May 11th, 2012

Loyola University New Orleans

Personal/Theological Notebook: Last Day of Class: Secret Society, Presentations, and Prom

Thursday was my last final to give, in this case the final session of my Modern Christian Thought course, where everyone was giving a closing presentation to the course. This course was my absolute favorite of all the university courses I've taught: I had to prep an enormous amount for it, well more than usual for even a new course, and I tried to stuff an inordinate amount of material into the course, though I remained conscious of significant movements I had to leave out for reasons of space. And it was all complicated by my injury and the series of surgeries I've had to have to fix my nose.

I was a little surprised at the beginning of the session to be passed a letter on thick beige paper that had been directed to me and apparently passed through the hands of multiple students, directed toward one of the class members, who was then directed to deliver it to me. Opening it, I found a letter from 1540, Loyola's secret society (presumably named for the year in which the Jesuits were officially recognized as an order by the Catholic Church). From what little I've heard, 1540 enjoys the typical mixed reception of such groups, with some on campus being very annoyed by the existence of a secret society, and others impressed with the anonymous charitable works and donations for other students that its members have engaged in. In my case, they were kind enough to go out of their way to say:
For the betterment of Loyola through selfless endeavors

Salve Dr. Michael Anthony Novak,

Formed on April 22nd, 1998, we are a secret society dedicated to the betterment of Loyola through selfless endeavors. We are who you think we are. We are who you think we are not.

We would like to take this opportunity to personally thank you for your exceptional commitment to the student body of Loyola University. Your tireless dedication to the Religious Studies department and the Catholic Studies program has not gone unnoticed. We understand that you had a particularly difficult time amidst your surgeries this academic year, yet the way in which you have carried yourself and have been a positive role model for students is truly remarkable. For your selfless devotion, genuine heart, adventurous spirit, and inspiring intellect that you share with this community, we thank you.

In our society of companions, we consider commendable the fruits of your labor at our University.

We hope you realize the significantly positive impact you have had on the minds and hearts of students here at Loyola. We will be saddened by your absence from our campus next fall, yet we know you will continue to bless those elsewhere with your presence. We thank you immensely, and we wish you well in your future endeavors.


So, as always, it's gratifying to be noticed and appreciated, not least as my visiting professor contract comes to a close.

The session itself was kind of a joy: a sort of victory lap for everyone involved, and a last occasion for some conversation about the ideas we all together encountered this semester, continuing in our more seminar-style format. It seemed that certain threads of what stood out to people as center aspects of Christian thought over the last three centuries became apparent over the course of the two hours' talk: the ongoing importance of the truth question in Christianity specifically and in religions in general, as Alex H. articulated, with support from Michael in talking about Karl Rahner, where he highlighted the critical role that harmony with the physical sciences (all enduring popular Enlightenment conception of a "war between science and religion" notwithstanding); the current theological task of creating a theology of world religions in Christian perspective, which Cardinal began the discussion by interestingly tying right back to our first reading of John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration and Chad continued with his ongoing consideration of Rahner's "anonymous Christian" category; the problem of the presentation of religious thought in modernity, with the still potent and serious moderation of John Henry Newman being held up as an example by Alex B. and Martin, with Tom going out of his way to specifically talk about ideas from Newman's Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine and the current row in the Church between the Vatican and some women's religious orders; and the thoughtful and engaged discussion of the importance of Liberation Theology and what it adds to the conversation from Monica, Michelle, Neefiyah, and Haley.

And so many other individual points: the ongoing revelation of discovering how little is actually known by people (believers included) of what the Catholic Church actually teaches in how Megan highlighted her reading of Pastor Aeternus and Lumen Gentium; Kyleah's vigorous argument that we had not read David Hume as moderately as she thought he ought to be read; Chris's yearlong-germinating reflection on grace in Dietrich Bonhoeffer that started in the 20th Century Systematic Theology directed readings he did with me; and Chelsey's take-me-by-surprise closing meditation on Paul Ricouer's work on narrative, causing us to close out the discussion, then, on the narrative or narratives we saw forming over the course of the semester as we attempted to get some mastery of the layout of Christian Thought from the Enlightenment until today.

The class began to pack up and the crowd dispersed, with the seniors getting ready for the semi-formal "Maroon and Gold" event on the "horseshoe" grounds in front of the university. But before that happened, a few people had been starting to talk about going out together, or going over to the Columns or some such, when a number of senior voices insisted that instead of doing that, I should come enjoy the free champagne with them at "prom." So I began to hear the utterly-unexpected sentence, "Will you come to Prom?" and the like. Since I was wearing a decent shirt and jacket (if with very dark jeans), I agreed to meet them at prom.

But before that, before and after I grabbed a quick dinner on campus, I had a couple of great talks with students. Megan, who I hadn't remembered was also graduating, had lined up a teaching position in the city already. Although her goal is to continue her education with a Master's in Theology before too long, she thought she would work her way up to teaching high school students, and so she is starting as the Religion instructor in 5th-7th grade classes at a Catholic grade school. This was fabulously exciting, so we hung around in the classroom talking teaching, student age and perception differences, classroom management, and the like for a while. We had a horrifying moment outside the student center where we stopped to help an older woman who missed seeing a step down and fell right in front of us, but mercifully she seemed unhurt. Later on, taking care of some work in the library, I ran into Kyleah, who I had only heard that day was going to be taking part in Sr. Terri's touring courses in Italy in the next month, and so I enthused about Italy for a bit with her, talking about Rome, about art to see in Florence during their excursion there (Michelangelo's Florentine Pieta and Masaccio's Holy Trinity being the two great masterpieces for me that cannot be found in the Uffizi). We talked about the geography of her experience as a native of Louisiana, and what she hoped to see of other places as she traveled abroad; as well as about the faux-historical fiction of Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. I had to cut it short, though, as I had promised to get over to the "prom."

This managed to take me by surprise, too. But the entry is running long, so I'll continue that later.