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Imagine you’ve just read Plato’s Republic and then—conscientious citizen that you’ve now become—you enter a Chicago voting booth on election day and scan the list of candidates. Anyone who reads John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, published in 1852, and then ventures into the typical college classroom of today will suffer a similar case of mental whiplash. Perhaps, though, such disorientation is inevitable. In both texts, after all, we are dealing with uncompromising ideals, presented with intense fervor and great pathos, against which any reality would come up short.

Indeed, Newman’s vision of the university demands a refinement of taste and delicacy of temperament out of reach to all but the most literate and sensible of undergraduates. His ideal student has “a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind”—a specimen one is unlikely to find during spring break in Fort Lauderdale.

Oddly, though, both Plato and Newman seemed to think that their ideals were eminently realizable: Plato traveled to Syracuse to educate a crown prince in hopes of making him a future philosopher-king; and Newman was asked by the bishops of Ireland to establish a Catholic university in Dublin more or less on the model of Oxford, surely a real university if ever there was one.

As everyone knows, both projects ended in complete failure and left both men feeling hurt, betrayed, and traumatized. But just as political debate has much to learn from a continual return to the Republic, so, too, Newman’s Idea of a University never ceases to inspire, cajole, admonish, delight—and depress.

The vast discrepancy between Newman’s ideal and the reality of higher education today can be explained, in part, by the changing times. For example, when he was a fellow at Oriel College in Oxford, he was instrumental in establishing the labor-intensive, one-on-one tutorial system, an ideal he never abandoned, but one simply impossible in today’s mega-universities.

The discrepancy can also be explained by a difference of vision. Newman’s vision insists that research should play no role in a teaching institution. Here he is, perhaps, starting to gain an audience. Increasingly, voices are heard lamenting the ceaseless hunt for “prestige” entailed in the publish-or-perish mentality of contemporary academia, especially in the humanities. Do we really need one more article, tucked away in a refereed journal that even most of its subscribers do not bother to read all the way through, on sea imagery in Shakespeare?

Newman’s vision also sits uneasily, however, with his own belief that a university must seek to teach universal knowledge. He fully admitted that such an aspiration was merely an ideal because no one school could possibly accomplish that goal. But that impossibility only meant, for him, that schools should cooperate across boundaries through interdisciplinary conversation—an ideal that seems impossible to fulfill without a commitment to research. In fact, Atlantis, the faculty journal of Newman’s Dublin foundation, began to publish scientific research as early as 1858. Plus, in my observation, professors who do no research end up giving stale lectures.

But the most glaring discrepancy between Newman’s vision and contemporary reality—and this includes the reality of the typical Catholic university—concerns the place of theology, which he sees as the central focus of any Catholic university worthy of the name. To be sure, he flatly refuses to grant to theology any self-designated role as traffic cop or official umpire of the claims of other disciplines: “Theology is one branch of knowledge,” he says, “and secular sciences are other branches. Theology is the highest indeed, and widest, but it does not interfere with the real freedom of any secular science in its own particular department.”

Newman is not claiming here that integration is impossible, only that theology cannot serve as the locus for that integration. Somewhat in contrast with medieval opinion, he leaves that role to philosophy, which, in his definition, “embraces and locates truth of every kind, and every method of attaining it.” Moreover, theology’s own roots in both reason and revelation make it too internally unstable to serve as Grand Adjudicator: It teaches “a doctrine . . . so mysterious as in its fullness to lie beyond any system, and in particular aspects to be simply external to nature, and to seem in parts even to be irreconcilable with itself, the imagination being unable to embrace what the reason determines.”

Even after conceding those points, Newman nonetheless insists on theology’s indispensability. In a remarkably prescient observation that anticipates the rhetoric of the New Atheists, Newman sees that, when Christianity is thought to be the “bane of true knowledge,” there inevitably will arise “a feeling, not merely of contempt, but of absolute hatred, towards the Catholic theologian and the dogmatic teacher.”

The roots of that hatred, and the assumption that Christianity is the bane of true knowledge, can largely be found in that great shibboleth of contemporary higher education, “academic freedom.” But for Newman, a theologian always recognizes (or at least ought to recognize) a higher authority to which his discipline is bound. That obeisance to magisterial authority means that the theologian cannot, to quote another academic cliché, claim a freedom “to follow conclusions wherever they lead.” Such is the scandal of theology and why it often is regarded with suspicion by other departments in a university, much like the ostracized son who shows up uninvited at the family picnic.

Precisely as a science that is obedient to a supervenient revelation and yet must use reason to reach its conclusions, theology is inherently volatile, and within it a legitimate pluralism must be recognized. Thus, theologians are bound to disagree about reason’s proper role in submitting to revelation, and differing positions on that initial point will legitimately generate different schools of thought. One is no less Catholic if one agrees with Duns Scotus on the univocity of being over against Thomas Aquinas’ preference for the analogy of being, despite the fact that a large majority of theologians competent to have an opinion on the matter prefer Thomas over the Scot. Nor is one less faithful to revelation if one prefers Plato over Aristotle—or at least we must say this: If one wants to argue Aristotle’s precedence over Plato, this position will have to be decided on strictly philosophical, not theological, grounds—a point on which the medieval theologians were all agreed.

The academy can applaud this kind of pluralism, but it cannot approve what is theology’s ultimate scandal in the academy. Insofar as theology uses reason to direct its attention to revelation—to the extent, that is, that theology regards itself as a reason-shaped science of revelation—an infallible magisterium, and precisely one external to the guild of theologians, must be acknowledged to have the last say. For Newman, the problem is inherent in the discipline: Revelation directly entails magisterium. As he said in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, published in 1845, which he wrote while still a member of the Church of England:

A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given . . . . If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder . . . . By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution and have ended in skepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the object, while it gives definiteness and force to the matter of the revelation.

The mention of Germany in this context cannot be accidental, for it was in late-eighteenth-century Germany that the research university as we know it today was born. At the University of Berlin the famous Lutheran theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) thought he had found a way of making theology accessible to the rational research methods accepted in his day. His strategy was to show how religion is—fundamentally and first of all—a matter of feeling, not propositional truth. If it could be shown that access to the divine comes from a feeling of “absolute dependence,” as he called it, and, if it could also be shown that Jesus lived out that feeling to a quintessential degree, then, Schleiermacher believed, theology had a secure basis for establishing the dogmatic (that is, propositional) truth of the centrality of Christ, not just for the community of believers but for all mankind. That strategy took on added plausibility and popularity because the contemporary movement of Romanticism was also insisting on the cognitive value of intuitive feelings.

Something like that same strategy can also be detected later in William James (1842–1910)—not accidentally a professor of psychology at America’s premier research university, Harvard. Just as Schleiermacher’s Speeches on the Christian Religion to Its Cultured Despisers (1799) won great renown in Germany, so too James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) convinced many of Christianity’s utility inside industrial civilization, where feelings were being crushed on the assembly line.

Newman could not read German, which made Schleiermacher’s influence on him exiguous at best, and, obviously, he lived well before James began to turn his attention to religion. But Newman unsparingly targeted the epistemological presuppositions animating the thought of both men. As is well known, when he received the cardinal’s red hat from Pope Leo XIII in 1879, he said in his speech of acceptance that his whole life had been a struggle against “the liberal principle in religion,” which he defined as the assumption that one opinion is as good as another, especially on such a murky matter as religion. The Idea of a University demonstrates the vigor of that commitment to fight liberalism in religion.

First of all, Newman saw with astonishing foresight that a theology based on feeling is going to wither in an academic setting. Unless it can advance plausible claims that it possesses real knowledge, theology will be unable to sustain itself inside a university. As he sarcastically noted, if theology only amounts to being a taxonomic catalogue of numinous sentiments, it would be unreasonable to demand a theological chair in a university, just as it would to demand a chair “for fine feeling, sense of honor, patriotism, gratitude, maternal affection, or good companionship, proposals which would be simply unmeaning.” If theology does not yield up true knowledge, it is not a science; and if it is not a science, it will find no place in a university.

Newman was, of course, perfectly aware that the “knowledge” embedded in theology comes from revelation, not from sensory experiment, which puts it in an acute bind in relation to the rest of the sciences, even in explicitly Catholic universities. Already in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes had said that, when a man says he has encountered God in a dream, his neighbor can, with perfect legitimacy, transpose that claim into the assertion that the man had a dream about God.

The usual way of finessing this problem in the modern university is to make room not for theology but for “religious studies,” which can be defined here as the study of the “dreams” different people have of God—but the God encountered in them is off limits. The method is historical and phenomenological: You can study and teach what all these people used to think (history) or how they now behave (the phenomenological account of ritual, ethical systems, kinship relations, etc.). But you cannot so much as hint that one or another claim to revelation (by Moses, Isaiah, the Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Muhammad, etc.) might be right.

Perhaps surprisingly, Newman does not object per se to this approach. Indeed, he hardly could do otherwise, given his definition of a university as the place that seeks universal knowledge. Such a method can even serve as a kind of closet evangelization, so to speak, offering remedial literacy for the religiously unlettered. But, still, this is not what Newman is really seeking in his ideal university. For him the goal of universal knowledge is truth, which he defines as “facts and their relations, which stand towards each other pretty much as subjects and predicates in logic, . . . [from] internal mysteries of the Divine Essence down to our own sensations and consciousness, . . . from the most glorious seraph to the vilest and most noxious of reptiles.” (I guess he wasn’t cut out for biology.)

What we have today is largely a study of comparative religion, the history and psychology of religion, and the like; this is why so many departments, including in many Catholic universities, are called departments of religious studies, not theology. And even where the traditional nomenclature has been kept, what is crucial is the method. Departmental names won’t matter much if the shift has already taken place from a scientific theology, based on the prior Catholic faith commitment of every student in the classroom (which obviously would require everyone enrolled in the course to be a committed Catholic), to a phenomenological, historical study of what others believe. As Gerard Loughlin says in The Cambridge Companion to John Henry Newman: “Theology has responded [to attacks on its academic credibility] by becoming less the learning of God and more the learning of the learning of God.”

This strategy has not been adopted universally by Catholic universities, and some departments (under whatever name) are excellent as centers of both theological reflection and historical scholarship. Nonetheless, given the almost hysterical reaction of some theologians, particularly a fair number among the members of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), to such Vatican directives as Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) and Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998), we can conclude that many professional theologians, and theological faculties, apparently have yet to absorb Newman’s point that magisterial authority is necessary for the proper teaching and pursuit of theology.

Seminaries obviously represent a redoubt from these trends—although, as is well known, some are more forthright in their adherence to magisterial direction than others. Even there, though, I have to say (from experience) that trends are rapidly moving toward more open avowals of orthodoxy. For one thing, students studying for the priesthood show increasing impatience with inherited models that assume, without further ado, that a theologian must be adversarial toward the hierarchy in order to be “authentic.”

But it would represent a real loss to the Church if seminaries were to become the only venue for faith-based theology. For one thing, in a seminary other disciplines (with the exception of philosophy in Catholic seminaries and some languages in most others) rarely are taught, and theology needs the “strife of the faculties,” to borrow Immanuel Kant’s famous term. In a passage that might sound utopian, Newman called on disciplines and departments to move beyond their habitual aggrandizement—both intellectual and administrative, and as inevitable as jostling for more money and prestige will be—to live out a common mission to pursue the truth.

What an empire is in political history, such is a university in the sphere of philosophy of research. It . . . maps out the territory of the intellect, and sees that the boundaries of each province are religiously respected, and that there is neither encroachment nor surrender on any side. It acts as umpire between truth and truth, and, taking into account the nature and importance of each, assigns to all their due order of precedence. It maintains no one department of thought exclusively, however ample and noble; and it sacrifices none. It is deferential and loyal, according to their respective weight, to the claims of literature, of physical research, of history, of metaphysics, of theological science. It is impartial towards them all, and promotes each in its own place and for its own object.

It’s quite a jolt to go from passages like these to the contemporary reality of disordered, competitive disciplines guided in their work and related to one another by no comprehensive vision of the truth or of the university. But this only shows how much we need Newman’s vision if we are to know the truth—and how much we stand to lose if his witness is ignored. That is an ideal one does not necessarily need revelation to desire and pursue, but one does need revelation if one wishes to be faithful to theology’s ideal of “faith seeking understanding.” When Catholic theologians refuse to obey the Magisterium, you have an infallible sign that the school they teach in is not Catholic, whatever its catalogue might say.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author, most recently, of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology, forthcoming from Eerdmans this summer.