Person: Finite And Infinite

Third in a series

PROBABLY MANY teachers have the habit of looking for material for class lectures when they are reading, even if the reading does not immediately seem related to the class. I know that I frequently clip out an article from a magazine or newspaper that I think I may eventually be able to use in philosophy class at St. John’s University. The reading might be a film review or a book review or even some news story.

Recently, while re-reading “The Essential Writings of Bernard Cooke: A Narrative Theology of Church, Sacrament and Ministry” (New York: Paulist Press, 2016, pp. 239, $27.95), I came across a paragraph that I think I can use in some of my philosophy classes. The paragraph has led me to reflection about my own experience so I am hoping that the paragraph might lead the students to reflect on their own experiences.

Making It Real

Helping college students to think deeply about philosophical questions is not easy. It is not ideal that most college students, who study philosophy, do so when they are between the ages of 17 and 21. The task of the teacher is to make philosophical questions real for the students, to help them make the questions and topics in a course their questions and topics. This would most likely be much easier to accomplish if the students were five or six years older.

I have a vivid memory of teaching a freshman class at the university in which there was a student in the first row who obviously loved the course. One day, when he came up to ask me a question after class, I said to him, “I can see that you are enjoying this class. I wish I could make the students in the last row as enthusiastic as you are about the course.” He said to me, “I am 27, those people are 17. If I took this course when I was 17, it would have gone right over my head.”

Mystery of Being

One of the more difficult insights in philosophy to communicate to college-age students is the difference between finite and Infinite Being. Perhaps such thinking is not easy for any of us. I think the following paragraph from Cooke might help college students to see more deeply into the mystery of being and the difference between finite and Infinite Being.

“For us to be personal – aware of ourselves and the world around us, aware that we are so aware, relating to one another as communicating subjects, loving one another, and sharing human experience – is always a limited reality. We are personal within definite constraints of time and place and happenings. Even if our experience as persons is a rich one through friends and education and cultural opportunities, it is always incomplete. For every bit of knowledge, there are immense areas of reality I know nothing about; I can go on learning indefinitely.

“Though I may have a wide circle of friends, there are millions of people I can never know; I can go on indefinitely establishing human relationships. There are unlimited interesting human experiences I will never share. In a sense, I am infinity but an infinity of possibilities, infinite in my incompleteness. Yet, this very experience of limitation involves some awareness of the unlimited; our experience of finite personhood points toward infinite personhood and gives us some hint of what that might be.” (p. 118)

Truth About Self, God

I like what Cooke has written for several reasons. One reason is that it calls us to reflect on our experience. All philosophy should do this. If a philosophy does not do this in some way then it would seem to be just idle speculation. An authentic philosophy should reveal truth about us, our neighbors and God. All such truth is mysterious, but we can reflect more and more deeply on truth and I believe that there is no truth that is more important than truth about ourselves and God. Grasping truth about ourselves and God should influence the way we live.

Another reason I like the quotation from Cooke is that it expresses in clear language just what the author is encouraging us to do. I expect that if I present the paragraph to a class of students and encourage them to reflect on their experience that the students will be led to important insights about themselves and God.

I could be wrong, but I am determined to test my expectation. Such reflection might lead to an important insight in our human journey, namely that there is a God and I am not He!

Father Robert Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).