Foreword: Christianity in the Academy

Christianity in the Academy: Teaching at the Intersection of Faith and Learning, by Harry Lee Poe. Baker Academic Books, 2004.
(Originally titled "Athens and Jerusalem.")

The unceasing human problem that lies back of the historical contrast between Athens and Jerusalem is the problem of finding an adequate basis in knowledge for life. Stated another way, it is the problem of dealing with reality in terms of assuredly true beliefs. This is usually understood to be a necessary condition for human prospering, if not of survival itself.

Athens and Jerusalem stand for importantly different ways of approaching this problem. Athens refers to the capacity of unaided human thought to grasp reality. It was among the Greeks of the ancient world that awareness most vividly arose of the human mind’s ability to grasp (some) reality by thinking, and Athens symbolizes that world-shaping discovery. Jerusalem, by contrast, refers to the declaration of reality and the gift of knowledge from a supreme, personal divinity, who cares about what happens in human life and intervenes to give direction and assistance to the human enterprise. Thus, it too implicates a specific form of culture and a corresponding historical tradition.

The overall tradition of the Western world within which the colleges and Universities of Europe and the Americas arose was one in which the human capacities for thought and study were accepted as good and necessary things, though limited in what they could provide in the way of knowledge about reality and about human well-being and well-doing. They were, by and large, to be encouraged and cultivated, but only in proper subordination to the contents of the tradition of revealed truths—God-told truths—that make up what used to be called “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” To see how that worked at its strongest one need only consult the works of Thomas Aquinas or—in a rather different but no less forceful form—those of René Descartes. The weight of this arrangement was institutionalized in law and culture, and continued to exercise an overwhelming influence on society at large until the two World Wars—long after the arrangement had lost its intellectual footing among many regarded as advanced thinkers by the intellectual elite.

No longer, of course. The social and institutional rejection of the arrangement reached flood tide around the middle of the 20th Century and continues today, primarily in the legal system and in the popular arts and media. Higher education is now committed to this rejection from the ground up. There is no area of specialization within the university that assumes any understanding of theology (as knowledge of God) as a prerequisite for the highest level of competence in the field. You would not want to assume that things stood otherwise in a divinity school. I am not saying that this is correct in any intellectually responsible sense. Just that it is so. Max Picard’s book, The Flight from God, is an indispensable source for understanding that “flight” as a social fact.

Professor Poe’s book is, first of all, a striking portrayal of the disarray into which the enterprise of higher education has fallen since it lost its background assumptions in the Judeo-Christian world view. One of his sentences captures most of the facts: “While the academy lacks a unifying theory of knowledge, it also lacks a basis for character.” That is how it is. Knowledge and truth are talked about for public relations purposes, and sometimes in the context of official accreditation, but research, not knowledge, rules. We have research universities, but no knowledge universities, and there are very few professors who would talk about truth in their professional associations. Truth is actually something of a joke in those contexts.

And, of course, there is no cognitive basis for character formation that can actually be recognized as such; for morality, as it is now officially understood within the academy, simply is not a matter of knowledge (“research”). It has been defined out of knowledge. How this came about is solidly and strikingly demonstrated in Julie A. Reuben’s recent, masterful work: The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality.

Of course character continues to be formed in the young by faculty and the university environment, and on the basis of assumptions about life and reality that no one defends, because they constitute the secular orthodoxy that is now the authoritative world view of the university as a social institution. It cannot be otherwise. Character is formed by the process of life, and whatever governing assumptions that prevail at the time.

Professor Poe’s is an honest book. That is not easy. The university in general is not an honest place. But the book is also profoundly informed by his own experience through the years, from a student to a highly regarded and widely connected writer and leader. His description, in Chapter One, of his own experiences with his teachers in connection with religion and religious issues is a window on the prevailing process then and, even more so, now. That process is crazy and crazy making. It is little wonder that multitudes of students simply give up on education except as a formality for making it into a professional school or a career. They settle for “success”— which is, mainly, what higher education promises.

Perhaps most important for the future, Christianity and the Academy, challenges Christian’s in higher education to be responsible to bring together, in their own intellectual and academic work, the cognitive and conational substance of their beliefs about God and humans and about their fields of concentration—including, of course, higher education itself.

We are, I believe, nearing the point where, to those in higher education, it must become painfully obvious to those in higher education that there simply is no longer a cognitive framework for education, higher or lower. It is one thing to reject the spiritual interpretation of life that characterized schools and universities through the centuries. It is quite another to replace that interpretation with another that is sufficient to the task, must less superior. As is made clear in this book, this has not been done, and is not being done. One must give Nietzsche his due. He did recognize the problem. His suggestions of a solution are simply ludicrous. (Just try putting them into practice.) And, as recent decades have made clear, “Burn baby burn” is dramatic street noise, but you still have to have a place to live when it’s all over. And that is the problem now facing the academy. What does it, will it, live by? Diversity or Pluralism alone will not suffice. It derives from Christian ethical teachings, anyway, and has never been successfully rooted as a social force elsewhere. There is a place for diversity, of course, but, with no “uni-,“ diversity his no foundation, and even now

There is, then, a desperate need for the collaboration of biblical faith and higher education. But, leaving that aside for the moment, the more pressing need is for coherence and mutual supplementation between all of the areas of life dealt with in the academic fields—and beyond. There is little point in discussing the integration of “faith and learning” when we can’t even begin to deal with the integration of sociology and chemistry, or of economics and physics, or of business administration and ethics, or of sports and mental health, or of psychology and physiology.

In all of these vital respects and more, Professor Poe’s book does much to point us in the right directions. There is serious intellectual work to be done, and no one is in a better position to grasp the nettle than a Christian who has learned to trust truth because he or she knows the God of truth, in relation to which every field actually does come together. They have a place to stand to confront those from any quarter who falsely contrast Athens and Jerusalem and who, in the name of professional or other “acceptability”—professional or otherwise—seek to shut down the avenues of free and hopeful intellectual and creative activity.

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