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Immersed in Mystery

En Route to Theology

Author(s): Enda McDonagh

ISBN13: 9781853909696

ISBN10: 1853909696

Publisher: Veritas Publications (30 April 2007)

Extent: 224 pages

Binding: Paperback

Size: 23.6 x 16 x 2 cm

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  • The search for the mystery of God as revealed in creation, in human beings and their relations, in the human processes of learning, artistic creation and political community has been a lifelong preoccupation of Enda McDonagh, one of the most eminent moral theologians of our time. In this book he draws together the fruits of fifty years of study and practice as priest and theologian.


    Part I of the book is a reflection on a life of learning, teaching and research, culminating in an essay which examines why the university needs theology. Part II examines the work of friends and fellow travellers, including Bernhard Haering and John Macquarrie, among others. Part III explores the radical call to communion in a globalising world. 

  • Enda McDonagh

    The Reverend Professor Enda McDonagh is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Tuam. He was born in Bekan, near Clanmorris, Co Mayo and had a distinguished academic career at St Jarlaths College, Tuam and at Maynooth, where he was ordained in 1955. Following subsequent graduate work in Maynooth, he was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity and a Doctorate in Canon Law. He was appointed Professor of Moral Theology and Canon Law at the Pontifical University at Maynooth in 1958, a post which he held until his retirement from full time teaching in 1995.


    He has written sixteen books and contributed to sixteen more. In the early 1960s, he founded the InterChurch Association of Moral Theology, and he is also involved with the conducting of ecumenical retreats with Church of Ireland and other Anglican clergy. In 2007 he was appointed an Ecumenical Canon at St. Patricks Cathedral, Dublin.

  • Be the first to review this product

    Enda McDonagh is considered to be Irelands foremost theologian. He has made important contributions in the area of moral theology. This book is offered as a 'theological travelogue' emphasizing the authors many comings and goings, intellectual and spiritual, that have shaped his theology in the past fifty years. This book brings together previously published, as well as unpublished, works. The various contributors are collected into three sections, all having to do with mystery: 'In the Academy: The Mystery of Learning'; 'The Church and World: Mystery and Morality'; and 'Among Friends: Celebrating the Mystery of Friendship.'

    Ranging broadly across issues of education, aesthetics, theology and ethics, the author establishes in the various writings that make up this volume the reasons for his place and role in contemporary theology. Recommended for those who are interested in the making of contemporary theology and ethics.

    - Catholic Library World, September 2008



    Towards a philosophy of education in a new era
    It is perhaps ironic, but also encouraging, even exciting, that with philosophy now one of the poor relations of our university education and non-existent at first or second level in Ireland (unlike many of its EU colleagues), we should still want to explore a philosophy of education in the changing conditions of our society. And all the terms in the title of this lecture are disputable even in the absence of serious debate about them. Such debates as there are seem fearful of the kind of intellectual analysis which a stronger philosophical presence in our universities and public discourse might encourage and indeed enable. That this exploration should be attempted by somebody who has never been professionally a philosopher may be regrettable in some respects, but it may also permit a certain intellectual and experiential freedom derived from seventy years in statu puppilari, from the infant scholar to the Professor Emeritus whose university studies and interests ranged from philosophy and theology to science and the arts.

    As Teddy, manager of the Fantastic Francis Hardy: Faith Healer in Brian Friels wonderful play, remarks: Ill tell you something, dear heart: spend your life in show business and you become a philosopher. The education business is a kind of show business too, at least for those of us on this side of the podium. But education is much larger than education business. At least it was and is supposed to be, although the present signs are not always encouraging. And a philosophy of education, if such there be, obviously does not fit Teddys type of dear heart or other barstool confidences, concerned as they may sometimes be with education rather than show business. For that matter the educational musings of politicians, editors and academic leaders may be much more focused on education business or what amounts to much the same thing, education for business, than on education itself. Its the economy, stupid! has long since moved from the office of the would-be President of the United States to the education offices of governments, of university administrators and indeed of other educators. That business preoccupation may be the most telling threat of the New Era, of which this lectures title speaks.

    To concentrate on such a present danger, however imminent it may sometimes seem, would be to betray the search for an illuminating and coherent understanding of education, its purpose, process and product, in this or any other era. Paranoia in education, as in politics and personal relations, is the deadly enemy of the true and the good, two traditional and essential characteristics of that profound understanding of education we may label a philosophy of education.

    In invoking the true and the good as essential and so continuing characteristics of western education at least, we must travel from fifth century Athens BCE, through the early medieval universities of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of the Common Era and on to at least nineteenth-century Dublin, with wide variations on these themes throughout twenty-five centuries and beyond. This is not the occasion and neither am I the expert who might guide you through the complex development and yet persistent identity of these primary university features. Suffice it to say that these features have survived in face of many intellectual, cultural and political upheavals. One task of this paper is to examine how they may not only survive but flourish in what may be fittingly called a new university era.
    But this paper is not just another foray into the much debated role of the university today, despite its importance in itself and in any effort to consider in depth education at all stages in its formal and informal manifestations. It is worth recalling that those progenitors of philosophy of education such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle also paid serious attention to the earlier stages of education, what we would call first and second level, and not just to the more advanced levels. In doing so they placed considerable emphasis on the educational role of parents themselves, a role being gradually diminished in our context.

    The aims and principles of education
    The phrase is borrowed from John Henry Newmans famous discourses, although inevitably adapted, even translated, into language and ideas appropriate to this lecture and this lecturer. Attempting a philosophy of education in its life span and not just at university level or even through the school levels, I have to try to be at once more general than Newman, his illustrious predecessors and successors on university education, and peculiarly attentive to the very different era in which we live. Yet continuity with these masters, even to the point of facing the menace of metaphysics, is no less necessary to a genuine if general philosophy of education. How far the translations or variations and the continuities are successfully combined will be for people more expert than me to judge.

    In the range of reading, immediate and remote, as well as in my near fifty years as a formal educator, while still a learner, I have had what I might call principles but more aptly poles before me. They were the individual student as person in his or her own right to whom I must personally respond and the context of the wider societies from class to school to university to civil or ecclesial society in which that response had to be made. Both teacher and student, and for that matter researcher at a different level, ignored at both their perils this dipolarity of education. Teacher and student as persons in community(ies) are the first principles (principia, starting-points) of any educational enterprise. And this applies to parents and children, to masters and apprentices, to lowly laboratory assistants and highflying research bosses as much as to regular classroom teachers and their students.

    Here we touch on the menace of metaphysics, at least as a philosophical understanding of the human being in her dignity and basic equality as member of the human race, her right to personal development to the extent to which she is capable, within the confines of family, school and society. This personal development or education in the broad sense occurs as indicated above in the dialogical mode, involving pupil and teacher, school and society, and more urgently now the physical environment in which all these exist. It is the existence of such realities not as projections of the mind but as subjects of encounter and dialogue which grounds education and makes its further examination and development essential to true and fuller human existence. Such true and fuller human existence may be adopted, in fidelity to Newman and other masters, as a simple description of the aims of education itself.

    Autonomy and vulnerability
    In briefly discussing the aims and principles of education as adapted from western tradition, two notable deviations might be observed. The first of these was the qualification of individual autonomy, which in recent centuries certainly played a dominant role in social thinking and in educational theory and practice. From the child-centred emphasis in early schooling to the often isolated doctoral student at university level, the primacy of the individual prevailed in school as in society. And this was not without good reason. The dignity of the individual person as instanced earlier and the wide variation of learning abilities and interests all require specific attention to the individual at every level of education, and particularly at the earliest ones. The irreducible and irreplaceable individual person and learner has to be recognised and respected as such by teacher and system. She in turn is increasingly responsible for developing her individual gifts for her own sake and for the sake of the community who has provided her with these facilities and in the context of which she becomes a mature person.

    Between individual autonomy and social determinism
    That the individual person has all the rights and eventually the responsibilities in school and society has been in theory at least at the heart of our educational philosophy. The obvious failures to respect and protect these for the variously deprived, the poor, the travellers, those suffering from physical or intellectual disability and more recently in our country the new immigrants, have not negated the principles, still less stemmed the rhetoric. What is less clearly analysed and understood is that individual education is also committed to the good of the community, the common good, not as something added on from outside in return for what has been received in the educational process but as intrinsic to that process itself, as intrinsic as the community dimension is to the existence and growth of the person. This intrinsic connection of person and community and their mutual ethical demands provide some of the knottiest problems in a range of disciplines, and not just in philosophy. Education as a whole in the last century has experienced both extremes from sheer individualism to social determinism and with a lot of ineffective muddling in between, and with damaging consequences to person and society.

    An apparently more small-scale problem is that of people with physical or mental disabilities. Yet their educational neglect might well give the impression that they were lesser human being or at least had fewer and weaker educational rights. This is not only an injustice to themselves but damages society in its practice of justice. It could be seen in our countries as a result of competitive individualism but the lessons of Romania and other former USSR countries reveal the other dark side of the educational coin.

    Education and the problem of human evil
    From the Greeks through the Medievals but above all through the Enlightenment and its aftermath education was assumed to be the road to progress, to the formation of the good person and the good society. At a certain level of both abstraction and practice that is still a tenable proposition.Yet the mixed results, including downright evil caused by education and by the educated in every century and country, may not be dismissed. The petty
    criminals of petty schooling are not the problem. Much more serious are the evasions or encouragement of sectarianism, racism and sexism of which so many schools have been guilty. And in recent years, as the damage to the environment by human activity became more obvious, little effort to combat it by education.

    However, the utter destructiveness inspired and endorsed by some of the most highly educated in the most advanced countries over the last century more powerfully undermine educations claim to be the guarantee and vanguard of human progress. From Oxbridge to the rape of Africa, from the Free University of Berlin to the savagery of Auschwitz, from Yale to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, the list goes on and on, reaching from past and present into a future bloated with educational and cultural expectations. The fault lies not in our schools but in ourselves and in our evil tendencies as well as in our educational, political and economic systems which may indulge these tendencies as much as they oppose and seek to correct them. In developing an adequate educational programme, humanitys destructive capacities will need to be taken into account together with its immense capacities for good, without transforming our schools into institutions akin to self-defeating boot camps or even prisons.

    Purpose and process at elementary level
    Diverting into a rather long discussion of the evils to which all are heir may seem inappropriate in a search for a philosophy of education. Yet it is the real human being and the real human society with their mixed history of good and evil which must inform our search. With that mixture duly noted one is free to proceed along the more positive lines with which education has been traditionally concerned, from Plato to Augustine to Rousseau to Newman, Dewy and more recently Allan Bloom, to pick a list not quite at random.

    Assuming with the ancients that the purpose of education is the good person/citizen in the good society does not immediately illuminate the task of today. Apart from the debated meaning of the good, personal and communal, in this as in other eras, the discrete goods to which contemporary education is directed are always complex and sometimes conflictual. At the elementary stage complexity and conflict may not appear so obvious or so threatening. Yet when you count in the role and desire of parents, and the increasing cultural and religious differences which even Ireland is experiencing, some difficulties are bound to arise.

    In an important sense these difficulties are not entirely new: The mixed population of many schools hitherto while not involving racial or religious differences to any great extent did involve differences in personality and personal ability, in family and social background, which called for sensitivity to difference from teachers and pupils. Because they were less obvious they were often ignored, to the detriment certainly of the pupils. The much more obvious differences today in ethnic, cultural and racial characteristics offer much greater challenges to teachers and pupils.

    The first challenge, however, is to see beyond the presenting differences to the basic and equal humanity of each pupil with the consequent rights to equal treatment in accordance with their special needs and capacities. Seeing beyond these differences may be claiming too much in that the basics in language, for example, will have to take account of each pupils original language. It is exactly here for a multi-cultural society, such as ours is becoming, that the problems of unity in differentiation with the individual development, being at once respected in itself and integrated into society, become first apparent in school.

    Reading and writing have long been the mark of the educated person. They face new risks today from the media multiplication, bearing innumerable and confusing sounds and images, half-words and pseudowords. By crowding out regular and structured words and sentences they diminish language and communication, making it difficult for teachers to get past the mobile phone and the Ipod. Of course the judicious use of these ever-evolving media have their value in personal enjoyment, social relations and straightforward learning but they should always be measured against the more sophisticated and tested means of a broader educational tradition.

    This corrective is achieved not by the reading and writing drill alone but by associated introduction to the arts and crafts of music and dancing, of drawing and making, where the pupils begin to learn some sense of style and beauty and creativity by doing for themselves rather than passively observing the work of others. Stages of development have to be aligned in these activities with the students personal growth but it is hardly ever too soon once schooling has started to offer some creative outlet in at least a fun form to the young. The purpose of education will thus have an effective beginning, with one significant exception of course.

    For reasons not always easy to decipher the third r, arithmetic and mathematics, are usually regarded as the bogeymen of early and sometimes later education. The distinction between the left and right sides of the brain or
    the newer concept of multiple intelligences do not seem to account adequately for the resistance some students display to learning both elementary mathematics and science. Both share many of the imaginative qualities of the
    more acceptable humanities. And both can be equally enjoyable in the right environment. And certainly both in varying degrees are essential to the developed citizen and society of modern times. It might also be remembered
    that it is the schoolchildren of today who are most likely to suffer the eco-damage now strongly predicted but hardly featured in early education. Where to begin and how to proceed with these reputedly difficult subjects require decisions ?úrom the experts, the teachers who may have to experiment with different pupils and subjects in search of the most effective methods.

    A serious lack in discussing programmes for primary or later schools would be that of human relations between students themselves and between students and teachers. We have had plenty of examples of failures in this area recently. The first responsibility lies with the teachers in conducting their classes in that spirit of truth, goodness and justice to which all education is directed. Students must develop their own sense of responsibility partly modelled on that of their teachers but also endorsed by their parents and by the peers they choose as companions. In a fragmenting society breaches of good conduct will be inevitable and occasional sanctions essential without resorting to the physical or other injurious punishment so prevalent in the past. The building of supportive school community through team games, choirs and drama groups will help prevent some of the division and factions which may easily arise. Even in primary schools, but more so in secondary, student bullying can be a serious disciplinary problem as well as contradicting the very purpose and process of true education.

    Building on the elementary
    The search for a philosophy of education seldom devotes much time and energy to elementary or primary education. The end product at university level is usually key subject matter. This may well be justified and is obviously congenial to many authors in this area who are themselves working in universities. However, a philosophy of education should endeavour to encompass and ground the whole process of formal education at least. This process has always included early schooling which up to recently in some of our countries was the only schooling available to the majority of our citizens. In a fresh turn of history university degrees no longer provide the end goal for all seeking further education. The fourth and fifth levels of education are emerging for post-doctoral students but more interestingly for a new back-to-school generation, whether second chance, retired or simply in search of new intellectual adventures. This movement may well confirm and deepen the philosophy of education sought after here.

    The outline materials of elementary schooling provide the basis for more intense and specialised study at second level without losing the broad range of interests and subjects. Without therefore lingering on the detail of such programmes and their relation to one another and to the purpose and process of education, it may be more helpful to consider the transitional stage in which students find themselves as they move through adolescence into early adulthood. At the intellectual level many may be capable of the kind of abstract thinking more usually associated with university. So the great abstract values which have permeated education for millennia, of truth, goodness and beauty may become recognisable to them in their concrete studies of literature, science and art without reducing the potential delight which these concrete creations offer. Too often students come to these ideas and delights too late, a serious handicap in their further studies at university or elsewhere as well as in later adult life.

    At the emotional level adolescent students veer readily between conformity to the dress and lifestyle of their peers, however attractive or unattractive these may be, and rebellion against the establishment, however benign or malign this may be. Both these moves to conformity and rebellion can play important roles in reaching adult maturity, although they can persist beyond the valuable growth stage to immature fixation, defeating the purpose of their education.

    A more subtle and sinister, because disguised, enemy of true education at second level is the points race and the career obsession. Of course, one of the main purposes of education is to equip the student to make a satisfying life for himself with an adequate income in a career adapted as far as possible to his talents and qualifications, and as far as possible of his own choosing. This of course is rarely and simply available, although much more than it used to be. As entry into some careers and all university courses is based on examination results, and a less flawed method has yet to be devised, the pressure in the last years of second level is on acquiring maximum points in particular or all subjects, often without too much attention to the intrinsic value and delight of the actual subject. As recent research has shown that these results are a quite reliable guide to eventual primary degree results at university, they may be presumed to have much the same advantages and disadvantages: competence of a high standard without accompanying creativity and knowledge, without its traditional companion delight.

    These conclusions may be much too harsh in not allowing for the flowering of students in a university atmosphere or for the inspiration of individual teachers at second or third level. We have all encountered late flowering students as well as students who followed brilliant examination results at second level with outstanding careers as university students and staff or in quite different contexts. Whether they or we have attained the traditionally final goals of education as good individuals and as good members of society is always more difficult to judge.

    And finally to the university
    In a later chapter I deal at some length with the reform of university education. However, some of the points made might be further developed here in a search for a philosophy of education. Not only is philosophy of education more usually treated by university people (perhaps other teachers are too busy educating to write about it), but as the culmination of the formal process, the university and its values influence, even shape, for good or ill preceding education.

    Faithful to the great western tradition of philosophy and education one might summarise these values as truth, goodness and beauty. The earlier sections of this paper struggled with these ideas in themselves and their interactions and at least implicitly in discussing the particulars of elementary and secondary education. That discussion left aside at the time the explicit moral character of these values, at least of truth and goodness. Truth seeking and communication is at the heart of the educational process but is also central to human morality, both personal and social. While the example of teachers and the performance of truth in the activities of the school is the best education in it, truth also needs explicit discussion and instruction in the classroom. This becomes more urgent in multi-cultural and multi-religious society already with us. A key challenge in this context is how to combine respect for and commitment to truth with the respect for and care of people who espouse different views; how to combine attachment to the truth as one sees it with tolerance for other viewpoints. In a larger moral vision love of the differing neighbours could and should encompass love of truth. In the academic circles of university it might be taken for granted, (although frequently it cannot), that differences in academic conclusions would be native to the scene and never the source of personal animosity and quarrelling. In that connection the academic study of religion in university could provide the basis for amicable agreement to differ as well as restoring one of the great intellectual resources of university tradition to its rightful place. This university of Dublin, now joined by the Irish School of Ecumenics, deserves great credit for its promotion over the last decades of Inter-Church and now Inter-Faith theology.

    After being itself, goodness may be one of the most difficult philosophical notions to capture. However, in this context a certain clarity may be assumed both in regard to the general notion of the good person and, with more difficulty, in regard to the general notion of the good society. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre might argue, such fundamental notions are rooted in a tradition, and, while capable and at times in need of development, maintain a certain consistency and clarity within that tradition. In a multi-traditional society (to coin another barbarism) the difficulties are intensified but may as in the case of truth yield to dialogue, practical compromise and tolerance. Again it is in the context of the university that these practices can provide the first draft at the intellectual level of social harmony in a diverse society. The university goal of the individual student attaining the intellectual roundedness and maturity which prepares him or her for a good life and livelihood, and to be a good member of the commonwealth nations, should take preference over the narrower professional interests which too often predominate.

    The debates over the humanities and the sciences, the more general education and the specialised or the professional and non-professional cannot be properly treated here for reasons of space and time. They have been touched in earlier sections and received more extensive discussion in the paper referred to above. Besides they have been the subject of a great deal of public debate in Ireland over the last year or so. I believe in line with my approach to other divisive issues that mutually enriching compromises are available where the will to power does not prevail over the will to truth and goodness. And it hardly needs repeating that technical training should not take precedence over education and research in fundamental science or that the student confined to professional training is not a true product of the university any more than a humanities graduate ignorant of the fundamentals of modern science or a science graduate without some further study of the humanities is such a true university being.

    The ghosts of beauty
    Beauty is not commonly accounted a characteristic of education or the university. Yet it haunts all our great human achievements as they are penned in literature or limned in art or discovered in science and so the subject of study at all levels of education. More significantly still they characterise at their best human being and relationship, nature and its infinite variety. As with truth and goodness the sense of beauty is imbibed before it is formally learned. The learning is still extremely important if a deeper sensibility is to be achieved in relation to literature, music, architecture and the other human arts as well as to the human person, human society and the natural environment. My last thought then on education and its philosophy might be to adapt a phrase of Gerard Manley Hopkins: Bring beauty back. It may be the surest protection against a ravaging utilitarianism at all levels of education.
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Immersed in Mystery