Some fine essays, dealing with issues germane to higher education, appear in David W. Gill, ed., Should God Get Tenure? Essays on Religion and Higher Education (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, c. 1997). The sixteen essayists served as “J. Omar Good Distinguished Visiting Professor of Evangelical Christianity” at Juniata College during the past two decades, but their essays reflect their own concerns and perspectives rather than any shared agenda. Some, such as Mark Noll, are widely known in evangelical circles; others are less famous but make valuable contributions to the volume.
The heart of the issue addressed herein stands revealed in Harvard University’s decision to reduce its founding motto–Veritas pro Christo et ecclesia–to Veritas. Rather than seek truth on behalf of Christ and His Church, the Harvard community now concerns itself solely with “truth,” though in today’s postmodern climate even Veritas may soon be deleted! Universities, which once stressed the Christian Faith as essential to their mission no longer, pretend to endorse it. In response, the essayists in this volume call for a revival of Christian studies in the nation’s colleges and universities.
Bruce Reichenbach, Professor of Philosophy at Augsburg College, considers “On Being a Professor: The Case of Socrates.” He urges professors to actually profess–to do more than toss out questions, which allegedly challenge students to think. Exemplary Medieval professors were “licensed to teach or dispute publicly” (p. 9). They apparently knew something, which they explained and defended. Taking a different tack, many current professors, defending their “ideals of presuppositionless investigation, unbiased presentation of the materials, and open dialogue” (p. 9), claiming Socrates charte4d their methodology.
In fact, Reichenbach insists, though Socrates “overtly proclaimed neutrality in his investigations” (p. 13), and made much of his own “ignorance,” he clearly had strong convictions and sought bedrock foundations for truth. A truly Socratic professor can hardly be agnostic about everything! Indeed, the pretense of professorial neutrality, the facade of simply being a “facilitator,” collapses when carefully studied. Inevitably, Reichenbach says, “professing is perspectival, worldviewish” (p. 16). The real issue is how well we profess, how what we profess corresponds with what’s real. Thus “The professor must agree with Socrates that it is essential that we search for the things we do not know with the expectation that there is something to know. This last part is what many in our era of postmodernism might miss, but which the professor must profess. Unless there is something to know, unless there is truth, it hardly matters being a professional, let alone a Christian, professor” (p. 18).
Robert C. Roberts, Professor of Philosophy and Psychological Studies at Wheaton College, contributes a probing essay entitled “Tolstoy and Freud on Our Need for God.” He persuasively argues that we do in fact need God–something Tolstoy honestly admitted while Freud sought to sidestep and explain away. After a lifetime of self-indulgence and literary success, Tolstoy suddenly found, when he turned 50, that “something very strange began to happen to me.” Life no longer seemed worthwhile. He “felt lost and became dejected.” Plaguing him, in moments of quietness, were haunting questions: “What is it for? What does it lead to?” (p. 61; Tolstoy’s statements appear in A Confession). At that time, he clearly had no answers. Life had no meaning, and he had to guard his activities lest he commit suicide.
In the midst of it all, however, when life seemed so meaningless, Tolstoy could not escape the deep intuition that somewhere there were answers to his existential questions. He felt like a man who was lost in the woods, dashing about furiously looking for the right road. Yet he sensed there was, in fact, a right road somewhere. He denied neither the horror of being lost nor the possibility of finding the road to salvation. At the deepest possible level, his desire was for God–a God who would give him some answers to life’s questions. And ultimately Tolstoy found in the Gospels the answers he sought.
Freud, on the other hand, sought to discount our hearts’ spiritual hungers by branding them “infantile,” childish “projections” or fantasies akin to fairy tails. What Roberts argues is that Christian professors can find in writers such as Tolstoy great guides for students who are wrestling with the “big questions.” They need not be intimidated or overwhelmed by thinkers such as Freud so long as they know that other thinkers, arguably even greater minds, responded differently to man’s religious impulse.
The President and Professor of Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Carnegie Samuel Calian, challenges us with a call to “Prayer and Higher Education.” Noting that a high percentage of American people claim to pray, he notes that few universities grant it any attention. Sadly enough, even in many church-related colleges few professors or students pray since the majority “are either passively or actively secularizing life and learning on their campuses” (p. 172). Everything else, it seems, gets study, funding, and emphasis. Research, vocational training, and liberal arts programs all stand securely embedded in the curriculum. But prayer is rarely taught, encouraged, or practiced.
Yet, Calian insists, “The simple and plain truth is that prayer and spiritual development are essential to the well-being of every college student” (p. 172). All of us, professors and students, administrators and staff, are pilgrims on a spiritual journey. We need to find clear guidance, God’s will. Prayer, Calian says, is and “earnest conversation with God to ascertain the Divine will, knowing in our heart of hearts that following it is in our own best interest. True prayer is not asking God to do our bidding, but rather discovering what God’s will is for us and then doing it” (p. 172). Still more: prayer shapes character! Indeed, “The depth of our prayer life measures the progress of our faith journey” (p. 173). So we desperately need to learn to actually pray–and to pray. In universities, where we often talk about God, but we must learn to talk to Him, to listen to Him.
Other essays deserve attention and enlarge our appreciation for the issues facing Christian scholars in our era.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In 1994 George Marsdon published The Soul of the American University, a definitive historical study of the importance of the Christian faith in establishing America’s colleges and universities, as well as its 20th century demise in many of them. In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), Marsdon, a professor of history at Notre Dame, turns prescriptive and urges Christians to vigorously regain some of the ground lost during the past century.
“Contemporary university culture is hollow at its core,” Marsdon announces. “Not only does it lack a spiritual center, but it is also without any real alternative” (p. 3). On many campuses, ” Christian Perspectives Are Not welcomed,” and even openly opposed. Secular scholars, intent on excluding the sacred from consideration, seek to censor religious questions and testimonies. Many scholars, imprisoned in a highly suspect Enlightenment faith in empirical research, think universities should allow only “scientific” endeavors qualify for discussion. Thus only naturalistic, evolutionary theories of “creation” are admitted. Yet a vacuum clearly exists in university life! So Marsdon urges that religious thought and spiritual life should regain standing in the academic arena. Rather than muzzle Christians who teach in universities, their witness should be encouraged. Both students and scholarly activities would gain thereby.
Christian scholars who choose to engage secular thinkers in the academic life must, first of all, understand “the rules of the academic game.” The dominant academic culture operates according to a generally liberal, pragmatic, pluralistic model. Without embracing such values, Christians must, nevertheless, understand them in order to gain a hearing. We cannot insist non-Christians accede to Christian presuppositions. What must be claimed, however, is the right of Christians to openly identify their faith (as do Marxists, feminists, et al.) without being barred from the forum.
Opportunities increasingly abound, Marsdon claims, for Christian scholars to follow their calling in secular universities. Were they to do high quality work, and if they were not discounted for their Christian profession, much good would be accomplished. Some gifted scholars, such as Nathan Hatch and John Milbank, have already done such. A dynamic group of young Christian philosophers has made impressive inroads into that discipline. Liberal arts colleges, if they stay true to their Christian roots, can make an enormous difference if professors do work which impacts the academy.
Especially helpful for Christian scholars is Marsdon’s Appendix, “Getting Specific,” which lists some of the “impressive scholars” who are practicing what he preaches. There are philosophers such as William Alston, Alasdair MacIntyre, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff in philosophy. In history, note Herbert Butterfield, Christopher Dawson, Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll. Legal and political thinkers include Stephen Carter, Jean Elshtain, Mary Ann Glendon. In sociology one finds Peter Berger, Jacques Ellul, and Robert Withnow. Such first-rate scholars, identifiably Christian, offer us marvelous models. A guide to this “mini-renaissance of evangelical scholarship” (p. 114) may be found in “A Bibliography We Can’t Live Without,” in Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View, reprinted in James Sire’s Discipleship of the Mind.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Taking a critical look at America’s universities, Roger Kimball, Managing Editor of The New Criterion has revised and expanded his 1990 treatise, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted our Higher Education (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, c. 1998). In Kimball’s judgment, the 60’s Generation has slowly gained control of the nation’s universities, thereby destroying their integrity. Clearly, “the radical ethos of the Sixties has been all too successful, achieving indirectly in the classroom, faculty meeting, and by administrative decree what they were unable to accomplish on the barricades” (p. 7). Indeed, “when the children of the Sixties received their professorships and deanships they did not abandon the dream of radical cultural transformation; they set out to implement it” (p. 191). More ominously: “the truth is that what we are facing today is nothing less than the destruction of the fundamental premises that underlie our conception both of liberal education and of a liberal democratic polity” (p. xiii).
What’s imperiled is nothing less than Western Civilization itself! To destroy this civilization, and the Christian culture which sustains it, an intellectual war has been waged and largely won, primarily through infiltration and subversion. The assailants may be loosely grouped under what Frederick Crews identifies as “Left Eclecticism.” Though not exactly identical with Marxism (often disavowing its roots for strategic reasons), today’s Left shares many Marxist tenets, which provide a magnetic center for “a wide variety of anti-establishment modes of thought from structuralism and post-structuralism, deconstruction, and Lacanian analysis to feminist, homosexual, black, and other patently political forms of ‘criticism'” (p. 49). The currents seem to swirl in different directions, but they’re all part of a larger stream.
However differently they approach it, Leftists style themselves as “critics,” “adversaries,” anti-establishmentarians, determined to demolish Western, Christian, American institutions and traditions. The counter-cultural ethos, dramatically evident in the marches, hairstyles, and apparel of the Sixties, has sustained its commitment to destroy what’s portrayed as a repressive, unjust society. Thus what we find, on many campuses, “is what Australian philosopher David Stove described as ‘the frivolous elevation of “the critical attitude” into a categorical imperative.’ The principal result, Stove noted, has been ‘to fortify millions of ignorant graduates and undergraduates in the belief, to which they are already too firmly wedded by other causes, that the adversary posture is all, and that intellectual life consists in “directionless quibble”‘” (p. 50).
Kimball’s preliminary warnings gain clarity in the concluding paragraphs of his “Postscript,” part of the material added for the recent edition. What we face, today, he asserts, is the choice between culture and barbarism. “Civilization is not a gift; it is an achievement–a fragile achievement that needs constantly to be shored up and defended from besiegers inside and out” p. 236). In an essay written in 1938, Evelyn Waugh noted that barbarism “is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. There is no more agreeable position than that of dissident from a stable society. Theirs are all the solid advantages of other people’s creation and preservation, and all the fun of detecting hypocrisies and inconsistencies. There are times when dissidents are not only enviable but valuable. The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history'” (pp. 236-237).
Tying his treatise to Waugh’s passage, Kimball says, summing up his treatise: “Tenured Radicals is about the privileged beneficiaries of the spiritual and material achievements of our history who, out of ignorance, perversity, or malice, have chosen to turn their backs on the culture that nourished them and made them what they are. It is about intellectuals who have defiled reason with sophistries, and teachers who have defrauded their students of knowledge. Because of the times we live in and the hard choices we face as a society, it is, above all, a cautionary tale” (p. 237).
The “tale” Kimball tells includes the Left’s “assault on the canon.” The great books, which have been the substance of higher education for centuries, have been largely jettisoned, like refuse on a sinking ship. Universities have become agencies of political agitation and social change rather than centers of reflection and mastery of classic texts. A new canon, rooted in Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, now deals with “gender, class, race.” Leading the assault against the West are deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. To J. Hillis Miller, a deconstructionist “‘is not a parasite but a parricide. He is a bad son demolishing beyond hope of repair the machine of Western metaphysics'” (p. 119).
Thus we have Duke University’s Stanley Fish maligning anything which smacks of “formalism” or “foundationalism.” There’s no truth, no meaning, apart from whatever one chooses to imagine. Everything we know is confined to personal beliefs and perspectives. With Nietzsche, he insists “there are no facts, only interpretations.” As a “card-carrying anti-foundationalist” (p. 182), Fish acknowledges that “the spirit and intellectual pedigree of his anti-foundationalist views hark back to the sophists of Plato’s time. Like them, Professor Fish argues that ‘man is the measure of all things,’ that ‘justice’ ‘means nothing but what is to the interest of the stronger party,’ etc” (p. 186).
Such deconstructionism widely reigns, especially in the humanities. The search for “truth,” any commitment to “objectivity and disinterest”–the values espoused by an earlier generation of scholars–has been largely abandoned by today’s academicians. Reality is reduced to a “social construction” and scholars indulge in adolescent narcissism under the guise of criticism and theory. “‘The whole secret,’ as Kierkegaard once put it in an analysis of this sort of aestheticism, ‘lies in arbitrariness. . . . You consider the whole of existence from this standpoint; let its reality be stranded thereon'” (p. 74).
What’s evident to Kimball is this: pervading all deconstructionist jargon, underlying all much post- modernist rhetoric, there’s an ideology. As Hannah Arendt emphasized, an ideology “‘claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man'” (p. 91). Ideologues rarely draw the important “critical distinction between a point of view and an ideology, between an individual perspective on the world–which as a perspective is open to challenge, accommodation, correction–and an idee fixe” (p. 91).
This ideology, now established in our nation’s leading universities, threatens our civilization, Kimball holds. Ideas have consequences. To the degree that the ideology of the Left, the ideology of the Sixties, becomes increasingly dominant, the culture, which as sustained this republic for 200 years, cannot but crumble. Kimball has read the books attended the conferences, and his citations indicate he knows whereof he writes. Granted, the book is polemical, written with passion and outrage. Yet for anyone concerned with today’s academic culture it provides an important perspective.