The title of George Marsden’s most recent book on Christian higher education referred to the idea of Christian scholarship as “outrageous.” For many people, the idea of a Christian university is even more so. Judging by the recent resurgence of interest in and care for church“related colleges and universities of all descriptions, the idea of a Christian university is very much alive. Even so, since the 1960s, most academics have regarded serious Christian universities as Harvey Cox regarded them at that time”as medieval remnants at best and as oxymorons at worst.
The generation that has passed since the 1960s has, however, witnessed several important, often ironic, cultural changes both inside and outside of the academy, among secularists as well as religious people, that have altered appreciatively the context for a consideration of the idea of a Christian university. I shall mention four of the more recent and significant of these changes as a way of setting out my own interpretation of our present situation, and I shall then move on to characterize what I think must be the features of, and to some extent the grounds for, the idea of a Christian university in our time. And I shall proceed in this endeavor partly through a conversation with John Henry Cardinal Newman’s classic nineteenth“century discourse on the issue, The Idea of a University .
The four significantly pertinent changes in the contours of American culture since the early 1980s, I think, are these: First, we have experienced an immense outpouring of books and articles on the secularization of the American academy over the course of the last century, some of these offering a master narrative of the process, others supplying additions and corrections to that story. Second, many American intellectuals have gradually moved from a sense that there exists in American society a simple, two“sided culture war to a more nuanced sense that we are in the midst of a reconfiguration of public discourse about a whole range of issues, including issues of religion and higher education. Third, as arguments about how best to transform sheer diversity into flourishing pluralism have grown more intricate and insistent, a renewed, if tentative, appreciation for a plurality of institutions within the general field of higher education has emerged. And finally, there has arisen among an increasingly large number of secular intellectuals a deep suspicion, often a total abandonment, of any claims to universality or to species“centered discourse as warrants either for epistemological notions like objectivity or for moral and political notions like human rights and human dignity. Where these ideals have remained intact, they have increasingly been explicated and justified with reference to particular historical formations, some of them very large and of very long duration but never coextensive with humanity itself. As one scholar has put it succinctly, we have witnessed since the ’60s and ’70s, among an increasing number of American intellectuals, “the diminution of species“centered discourse and the enlargement of ethnos“centered discourse.”
The story of the secularization of the academy found classic expression a few years back in George Marsden’s widely acclaimed, ambitious, and largely persuasive interpretation of that process, The Soul of the American University . Two recent qualifications to that interpretation should be noted, however. The first qualification is by way of supplement to Marsden’s narrative. In a highly suggestive article, “Thinking on One’s Own: Catholicism in the American Intellectual Imagination, 1928“1960,” the historian John McGreevy has shown how a widespread concern among liberal intellectuals about “Catholic power” helped to define the terms of American liberalism for most of this century. That definition included a sharp separation between religion, understood as an entirely private matter, and public life, and the firm conviction that only “an emphasis upon individual autonomy, thinking on one’s own, would sustain American democracy.” Indeed, a University of Chicago philosopher a half century ago insisted that only a nondogmatic religion was appropriate to the democratic faith, even as one of his colleagues defined “intolerance” in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences as “the refusal to appraise social policies in a tentative experimental manner” and went on to identify Catholicism as the prime example of intolerance on the grounds that “a religious institution claiming universal validity and essential changelessness for its doctrine of salvation is necessarily intolerant.”
The second qualification to Marsden’s account comes more by way of correction and, to some extent, reproof. In “Jewish Intellectuals and the De“Christianization of American Public Culture in the Twentieth Century,” historian of ideas David Hollinger endeavors to account for the transition from a dominantly Protestant culture “to the acceptance, however gradual and in some cases grudging, of a pluralism in which Christianity is acknowledged to be but one of several legitimate religious persuasions in America.” In a searching analysis of the role of both religious and nonreligious Jews in this de“Christianizing process, Hollinger reminds us of one of the uglier aspects of erstwhile Protestant hegemony in the American university, namely, the exclusion of Jews and the long“held suspicion of a Jewish presence in precisely those areas of academic life, such as philosophy and history, that are in some sense responsible for constituting and transmitting culture.
These writings of Marsden, McGreevy, and Hollinger, taken together with those of many other historians and sociologists, have replaced conventional stories of a dualistic struggle between the forces of religion and the forces of secularization with a much more complicated narrative. The frequently divergent lines of Will Herberg’s triple melting pot”Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish”have, over the course of the last century, intersected with the several scientific and philosophical sources of secularization at sometimes eccentric angles, yielding a bewildering set of shifting conflicts and alliances between and among these three religious groups and only rarely if ever a pitched battle between religion and secularity.
Nor is it any longer either accurate or helpful to envision the whole process of secularization as one of declension from a time of religious intensity to a time of atheistic scientism. Indeed, Hollinger insists that his own discussion of de“Christianization should properly be framed by a larger question about the astonishing persistence and durability of Christianity in America by comparison to its drastic attenuation in the rest of the industrialized world. If we add to this consideration two further facts”the growing number of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists in our midst, and what John Coleman has called the “exponentially exploding regimes of spirituality””we can begin to see how difficult it is to describe, much less to assess with any degree of certainty, the present religious condition of our society.
It is perhaps equally difficult to make confident pronouncements about the present state of religion in the academy today. It may be time to acknowledge, however, that the “secularization of the academy” hypothesis is by now not so much mistaken as it is unfruitful. Christian educators should in any case pursue cultural agendas, as Marsden himself has done more recently, that are less defensive in their approach. To that end I will quickly sketch out what I take to be some of the minimal constitutional requirements for a Christian university, and then develop in some detail five substantive features of the Christian university so constituted. In this latter regard, I shall follow Newman’s example. His idea of a university was ideally constructed, not empirically discovered, and this strategy spared him, as it will spare me, the need constantly to defend my proposals with reference to actual practice. Even so, such ideals are always articulated within particular cultural contexts, and must to some extent be shaped by and responsive to those contexts.
First, the minimal constitutional requirements for a Christian university. It must have a board of trustees composed of a substantial majority of Christian men and women, clergy and lay, whose primary task is to attend to the Christian character of the institution. They will do this primarily but not exclusively by appointing to the major leadership positions of the school persons who are actively committed to the ideal of a Christian university. These leaders will in turn see to it that all of the following things are present within the life of the institution: first, a department of theology that offers courses required of all students in both biblical studies and the Christian intellectual tradition; second, an active chapel ministry that offers worship services in the tradition of the faith community that supports the school but that also makes provision for worship by those of other faiths; third, a critical mass of faculty members who, in addition to being excellent teacher“scholars, carry in and among themselves the DNA of the school, care for the perpetuation of its mission as a Christian community of inquiry, and understand their own callings as importantly bound up with the well“being of the immediate community; and fourth, a curriculum that includes a large number of courses, required of all students, that are compellingly construed as parts of a larger whole and that taken together constitute a liberal education. The precise specification of these constitutional requirements must be left to enlightened leadership and the prayerful and prudential exercise of faculty judgment.
As to the particular attributes of the Christian university, I begin with “unity.” By unity, I refer simply to a constitutive belief that the cosmos, having proceeded from a Creator, is thereby and in that sense unified. To confess, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,” is one thing. To explain what this means and how it ought to work itself out in the practices of organizing a university is another. To some degree this constitutive belief raises more questions than it resolves. Does, for example, the notion of cosmos suggest that everything is reducible finally to one thing, to matter or to spirit? In other respects, however, the constitutive belief informs the official rhetoric of the university over against rival metaphysical and epistemological views. Thus the belief in a Creator would seem to preclude a purely materialist metaphysic as well as certain extreme constructivist beliefs to the effect that human beings really do make the world. The education offered at a Christian university must be understood to involve both discovery and invention, both grateful wonder at what has been given to us in creation and concerted endeavor to make things new.
An informing principle like “unity” really does make the Christian university countercultural in the modern world. When Henry Adams observed in The Education of Henry Adams that in working from unity to multiplicity he had to reverse the direction taken by St. Augustine some fifteen centuries before him, he was correct. And he understood very well that the fragmented, disconnected, and alienated life that he both lived and then redescribed for his readers was to a large extent the product of the disappearance of God and the emergence of new metaphysics driven by science and technology. Though Adams might have himself doubted the efficacy of the project, he would surely have agreed that part of the mission of the Christian university must be a quest for unity, an undertaking to find ways of seeing and knowing what the Christian believes is, in a profound and mysterious sense, there already.
The second constitutive belief of a Christian university is that all human beings, everywhere and at all times, are made in the image of God and loved in the way that God loves, i.e., in a manner best exemplified in the life and death of Jesus the Christ. I describe this constitutive belief as “universality” to distinguish it from the view mentioned earlier, namely, the view that all species“centered discourse should be replaced by ethnos“centered discourse, the latter referring always and only to the views of a particular tribe or community rather than to what truly holds universally for the human species. Like unity, universality may raise more questions than it answers. What does it mean in a given case to love as God loves? What does it mean to be created in God’s image? How and to what extent does this belief inform the way we should order the Christian university’s common life? Has it any application, for example, to principles of university governance or to personnel issues or to the rules governing residence hall life?
There are of course any number of liberal intellectuals who would wish to defend and even to promote similar informing principles, such as a belief in universal human rights or a belief that all human beings are by nature entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. Since around 1980, however, many of these liberal intellectuals, notably the philosopher Richard Rorty, have gone to considerable lengths to insist that universalist aspirations such as these are but the idols of particular tribes of modern Western democracies. This insistence that all talk of universal human rights and dignity is really a kind of ethnocentrism has had worrisome implications, a point that Rorty himself indirectly concedes. In a 1983 essay Rorty ponders how citizens of a Western democracy would respond to a hypothetical child found wandering in the woods as the sole survivor of a nation whose culture and religion have been destroyed. Such a child would have, Rorty says, “no share in human dignity,” since the child’s moral community no longer exists. But under the ministrations of Westerners, this stranger would surely be “reclothed with dignity,” because “the Jewish and Christian element in our tradition” contains certain universalist ideals”ideals that are still “gratefully invoked,” he admits, “by free“loading atheists like myself.”
Candid accounts like this and a surrounding sense among many thoughtful observers that gestures of good will toward other human beings in need seem increasingly arbitrary and sporadic rather than dutiful and habitual have led to a new variation on the classical form of the jeremiad. One example comes from the posthumously published collection of essays by the widely influential American intellectual historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch. “Modernism,” Lasch wrote, “continues to live off the capital of the creeds it has rejected, and the most admirable among modernist intellectuals . . . have always been aware of this dependence”even when, like Freud, they were urging their readers to outgrow it.” Another example comes from the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, who wrote in his book Sources of the Self : “The question . . . is whether we are not living beyond our moral means in continuing allegiance to our standards of justice and benevolence. Do we have ways of seeing“good which are still credible to us, which are powerful enough to sustain the standards?”
Even if all these worries are exaggerated and even if religion does not in fact temper and improve human sentiments, it would still seem important for the health of a pluralistic, democratic society that there should exist institutions of higher learning whose mission involves a continual renewal of those practices, stories, and teachings that have inspired the proclamation and elaboration of certain liberating universal truths, making sense of them in theory and sustaining them in practice.
My third informing principle, “integrity,” involves the belief that there is an integral connection among the intellectual, moral, and spiritual dimensions of human life, and that these therefore ought where possible to be addressed concurrently within a single institution rather than parceled out into separate and often conflicting realms. Integrity refers to a kind of wholeness, an internal balance and harmony in the operation of the moral, spiritual, and intellectual virtues. A Christian university, like any university, must surely subordinate all other endeavors to the improvement of the mind in its pursuit of truth. Unlike many other universities, however, a Christian university believes that this pursuit is best undertaken within a community that also attends to the moral and the spiritual.
Indeed, some of the moral and spiritual virtues have vital cognitive significance and hence strengthen the practices of both teaching and learning. An arrogant teacher, for example, no matter how well he understands organic chemistry, is apt to be unresponsive to students and impatient with their errors and hesitations. Humility, therefore, is both a spiritual excellence and a pedagogical virtue. It would be a worthy project to articulate in a more systematic fashion those virtues whose exercise is most important for good teaching and to rank them accordingly. They would surely include”in addition to humility”faith, justice, courage, prudence, temperance, honesty, and, perhaps above all, charity. Indeed, my favorite brief account of the vocation of teaching has become the unofficial motto of the honors college where I teach. It comes from the eleventh century St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “Some seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity; others seek knowledge that they may themselves be known: that is vanity; but there are still others who seek knowledge in order to serve and edify others, and that is charity.”
My own practice as a historian has demonstrated to me the cognitive value of such virtues as justice and charity. I have in mind here criticism I have received or that I have leveled at myself regarding my thinking about, say, William James, a figure long dead: “You have really not done James full justice in your discussion of his religious views.” Or again, “You really need to be more charitable to James in your analysis of his courtship and marriage.”
Notice that the vocabulary of moral and spiritual virtue”here justice and charity”easily insinuates itself into appraisals of thought as well as action. If I have grown to treat my colleagues and students with justice and charity, I am surely more apt to treat historical subjects like William James in the same manner. And such treatment should improve the quality of my historical thinking. The exercise of charity toward my historical subjects is bound to make me a better historian”more cautious in appraisal, more sympathetic with human failings, less prone to stereotype and caricature. And insofar as this is so, the manner of teaching others to think historically ought to cultivate, at least through force of example, the virtue of charity.
There are surely countless nonreligious students and teachers who are just, charitable, and humble in their dealings with one another and with their subjects. Newman nevertheless insisted that a virtue like humility depended, finally, upon religious conviction. And it was, he thought, especially difficult to achieve genuine humility within the university. More accurately, humility could not be, for Newman, an achievement, the result of willful exertion”that was modesty; rather, humility arose in the soul as a natural accompaniment of religious affections such as awe and reverence before the greatness and majesty of God. “Knowledge,” Newman wrote, “viewed as Knowledge, exerts a subtle influence in throwing us back on ourselves and making us our own center, and our minds the measure of all things.” And indeed, the development of a sometimes aggressive secular humanism had already gathered considerable momentum throughout the century during which Newman lived and wrote. Though he could and did rhapsodize about liberal learning for its own sake and about the possibility of universal knowledge, he believed that the gentleman, the best product of a liberal education, fell considerably short of the mark primarily because, though modest enough, he lacked the virtue of humility.
I myself doubt that Christianity has a singular purchase upon the virtues of charity and humility. I would nevertheless insist that insofar as integrity is a proper aspiration of a Christian university, that university must in some way provide for the concurrent development of moral, spiritual, and intellectual virtue. In my own college, we seek to appoint faculty who are ready and willing to minister to those crises of faith that arise, for example, as young men and women read biblical texts together with the sacred scriptures of other traditions, with meticulous attention initially to a reading of what the text says, apart from whatever might be the student’s own received traditions of interpretation.
We understand the position that it is the church’s business, not the university’s, to minister to these spiritual quandaries, and we are, I think, even more insistent than some Christian colleagues outside our college that Valparaiso is a university, not a church, and that hence we are not about the business of the salvation of souls. Even so, we do not think it right or intellectually responsible to erode the often fragile foundations of students’ religious beliefs, however inadvertently, without being present with them to provide guidance, counsel, insight, and encouragement along the way. This is not to suggest that each and every faculty member, or even a majority of them, should be selected with an eye directed in part to their pastoral gifts. Such pastoral care is concentrated in various places at church“related schools”in residential ministries, in pastoral counseling offices, and among several faculty who pursue this task as something of an avocation.
I think that Newman was right, however, in seeking, wherever possible, to combine the offices of pastoral care with those of intellectual training. A Christian university not only may but must see to it that its students are enabled, if they are willing and eager for it, to approximate the ideal expressed in one of the pamphlets that were part of the Tractarian movement and that might well have been written by Newman: “The fullest and freest development of the intellect, joined to the most cheerful and implicit submission of the whole man to God’s will, this is surely the highest triumph which a system of education can achieve.”
The three informing principles thus far considered”unity, universality, and integrity”coincide loosely with the work of Creation, Redemption, and Sanctification, and hence suggest an orthodox, Trinitarian conception of a Christian university. Many of my own coreligionists, perhaps especially my own coreligionists, would want zealously to contest this ideal, sometimes on Christian grounds. Their arguments would sometimes appeal to critical ideas by Christian writers, and these writers taken together would constitute a tradition.
Thus my fourth and perhaps most obvious informing principle: A Christian university privileges and seeks to transmit, through its theology department, its official rhetoric, the corporate worship it sponsors, and in myriad other ways, a particular tradition of thought, feeling, and practice. Rival ideas of the university, most recently the one offered by Martha Nussbaum in her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education , often construe tradition of any kind as inimical to the kind of free inquiry that is the heart and soul of university life. There would seem to be at least two difficulties with this view. First, an increasing number of students come to the university without any sense of any tradition whatsoever. In an era of mass media, celebrity hype, spin control, and the breakdown of the very institutions that used to transmit tradition, it seems at least peculiar constantly to worry, as Nussbaum does, that we today might be in danger of reinstating something like the old“style Athenian education that Socrates rejected.
Tradition and critical inquiry frequently clash, but it is important to notice that they most often exist in a relationship of dialectical interdependence. Criticism responds to something”to opinion, dogma, custom, convention, tradition. And tradition, whether construed by Alasdair MacIntyre as an institutionally embodied argument extended over time, or by Jaroslav Pelikan as the living faith of the dead, incorporates criticism into the body of its life over time.
So our alternatives are not between tradition and critical inquiry. Instead, they often take the form of more complicated choices. Shall we live and work and think within a context alive to the conflicts between the extraordinarily variegated tradition that Christianity represents on the one hand, and the best of the Socratic tradition of critical and self“critical inquiry on the other? Shall we at one extreme languish in a state of traditionalism”the dead faith of the living, to quote Pelikan once more”or, at the other extreme, languish in a state of anomie borne of traditionless criticism feeding perpetually upon itself, issuing in mere cleverness at best and in skeptical nihilism at worst?
It should go without saying that the Christian tradition must itself be critically examined by Christians and non“Christians alike. The rhythms of intellectual life at a Christian university include both a relentless questioning of what we believe and a believing of that which we question. Many of those for whom the privileging of the Christian tradition cannot possibly be justified on the basis of the essential truth of that tradition’s central claims (and this would include a majority of the academy) might at least concede as a possible justification the contingent fact that for most of its history the university in the West was nourished by Christian convictions.
My fifth and final feature of a Christian university is the one that is most at odds with Newman. The great cardinal insisted that the knowledge that is the proper object of study at a university is good for its own sake. Though such knowledge has profound implications for professional skill, its pursuit cannot and should not be justified, Newman argued, with reference to those implications. But our world is in this respect perhaps most different from Newman’s, for most of our students come to the university primarily to prepare themselves for work, and the vast majority of them do not intend to prepare themselves either for the academy itself or for one of the learned professions”law, medicine, and divinity.
In this context, a Christian university, both by nature and necessity, construes the kind of knowledge it pursues as being for the most part both good in itself and good for the sake of something else, namely, to paraphrase St. Bernard again, to serve and edify others. Or, to put the matter another way, it should be a primary teaching of a Christian university that work is a social station where human beings use their God“given talents and whatever knowledge they have acquired to serve neighbors in need. This is the classical Protestant understanding of vocation, and it has significant implications for the way in which a Christian university might define human excellence.
Most accounts of human excellence suggest that human beings achieve that which is noblest and hence most worthy of praise in some particular theater of human endeavor”in ancient times on the battlefield or in political assemblies, later in the study or the studio, the laboratory or the athletic arena. Protestant Christians, however, argued that men and women were stationed in a variety of callings simultaneously. They were at one and the same time parents, citizens, neighbors, and professionals. And although most Christian thinkers usually resisted the temptation to insist upon one form of saintliness, more and more of them have tended, since the Reformation, to locate the exercise of virtue not so much in exceptional heroic endeavor as in the quiet and steady business of everyday life. A Christian university should therefore equip its students to perform well in all of their concurrent callings, and it should teach them to regard human life not primarily as a tragic set of impossible choices between excellence at home or at work or in civil society, but as a striving for the proper balance of exertion and achievement within all of these fields of endeavor.
Finally, of course, the Christian university must insist that, however strenuous the exertions it ordains and fosters, and however successful students may be in meeting the standards of excellence that it holds up to them, they will still fall short of the mark without the grace of God. Newman was profoundly impressed by this, and according to one account of his thought about education, he was haunted by “the paradox that one who was fit to see God might be unfit to be seen by anyone else.”
The world of Oriel College, Oxford, where Newman formed the ideas that later became the substance of his discourses on the idea of the university, has vanished irretrievably. Though my own thoughts have been in part an effort to refurbish and put to use some of his insights, our own new occasions do to a considerable extent teach new duties.
Newman wrote from a position of supreme confidence that the Catholic Church was singularly equipped to nurture human beings to become truly humble and truly charitable because truly redeemed and sanctified. It was a confidence that mirrored the confidence of some of his adversaries who extolled the virtues of modern science and Enlightenment as the only paths to genuine human flourishing. Increasing numbers of the heirs of this latter group have in these days, as we have seen, begun to qualify and even to retract some of their more imperial claims. If liberal intellectuals can be chastened, so can Christian intellectuals. Just as many of the former group have sincerely confessed and subsequently renounced glib confusions of the local and the particular with the universal, so Christians today should confess that they have been altogether too ready at times to characterize an ideal, a motive, or a virtue as “distinctively Christian” when these may all in fact have many religious homes. Let me therefore emphasize two points that need perpetual reinforcement, mostly for my own coreligionists. First of all, Christianity cannot be said to be the source”though it is most certainly at its best a source”for the view that all human beings must be treated with dignity, respect, and love. And second, Christians are called after all to be faithful, not to be above all things distinctive. Hence, they should welcome convergent understandings of thought, feeling, and action instead of regarding these with suspicion as somehow compromising the special character of Christianity.
Newman was also determined to draw, in his own inimitable way, sharp and dramatic contrasts between those liberally educated men and women who were Christians and those who were not. In his eighth discourse, “The Religion of Philosophy,” he seems at first to suggest that liberal learning will at least prepare the human heart for sanctity. But he then reverts to his more usual habit of developing pronounced distinctions between the poor powers of mere philosophy compared to the potential strength of the Christian faith to elevate human beings far above a life of sensual indulgence. “The splendors of a court, and the charms of good society, wit, imagination, taste, and high breeding, the prestige of rank, and the resources of wealth, are a screen, an instrument, and an apology for vice and irreligion. And thus at length we find, surprising as the change may be, that that very refinement of Intellectualism, which began by repelling sensuality, ends by excusing it.”
There will be many”including myself in my more discouraged moments”who will be tempted to regard this as a prescient and eloquent epitaph for much of higher learning in the United States during our own century. But we must, I think, resist that temptation. First of all, we must again remember the darker side of Protestant hegemony that I referred to earlier. Indeed, if we had to select the one human being whose life and work over almost the entire span of the twentieth century most vividly embodied Newman’s ideal of the liberally educated man, it would most likely be the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, who would have been excluded from Newman’s Oxford in the nineteenth century and from many of the outstanding institutions of higher learning in the United States for a good part of the twentieth. But more to the point here, the example of Berlin and countless others like him should lead us all to regard skeptically the immense divide that Newman seemed to impose between knowledge and virtue.
Second, we must acknowledge that an ideal like the one I have set down is fraught with dangers, some of them easy to imagine and others, on the basis of the history of church“related higher learning, already too familiar. For it will be tempting to use my several informing principles, however true and salutary these may be, as inflexible dogmas to be used as tests for faculty appointment and promotion; even more tempting to multiply the number of informing principles to the point that the university becomes a seminary or a Bible college, losing altogether its identity as a university . I have been developing the idea of a Christian university, but had I been elaborating the idea of a Christian university I should have stressed ideals of liberal education, some of them very like the ideals stressed by Martha Nussbaum. It is simply a fact that Christianity has been from time to time desperately in need, within the precincts of its own colleges and universities, of the best in the tradition of liberal education and Enlightenment rationality to curb its own occasional tendencies toward dogmatic fanaticism, persecutorial zeal, and militant anti“intellectualism.
Even more to the point, and my third and most telling reason for disagreeing with Newman about the relationship between liberal education and Christianity, I believe with Charles Taylor that “modern culture, in breaking with the structures and beliefs of Christendom, also carried certain facets of Christian life further than they ever were taken, or could have been taken, within Christendom.” The basic thrust of the Christian gospel has at times been carried forward under wholly secular auspices, most notably on those occasions when Christendom was itself the principal obstacle to the practical penetration of the gospel in human life. This was especially the case with respect to the cause of human freedom.
It is, of course, equally true, as Taylor also argues, that “the modern denial of transcendence can put the most valuable gains of modernity in danger.” Absent any sense that the human project aims beyond itself, liberated human life can easily reduce to the negative and fruitless project of attempting to eliminate suffering and death, of denying our mortality and gazing only upon the limited horizons of self“preservation. Or, worse still, the “death of God” can lead to a Nietzschean fascination with violence and the negation of life. In sum, and contra Newman, Christianity needs liberal education and Enlightenment as much as liberal education may need Christianity.
If we agree with Taylor, we can be more sanguine about the present situation of Christianity and higher education in America. The Christian university can truly be itself only in a context of institutional pluralism, as one of several models, perhaps even a model on the margins, of university education. Christianity functions most truly and most effectively when it is disenthralled. And in this regard the life of the ideal Christian university is like unto the life of the individual Christian. Insofar as Christians relax their grip upon the reins of earthly dominion and contract the scope of their temporal ambitions, they so far increase the range of their spiritual influence and so the more steadily secure their hold upon eternity. This too should be a teaching of a Christian university.
Mark R. Schwehn is Dean of Christ College in Valparaiso University. An earlier version of this essay was delivered last spring as a lecture at the University of Chicago sponsored by the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?