My Crisis of Faith and the Idea of a University
Dr Jayeel Serrano Cornelio

Not many of my friends realize this but I had my own crisis of faith.  It was around 2005 when I embarked as a master’s student in sociology at the National University of Singapore.  It was, however, a rather unexpected turn of events.  I never had any serious faith issue when I was pursuing development studies for my undergraduate degree at the Ateneo de Manila.  In fact, I was convinced that my faith as a Christian had informed my major decisions in life.  One milestone was when I left a lucrative career in the corporate world for an isolated (quite literally) job for the health sector in the storm-stricken Batanes group of islands.  To me then it was all because of an internal compulsion that some people may call destiny, purpose, or sense of mission.

But when I started reading Marx, Weber, and Durkheim in graduate school, I started questioning my own convictions.  As a child of the Enlightenment, sociology, I learned, had persuasive atheistic tendencies.  One can argue, for example, that because reality is always socially constructed, even the idea of God can simply be an imaginary creation reinforced by a long history of religious rituals and doctrine.  Becoming a grand tradition renders beliefs and doctrines above reproach and questioning by the common man or woman.

Sociology, however, dares to strip social reality of all its dual facets of mystery and mundanity.  Indeed, one of sociology’s major goals is to unravel how seemingly neutral patterns of behavior can be traced back to structures of power employed by certain groups or classes to subjugate others.  So in view of sociology’s fetish for raising more questions than giving answers, I have always offered in the classroom provocative statements like “There’s no such thing as truth.”  My students at the Ateneo can attest to this.  The taken-for-granted assumption that God exists and blesses the poor is now exposed, through Marxist lenses, for example, as a way to arrest emerging class consciousness.  Persuaded by such thoughts, did I find my crisis of faith easy?  No, I did not.  Today, having exchanged ideas with many other “believing” sociologists, I am sure I am not the only one who has dealt with faith issues.

While I still have some tough questions about my faith, I have since progressed from such crisis.  My interactions with fellow academics, mentors, and friends trained in the sciences, religious studies, and theology have certainly helped me appreciate the complexity of reality.  Paradoxically, liberal knowledge has led me to a stronger and more reasonable religious identity.  In this light, to resort to only one discipline to explain the world, I have to come to conclude, subjects one to the perils of reductionism.  Put differently, to view reality only in terms of sociology betrays the Enlightenment’s aspirational ethos for the search for “truth”.  Here, it is worth being reminded that even though the Enlightenment argued that the world can only be studied using objective methods and approaches, it gave birth to other disciplines which now problematize the very notion of objectivity – the social sciences of anthropology, politics, sociology, and psychology.  Today, the educational tapestry enjoyed in many universities is a result of on-going aspirations for learning.  Apart from the physical and social sciences, students are now exposed to the richness of philosophy, theology, literature, economics, and decision sciences.  To my mind, there could have never been a more exciting time to learn, discover, and debate new things.

Here I fully agree with my academic mentor at the Ateneo, Leland dela Cruz, in suggesting that the university is perhaps one of the few remaining institutions in the world that can be soundly defined by modes of disagreement.  It is in this spirit, I believe, that the statement of the Ateneo President concerning the RH Bill is a welcome intervention: “If there is no easy answer to the concerns that the proposed bill raises or no facile unanimity among divergent views, this only proves the complexity, depth, and sensitivity of these concerns.”  A healthy environment of disagreement allows for novel ways of thinking about the world and the solutions to its problems.

Only in such an environment, I am convinced, can the university maintain its integrity as seat of learning, discovery, and pedagogy.  Writing in the 19th century, Cardinal Newman had the same conviction when he called for the establishment of a Catholic university in Ireland.  In the Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman braved his Catholic peers who perceived university education as a dangerous turf for the youth:

For why do we educate except to prepare for the world?…If then a University is a direct preparation for this world, let it be what it professes.  It is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world.  We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them.

When some church leaders (read: not all) took offense at the stand made by some (read: not all) Ateneo faculty in support of the RH Bill, I was, in a way, reminded of my crisis of faith.  Only that the crisis is instigated not by my discipline, but by the religious hierarchy.  Whereas sociology posed a threat to my Christian faith many years ago, the rhetoric of some clergy against the Ateneo is meant to make me and my colleagues question my moral standing.  If not, what else could a threat to strip one of his or her Catholicity be about?  The unfolding drama at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru to which the Ateneo case is being compared can only be viewed as an unfortunate turn of events.  Disclosure: I am one of the 192 signatories.

Here one meets an irony.  Such considerably scathing remarks do not make me doubt my faith.  Nor do they make me rethink my admiration for academic learning.  And doubtlessly remaining intact is my respect for a religious tradition with a long history of engaging natural knowledge and divine revelation to tackle its fragmentations within.  Alarm, however, ought to be raised against any form of pontification that disregards genuine appreciation for the variegations of the world we live in.  The world and its accompanying problems are too complex to just listen to one voice.  In the words of the theologian Harvey Cox (The Persistence of Religion), “a willingness to learn…demands a measure of humility on everyone’s part – a willingness to listen, and the frank recognition that we could be mistaken.”  Without such humility, we strip ourselves of our capacity to be caught in wonder.

Dr Jayeel Serrano Cornelio is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany.  He also holds a joint appointment with the Development Studies Program and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University.  He conducts research in the areas of youth, religion, and education.