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Educating for Love of Truth


Hello, I’m Dr. Anadale and I teach philosophy
at Mount Saint Mary’s University and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Our text today is “An Error Worse Than Error,”
an essay by R.R. Reno in First Things magazine in 2010. In this essay Reno reflects upon his experience
as a teacher and concludes that an emphasis upon critical reason can have some negative
effects in the intellectual lives of students. There seems to be a tension between critical
reason as a tool for identifying and discarding false beliefs, that is, a tool for sifting
and purifying our set of beliefs, and a positive love of truth, the kind which Aristotle spoke
of when he said that all men by nature desire to know. So Reno writes, “Our hearts are restless
not with fear of error but with a desire to rest in God, who is the fullness of all truth. The fulfilling activity of the intellectual
life is to affirm truth rather than to recoil from falsehood.” And so we see that a purely negative intellectual
method is only going to get us part way towards a healthy intellectual life. What we still need to do is to cultivate and
feed and reward this positive love of truth. Too much emphasis upon critical reason in
the classroom, Reno suggests, can lead to an overly cautious intellectual life. As Reno writes, “Students are trained, as
I was trained, to believe as little as possible so that the mind can be spared the ignominy of error. The consequence is an impoverished intellectual life. The contemporary mind very often lives on
a starvation diet of small inconsequential truths because those are the only points on
which we can be sure we’re avoiding error.” In the essay Reno also cites Newman and Pascal
as sources of a very important insight, namely, that the more important a question is, the
less likely we are to have certainty in our answer to it. And this is especially true of these core
existential questions in philosophy, questions of self-identity, of God, of religious vocation
and belief and practice, questions of the meaning of life. There are no clear answers to these and yet
there still is a necessity for us to make a wager, to use Pascal’s term, to have beliefs
in the absence of certainty. And so I think Reno’s essay helpfully points
up the need for us to take risks in our intellectual lives, to believe in cases where we don’t
have certainty, especially on the most important topics. It’s possible to dither away one’s life without
coming to a decision, if one requires certainty for a decision about a relationship or a vocation,
for example. So Reno says the life of the mind should be
a life of romance and adventure. It should be something that students are willing
to throw themselves into, that they’re invited to go on an adventure with. Thinking about this essay, I was thinking
also about an essay by T.S. Eliot about Pascal, something called “The
Pensees of Pascal.” It’s an introduction to a translation of the
Pensees, and in this essay Eliot praises Pascal for “facing unflinchingly the demon of doubt
which is inseparable from the spirit of belief.” Eliot concludes his essay this way: “I can
think of no Christian writer, not Newman even, more to be commended than Pascal to those
who doubt but who have the mind to conceive and the sensibility to feel the disorder,
the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find
peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.” That’s Eliot describing Blaise Pascal. So I think this captures very well the spirit
of Reno’s essay, and it leads me to two final questions which I’ll leave you with for discussion
and conversation and for the reflection. First, what can teachers do to bring this
adventure of learning into the classroom, to feed the love of truth as well as the critical
faculties of their students? And second, is Eliot right when he says that
doubt is inseparable from the spirit of Christian belief, and if so what are some of the implications
of this? What does the intellectual life of the thinking
Christian look like, if it does not repose in absolute certainty but rather is constantly
struggling with the demon of doubt? That’s all for today. Thanks for watching; goodbye.

Reynold King

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