That Pope John Paul II was a great man and one of the twentieth century's most consequential leaders needs no further reinforcement. To the poor, both in material and in spirit, he was a symbol of hope and encouragement. To oppressors throughout the world, he was an opponent to be feared, holding them responsible not by means of an army but by the power of his example and the depth of his insight.
But what insight can students derive from the pontiff's life and legacy? It is tempting, especially with current controversies arising from the intersection of religion and politics, to argue over labels of "liberal" and "conservative" as they apply to John Paul II's positions. Such a debate relegates his contributions to the merely political realm, feeding our already slogan-laden political discourse with still more insufficient illustrations. And it ignores what is perhaps his most important legacy, and one of unique import for students?his marriage of faith and reason.
The former Karol Wojtyla was living proof that the intellect and the soul need not be locked in a zero-sum battle. A man of both prayer and philosophy, he showed that careful contemplation of the world and human condition need not be divorced from a deeper spiritual life. This is in stark contrast to the environment at Bowdoin, where, according to one widely-read guide, we "ignore God on a regular basis."
It is anyone's guess why this is the case. It could be the view that religion and intellectual pursuits are somehow mutually exclusive; it could be pure apathy. But as recently as the late 1960s, the guidebook sent to incoming first-year students at Bowdoin offered a list of churches and a firm reminder: "College is not a place where you neglect your moral and religious responsibilities for a year."
This was not some fading relic of a formerly religiously-affiliated college. An ideal liberal arts education does not offer a hodge-podge of different disciplines for the sake of variety or fashion. Rather, it draws on different ways of approaching the human experience in an effort to contemplate even bigger questions.
One need not be devout or even subscribe to a particular faith to grasp this particular lesson of the pope's. Religious or not, we all benefit from an education that takes the broadest possible view of the world, and one that may include questions of spirituality.