Last week right around Ash Wednesday the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Michael S. Roth, the President of Wesleyan University, on the reluctance of modern students to consider topics like the soul and salvation. In addition to his administrative duties Roth teaches a class in which he tries to inculcate historical imagination in his students by asking them to consider and discuss the questions that deeply concerned people in the past. However, he was disconcerted when he discovered a particular blind spot among his students.
Whenever he tried to discuss the interest of philosophers and other thinkers in the past with questions about the soul and salvation, he found a decided reticence on the part of his students to engage. Although usually eager to discuss any of the pressing issues of the day, the students generally clammed up and avoided eye contact by looking down into their notebooks.
Unfortunately, Roth did not go into the reasons for the students’ reserve but took most of his essay explaining why it was important to understand why such issues had such importance to great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. Roth admitted that he is a secular Jew and an atheist, and insisted that he was certainly not trying to “convert” the students.
It’s too bad that Dr. Roth did not ask his students about their reasons for shying away from any discussion that smacks of “religion.” I can think of a number of reasons why the students might have been reluctant to engage, but I’m only guessing.
The first that comes to mind stems from the high probability that most professors at Wesleyan neither believe that they have an immortal soul, nor think that they require salvation. Any student professing such beliefs would likely be ridiculed by teachers and regarded as a pariah by their classmates. Actually, I think that the animus towards religious subjects was inculcated even before the students went to college. It is part of the media world that they have inhabited since childhood.
Despite Dr. Roth’s good intentions, I doubt if he ever would have become President of Wesleyan if he had been a church going Methodist. Even though the school is one of many named after the eighteenth century religious reformer, a school like Wesleyan would probably never name a President today who shared John Wesley’s beliefs or concerns.
Practically all the great institutions of learning in Europe and America were founded by churches, but today a belief pervades modern society that there is a total disconnect between religion and reason when it comes to the search for truth. Nevertheless, our universities have not become centers of reason and science. Credulity of all kinds still prevails. Someone once said, “when people cease to believe in God, they will believe in anything.”
Look at the popularity of the supernatural and occult in films and videogames today. Vampire films are box office bonanzas. My grandson went to a Jesuit Catholic university where he could hardly find a course on Catholicism to fulfill his religious studies requirement. He had to fall back on a course on Voodoo taught by a truly committed believer.
Ironically, Dr. Roth admitted that despite his atheism, he still felt the need to say the Jewish Kaddish for his deceased father. Of course, tradition would not allow him to say it alone and so he had to find a group of ten. It wasn’t easy for a non-practicing Jew but he eventually found a group. Not only was he able to say the prayers for his father, but he also found in the group a congenial community. So Dr. Roth is not really an atheist. Either he reserves his religion for special situations, or he just has gone back to ancestor worship, the earliest form of religion.
I suspect similar motives drive modern Catholics when they go to Church on Ash Wednesday. I was visiting a daughter in California this winter and attended the local church, St. Joseph’s Basilica in Alameda. The church is an enthusiastic community made up of the descendants of the original settlers of the island right next to Oakland, as well as more recent immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam. The dynamic but self-effacing young pastor from India scheduled five masses for Ash Wednesday. The morning mass that we attended was packed with people waiting to receive the ashes on their foreheads.
Maybe people don’t like to think about the soul and salvation any more but down deep they seem to want to be reminded that they are dust and to dust they will return.