John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
This article appeared in the Christian Century June 17, 24, l987;pp. 258-260. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
We have understood higher education to be the untrammeled search for truth. But to be a Christian is to be already convinced as to some of the answers. Can answers that organize the institution and determine its goal be examined with the same openness as others? There is, thus, a profound tension in the idea of a Christian college or university. Either it must compromise its Christian commitment or it must compromise the ideals of higher education.
The formulation of my title arises from a familiar and important dilemma. We have understood higher education to be the untrammeled search for truth. But to be a Christian is to be already convinced as to some of the answers. Can answers that organize the institution and determine its goal be examined with the same openness as others. There is, thus, a profound tension in the idea of a Christian college or university. Either it must compromise its Christian commitment or it must compromise the ideals of higher education.
Since Christianity has played a very large role in the development of higher education in the West, the tension of which I speak is far from abstract. Hundreds of colleges and universities have struggled to find ways of being Christian while continuing to be good colleges and universities. Many of them have largely sacrificed one goal or the other. Our country is dotted with colleges and universities begun by churches — some still owned by churches — that are indistinguishable from secular institutions. On the other side, there are some institutions of higher education in which requirements for pious living and correct doctrine replace the climate of open-ended inquiry. There are others that maintain a certain religious ethos and an emphasis on the study of religion without restricting freedom of inquiry. Still others seem quite free and secular everywhere except in their departments of religious studies.
In a pluralistic age there is room for multiple models. The compromises and solutions I have mentioned all have their place. But my intention in this lecture is not to make proposals as to how to deal with the problem as it has been posed in the past. The situation has changed, and the challenge to Christians is now quite different.
I have moved back and forth between “higher education” on the one side and “colleges” and “universities” on the other. Prior to World War I, if I had spoken of “higher education” the audience would have thought in terms of liberal arts colleges. There were universities, of course, but colleges were far more numerous. When churches thought about their role in higher education, it was primarily with respect to colleges. And indeed in the nation as a whole, the ethos of higher education was shaped by the ideal of the liberal arts college.
In the period after World War II, the situation has been reversed. Free standing liberal arts colleges exist and continue to offer much of the best higher education in the country. Yet far more students go to community colleges and to universities fed by these two-year colleges. Furthermore, the teachers in the liberal arts colleges are prepared in the universities and have assimilated the ethos of the university. Many liberal arts colleges pride themselves on sending their graduates on to the best universities. Clearly these ddvelopments have changed the relationship between the two types of institutions. Today when we think of higher education, the model is the university.
For this reason, as I speak of the possibility of Christianity shaping higher education in our pluralistic age, I will focus on the university. However, I will not focus on those features of the university that are clearly not relevant to the college, such as its vocational and professional schools and its research institutions with their close ties with the military-industrial complex. Instead I will focus on its organization of knowledge in its schools of arts and sciences. I believe that what I say about these features of the university is relevant to the free-standing college as well.
The historic problem for Christian higher education arose from its internalization of the ideal of untrammeled inquiry. The problem was real and concrete, although sometimes exaggerated by those opposed to church control. For example, during the controversies about evolution, some Christians insisted that only the view now called creationist could be taught in departments of biology in their schools. Obviously this was in flat contradiction to the ideal of higher education. The fear of such interference, even more than its actuality, led many institutions founded by churches to weaken their Christian connections. I have already indicated that the problem still exists, that some church institutions still restrict teaching in ways that violate the ideal of higher education. But these problems seriously affect only a very small part of contemporary higher education.
Does freedom from ecclesiastical interference mean that the university is now dominated by an untrammeled search for truth? The answer is No, and it is for this reason that I say the older way of putting the problem is no longer relevant for higher education generally. It is a mistake to continue to fight those battles. But since a certain image of the university as a free market in ideas still prevails in many circles, I propose to devote most of this lecture to dispelling it. I will do this under two rubrics. First, is there freedom to present views that are unpopular in the general public? Second, do the academic disciplines contribute to untrammeled inquiry?
Freedom to assert unpopular ideas is, of course, at the very heart of the ideal of higher education. On the whole, the record is remarkably good. The idea of “academic freedom” has protected many professors. But it is not the case that this freedom is complete or even that it is greater in secular institutions than in church ones, except for those of very conservative churches.
The test of academic freedom is the ability of employees of the university to present ideas that are deeply opposed by the constituency that provides its funding. For part of the community, this freedom is protected by tenure, so that the restriction on freedom comes more dramatically at the point of hiring new faculty and giving tenure than at the point at which a tenured faculty member speaks out. Still, even tenured professors can be made to feel very unwelcome!
There is some difference as to the topics which test the extent of academic freedom in public, private, and church institutions. Teaching evolution and ridiculing creationism does not test the limits of academic freedom in public or private institutions. Actually it does not do so in most church institutions either, but there are exceptions here. On the other hand, the advocacy of Communism does test academic freedom in public and private institutions; and for the most part they have failed that test. Even objective teaching about Communism can get teachers in trouble. Of course, the same is true of many church institutions. However, certain types of criticism of dominant political patterns and governmental policies can be presented more freely in some church universities than in public ones.
One might think that in the field of religious ideas, at least, public and private schools would provide a place for free inquiry and vigorous dissent lacking in church institutions. But that is not the case. Public and private institutions do not want highly controversial figures on their faculties.
Mary Daly is a case in point. She teaches, and has tenure, in a Catholic university. Her views are strenuously opposed by the leadership of that university as well as by its constituency. Only tenure prevents her firing. The university has done everything it legally could to let her know that she is unwelcome and to persuade her to leave. This is a case of a church university punishing a faculty member for her expression of her views.
Why then has Mary Daly not left? It is not from loyalty to her school! It is because no other university will hire her. She would be glad to leave her Catholic university for a public or private one, but there are no invitations. If this were because she were not a good teacher or scholar or had not published, the issue of freedom would not arise. Academic freedom does not mean that judgments of quality are eschewed. But in her case there can be no doubt of brilliance and influence. She is not wanted because her presence would alienate constituencies. Since her views are highly controversial and also well known, there is no place for her in the world of higher education.
Let me give a happier example, also from the field of religion. In the mid-sixties Thomas Altizer published a book entitled The Gospel of Christian Atheism. It is not an easy book to read, and if it had been read and reviewed only in the academic journals, like others of Altizer’s books, issues of academic freedom would not have arisen. But its striking title led to special attention and threw Altizer into the midst of “the death of God” debate. This even made the cover of Time magazine. Obviously, the rhetoric of atheism and the death of God deeply offended the church public.
Altizer taught at Emory University, a school that belonged to the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The Methodist Church. The constituency of that school was not happy to learn that Altizer was teaching in its Department of Religion. Obviously there were many demands for his dismissal, and it is estimated that the university lost two million dollars in support.
In view of Altizer’s tenure, the University would have had great difficulty in firing him; so it deserves little credit for not doing so. But it does deserve credit for doing nothing to make him uncomfortable. Altizer attests that no one even mentioned to him the problems he was causing the university, and that he was dealt with fairly in salary and other areas in which universities can punish faculty. This is why I called this a happier story.
But the other side is less happy. Although Altizer was for several years the most talked about theologian in the country, and although his publications even prior to this one had established him as one of the most brilliant religious thinkers of our time, no department of religion in a public university invited him to join. Indeed, none invited him to teach even one course. I learned later that the only invitation he received from a department of religion in an institution of higher education for more than a single lecture was for a summer course in the Claremont Graduate School.
There is a second respect in which the Altizer story is a happier one than that of Daly. Whereas Daly would fit in very well in women’s studies programs, in which her writings are widely read, none of them invited her. Altizer, in contrast, did receive an invitation to teach from a public university, The State University of New York at Stony Brook, in the Department of English Literature. The invitation was extended on the strength of a book he had published about William Blake. Furthermore, after he had been teaching at Stony Brook for several years he helped to establish a Religious Studies Program there. But to this day he has not been invited to join another faculty in religion.
I trust my point is clear. I favor academic freedom, and I would like to see a situation in which professors are supported in their inquiries, however unpopular they may be. But in the real world this does not occur. Freedom may be found in either public or church institutions, but it is not guaranteed in either. There is a tension between Christian commitment and the ideal of untrammeled freedom, but there is a tension between public or private control of universities and untrammeled freedom, too. The church is essentially in the same position here as any other source of support. Perhaps a university so well endowed that it never needed any further support could fford to provide ideal freedom! But I doubt that it would.
Christianity does have a role in shaping higher education in this respect. As Christians we should affirm and honor all the freedom of inquiry that does exist in higher education. We should especially encourage such freedom when it is used to criticize us and our beliefs. We of all people should know how often the church has benefited from criticism and been enabled to reform.
We should also be vigilant to note where freedom is restricted and punished. We should identify the hypocrisy that criticizes the lack of freedom elsewhere while failing to honor it at home. But most of all we should unmask the way in which approved practices within the university in fact block the untrammeled inquiry that the university claims as its commitment. It is to this topic that I now turn.
The reason that neither Daly nor Altizer has been sought after is not because the university or the faculties of religion object to their ideas or want to restrict discussion of them. Their books have been required reading in hundreds of courses. The major reason is that universities do not want controversial faculty members who offend parts of their constituencies. Hence I discussed these cases as reflecting the restriction on freedom coming from without.
Nevertheless, even these cases also reflect something of the problem with the university’s self-ideal. It prizes scholarship but not thought. I mean that to be a shocking statement, and one that requires clarification and justification. Of course, there is a kind of “thought” involved in scholarship, but I beliee I can make an important point convincingly using this distinction.
Consider what has happened in religious studies departments over the past few decades. Secular universities began including the study of religion chiefly after World War II. There was a recognition of the importance of religion and that the quality of scholarship developed in the field, chiefly in seminaries, was academically respectable. The problem was that in seminaries there was a confessional element in the teaching of religion that was inappropriate in universities.
One solution was developed at the University of Iowa. It would not do simply to bring into that university the Protestant scholarship that dominated the field. But it was felt that, nevertheless, the best teaching of Protestantism would be by Protestants. This should be balanced by Catholics teaching Catholicism and Jews teaching Judaism. Instead of removing the confessional element altogether, the move was to religious pluralism. This pattern could be easily extended to other religious traditions.
In a department of this kind, professors are not required to pretend to pure neutrality or objectivity. They can explain to students why they find their own tradition satisfying, convincing, and illuminating. They cannot, of course, set aside canons of scholarly honesty. Self-criticism is a part of their religious traditions, and if they fail in this regard they will be poor representatives of Christianity and Judaism as well as poor scholars. The university should not hire blind or dishonest apologists!
A department of this kind encourages dialogue. Christians can learn from Jews how Christianity appears to Jewish eyes. This is not comfortable. It forces fresh thinking. It becomes important that the Christian teachers discuss with their students how Christians can respond to this new realization of Christian crimes and of the way traditional Christian teaching has supported them. This requires fresh thought. If one is representing Christianity as a believer, it will not be enough simply to describe what has been done in the past. One must also participate in the repentance that is called for, and that does not mean mere apology. It means the reforming and the transforming of the tradition. Students can be witnesses of what it means to be a believing thinker participating in the reformation of the tradition.
It will be obvious that I favor this model. Just for this reason I find it important to ask why it lost out in competition with other models. Today there are very few positions in departments of religion for which being a Christian believer is counted an asset. One is not excluded as a Christian believer, but one must convince one’s colleagues and the administration that one will not introduce one’s personal beliefs into the classroom. One will teach about the beliefs of others. One will not wrestle with one’s own beliefs.
There are a few slots which carry on the tradition of Iowa. For example, when a chair is established in Jewish studies, it is almost always assumed that the occupant must be a Jew. But this is an increasingly isolated instance. A chair of Buddhist studies, for example, is typically open to anyone with the scholarly credentials. If the occupant is a Buddhist, there is less objection to a confessional stance than when a professor anywhere in the department is a Christian. But this is a sociological matter. The ideal is disinterested treatment of the subject matter.
Let us suppose now that the subject matter for a particular professor is Christian thought. The task is not now to show why one finds it convincing or illuminating. The task is to present what other Christians have thought with as much critical objectivity as possible. As one realizes that much of what Christians have thought is anti-Jewish, the teacher will point that out. She may even analyze certain responses to this charge that others have proposed. She can even be critical of the charges and the responses in terms of their consistency and adequacy. Thus one may say that the change from the confessional model is not very great.
Still on one key point it is very great. The ideal operative in the Iowa model encourages her to think about the problem for herself and share this reflection with students. The ideal in the dominant university model opposes this kind of thinking. Of course, it does not preclude her thinking on her own outside the classroom. There she is free to be a thoughtful Christian. But her job in the classroom is to describe the views of others, not to share her own thinking.
Where this model prevails, it is easy to see why the names of Daly and Altizer would not arise as candidates for teaching. They could not be trusted to devote their time to the dispassionate presentation of the thought of others. Instead, they would be likely to continue thinking about the issues and to draw students into that thinking. From the university’s point of view, it is better to employ someone who can teach radical theology, including the presentation of the ideas of Altizer and Daly, than to employ Altizer or Daly. The student of their work can present their ideas disinterestedly, without commitment.
The model that I am describing here moves just one step away from that of Iowa. This step puts an end to original thinking as a desideratum for the professor, but does not necessarily discourage some thinking on the part of students. If the alternative ideas of religious thinkers are presented fairly and well, then it is not against the ideal of this model that professors ask their students for their own critical, and even constructive, response.
This model has its best analogy in the university in the departments of philosophy. Those departments, similarly, are organized around the study of what past philosophers have written. Few departments have slots for philosophers as such, that is, for persons doing fresh and original thinking. They are not in fact as resistant to such thinking as are departments of religious studies, but the more closely they conform to university norms, the less they encourage it.
However, the analogy to philosophy does not really work for a department of religious studies. Such a department cannot deal exclusively with the thought that religious traditions have generated. This thought is embedded in historic communities and their total lives. Further, the use of the term “religion” in identifying the subject matter, works against focus on the history of thought. Most of the thinking of Jews, Christians, and Muslims has not been about religion. They think about philosophical questions as well as historical, economic, and political ones. Thus the study of the thinking generated by these traditions does not fit well as one academic discipline alongside others, such as philosophy, history, economics, and political theory. Even when the professors set aside their own perspectives, the topics they treat are defined by a perspective rather than by a distinct subject matter.
Again, the best analogy is the department of philosophy. Philosophers in the past have dealt with a very wide array of topics. The difference is that they have brought a distinctive perspective to bear upon them, a particular type of questioning.
In the origins of the modern university in Berlin, early in the nineteenth century, this special role of philosophy was affirmed. The task of philosophy was to evaluate the assumptions of the specialized disciplines, to provide a unity to the whole that the specialized disciplines do not offer. Thus philosophy was recognized, not as one academic discipline among others, distinguished by its subject matter, but as replacing theology as the queen of the sciences.
However, in the twentieth century, philosophy, at least as defined and practiced in the university, has given up that role. It has redefined itself as one discipline among others with its own special subject matter. Of course, there continue to be remnants of the older view, since it pervades the thought of the pre-twentieth century thinkers who are studied. But it is possible, even there, to concentrate attention on the more “purely philosophical” aspects of their work, such as epistemology and logic and the analysis of language.
Similar moves can be made in the teaching of the thought of religious traditions. One can concentrate on the more purely religious thought. But this is even more difficult and more arbitrary than in the case of philosophy. The more common move is away from the philosophical analogy altogether. The subject matter is defined as religion, a feature of human reality that does not necessarily have any close connection with thinking at all. In this way religious studies can more closely approximate the university norm, where academic disciplines are distinguished by particular subject matters, not by perspectives, and the subject matters are not themselves defined as perspectives.
The result, of course, is to remove religious studies one more step from the sort of thinking to which I refer. Students may still be encouraged to come to their judgments as to what is the best way to study the phenomenon of religion, the solution of certain historical puzzles, the relation of religion to other aspects of culture, and so forth. I do not minimize the importance of these issues. But students will not be encouraged to think about the questions that have been chiefly important to religious people, or that are chiefly important to them as they make decisions about how to live or what to believe. From such thinking they are doubly removed.
Of course, professors in departments of religious studies are not discouraged from thinking on all topics. They are encouraged to think about their discipline and how it can be advanced. Since their task is to understand and interpret their subject matter, and this task can be called hermeneutics, they are encouraged to think about the hermeneutical task. And in a field as fluid as religious studies, this reflection is quite open ended and dynamic. Because the discipline has not yet congealed, there is far more authentic thinking still going on in departments of religion than in most other parts of the university. To fully justify my assertion that the university discourages thought, we must look to better established disciplines. My thesis is that, whereas in their formative stages academic disciplines require thought, the more mature they become the more they discourage it.
I shall take economics as my example of a mature academic discipline. The contrast with religious studies is marked. The very inclusion of religious studies in a university is optional, often a concession to student interest rather than an expression of a clear consensus of the faculty. The resources put into departments of economics are overall many times as large. The authority of economists in the wider society is incomparably greater than that of scholars in the field of religion.
Even if our comparison is with sociology and political theory, we can see that economics is far ahead in meeting the university’s norms. A Nobel prize is given in economics as in no other field. The relation of economists to the decisions made by business and government is incomparably closer. And so it goes. Economics is a mature academic discipline that is viewed as embodying the norms of the university as well as any, better than any outside the “hard sciences.” My question is, what role does thought play in economics?
If we study the history of economic theory, we can see that thought has played a very large role. Robert Heilbronner entitled his study of this history, The Worldly Philosophers, with much justification. Also, he used the term “philosophers” in its historic rather than in its current academic meaning. Economics gradually came to take its present form through debates about the nature of society, of the world, and human beings. The issues discussed were broader than those now debated among practitioners of religious studies, since the early economists did not know that their task was to establish an academic discipline.
One of the debates among economists was whether economics should become a science. There were many who opposed this, seeing that this would involve a high level of abstraction from the actual historical process. But these lost out. Economics decided to become a science. And unlike its imitators in other “social sciences,” it succeeded.
This was an enormous achievement. The expansion of the informtion gained by this science continues to this day at a rapid rate. The confidence it inspires in business and governments is truly remarkable. So it may seem petty to remind you of what Heidegger pointed out some time ago: “science does not think.”
A defender of the status quo may reply that there is nothing wrong with that. Thinking in Heidegger’s sense and mine is required when we do not yet know what to do and how to do it. Once we have answered those questions, “thinking” becomes pedantic and idle. Economists call it “theology,” and for them, of course, this is a term of scorn. They have no need to continue the tradition of “worldly philosophy.” They are now scientists, the ones who already know. The movement from thought to knowledege is an advance. That the ethos of the university supports this move is to be applauded, not criticized.
I have presented this position to indicate that the criticism I will offer of economics is not a criticism of economists over against other scholars in the university. It is a criticism of the university’s ideal organization of knowledge. The fact that economics has succeeded so brilliantly helps us to see where all else is tending to whatever extent it succeeds. If as a Christian you favor continued progress in that direction, then you will view the Christian task as that of full support for the university’s ideals and the attempt to implement them more and more fully. On the other hand, if as a Christian you are distressed by the progressive elimination of thought from the university, then, like me, you will want to ask about Christian responsibility in this situation. My task is to explain why I am distressed by the elimination of thought from the university, using the academic discipline of economics as my example.
I have tried to make clear that I fully acknowledge the enormous success of economics. Economists are able to tell us many things about the economy that we need to know and they are continuing to press back the boundaries of ignorance. They really have attained a science, and that means the ability to predict many things accurately.
My complaint is that as this science is being applied more and more widely, its results are becoming more and more disastrous. You may ask, how, if this is a science, that can be? Surely, the more we know the better we are able to pursue our ends. If the economic policies our nations are pursuing are wrong, surely that is because they are misapplying the science. We should not blame the science.
There is some formal truth to that objection. Very much of what economists have learned is in principle neutral as among the ends to which it is put. They can inform policy makers that if they want to reduce unemployment, certain policies will work, whereas if they want to slow down inflation, others will be better. They can describe the probable effects of various compromises. The decision as to which policies to implement is then that of policy-makers. If we do not like the results, it is not the economists who are to blame.
If the whole body of economic theory had this character, we might still object. This would mean, as all academic disciplines attained the university ideal, that policy makers could not turn anywhere within the university for help in thinking about the ends which policies should subserve. The university would provide only technical expertise on how to attain goals. It would provide no critique of the goals themselves or guidance in how to attain them. Since society has no other institutions geared to offering wisdom about such matters, the exclusion of thought in this sense from the university is profoundly dangerous.
But the actual situation is worse. Under the guise of mere technocratic information, economists provide knowledge geared to a particular end. This end is the growth of the economy. The science of economics is not a study of how a variety of possible goals can be attained. It is the explanation of how people can work toward this end. Information about how other ends might be pursued is simply not part of economics as a science.
One might say that this should not be a problem. If others favor some other goal, such as a stationary-state, for example, let them produce other sciences explaining how that may be attained. These other sciences can either be included in existing departments of economics alongside the science that is already developed, or new departments of economics can be established.
In abstract theory such proposals can be made. But I assure you they have no support within the university. Economists are not prepared to share their turf with others who would produce a different science either within existing departments or outside them, and to do so would violate the university’s organization of knowledge. This requires that each aspect of reality be identified as the subject matter for an academic discipline, and that the discipline then find the best method for studying this subject matter. Economics fulfilled these goals long ago. This is a fait accompli. There is no room for another discipline repeating this performance with different goals and methods.
You might agree that formally speaking I have described the situation accurately and yet regard my complaint as petty. Surely we all do want to meet more and more human needs through an ever growing economy. How else can we respond morally to the vast poverty that still besets the planet? Would not, from a Christian point of view, a stationary state economics be morally wrong? In short, after agreeing that the science of economics is geared to the pursuit of a particular goal, perhaps we should simply reaffirm the goal and give the science all the support we can.
If I accepted the present goal of the science of economics, I might still complain that it would be good to think about it, but I would probably be talking with you about some other topic. It is because I find the present course of events disastrous, and because I see them to follow from the science of economics and the ideals of the university that I bring these matters to your attention. Although some of the evils visited upon us arise out of immoral actions knowingly perpetrated, many of them are the work of persons who are doing what they honestly believe to be for the good. My point is that the ideals of the university are directly responsible for much of this, and I think it urgent that, before it is too late, we think.
Elsewhere I have tried in some detail to show how economic theory has consequences that today are destructive and how these arise out of assumptions that are false. I cannot review the details of those arguments here. Let me simply list some of the things that are happening that follow from the consistent and well-intentioned application of contemporary economic science to the real world.
First, the growing human economy is placing greater and greater stresses on the larger economy of nature. The reduction of the ozone layer and global warming are only two of the more obvious consequences.
Second, the “rationalization” of non-Western societies required for their “development” has destroyed traditional societies around the world without providing any new basis for human meaning or actually improving the economic condition of a majority of their people.
Third, the implementation of free trade policies based on the idea that specialization furthers growth and appeal to fallacious interpretations of the principle of comparative advantage have left large portions of the Third World unable to feed themselves.
Fourth, the application of industrial principles to U.S. agriculture bankrupted tens of thousands of farmers, destroyed thousands of rural communities, and led to patterns of farming that are profoundly unsustainable and destructive of the environment.
Fifth, the implications of the principle of capital mobility for U. S. industry led to hundreds of factory closings with the consequent dislocation of hundreds of thousands of workers.
Sixth, the extension of the free market beyond national borders forced U. S. labor to compete with Third World workers and led to a steady decline in real wages.
This list could easily be extended. All the policies mentioned were adopted for the sake of growth and in accordance with economic science. But it can also be shown that increase in gross product does not entail improved economic welfare and that the policies employed for this increase have dire social consequences. Few can deny that the rising crime rate and abuse of drugs are related to the destruction of rural and urban communities that are the direct result of economic policies aimed at the one goal of increasing production.
Perhaps you are not persuaded by any of this and continue to believe that economic growth is the overriding imperative toward which all else should be subordinated. For my present purposes even that will suffice if you will acknowledge that the concerns I have expressed are worth discussing. My complaint against the university is not that other professors do not agree with me. It is that there is no acknowledgment that issues of this sort should be discussed. The science of economics as science as impervious to these questions; for they fall outside the science. That science is based not only on the goal of growth but also on the assumptions that Homo economicus is purely individualistic and self-seeking and that the natural world has no importance. Genuine discussion of these assumptions is ruled out.
In short, in a mature science or academic discipline there is no place for the reconsideration of the assumptions made long ago in quite different situations. Furthermore, there is no other place in the university where discussion of such assumptions can be carried on. Yet, in my opinion, the assumptions are demonstrably false and the consequences of acting on them are disastrous. Is it admissible that the institution to which we have assigned the organization of knowledge rule out reflection about such fundamental questions?
In my opinion the dangers of Christian dogmatism pale beside this unconscious academic dogmatism which conceals itself from its practitioners under the name of “science.” The time for Christian defensiveness about our difficulties in supporting complete openness in higher education is past. Christians are called upon to challenge the ideals of the contemporary university, to insist that it is time for the university once again to encourage thought.
To challenge the ideals of the contemporary university is not to oppose universities as such. We need them. And it is very clear that universities can be organized on other principles. The criticisms I have made of the contemporary American university do not even apply without qualification to those in other parts of the world. They are irrelevant to Plato’s academy and to the Medieval university. They do not affect the liberal arts ideal, although the practice has suffered greatly because of the dominance of the university ethos. Indeed, the challenge to the university is to recover some of the ideals that once shaped its life and to develop them in ways appropriate to our unique situation.
In uttering this challenge I do not want simply to vent my frustration, although I have plenty to vent. I want to propose ways in which we Christians can respond constructively.
Consider first the situation in which an institution of higher education is committed to being, in some way, Christian. Here we have enormous possibilities and responsibilities. Of course, our faculties have been socialized into their disciplines, just as have all the others. But there is the possibility of asking questions from a Christian point of view. What are these several disciplines up to? What are their assumptions? Are these assumptions accurate and adequate? What consequences follow from them? Are these consequences desirable? Are there other assumptions that make more sense to us as Christians? What changes in the disciplines would follow from these different assumptions?
Even in a Christian school not everyone is willing to ask such questions. There is often a sense that our disciplines are sacred. I call this disciplinolatry. But this is so obviously unChristian that there is an opportunity to attack it head on. If we make it clear that the critique of assumptions is only for the sake of truth, not in order to impose some pre-determined new ones, many professors will be willing to take part?
If it is not practical to get the faculty as a whole involved in assumptional analysis, then it may be possible to establish a select group to do it for the others. There are still a few philosophers around who do not find this uncongenial. There are also theologians. And there are scattered members of other departments. Perhaps a group of four or five could be freed from other duties for a period of three or four years and given the task of thinking with and for the whole. Usually an administration knows how to give status and prestige to a special program if it wishes to do so.
If it were decided that the task must be an ongoing one, the school could establish a department whose subject matter is the university. Its task would be to study the university itself and its several parts to understand how it came to be the way it is and to evaluate its current functioning. Courses could be offered to involve students in this kind of work. The habit of assumptional analysis would be useful to them whatever their professional goals.
Visible work along these lines by a number of colleges and universities around the country could not fail but to have an effect. The analyses would, of course, elicit a great deal of defensiveness. Disciplinolatry is very much alive! But if the assumptional analysis is done well, and there is no reason it should not be, it will at least provoke replies. The long silence will be ended.
I am suggesting that a relatively modest investment of time and energy by a few Christian institutions of higher education could begin a process of healing in the American university. That is an opportunity we should not neglect. It would not be costly in money. But if an institution should think even the small costs entailed to be beyond it, there are other possibilities. Questions about higher education have attracted sufficient attention in recent years that foundations and individual donors are likely to make available the modest sums needed to get started. If results are promising, more money can be found. What I am proposing is possible. It needs to be done.
The decision of Christians that this kind of critique of the university is needed can have less direct effect on public and private institutions. But even there we are not helpless. Often there is an office of chaplain or there are ministries to the university. In some universities these have fine and imaginative leaders who recognize that the university needs an organ of thought and have used their meager resources to provide one. Often they have contacts with sensitive Christians who share these concerns. In some instances they could organize a series of discussions of the disciplines, asking their practitioners to provide critical analyses from a Christian point of view. The response might be better than most would expect, and the program might attract the attention of administrators and other key faculty as well. The discussion might grow.
My question is, “Can Christianity Shape Higher Education in a Pluralistic World?” In the sense that it has within its heritage the necessary resources to address the urgent needs of the present, the answer is Yes.
But there is another meaning of “can” that leaves me with greater uneasiness. Can Christians muster the will? Or are we too tired, too long on the defensive, too self-critical, too accustomed to powerlessness, too intimidated by the secular world, too habituated to adjusting to the changes wrought by others, to be able to become proactive, to define a need, accept a mission, and act? I hope not. And because I believe in Christ and in the power of the Spirit, I believe not. Let us not fail our Lord again.