Thursday, September 20, 2007

Religious versus secular territory: a response to C. John Sommerville’s "The Decline of the Secular University"

What is the best way for universities and religion to co-exist? Some would say in different time zones, others think that Bible college is the only Great Book program they will ever need. C. John Sommerville’s "The Decline of the Secular University" (Oxford, 2006), which focuses on this question in a mostly practical way, is one of the most worthwhile books on the purposes of higher education to appear in recent years.

As a college evaluator, I find it enlightening, as a nonbeliever I find it challenging and as a citizen I find it in part persuasive. However, its focus on one religion (albeit one under which much of western culture arose) and its lack of awareness of what is really happening in religious education in the United States today weaken what is otherwise a very important message.

In academe, and to some extent in society and government, we have come to believe that anything that isn’t science (broadly defined to include applied technologies) isn’t important, and to the extent that everything else can be made to look and quack like science, it moves up the ladder of prestige (and might get better funding). Another way of looking at this issue is that if a book or article does not contain numbers, it is not important.

Page Smith made this point in Killing the Spirit (1990), which was less pointedly about the role of religion in universities. Sommerville makes it more explicitly, citing specific examples of what science can’t do and of scientists who have seen the light, or at least a light. He asks universities to reestablish their role as a place in which moral questions are taken seriously and in which religious people can comment on these issues as a natural part of the everyday life of collegiate culture without being dismissed as weirdos or defined away as nonacademics. I, speaking as an atheist, think this would be a plus at most institutions, whose students and faculty are today obsessed with money, prestige and job training.

Sommerville tends to conflate morality with religion and religion with Christianity, which poses certain obstacles to his goal of persuasion. However, he points out quite correctly that the expandable basket called “religion” in fact contains such a wide variety of philosophies and belief systems that to discuss it in generic terms risks a result so bland and devoid of weight that we might as well not bother. That said, surely his definition of religion as “that which gives access to something beyond the ordinary” is astonishingly flat and godless.

He treats Christianity as a culture or philosophy more than a faith, or at least shelters faith behind an amiable flurry of familiar academic language. His God does not smite (at least not directly) and his Jesus is more an emeritus faculty member worthy of respect than the Son of God. Although he does not ignore what I will boldly call the religious aspects of Christianity, Sommerville hardly mentions such things as divinity, the idea that God could have a son or whether anyone has risen from the dead lately and in what form. Sin does come up occasionally and appropriately, but forgiveness in an expressly ecclesiastical sense is modestly tucked away behind the curtains. Is this the Son of God who dare not speak His name?

The problem of distinguishing between Christianity as a distinct religious faith and the “Christian culture” underpinning the clusters of nation-states that have grown up with it exists in many venues, not just universities. It is an everyday presence in the courts. It is also a discussion not limited to Christianity. The late Oriana Fallaci recently pointed out in The Force of Reason (English edition, 2006) that as Islam moves into Europe, its culture seems likely to demand more concessions from European social norms. Europe is finding that its Christian-rooted tendency to treat others fairly may result in social changes and behaviors unacceptable to most of its inhabitants. Israel faces this question daily: is it a Jewish state in which others may live under certain conditions acceptable to Jews or a state that happens to contain mostly Jews - for now?

Can secularism render a nation vulnerable to a less accomodating culture based in a different faith than the sometimes nominal Christianity that the “West” hardly notices because we have lived with it for so long? Fallaci says yes. Many Americans of faith would agree. This is not Sommerville’s principal subject, but he clearly thinks that an educational system that has no common, natural, everyday way to discuss moral issues, including from religious viewpoints, is not well suited to the education of people who have to deal with such issues. I agree.

It may be that the book’s subject matter, which has to do mainly with what ought to happen in universities, does not have a need for visible altars and wood from the cross, but it is a little odd to read about Christianity as though universities could benefit from its undoubted capacity for encouraging moral discourse without mentioning its most fundamental basis: belief in its tenets. There is a hint of Wizard of Oz in the approach: we won’t talk about what is behind the curtain and let’s see if anyone notices.

On the rare occasions when other religions appear, they are mere ghosts who pass across the stage, bow slightly and are ushered courteously to the egress. Surely the presence of a vigorous Christianity smiting, loving and saving its way across campuses could only be made more interesting to faculty and students by a Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism doing the faith-based equivalent? Yet they do not figure in the book in a meaningful way.

The Corruption of Religion by Science

One problem that the author does not discuss, the absence of which constitutes an unfinished wall in his perimeter, is that religion has allowed itself to be corrupted by the notion of science as the only source of what is true. Religion, especially certain subspecies within Protestant Christianity, seems to be caught in a Charybdis of self-doubt that results in it believing that science really does have the answers. This results in a sorry, unseemly panting after misapplied scientific methods and associated tinsel (a museum of creationism?) that serves only to tarnish what fine metal remains of the edifice of faith.

Sommerville recognizes this problem. He points out quite correctly that science by itself contains no “should” function: “science itself didn’t teach [Nazis] that humans shouldn’t be treated as things.” He seems to have more respect and understanding for scientists who recognize the limits of what they do than for social scientists who seem less sure of themselves and therefore less willing to even discuss matters of faith and morality. The great American essayist John Jay Chapman wrote of science that it

“…neither sings nor jokes; neither prays nor rejoices; neither loves nor hates. This is not her fault, but her limitation. Her fault is that, as a rule, she respects only her own language and puts trust only in what is in her own shop window.”

This, written in 1910 (reissued in A John Jay Chapman Reader, University of Illinois Press 1998), is both more and less true today. Science as a sealed monolith is even vaster and more dominant than in Chapman’s day, yet many scientists as individuals are keenly aware of where it fits in the modern world and what it can and cannot do.

Indeed, there are scientists (e.g. physicist Alan Lightman, A Sense of the Mysterious, 2005) who write on these themes, and a recent brutally academic conference paper collection (Is Nature Ever Evil?, Willem Drees, ed., 2003) in which writers from academic backgrounds in science, philosophy and theology take the subject so seriously as to achieve in their writing the atomic density of platinum.

In order for universities (and all other schools) to allot an appropriate place to religion and morality, whatever that place may be, and for the discussions that Sommerville wants to take place, religions must stop trying to be sciences. Art does not try to be psychology, theater does not try to be chemistry and engineering does not try to be Bach except under unusual leadership, but religion wants to be science. Religion must cease attempting to stuff itself into the Trojan horse of creationism in order to canter backward through the wide-open portals of science, and must step back from the whirling genetic cell-storm of evolution and natural selection.

Science (a set of fact-gathering processes used for certain purposes) does not pretend to be religion, and religion (a way of viewing life and the world from the outside) should stop thinking that it has to be a part of science. There is no reason for religion to want or need to be science, and it sullies itself by trying.

Why does religion want to be science, aside from acquiring some of the prestige that science holds in our society? Because it wants to play on every field, not just its own. This is not unique to Christianity: watch how the mullahs treat art and literature. The commonplace sin of jurisdiction creep can be found in other parts of academe, but religion, at least the major monodeity sky-god versions that include most Americans, is unique in one respect that is fatal to a potential role in academe: it enters the Great Conversation that Sommerville rightly cherishes with the answers and is not interested in changing any of them, no matter what the questions may be.

That is untrue in any other field found in a university with the possible exception of units run by famous athletic coaches, which are arguably religions as well. Christianity is therefore unable to fully participate in the diastolic give and take through which ideas are refined, modified and improved in a collegiate setting: it can only speak, it cannot listen. This is not wrong in itself, but it precludes the kind of meaningful cross-pollination that Sommerville hopes could happen were faith-based dialogues to occur more often.

I simply don’t agree when the author says that

“...Christians, at least, do not think it discredits theology that it is still a work in progress, any more than it discredits science to think that it may be just beginning.”

This statement supposes the refined, academic theology of, say, 1850 or even 1950, rather than the absolutist inerrant faith that drives much of practical theology on the American ground today. If there is one thing that I have learned as a state regulator who works with a wide variety of religious colleges, it is that they do not think their theology is a work in progress - little is more carved in stone than what they believe and teach.

What the Religious Market Demands

If that earlier theology were still marketable to the masses of American believers whom Sommerville thinks secular colleges need to reach, we would not have hundreds of incompatible Bible colleges and church-basement degree-granters peddling their mutually exclusive wares in every sizable community.

Consider who religious colleges can’t reach. Missouri, where I once worked in higher education, has 34 accredited and about 50 unaccredited degree-granting institutions controlled by churches. Note that the 34 are not public universities or even secularized independent private colleges, they are church-controlled institutions representing 14 different Christian sects and four independent but expressly Christian entities. Among these 34 exceptionally various accredited educational providers scattered widely across one state, the people who attend the fifty - fifty - small unaccredited religious colleges in that same state could find no religious comfort zone.

Louisiana has 55 unaccredited degree-granting religious colleges, Georgia has 40, South Carolina 28 and California a staggering 250. Many other states have them, too. And these are the ones that we know about. We are absolutely sloshing in the heady brew of religious postsecondary education. But we do not live in a society in which religious groups have any interest in expanding their theological homes: Christianity today is a splintered faith of wall-builders and bunker-diggers.

There are exceptions, and there are people of faith who can work very well within an academic setting. However, they are the ones who are most flexible in their ways of interacting with others and most interested in learning how their faith might learn from the world, not just preach to it. They are therefore as disconnected as many nonbelievers from the large blocks of people whom Sommerville refers to here and there in the book, those of faith outside the academy who are, in reality, not interested in what anyone else thinks or believes.

If these extraordinarily varied believers were suddenly transported to Sommerville’s University of Florida, what would they contribute? Certainly a stunning volume of noise, but a meaningful dialogue on moral issues? I doubt it. Sommerville seems to recognize this in his discussions of interactions between religion and science, where he in effect divides Christianity into those who are not interested in merging with science (people like him) and those who mistakenly want to fight on foreign ground.

But in our large society, it is Christians who want to fight science within the enemy’s own walls who are the principal leaders most critical of educational systems. They do not want a dialogue with science or within academe, they want to uproot science from its own territory, which is impossible, despite occasional burnt books around its fringes. How very odd that people who would never consider the truths of their faith subject to public vote often expect such votes on the truths of science, which are equally immune to majoritarianism.

They, as Christian leaders, don’t have faith in the sacred ground whence they came, the ground where the forest of morality grows, where ethics was born in its shaded glens, where right defends its battlements against wrong. Most importantly, where science cannot go. Until they do, their role within universities will be viewed as largely destructive and not serious in the academic sense.

Finally, Sommerville doesn’t say much about other sources of nonfactual authority that are available (or should be available) within education. Certainly philosophy need not have a base in western religion, though to be sure some of it does or did. Concepts of beauty, meaning and other fundamentally esthetic matters should, as the author suggests, have a greater role in what happens inside universities.

However, they don’t have to come from a Biblical or even religious source, unless the word “religion” can simply be interepreted to include anything not connected to the scientific method, which strikes me as cheating: defining the problem away with a whisk-broom rather than dealing with its odd spikes and edges.

The credibility problem of religions in academe

When religion’s most widely visible faces are always talking about a narrow range of issues and never seem to care about anything else, the credibility of religion inside the university as a source of viable views on life in general is seriously circumscribed. The peculiar political dichotomy of Catholic leaders who are so visible regarding abortion and so invisible regarding the death penalty, both of which are theoretically contrary to that faith’s teachings, is one example of this problem. Religion that does not look or act like a source of consistent moral leadership is unable to assume that role in any venue, let alone one in which truth, however broadly defined or culturally based, is a goal.

To the extent that people who are active because of their faith look and act like political cherry-pickers who read the latest polls before speaking out, their claim to authority from moral sources is degraded. People of faith are perceived by many as hectoring, intrusive, obsessed with sexual issues (the least likely speeches for anyone not already an adherent to listen to) and uninterested in poor people, social justice (pick your definition) or improving people’s lives. Congressman Barney Frank’s famous comment of certain religious conservatives is still applicable today: they think that “life begins at conception and ends at birth.”

I am far more inclined to listen to a religious leader’s thoughts on an important moral issue if that leader is not attempting to acquire or use government power to make me act like him. Once again, uncertain faith seems to have come to believe that secular authority, like the cast-off pyrites of science, must be used to bolster a shaky religion. Why? Is it simply the common human desire to force other people to do things? A failure to persuade on moral grounds?

The relatively recent movement of some religious leaders away from a James Watt-like “the-end-is-near-so-stripmine-today” mentality and toward an ethic of environmental stewardship is a good sign of broadening of the religious dialogue, and its collision with the money-driven norms of politics will be interesting to watch. Our nation and our universities would surely benefit from religious activity that has the effect of getting people to look at their lives and their world with a greater awareness of moral issues and the consequences of moral choices.

Lest I seem to be a tribune of niggling, I need to mention once again that this is an excellent book that raises issues that absolutely need to be raised, in writing that is sometimes so delicately pointed that the stiletto can hardly be felt, for example, in a discussion of dogmatism in the collision of belief systems in ancient Europe, that we owe to Jesus “the idea that religion goes bad when it used in support of power systems.” Amen.

I would welcome to the academy any person of faith who can make a genuine contribution on religious grounds to the discussions of issues affecting humanity. Sommerville states that “universities have too easily assumed that their job was to dispel wonder.” I wholeheartedly agree, and would line up with him on the side of wonder any time. However, in order for wonder rooted in faith to recur on campus on a significant scale, changes that I do not expect would have to occur within the larger communities of faith in the country.

Respect cannot be imposed, it must be earned. If religion has lost the respect of university communities in recent generations, it is not just because of change inside the walls. Only when religion once again acts like religion instead of desperately pawing the middens of science and politics for shards of someone else’s legitimating grail can it earn back a senior place at the timeless table of learning.

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