David Kamper: Catholic education in a modern world

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 6:41pm

“OK, class,” my teacher yells across the classroom. “Father is coming to talk to us today, and I need you all to be on your best behavior!” It was days like these I enjoyed as a grade schooler at a Catholic elementary school: a change in direction and new questions. When Father enters the classroom, we all stand and say hello. He goes to the board and begins to explain the religious lesson on Genesis, interestingly enough.

I increasingly had become more involved in the light scientific readings that only a nine year old could understand, and my skepticism of the early teachings of the Church, especially Genesis, was quite high. Nevertheless, Father spoke to us about how God created Earth in seven days, how Adam named the animals, how Eve came from Adam’s rib and how the Devil tempted Eve with the forbidden fruit. To me, even as a nine year old, this all sounded like hogwash.

To change the direction of the lesson, I raised my hand and stated, “I have been reading about the Big Bang Theory. Have you read on this?” Father paused. “Yes, and it is good that you bring this up! Genesis is a description of how our Earth was created, but God’s days might be different than ours, and the length of time for him might seem like seven days, but for us millions of years. The Big Bang is an answer to that.”  A voice popped up in the corner: “But that isn’t what it says though?” I added, “Aren’t we told that the Bible is the word of God? Does he want us to guess? If we have this doubt in the wording, how can we trust God’s words to begin with? Father said, “That is exactly what you should do. Question.”

I am presently a practicing Catholic. Before attending the University of Michigan, I attended Catholic grade school and classes until I was 17 years old, when I was confirmed. Throughout all of this, I have been, at one time, an agnostic, an extreme doubter of Jesus’s existence, and outspoken about my issues with the Church. Today, I am still quite skeptical of the Church’s teachings, but I still go to mass every week, read at church and participate in my local parish’s activities. Why, you might ask? Because doubt and debate are good. Questions about existentialism are good. The Church’s preaching of introspection is good.

In our modern culture where I see introspection and inquiry dying, I find that regardless of the church’s teachings, it is in these habits that I appreciate most. I owe a large part of my curiosity to my involvement in the Catholic church, where I was encouraged to question the existence of God, query my own self-worth and analyze the world around me.

I often tell people that constant self-questioning is needed for improvement. The Church consistently asks us to look inside us to find areas in which we need to improve. While many would question the Church’s prescription (more time spent in prayer and time reading the Bible), it is the practice in itself that I find most appealing. Often, I find that in our modern society, people would much rather mindlessly scroll through Facebook or Twitter, watch endless hours of a television show and go out partying. While these might be fine in some amounts, it is what these activities are delaying that I am frustrated with. When interacting with my peers at the University, I am surprised with how many are frightened to look inside themselves for faults. This is also not just within our generation, but a more common problem. A 2014 Harvard and University of Virginia study found that most of the participants, all college students, would rather be electrically shocked than spend time in his or her own thoughts.

While I should not be taken as a model of introspection, I appreciate that the Church focuses on developing this side of us as humans. Too often today, we are quick to blame others and society as the issue, when often we don’t take a second to ponder our own thoughts and faults. Sometime it isn’t society’s fault, it is of your own doing. If one does, it is the fear of change and work needed for self-development that deters a sizeable part of the population. The Church’s advocacy for this constant self-improvement is an important message many should listen to.

Though there are large sections of the Church that deter questioning God’s existence, my experience as a Catholic growing up encouraged this. For me, I think this fueled and developed a sense of intellectual curiosity, which is especially needed in today’s college culture. Not only that, but asking questions about existentialism, why certain behaviors occur, what does it mean to be human and countless other philosophical inquiries not only helps improve one’s sense of self, but also helps one come to a better understanding of what it means to be human.

In addition, the questioning of the Bible’s verses creates a sense of doubt in everything. For me, it has aided me in realizing bias. When I am reading an article from the New York Times or watching an interview on Fox News, I am constantly skeptical of the writing, looking for the particular parts that highlight its leaning. In addition, the Church’s promotion of doubt also makes me seek a difference of opinion, something I find lost on college campuses today. Though many believe they accept diversity of opinion, it is only when conflict occurs within one’s psyche that the inquiry stops. The Church, in my experience, has pushed me to enter in questioning the positions of others and why he or she came to that conclusion. I greatly appreciate that this doubt and advocacy for inquisitiveness was present in my early life and continues to be present.

Faith is, in my own definition, the suspension of rationale in support of something that cannot be conclusively determined. Though this is obviously the cornerstone of the Catholic Church and creates great conflict in today’s secular world, the underlying teachings of self-analysis and questioning existentialism are habits that modern culture should take into consideration. My questions surrounding my faith have aided my work in the neurosciences, my school and my daily life. I have found that the more I question my faith, the stronger I become as a person.

David Kamper can be reached at dgkamper@umich.edu