Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Last Homily of 2008 for the Seminary Community (Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Advent Year I: The Parable of the Lost Sheep)

I have a lot of happy and funny memories of exam weeks past, both as a student and later as a teacher. None perhaps more memorable than my experience with Gilbert, one of my students who was very diligent and hardworking, but not really very bright. He was also very nervous, especially with exams. During the final oral exam, Gilbert got so nervous that he literally sat on the edge of his seat and was getting tongue-tied as he answered my questions. At one point, his anxiety got so bad that he grabbed the cup of coffee on my table without realizing it was mine. He had already taken several sips before it dawned on him that it wasn’t his. And he got even more nervous. “Please don’t fail me, father”, he said. “How could I?” I asked. “We already drank from the same cup?”

A few weeks ago, somebody asked me what I thought was the single biggest difference between teaching at a university and in a seminary? I don’t think it’s that university classes are more difficult or more demanding. I don’t think it’s that material covered is more challenging and extensive in a university. I don’t even think it’s the definite “Catholic” character or identity to seminary teaching that necessarily spells the difference. That’s a given after all.

I do believe though, that teaching at a university can be far more “Darwinian” by nature. Teaching in a seminary (which is what all teaching should be anyway—whether in seminary, university, or elsewhere) is, what Nietzsche would call “stupid”. But let me explain.

University teaching is, for the most part, “sink or swim” for students. If you’re bright, quick, and fit, you’ll make it. You won’t only survive. You’ll thrive. If not, you’ll be left behind, and pretty soon you’ll be at the bottom of the class.

Teaching in seminary recognizes the bright, the quick, and the fit, but it doesn’t leave behind nor consign to the bottom of the food chain, those who aren’t. In fact, the voice of the weak is considered just as important as the voice of the strong. Everyone’s ideas are valuable: bright or otherwise.

But that’s stupid! Nietzsche would argue. By doing so, you water down what you teach and thereby weaken the strong without necessarily strengthening the weak. If you apply that kind of thinking to ordinary life, you’ll weaken the strong, and nobody wins.

Life is struggle. It’s survival of the fittest. Look at the animals. They allow weak offspring to die. Nature doesn’t look kindly on runts. They’ll only weaken the gene pool. Nature eliminates the feeble. It weeds them out.

Nietzsche calls caring for the weak, “stupid”, an abomination against nature. Jesus would call it “human”, an elevation of nature. And we are men, not animals.

It’s the way of humanity to take care not only of the strong, but especially the weak, the least, the needy, the poor, and the lost. And judging from today’s gospel, it’s the way of God as well.

So what’s the single biggest difference between teaching in a seminary and in a university? Seminary teaching should form us to be more like Christ, and less like Nietzsche: to care not only for the strong, but especially the weak. After all, as priests later on, God expects us to look after that one sheep that strays, and not just the ninety-nine that remain.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)