After two years of graduate studies at the university, I felt that I did not have a sufficiently good education to merit the degree of Doctor in Philosophy. I confided my worries to one of the professors, who said: “What would you like to have in education?” I said: “I should like to know two things—first, what the modern world is thinking about; second, how to answer the errors of modern philosophy in the light of the philosophy of St. Thomas.” He said: “You will never get it here, but you will get it at the University of Louvain in Belgium.
— Fulton J. Sheen, Treasure in Clay
I arrived to the Brussels airport on Sunday morning. From there, I found my way to the train and purchased a ticket to Leuven where I would meet my friend Dan, who is studying there, and who I met at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute First Principles seminar this past summer at Samford University in Alabama. At the closing picnic, he and I had struck up a conversation, along with Vinny, who was studying at Leuven with Dan, too. We hit it off quickly discussing existentialism, phenomenology, and mysticism. They both encouraged me to consider studying at Leuven and to, at the very least, visit. So the seeds planted during that one conversation in Alabama were now bearing fruit in Belgium.
I waited on the platform at the Brussels airport. It was quiet and no one was around, except for a grumpy man driving a floor-cleaning machine. The platform seemed eerie to me, probably just due to my unfamiliarity and, despite the signs overhead indicating that a Leuven train was coming at the time that the ticket had said it would, I still had the sense I wasn’t in the right place. That sense was just apprehension though, and when the Leuven train arrived, I boarded.
I had begun reading another one of Robert Musil’s short stories, but soon-after returned it to my backpack, deciding instead that some gazing out of the windows was necessary to do justice to the experience of being in a new environment. Taking a train through the European countryside, I felt the inspired giddiness of adventure. Travel is often less pleasant as it happens than it is remembered retrospectively once the experience is freed from tedium, necessity, fear, discomfort, or inconveniences and then all of these aspects somehow taking on mythical dimensions of a coherent and meaningful drama when recollected later.
In those initial moments though I was really tired-excited, nervous-anxious, and sweaty/coffee-deprived. After arriving to the Leuven station, I texted Dan and suggested he meet me at Einstein Coffee inside the station where I was drinking a cappuccino – to get energy, to pass the time, to justify waiting in some particular place – and because a familiar beverage always helps to smooth the transition into an unfamiliar place.
Dan arrived and it was a happy reunion. From there, we left the station and went up to the streets. “This is Leuven!” he said. Entering the historic streets, I felt as though I’d travelled back in time to some place that was very quaint and established. It was a Sunday morning and so completely desolate. We walked down a major street and every shop we passed was closed. “The Belgians really do love their Sundays,” began Dan, “And on Fridays, you can hear the same noise that your bag on wheels is making through these cobblestone streets, except multiplied by the hundreds of Dutch and Flemish students all returning to their homes for the weekend.”
He continued to play tour guide en route to his apartment, telling me that Thursday is the main party night in Leuven, pointing out St. Peter’s church and how all the roads lead there, and then showing me the spots he and his friends frequent most often. When I dropped my bags off at his place, I noticed that Dan had the very same edition of Arendt’s The Human Condition on his shelf as I had with me in my backpack. After ten minutes of discussing books in his room, we ventured out again.
Dan told me he attends church at Saint-Quentin’s “because the options in Leuven are fairly limited [i.e., pretty much all of them are Catholic churches].” Saint-Quentin’s is a beautiful 13th century church. Mass was in progress and so we decided to pop in the back just for a peek. I didn’t note too much about the congregation, because I was mesmerized by how the sunlight was beaming through the giant windows, casting a radiant and holy glow.
From there Dan led me to the parish hall were the earlier parishioners were socializing over coffee and biscuits. There Dan introduced me to two of his friends who also study philosophy and also an American priest, Father Thomas, who is working on a dissertation on Edith Stein. I will never finish this account if I write all about the lunch and conversation I enjoyed with Dan and his philosophy friends, but it sure was enjoyable.
What I will mention is that, en route to the restaurant, Dan’s two friends on their bicycles, and Dan and I walking, stopped to gaze up at the Church of Saint Michael. For several minutes, we all took turns telling each other our favourite stories about Fulton Sheen who walked these streets for many years, made daily holy hours in these churches, and told stories and jokes here with such tremendous wit and faith. From first reading about Leuven in Fulton Sheen’s autobiography Treasure in Clay during my World Youth Day pilgrimage in 2011 to, just a couple of years later, being there, I found this to be a very grace-filled moment.
We had a leisurely afternoon. Observing a street festival, of musical performers in the public square. I asked Dan, “Is this common?” He answered, “Oh yea. There are always performers out here and various festivals taking place.” One thing I notice: Europeans sure do have an appreciation of the concept of a public square. And of course, it is always good to return to the experiences that engender the symbols, as Eric Voegelin says!
Dan and I had a lovely conversation over coffee. While we did, I wondered: why don’t we in North America give a biscuit or chocolate whenever serve coffee? This is perhaps the only custom during my trip that I found worthy of importing back – especially if I ever get around to that business plan I have for a 24/6 coffee shop/bookstore in downtown Calgary.
On Monday, December 2, I went with Dan to Leuven to sit in on his seminar class during which he presented on Charles Taylor‘s Introduction to his massive book A Secular Age. As we walked the same way we had the day before, I noticed all the ways in which the scene had completely changed. The streets were bustling with students, the shops were all open, and there were hundreds of bicycles. None of the bicycles, I noticed, were very spiffy, and they all looked more or less the same to me. When I commented along these lines, Dan explained that the bikes are a de facto public good and that they are constantly being stolen. “If you phone the police to report a stolen bike, they’ll just advise you to steal somebody else’s.”
“Here is the Institute of Philosophy,” Dan said as we entered the Institute courtyard. “And there [pointing to the right side of our path] is a statue of Cardinal Mercier. He’s everywhere, as you’ll see. There he is writing something. Who knows what he’s writing? Maybe he’s doing a crossword puzzle.”
We walked up the stairs and entered a large room. Dan and his friends were gathering an hour before class to run through their presentation. But much of that hour was spent in frustration over the “typically Belgian” administrator who said the projector that they booked had, in fact, been “double booked.” A funny thing is how I so romanticized this far-away, lofty-sounding Institute. And in my naive and romanticized vision, all the students and professors were most serious and diligent, always devoted to that great philosophic tradition of continental philosophy, which, of course, was not tainted by such things as administrative bureaucracy, technological glitches, professional pedantry, or student apathy. Ha! And it’s for this reason that I have decided that traveling is a marvellous way of smashing idols. Thanks be to God for this!
Then, it was time to enter the classroom. There were about twenty-five persons, all clearly from a diverse set of countries, traditions, and experiences. I had read Taylor’s Introduction which Dan had sent me in preparation for attending the class. Four students presented for fifteen minutes each, then there was a ten minute break, and then there was an open discussion. The class did turn out to be really quite excellent.
One of the most interesting points of departure in Taylor that we discussed is this:
The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.
To me, this sounds like the ideologizing of religion. Books of world religions present religions in an itemized catalogue like books on political ideologies purport to give an equal and objective treatment of every possible position on the political spectrum, never mind giving judgments on their varying degrees of truthfulness!
There is a great need for making distinctions. What’s the distinction to be made between axioms and dogma? Between religion and ideology? Between worldviews and religion? Between unbelief and nonbelief? Between rationality and reasonableness? I enjoyed the conversation very much about “background conditions”, “vertical transcendence” and “horizontal transcendence”, Habermas, Gadamer, Levinas, progress, relativism, secularism, participation, cultural givenness, liberalism, pluralism, and on and on.
It did, however, become (again) manifestly clear to me that there is this conundrum that political actors cannot possibly spend all their time thinking about these things. Similarly, the thinkers do not often want to participate in the very politics they seek to describe (and so often lament). Nor can they often communicate persuasively their thoughtful and reflective insights to the political actors. This is, of course, what Plato’s Republic is about. But the reality of this perennial tension is easily ignored by both politicians and philosophers. This tension is wonderfully taken into account by Arendt with respect to human plurality and by St. Paul who says: “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” That we can play only a part in the affairs of society is itself revelatory that we belong to some meaningful whole. And I think this is why Arendt said that she refused to participate in the enmity between philosophy and politics – because she understood the mutual reciprocity and codependency of these held in tension.
After lunch, in the afternoon, Dan and I visited the Central Library and then the Edmund Husserl Archives. After going upstairs right next to the Institute and sitting at Husserl’s desk and seeing the cabinet’s containing the archives, Dan said, “Well, that was neat.” “What do you mean? You hadn’t seen that before?” I asked with surprise. In two years of studying philosophy at Leuven, Dan (and his friend who we soon bumped into) had never gone up those stairs to those archives which people from all around the world have visited. “It’s very Belgian of us,” Dan’s American friend began, “for us to not have gone even though we know it’s right there, simply because we do not know the protocol of visiting, like whether or not one is expected to make an appointment.” What a shame for American confidence to be replaced with European timidity, I thought! Or, perhaps it’s simply the very common phenomenon of ignoring what’s in your own backyard, so to speak.
For the rest of the afternoon, Dan and I spent a few hours walking through the parks and conversing about philosophy, history, politics, religion, and reminiscing about our summer seminar experience.
Then, in the evening, Dan and I went to Brussels. Thankfully, he came along to navigate me to the hostel and play tour guide in the new city. We visited Manneken Pis (of which I knew nothing before this trip). “This peeing statue you tell me about, do a lot of people know about it?” I asked ignorantly. “Amanda, it’s like the Eiffel Tower. Everyone knows about it!” Dan informed. We also visited La Grand-Place where there was a beautiful outdoor Nativity, including live animals! There was also a Christmas tree, which Dan remarked was quite the change from last year when political correctness had triumphed and there was no Christmas tree for fear of offending Muslims.
These two days were a good intellectual and cultural initiation and preparation for the main purpose of my trip which was to attending the conference of the Transatlantic Christian Council on Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
This blog is the first in a series of posts relevant to my attendance of the “Sustaining Freedom” Inaugural Conference of the Transatlantic Christian Council. “The mission of the Transatlantic Christian Council is to develop a transatlantic public policy network of European and North American Christians and conservatives in order to promote the civic good, as understood within the Judeo-Christian tradition on which our societies are largely based.” Stay tuned for my subsequent posts on Christianity and secularism in North America and Europe, tensions between religious liberty and pluralism, and more musings about travel and philosophy.