Bill Nye and the Loss of the Liberal Arts

Bill NyeThis past week, Bishop Robert Barron published a critique on a recent video posted by Bill Nye, known to us millennials as The Science Guy. In the video, Nye answers a question from a philosophy student (full disclosure: I have a degree in philosophy) who asks whether or not philosophy is still relevant. Nye answers in the negative, and while he provides one or two salient points (such as the fact a career in philosophy is not exactly lucrative, but most people going into it know that anyway), for the most part, he misses the point entirely; it’s quite clear that he is outside his field of expertise. While I think that Bishop Barron does take some of Nye’s examples too seriously, I whole-heartedly agree with the Bishop’s main point: Nye fails to realize that in order to truly flourish as a society, we need philosophy, and the other liberal arts, to teach us about beauty, truth, and the intrinsic value of the human person. As Bishop Barron points out:

Father BarronThe physical sciences can reveal the chemical composition of ink and paper, but they cannot, even in principle, tell us anything about the meaning of Moby Dick or The Wasteland. Biology might inform us regarding the process by which nerves stimulate muscles in order to produce human action, but it could never tell us anything about whether a human act is morally right or wrong. Optics might disclose how light and color are processed by the eye, but it cannot possibly tell us what makes the Sistine Chapel Ceiling beautiful. Speculative astrophysics might tell us truths about the unfolding of the universe from the singularity of the Big Bang, but it cannot say a word about why there is something rather than nothing or how contingent being relates to non-contingent being. How desperately sad if questions regarding truth, morality, beauty, and existence qua existence are dismissed as irrational or pre-scientific.

Science is, indeed, a critical and necessary part of our lives. Without science, we would still be in an age that equated astronomy with astrology and chemistry with alchemy. We cannot, however, throw out philosophy and the other liberal arts. As Bishop Barron points out later in the article, without these disciplines, we wouldn’t “know anything about how to live a decent life, how to differentiate between the sublime and the mundane, how to recognize God.” I have great respect for Bill Nye. He taught me a lot about investigative science when I was a kid, and now as CEOt of the Planetary Society, he has done a lot of good work to increase awareness of the need for planetary exploration. That said, he certainly does not understand philosophy or the value of the liberal arts.

While our lives would be dark and perhaps even more dangerous without science, so too would they be dreary, boring, and meaningless without philosophy, without literature, without a study of the human person in all its glory and brokenness, without a recognition of the good, true, and beautiful.

Science, specifically astronomy, pointed me in the direction of faith, but it could only go so far. In the end, it was these other disciplines, and most of all Divine Grace, that carried me the rest of the way. I suppose Bill Nye would see that as trite and perhaps a bit deluded. That’s OK.

Come to think of it, Grace carried me the entire way from the beginning, because it was probably by His grace that the first book I ever checked out from the library was a book on the solar system, initially piquing my interest in the larger universe. Then, years later, He would draw me closer to Him through the recognition of that same beauty I could see through the telescope was created by Goodness itself, with His Son by my side the whole time, waiting for me to open my heart to the promptings of the Spirit so that I might come to faith and trust in Him.

Pax.

You can see the original video here. 

Find more from Bishop Barron and his Word on Fire Ministries here.

On the Journey: Bad Grades and Prideful Students

Augustine’s Confessions: Book I, Chapters 13-15

(I will provide a link to an online translation next week; my usual source seems to be down at the moment. Although for my personal use and for these reflections, I am using this translation.)

“O God, You are the Light of my heart, the Bread of my inmost soul, and the Power that weds my mind and the thoughts of my inmost heart.” (I.13)

I've always had my head buried in a book. Especially these books...

I’ve always had my head buried in a book. Especially these books…

When I was in high school, I was a horrible student. OK, in elementary and middle school too… But I just was not interested in the subjects being taught! Instead of learning my multiplication tables, I wanted to study the stars. Instead of learning how to tell the difference between passive and active sentences, I wanted to read Sherlock Holmes. Instead of studying the rise and fall of the Roman Empire from a textbook, I wanted to read first-hand accounts of the people who were there.

How prideful of me!

But as one who used to teach in a classroom, it prepared me for encountering the same difficulties in my own students, and I can certainly identify with the struggles that St. Augustine expresses in this week’s reading: he preferred the great stories over learning the basics of reading, writing, and math. He thought he knew what was best for his education, rather than defer to the wisdom of those who had gone before him.

How often do we think we know what is best without deferring to the such wisdom? I wonder how often that happens when we struggle against God, trying to make manifest our own will instead of his?! Again, there’s that ugly pride popping up again…

This picture says it all. We must get back to basics! Painting by Caravaggio - "Saint Jerome" Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This picture says it all. We must get back to basics!
Painting by Caravaggio – “Saint Jerome” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

We are sometimes given tasks that we don’t want to do, especially when we are young. We want to venture out into the world, and yet we forget that we have barely left our front yard. In all things, however, we need to start of with the basics. Whether mathematics, English, science, or history, we have to build upon a firm foundation. This reality is no less true for the spiritual life. We must build a firm foundation first. Even though we may “prefer more empty romances to more valuable studies” (Confessions I.13), that does not mean we can eschew these studies, for even though we may prefer quantum mechanics to 1+1, 1+1 has in itself its own mysteries, and is vital for us in the pursuit of knowledge.

I think, however, that there is a deeper truth that Augustine is trying to express here, namely that we must begin with God first, for He must be our foundation. Whether we are budding astronomers, intrepid historians, or the next great American novelist, all that we do is naught without Him, for it is through Him that we receive our foundation, our bearing, and our purpose. Before all else, we need to focus on our relationship with Him, then everything will fall into place.

In other words, we need to focus on our multiplication facts before moving on to differential calculus.

I think it is best to end with this prayer from the conclusion of Confessions I.15:

“Grant my prayer, O Lord, and do not allow my soul to wilt under the discipline which you prescribe. Let me not tire of thanking you for your mercy in rescuing me from all my wicked ways, so that you may be sweeter to me than all the joys which used to tempt me; so that I may love you most intensely and clasp your hand with all the power of my devotion; so that you may save me from all temptation until the end of my days.”

Amen.

Questions for reflection:

  • Who or what is the foundation in my life? Is it God or is it someone/something else?
  • What can I do to better learn about the Lord and His action in my life?

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

More Tolkien than Thou?

hobbit_poster_1200

I just came across a wonderful piece in response to criticisms against The Hobbit, Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved literary classic of the same name:

It is a bit unfair – and frankly rather illogical – to expect one artistic medium to be able to express itself in the way that another does. King David, after all, was a real person, who lived a long time ago, and his deeds are described in the Bible. That, in itself, is an interpretation of his life through the inspired Scriptures. Do we complain that Michelangelo or Bernini’s statues are unfair representations of David, because they do not actually move? Do we whine because paintings of David by artists like Castagno or Caravaggio do not speak?

You can read the rest here.

Many people criticize Peter Jackson for needlessly cutting up Tolkien’s masterpiece. There are times when I have made the same arguments. I first read The Hobbit when I was 7 or 8, and then The Lord of the Rings late middle school. Ever since then, I have had a sort of…love affair…with Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s work has had a very meaningful part in my life, and when I converted to Catholicism, a faith to which Tolkien was ardently devoted, it took on even more meaning for me.

I understand that some people might be upset. When I watched The Hobbit last Sunday with wonderful friend (movies are, after all, best enjoyed in the company of such people), I noticed that there were a few more departures from the book than I expected. I wished this or that could have been left in, etc. etc. But you know what? It was a darn good movie. Just as I understand why Jackson left out Tom Bombadil in the LOTR movies (in the cinematic medium, that part of the story would have felt long and disjointed; in the book it was excellent), I can see why Jackson made certain changes om this current film.

Do I agree with all of divergent points between the books and movies? No, of course not. These movies, however, are not mine. They were created by Peter Jackson, who has his own vision of Middle-Earth, which I am sure is very different from my own. I do think, however, that irregardless of differences from the text, they are very good indeed, and I will be seeing the next two on their own opening weekends. And you know what? I think Tolkien would agree with these sentiments. I also believe that these movies, along with the LOTR Trilogy, Narnia films, and Harry Potter series, serve as an excellent way to lead people back to the original texts, causing them to create their own visions of these worlds. That is certainly a good thing!

Now I just wish I could find my Hobbit costume…

Pax et bonum.