“Paradise Lost” and fruitful learning in contradiction


I have many disagreements with “Paradise Lost, despite my enjoyment of it. As a woman, I found it belittling in its treatment of Eve. As a Catholic, I believe that Milton’s beliefs are incorrect. 

Yet, “Paradise Lost” is a part of the Core Curriculum at the University of Dallas. I found myself wondering, why would a university that’s profoundly Catholic read someone like Milton — a person whose beliefs are incorrect in accordance with the Catholic faith?

I went to Dr. Scott Crider’s office hours to ask him this question. He first read this part of UD’s mission statement to me: “The university is dedicated to the recovery of the Christian intellectual tradition and to the renewal of Catholic theology in fidelity to the Church and in constructive dialogue with the modern world.” 

Crider emphasized the importance of the “constructive dialogue” that is a crucial part of UD’s mission. “We study non-Catholic texts because they are an important part of the dialogue of the West,” he said. “We learn by what is contrary and so one doesn’t really know what one believes until one encounters other beliefs.”

“It is absolutely impossible to only know what you believe by only learning what is contrary,” senior theology major Kate Vicknair said. 

“I hope that goes without saying. For example, if we only studied the heresies, we still wouldn’t know what [truth] is … You need to start with what is true and what is good and knowing that is vitally important.”

Clarifying what she meant while talking about “Paradise Lost,Vicknair continued, “Don’t read Milton, to paraphrase Chesterton, with a ‘mind so open that your brain falls out.’ But for the things that can vary by opinion . . . Maybe I should learn from this’ [because reading] things that are contrary to us is a way that we can grow in understanding of what we believe by understanding what is opposite.”

“One of the things that I admire about the Catholic intellectual tradition is its fearlessness,” Crider said. “It’s an educational tradition which is not interested in only in apologetics, but in true dialectical exploration and that requires reading, thinking about, writing about, engaging texts outside of the faith and to quote [John Paul II], ‘Truth cannot contradict truth,’ so anything discovered outside that is true will turn out to be truth. 

“Catholic confidence and intellect is really quite extraordinary. As a non-Catholic I find it really quite admirable. Long may it last at the University of Dallas.”

As a Catholic university, UD is immersed in what the “Catholic intellectual tradition” is about: seeking the truth. The Core at UD covers many different kinds of texts — some of which are Catholic and many which are not. 

Before I read Dante, I read Homer and Virgil; before Aquinas, I read Aristotle and Plato. Milton, in particular, challenged me to find the answer for myself because I disagreed with him on several matters. Dante, in his conformity to my beliefs, did not inspire these questions in me.

“This ain’t Sunday school,” Dr. Crider told me.

It is so much more than that.


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