Faith and Reason, Reconsidered
Since the death of John Henry Newman in 1890, the justly celebrated author of The Idea of a University, the forces of secularism have advanced with such aggressive and relentless success in most Western academic institutions, which have both distanced themselves from, and largely destroyed, their Christian roots. These sad tales of revolution and destruction have been told in such works as George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: from Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (1994) and James Burtchael’s The Dying of the Light: the Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (1998).
The causes of, and cures for, the problems of Christianity and higher education are not simple. In October 2004 at an international conference in Prince Edward Island, titled Faith, Freedom, and the Academy, the approaches to that question were so divergent, and the perspectives so diverse, that the organizer found it impossible to publish the proceedings with one publisher in a single volume.
Baker Academic, the publisher of this current volume, did not have that problem—although this anthology is diverse in its contents also. What holds it together, and what distinguishes it from similar volumes, is the theme of unity and the focus on more “practical” changes. The book—and the conference in 2004 at Baylor University out of which it grew—seeks to reassert “the role that reflective Christian faith can play in unifying the intellectual life of the university” amidst an academic context of “confusion, fragmentation, and ideological strife.”
It is precisely this focus on what the editors call the “vital practices” that sets this book apart and makes it at once helpful and hopeful. It is not a polemical rant—but neither is it a prescriptive list of panaceas. The contributors—most of whom are Protestant, save for the Catholics Jean Bethke Elshtain and Aurelie Hagstrom—clearly want to distance themselves from what they describe as “two recently dominant educational strategies, retreat and accommodation.” The sectarian option of retreat (or, in some instances, a passive failure to engage the culture, which, when not ignored, is occasionally denounced in a form of intellectual guerilla warfare) and the ideological accommodation to the regnant zeitgeist are both intolerably simplistic; both allow their proponents to avoid responsibility and the hard work of pressing for change, thereby abandoning schools to the dominant cultural and academic trends.
None of the contributors to this book want to evade such responsibility; each offers helpful suggestions for various ways to revivify once Christian schools. The biblical scholar, Richard Hays, opens by reflecting on the struggle of the faculty of his Divinity School at Duke University to agree on a set of instructional goals, especially the goal that called for faculty to embody, and to inculcate in students, “a commitment to living a life ordered toward holiness, justice, peace, and reconciliation.” After much debate, this goal was accepted because the faculty realized that “we cannot divide the intellectual from the moral and religious. Or if we do, we will have created universities that are—paradoxically—no longer ‘intellectual communities’.” Hays concludes his article by offering five concrete ways in which Christian academics can begin to implement this goal.
The second article, by Elshtain, a formidable sociopolitical and moral philosopher at the University of Chicago, is not so much a ponderous essay as it is a winsome piece of autobiographical reflection. Elshtain recounts her own initiation into the academy and her early experiences of academic views of religion as well as her own skepticism. Too often, she recounts, people of faith are intimidated into silence by the bigotry and condescension of academics. She counsels two general practices that will help overcome this often anxious or embarrassed silence—courage and humor—and recommends the example of Thomas More as one who was able to skillfully embody both.
The third essay, by Anglican cleric and Cambridge physicist John Polkinghorne, is an attempt to demonstrate Newman’s dictum that “all knowledge forms one whole.” As one who is conversant with both the philosophy of science and its methods as well as Christian theology, Polkinghorne, who won the Templeton Prize in 2002, is uniquely placed to challenge the view that theology in particular and religious studies in general have no place in a modern university—that their claims are invariably hostile to “science.” Polkinghorne argues that if scientists are so committed to something called “reason,” they will not rationally foreclose investigation into “the sacred and the transcendent, which is so significant a part of humanity’s engagement with reality.” To do so is to commit the very unscientific “sin” of trying to cram all of human experience and phenomena, including religious and spiritual phenomena, “into the Procrustean bed of a crass kind of physicalism.”
The essay of David Lyle Jeffrey, currently of Baylor but previously at the University of Ottawa, is elegantly written and cogently argued. Jeffrey, alone of the contributors, argues that Protestants need to grapple with the problem of authority in universities and colleges that have or wish to retain any kind of connection with Christianity. Catholic universities have had to do this all the time, but Protestants have escaped the problem— which has itself created other problems. Jeffrey, perhaps recalling the Evagrian dictum that “if you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian,” raises another important point that any faculty serious about unity will not fail to come together for “common worship” and for prayer “with a common purpose.”
Aurelie Hagstrom, of Providence College in Rhode Island, has an essay, “Christian Hospitality in the Intellectual Community,” that perhaps best sums up the aims and hopes of the book. She begins by noting that “hospitality reflects a radically different and compelling alternative to tolerance.” Hospitality is the necessary virtue for academics insofar as it allows one to be welcoming of different ideas but simultaneously it “does not prohibit the judging, analyzing, and classification” of them. Hospitality, she says, does not “imply a type of unconditionality and openness without any distinctions whatsoever.” Hospitality is kenotic, or self-emptying, but not in an abased way. It empties to receive the other, and also to be able to more fully accept itself as equally worthy. Hospitality thus understood calls to mind Paul Evdokimov’s aphorism that “it is possible that the most ascetic act is not renunciation of self, but total self-acceptance.”
One final virtue necessary for those who want to be both good academics and also good Christians is highlighted in a short essay by Steven Harmon, a patrologist at Campbell University Divinity School in North Carolina. Harmon stresses that Christians must have “the epistemological humility to submit their perspectives to the Christian intellectual community to which they belong.” This is not only for the virtue of the academic, but also for the integrity of the university as such. The whole concept of “peer review,” it could be argued, is a form of the Pauline “fraternal correction.”
This book, in sum, is a helpful (but by no means exhaustive) series of reflections on some practices that can be implemented to counteract the decline of many once clearly Christian colleges and universities. In so doing, the authors are not seeking to recreate those institutions as mere seminaries or catechetical schools (which have their place), but neither are they seeking to allow the decline to go unchecked and secular liberalism to triumph. Rather, they are striving to be at once excellent teachers and researchers and faithful believers, creating the space necessary to continue to educate students and also to propose (and not impose) the idea that Christianity has historically been the soul of the university, and could well serve the health of that soul again if the university would but admit its need for such salutary ministrations.
Adam A. J. DeVille is an assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Francis in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. He has also published widely in newspapers, magazines, websites, and juried journals in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
Posted: September 8, 2007