jerusalem and athens
what indeed has athens to do with jerusalem? what concord is there between the academy and the church?
—Tertullian, pres. haer. 7
professor Pietro Pompanazzi lived at about the same time as Galileo Galilei, and taught at the university of padua, in italy. he was a devout and pious catholic, who taught his philosophy students that logic and reason dictated totally opposite conclusions to those of the faith. he was not opposed to the church—far from it, he was a staunch supporter. he just believed one thing on one side of street, when in church, with utmost sincerity and confidence, and then taught the opposite over in the university.
was he a hypocrite? i do not know the answer to that question, but i do know that i am deeply disturbed by his double life. in opposition to the Pompanazzis of this world, there have always been those who proclaim that the Truth is one, that the truths of reason do not conflict with the christian faith, but indeed they confirm it.
in the university where i work, the massachusetts institute of technology, there are many world class scientists who are at the same time people of deep and abiding faith. but mit is an overwhelmingly secular institution, and this produces some interesting strains. atheistic faculty are often surprised to discover that their believing colleagues are men of faith, and they often see that faith as a contradiction of the science they do during the week. they suppose their colleagues to be modern Pompanazzis.
but in fact, i have discovered that this is not the case; that in fact, these men and women of faith take their lives of faith with great seriousness. they do not believe one thing on sunday in church and a different thing on tuesday in the lab or lecture hall. instead, they have found that the christian faith does not conflict with what has been learned through scientific observation and reason—often, they report that their faith is in fact confirmed and strengthened by their scientific work.
the mit chaplaincy has been graced on several occasions by visits from br. Matthew Holsti, SSJE. now a monk, br. Matthew received his ph.d. in biology at mit, and so he understands the struggles that the students at the chaplaincy experience, and the difficulties in integrating faith and work. but it was not the facts of biology that created these difficulties. like the christian mit scientists that i know, Matthew has described the way in which his understanding of biology helps illuminate his christian faith. rather, these difficulties revolve around problems with advisors, difficult teaching assignments, disappointingly low exam scores, job hunting, and intensively competetive postdoctoral work. br. Matthew's understanding of these complexities of academic life has been an asset in his conversations with the us at the chaplaincy.
i recently earned my b.a. from the university of massachusetts, in philosophy and classics. again, i did not find much difficulty with the junction of philosophical study and the christian faith. but i did have one difficult episode when a professor assigned us a test to be taken on good friday. i explained that i simply would not be able to take the test on that day, because I would be spending it in fasting and prayer.
it does sometimes happen that the problem to be avoided is the Pompanazzi syndrome. it happens not only in the academy; there are also christian businessmen who solemnly intone that christian values simply have no place in deciding how one chooses to make a profit. there are politicians who defend atrocious acts of realpolitik and casually dismiss the faith they profess at worship.
but the more common conflicts between the workaday world and our faith are the constant interactions we have in situations of great stress and great complexity, which demand a calm quiet and a gentle hand and a caring spirit. it is very nice indeed that there are christian faculty at mit who can explain with great eloquence the relation of their faith and their academic work. but it is even nicer that there are christian faculty at mit who treat their graduate students with compassion, who offer a kind hand and a helping spirit to struggling freshmen, and who place human values first in all their interactions.
this is the most important thing that people of faith have to bring to the daily world—in the academy or out of it. in an environment where harshness and cutthroat tactics and simple daily selfishness are rampant, there are bursts of light in caring and compassionate individuals. this is where the christian faith intersects the academy most strikingly—it is where it intersects all of our workplaces. we are called to represent Christ even there.