God and Men at Yale

This semester I give a seminar course in the Department of Religious Studies (not to be confused with the Divinity School) at Yale University. The title of the seminar is “The Pagan Temptation”, and it is useful to specify that last spring, 1982, I gave a lecture under the same title before a Yale audience of professors and students. I wished to mention it so as to suggest that the topic, dealing with both Christianity and paganism (Hellenic, Hellenistic, Hindu, Middle-Eastern, even shamanistic and Amerindian), created sufficient interest among Yalites for an invitation to teach a seminar to ensue. In other words, the theme of “God and Man at Yale”, to quote the title of William F. Buckley’s book of some thirty years ago, is still alive at New Heaven.

Let us consider its present version, now, a generation later. At registration time, I was given 34 cards filled out by interested students, some of whom wrote a motivating mini-essay on the back of the card, indicating the reasons for their interest. Although most of these statements were intriguing, and some of them very well written and argued, I was told to select a maximum of twenty students. Thus when the first day arrived, I was obliged to express my regrets to a number of the candidates whom the course could not accommodate. As it turned out, however, six of those who had signed up, dropped the course after finding out that, contrary to their expectations, I was not going to initiate them into pagan cults, songs, dances, and magic performances, but, more prosaically, to teach on the level of philosophy, theology and the necessary historical context. Here was my first indication that “interest in religion” may cover these days a multitude — of sins.

I am, however, glad to report that almost all who stayed with me — some of whom I had been obliged to exclude, but who now returned, filling the vacancies left by the secessionist “pagans” — proved to be not only intelligent and curious, but also quite knowledgeable and think and believe in matters of philosophical concepts related to religious reflection. I daresay I got a foretaste of thinking on some religious issues, as the present twenty-some years old people regard them.

Their forte, quite unlike the students of some other universities where I have taught, was manifest in two ways, both of which I had elicited with my request of a weekly, one-page paper from each participant. I demanded that this page (or a maximum of a page and a half) contain a concise re-telling of my previous lecture, plus questions that the lecture had suggested to them or left insufficiently clear. Concision was a way to test their style and ability to concentrate (Victor Hugo once apologized to a correspondent, saying he had had not enough time to write briefly, hence a long letter), and the questions probed the nature of their eventual difficulty with problems of religion.

 

In practically every case (multiply thirteen meetings with eighteen students, two auditing the course) the summaries were clear, concise, in some instances little gems. This, for the intellectual niveau. It was the questions, as well as the second-hour — out of two — discussions, which told me quite a bit about the religious thinking of Yale students, anno 1983. Let me acquaint the reader with the main points of my observations, whatever their merit.

The system of electives takes a tremendous toll on the student’s potential of knowledge. The vaguest of background in history and philosophy, hardly any idea of chronology and events. The most important names misspelled, wrongly situated on the time scale as well as geographically. The result is that the ones more thirsty for knowledge are compelled to set out on their own, begin studying and taking courses haphazardly, and end up with an amazing accumulated knowledge of a very narrow area, arbitrarily chosen — but with huge lacunae where related and essential fields of knowledge ought to fill a more evenly distributed culture.

The second observation is that what I would call “religious knowledge” is almost entirely absent, as the questions reveal it. I want to emphasize that the curiosity is there, and once it begins to be satisfied, the flood gates open and it flows through ever widening channels. Since I took the trouble in every instance to answer the questions raised in the papers, point by point, a whole panorama opened before my eyes: the students want to know a) the reasons for Plato’s refinements on the general pagan themes, b) whether there was an evolution of pagan thought toward a monotheistic solution, c) whether Gnosticism was a heresy or a pagan doctrine; d) the “when” and the “how” of the Kingdom of God, e) the dialectics of the Logos and the (incarnate) flesh, f) Plotinus’s place between pagan and christian doctrine, etc., etc. — and here I mention only the first part of the course, ancient paganism, not the later recurrent themes.

The questions and discussions in which I was almost all the time hard pressed, indicated to me a vast reservoir of readiness to plunge into religious studies, provided the auxiliary instruments for such studies do not systematically turn students away from taking religion itself seriously. Thus I come to my third point.

It became soon clear to me that except in one or two instances (of which more later), these young people have the disposition to treat religion respectfully. To be sure, only if it is presented to them with an underlying tone of respect by the professor himself, and if religion is so discussed as to take its place among the intellectually demanding disciplines, worthy of a thoroughly academic treatment. I was aware, of course, of an occasional snide remark or question concerning incarnation, the soul, this or that doctrine; my reply was that this is not a course in apologetics, either of Christianity or of paganism, but that I insist on the seriousness of argumentation and reasoning. Then I showed that behind the student’s question or comment there hid a long line of prejudices and unexamined notions. Also, that the answers we give are to themes of the permanent human quest, but that some answers may be objectively more adequate than others.

And indeed, it was not a course in apologetics. What intrigued my students perhaps most was my demonstration that both the pagan myth and Christian history have vulnerable points, and that our intellect is not only limited, it is also easily tempted away from reason that perceives and from faith that posits. In short, I tried not to be “open minded” (I made no secret of my beliefs and convictions), but to examine things with the intellectual instruments known to me.

There is a fourth observation also. A spiritual vacuum-filler or a mere fad: paganism hits today’s student from all sides. Or rather, varieties of paganism since each leader of a sect sells his own wares. We are back in the time of St. Iraeneus who notes that gnostic schools were fighting on the market place for new adepts, each displaying his intellectual wares and post-salvational advantages. The best students today are impressed by the relatively new scholarship concerning the pagan myths, they integrate the latter with their own studies. The others, however, grab what appears to them a golden opportunity to get rid of the religion brought from home, and exchange it for the attractive because semi-secret garb of some allegedly pagan cult, most often far removed from the genuine article and revived as the plaything of leisure-consumers.

Needless to say, I do not claim to have presented a total picture of religion at Yale, let alone of “religion on our campuses”. All I suggest is that in many classes, in many cases, one could rescue and restore the cause of religion as deserving serious study among the other disciplines and connected with them through scholarship and argumentation. The suggestion is perhaps valid for future priests too, in the seminaries.

Thomas Molnar

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Thomas Steven Molnar (1921-2010) was born in Budapest, studied at Columbia University, and was a Catholic philosopher, historian and political theorist.

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