Sorbonne Survivor

Higher Education in Truth Comes from Above

Only seventeen, having a keen philosophical mind, Raïssa started classes at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne). Like many modern young people, she experienced doubts about God. By age fourteen, she had been wondering how God could be good and produce suffering. "I wondered if God really existed," she admitted, but she did not then embrace atheism.

Raïssa had been raised in a loving and religious Jewish family. The Jews whom she knew, she noted, "have not given themselves over to the secular world, but are bathed each day in the living waters of the Scriptures." The Sorbonne would put her faith to the test.

Yes, this sounds pretty familiar, but this was 1900, not 2016.

Confusion & Doubt

When Raïssa went to college, she hoped she would find answers from her professors. She knew that truth attracts us "by beauty of invisible and immaterial things which are not the objects of science. And that spiritual heaven, those mysteries of metaphysics, do not attract the eye of the scientist, nor do they arouse his mind."

But many of her professors were men of science, who, "when they do not philosophize, generally restrict themselves to a simple empirical common sense. But can one be a man and not philosophize in some way or another?"

Raïssa pointed out that these scientists "were certainly obliged constantly to fall back on the intelligence, since it is impossible to state the most significant fact without abstraction and generalization, or to affirm or deny the least thing without implying confidence in the processes of the intelligence and in the principles of its activity."

In other words, these scientists seemed to have some faith—in abstraction, logic, intelligence, and even metaphysics. But their scientism undermined any certitude about the reliability of their thoughts, leading many to question their own conclusions. Raïssa wondered how such men "could consent to remain in so confused and vague a state of mind without being upset thereby, especially when every intelligible reality faded away like some mirage when you thought to approach and grasp it."

Survival & Witness

Then Raïssa struck up a deep friendship with fellow student and agnostic Jacques Maritain. She described their common experience of academic scientism:

We swam aimlessly in the waters of observation and experience like fish in the depths of the sea, without ever seeing the sun whose dim rays filtered down to us. We could only yield to the gods of science, without the least help from the testimony of the mind. Jacques would draw pictures of grimacing little men who through some inordinate effort hoisted themselves up from the ground with their own hair as a halyard. . . . But I got out of my depth, and, being too weak to struggle against all these giants of science and philosophy or to defend the rightness of my deepest intuitions, I took refuge in sadness.

Thus disillusioned, they made a suicide pact. But a friend persuaded them to attend the lectures of the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose critiques of scientism shed light in their darkness. In 1904 Raïssa and Jacques married. Then they decided to plunge into the living waters of Christian baptism, joining the Catholic Church in 1906. They survived their college education and lived full lives of Christian witness.

In this issue, through articles like "College Prep" and "You Gotta Have Faith", Salvo hopes to help others do the same. 

is the executive editor of Salvo and the  Director of Publications for the Fellowship of St. James.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #37, Summer 2016 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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