Monday, March 7, 2011

Knowledge and ignorance: Northwestern & BYU

Over the nearly five year history of Καθολικός διάκονος I have only had one guest post, that is, until today. Last week my good friend Dan Szynal suggested a topic for my blog. So, I suggested he write something and I would post it. He did.

After a long period of formation, Dan was recently commissioned as lay ecclesial minister for his diocese in Illinois. With no further adieu, below is the fruit of his diligent effort:

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St. Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, gives some very pastoral teaching when he tells them, "'Everything is lawful,' but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is lawful,' but not everything builds up" (1 Cor. 10:23).

No truer words could be spoken this week in light of two controversies that have been reported in the media this at two separate college universities. These two stories have some strange similarities, and yet travel along polar opposite lines. That these two stories stand in marked contrast to each other points to the great divide in this country about worldview. However, I think that both point to something that hasn’t been covered in the media blitz.

The first case comes from Northwestern University; a well known school in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Earlier this week, a demonstration was conducted in a course on human sexuality that is offered for academic credit. This demonstration, which was conducted after the class had ended, involved a volunteer woman who had a sexual act performed on her, while nude in front of the class, by a "sex toy". The reason given for this demonstration was that the accompanying lecture in course discussed different sexual experiences and offered this knowledge to the students so that they could have a more whole understanding of human sexuality. The subsequent demonstration was described during class, and the students were given the option to stay or leave afterward as it was characterized as information that would not be tested on. The controversy was reported all over the local Chicago land media with the professor as well as the volunteer giving statements that they felt this was a positive experience for everyone to give them the knowledge to make informed decisions about their own sexuality.


The second case comes from Brigham Young University in which star forward Brandon Davies, has been suspended for violating the school’s honor code of living a chaste and virtuous life. The countrywide publicity that has come from this did not stem from the fact that a young unmarried man was having sexual relations with his girlfriend, but instead came from the suspension from BYU as it chose to enforce its honor code that students are asked to affirm.

There are several angles to this story; the way in which the media covered both stories; a comparison of sexual attitudes in America, the public reaction and any consequences to each University from the publicity (whether good or bad). However, I think that St. Paul hints at something that applies to these stories here. In a way, a common thread to both of these stories revolves around the question of "knowledge"?

We live in a time and a society that respects the value of knowledge and the free exchange of ideas. I don’t think that anyone would deny that one of the core freedoms of our country is contained in that ideal. However, St. Paul, in a certain way, gives some guidance to the beneficial limits of knowledge to those who follow Jesus Christ.


There are two types of knowledge, an intellectual knowledge which seeks to know and understand facts and truths. There is another kind of knowledge which is experiential, a knowledge of the heart, if you will. It is a knowledge that seeks to integrate the experience into part of whom we are.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a course on human sexuality. There is nothing wrong with academic pursuits that seek to gain knowledge so that a person can learn to think critically, solve problems, and make judgments about different situations. This is, after all, the goal of higher education.

Then there is experiential knowledge. Is all experiential knowledge beneficial? Does it build up the body? Does it lend to make a person whole? Does the integration of that experiential knowledge benefit the person, or can it be destructive?

Such is the kinds of questions that revolve around the acts of Brandon Davies and the demonstration at Northwestern University.

I think that Archbishop Fulton Sheen, of blessed memory, speaks directly to this when he says,

“The words of Jesus and Mary suggest there is value in not knowing (evil)... The great fallacy of modern education is the assumption that the reason that there is evil in the world is because there is ignorance, and that if we pour more facts into the minds of the young, that we will make them better… How often the disillusioned say, ‘I wish I had never tasted liquor’. Think not that in order to know life, you must experience evil” (1)


Forgetting, for a moment, whether or not society, in general, would characterize the Northwestern or BYU incidents as "evil", the question becomes, how do these experiences of knowledge help integrate the person into the wholeness of the person that God has created us to become? How will the experiences of knowledge affect the students at Northwestern in their future relationships? Will the tacit approval of alternative forms of sexual expression lead them to a fuller integration of their sexuality as an icon of the inner life of the Trinity as a mutual giving and receiving of love and life that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful? Will this demonstration lead them to being able to integrate a healthy and wholesome sexuality who’s end is not self gratification, but a true giving of self and deep intimate communion with an other to whom

How will Brandon Davies move forward from the consequences of the actions that led to his suspension? There is no doubt that his conscience, which led him to act in telling the school of his actions, will also guide him to reflect on his experience, and will hopefully lead to a teaching moment that will lead him closer to God, which always makes one more whole, more human. Good can always come from our wrong actions. That is the mystery of grace.

Never should knowledge be banned. However, there can also be wisdom in “not knowing”. There were two people who never knew sin; Our Lord, and Our Blessed Mother. Let us pray that we may truly possess the ignorance of sin so that we may be filled instead with the knowledge of God’s love.

(1) Seven Words of Jesus and Mary, Fulton J Sheen, Ligouri/Triumph, 2001, pgs 14-18

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