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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Discernment, religion, philosophy

I've been posting here the episodes of Harvard philosophy professor Michal Sandel's classes on Justice, so I was interested to see that there was an article at America magazine about the classes - What is Justice? Some Catholic Questions for Michael Sandel.

As I read the America article, I was reminded of the difference between philosophy and religion, at least as they are taught in college. Religion is not philosophy (see what Keith Ward says about medieval philosophy), though of course guys like Thomas Aquinas are considered philosophers and guys like Kant are religious. Both religion and philosophy dwell on some of the same subjects .... what's good or just, what's the nature of reality, what's life's purpose ..... but the way the answers to those questions are arrived at can be very different in religion and philosophy.

While his review was generally positive, the writer of the America article brought up the point that the students in Sandel's classes on Justice often seemed confused by the thought experiments he proposed, and wrote that seminary students in a similar class would not be confused because their thinking on the subjects treated would have already been shaped by Catholic teaching ....

With the seminary students (lay, religious and candidates for priesthood) whom I have the privilege to teach, it is not necessary to start from square one when treating justice. While I have the luxury of appealing to a common set of commitments in my classes (that is, to a gospel-based vision of social justice), conversations about justice in Sandel’s classes are destined to remain rather thin and vaguely unsatisfying. His students’ responses to the moral dilemmas he poses bear this out ..... Many of Sandel’s students get seriously tripped up by an inability to process the idea that the needs of others make a moral claim upon the privileged ..... People shaped by Catholic theology would be able to articulate objections to these and similar thought experiments ....

I think this idea, more than anything, is a good example of the difference between the teaching of philosophy and religion. Yes, Sandel's students are confused when confronted with thought experiments - that's because they are "thinking". The purpose of philosophy classes is to teach students to think critically, to consider all the possible theories and beliefs, to discern (I think in many ways the study of philosophy teaches one of the things that Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises teaches - how to discern decisions). Religion teaches the tenets of a faith community, it promotes belief, and weird as it sounds, sometimes i think religious institutions disrespect the idea of discernment, the idea that people are moral agents who, with the help of conscience, should make decisions, and that if trusted to think for themselves, can often make the right decisions without having been previously "shaped".


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