Christ's Face in Our Work

"Splitting their time between Magdalen College at Oxford and Ampleforth Abbey in York, the group focused on the theme of 'Rediscovering Integral Humanism,' by engaging in a series of discussions about liberal education, faith, and the human person."

From June 28-July 9, a group of fourteen American graduate students met in England for the Scala Foundation’s Summer Seminar. Splitting their time between Magdalen College at Oxford and Ampleforth Abbey in York, the group engaged in a series of discussions about the theme of “Rediscovering Integral Humanism.”

The Seminar is the brainchild of Margarita Mooney, a professor of sociology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Margarita had been teaching sociology at another institution when she came upon the work of Jacques Maritain and his concept of “Integral Humanism.” It was in his writings that she found an intelligent and useful way of integrating her faith with her professional interests.

Her engagement with the works of personalists like Maritain and John Paul II as well as classical philosophers like Aristotle raised the eyebrows of her few fellow sociologists. Can sociology acknowledge certain essential, universal truths about the human person ... truths that transcend the measurable and economic categories that most sociologists rely on to do their work?

Facing the criticism from her colleagues forced her to reevaluate the purpose of her vocation as an educator. She was reminded that the reason why she started teaching sociology was her attraction to both seeking to understand the human experience as well as provoking her students to take their lives seriously. It was then that she started a “personalism study group” with the students in her residence hall where questions about happiness and human flourishing were discussed.

Her desire to offer more opportunities for academic community building led her to apply for a grant to start the Scala Foundation. Soon after, she was flying with over to Oxford with a group of students for the first Scala Summer Seminar.

My friend Rose was among that first group of students. Upon her return, she raved about the incredible things she learned and friendships she formed. Hearing about her experience and meeting some of her new friends convinced me that this would be the perfect opportunity for me to share some of my questions about my work as a teacher and grad student with other like-minded (and -hearted) people. I felt like I’d been lacking a sense of professional community with my coworkers and classmates, and I hoped that the experience would provide me with companionship on my journey.

This year’s group consisted of an eclectic mix of grad students, whose fields of study included theology, philosophy, neuroscience, English literature, and kinesiology—and whose denominations ranged from Roman Catholic, to Evangelical and Mainline Protestant. In addition to covering Maritain’s writings, we read works by Cardinal Newman, Paulo Freire, Augusto Del Noce, Fr. Giussani, and many more (really ... it was about a semester’s worth of readings).

Among the discussions that stood out to me were the one’s about Fr. Giussani’s The Risk of Education and Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity. I was struck by Del Noce’s ability to recount the history of modern philosophy with attention to detail and nuance. His insights helped us to understand how the ideas and events that have transpired since Descartes’ time have impacted our current cultural moment in ways that most people are not aware. As bleak as he paints the image of modern cultural to be, I was reminded by Fr. Giussani in The Risk that a crisis is an opportunity to “sift through” (as the Greek root indicates) what’s in front of us and discern what is worth maintaining and what needs to be changed.

I was surprised by the other participant’s comments about The Risk; they recognized in Fr. Giussani’s proposal a profoundly human vision. One of them commented that Giussani’s ideas about the human heart, as consisting of an “objective criteria” with which one can judge reality, allows one to enter into modern culture without being afraid. Instead, we should look to be open to all the people we meet and all the circumstances we face with the intention to “test everything and retain what is good.”

Perhaps what struck me most about the experience was Professor Mooney herself; she was a living witness of the topics and values we discussed. Her vision of education and the human person were communicated to us not just through the concepts she taught us, but through the way she ran each seminar. She always told us why each topic mattered to her personally, and invited us to accompany her on her own journey toward a deeper understanding of each topic, and ultimately, toward Christ.

For her, this journey consists of much more than studying the works of important intellectuals. Throughout the seminar, we engaged in activities like singing, playing games, and visiting Castle Howard (filming location of Brideshead Revisited) and Rievaulx Abbey (home St. Aelred, author of Spiritual Friendship). She expressed to us how each of these activities were connected to the objective of the seminar, and that a true educational experience includes much more than just memorizing information. An education becomes human when we begin to discover how what we’re learning has to do with living life fully, and that this discovery can only happen when our this journey is travelled with others.

My time at the seminar gave me a greater appreciation for Fr. Carron’s overarching message in Disarming Beauty. Each of the participants cared passionately about the topics we discussed, and we often found that we disagreed strongly about each other. We had many arguments about politics, evangelization, and the differences between Protestant and Catholic theology (most of the participants were Protestant). What allowed me to have meaningful dialogues with everyone was my conviction that the best way to communicate what I believe to be true is by speaking from my own experience. As great as my passion for theology is, it became more and more evident that the only path toward truth begins with experience, more so than intellectual inquiry. Accordingly, the most convincing argument is a “disarming” presence; resorting to theoretical arguments to convince others of something is at best a waste of time and at worse, violent.

My desire to share my experience as well as my questions with everyone allowed me to enter into intimate unity with each of them, and fanned the flames of my love for their destinies—that is, their desire to see Christ’s face in their work.

Stephen, New York, USA