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on the opening of the academy

Michal Kohout
Back in the time of my university studies, at the end of the 1980s, I happened one summer to visit London. I was considering the possibility of not returning to still-Communist Czechoslovakia, and part of these reflections included an effort to find out as much as possible about various forms of student fellowships. In the public library – there was of course no internet at the time – I read through the lists of extant university stipends and noticed that a relatively large number of these forms of support had a Jewish connection. Not only did they involve financial support for poor students from Jewish families or for study of Jewish themes or religious topics: many were for talented people regardless of ethnicity or religion in which the Jewish association lay in the name of the institution or the donor. That evening, I discussed this finding with my landlady, who provided the following commentary: “What do you want? The Jews believe in education.” This answer struck me as memorable – most notably since I remember it still almost thirty years later – for a number of reasons.
     For one thing, it seemed to me just as witty and quick as a line from a film script. Yet at the same time, it impressed me greatly that someone “believed in education”. This is a value that I knew was honoured even in my household, indeed in many middle-class Czech families – but what struck me even more was the connection between those words “belief” and “education”. I myself had thought, up until then, of these two ideas as more or less opposite, in the then-prevalent spirit within society but no less following Europe’s traditional Enlightenment scepticism.
     It was only later, and gradually – primarily in connection with my experience with the creative work of an architect – that I began to realise that reason and faith are not polar opposites, but exist much more as parallel, supplementary modes to human thought. Reason’s activity is analytical, unquestionably it is the neutral examination of all circumstances of a problem or situation in a comparable form: whether rolls in a bakery or (to cite Šimek and Grossmann) rabbit droppings for fertiliser based on some a priori criterion (e.g. size). Clearly, an enormously useful feedback activity. What, however, people often fail to realise is that reason (i.e. analytical thought) all by itself does not give things any evaluating sign. This only comes with a delay, and even if this rational “cards on the table” explication is a major help, it cannot be forced invariably and fully. And this is essentially a type of belief, an attitude or an affinity. Only with this belief can we gain the ability to face the world, orient ourselves in it, “grasp” it and act in it. Generally, both components in human thought exist in a kind of healthy balance, allowing us to move and act in the world, yet also granting us the ability to express a healthy doubt towards our actions and test them. At the same time, their rapid alternation occasionally prevents us from noticing in which mode our minds are working at a given moment, such that we tend to merge them together in ordinary life. But if we find in our thought too much of the rational component, it could lead to a certain paralysis: our mind keeps coming up with more and more comparison criteria and different choices; we are overwhelmed, unable to calm down, to concentrate, to make decisions. As a pedagogue, I know this state as “fear of finding a solution”. It often happens to the talented, the responsible, the ambitious – who are also critical of themselves, and for whom it can happen that the level of their own expectations far outstrips their actual abilities. At other times, though, the reason could be – instead – a lack of self confidence: practically every standard is too high. And for others, yet a different extreme comes into play: an unshakable belief in the absolute correctness of their own actions, or even an intellectual standard set so low that there is no strong need to compare personal criteria with anything else. Such people are, to be sure, capable of deciding and insisting resolutely on their decisions, yet the “rationality” of their decisions tends to be more by accident than by rule.
     Of these different tendencies of thought, I would go so far as to say that the second is the more common. That process of rational investigation and comparison has, in short, the result of creating unpleasant feelings connected to a change in one’s own stance. If I am to judge anything authentically, I must open myself to the possibility that things are different than I previously believed – even if it was in good faith. This change is usually connected to painful feelings caused by the loss of one’s previous convictions. Essentially, thinking really does hurt: popular wisdom is often right on this matter!
     If we look more closely at this sense of a loss of certainty, we find that it often resembles the feeling of losing firm ground beneath our feet, a kind of mental free-fall. As if our mind had let go of the anchor of our own opinions and shifted into a flight-trajectory that sends us reeling. Yet what is interesting is that this sense need not necessarily be merely unpleasant. It’s even something we could get used to, just as a parachutist gets used to the sensation of actually falling. And just as skydivers eventually find the sense of falling to be a kind of thrill, we can also experience a similar thrill in such mental openness. It is the sense of a pleasurable excitement, emerging from the continual balancing of (self)consciousness of one’s immediate beliefs and their appropriate questioning through critical, rational investigation. Or it is like when a child, after many failed attempts, reaches the correct balance: the stumbles are fluently held back, and shift into walking.
     A similar intellectual adventure of a fall held in balance can be experienced not only but people, but equally by entire groups or institutions. Questioning one’s own principles or roots leads, in an open environment, paradoxically to their cultivation and reinforcement. Today, on the day when our institution commences its activity, I wish the Unitarians one thing: that the Unitarian Academy finds its means that would through continual questioning keep it in motion, keep it alive and strong. And at the same time, I wish all of today’s participants, and their future successors, in the academy the opportunity to find as well much personal and intellectual amusement and expansion of their ideas.
Český Krumlov, 30. 3. 2017