Faith and reason at Notre Dame, Sydney

Faith and reason at Notre Dame, Sydney

Fr Richard Umbers

Fr Richard Umbers, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Navarre in Spain, is a sessional tutor in Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and has taught there since the inception of the Sydney Campus in 2006. Fr Umbers is a full-time Chaplain to Redfield College in Dural, NSW, and provides spiritual direction at the Good Shepherd Seminary in Homebush. He has also been involved with Theology-On-Tap in Sydney. The following is the text of a recent address he gave at Notre Dame University (Sydney).

A boy from the school where I am chaplain told me that he overheard a conversation on the bus about which university to study at. The fellow in the seat in front was encouraging his friend to think about the University of Notre Dame. Why? Because it's a friendly campus where people stop to make time for each other but yet it's smack bang in the middle of the City.

What makes the University of Notre Dame (Sydney) so special in this way?

I will answer by reflecting on an experience with another lad who enjoyed life in a university college where people also made time for each other and had great fun as a result. Thinking about how wonderful life was in the college he had only one complaint to make - if only they got rid of religion, what a great place this would be. What I think he failed to appreciate was that it was precisely the Catholic faith of the staff and tutors that motivated them to the generosity and dedication that made the college possible.

Our Catholic faith is the reason for the existence of the Notre Dame Campus; it is what gives the place life and above all a purpose that transcends the drudgery of working away at just another job.

Our faith provides us with the stimulus and dynamism to dare to seek the truth. The certainty it gives us is a gift of grace. Were we to reduce faith to the realm of our own human reason we would cut ourselves off from the power of divine wisdom. To critique human reason with human reason would, in the words of St Edith Stein, be like trying to jump over our own shadow. We would end up with only human opinions, with the erudite pragmatism of that ancient Greek sceptic Carneades, but without the energy of conviction that comes from faith.

Over 800 years ago the Catholic Church promoted the establishment and development of universities. The Church is a champion of reason precisely because her founder and head is the Logos. The God who is Love is the God who is Wisdom, who is Reasonable, who reveals Himself to our minds as much as to our hearts. Faith seeks understanding. When you really believe you ask all manner of questions and as you get answers new horizons are opened up for even more investigation.

In one class, a few years ago, a medical student complained to me that the more he studied philosophical issues the more avenues of research kept opening up before him. He seemed a little shocked to learn that this was precisely what the course was hoping to help him realise. Reality can be known but we need to adopt an attitude of humility before the universe rather than one of simply trying to master it. Reality is always more; God is always more.

Jesus' warning

A temptation that Jesus warns us about is that of becoming like teenagers in our faith, of being too grown up to have to listen any more. Jesus counsels his disciples, "I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." God reveals a certain knowledge to those who are humble enough to believe, knowledge which those who consider themselves teenagers in the faith miss out on.

Children stay close to their mother, but when they become teenagers many no longer want to recognise that they have parents. They ask to be dropped off 100 metres away from the school gates. Mum and Dad become dinosaurs who are completely out of touch with reality. When we become like teenagers in the faith we no longer pay attention to the Revelation of the Father and regard our Mother the Church as horribly out of touch with today's reality.

Teenagers in the faith close themselves off from the possibilities of having anything to learn from the Apostles and their successors. They apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the Scriptures but accompany that criticism with a hermeneutic of credulity in their uncritical acceptance of whoever happens to be the Gnostic author of the moment.

Faith is not just a conviction, it is a form of knowledge too, and we should strive to know the Catholic Faith every bit as well as we know our own academic discipline. If you have a Masters or Doctorate it is most unlikely that you will feel content to simply get by with the religious education you received at school. Faith seeks understanding and you will be restless to know more. I think we would do well to petition the Deputy Vice-Chancellor to help make provision for all of us to sign up for courses in the School of Theology.

Faith seeks understanding and reason is a real ally in that search. Faith and reason are like two wings that if used together lead us to the truth. Reason purifies faith from superstition or sentimentality. A rigorous philosophical training can help prevent a Catholic from developing a "flakey" theology, be it fundamentalist or far out. Faith, however, is above human reason. It is a revelation from God and not a merely human contemplation in search of the divine.

Beyond relativism

This, then, is what makes the University of Notre Dame special. This is our competitive advantage, our product differentiation: our Catholic Faith. We share a Faith that seeks understanding, that dares us to go beyond the relativism of opinions and to search for the truth.

Let us ask Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and our mother in the order of grace, that she help us set out on the Way of Jesus Christ in order to hear and understand Him. That we learn to become like a little child once more. During the course of the day call into a church and pray a while to discover the Truth who is Jesus from our prayers, not just what we have heard other people say about Him. Read the Gospels and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to get to know the Master better. And so we will begin to live a life of conviction, the life that Jesus promised to his disciples.

Without even wanting to, teachers will inspire their students with the power that comes not from ourselves but from the love of Christ. And the University of Notre Dame will continue to be that place in the middle of the city where students and staff enjoy friendship and learning, making time for each other.

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