This article first appeared in SECOND SPRING

“The principle task [of the University] is ‘to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too often tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the font of truth’.”

— Pope John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae 1 (1990)

Sadly, there has been only a modest response to John Paul II’s request that Catholic universities unite faith and reason at the most basic, existential level. Most Catholic institutions continue to allow a non-Catholic understanding of “reason” to shape the curriculum. Faith is left to the dormitory, the chapel and, at best, the theology department.

In some institutions, indifference or even hostility to the “official church” stands behind the radical separation of faith and reason. Others might wish to answer the Pope’s call, but find it difficult to do so. Indeed, little thought has been given to the development of a truly Catholic approach to learning in our post-Christian society. The various attempts that have been made – a curriculum based on Great Books, neo-traditional Thomism or secular studies as taught by believing Catholics – are laudable, but I am not convinced they tackle the problem at its deepest level.

An education which is at the same time fully modern, fully rational and fully and faithfully Catholic would requires nothing less than a reconstruction of all academic disciplines. The goal is not, as Tertullian suggested in the second century, to rely only on the blind faith of “Jerusalem,” shedding the non-Christian learning of “Athens.” Rather, it is to take seriously Paul’s claim that all things can be understood fully only in Christ (Col. 1:15-20). Pagan Athens is wonderful, but can only reach its full glory when its wisdom is informed by the revelation of the “unknown God” (Acts 17.23).

In this article I want to sketch out why the reconstruction is necessary, and how we should go about it. My patron for this project would be John the Baptist. He is fitting in three ways. Firstly, Christians should follow him in their willingness to go into the cultural wilderness. Secondly, he reminds us that all scholarship should try to “make smooth the way of the Lord”. Finally and most importantly, students should share his willingness to submit unconditionally to the truth. So what would a “St John the Baptist University” look like?

Distinctively Catholic

Education cannot be morally or spiritually neutral. As David L. Schindler has pointed out in the journal Communio and elsewhere, following a path which leads back to Augustine and even to Plato, notions of objectivity and neutrality – whether in science, literature, religion or politics – are only fictions. Some worldview, or perhaps some combination of views, shapes the selection of authorities considered acceptable, as well as the questions and answers which are considered appropriate. In universities today, the dominant mindset has been formed by the various strands of the Enlightenment and its non-religious heirs: romanticism, utilitarianism, marxism, materialism, freudianism, idealism, linguistic philosophy, functionalism and so forth. Academic debate is lively, but some fundamental assumptions are not really up for discussion: there is no divine grace to elevate the human soul, no divinely given order in nature, no transcendent reality (at least nothing beyond purely subjective experiences) and no absolute truth to be striven for, except perhaps in the “hard sciences.” Christians, and especially Catholics, cannot really accept any of these assumptions. So, for them, higher education today lacks the “coherent vision of the world” which is central to a Catholic worldview. (See Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 22.)

Catholics believe that the glory of God suffuses the world – creates and guides the physical universe, calls each person to his supernatural destiny and shapes human history as a story of grace, sin, mercy, revelation and redemption. God is never absent when beauty, justice, love and community are present. Everything modern and supposedly secular – the achievements of science, technology and the democratic welfare state – can be seen more clearly in the light of Christian revelation. It will take time, energy and what Ex Corde calls “courageous creativity and rigorous fidelity” to apply that light, but few tasks are more worthwhile.

The sweeping condemnation of the worldviews that currently suffuse higher education can be matched with two sweeping statements of the truths of faith which should serve as foundations for each and every academic study. Firstly, the world – “all things seen and unseen” (Col. 1:13) – is ordered to God in Christ. Modern science may have discredited many details of Aristotelian and other pre-modern cosmologies, but the quest for simple and unifying explanations points ineluctably to an underlying unity from which all apparent complexity derives. Scientists only occasionally speak as theists (and there are many atheists in the profession), but, like all men, they are dimly aware of the unified goodness of God’s creation. They cannot stop themselves from searching for it.

Han Urs von Balthasar suggests in his series “The Glory of the Lord” that this original unity of creation is beautiful, that the intricate and elegant forms and patterns which scientists uncover are expressive and radiant. Scientists may speak merely of “theoretical economy”, but that is rhetorical modesty. Theirs is a world of breathtaking beauty. The idea is well best expressed by a T-shirt sometimes seen in math departments. On one side is Euler’s identity, which demonstrates the simple relation of the five fundamental constants in mathematics (1 + e i π = 0). On the other: “And they say God does not exist.”

But all creation waits, groaning, for redemption (Rom. 8:19). Science also exposes this lack of perfection in the beauty and unity of the universe. There are irrational and imaginary numbers. The musical circle of fifths is not quite perfect. The molecules of the universe are not symmetrical. On a more practical level, nature and humanity do not live in harmony. Nature offers men disasters and plagues, hiding much of her bounty deep underground in materials which must be refined and recast before they can serve men. The not-quite-rightness of creation is a manifestation of the not-quite-rightness of a fallen world.

Second, nothing human (the subject matter of the humanities) is alien to the single and unavoidable great human question, the question of meaning and purpose, to which Christians have a coherent and comprehensive answer – although it is an answer that cannot be comprehended completely, since it concerns the inexpressible mystery of divine love. We stumble and stutter in our recognition that we are made in God’s image, that God’s redemptive love allows the God-given breath of our lives to become in some way divine. No matter how restless our hearts, God is never completely out of reach. We are called to explore, express and treasure God’s love in any way we can. The desires for greatness and for justice which motivate political history, the desires for love and experience which generates so much literature, the desires for virtue and knowledge out of which moral philosophy develops, the desires to find the right order in our communities and in the world which motivate our social and political arrangements, even the desires for material comfort and meaningful labour which create the various sciences of prosperity – all these are attempts to grasp at the good life, the godly life that we intuit as more truly our own than the life which we actually lead. We have developed the human sciences to help us understand more profoundly just what the highest sorts of dignity are, and what practices and disciplines are required to achieve them.

Just as scientists must take creation as it is, with its disorders, the humanities must take men as they are, with their actual sinfulness as well as their transcendental calling. Sin blinds, deceives, misleads and corrupts us. In our actual state, the harmony of man and God can be no more than a faded memory and a theological hope. Sin mars the finest human achievements, detracts from the noblest lives. Sin distracts us from the true humanity, the humanity that can be seen in the person of Jesus, who “becomes sin” (2 Cor. 5:21) to overcome it. The human story is always one of sin and redemption.

Conversion of the University

How can the graceless reason of modern academe be converted into the faithful reason and reasoned faith which the Pope called for? Without suggesting that anything of the sort is possible without the assistance of divine grace, here is a five-step plan to describe the kinds of things that need to happen.

(1) The first step is purification – the renunciation of some prevalent academic notions. Most fundamentally, truth must not be reduced to either a linguistic tautology or mathematical laws – much less a collection of information or data. Rather, it must be approached as something real and transcendent. The approach must be made with humility, but also with confidence – for truth comes from God, who does not withhold it fully from us. It is revealed through the precise but loving search for beauty and order. Similarly, the religious claim should not be reduced to either irrational gnosis or subjective emotion. Rather, it must be accepted as a rational response to the mysteries of experience and the self-revealing of God.

As part of this first step towards the necessary “broadening of reason,” some egregious anti-Christian assumptions must be scrubbed away with particular thoroughness. The absolute Darwinian denial of teleology or goal-directedness in the evolution of species, and of any qualitative difference between humans and animals, have already become contentious, although the opposition offered by the theory of “Intelligent Design” is probably insufficiently radical in its philosophical presuppositions. Similarly, while Christians have no trouble rejecting the anti-morality of relativism and historicism in the abstract, they will find it hard to extract its tendrils from the various disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. The reformers must also delve deeply into the anti-Christian foundation of much thinking about all matters sexual – for if God chooses to take on humanity in all its physical truth, all aspects of that physical truth must have spiritual meaning.

There are other, perhaps less egregious, academic assumptions to be challenged: the despairing and debased view of human nature found in the humanities; the calculating rationality of economics; the functionalism of the philosophy of mathematics; the separation of philosophy from theology; the secular assumptions about the State in political philosophy; the idea that truth must always lend itself to repeated experimental verification. Indeed, hardly any subject, hardly any course, can be assumed to be free from some objectionable underlying presupposition. Catholics have been too ready to play a game whose rules are tilted against them.

(2) The second step towards a truly Catholic intellectual synthesis is discernment – taking what is good from the contemporary secular approach. For despite everything I have just said, there is much to be conserved, as should be expected from the concentrated efforts of many intelligent men of good will. God is not stingy. He generously gives the seeds of truth, perhaps even saplings of the tree of divine knowledge, to even the most religiously recalcitrant. What is to be saved? We might begin with the abundance of modern scholarship, from the great manuscript compilations of the Renaissance to the latest electronic database. Many scholars may have been more interested in facts and information than in wisdom, and their techniques may sometimes seem pedestrian in the light of our heavenly vocation, but an interest in the past, in reasonableness, in empirical observation and in the underlying reality of things is in fundamental accord with the Christian respect for the richness and wonder of creation.

As the scholarly world moved further from its Christian sources, rational techniques were developed without any reference to religion, often in explicit hostility to it. Even so, wherever there is truth, God cannot be absent. With care, we can use statistical, structuralist and hermeneutic analysis to understand the divine truth of the world. A personalist approach allows psychology, anthropology and religion to break through the constraints of Cartesian and romantic psychology, but without losing their insight into the importance of consciousness. Even depth psychology, so closely associated with a crude sexual reading of human striving, is transformed by the realization that our real unconscious craving is for the good and the infinite.

(3) The third step is to remember our goal, our ultimate philosophy of education. All information should lead to knowledge, all knowledge should lead to wisdom, and all wisdom should lead to God. This progression provides a unity of purpose in all education – from teaching a child how to tie shoelaces through to graduate seminars in nuclear physics. A fundamental unity of wonder and praise still stands behind the institution of the university, even in its modern form; in a fully Catholic university, that unity should shine out all the more brightly. But whatever philosophy we formulate to guide us in shaping our university should take account of the fact that an earthly desire for confidence and knowledge can too easily take precedence over more valuable but also more fragile spiritual longings. It is hard to avoid the idolatry of “book learning” in a university, so it is important to make a conscious effort to stress the unfathomable wonder of the world and the gratitude that students should always preserve for their knowledge and redemption. The university’s leaders should not forget that the unlearned are as often saints as are scholars and scribes. Jesus had few kind words for the educated Pharisees of his day.

(4) The fourth step is the reconsideration of every discipline. Indeed, the labour should properly start at a higher level, with a reconsideration of the disciplines themselves, and the ways they are divided one from another. Why simply accept the current list of university departments and faculties, when these were designed to separate the divine economy of salvation from the various worldly economies of nature, society and the human soul? New fields of study are likely to develop once the intrinsic relationship of nature and grace is recognized. But even leaving this higher-level debate aside, there is a vast amount of work to be done on each of the existing academic studies.

I am most familiar with one such discipline, economics. The experience comes from both my paid work as a financial commentator and my labour of love. I have written a book about economics (Human Goods, Economic Evils) which attempts both to maintain some continuity with the tradition of economic thought and to be deeply Christian. In this effort, I could see no way to avoid a near-total reconstruction, starting with the most basic economic activities (labour, consumption, production, distribution, humanising nature) and considering carefully the various goods and evils they can promote. The conventional approach did not prove entirely useless, but it would certainly have been easier to write my book if there not so many wrong and half-wrong ideas accepted as obvious common sense.

My book should really be the first of a series, because in a few hundred pages it was possible to do no more than lay an intellectual foundation and construct a little scaffolding. A university student might be excited by the ideas, but he would have no way of applying them to particular economic questions – from how to decide where, when and whether to build power plants, to how to provide appropriate social support for the labour of mothers. He would be even less well equipped to deal with the detailed questions of monetary and fiscal policy that quite correctly occupy professional economists. I hope to write another volume or two, but even if some variation of my basic approach were used in the John the Baptist economics curriculum, there is more work to be done than is possible for any one person. Nor can my approach to economics be a truly academic study until it becomes part of an intellectual conversation which will correct, elucidate and expound the starting propositions.

Economics perhaps provides an extreme example of the amount of effort required for Christianization, since Christians have long snubbed the subject matter as too worldly, considering many of the assumed economic goods – ever greater prosperity, self-defined happiness, monetary wealth – morally suspect. Still, economics is not alone in needing a major makeover. Psychology, sociology and evolutionary biology are probably almost as damaged. In all disciplines, thorough reflection is called for. Art history students would look at a different set of works, literature students would read different books and focus on different interpretations, urban planners would take a different approach to human harmony, future lawyers would think much more about fallen nature and the moral good, philosophers of science would worry more about beauty.

(5) All of this is highly controversial, not least because most academic incumbents, who may be well-meaning and Christian, will naturally resist challenges to the presuppositions that have shaped their own profession. But in every area, purification and discernment are far from easy. The scope of a curriculum redesign project is potentially immense. This brings me to the fifth and final step of this project: to design and develop a workable curriculum. Those versed in “Great Books” may assume that John the Baptist University will have to be based around the study of a particular canon of texts. As a Columbia graduate with fond memories of my Humanities course, I have some sympathy with that idea, but my own notion is less firm and more ambitious. Since our knowledge will always be limited, the best paths to the best available wisdom will vary over time and across societies. Some traditions become stale. Each generation has to some extent to find its own way – and there is room for creativity here. The goal is therefore not a specific and fixed Catholic canon.

I can however suggest a few points of orientation. All subjects, even those that appear totally secular, have a theological subtext. In the words of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (19), theology offers other disciplines “a perspective and an orientation which is not contained in their methodologies.” Human studies should be taught as part of the drama of salvation, while worldly studies need to be based on the assumption that the heavens and earth proclaim the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). The synthesis of theology and the other disciplines should go deeper than the artificial miscegenation of today’s interdisciplinary courses. Theology is the foundation of the Catholic understanding of the world, so it should help to shape the whole course of study. But this has to be done without falling into the obvious trap of allowing theology to dictate method or content to the other disciplines. Faith is not a tunnel but a horizon.

Similarly, a Catholic curriculum should fight the centrifugal tendencies of modern scholarship. No scholar can look at more than a few tens of thousands of books in a lifetime, a tiny fraction of the millions that have been written. Even for students, it is easy to get stuck into a small corner of the scholarly world. A concerted effort is necessary to create a centripetal curriculum, which constantly draws all scholarship towards the unity of the creation that comes from and is always returning to God (in the pattern of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica). The divine unity should be expected to manifest itself, no matter what subject is being studied, from the kinship taboos in South American tribes to the field laws of electricity. Nor is the John the Baptist approach solely for an elite. No matter how mundane, technical or vocational the skills to be transmitted in education, they always have a spiritual dimension.

The scale of the John the Baptist project is not unprecedented in history. The Encyclopaedists of the Enlightenment also wanted to take all the knowledge that was currently available and recast it according to a particular intellectual model – a model that in some ways was the reverse of Catholic. But we can also look back towards the vast efforts which went into building up the library of Alexandria, the huge Arabic collections of religious laws and traditions, the intellectual synthesis of Aristotle, or, perhaps even better, the cathedrals of knowledge built up by the thirteenth-century scholastics. The starting point, even for such a vast undertaking, is the simple recognition that while human knowledge may be glorious, that glory should be acquired in humility and wonder, for all things human pale to insignificance against the always infinitely greater glory of God.