by Father Robert Lauder’
ONE OF THE challenges that I have in teaching philosophy to undergraduates at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is to help the students see the importance of what they are studying. This is probably a challenge for any professor who teaches philosophy.
I admit to the students that it is easy to miss the point and the value of studying philosophy because of textbooks that don’t seem relevant, professors who may not be good teachers and term papers and exams that seem to appear too frequently in a semester. Still I urge them to keep in their minds the exceptional relevance of philosophy as they try to understand themselves and their place in the world.
I often begin a course by explaining a distinction the Roman Catholic existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel made between a problem and a mystery. Most of our conscious hours we may focus on problems. Philosophy reflects on mysteries. The French thinker claimed there were four key differences between a problem and a mystery.
First, a problem was always external to the self, such as an automobile that won’t start or a television set that does not work. The person is not part of the problem. Second, the mood when reflecting on a problem is curiosity. We want to know the answer. Third, there is an answer, at least in principle, to every problem. And finally, a problem can be examined by anyone. I can check the automobile. A television mechanic can check the television set.
A mystery always directly involves the self. It is impossible to think about the mystery of death without thinking about your death. It is impossible to think about the mystery of love without thinking about your love relationships. When you reflect on a mystery, the mood should be wonder and awe. Mysteries are awesome. Though there is no final answer to a mystery, you can go deeper into it and gain more insight. Someone pointed out that a mystery is like a fresh water well: There is no end to the water and the deeper you go, the better the water tastes. Finally, no one can think about or reflect on a mystery for anyone but himself or herself.
I try to convince the students that philosophy deals with mystery – the mystery of the human person, the mystery of freedom, the mystery of death, the mystery of God. There is nothing more important to think about than mystery. I encourage the students to keep in mind that by studying philosophy they have a golden opportunity to understand more deeply what is most important in human life.
There are two anecdotes that I use to impress the importance of philosophy upon the students. One is about Jacques and Raissa Maritain. The other about the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.
Jacques Maritain came from a Protestant family and Raissa from a Jewish family. Neither family took their religion seriously. While they were studying at the Sorbonne, the Maritains were disillusioned with the narrow, godless philosophy that was being presented to them. They made a pact that if they could not find some meaningful philosophy, they would take their own lives. Fortunately, they attended lectures by Henri Bergson and that was the first step toward a vision of life that made sense to them, a vision that reached its culmination in conversion to Catholicism and to Jacques becoming one of the leading Thomistic philosophers of the 20th century.
Buber once thought of “religious experience” as an experience of otherness that did not fit into the context of life. In his book, Between Man and Man (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967, 224 pages, $1.45), he reports what changed his mind:
“…after a morning of ‘religious’ enthusiasm, I had a visit from an unknown young man, without being there in spirit. … I conversed attentively and openly with him – only I omitted to guess the question which he did not put. Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends – he himself was no longer alive – the essential content of these questions; I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision. He had come to me, he had come to me in this hour. What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning” (pp. 13-14).
I mention both anecdotes to students because of the fact that each seems to involve either suicide or the threat of suicide if life-saving meaning is not available. I am hoping that students will see that philosophy is not just a way of passing time but rather deals with what is most important.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.