A Student’s Guide to Popular Heresies

Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind, John Zmirak, editor (West Chester, Penn.: Ascension Press, 2010)

 

A Student’s Guide to Popular HeresiesFor many students, the summer after graduation is a stressful time. After the long expected rite of passage, they anticipate a few weeks of ease before going off to college. High school is over. College classes don’t start until August or September. The unknown beckons and the summer in between, so looked forward to, contains a note of unexpected foreboding.

The student’s parents often feel anxiety as well, except that it is no surprise to them. For years, they have been fearing the moment that their child springs forth into the world as an adult—or at least mostly adult—human being.

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The book, Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind book was written to address some of those fears.

Combating the Secularism of the University

Parents may well have another set of questions as well. These questions may not occur to the students, because as yet the students don’t know what they are in for. These questions have to do with what goes on in the classroom. What ideas will Henry hear from his professors? Is Celeste’s faith going to be challenged by some atheist instructor? What chance does an eighteen-year-old have in an intellectual face-to-face with some PhD, who has spent his whole life developing a secular worldview?

These questions gave rise to the book that was published by Ascension Press.

The editor, John Zmirak, is well acquainted with the plight of students trying to keep their faith in a college environment that works hard to take it away. He is a graduate of Yale University with graduate degrees from Louisiana State. He is a prolific writer who has long dealt with these heresies, and now serves as senior editor of The Stream.

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This book is a collection of essays aimed at the unwary college student. Each essay looks at a currently popular collegiate heresy. Among the fourteen essays are some topics that one would expect—Hedonism, Marxism, and Feminism among them. There are also a few that are a bit of a surprise—Consumerism, Scientism, and Americanism. Mr. Zmirak compiled a list of impressive talent when he went out looking for authors. Fr. George Rutler, Elizabeth Scalia, Peter Kreeft, and Jimmy Akin are among the essayists.

Any attempt to speak intelligently about all of the fourteen topics would either be superficial or as long as this slim volume (181 pages).

Modernism

That being said, perhaps the most useful essay is the final one, Modernism by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf. In twelve pages, the good Father cogently discusses the roots of the Modernist heresy back to Renaissance humanism and through the Enlightenment idea that, “Man should perfect himself and the world by his own efforts.” He then goes on to discuss the fact that the core of this heresy is confusion about the nature of God. Is God the source of eternal truth, or a “god” in one’s own likeness? Certainly, this thinking has infiltrated the Church and, especially, its universities:

Slowly but surely, even within the Catholic Church, individual human reason was proposed as the ultimate criterion of truth, of good and evil. Truths of the Christian Faith became subject to the veto of reason. In the minds of some theologians, divine revelation had to be reshaped in accord with their own conclusions about human needs and progress. For these theologians, natural sciences and worldly philosophies became the starting point for theology. These men came to be called (and later to call themselves) “modernists.”

Fr. Zuhlsdorf then explains that Pope Saint Pius X called modernism the, “summary of all heresies.”

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At about the same time that the Church officially rejected it, the Protestants embraced modernism. Fr. Zuhlsdorf sums up the downhill slide in a single paragraph:

To see this religious approach put into practice, follow the history of the Anglican (Episcopal) church in the twentieth century. The Anglican communion largely embraced Modernist principles. That church followed the lead of popular sentiment in revising, one after another, its central tenets to suit modern man’s “needs.” In the 1930s, Anglicans legitimized the use of artificial contraception. In the 1970s, they approved ordination of women to their priesthood. In the 1980s, they endorsed the ordination of open and active homosexuals. That church seems now to be on the verge of celebrating same-sex “marriage.”

The cure, according to Fr. Zuhlsdorf, is to embrace the traditional liturgy. In the mystery of the Latin Mass is to be found the path to escape from the self-absorption that lies at the heart of the heresy.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Certainly, every book with fourteen authors will have its high and low points. There are points with which one might disagree. For instance, some of the authors are more inclined toward the “reforms” of Vatican II than are many traditional Catholics.

There are also topics that could well have been discussed that are not to be found here. A chapter on the quasi-religious nature of environmentalism, for instance, would have been useful. It might also have been appropriate to include “presentism,” the common practice of evaluating the actions of those in past centuries according to twenty-first century standards.

That being said, these fourteen essays provide easily understood descriptions of each of the heresies, give examples of how they may be manifested in the classroom, and examples of arguments that can be used against them. The book is far from all-encompassing. This is meant to be a starting point, a quick resource for the student being newly exposed to these heresies. At the end of each chapter is a list of four or five books that the reader may wish to consult for additional information.

A Wider Audience

Other than the college students referred to in the title, many others may well find it useful.

Modern Catholics who are newly attracted to traditional forms of the Faith would also gain by reading it. Given the poor formation that many Catholic children received during the sixties, seventies, and eighties, it is easy to imagine a reader thinking, “I never knew that there was anything wrong with that.”

High school students and their parents could also find this book helpful. Many high school teachers are adherents of some of these heresies. They are not as actively taught in most high school settings—but hedonism, relativism, and consumerism are alive and well on high school campuses. Many high school students imbibe deeply of these heresies before they ever enter the halls of higher education.

So, with the limitations outlined above, Disorientation is a book that would profit many who see their sick society, and would like a better grasp on the nature of the illness.