Burning Lamps of Faith and Reason

The following is an adapted excerpt from remarks given by Mary Eberstadt at a recent Thomistic Institute event.

A Pew Research poll from just last week reports that:

When it comes to the nation’s religious identity, the biggest trend during Obama’s presidency is the rise of those who claim no religion at all. Those who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is "nothing in particular," now make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. adult population, up from 16% in 2007.

Of course that decline in religious affiliation is most concentrated, most highly represented, in the young. And in addition to statistics are the other measures of how not only the United States, but Western civilization itself, is becoming less hospitable to the Christianity that created so much of it in the first place.

As Fr. Thomas Joseph White knows, one of my favorite songs is a bluegrass number called "The Darker the Night, the Better I See." It’s about a man who thinks he sees better in the dark—because that’s when the lights in the honky-tonks go on. The title sounds paradoxical. But it isn't. The darker it gets, the more visible is the light that contrasts with it. This is true literally, of course. But it is also true figuratively, as a description of what the Thomistic Institute is now doing on college campuses.

It is setting out burning lamps of faith and reason in some of the darkest territories of our civilization – American universities.

I’d like to share a story about that. I've said that Cornell University was shorn of religious leadership when I was a student there, and so it was. But there was an exception—a professor who really did inadvertently change the life of this badly catechized, cradle, Catholic-ish student.

He was a teacher of great brilliance named Norman Kretzmann, a philosopher who specialized in medieval thought; and I ended up taking several classes from him. A couple of years in, as we were studying Aquinas’s idea of eternity, this professor mentioned something that was one of the most shocking ideas I'd heard. He said he was agnostic.

How could anyone as intelligent and learned as he was buck what everyone knew to be true, i.e., atheism? How could he even harbor a doubt? Why? The result of these inner whirlings was years of wrestling with his witness during which I felt forced to look into the kinds of books and thoughts that the Thomistic Institute is bringing to these campuses. Professor Kretzmann’s inadvertent and perhaps even unwilling witness changed my future at least as much as his courses in semiotics and symbolic logic...maybe even more.

Now multiply that single anecdote by the fidelity and talent of the Thomistic Institute not on one campus, but on many. I have no doubt that ten and thirty and fifty years from now, students who now in their teens and twenties at those universities—who see the Thomistic Institute at work, or even who are only aware of it obliquely—will similarly remember and meditate upon some aspect of what they might never otherwise have been exposed to, which is the capital-T truth.