Faith and Reason

IMG_7917-sized1For many visitors and certainly for our alumni, Saint John’s has a special sense of place.  It is a rare combination of the natural setting of woods, lakes and prairie and the built spaces of handmade red bricks and brilliant Marcel Breuer architecture all interacting with the of people who live in Collegeville—the timeless stability of the monastic community, our deeply committed faculty and staff, and the youthful energy of each generation of students.  This magical mix makes so many Johnnies call Collegeville “home” long after they have graduated.  It is also a blend that we are careful not to tamper with.

This sense of place was certainly foremost in the mind of architect Gregory Friesen as he was tasked with renovating the iconic Alcuin Library as part of the library and learning commons project at Saint John’s.  While he certainly felt a strong obligation to preserve the spirit and design of Marcel Breuer, he also was aware of the need to have the renovated Alcuin and new Br. Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons fit into the sense of place that is so central to Saint John’s.  To achieve this nuanced charge while also making the academic space thoroughly 21st century, Friesen went back to Breuer’s original conception which was tied directly to Benedictine and Catholic history.  The University’s central space and focal point is Abbey Plaza, where the Abbey and University Church stands on the south side of the mall and Alcuin Library on the north, with open green space in between.  Faith and reason are represented together and in conversation with each other, as has been central to Catholic teaching and preserved by the Benedictines for centuries.  There is no more succinct and beautiful manifestation of the mission of a Catholic, Benedictine university.  And Friesen is making it even better.

IMG_7923-sizedAnyone who has visited Alcuin Library knows it is a beautiful and innovative structure, with the two massive, concrete trees of knowledge gracing and supporting the building on the upper level.  There is certainly natural light in that space, but the need to have load bearing concrete walls required the windows to be relatively small and near the ceiling.  Fifty years of construction innovation gave Friesen options that Breuer did not have, and the outcome will be stunning.  The new design will open up the interior space as most of the books move to compact shelving in the lower levels, but most striking will be the natural light that will illuminate the interior, as concrete walls are replaced with glass.  A big part of the south wall will now be glass and allow visitors and students to look out at the Abbey and University Church across the mall.

As the pictures show, even in the midst of construction, the interior has a very different look and feel that is completely in keeping with Breuer’s vision and that of the monks who bravely commissioned this dream over fifty years ago.

The renovated Alcuin and new Learning Commons (which will offer similar views of the Church), will daily remind every visitor and our students that Saint John’s University is a place where faith and reason not only coexist but actively enhance on another as learning and the search for meaning are inextricably intertwined in a great liberal arts education.


By |July 22nd, 2016|Categories: Alumni, Kudos||0 Comments

At Our Finest

The community that is Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict is excellent in many ways.

We enjoy each other’s company and enthusiastically celebrate life’s joys together.  This can be seen at any Johnnie football game or commencement exercise or reunion.

We thrive at welcoming new members to our community, whether it is a visitor to our campuses who is delighted to find so many generous and helpful people in Collegeville and St. Joseph, or a new student or employee who feels almost immediately that they are part of this Benedictine community.

We are great at reaching across generations as older Johnnies and Bennies provide mentoring and personal relationships that make up the well-known and envied Johnnie and Bennie professional network.

But we are at our finest as a community when we reach out to others in a time of sadness and pain.


David Forster Jr. ’11

On Friday June 24, 2016, David Forster Jr. ’11 collapsed and died as he finished an evening run in Minneapolis.  David was a cross-country runner at Hopkins High School and at Saint John’s.  He was also a marathoner who had completed several races, including Grandma’s only a week earlier in which David had helped his Bennie fiancé complete her first marathon.

David’s death at 27 is a mystery and tragedy; a painful reversal of life’s rhythms as his parents, Sandy and David, were shocked to have to bury their first born.

David’s funeral was held at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis last Thursday.  It was an incredible tribute to David, his family and to the CSB/SJU community.  The Basilica, which holds nearly 2000, was full, with a number of mourners standing in the aisles and the back.

Cross country runners from SJU, across many years, formed an honor guard that stretched the length of the center aisle.  Hundreds of Johnnies and Bennies from David’s parents’ and grandparents’ generation were there, and there were many current and recent students, who never met David but simply wanted to be there to support the many people who loved him.  And of course David and his fiancé’s friends turned out in droves, many flying in from across the country.

A young woman from David’s class said, “I have never felt more proud to be part of this community than I did at David’s funeral.  To see the number of people at the funeral was amazing.”

A monk from Saint John’s who has attended hundreds of funerals over many years noted that, “It was impossible to be at this event and not be proud and impressed by Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s.  I felt so proud of the community.”

None of this is to forget the deep tragedy of David’s death.  May we have few opportunities to show the strength of this community.  But it is deeply consoling to be part of such a community, knowing that they will wrap you in their arms during the inevitable painful events of life.

By |July 6th, 2016|Categories: Alumni||1 Comment

Brexit, Donald Trump and the Liberal Arts

Image girardatlarge via Flickr

Image girardatlarge via Flickr

Last week the people of the United Kingdom shocked the world, and many of their fellow citizens, by voting in favor of leaving the European Union.  Brexit, as the policy was nicknamed, was expected to be close, but polls and financial markets all indicated that the referendum would fail.  It did not.  51.9% voted “leave” and 48.1% voted “remain.”

What has been most interesting to me, in the aftermath of the vote, is how the media and commentators have responded to this admittedly surprising and very important outcome.  I would have thought that the first thing any media coverage would focus on would be, “Why did this happen?”  Instead, the coverage was a combination of, first, how this decision was an unambiguous disaster for the UK, Europe and even the world, and, second, how incredibly ignorant the referendum’s supporters were.

NPR’s Morning Edition spent most of their “analysis” explaining how this would hurt British citizens and harm the EU enterprise.  One reporter told of crying in the shower when she heard the news.  (I think her neutral journalistic mask might have slipped a bit there.)

Others focused their attention on British voters.

Appearing on NBC’s Today, analyst and Daily Beast editor Christopher Dickey launched into a tirade against Britain’s vote to leave the European Union: “…(what) they claim it says, right off the bat, is that they were tired of all the bureaucracy of the European Union, they didn’t want all the constraints, they want their sovereignty. But what this was really about is fear, xenophobia, in some cases, certainly racism.”

Dickey concluded by touting more outlandish fearmongering: “In fact, the president of the European Council said this doesn’t just threaten the European Union, this threatens western civilization. He may have been overstating it, but that’s the mood.”

Brendan O’Neill, in analyzing the reactions to Brexit at the libertarian website, wrote:

A recurring theme in the elitist rage with the pro-Brexit crowd has been the idea that ordinary people aren’t sufficiently clued-up to make big political decisions. We have witnessed a “populist paean to ignorance,” says one observer. Apparently populist demagogues—like Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), and Boris Johnson, everyone’s favorite bumbling, toffish politician—preyed on the anxieties of the little people and made them vote for something bad and stupid. For these little people, “fear counts above reason; anger above evidence,” opined a writer for the Financial Times. A writer for The Guardian suggested that for anti-E.U. types, emotions “play a larger part than rationality.”

The Washington Post tweeted, “Brexit is a reminder that some things just shouldn’t be decided by the people.”

Strangely, perhaps, all of this reminded me of the importance of and need for the liberal arts.  There are lots of different ways of thinking about the liberal arts, but, for me, an education based on the liberal arts does at least two important things:

  1. A liberal arts education stimulates and nurtures intellectual curiosity about the world and meaning.  That includes both the natural/physical world—the sciences—and the social/human world—the social sciences and the humanities.
  2. Related but separable, a liberal arts education develops the capacity for empathy—the ability to understand others and how they view themselves, their interests and the world.  The humanities are central to this outcome, but the natural and social sciences also play a role.
Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

Most of the reactions to Brexit seem to me to be a failure both of curiosity (“How and why did this political outcome happen?”) and empathy (“How and why might a steel worker in the British Midlands come to have a different view of this referendum than I do?”).

If one wants to understand the world better, it would seem obvious that trying to answer these questions is important.  But even from a narrow, self-interested perspective, this kind of introspection would be helpful: “I want people to understand me and my views, so I should extend the same courtesy to them.”

The lack of curiosity and empathy are not limited to Brexit—it is only the most recent example.  Our political life is full of such responses.  Many Americans think Trump supporters are xenophobic and racists.  Others think Sanders supporters are naïve communists.  The list of examples goes on.

Those who resort to simple and simplistic explanations of the behavior of others are at best deeply uncurious and, at worst, examples of the allegedly shallow narrow-minded people they decry.

The way out of this intellectual balkanization and move toward genuine engagement with others is to encourage curiosity and practice empathy—in other words, to embrace the lessons of the liberal arts.