Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Solomon’s Porch or the Academy of Athens?


William Edgar

07-27-2015


My father was a manager for a large telecommunications company for many years, and I can remember him saying that he would much rather hire a history major or a literature major than a business major. He felt strongly that young people equipped with something like worldview thinking were more likely to do well in the company than those trained in commerce or trade. Perhaps his hiring policy was a bit narrow, but I can see what he was trying to achieve. He could always instruct employees in the particulars of sales or accounting, but it was rather late to guide them into a philosophy of life, let alone into being first-rate human beings.

His approach raises an important question: How can our universities better prepare young people for the life of citizenship, one which contributes to human flourishing?

Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), though a book with serious problems, had a title that resonated with many people who thought the university was making the public closed-minded. The message of the book is in the subtitle: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.[1] Bloom notes a central irony: the rampant relativism in modern universities, which should have led toward open-mindedness, has instead led to the new absolute of political correctness.

No doubt there is a place for this kind of conservative critique. Some of it can be quite thoughtful. Roger Scruton recently wrote an article highly critical of higher education, with the ominous title, “The End of the University.”[2] The always solicitous Scruton asserts there are two purposes for the university when serving its raison d’être faithfully: (1) to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and culture that will prepare them for life, and (2) to enhance the intellectual capital upon which we all depend. Though different, they are intertwined, he argues, so that damage done to the one is damage done to both. And that is exactly what is happening, he tells us. Citing Allan Bloom approvingly, Scruton highlights the biting absolutism created by a culture of relativism. His bottom line is that in a world without distinctions, there is no way to orient oneself in a moral compass, and thus no way to guide a society into the right direction.

Scruton and Bloom’s typically conservative critique of the university point to a crucial issue. If minds are being closed by the tyrannical ideology of relativism, what, then, can re-open them? Scruton says it unabashedly: the truth. But his idea of the truth is something like an inherited body of knowledge, such as can be found in a handful of books that have passed the test of time. In this, he praises the great books curriculum of St. John’s or Hillsdale.

I am not entirely comfortable with this, and I speak as someone who teaches Plato and Augustine, Machiavelli and Luther, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky to students at all levels. Who could be against truth? But it matters a great deal what we understand by the word.

If we want to see the modern university be a place where young people are better prepared to serve their society and promote human flourishing, then, to be sure, truth must be its concern. So many of our great universities say as much on their shields.[3] Although truth may have multiple meanings, one of them is surely that there are absolutes, both in ideas and morals. My quarrel with the critique of relativism and political correctness is not that these trends are not alarming, but rather, I worry that the truth that absolutists such as Scruton uphold is closer to an ancient Greek notion than to the Hebrew one. Tertullian famously remarked that the Gospel should have more to do with the wisdom of the Bible (Solomon’s Porch) than the rationalism of the Greeks (the Academy of Athens). Although he may have exaggerated the contrast, he surely has a point. Wisdom is a far more comprehensive notion than rationality. It includes moral characteristics such as trustworthiness, perseverance, and generosity. The pursuit of this kind of wisdom is fundamental to the practice of good citizenship.

A Biblical Perspective on Truth and Character

In our quest for universities that prepare men and women for serving society as good citizens, we would do well to recognize that truth is more (though not less) than the appeal to absolutes.  People who recognize the truth are people of character, more than people of brilliance.[4]Character is directly related to social goals such as generosity, discipline, and the promotion of human rights. Character is forged by truth, truth as a Person. Augustine’s well-known adage that “we are restless until we rest in thee” has its counterpart in Scripture. Asaph says something like this in Psalm 73, which speaks of his confusion over why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Then he enters the sanctuary and he sees how things really are, and he sees where history is going.

Truth is, among other things, a historical vision, because history is directed by God, however confusing are appearances. Like hope, it has “stretchedness.” While rooted in our present experience, it looks ahead and looks upward. That’s where character takes root (see Romans 5:1-5). Some of my discomfort with the “conservative” approach to life in the university and to social problems is that it is so ideational; it supposes that if only the ideas are good, the rest will follow. It is vertical, without tension. It lacks the Bible’s emphasis on trusting in the fulfillment, one we cannot always see. Paradoxically we can truly rest when we have a historical vision. Not that we don’t rest vertically, in the Lord. But such a rest is inaugural, not yet perfected. It gives us a window on the end. That is the road to character.

At the heart of Asaph’s vision is communion with the Lord God. Centuries ago, it would not have dawned on the creators of the modern university to separate competence in various disciplines from fellowship with God. Communion with the Almighty was considered not only a requisite place to begin scientific pursuits but also an enjoyable one. A number of theologians, not the least Jonathan Edwards, have asked the question, why did God create the world? More specifically, why did he create human beings? He did not need to create. He wasn’t “lonely,” as he already had perfect fellowship within the Godhead. He created from his generosity of spirit. Edwards says God did not need to obtain cosmic love, as he already had it; but he wanted to share it, to impart it to others. In his book on prayer, Tim Keller stresses that God wants to “communicate happiness and delight in his own perfections and beauty to others.”[5]

Evangelicals and Modern Learning

Toward the beginning of his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995)[6], Mark Noll famously said, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind…Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been for several generations.”[7] He quotes Harry Blamires, who years ago wrote an appeal for Christians to think better.[8] Noll explains that he is not referring to theology, where we have been well served, but rather to “the spectrum of modern learning,” where we have been far weaker. Two years ago, Noll revisited this territory with Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, a foundation-laying book.[9] He warns,

Believing scholars like me who think that we have identified cultural or historical circumstances that impede responsible intellectual work can easily fall prey to a besetting temptation. The temptation is to think that if we have upbraided Christian communities for their anti-intellectual Gnosticism, or if we have chastised the general academy for paying too little attention to Christian insights, we have somehow accomplished a great deal. In fact, even at their best, such criticisms or challenges are only like an official at a track meet calling the competitors to the starting line.”

The book goes on, beautifully, to appeal to find the source of wisdom, including scholarly wisdom, in Jesus Christ.

If we are going to make a significant difference at our modern universities, we have to do better than just plead for truth, at least in the abstract Greek sense. In his book Called to the Life of the Mind,[10] Richard Mouw has written a practical guide for those who actually live and move in the university. He tells us how to engage with issues and people in higher education, a calling many evangelicals are not used to. Although he wants education to have a practical bent, he warns against the tendency never to study unless there is a payoff. He reminds us how some of the major breakthroughs occurred. What was the practical impetus that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider? He cites physicist David Kaplan, “Basic science for big breakthroughs needs to occur at a level where you're not asking, ‘What is the economic gain?’ You're asking, ‘What do we not know, and where can we make progress?’ Mouw does more than simply beg Christians to be more involved in the rough and tumble of the academy. He wants them, together with their colleagues, to strive for human flourishing and to encourage true citizenship.

So where does this leave us? Other than within a strictly Christian university, is the ideal of Solomon’s Porch realistic? I believe it can be, as long as we take our time, work patiently with those who do not share our faith, and reject a simplistic culture wars model. Tempting as it is to resist political correctness and stark relativism, there has to be a better way of engaging students with the hope of pointing them to the road to character. There are pundits who believe the modern university is beyond salvage. I don’t agree. There is plenty to do to develop responsible, joyful citizens for the modern world.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What weaknesses do you observe in how the modern university shapes young people for citizenship? What are some of the strengths?
  2. What are the components of a biblical notion of wisdom and how do you see them upholding human flourishing?
  3. In what ways can Christians make a difference in how universities shape people for citizenship? What might this look like in a Christian university vs. a secular one?

 

- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

 


[1] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Simon Schuster, 1987.

[2] Roger Scruton, “The End of the University,” in First Things, April, 2015, pp. 25-30.

[3] Harvard’s motto is Veritas. But until the nineteenth century it was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, a telling shift.

[4] A point made by David Brooks in his recent book, The Road to Character, New York: Random house, 2015.

[5] Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, New York: Dutton, 2014, p. 68.

[6] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.

[8] Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind, London: SPCK, 1963.

[9] Mark Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

[10]Richard J. Mouw, Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars, Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2014.

 


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