Dear Friends, There are three classic functions of a Jesuit and Catholic university. One is the intellectual, spiritual and moral formation of students; a second is service of the common good, especially of the Church, looking to what provides for the human flourishing of our fellow men and women. The third, and the one that today in many ways requires the greatest effort of imagination and courage, is to serve as a center for the exploration of the relationship between faith and reason.
In the past, it was taken for granted that reason and faith could serve one another. Most scholars would have accepted without question that truth formed a unity, and that the rules that governed physics, chemistry, mathematics, and music for instance, were entirely consistent with a Divine order, and that this Divine order was best understood theologically. Indeed, theology in the pre-modern university was the crowning discipline, the place where all the avenues of truth came to their ultimate, glorious, terminus.
The unity of truth is no longer an assumption that can be made: it must be demonstrated, and I think it is fair to say that given the advances in science in the 20th century, as well as our vastly more complex, multicultural, society, we have to tread more carefully when we make sweeping statements about the truth. We have a lot to learn. We have entered a period when I think it is better to listen closely with an open mind, and make overarching pronouncements with the greatest caution.
Having said that, the distinguishing characteristic of the Catholic intellectual tradition is the understanding that reason and faith are not enemies, but are in fact always engaged in a dialogue, together leading us to a greater appreciation of the nature of creation.
It is worth being reminded from time to time that the Christian vision of the cosmos arose as a synthesis of Judaic traditions — the “burning bush” revelation of the “I am” of God that distinguishes Judaism— with the intellectual traditions of Hellenic thought, in which reason had come to be understood as a means to penetrate and reveal the underlying nature of our phenomenal world. The Christian moment was such a profound shift in human consciousness because it brought these two truth traditions together. Nothing that can be shown to be reasonably true can be completely alien to the Divine nature.
Today, the area where the dialogue between reason and faith is perhaps the most agonistic — and exciting — is in the biological sciences. What is life? When does it begin and when does it end? While we may have the technical ability to make profound interventions in the natural course of life and death, do we really understand the spiritual implications of doing so? These are among the greatest questions that we face as an advanced society.
We are fortunate at Fairfield to have faculty who are extraordinary in their dedication to scientific research, and yet alive and open to the faith dimension. In this issue, Dr. Glenn Sauer, associate professor of biology writes about his project, funded by the Templeton Foundation, to explore these questions with local secondary school teachers of biology.
Our School of Nursing and life sciences programs are increasingly appreciated as being among the best in the country — producing fine researchers and professionals whom you will read about in this issue, like Dr. Julio Ramirez ’77, a leader in neurobiological pedagogy, and biology majors Margo Puerta ’00, LaQueta Hudson ’07, and Meghan Dancho ’06 who work together at New York’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.
So many of our students go on to study as postgraduates in the sciences, or become medical doctors and health professionals. They have been well prepared by our faculty to engage in the reasonable pursuit of truth. Thankfully, they also take with them into the professional world a sense of wonder at the created world that come from a learning environment that is open to faith. This reasonable optimism, this capacity to apply scientific principles to the study of life, while remaining open to its very mystery, is a hallmark of a Fairfield education. That is why we are poised to become a nationally recognized leader in preparing leaders in the health sciences.
Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J.