Forty-five years ago John Courtney Murray, S.J., published his groundbreaking work We Hold These Truths, which he subtitled “Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition.” He understands the defining proposition of our way of life to be enshrined in our motto, e pluribus unum—which, for Murray, means that, however much dissension, disagreement, and divergence characterize public argument in America, they do not threaten the underlying agreement, consensus, and communion that maintains our civic order.
So much of this, of course, could be said as a mere commonplace. But Murray's incisive eye looks deeper. It sees that the American proposition is founded on a realist epistemology, crystallized in the notion that truths are self-evident. In order words, truths are objective, universal, and accessible to human reason. Deny this epistemology, Murray claims, and you deny the American proposition. Deny the proposition, and you eviscerate civic order. Eviscerate civil order, and you ruin the possibility for peace, justice, and freedom.
Murray's continuing relevance lies in his prophecy that the American proposition is tenuous, especially as voices from many quarters are all too loud in their denial of its major premise, the realist epistemology. Not the least of these voices are shouted cacophonously from the contemporary academy, for whom truth is too often a matter of opinion.
For those of us who may be skeptical of a full-blown realist epistemology, it is evident that we must at least go this far with Murray. As a matter of historical and practical fact, the realist epistemology forms the basis of the American civil union. If it is to be replaced, then the entire proposition, together with the institutions that are derived from it, needs major overhauling. Put this way, all of us, no matter what epistemology we personally subscribe to, have a vested interest in sustaining the realist epistemology. If we wish to avoid anarchy, then we need to accept the simple fact that it constitutes the ground on which the forms of public order are built.
The chief form of American public order, contends Murray, is not the House and the Senate, the Executive and the Judiciary. It isn't Jefferson's eloquent Declaration, or Madison's high-minded Papers, or the Constitution. It is rather the presupposition of all of these—a shared belief in the efficacy of public argument.
Deriving his analysis from Socrates, Cicero, and Augustine, Murray meant by public argument the continuing debate about the nature of the consensus that grants America's forms of civic order their legitimacy. The efficacy of this debate cannot be reduced to free speech, or the license of personal expression, or even the equitable process of “letting all sides be heard.” Efficacy happens when public conversation is disciplined by, and sustained according to, the laws of reason. Moreover, efficacy means that public conversation will produce resolutions. Such resolutions may not embrace universally shared conclusions. But they should at least be able to express those differences that can be tolerated, and why; and those that cannot, and why not. In short, the efficacy of public argument means that truth is realizable and capable of transparency.
Ever precarious, the American proposition is in perennial danger from the corrosive cancer that Murray calls “barbarism.” Barbarism, Murray reminds us, results from the ambiguous nature of the human person, prone to the avarice, prejudice, passion, and solipsism that blind and befuddle reason. Thus handicapped, errant human reason concomitantly skews and sunders the delicate balance between individual freedom and civic order, as the American proposition incarnates it.
Murray's thinking about the American proposition offers both encouragement and prophecy to Catholic higher education. The state of the university in America, or for that matter in the industrialized West, reveals a potpourri of views about the nature of human reason—some of which are turning the university into an incubator for the barbarism that Murray deplored. J.M. Roberts, for example, observes that the contemporary university has entered into complicity with the rampant materialism and relativism of modern society. The value of the university, this former warden of Merton College, Oxford, says, is increasingly becoming its ability to manipulate nature, to create wealth, and to augment power. If true, I suggest, this would make human reason the hostage of avarice.
Then there is the opinion of Donald Kennedy, formerly president of Stanford. He argues that the current leadership of American higher education has failed “to create sharply individualized, recognizable identities” for America's colleges and universities. This failure fuels the increasing trend in the academy to homogenize the methods of inquiry and the subjects of research, rather than healthfully diversify them. The result of this is that human reason becomes the hostage of prejudice.
There is also the postmodernist view. At its best, as John Ellis of the University of California at Santa Cruz observes, postmodernism seeks to redress moral flaws in the West's dominant forms of thought. At its worst, however, postmodernism seeks to deconstruct these forms of thought without replacing them. Jean-François Lyotard, a prominent postmodern thinker, summarizes the movement's efforts in what he calls the “fission of meaning”—meaning (ironically) that reason entirely lacks any center, any generalizable laws governing it. When reason is thus hollowed out and left an empty shell, the human person is rendered the hostage of passion; and the rational deregulation of passion hands the civil order over to the demagogues.
Finally, there is the secular view posited by the Enlightenment. Antithetical to postmodernism, it is, in fact, the foundation of the modern university. This view still reigns, however implicitly, at least in its distrust of religion and theology in the university. As Kant argues in The Conflict of the Faculties, only philosophy is an autonomous discipline, because only it is governed solely by free rational inquiry. Therefore, since disciplines like theology tend to accept received traditions blindly and uncritically, it is the university's role to purge them by autonomous reason of their proclivity to superstition.
The problem with this view is that it turns reason into a fetish or a talisman. As the contemporary thinker Maurice Blondel observes, the laws of reason demand and require an object not bound to time and space in order to explain themselves and satisfy their need for an ultimate resolution. When reason is mistakenly thought to be self-sufficient, it becomes an idol believed capable of achieving universal perfectibility. But this belief, like a sorcerer's conjuring, is chimeral. Far from purifying religion of superstition, the secular view itself devolves into superstition. When this superstition of reason is enshrined in the university, I submit that it makes the human person the hostage of an arrogant solipsism; and this renders the civil order, as a result, more prone to the strident self-confidence of chauvinism and imperialism.
Avarice, prejudice, passion, and solipsism: These are Murray's definition of barbarism. Their ramifications show the fatal flaw in, for instance, Bill Readings' 1996 book The University in Ruins. Readings argues that it is both misguided and anachronistic to continue sustaining the university as the seedbed of our cultural self-knowledge as a nation. Grant him this, then grant us the increased likelihood of plutocracy, fascism, demagoguery, and imperialism.
Murray's prophecy about the tenuousness of the American proposition reminds us that American civil order is founded on an implicit model of human reason that is the guarantor of our freedom. This model is realist, because a realist understanding of truth sustains the efficacy of our public argument about ourselves. We undermine this model to our social peril. At a time when other models of reason in the American academy are potentially running this risk, the Catholic university presupposes a model congenial with the American proposition. Faith is primarily a rational act, not reducible merely to love, trust, and sentimentality. This rational act advances humanity's understanding of the ultimate nature of reality, even as free rational inquiry into the nature of reality cannot help but more deeply articulate the truth offered by faith. Religion and theology thus diversify the university's methods of research and subjects of inquiry by supplying perspectives that inhibit the reduction of reason to its own supposed autonomy.
If barbarism is to be combated and our freedom sustained, the epistemology that undergirds the American proposition needs to be furthered on its own merits and also brought into constructive dialogue with other views. America's religious schools in general—and its Catholic colleges in particular—are distinctively qualified to do this, not only for the sake of religion, but as a dutiful act of patriotic and civic piety.
Stephen M. Fields, S.J., is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University.