Robbie Hargett: Progressiveness of religious study earns appreciation

May. 26, 2013 @ 03:09 PM

The Society of Jesus, members of which are referred to as Jesuits, was started by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534 as a religious order in the Roman Catholic Church.

The members were rigorously trained in classical studies and theology, and one of their main missions was to found schools reflecting this training. This high level of academia was a response to the relatively poorly educated clergy at the time, which Ignatius and others felt needed to change.

By 1556, the Jesuits were operating a network of 74 colleges and universities on three continents. In these universities, the early Jesuits taught Renaissance humanism alongside Catholic teachings. They were even dedicated to academics in their missionary work. During missions to China in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Jesuits translated current mathematical and astronomical texts into Chinese, rekindling a dying interest in the sciences in China. Conversely, the Jesuits translated and brought back to Europe many Chinese texts, most notably the philosophical teachings of Confucius.

Many Jesuit scholars were actually leaders in scientific fields like seismology and astronomy, operating their own observatories to study the movements of planets or the rings around Saturn.

This progressiveness, which was also reflected in Jesuit art, has remained with the Jesuits, trickling into the order’s remaining schools, including Christian Brothers High School in Memphis.

About half the students at my high school were Catholic. If you were Catholic, you took “religion” class; if not, you took “ethics” class. But the differences between the two were not always clear.

Freshman year, I was taught that many of the stories from Genesis probably didn’t happen, at least not so literally. The Old Testament was still taught, but my teachers, Brothers in the Jesuit order, taught a more figurative approach to some of the books.

My sophomore religion class was an extension of freshman year’s Catholic study, but junior year religion class shifted focus to other world religions. We were required to learn the histories, teachings and intricacies of major world religions from Islam to Buddhism.

During my senior year, religion class was essentially a philosophy class. We began, as many philosophy and geometry classes begin, with a crash course in formal logical reasoning. From there, we dissected philosophical arguments for the existence or nonexistence of God, the relationship between religion and science, morality, etc.

Other than the occasional in-school Mass — which both Catholics and non-Catholics enjoyed, as it meant a shortened class schedule — the religious influence was mainly peripheral. Many of the Brothers (and most of the teachers, male and female, were not Brothers) wore the Roman collar and black garb, and we prayed before every class.

Beyond that, they rarely mentioned anything related to religion. We were taught evolutionary theory in biology, the big bang in physics, etc. I emphasize “taught.” I don’t profess to know these teachers’ personal beliefs.

When it came down to it, CBHS was a college preparatory school, with more emphasis on critical thinking and the current state of arts and sciences than anything else.

It helps, of course, that the Church takes a harmonious position on the religion-science dichotomy. Beyond academics, the goal wasn’t necessarily to create more religious students, just more ethical students. Sometimes the school succeeded in this task, sometimes it didn’t.

But anyone who sought religious advice received it. Students were encouraged to ask questions about their faith, and high school students, especially those in an environment that fosters critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge, have many questions.

Does God exist? If so, what is the nature of God? Why are there holes in the universe?

And what is the relationship between the first two questions and the third?

— Robbie Hargett is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 218 or e-mail to rhargett@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @RobbieMtnPress.