One of the texts we read in the Honors College at HBU is The Decisive Treatise by the Islamic philosopher, Averroes. Since the reading list for the fall semester is distributed at the end of the spring, many Honors College students read the assigned texts over the summer. Hence, as the director of the Honors College, I have helped Averroes reach what all serious authors wish their books to become: beach reading.

One of our students wrote to me over the summer asking for advice on reading Averroes. A friend of his who is a former Muslim was surprised that he had to read Averroes, and discouraged him from doing so. Here is the gist of my reply:


Dear Virgil,

I think your mindset as you read Averroes should be as you describe it: open to gleaning truth. All books are dangerous. One can be led astray either by the falsehoods in them or by misunderstanding them. Even the Bible is no exception when it comes to our ability to misunderstand it. Hasn't history taught us that there are numerous harmful interpretations of the Bible? Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether the Bible isn't the most dangerous book in history. But there is no safeguard against the danger books pose except to read carefully, pray for divine assistance, and discuss the text with a diverse group of fellow readers. The first two bulwarks against dangerous books are straightforward, though many neglect to pray for divine assistance while they read. Why that is so is a topic for another time.

I sometimes wonder whether the Bible isn’t the most dangerous book in history.

But because reading begins as a private endeavor between the book and me, the task of discussing what we read is often neglected. It is, however, an important part of the process of reading. When we read, we often form certain opinions about the book, and those opinions need to be tested if we are going to trust them. To test them we need to discuss them openly with a group of friends who care about the truth and care about each other. I think you have such a group in your fellow Honors College students.

I am embarrassed to admit it, but I once argued that Mary Bennet is the most important moral voice in Pride and Prejudice. It took a group of friends in discussion to lovingly and mockingly disabuse me of that notion. A silly example, for sure, but one that remains with me because it exemplifies the power of discussion to help me interpret a book properly. There have been other, more serious, instances of this in my life, but none so vivid.

When we read, we often form certain opinions about the book, and those opinions need to be tested if we are going to trust them.

Regarding the advice of your friend to forgo reading Averroes, I'll say this: It is prudent for certain people to avoid certain books, but which books should be avoided and which not, can only be made on a case-by-case basis. I don't think that, with your upbringing and in your present community, Averroes poses much of a special problem. Things might be otherwise with your Iranian friend because of his background. We'll do well to heed his warning that Islamic texts can be dangerous, but in practice I don't think there's much else to do after that except to read, pray, and discuss carefully. If you think there is some special danger for you in reading Averroes, you should discuss that with a mentor who knows you well.

One last bit of advice: Read widely. Your Honors College reading list reflects a diversity of great works written over millennia. Reading and discussing books from such a wide range of eras and locales helps us identify the good and bad in the individual books we read. I'll close with some (alleged) words of Thomas Aquinas, who comes next in your reading after Averroes. Thomas is said to have been fond of the phrase, "hominem unius libri timeo," "I fear the man of one book."

Your fellow reader,
GH



GARY HARTENBURG

Gary is the Director of the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California-Irvine as well as a Master of Arts in philosophy of religion and ethics from the Talbot School of Theology. In addition to serving as the discussion and pedagogy advisor for Wheatstone, Gary teaches for the Summit Semester program in Pagosa Springs, Colorado each year.

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