The early Church father Tertullian asked a famous question, one that has been asked again and again in the history of the Church, and that I would like to ask again: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” By Athens he means intellectual culture, the life of the mind, the study of philosophy, literature, history, and theology, and by Jerusalem he means redemption through the blood of Jesus, faith, hope, and charity And he is asking rhetorically: if you are a new creature in Christ, why do you need intellectual culture? You have found the pearl of great price; how can you still have any heart for the heritage of the Greeks and for the liberal arts? You will not be judged on the Last Day by how much pagan wisdom you have assimilated; why should it be any concern of yours now, when you are supposed to be living a life in preparation for the Last Judgment? Leave the pagan wisdom to the pagans; you are supposed to lead a life hidden with Christ in God. Feed the hungry, preach the Gospel to the poor, rescue those whose lives are endangered-but intellectual refinement, vast knowledge, well-developed powers of criticism and analysis, what is all this but a kind of luxury, an intellectual and not a material luxury indeed, but a luxury all the same? If you insist on leading the life of the mind, are you not just “fiddling while Rome burns”?
To see how alive the question of Tertullian still is, consider the words of C. S. Lewis in his essay “Christianity and Culture”:
At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was the good for man. After my conversion, which occurred in my later twenties, I continued to hold this belief without consciously asking how it could be reconciled with my new belief that the end of human life was salvation in Christ and the glorifying of God. I was awakened from this confused state of mind by finding that the friends of culture seemed to me to be exaggerating. In my reaction against what seemed exaggerated I was driven to the other extreme, and began, in my own mind, to belittle the claims of culture. As soon as I did this I was faced with the question, “If it is a thing of so little value, how are you justified in spending so much of your life on it?”
This is, of course, nothing other than Tertullian’s question. I might add that in this essay, C. S. Lewis quite struggles with it, and is in my opinion not very successful in defending intellectual culture against the Christian radicalism of Tertullian.
But we need not look to C. S. Lewis; it is enough to look to ourselves in order to see how much this ancient question is still with us. Sometimes I hear students at certain religiously fervent universities saying that being at their schools is more like making a long retreat than studying at a university. Are they not saying in effect that, as they see it, Jerusalem has swallowed up Athens, and that they are pleased with the result? Or when one of the leaders of Operation Rescue, while recruiting at a Catholic university for Rescue last year, said that the rescuers represent the Church militant, whereas the rest of the students and faculty represent only “the Church academic,” was he not holding the intellectual life in contempt just as Tertullian did? But even if we do not have this contempt, we may be so taken up with our discovery of the Lord, of His Church, so eager to enter more intimately into the life of prayer, that we have little heart for Athens.
Of course we can always find some utilitarian value in our studies; St. Paul says that he who does not work should not eat, and in this day and age you need to know something in order to do most kinds of work. We can also find, without any great effort, some religious utility in our studies. If you study law, for example, you may thereby become a more effective instrument in the fight against certain social evils. But such utilitarian considerations remain entirely within the perspective symbolized by the famous utterance of Tertullian.
And if we examine the historical experience of Christian universities in this country we seem to find just what Tertullian would expect. In his “The Decline and Fall of the Christian College” (First Things, April and May), Fr. James Burtchaell presents empirical evidence showing that Christian universities in this country were usually mediocre universities as long as they had a strong Christian inspiration, and that as soon as they became more serious as universities, they usually drifted away from their Christianity. Indeed, Burtchaell does not offer a single example of a Christian university in which Jerusalem thrived as Athens grew stronger and asserted its claims. Tertullian would not be surprised; as soon as you stop treating intellectual formation as a mere instrument and try to take it more seriously, then, he would say, intellect becomes a rival to faith, and there is no stopping the conflict between them.
And yet the mainstream teaching of the Christian, and certainly of the Catholic, tradition is firmly against Tertullian. Of course the tradition agrees with him in this, that it is better to enter heaven with one eye, and an ill-formed mind, and all kinds of prejudices, than to enter hell with a well-formed mind. But the hostility that he expresses towards the life of the mind is entirely un-Christian. Otherwise, why did John Paul II, in the very first line of his recent Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, say that the Catholic university is “born from the heart of the Church”? What does this mean if not that Athens must have a great deal to do with Jerusalem, and must be more than just an instrument in the hands of Jerusalem? Let us try to understand a little better this piece of our Christian heritage, which is entrusted in a special way to our Christian universities, and is sure to be lost if they do not transmit it, enriched with the reflections of each generation.
I propose to begin my response to Tertullian by drawing on the greatest and most original Catholic mind since the Reformation, John Henry Newman. In what follows, Newman speaks not only as a Catholic, but as one of the great Christian humanists. In a sermon preached in 1855 to a university congregation, a congregation composed of men and women not so different from ourselves, Newman distinguishes between intellectual and moral excellence, and then deplores the fact that these two excellences so often get in the way of each other:
And it is our great misfortune here, and our trial, that where right, and goodness, and moral greatness are, there need not be talent [that is, intellectual excellence]. It was not so in the beginning . . .
Newman means that the various excellences of the human soul formed a natural unity before the fall, and that it was only as a result of the fall that they began to exclude each other
. . . the grace is gone; the soul cannot hold together; it falls to pieces; its elements strive with each other . . .
He goes on to say bluntly:
I grant, that, from the disorder and confusion into which the human mind has fallen, too often good men are not attractive, and bad men are; too often cleverness, or wit, or taste, or richness of fancy, or keenness of intellect, or depth, or knowledge . . . is on the side of error and not on the side of virtue . . . and in matter of fact, in particular cases, persons may be found, correct and virtuous, who are heavy, narrow-minded, and unintellectual, and again, unprincipled men, who are brilliant and amusing.
And here are Newman’s well-known words on the task of Catholic universities to overcome this unnatural separation:
Here, then, I conceive, is the object of the . . . Catholic Church in setting up Universities; it is to reunite things which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man . . . I wish the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom; but what I am stipulating for is, that they should be found in one and the same place, and exemplified in the same persons. I want to destroy that diversity of centres, which puts everything into confusion by creating a contrariety of influences. I wish the same spots and the same individuals to be at once oracles of philosophy and shrines of devotion . . . I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.
Notice that Newman says not a word here about the religious usefulness of intellectual culture. He does not say that the believer needs intellectual culture in order to be an effective apostle, nor does he say that the life of the mind is a means for making the believer better and more devout. Newman’s idea in this sermon is simply that, by cultivating not only moral and religious but also intellectual excellence, we recover the integrity of our being, we undo the fragmentation of ourselves that comes from the fall, we restore the image of God in ourselves, and we redeem not just our souls but our whole spiritual being with its various powers.
But we will not understand Newman unless we recall the following point in his teaching. The purpose of a university education is not simply to impart information, not even important information about our relation to God; its purpose is first of all to impart a formation of mind, to communicate intellectual culture. In one place, Newman asks us to imagine what it would be like for a person born blind to have his sight suddenly restored: such a person would at first see only a chaos of lights and colors and lines, and be unable to discriminate a thing from its background, between one thing and another thing, between closer and farther away, and so on. He would see the world, Newman says, “without order or principle, without drift or meaning, and like the wrong side of a piece of tapestry.” Now this confusion, Newman says, is just like the confusion in which the unformed mind finds itself in relation to things of the mind; it does not yet know how to distinguish the more from the less important, the primary from the secondary; it does not discern the main lines of meaning, and principles of unity, and of contrast. Only slowly would the person born blind learn to perceive an ordered world of things and relations and proportions. And it is only through the slow work of a liberal education, Newman says, that the mind develops “the power of referring every thing to its true place in the universal system . . . [so that the mind] makes every thing lead to every thing else; it communicates the image of the whole body to every separate member, till the whole becomes in imagination like a spirit, everywhere pervading and penetrating its component parts, and giving them their one definite meaning.”
We see, then, why he says that a university does not just stock the minds of its students with information, but forms them, developing in them new powers of seeing and understanding. And we see why we do not just gain a useful tool when our mind is formed, but rather perfect our spiritual nature, and develop the image of God in ourselves. And, finally, we see why, according to Newman, it is a shame when the religious development of a believer interferes with his intellectual development. It is of course a greater shame if his intellectual development interferes with his religious development (and Newman knew as well as anyone how great a danger this is), but it is also a serious failure when the interference occurs the other way around.
Now some may still wish to respond to Newman in the spirit of Tertullian and say: I grant you that intellectual formation is a fine thing, but still you cannot get around the fact that it is not necessary for salvation, that not all the saints possessed it, and that there are even religious dangers in leading the intellectual life; I still do not see why an institution that exists for the sake of the intellectual life can be said to be born from the heart of the Church, and can have any importance for the Church, except, of course, for the utilitarian importance mentioned above.
In order to respond to this objection and defend the attempt to make Christian sense of the intellectual life, we need to enlarge the perspective of our reflections. I propose to do this by using a distinction made by the American Catholic theologian, John Courtney Murray. Murray contrasts what he calls “eschatological humanism” with “incarnational humanism.” The former humanism, he says, is typified by some of the early hermits who would weave a basket one day and unweave it the next.
The basket itself did not matter; but the weaving and unweaving of it served as a means of spending an interval, necessary to the frail human spirit, between periods of performance of the only task that did matter, the contemplation of heavenly things. Only the making of a soul was the true human value. For the rest, what did it matter whether one wove baskets or wrought whole civilizations?
This is humanism in the spirit of Tertullian; all goods other than the ultimate good of God and our union with Him pale into insignificance. “Incarnational humanism,” on the other hand, we might describe as taking the saying of the Roman poet, “Nothing which is human do I regard as foreign to me,” and giving it a new Christian meaning. Murray characterizes this humanism as follows:
[The Church] carries on the mission of Christ: “to save that which perished.” And that which perished was not only a soul, but man in his composite unity, and the material universe too . . . The Church . . . is catholic in her redemptive scope; all men are to be saved, all that is human is to be saved . . . The Christian heart must cultivate a contempt for the world, but diligently cherish its reverence for the work of the Creator, who is Creator not only of heaven but of the earth, of the visible as well as the invisible . . . In the perspectives of an incarnational humanism there is a place for all that is natural, human, terrestrial. The heavens and the earth are not destined for an eternal dust-heap, but for a transformation. There will be a new heaven and a new earth; and those who knew them once will recognize them, for all their newness.
Those who know the documents of Vatican II will know that at this Council the Catholic Church committed herself to just this incarnational humanism. Look at chapters 3 and 4 of Part I of Gaudium et spes; here the Council affirms and sometimes even seems to celebrate this humanism. Consider this sentence: “The Lord [Jesus] is the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of mankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations” (#45). But this means that human civilization, though it is something less than the ultimate good of union with God, is not simply irrelevant to our Christian faith; if the God-man is willing to be the goal of human civilization, then we His followers had better take it seriously; we should be concerned to develop civilization and culture in such a way as to reveal Him as its real fulfillment. The Council in this document even goes so far as to say that many of the “fruits of our enterprise” in this life will be preserved in the new heavens and the new earth; “we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom . . . “ (#39) The fruit of our earthly labor is not simply to be blotted out in eternity and replaced by God, as the eschatological humanism would have it, but is rather destined to remain, transfigured.
It is perhaps worth observing that there are certain theological traditions that have a particular reason to make their own the incarnational humanism taught by the Council. Even before the Blessed John Duns Scotus, the great medieval Franciscan theologian of the fourteenth century, but especially after him, the doctrine of what is called the “absolute primacy of Christ” has been dear to many theologians, including, I believe, certain Protestants, among them Karl Barth. They disagree with those who say that the incarnation of the Son in Jesus Christ belongs only to the order of redemption and not to the order of creation, and that, apart from the fall of man, there would have been no incarnation. They hold instead that Jesus Christ belongs to the order of creation no less than to the order of redemption, that God in His original plan of creation, and not just as a response to human sin, created the world for the God-man, and destined it to be subject to His kingship (as St. Paul seems to teach in Col. 1:15-18 and elsewhere). And it should be especially clear why everything human is ordered to Jesus Christ and can be fulfilled only in Him: for His kingship over creation is rooted not only in the economy of our salvation, but in the original plan of creation. And it should be especially clear why for Christians life in Christ should not compete with our love of His creation, but should rather support our commitment to “build up the earth” in and with and through Him.
But however one develops the theological foundations of incarnational humanism, it seems to imply that there is a difference between the minimum necessary for saving our souls and the fullness of redemption, which includes the redemption of our bodies, our minds, our tastes, our ways of judging, our cultural life, and which even includes, as St. Paul teaches, the redemption of the whole of creation in and through the glory of our liberty as sons and daughters of God. Of course Christians pursue in the first place, as the one thing needful, the salvation of their souls, which is pure grace and no work of their own, and certainly no natural result of some earthly development; but they also have reasons, sprung from the heart of their faith in the Incarnation, to take earthly development very seriously, and to commit themselves to the work of drawing all the parts of human nature and all regions of human existence to Christ, of making them share in the redemption, and in this way, if I might express myself boldly, of “helping” Him to exercise His primacy in creation. When, then, we who are believers lead the intellectual life, and receive intellectual formation, thereby restoring in ourselves the unity of faith and understanding that was lost through the fall, what we are beginning is nothing less than the work of redeeming our whole being, and we begin a work that will last into eternity.
In the new document on Catholic universities, John Paul II says that these universities, by “the united endeavor of intelligence and faith will enable people to come to the full measure of their humanity [which has been] . . . renewed . . . marvelously . . . in Christ” (#5, emphasis added). This implies that there is a fullness of redeemed humanity that a believer does not have simply by believing, but that requires also the development of his intelligence.
This is also exactly the teaching of Newman in his great sermon, “Faith and Bigotry as Contrasted with Wisdom,” in which he contrasts faith and wisdom as follows: “Faith, then, and Wisdom are distinct, or even opposite gifts. Wisdom belongs to the perfect, and more especially to the preachers of the Gospel; and Faith is the elementary grace which is required of all, especially of hearers.” And why is wisdom the greater gift? Because the possessor of wisdom has faith, but has more besides; he also has, as Newman proceeds to explain, intellectual formation, he has that sense of the totality which enables him to “communicate the image of the whole body to every separate member.” In other words, under the name of wisdom Newman recognizes a surpassing spiritual excellence that contains intellectual formation as part of itself, and that cannot exist without intellectual formation. This is why intellectual culture is more than just an instrument in the hands of faith, but is incorporated into faith in such a way that there results a unified spiritual excellence that surpasses faith considered by itself.
And there is more to be said about making Christian sense of the intellectual life. God set man over the whole world to serve Him by ruling it in justice. And how do we rule over the world, which God has subjected to us? Not merely by means of technology. In knowing the truth about the world, in understanding the natures of the beings in it, in seeing the reflection of God in them, we also exercise a certain spiritual dominion over them. This is what John Paul II implies when he comments on the passage in Genesis about Adam naming the animals: he says that the naming ought to be interpreted as Adam understanding the truth about creatures, and that Adam thereby asserts his lordship over them. In his famous utterance, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways, but the important thing is to change it,” Marx precisely fails to understand this; he fails to see the power and dominion that is exercised in knowing. When, then, we try to understand the truth about the world through philosophy and history and literature and the sciences, we are not just fiddling while Rome burns, we are rather taking our God-given place in the world, and exercising our God-given lordship over it. And if we put this idea together with the previous one about the primacy of Christ in creation, we can perhaps even say that, through this lordship of ours in visible creation, we share somehow in His lordship over all of creation.
The Tertullians in our midst recognize no work of evangelization proper to a university, otherwise they could not say that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem. They are right in that the direct proclamation of the Gospel is not the main way in which a Christian university evangelizes, but they are wrong in thinking that there is no other way to evangelize. There is a certain “incarnational” way of evangelizing, which Pope Paul VI, speaking not just for Catholics but for many other Christians, described in this way:
It is a question not only of preaching the Gospel in ever wider geographic areas or to ever greater numbers of people, but also of affecting and, as it were, upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, humanity’s criteria of judgment, dominant values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God . . . . (Evangelii nuntiandi, #18)
In testing all aspects of human culture in the light of the Christ, we do not bring in a standard which is foreign to culture. Rather, we use the most appropriate standard, for as we saw, Jesus Christ is the goal of all human culture. Now here is the mode of evangelizing proper to a university: letting the light of the Gospel shine into every corner of human culture, and showing forth Christ as the redeemer of everything human. This is how the Christian university helps the Church make an integral proclamation of Christ, or a catholic, universal proclamation of Him. This means among other things that for her work of evangelization the Church needs St. Thomas Aquinas and Blessed Duns Scotus and Venerable John Henry Newman no less than she needs St. Francis Xavier and Mother Teresa.
And so when we consecrate ourselves to the life of the mind, we do not have to feel guilty, as if we were just sitting on the sidelines, gratifying our intellectual curiosity, while the missionaries in the field or the prolife activists bear the whole burden of evangelization and prophetic witness. This way of thinking about the work of the university is nothing but a temptation; it is a way of thinking that knows nothing of that “universal humanism” which is rooted in the kingship of Christ over all the regions and realms of creation.
It may be useful to offer a concrete example of the evangelization proper to a Christian university. There has occurred in modern thought what is called “the discovery of subjectivity.” Man has come to be investigated, not just as an objective being of a certain nature, but also subjectively, as he experiences himself from within. The first reaction of many Christian thinkers is to reject entirely this turn to subjectivity; they can see in it nothing but a subjectivism that dissolves objective truth and reality into our experiencing. But other Christians, and foremost among them John Paul II, think that this turn to subjectivity need not involve subjectivism, but is part of a greater awareness of man as person, and that the Christian proclamation can gain much from the discovery of subjectivity. He thinks that the Church stands before the extremely challenging task of discriminating between the authentic subjectivity of the person and the destructive kind of subjectivism. This work of discrimination, if it is carried out well, will enable the Church to perfect her proclamation of Christ, to adapt it to our time, and to show Christ as the fulfillment of all that is legitimate in the turn to subjectivity.
It is of course understandable if zealous young converts to the faith can see in this painstaking work of discrimination and discernment nothing more than “intellectualism,” far removed from the life of faith. And indeed this work is not strictly necessary for every believer, and not everyone is called to it. But it is necessary for the life of the Church; it is necessary for the dialogue that the Church wants to have with the world, it is necessary for the evangelization of the world, it is necessary for the ever-deepening self-understanding of the Church. And so there will therefore always be some in the Church who are called to it-and who should these “some” be if not the professors and students in our Christian universities?
Finally, then, the danger is not so much failing to appreciate fully the life of the mind, but failing to appreciate precisely the deep Christian significance of the life of the mind, failing to understand adequately what it means to say that the university is born from the heart of the Church. We are all still caught up in a certain dualism of faith here, and study over there. We try indeed to connect them by saying, for example, that we should study conscientiously because this is our station in life, or because we owe this in justice to our parents who are paying the bills, or because we need to prepare for our future careers. This is all true, but it does not overcome the dualism. If there is any merit in these reflections, it follows that there is a whole spirituality of the intellectual life waiting to be developed. This is the spirituality that knows how to integrate our intellectual work into the mystery of Christ, and of His Kingship in creation, and of His Church. If only we can learn to incorporate this integration within ourselves, then we can be more radically committed to our studies, then we will develop a passion for understanding and an abhorrence for intellectual mediocrity. Not that we will expect salvation from our intellectual work: we will not stop believing that we are saved not by our own works but by grace; but we will let this grace become fruitful for the redemption of our minds. Then we will evangelize, not only in the way of direct proclamation, but also in the way especially appropriate to a university. Athens will grow strong as well as Jerusalem, and instead of being jealous of each other, they will perfect each other.
It may even be that if Jerusalem refuses to have anything to do with Athens, and if she in general fails to do justice to the incarnational significance of revelation and encloses herself in a one-sidedly eschatological self-understanding, she will remain underdeveloped precisely as Jerusalem. That is, if there really is an incarnational humanism in the sense explained above, then it will surely not be related only extrinsically to Christian faith. No, it will spring from the doctrine of the Incarnation, so that the Christian faith which refuses to expand and to differentiate itself incarnationally will remain in a certain sense abstract and empty. Here we see anew why Athens has indeed much to do with Jerusalem, and why the complete separation of the two is un-Christian.
And what shall we say of the historical experience of an antagonism between faith and intellect? Does our theological reflection not ring hollow when we think, for instance, of the hard empirical facts marshaled by Fr. Burtchaell? If Athens and Jerusalem really belong together, whence this chronic antagonism between the Christian commitment of universities and their commitment to intellectual excellence and seriousness?
This painful contrast between theological truth and empirical fact is after all not so different from the painful contrast between the theology of marriage and the empirical condition of the average Christian marriage, or from the painful contrast between the theology of the mystical body of Christ and the sociology of the average American parish. We Christians live by faith, and thereby overcome the world, and this overcoming means, among other things, not being demoralized by the empirical conditions that often obscure rather than disclose what we know in faith. Besides, we know that faith and intellect only tend to be antagonistic in a fallen world in which the soul has suffered fragmentation. In the words of Newman, “The grace is gone; the soul cannot hold together; it falls to pieces; its elements strive with each other.”
But what supports us most of all as we reach out towards a spirituality of the intellectual life are the occasional institutions and above all the individuals who convincingly unite in themselves Athens and Jerusalem, to the enrichment of each. In them the fragmentation is healed, or is on the way to being healed. They fulfill the ideal of Newman: “I wish the same spots and the same individuals to be at once oracles of philosophy and shrines of devotion.” They bear witness to the truth of the Incarnation by the fullness of their redeemed humanity, and no empirical history of Christian university education in the United States, disappointing as it may in part be, can keep them from fascinating us, and from challenging us.
John F. Crosby served as the chair of the philosophy department at Franciscan University of Steubenville as well as the director of M.A. Philosophy program, a program that he helped found.