Faith and higher education can intersect in many different ways

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THE PRESIDENT of one of America’s best-known Catholic places of learning came this week to his alma mater, Oxford University, and with some fanfare delivered a lecture on the future of higher education. His hosts included Chris Patten, the eminent Conservative politician who is now Chancellor of Oxford University and happens to be a fellow Catholic. 

So did the visitor, whose academic interests include medieval theology, deliver a lament over the weakening Christian connections of places like Oxford, which emerged in a 12th-century world where learning and public activity of any kind were almost inseparable from religion?  Did he deplore the fact that Oxford had incubated the “new atheist” movement? No, Father John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame University (pictured), did nothing of the kind. Instead, he emphasised the spirit of inquiry, dispute and interrogation that characterised Oxford from its earliest days and argued that the same spirit could and should guarantee the future of universities as physical places, as opposed to the hubs for e-learning which some people anticipate.

An essential characteristic of medieval Oxford, he said, consisted of “practices of common inquiry at the highest level that serve both to advance knowledge and understanding and to train the minds of students through participation in such inquiry.” The same healthy spirit pervaded today’s best universities, where now as in the past “the most valuable learning is often of a tacit sort, when a student observes how a seasoned scholar addresses a problem, wrestles with an objection, formulates a creative solution.” Such techniques could be learned more easily at close quarters, in a long-established bastion of learning, than by computer: that alone boded well for the future of real-world colleges.

To some American conservatives, this emphasis on free-ranging inquiry, rather than the axioms of faith, will only confirm what they suspected: that Notre Dame and other historically Catholic colleges are drifting far from their Christian roots and are on the road to becoming virtually identical to secular places of learning. But the real situation is more interesting. In the ecology of American higher education, there are many different relationships with religion. There are zealously Christian establishments like Liberty University in Tennessee, which may be the largest non-profit college in the world, with 15,000 students at its Lynchburg campus and another 110,000 engaged in online learning. First-year students take Bible classes and there is a “code of honour” that bars extra-marital sex. At the other extreme, there are state universities which have never had any particular connection with religion. There are also mighty institutions like Harvard and Princeton, where the training of ministers was originally the main activity but theology is now a minority interest.

America’s 250 or so Catholic colleges and universities, including the 28 which are run by the Society of Jesus, have their own place in this kaleidoscope. A growing number have lay presidents. These places encourage applications from Catholic students, but they are also competing hard to attract a cohort of young Americans for whom “none” is an increasingly popular answer to questions about religious affiliation. They are vying for the same academic prizes as purely secular establishments.

The net result, especially at the Jesuit campuses like Georgetown, Fordham and Boston College, is a culture that fuses a broadly Catholic ethos with intensive engagement with the secular and non-Catholic world. This reflects the Jesuit tradition of operating at the outer edge, between Catholicism and other cultures. In several cases, this translates into a strong emphasis on comparative religion, including the study of Christian-Muslim relations.

Father Jenkins’s vision of an education which is Catholic in origin but emphasises free inquiry raises all manner of dilemmas. Won’t this untrammelled investigation eventually lead the inquirers to abandon completely the straightjacket of religion, as has been the general trend in the Western world for several centuries? To this question, in private conversation, Father Jenkins gives a careful answer. All inquiry, he says, begins with certain postulates, and its pursuit is made possible by a “moral framework” including a sense of the purpose, scope and limits of human knowledge.  If the postulates of religion are false, then it is logical to expect that people will in due course abandon them. But if they are true, they will continue to provide many people with an indispensable framework for their investigations into reality. 

The hard fact is that “revealed religion” (the idea that the most important truths have been disclosed by God, or are still being disclosed) will always be in some tension with empirical investigation. Even Islam, which places overwhelming stress on revelation, wrestles with that question. One of the answers it offers consists of a saying attributed to Muhammad: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.” That is a principle to which culturally adventurous Catholic educators can relate.

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