Cleaving to the truths of revelation, insisted Pope John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesia (“From the heart of the Church”), issued twenty years ago Sunday, energizes the inquiring mind, giving us confidence that truth is worth the effort of discovery. The main thrust of the Pope’s vision contradicted the usual assumption the Church and the university represent antithetical traditions: the Church teaching with authority and shutting down debate, the university encouraging free and open inquiry.
We know, of course, that this easy dichotomy must be false. As a matter of historical fact, the intellectual vitality of Christianity gave birth to the medieval university. In America, religious groups of various sorts founded the vast majority of private colleges and universities. Something about the life of faith clearly nurtures the life of the mind.
What, then, does Christianity add to academic life? What should make teachers and students at Catholic colleges and universities–and other Christian institutions of higher education–confident in the intellectual integrity of their enterprise?
The first source of confidence is simple. As John Henry Newman pointed out, a Catholic university sustains a genuine universality of knowledge. Today, many faculty members at secular colleges and universities exhibit a shocking ignorance of (if not disdain for) Christianity. This diminishes the intellectual caliber of their institutions. For only a rank ideologue can deny that a deep knowledge of the Christian tradition is necessary for a serious understanding of Western culture.
Indeed, religions of many sorts play an essential role in all known cultures–even of the recently secular West. As a result, those educated under the dominion of a secularist mentality suffer a stultifying parochialism. By contrast, at Catholic universities, no matter what their personal beliefs, students are more broadly equipped to study history, philosophy, and literature, as well as the social sciences. They are more likely to see human realities more clearly, because they are less likely to be blind to the religious dimension.
The second source of confidence is less obvious, but more important. Education does not just expose us to different ideas. It trains our intellectual habits, and the influence of the Church creates an atmosphere of piety and devotion crucial to deep learning.
The modern era favors images of discovery—Columbus finding America, Newton gravity, and so forth—and the modern university favors the idea of learning as individual discovery. Yes, we need to be open to new possibilities, but most of what we need to know comes from learning what others have thought, which too much emphasis on exploration often leads us to neglect.
Scientists intuitively recognize as much. Courses of study in chemistry and physics put students through their paces. They must first learn before they can question. They need to absorb the scholarly consensus before they can explore its boundaries.
Complacency is also a threat. Bright students sometimes learn little, either because they aren’t interested or because they imagine they already know the subject matter. Professors get bored with their disciplines or are so confident in their pet theories that they become immune to new thoughts and new ideas. Sadly, as I have discovered in my years in the university, there is no correlation between intelligence and the capacity to learn. Too often, complacency closes us off to the possibilities of knowledge.
To avoid these perversions of the intellect, we need something akin to piety and devotion, which gives proper shape to intelligence and guides native enthusiasm. The life of the mind should be marked by the humility and ardor that characterizes the heart of the believer before the gift of Christ’s body and blood: “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” We must be humble enough to recognize how little we know, while remaining confident enough that truth beckons us to approach her again and again.
Benedict XVI has observed, as did John Paul II and many others, that our postmodern intellectual culture tends toward skepticism, cynicism, and irony. The natural sciences proceed with confidence, but elsewhere in the university a critical sensibility obtains that offers the negative, empty confidence that one has seen through the illusions of truth. All too often the result is a personal resignation that only rouses itself to denounce the convictions of others as delusions, deceptions, and expressions of will-to-power.
Skepticism gains ground, because the search for truth can seem foolhardy. Who’s to say what is true? How can we be sure our ideas of truth are not just the product of our self-interest, culture, or genetics? Perhaps the postmodern nihilists are right, and we’re kidding ourselves when we imagine truth to be something real rather than useful.
To counter this doubt, often so temptingly plausible, a Catholic university offers something truly precious: a taste for the adventure of truth. Critics are quick to notice that faith does not carefully add up evidence. It does not tarry to check and re-check arguments. On the contrary, faith involves an impetuous abandonment of the self. When the Angel of the Lord comes to Mary, she is told a truth–the truth of human destiny–that she cannot understand. Her response: “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Her self-abandonment to the incarnation of the Son of God, the very source of truth, leads the subsequent tradition to refer to the Virgin Mary as the Seat of Wisdom. She does not, of course, speak against weighing evidence or scrutinizing arguments. Instead, the example of the Virgin may teaches us something very important about the life of the mind.
Truth rarely comes to us through decisive proofs or rock solid evidence. She entices, seduces, and leads us forward with partial disclosures. Coy rather than forward, by and large truth offers herself to those who give themselves to her, which is why a willingness to abandon oneself turns out to be crucial for the life of the mind. As the Catholic theologian A. G. Sertillanges once wrote: “Truth serves only her slaves.”
Reason differs from faith, of course. We should not abandon ourselves utterly to any scientific theory and philosophical doctrine. The critical moment remains. Yet something of the Blessed Virgin’s life-abandoning faith must be part of a living culture of truth. The adventure of conviction—that is the something crucial that Christianity adds to academic life. Without it higher education declines into technical education, a hoop for young people to jump through on the way to their careers, and not an intoxicating exploration of the life of the mind and of truth.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, to which he contributed the commentary on Genesis. He recommends A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life.