I am in Portsmouth, Rhode Island this weekend, attending “Being Human: Christian Perspectives on the Human Person,” an installment of the annual conference of the Portsmouth Institute for Faith and Culture.
Last night, Sister Bethany Madonna of the Sisters of Life in New York City told tales of the work of the community, bringing sincere tears of joy to the audience. This morning, as I write, Peter Kreeft of Boston College has just finished speaking of “Christian Reasons for the Liberal Arts,” a talk that probed deeply into my own humanities world, but from a wholly different starting point. In a few minutes, Erika Bachiochi, a First Things contributor, will discuss “Human Ecology.” We’ll hear later about “The Biomedical Researcher and the Human Embryo” and “Being Non-Human: What Can Robotics Teach Us about the Human Person?” Another figure well-known to First Things readers, Ryan T. Anderson, will give a dinner address with the arch title, “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.”
This is all somewhat foreign to me. I majored in English thirty-six years ago and proceeded to graduate school where I spent another seven years in the 1980s. I’ve been a humanities professor at Emory University ever since. Christian writers fill the English canon and my syllabus, but a Christian anthropology had no place in my formation and my practice. The discipline does not recognize it. One rarely hears the words soul and spirit in critical discussion, and then only as historical concepts that have no more living meaning than epicycle and witch.
Nobody predicates their work on the assumption that God created man. The notion of opening a colloquy with a prayer is, well, akin to standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, or declaring fealty to the Klingon Empire. The entire realm of faith, the universal human impulse to believe, only exists in higher education as an object of study, not as a motive, a framework, an inspiration, or a premise.
I joined the First Things team three years ago. Since then, the world has opened up. It is because of First Things that I am here in Portsmouth listening to Professor Kreeft say, “We [educators] have forgotten God.” And I can hardly describe what a relief and enhancement it is to feel the divine enter the proceedings as a conviction of the participants, not as a subject of irony. I didn’t know how spiritually starved I was in academia until I witnessed Rusty calling for silence and grace at the start of First Things dinners. Observing our contributors stand up for religion in the public square without embarrassment or trimming has been innervating.
Academic dogma casts religiously inspired critique as narrow and bigoted, but my experience has been the opposite. Meetings such as this one impress me as more relaxed and free and intellectually heterogeneous than any humanities conference I’ve attended. The questions and answers raised here are more meaningful (yes, people have answers, not just critical thinking!).
For me, this is one of the best appeals we can make to First Things supporters. We live in a society that has turned higher education over to outlooks that exile faith. Under the false guise of academic freedom, academics regard phrases such as “the love we owe to God and to one another” (just uttered by Bachiochi) as exclusionary. Our colleges dominate intellectual life in the United States, making dissenting organs such as First Things ever more essential to a robust moral culture.
I don’t say this as opinion. I’ve experienced it directly. I feel gratitude. It’s the weekend, I’m far from my wife and child, but when you believe in the mission, when you regard your duties as a liberation, not a burden, you’re happy to put in the extra hours.
Your support reinforces our commitment. I take the list of our donors as an incentive and a responsibility. People who contribute to First Things demonstrate the necessity of the work we do. Powerful forces in our country seek to discourage us. Your encouragement keeps us mindful of principle. Your dollars press us to enter a heated public square with a firm sense of grounds and goals, and we dedicate ourselves to live up to that endorsement.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.