In his speeches and writings on universities, Benedict XVI constantly focused on the need for reason to be open to God as a subject of knowledge, the editor of a new volume of his addresses says.
“The problem we face in the university is the emptying out or reduction of reason; so what has to be recovered is reason as reason,” said Dr. J. Steven Brown, a professor of mechanical engineering at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
“A reason,” he noted, “that does not exclude at the outset God as being unscientific.”
In an April 22 interview with CNA, Brown discussed his experience in editing the new book, “A Reason Open to God,” a collection of Benedict's thought on universities, education, and culture.
The book is published by Catholic University of America Press, and will be available May 17. After a foreword by Catholic University of America president John Garvey, it opens with Benedict XVI's 2008 letter to the Diocese of Rome identifying contemporary society's “educational emergency.”
The rest of the book collects quite nearly all of the emeritus pontiff's addresses on education and culture while he was Bishop of Rome. They are arranged thematically into seven sections: on faith and reason; freedom and truth; education and love; pedagogy and learning; faith and community; culture and universities; and science and theology.
Brown explained that the book began when Garvey, shortly after becoming president at Catholic University of America, asked Brown and five other faculty members to participate in a symposium answering the question “What does faith have to do with the intellectual life?”
“My obvious starting point,” Brown said, “was to see what has Benedict XVI said about this question. I found everything he'd said in a university context, I pulled it all together, I wrote my 10 minute intervention and I delivered that in January 2011.”
He chose to give this chronological collection of Benedict's addresses on education to Garvey as an inaugural gift, as he had only recently come to the university. He also shared it with another faculty member, who pushed him to have it published.
“I showed it to the director of CUA Press hoping he'd put me off it, but he said 'We'd love to publish this'...So then I began to put the book together in a form that would be helpful to a wider audience, grouping the addresses around themes.”
“The Pope never set out to write a book here; he simply gave discrete addresses in different contexts,” Brown said. He was humble about his thematic presentation of the addresses, noting that since Benedict's thought in any given talk addressed a variety of topics, “any editor could group them in a different way.”
“I also included a few addresses I think are key, crucial to understanding the thought of Pope Benedict,” even though they were not delivered in a university setting, Brown added.
Brown has taught engineering at Catholic University of America for 16 years, and so the question of the nature of a Catholic university is one he said he has “lived existentially, dramatically, during the course of my years here at the university.”
His own engagement of the relationship between faith and reason at universities is informed by his membership in the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation, which was founded by Italy's Monsignor Luigi Giussani in the 1950s.
As a teenager in seminary, Giussani had asked “if Christ has to do with everything, then what does he have to do with mathematics?”
“This is a crucial question for me as an engineer,” Brown said. “It's crucial for anyone engaged in university education.”
For the answer, Brown goes to what Benedict said during his Sept. 2008 address to cultural representatives in Paris on the necessity of seeking God for culture. Reducing reason to positivism – the belief that only the tangible is true – results in the exclusion of vital areas of knowledge such as theology, the former pontiff said.
“A purely positivistic culture that tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm as being unscientific would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences,” Benedict warned.
“What gave Europe's culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”
Even the banal things of life, Brown said, “become the basis for a dialogue with Christ” when one accepts the giftedness of nature and existence. Were engineering and Christ put on different sides of the subject, independent of one another, the human person's life “would be split.”
Subjects such as engineering aren't reducible to the positivistic, empirical data of the science, because “engineering is always a human endeavor. And if that's true, then it has to be linked to God,” Brown said.
“Whatever I have in front of me is pure gift...it is for me to enter into relationship with and thus to discover its destiny and its truth, which is ultimately a Person,” he had said in his initial response to Garvey's question of faith and the intellectual life.
Brown works with his stud ents to appreciate Benedict's teaching that reason cannot be narrowed so as to exclude invisible, spiritual beings within its realm, the realm of knowledge. He shows them that humans persistently use faith as a method of knowing, and that we can reach justified, certain belief with this method.
Since Garvey became president at Catholic University of America, he has done a “fantastic job” of engaging questions of faith and reason, Catholic identity, and the breadth of reason, Brown said.
“Not that all the question have been answered; it's an ongoing thing, but I've seen steady progress since I've been here.” Brown mentioned discussions at the institution of how Catholic identity should inform the hiring of faculty and doing research, and that Garvey has engaged these questions “acutely.”
Small changes in the culture at Catholic University of America have helped it to “reverberate within the ecclesial life of faith,” as Benedict XVI said in his April 2008 address to Catholic educators given at the university.