Advice to College Students from Lumen Fidei

I know, I know, it’s only the beginning of August, and the very last thing on a college student’s mind is the upcoming semester. Unless they’re rising freshmen, in which case the upcoming semester is very much on their mind, but mainly about leaving home and meeting their new roommate, not necessarily the purpose and challenges of the university.

So maybe this is advice for parents or professors more than for students. Still, students need to hear.

In a few short weeks, you’ll be placed into cultural assumptions deeply challenging to your faith, and you may, perhaps, not really anticipate how challenging. By this I don’t mean college hook-up or drinking “culture,” or even professors who spurn the Church, as difficult and tempting as those may be, but rather something both more pervasive and more shrouded or obscure; namely, the vision of “objectivity” which governs the academy.

George Grant, the late Canadian philosopher, articulated the etymology of objectivity as follows. “Object” means literally some thing that we have thrown over against ourselves. Jacio I throw, ob over against; therefore “the thrown against.” Spelling out the implications, he explains that objective reason, then, is a kind of court which summons something before us and puts questions to it “so that it is forced to give its reasons” to us, who stand against it.

The project of modern objectivity, says Grant, “summons different things to questioning.” The Bible is summoned. The Church is summoned. God is summoned. History is summoned. The physical world is summoned.

Not only does this place reason as arbiter and judge of meaning “against” or “over” all things, but it means also that reason splinters, for as there are many objects to summon (many disciplines, say), so reason splits into this or that area of study, this or that specialization. Or, as Grant describes it, the university of the medieval, united by its common end, becomes the multiversity of modernity. Reason is master over each object, but reason never unites into a coherent project or unity.

Grant’s description bears close resemblance to several aspects of the early sections of the new encyclical, the work of “four hands.” In the very first pages, Lumen fidei provides a succinct history of the rise and splintering of reason. Nietzsche, to take an example, considered faith as emotional safe-guarding, whereas truth required a rejection of faith’s easy comfort. From that standpoint, “belief would be incompatible with seeking.… Faith would thus be the illusion of light,” even a darkness working against human freedom and truth.

Room was made for faith by rendering it an irrational and emotional leap or reducing it to “a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way.” Faith was merely subjective, perhaps a comfort but not a truth, while reason was objective, and it was reason which claimed authority to summons and question, while faith was to remain quiet, not proposed in public.

But, the text continues, reason could not keep itself unified, for the “light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future,” not enough to explain the purpose and point of our lives or the created universe. And so “humanity renounced the search for a great light, Truth itself, in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way.”

Objective reason, claiming to be master, diminished faith, but reason itself splintered into many parts and lost its daring. No longer claiming to explain all things or provide Truth, reason nonetheless still claims mastery, not because it is the “great light” but because it has denied there are any lights greater than its own feeble glow. In this, both the encyclical and Grant observe the same confusion.

According to Grant, the university is dominated by this account of reason and accepts no other. Faith, however, which Grant defines as “the experience that the intelligence is enlightened by love,” cannot approach the world as an object over against which we sit in judgment, for love begins with receptivity, not judgment, and love accepts the goodness and value of that which it encounters, whereas objectivity “summons” and commands. (Imagine a newlywed summoning their spouse on the wedding night! How different from love which welcomes in delight.)

Without faith, reason does not have love, and without love it cannot welcome the goodness of the created world, but, in the end, only dominate and subdue it. Nor can a loveless reason even know, for things cannot be known, really known, unless they are loved. (Consider the educational bureaucrat who does not love students or books but merely wishes to test to see if the objectives have been met. They do not love, so they do not know and are faithless guides.)

Faith, the intelligence enlightened by love, is the way for a university to re-collect itself from its splintered and dominating condition, but it is precisely faith that the multiversity spurns and summons. So say Benedict XVI and Francis as well, for “faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence,” and can bring a kind of unity and integration to the world and to the person. Faith comes from encountering God, and “transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see”—faith gives us the eyes of love, and intelligence enlightened!

Unless you believe, you will not understand, as the “bond between faith and truth” is intrinsic, not because faith gives all answers or takes away the rightful autonomy of study, but because faith “transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love.” Not because such love is a breezy and comforting emotion, but because it gives us ears to hear, eyes to see, and an ability to touch the real, to dwell in the truth of being.

If you head off to the university without a faith which has given you love, you will, in all likelihood, be unable to withstand the terrible summons of “objectivity,” and this summons demands that you place yourself over and against your tradition, the Church, your community, your family, and the many sources of love which have illumined and sustained you thus far. And you will grow to think of them as subjective comforts, but not as truth bearers.

But you will not become free. In the end, so divorced from love and the sources of love, your objectivity will turn against you; not only will you be over and against others, but also over and against yourself. There you will be alienated from your own person, your own integrity, and you will become many competing voices, each, perhaps, claiming objectivity. But these many little lights will each claim to be master, even as they deny there is any great light or Truth that can give meaning and purpose to all things.

In a few short weeks, if you head off without Faith, without the encounter with God whose love floods our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5), you stand every chance of losing yourself, of being owned by a strange master which promises freedom but in the end stands over and against you.

In just a few short weeks.

R. J. Snell


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

  • NormChouinard

    If your son/daughter is at a Newman recommended college like mine, you probably won’t need to forward this fine piece to them.

    • WSquared

      Not true, Norm.

      There’s a reason for why this fine and beautifully wrought piece should be fowarded to them, too: because none of us can afford complacency, even at a Newman-recommended college. This piece is also essentially the basis of “Lumen Fidei” meets “Lumen Gentium.”

      • IntellectGetOne

        I concur.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    My old tutor, Miss Anscombe, had a bee in her bonnet about the word “objective,” which she insisted was often used for its “incantatory effect,” without any real meaning.

    If we ventured to use it, she would always interrupt with, “Object of what?” If we hesitated, she would offer helpful suggestions, “Object of perception? Object of desire? Object of thought? Object found in the suspect’s pocket?”

    It is a useful exercise and not only for undergraduates.

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  • judith

    thanks for a great article. praying for professors, staff, students, chaplains, and parents … for Love in theire hearts and minds

  • IntellectGetOne


    Well put.

    Count me impressed and I hope you won’t mind, and might even encourage, me to use this with some young folks I know.

  • B.Storck

    I don’t disagree with Prof. Snell that objectivity for its own sake is hollow, or that the pursuit of it can hollow out those things that better-tended sustain us, but there are wiser means of reaching a young college audience – or any audience – than forecasting in detail just how their faith and priorities will be challenged at university. Beginning such lessons with “If you… (then) you will…” sounds presumptive at a minimum and if not exactly condescending, less well-meaning than the spirit in which I believe this message was intended. Love is mentioned here but there is no companionship for enrolling students in this message, none of the empathy that love allows.

    Reading this essay, I think of Wendell Berry’s book Life is Wonderful as a counterpoint in delivery and tone around a similar thesis: upholding objectivity as some kind of ultimate good both inside academia and in the world outside amounts to a kind of religion in itself, one without humility or humanity. Berry’s best and first instinct is not to address this cult head-on, but as a man who is ultimately ignorant despite his best intentions, appeals to the ignorance objectivity believes it can outpace.

    Please Prof. Snell, remember your audience and that the most effective means to persuade is to understand and demonstrate. For simply being “summoned” but not conveyed, the love you mention is all the less present.