Friday, June 13, 2008

The Healing Question

This post today is meant as a counterbalance to the immediately previous post "Beyond Pondering the Flow."  Therein I mused as to how destructive deep and dark questioning can be to our peace of mind; how unsettling to our equanimity.  Now I wish to look at the importance of the questioning spirit, and ponder how healing this very spirit can be.

When we first went to college in 1976 at the tender age of 18 we were all full of questions, and we really did ask them.  I remember the Director of Mater Dei Institute, Rev. Dr. Paddy Wallace, RIP, saying that he preferred his graduates to leave college with more questions than answers.  I often remember him quipping, "You may not end up with a good answer.  You may end up with a better question."  This approach I loved because he certainly did not give hard and fast answers.  In many senses Paddy was ahead of his time.  He had a greater delight in wonder and mysticism than in devotion and doctrine.  Hence I always felt at home with his take on religion, church, spirituality and life.  He was a seeker and searcher, not an oracle of hard and fast answers.  We were taught to think things through for ourselves and arrive at our own synthesis of faith - whatever that might be.  Over the last thirty years my own approach to spirituality has moved on light years from what it was then.  Who knows if I get the time, the energy or even the interest I might right an account of that progress here some day?

As regards the healing question I wish to return to discuss the approach to philosophy of Professor Richard Kearney - my favourite Irish philosopher.  Richard is both a brilliant writer and a brilliant lecturer.  Few, I have found, could do both so well.  Here is Richard on what philosophy means:

Primarily philosophy to me means a questioning rather than an answering.  It means inviting students to think for themselves and to question, rather than providing them with solutions.  It is not ideology, it is not theology; it is a way of getting students to enquire in a socially committed and personally involved fashion.  It is exposing them to a variety of different currents of thought.  (Richard Kearney in an interview with Stephen J. Costello in The Irish Soul in Dialogue, Liffey Press, 2001, 139-140)

There is much wisdom in this definition here.  Kearney repeats almost verbatim what Paddy Wallace felt even theology should do.  I also love the fact that any approach to philosophy should insist that the students think for themselves.  This has always been my approach even in secondary teaching. I remember one brilliant lecturer, who was director of my master's thesis in philosophical theology, Dr. Brian McNamara, S.J., who, having given me a rather long list of books to peruse for our next appointment, said, "Now I don't want to know what Rahner or Lonergan or Schillebeeckx think.  I want to know what you think when you have read them."   I have always been lucky in my educational mentors and directors.  Another marvellous lecturer I had was Dr. Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J. whose meditation site can be accessed by a link on the right of this blog page.  Michael Paul was and is a gentle, refined, spiritual and most erudite lecturer.  I rate him among the best communicators I every had over periods spent in four colleges.  He was and is equally at home in theology, philosophy and literature.  He has spent many years in dialogue with culture in all its facets, and especially with unbelief under its many guises from practical to theoretic atheism, from rigid skepticism to blander agnosticism and out to materialism and indifferentism .  I remember him saying that if Institutes like Mater Dei did their job well they should produce atheists and agnostics as well as people who were deeper believers than when they first started.  In other words Michael Paul also subscribes to getting people to think out their faith stance or life stance or whatever.  Now back to our man Richard Kearney.

Richard comes from a family tradition of medicine stretching back generations.  Healing of body and soul were always important, he tells us, in his family.  In a way philosophy belongs, he believes, to a healing tradition as well as does medicine:

I would like to think philosophy is another kind of healing, which involves the psyche...I have always thought of philosophy as a therapy for the soul, beginning with the Greeks...My uncles were obstetricians and gynaecologists.  In a way philosophy is another kind of midwifery, but this time of questions and answers - allowing the birth of answers by putting questions to somebody.  It's a kind of psychic obstetrics.  So, maybe medicine and philosophy aren't completely disconnected.  Certainly, my family's approach to medicine always involved the person as much as the anatomy...There was a recognition that medicine involved the mind as well as the body, even though we are focusing on the mind - it's a therapy of the mind, as Wittgenstein put it.  Philosophy is a form of therapy, and asking questions and discovering which questions can be answered appropriately and which can't...So what attracted me to philosophy?  It was the possibility of finding healing and maybe in time helping to give healing through the profession of philosophy by helping people to ask questions about their lives and to try to answer them and if there are no answers, you go the way of faith or acceptance or letting go or endurance or patience or abandonment... (Kearney, op.cit. supra, 140-141)

Again, I am sure the reader will excuse my highlighting certain phrases and sentences in the above passage.  You will see immediately Kearney's emphasis on the healing of philosophy, on its being essentially a therapy of the soul or a therapy of the mind according to Wittgenstein.  He repeats this factor again and again in his interview.  In this sense one could, of course, say that philosophy is quite akin to psychotherapy - hence my bold title above this post - "The Healing Question."  The last sentence in Kearney's response above is very important I feel.  I love that he sees philosophy as practical and human - in no way just a matter for drawing rooms of old or fashionable clubs or universities.  It helps people to ask questions that are important about and in their lives; it even helps when there are no answers because the process of questioning refines the soul as it were (my words).  There are a variety of possible stances to life when rational answers crumble and any real philosopher must allow for all possible stances, for all possible views on life:- some will find answers in religion (faith); others in just accepting life as it is; some in letting go; some in stoicism; some in agnosticism, some in skepticism and some in atheism.  (In this last sentence I have fleshed out the implications of Kearney's words for my own benefit.)

Above I have uploaded a picture I took at The Musée Rodin, Paris about a year ago. Needless to say, this is a picture of Rodin's famous "Le Penseur", "The Thinker" struggling with questions perhaps!

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