The Christian University: Eleven Thesis

Author: Richard John Neuhaus


Richard John Neuhaus

I am honored to join in the prayer and reflection marking the inauguration of a new president of this great institution. I invite your consideration of eleven theses on the possibility of a Christian university. You will no doubt be grateful that there are not ninety-five theses.

I. There is no such thing as a university pure and simple. It is therefore misleading to say that a Christian university has a "dual identity," one by virtue of being a university and another by virtue of being Christian. The suggestion that the term "university" is neutral or self-explanatory is unwarranted and without historical foundation. In the Western tradition, from the Middle Ages until this century, from Bologna and Oxford to Yale and Princeton, the university was explicitly constituted and typically inspired by Christian truth. Going back farther, the word "academy" was originally the name of the precinct in Athens where Plato established his school, and he clearly affirmed that freedom for the truth cannot be separated from worship of the divine. At Harvard one can still see the original seal with the word "Veritas" surrounded by "Pro Christo et Ecclesia"—for Christ and the church. In the last century that legend was reduced to just the one word, "Veritas," and at Harvard there is obviously no consensus on what that truth might be or even on whether there is such a thing as truth. By changing its seal and the conviction it reflected, Harvard did not become more of a university; it became a different kind of university. A secular university is not a university pure and simple; it is a secular university. Secular is not a synonym for neutral. Not to say that Jesus is Lord is not to say nothing. Not to say that Jesus is Lord is to say that saying Jesus is Lord is unnecessary to, or a hindrance to, being the kind of university you want to be. A Christian university does not have a dual identity but a clear identity—a clear identity based upon a definite understanding of the kind of university it intends to be. There is no such thing as a university pure and simple.

II. Church affiliation does not make a university Christian. At a conference recently, the president of a major university said that he could sometimes describe his university as Methodist but he could never get away with calling it Christian. The distinction is between institutional connection and substantive commitment. Affiliation is frequently something vestigial, speaking of the past rather than the future, of what a school was rather than what it hopes to be. Of course, a university can be both Baptist and Christian, but it can present itself as Baptist merely by pointing to its governing documents, while to present itself believably as Christian requires reference to its governing <convictions>.

III. While conviction is more important than affiliation, affiliation can help sustain conviction. Convictions are sustained by communities of conviction. The community of Christian conviction is the church, however variously expressed. All institutions are prone to losing their way, and therefore must be held accountable to a community that can recall them to their constituting purpose. Effective accountability necessarily involves matters such as hiring, promotions, and curriculum. As Dr. Johnson might observe, nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind of a dean or department chair as the prospect of a budget cut in a fortnight. The community of conviction may be variously structured, but in the absence of accountability to such a body, the Christian university will almost certainly succumb to the institutional and ideological dynamics of other kinds of universities that falsely claim to be universities pure and simple.

IV. A Christian university is not a church, but is part of the church's mission. A church has many tasks, including worship, evangelizing, catechesis, and works of mercy. All these tasks may be pursued within a university. but the university's specific task is discovering and transmitting the truth and cultivating the life of the mind. If the life of the mind is not understood as an integral part of Christian discipleship and mission, the term "Christian university" is indeed, as some claim, an oxymoron. While a Christian university is not a church, it is from the church and serves the church by enabling the church to serve the world more fully. That is the argument of the 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, <Ex Corde Ecclesiae>. The Catholic university is born from the heart of the church and borne by the mission of the church. A university that is not integral to the Christian mission will in time become alien to the Christian mission.

V. The faculty determines the character of the university. <Ex Corde Ecclesiae> says a majority of the faculty must be Catholic, but that hardly seems sufficient. It is more important that all the faculty respect, or at least not actively oppose, the idea of a Christian university. The institution-defining decisions must be made by those who understand and support the institution's purpose. Discrimination is necessary in hiring and promotion—not necessarily discrimination on the basis of religious belief but discrimination on the basis of belief in the great good of being a Christian university. The university is better served by an agnostic who wants the university to be Christian than by a devout believer who does not.

VI. Freedom, including academic freedom, is necessarily related to truth. "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free." Freedom that is not grounded in truth is built on the shifting sands of fashionable opinion and brute power. Contrary to Pontius Pilate and many thinkers of our time, the question, "What is truth?" does not preclude truth claims but is an invitation to a lifelong adventure of inquiry, dialogue, and understanding. Truth, if it is really truth, can never be the enemy of the search for truth. When academic freedom is untethered from truth, it is no longer possible to make a reasonable (truthful) argument for academic freedom.

VII. A Christian university serves the great good of pluralism. It does not mirror the false pluralism of a culture that pretends that the deepest differences make no difference, but, within the bond of civility, engages the differences that make the most difference. The greatest contribution to pluralism in higher education is to be a different kind of university. Within the university, differences, including religious differences, are engaged in the confidence that all that is truly true is ultimately one. This is particularly true of the engagement with Judaism, without which Christianity is less than whole. Authentic pluralism does not compromise but is made imperative by the Christian character of the university.

VIII. In a Christian university there is no "role" for religion. Rather, it is within religion—more accurately, it is within the Christian understanding of reality—that everything finds its role. In that understanding, nothing that is true or good or beautiful can be excluded. A Christian university is a humanistic university, for nothing that is authentically human is alien to the truth of God in Christ. The work of a Christian university in service to the fullness of truth is to anticipate the promise described by St. Paul in Ephesians I as God's "plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."

IX. A Christian university rejects the dichotomies that pit truth against truth. There is an unrecognized alliance between anti-intellectuals outside the university (often called fundamentalists) and intellectuals within the university, both of whom propose a dichotomy, even an antithesis, between faith and reason, heart and mind, facts and values, belief and knowledge, devotion and learning. A Christian university has as its premise the knowledge that all truth is one and all ways to truth are one because the Author and the End of truth is One.

X. A Christian university will settle for nothing less than a comprehensive account of reality. Not content with the <what> of things, it wrestles with the <why> of things; not content with knowing <how>, it asks <what for>. Unlike other kinds of universities, the Christian university cannot evade the hard questions about what it all means. Therefore theology and philosophy, the sciences of meaning, are at the heart of the Christian university.

XI. If Christian truth does not illumine and undergird every quest for truth, it is questionable that Christianity is true. The God who gave us reason and keeps faith with the orders of creation calls us to respect the integrity of every way of knowing. Not every way of knowing must bear the label "Christian"—as in Christian chemistry, or Christian musicology, or Christian linguistics. In the Christian university, the word Christian is not a limiting label but the starting point, the end point, and the guiding inspiration all along the way. The words of Psalm 36 express the guiding inspiration of the Christian university: "In your light we see light."

A word in conclusion. Today the Christian university is in crisis. There are no doubt many parts to the crisis. It is often described as a crisis of secularization. It is more accurately described as a crisis created by the ambition to imitate other kinds of universities that falsely claim to be universities pure and simple. It is most accurately described as a crisis of Christian faith. The question that those who lead a Christian university must answer, and answer again every day, is whether the confession that Jesus is Lord limits or illumines the university's obligation to seek and serve <Veritas>—to seek and serve the truth.

This article appeared in the January 1996 issue of "First Things." To subscribe write First Things, Dept. FT, P.O. Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834-9847, 1-800-783-4903. Published monthly except bimonthly June/July and August/September for $29.00 per year.