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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 19: Higher Education and Values

The crisis of our times is the crisis of values. The Harvard anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn is only one strong voice in a mighty chorus thundering this truth. Values indicate how we try to meet our needs. Human needs are what human nature requires. Our basic needs are universal to human nature. Human needs, as Rignano observed long ago, are also the expression of the necessity for human beings to be in the right relationship to their environment. They are, in fact, elicited by that environment. Therefore human needs reflect, beyond their own nature, the nature of the reality that produced them. The understanding of what human values are, consequently, involves the interpretation and the evaluation of what is beyond man. Inasmuch as religion is man’s evaluative response to reality, the right religious response offers the answer to our crisis of values. What chance is there, however, that the nature of such a response can be established, and, if established, made?

Higher education is itself in a state of crisis. It is, at least, undergoing drastic reexamination. Many of those responsible for charting its course are in a flexible mood. They are ready for change. Development requires reappraisal, the discarding of unfortunate features of present practice and the discovery and incorporation of new methods and contents. For such constructive change, there is great pressure. One force for change is the inescapable fact of failure on the part of the present kind of democratic way of life in America to meet the demands of a new era, within and without. In a television series, for instance, in which outstanding Americans weighed the strength of their national life in its major areas, there was a frightening consensus that Americans are falling short of the requirements of the present day. Such searching judgment, however, can also be the proper prelude to a new fulfillment. A second force for the renewal of higher education is the focus of attention and of effort which is now put upon it all the way from the federal government and secular agencies to the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and separate denominations. Our present topic, "Higher Education and Values," therefore combines two main areas of concern.

In order to furnish a constructive approach to the subject, I shall focus our attention on three areas of need: the trusting of truth; the freedom of fulfillment; and the creation of community.

The thrust of Western civilization originated in the trusting of truth. For the Hebrews, such faith meant obeying the source of trust, the living God. He was the author of dependable order. "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" Is not his judgment the plumb line of righteousness? The authors of the Books of Kings were the first historians of note; and for them history exhibited the faithfulness of God in punishing the wicked rulers and their nations and in rewarding the righteous. For the Greeks, also, the trusting of truth underlay their rise to creative civilization from Parmenides’ equating of thought and being through various approaches to the trustworthiness of reason, such as Anaxagoras’ identification of mind and reality, up to the magnificent systems of Plato and Aristotle. With the Greeks, it was reason and natural knowledge that delivered them from bondage to fate or from the fickleness of the gods. For the Hebrews, the trusting of truth was mainly obedience to a faithful God; for the Greeks, such trusting was largely the acceptance of the regularities in thought and nature disclosed by reason.

The strength of the Hebrew and Greek heritages combined to provide the proper precondition for the rise of art, culture, and science in the Middle Ages. Both history and nature were dependable orders under God and according to the laws of nature. Augustine’s City of God gave main focus to Western man’s thought concerning the meaning of history up through the Middle Ages, and Roger Bacon formulated one of the early statements to the effect that man trusted God’s faithfulness in nature. Within such an outlook, intellectual, aesthetic, and scientific creativity burst forth.

Such faith in truth, however, was soon assailed. In effect, Isaac Newton reduced the historical order to the natural, thus helping to destroy faith in the God of history. David Hume separated both orders from the truth of pure reason, reserving truth for logic and pure mathematics, and introducing a radical skepticism as to any dependable and significant knowledge in the other realms. Instead of the knowledge of history and of nature belonging together under God and according to reason, there was for him no certain knowledge of either, especially not as wholes. More and more, thereafter, knowledge began to disintegrate into fragments of special sciences to the point where, as in modern linguistic philosophy, only abstract analytical meaning carried certainty, while this realm itself became totally divorced from the realm of fact, and all facts relegated by rigid, methodological rules to the special sciences. In other cases, the unity underlying history and nature was stated in terms of myths and symbols so loosely and thinly related to reality that they beclouded the mind and lamed the will.

We need, indeed, to return to a trusting of truth in both areas of history and nature. But such a return seems nearly impossible. We cannot will it. Here reason is impotent to provide basic faith. What hope is there, then, for a new creative era to match the unprecedented demand of our day?

Our deepest need, we recall, indicates the nature of reality. Our evaluative response should therefore be in line with our deepest need as men. Clemens E. Benda, in his significant work, Der Mensch im Zeitalter der Lieblosigkeit, has pointed out that from within a false evolutionary presupposition we have defined need in the direction of what lies below man. Man’s animal needs, so to speak, for physical survival and satisfaction have been made central: food, sex, and shelter, whereas man cannot be understood except on his own level, as a person and as a society in need most centrally of love. The Harvard Research Center in Altruistic Integration and Creativity, under Pitirim A. Sorokin, has amassed evidence to support this contention, and some social scientists are convinced that love is the context for the investigation of human behavior.

However significant such inquiry and such statements may be for theory, indicating evaluative responses to reality to be centrally love, the Hebrew Christian approach to love through acceptance and obedience is nevertheless the only way to know love as the power to transform life and to make possible the trusting of truth in history. If God is love and if love to be known must be obeyed, a century of lawlessness, crime, and wanton-destruction in war should make it almost impossible for its generations to know him, at least not apart from genuine repentance and a change of ways. Only by the doing of the truth and even by the being of it can truth be known enough to be trusted; otherwise, it has to be known mainly by the breach of it as sterility, futility, and sense of guilt and meaninglessness.

Such obedience in history, however, can never take the place of trusting the truths of reasoned experiment in nature. The faithfulness of God in nature underlies the unity of the universe, which is the basic presupposition of science. The method of science is a sign of the trusting of truth. Higher education, to make possible full focus on the truths of history and of nature that can support and produce basic values, must rediscover a way to place our culture under obedience to God and under respect for reason, until combining and developing our Christian and our Greek heritages, we shall receive that sensitiveness to what is vital that shall let the values arising from our deepest needs spring once again to creative and robust life.


In addition to the trusting of truth a syndetic value is the freedom of fulfillment. No higher education can succeed if it fails to release the kind of freedom that is the foundation of a large cluster of secondary values like responsibility, initiative, and creativity. Our American culture has been cradled in liberty, nurtured in initiative, and it should mature in creative responsibility.

The denial of man’s freedom is by now an old story. But our attention has usually been focused on the institutional and social denial of freedom. We have become increasingly aware of political totalitarianism and cultural conformism. Higher education, however, has contributed its share to the denial of freedom. By its absorption with the objective fields in the curriculum, whether in the natural or in the social sciences, higher education has turned man himself into an object. The natural sciences, of course, should study man as an object. But as a subject in the curriculum, the social sciences placed man under the control of predictable conditions, purporting to study the whole man but actually reducing him to an object. Thus was "the subject" made "subject to." Then philosophy (in large sections of its domain), as Paul Tillich pointed out in his Lowell Lectures (Boston, 1958), reduced the subject of man’s thinking to a matter of linguistic analysis, and man himself to a sheer object for scientific verification.

Existentialism came as a revolt against this objectification of man. SØren Kierkegaard choked under the suffocating systems that made man an object. For him, subjectivity was truth, and choice was the only road to reality. Existentialism has now become a movement of revolt in literature and drama as well as in philosophy and theology. Central to this movement is its demand that man recognize his inescapable freedom. Such stress is one step on the return to reality, but most of the movement is guilty of the perversion or the belittling of freedom. The freedom advocated by existentialism is for the most part man’s immature freedom of self-expression. Such freedom is rooted in man, not in his evaluative response to reality. Because it has no recourse to the conditions of the freedom of fulfillment, modern existentialism nearly always fails to find God, through whom truth can be trusted both for history and for nature. Freedom therefore becomes largely the despairing responsibility of a faithless generation.

The only adequate answer to existentialism is the fulfillment of its demand for the centrality of choice by the discovery of the kind of reality where choice not only is real and responsible but is capable of individual and social fulfillment. If freedom itself is not optional, as the existentialists rightly observe, the road to reality must lie through freedom. When freedom is conceived of as primarily for the self, there is no realm of reality in terms of which the freedom of the self can be fulfilled. Freedom becomes meaningless and frustrating. The reason existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre find all roads leading nowhere is that the goal toward which they start is already the self. They have nowhere to go with their freedom.

The freedom of self, at the least, must lie in our common humanity. Man must be an object of allegiance. Instead of other people "being hell," as Sartre dramatizes in No Exit, a fact for those who make their own freedom both ground and goal, other people should be understood and experienced as essential to self-fulfillment. Christianity and Hinduism join in affirming that other people, rightly understood and accepted, are part of our own body, not to be hated but to be loved. Martin Heidegger, we have seen, has expanded existentiell, or individual human nature, into existential, or common human nature. This way lies the truth of right existentialism. Freedom is real and decision is central both to knowledge and to reality, not as the freedom of the limited, isolated self, but as the freedom of the inclusive, social self. The glory of man is the glory of his common humanity; the responsibility of man is the inescapable freedom of man, the human community.

Moreover, as self-fufillment comes only through the acceptance of others, in the grace of both common receiving and responsible doing, so the freedom of fulfillment comes only through the reaching of reality. Man’s freedom is inescapably bound up with God’s freedom, whose freedom is that of creative concern for the common good. Man is not alone even in the frightful choices of this day, except as he repudiates his Maker. Our own freedom is authentic, for it is the gift of a faithful God, but it need not become the freedom of frustration except as we ignore or defy the common good. We may have, for the receiving and the living of it, the freedom of fulfillment where freedom for self-fulfillment is liberated within co-operative community and where man’s basic need for love is lifted up into the reaches of the ultimate reality of the freedom of God. A basic task for higher education, especially in our day of frustrating and dehumanizing conformism is to discover as well as to defend, to enlarge as well as to perpetuate, to sensitize as well as to make available, the total range of freedoms in all areas of life, without which man neither knows nor attains authentic existence.


The trusting of truth should lead to the fulfillment of freedom both by a larger view of God and by the acceptance of his universal will, and also by the fuller exploration and use of the natural order for the common good. For these values, as our evaluative response to reality at the center of our common need, are themselves consummated by the concern for community. It is unnecessary for our purposes to paint in large the conflict of our age between the surviving drives of a profane individualism and an obscene collectivism. Both are sins against God, for whatever else the Christian doctrine of the Trinity may mean, at its center it proclaims the truth of God’s identifying himself conclusively with the individual in the Son, and with the community in the Sprit. In the biblical teaching, one cannot be had apart from the other. Man is neither free nor full apart from the self-acceptance which involves altogether the acceptance of the total human community under God.

To be sure, such community must begin at home. The wise know that the world will be changed in the family and that a new age must begin in the local community. There are those who grow eloquent concerning the breaking down of barriers and the building of bridges on a world-wide scale because they cannot govern themselves, because they have failed in their own family life, and because they are irresponsible in the concrete instances of social need. Beyond this obvious requirement of authentic life at home, however, there are three areas of critical demand calling for the creation of community: race, nation, and religion.

Whether in South Africa or in the United States, whether in London or in Fort Wayne, race comes as a curse because it expresses as well as symbolizes man’s revolt against God. God created us with the glory of diversity; we fear what is different and defame God’s glory. For the problem of race there is no easy solution because it is not only rooted in our primitive passions but also intertwined with our relation to God. The only adequate solution for it is the power of God who created, contagious with the richness of our common humanity. Once when I was invited to address a law school in the southern United States, as I opened my Bible my eye happened to fall on two verses across the page from each other: "The courts are open" and "They were filled with the Holy Spirit." The values of God’s diversity in creation by racial variety can become understood and appropriated only when the meaning and purpose of both law and love become effective in a new level of humanity. Higher education fails both God and man unless it can produce the power for the living of a new age in racial relations.

As our response to race indicates our fear of creative diversity, so our response to the urgent need for supernational loyalties and arrangements witnesses to our limiting of God to national regions. We have failed of the maturation that is now needed to keep pace with God’s present summons. Nations have had their necessary day as the largest practical unity of human organization, possessive of effective sanctions. Some kind of world federation, keeping intact such regional and national freedoms as are consistent with, and enriching of, the common good, will have to come if the world is not to perish by its own hand, or at least not to bleed itself into ignoble and blasphemous impotence. Norman Cousins has prophesied the probable ending of our course of history unless man can rise with necessary speed from the age of barbarism, symbolized by war, to the age of civilization, symbolized by a new level of co-operative living. No education is high, let alone higher, unless it include as a contagious passion and a sober responsibility the values of one world in international relations.

Furthermore, as our negative response to race rejects God’s riches in diversity and as our isolating or insolent response to nation indicates our limiting in our loyalties the effective reign of God, even so, our encountering of other religions is all too often an escape from the universality of God. Symmachus long ago, in discussing the relation of religion, informed Ambrose that so great a mystery cannot ever be reached by following one road only, and recently Dean Inge reminded us that there are many paths leading to the hill of the Lord and that the paths converge only at the top. Modern humanity has no choice except to face the fact that the world’s religions will confront each other either for conflict or for fulfillment. If Christ is, as Christians claim, the symbol and the substance of God’s universal love, Christians should surely understand and accept all religions at their best, working out with them, humbly and patiently, the common destiny of the many roads which men have started toward the hill of the Lord. There need be no guess that as they do so they will discern much new beauty and learn not a little of God’s way in history and in nature. Higher education dare not accept any longer, on the penalty of sin against humanity as well as against God, what Ruth Benedict considers the absolutes of anthropological in-groupism rather than the true universal of a common humanity under God, united by its common need for universal love and creative community.

Higher education today confronts, at the center of its task of reconstruction, the nature and place of value. The crises of both civilization and of higher education converge here. If our analysis is right, the solution for both areas can come only as we learn to trust the truth, to find the freedom of fulfillment, and to release the creation of community. The trusting of truth requires the doing of truth. The will of God for the common good must be obeyed if it is to be convincingly known. Upon such doing of truth, the reliability of reason as a total context for the study of nature will once again begin to be restored to us. Upon such doing of truth depends also the finding of the freedom of fulfillment which makes the self whole, and releases the deeper freedom of our common humanity within the overarching reaches of God’s concern for the total good. And the crowning glory of such trusting of truth and of such freedom of fulfillment will be the creation of community from the family circle of the local home to the whole family of God, in race, in world order, and in the richly diversified reaches of religion for one world.

The attention of America today is on her leaders of higher education as they not only inquire into the nature of value but labor to release the most authentic values both to satisfy the common need and to whet the appetite for that fuller craving for what is good, which lies at the center of what is best called the truly human.

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