Faith and Academics

By Joshua Pine

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Image Credit: Juni, via Wikimedia Commons

The way in which we respond to certain choices clearly indicates our values and the way that we balance our time demonstrates our priorities. Will we engage in physical activity or instead hang out with friends? If we hang out with friends, what type of friends are we going to want to spend more time with? How much time will we focus on taking care of ourselves as compared to serving the needs of others? Another practical decision that we are often faced with, especially while attending a Catholic university, is how to integrate the deepening of our faith with the pursuit of academic excellence. Examining the relationship between these two important goals naturally leads to a question of relative importance and to whether or not one should be viewed as inherently superior. Simone Weil directly addresses this issue by making the argument that the sole purpose of our studies should be to further the development of attention, which is the substance of prayer.

Writing to a group of Catholic students, Weil seeks to show them that their school studies are "extremely effective in increasing the power of attention which will be available at the time of prayer" (1). The purpose of academics, Weil argues, is not to gain good grades, but rather to further our spiritual journey and connection with God. Since all subject matters serve this same goal, we should not differentiate between them, but rather consider them all to be equally important and valuable in relation to each other. "Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school success; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer" (2). This succinct summary of Weil illustrates the exclusiveness of her claims where the only appropriate motive for studying is the further development of prayer.

While I agree with some of Weil's claims, I believe that her arguments in general are characterized by overly exclusive vocabulary, faulty assumptions, and logical fallacies. In describing the purpose of academics, she writes, "the development of the faculty of attention forms...the sole interest of studies" (1). "[S]tudents who love God should never say: 'For my part I like mathematics'" (1). "[I]ncreasing the power of attention with a view to prayer...[is] the sole and exclusive purpose of our studies" (2, all italics added). I agree with Weil that our studies can, and should, serve this purpose, as Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (10:31, NIV). However, while academics can help us grow closer to God, we should not jump to the conclusion that it must be the only purpose or that natural gifts are of no value. Paul expounds further on this issue when he writes—"And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing" (12:28, NIV). While Paul believes that everything we do should be done unto the glory of God, he does not come to the same conclusion as Weil in proposing that all activities are of equal value or that we should not specialize in any specific academic field or spiritual calling.

Furthermore, Weil's entire essay is built upon the faulty assumption, created by a dichotomous worldview, that the spiritual world is disconnected from the real world and that we can access it only by entering into a higher level of consciousness. This distinction elevates activities such as prayer and worship to a level of mystical superiority and relegates other activities such as studying and professional work to a lower level of mundane existence. Nancy Pearcey shines light on this subtle, yet extremely dangerous form of dualistic thinking by writing—"In practical terms, the nature/grace dualism implie[s] that we need spiritual regeneration in the upper story of theology and religion, but we don't need intellectual regeneration" (93). She counters by articulating a holistic Biblical worldview wherein both spiritual and intellectual work have value. Taking us back to the Genesis account of creation, Pearcey points out that our original calling by God was to "[b]e fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28, NIV). According to Pearcey, "[t]his means that our vocation or professional work is not a second-class activity, something we do just to put food on the table. It is the higher calling for which we were originally created. The way we serve a Creator God is by being creative with the talents and gifts He has given us" (47). This same principle, I believe, applies to our schoolwork, as it, too, contains value as we seek to further develop and strengthen our God-given talents and gifts through intellectual engagement.

Instead of falling prey to the logical fallacy of oversimplification that Weil employs in seeking to show that the sole purpose of academics is prayer-focused attention, we must instead realize that the question of the proper use of studies is more complex. For example, when trying to illustrate the importance of attention in serving the needs of others, she writes, "The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: 'What are you going through?'"(5). Possessing the ability to ask this question with sincerity is truly meaningful, but to describe it as being the fullness of love fails to incorporate the power of works. As Jesus himself said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, NIV). Loving one's neighbor must include heart-felt concern, but to describe love in all its fullness without mentioning the importance of actions is clearly an example of oversimplification.

We have all been gifted with certain talents and with an intellectual mind designed to study. How we choose to use those talents and our intellect is up to us. The decision is not merely one of abstract analysis, but will instead have a very practical impact on our character as individuals and our outlook on life. Will we let ourselves be caught up in appeals to lofty ideals or will we truly engage and strive to succeed in what we do? Will we succumb to the trap that would have us believe that academic success is not important or will we focus instead on the goal ahead of developing our potential in order to be the people God made us to be?