a mind. Confidence signifies that knowledge is placed within a dialogue—a communion, a living transmission. The desire to wipe clear the slate and begin only from one's own experience and the disputing of all competence signify the inability to open oneself to dialogue. At the level of faith this is a radical difficulty, since faith is, by definition, something that is not obtained by oneself. Faith consists in acknowledging that there is a field in which we are not competent, that surpasses anything we can acquire through our own means and in trying to know if there is some authority in this field to which we can grant our faith. "No one has ever seen God, but his only Son who is in the heart of the Father made him known to us." To believe is to "have faith" in someone, in whom one knows that one has the right to believe. One who thinks that we can only recognize as valid that which we discover by ourselves is radically inaccessible to the path of faith. Or else, lie will confuse faith with religious experience, which is indeed a serious confusion.

All this is also valid at the level of human relations. Are there testimonies to whom we acknowledge thatwe have not only the right but the duty to grant faith? The entire field of social relations presupposes that trust is a means of legitimate access to being, and here it is the only means of access to being in theessential fields.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 January 2002, page 8

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