A matter of degrees: the diminished value of faith

A matter of degrees: the diminished value of faith January 25, 2011

Speaking as someone who graduated — barely, and a semester late — from an unexceptional state university, I found this essay both welcome and consoling.  It’s hard to accept nowadays, but the fact remains: we are more than what it says on our diplomas.  Much more.  Have we lost the ability to see that?

From Elizbeth Scalia, writing at First Things:

Perhaps the over-reliance upon credentials is connected to the undervaluing of faith in society. In the past, people of faith had the examples of holy men and women who managed to exhibit enormous wisdom through grace, whether they were exceedingly well educated, like St. Augustine, or not educated at all, like St. Catherine of Siena. Saints are full of wonder; it is their ability to wonder, in fact, that allows them to be open to grace, the gate of all of their theological and philosophical brilliance.

And when faith was common to kings and paupers, self-evident brightness and acumen were appreciated and acknowledged. People understood that there was more than one way to learn, or that ideas could be burnished and gifts could be nourished by sheer curiosity sustained on a pilot-light of passion, even without the consent and certification of an appointed body.

As recently as sixty years ago society was willing to take some things on faith, and that habit-of-faith allowed room for instinct to have a voice; it permitted one to try people out—to give a guy a chance to prove himself. Lacking faith, lacking a mindset that can trust in possibilities, there is nothing to fall back on but credentials.

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8 responses to “A matter of degrees: the diminished value of faith”

  1. OK: Let’s talk about 60 years ago:

    In the 1950’s, there was a truism that was widely accepted in secular higher education (be it public of private). That conventional wisdom tidbit said that devout Roman Catholics could never become serious academic research scholars because their Church would effectively prohibit it. And the hard-core rulings that came out of the Vatican during the last days of Pius XII only reinforced that belief.

    By the 1960’s, it was widely recognized by Roman Catholic students who did want to move into higher education as professionals that their career paths would be seriously stunted if all of their degrees (but particularly their terminal one) were from traditionally Roman Catholic colleges/ universities.

    By the early 1970’s, we had survived “The Great Exodus” of 1968 (when we lost almost 50% of all religious men and women), and we found ourselves in the “crazy-years” — the middle of the chaos of the immediate post-Vatican era. None of our religious education at any level (elementary school to graduate school) was particularly effective because it was not academically challenging to the adults our generation had become.

    We lost hordes of folks — a lot to hard-core ex-catholic/anti-catholic evangelical fundamentalism — because no one understood Church History or Sacred Scripture enough to really explain why we believed what we did.

    AND much of what we did believe was mocked and ridiculed not only by our friends and family members who had bailed-out but also by many of our lay leaders who were now in pastoral offices at the parish level — a surprising number of these folks had not taken any graduate coursework in Theology or Religious Studies at all and simply were not qualified to hold the posts they did hold.

    I agree — faith is very important BUT we need a lot of solidly educated — graduate degreed — religious educators to clean up this mess at the local parish level !

  2. I think that Deacon Norb has made a very fine observation.

    While there is certainly much to be gained by appreciating the accomplishments of all of those remarkable people who did not possess academic credentials. On the other hand, that’s not surprising, really, is it? Wisdom, faith, creativity: I don’t know anyone who has ever equated those things with an academic degree.

    Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, in a classic address, once chided Catholics to become better educated and to take their place in our society and culture. He pointed to the fact that Catholics, in the 1950s and 1960s, had become increasingly integrated into the American cultural scene (e.g., JFK winning the Presidency), but that Catholics were lagging severely in terms of higher education.

    So, I would submit, with all great respect to Elizabeth, that we must not imply even slightly that somehow faith and education are antithetical, or that we must somehow make a choice between a life of faith or a life of education. As with almost everything Catholic, true wisdom lies in a balance of the two! Faith and reason: they go together in a balanced way.

    I know that the point was about an increase in “credentialing” and I would agree that no credential could ever substitute for fundamental values of wisdom and faith. It’s just that I see, every day in and out of the classroom, a real tendency to anti-intellectualism, as if intellectualism and faith were somehow antithetical, and they are not: each informs the other.

    God bless,


  3. Of course, St Ambrose was a great exemplar of faith and reason working together. Who else could have convinced St. Augustine? Not only are faith and reason wholly compatible, but faith completes reason and is a form of knowledge, that is, a way of knowing.

    Lo these many centuries later, nobody has yet trumped St. Anslem of Canterbury’s definition of theology- faith seeking understanding.

  4. We have this technocracy where having the right credentials is the basis for any recognition or advancement. We have these great academic institutions. And yet, is the world at peace? Is our society better? Have so many people with degrees changed the fundamental problems? In a world of educated minds why 1.5 million abortions every year? In a world of university degrees why is the divorce rate 50% and the family weaker every year? Do we have better content in our minds and are we morally upright? Has education gotten us closer to God? ““I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children”. Mat 11:25

  5. I think it was maybe 15-20 years ago that a well educated and very wise deacon from Chicago wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Catholic New World making a very startling statement. On so many words:

    Abortions are economically driven and when the broader economy starts to collapse, when bankruptcies increase and when unemployment takes off into the stratosphere, abortions also climb — often sharply. Stopping abortions, according to him, was not a case of increasing legal penalties or even having priests and deacons preaching hell-fire and damnation about the evil of abortion from the pulpit. If you want to make a serious dent in the abortion rate, make social and economic justice your priority.

    Needless to say, he received a lot of immediate grief about his piece. Other diocesan newspapers refused to reprint it because, they too, realized that it broke all sorts of conventional wisdom on the topic of what causes abortions.

    But, you know what, that deacon (now deceased) was absolutely correct. At first, it was only data from Kentucky that supported his argument (one of those years, Kentucky’s economy went down when most every other state’s went up. Guess, what; Kentucky’s total abortions sharply increased.)

    Then we hit the recent recession. He was right again. After 35 years of the rate gradually falling, it took a sharp increase here in the US between late 2008 to today.

    To answer Rudy, yes, better education about what is the real truth can lead us to God. Our various popes have been preaching and writing about social justice for over 150 years and the texts of the Jewish Scriptures concerning social justice have been in our human hands for well over 2,500 years. Sometime we simply refuse to learn.

  6. I respect your opinion, but the real problem for the world goes beyond economics / social justice/ class struggle or even having more educated people. The root of all problems is sin. I have seen highly educated people commit the worse of crimes (Germany in WWII?). Yes economics and all the other myriad of things out in the world all have a place. But the fundamental problem lies in the heart of man, educated or not. Of course we need education; but what happens when our sons and daughters go to college as believers and come out as agnostics, atheists or indifferent to the Son of God? The world is a complicated place, but Masters Degrees and Ph’D’s are not the solution the heart of man’s darkness.


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