Arts and Culture

The Power of Ideas

In many of the courses that I teach at St. John’s University, I devote the first few classes to a survey of the philosophy of secular humanism. This practice goes back several years. I mention to the members of the class that while I do not know whether they are familiar with the tenets of secular humanism, or even if they have ever heard of secular humanism, I stress that they have been exposed to it in many ways through the media such as contemporary films, newspapers, magazines, songs, television shows and perhaps even through some courses in science that they may have taken in high school.

Usually, I find the students interested in my presentation. At least some students seem to recognize that what I am describing they have experienced in their own reading. Pointing out that every philosophy starts with presuppositions and assumptions that are not proven but that can greatly influence the views that a philosophy embraces, I indicate that one important assumption of secular humanism is that only matter exists, that there is no such reality as spirit.

This assumption leads necessarily to the view that there is no God, no Divine Intelligence guiding evolution. Human beings are the chance product of evolution, which could have gone in countless other ways. Evolution just happens to have produced us, but now that human intelligence has appeared, our task is to make the world a better place, realizing that there is no life beyond the grave.

In teaching secular humanism, I try to make this view of reality as appealing as possible, though I confess to the students that I do not agree with it. Probably more than anything, I want the students to see the pervasive presence of secular humanism in contemporary society.

Two of my friends, who read this weekly column regularly, have told me that they think I am too hard on secular humanists. The accusation has upset me, because while I disagree with the philosophy, I greatly admire the goodness and unselfishness of many secular humanists I have met. I hope I am judging a philosophy, but not judging any person.

The other insight that I hope I convey to students when discussing secular humanism, or indeed discussing any philosophy, is that ideas can be very powerful, that ideas can dramatically change the world. Powerful ideas eventually trickle down and can influence people who may have no awareness of the original thinkers who promoted the ideas.

A great mistake is to imagine famous thinkers as removed from society, as isolated in their own little worlds. The power to exert great influence is not limited to the ideas of atheists. In the history of thought, there have been some giants who were theists.

One who has been on my mind recently because of his canonization is St. John Henry Cardinal Newman. I have heard more than one Catholic theologian describe the Second Vatican Council as “Newman’s Council,” meaning that Newman’s insights were influential in the teaching of Vatican II.

In an excellent essay about Newman in Commonweal last November, Austin Ivereigh wrote the following:
“Newman’s mind was so refined and supple that he can sometimes seem a helicopter that never lands. Thus, his zinger quote in his ‘Letter to the Duke of Norfolk’ — ‘I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to Conscience first and to the Pope afterwards’ — has long been brandished to justify Catholic dissent, whether by liberals annoyed by John Paul II twenty years ago or nowadays by rad-trad opponents of Pope Francis’ magisterium. But Newman saw conscience as an ‘aboriginal Vicar of Christ,’ one that leads eventually to submission to a dogmatic and institutional Christianity.”

For me, and I suspect for readers of this column, the most powerful ideas are those in the New Testament spoken by Jesus and the apostles, especially St. Paul. They are like fresh water wells that never dry up, wells that give water that is always refreshing and always able to renew us.

Sometimes those ideas seem revolutionary, calling us to commit our entire selves; sometimes tremendously consoling no matter how great the pain or loss we are experiencing. We believe that sacred Scripture is the Word of God, and so when we hear it or read it, we are not dialoguing with some great
philosopher or some great theologian.

No, we are trying to be receptive to God’s presence. We should read and listen with confidence and hope.  Whatever words and ideas are offered are ideas and words from Infinite Love. When we are not distracted, when we are able to be attentive, when we listen and read with our faith, the words and ideas not only can console us, but even sanctify us.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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