On What Foundation is the University Built?

Not long ago, you could attend conferences with titles like “Is a Christian University Possible?” By that was meant, “Can a modern ‘pluralistic’ university be Christian?” Or would the Christian convictions of the institution diminish the search for the full truth in an open, unbiased fashion? You might have thought the answer to that question was fairly obvious since the university was born in medieval Christian Europe and thrived within that context for centuries.

Now, however, a conference with the title “Is a Christian University Possible?” would more likely deal with the question, “In the future, will any university still be allowed to be Christian?” Campuses might still be allowed to have something like a chapel, as long as nothing is said there too discomforting to the university administration. But will any university be allowed – either by the State, the administration, or its faculty – to maintain its mission as a distinctively Christian institution?

There is an important story to be told about the relationship between the first question – Is a Christian university possible? – and the second: Should a Christian university be allowed? The presumption behind both questions is that there could be (and probably is) a better foundation for the education that ought to take place in a university than Christian conviction.

Taking Christianity as the university’s foundation, it was presumed, would destroy the free exchange of ideas essential to the university’s mission. Too few people thought to ask why, if Christian conviction and the free exchange of ideas were inimical to one another, universities arose within the cradle of Christianity in the first place. Even fewer thought to inquire what happened when so-called “free universities” were created with no connection to the Church. Were they any “freer” than their peer institutions? Rarely, if ever. Instead, they became subject to the imperial power of the State.

The author of a recent article at “Church Life Journal” provides an important reminder about the works in the much-debated Western canon.

Hobbes refers to himself as an anti-Aristotle, Nietzsche titles one of his books the antichrist, and so on. The political projects included by the descriptive term are likewise diametrically opposed – monarchy versus democracy, capitalism versus socialism, theocracy versus secularism – all of these oppositions and many more have been advanced within the bounds of Western Civilization. . . .Hobbes and Schmitt would have wanted certain books outlawed. Plato would have ordered the poets banished and edifying myths installed. Nietzsche would have liked to see all “slave morality” overcome and forgotten. Marx might have walked out of the seminar room and joined the revolution.

The “revolution” would soon ban most of the books he had been reading anyway.

*

Plotinus and Porphyry thought early Christian literature should be thrown out. Renaissance Aristotelians tried to ban the work of Galileo. Galileo’s Renaissance Pythagorean allies wanted to do away with Aristotle. More recently, University College London’s student union banned the Nietzsche Club as “fascist.” To be fair, Nietzsche would likely have banned all of them and certainly anyone who joined something called a Nietzsche Club. More recently the students at the same British institution wanted to ban all “white philosophers.” And it is not an accident that one of the most banned books in history – and currently – is the Bible.

It is an interesting fact that, in a serious Catholic liberal arts university, you can read the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Luther, Rousseau, Marx, and Nietzsche and take them all seriously. If the devoted disciples of any of those thinkers were in charge, however, the list of permitted readings would be much shorter. Would the Nietzschean university happily let you read Marx or Aristotle? Would the Marxist university let you read Cicero or Aquinas?

The odd presumption that, if we simply got Christianity out of the way, universities would be “freer” has simply not been borne out by history and more recent experience. Not that Christianity hasn’t had its tensions with the university. But this is as it should be, because the perennial question of the Christian university is how to understand the relationship between faith and reason.

The Christian conviction underlying that question has always been that the truths of faith and the truths of reason will never contradict because they both have God as their ultimate Author. As John Paul II so eloquently put it: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Working out how to understand this relationship between the faith and reason has, however, often been a dynamic challenge, changing with changes in the prominent science and philosophy of the age. But it is precisely this challenge that has animated the intellectual life of the university.

When Christ, the Word made flesh, is properly understood as the center of the university’s mission, then all truth, no matter its source, is welcome and important. It is when that Christian conviction about the symphonic nature of truth is replaced with a “system” or “process” or “ideology” that the entire edifice begins to crumble from within.

Witness the contemporary university, now comfortably insulated from all Christian “taint.” Are these institutions freer? Are they training students to be better servants of mankind? Or have they turned themselves into havens of shared ideology and the “cancel culture”? Have they largely lost their way and made themselves the servants of Mammon rather than truth?

The university is a distinctively Christian product. When Christ is at its center, all creation is important, the handiwork of a loving God. When Christ is at its center, nothing genuinely human can fail to raise an echo in the hearts of its members. When it loses Christ at its core, it soon becomes the servant of Mammon, ideology, or the State.

Is a Christian university possible? Is it still possible? The answer to those questions will likely tell us the answer to another: Whether a university is still possible? On that score, the evidence is not good.

 

*Image: Crocefisso No. 16 (Crucifix) by William Congdon, 1953 [William G. Congdon Foundation, Milan, Italy]

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. His book Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners is available from Emmaus Press. his latest book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary was published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press.



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