Richard John Neuhaus on the Secular University

by Dec 5, 2015Mission, NTScholarship, Worldview

This comment from a brief article by the late Richard John Neuhaus is brilliant, and important:

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.

I happen to think that everybody’s a fundamentalist, even if most people’s ultimate epistemological foundation is confused and unacknowledged, almost not worth calling a “foundation.” But somehow I end up running into people’s fundamentalisms whenever I get to talk to them long enough. The other day I met the fundamental axiom of a professing Christian guy on the bus who plans to move in with his girlfriend: “But I feel it’s right, so I know it is.” (I know that sounds like a caricature, but that is literally what he said.) He’s a “fundamentalist.” The question is whether there’s any utility in that term “fundamentalist” as a self-description. Admittedly, it’s comments like this one from Neuhaus that make me doubt:

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.

But, Neuhaus, may I be a “fundamentalist”—someone who bases his life on the fundamentals of the Christian faith and isn’t willing to grant Christian recognition to those who don’t—and yet title my very blog in such a way as to attack that antithesis between faith and reason? May I write a dissertation at a self-described fundamentalist seminary that works to display the God-given unity of heart and mind? May I work for years for a self-described fundamentalist publisher to bring together devotion and learning?  May I write a big textbook for that publisher that unites facts and values, belief and knowledge? I hope I may, because I did.

In fact, I wonder (just wonder!—I’m not divine) if the pressures of secularization will leave only “fundamentalist” institutions still standing as orthodox in time to come (to be clear, I don’t mean only institutions that are willing to use that label, but institutions at whom it is commonly thrown). That is, if what Neuhaus said is true:

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.

Before their own master(s) other institutions stand or fall, of course, and he is able to make them stand. I pray that he does. And fundamentalist institutions can surely fall. But insofar as secularization is a “crisis,” which Christian university is more likely to insist in 50 years that “Jesus is Lord” illumines the university’s pursuit of truth—the one which hires Peter Enns or the one which won’t even let him on campus? I just wonder.

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