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Theological Notebook: Steinfels on "Declining Secular University" and "Diversity & Gospel of Judas"

When higher education lost its bearings, it might also have forfeited its primacy in American life.

Peter Steinfels.
Published: July 8, 2006
The New York Times
Copyright New York Times Company Jul 8, 2006

Higher education was once a domain steeped in religion, where attendance at chapel services was mandatory, where church strictures governed the faculty and where college presidents were typically drawn from the clergy. The secularization of most universities has been thoroughly studied, often by scholars highlighting the loss to religion.

C. John Sommerville, however, is less interested in any loss to religion than in the loss to the university--and its place in shaping the culture.

A century ago, American universities aspired to be the wellsprings of political, social and cultural leadership, Mr. Sommerville, a professor emeritus, argues in ''The Decline of the Secular University,'' a slim volume published by Oxford in May and excerpted last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But today, he maintains, ''the secular university is increasingly marginal to American society,'' ceding influence to popular culture, talk show pundits, ''populist bloggers'' and political research organizations, even hiring out university laboratories to business and government in hopes of revenues from patents.

A major reason, he contends more controversially, is the secularism that in his judgment has come to dominate academic life the way that religion previously did. What ''looked vital and self-sufficient in 1900,'' Professor Sommerville writes, has proved unable to provide ''wisdom and leadership to American life.''

Having made natural science's standards for the exploration of physical reality the model of all true knowledge, that secularism, in the author's view, has simply not been able to replace religion in giving plausible answers to questions about the nature of humanity, its distinctiveness from other life forms, the value and goals of a life or the basis of morality.

Now retired from many years of teaching history at the University of Florida, Professor Sommerville has punctuated his book with lists of concepts -- many of them ''terms that even the secular university cannot do without'' -- like justice, freedom, truth, responsibility, sanity, purpose, evil, equality, welfare, happiness, hope, courage, humility, thankfulness, beauty, wealth, human nature and human rights.

None of them, he says, can be adequately understood apart from religiously inflected language and associations.

But having become tongue-tied when it comes to this language and associations, secular universities ''fail to connect with people's most urgent questions,'' Professor Sommerville writes. This is particularly the case for mass higher education at universities like his own, less focused on scientific ''discovery of physical reality'' than on professional education in fields including law, engineering and communications. The point, Professional Sommerville emphasizes, is not ''to apply religious dogmas to our intellectual puzzles,'' an unlikely venture, in any case, but also reflecting ''the habit of seeing religion as a collection of doctrines, a thing to think about, when it can be a whole perspective or way of thinking.''

What he wants, instead, is simply that the university ''widen its discourse,'' invite ''religious voices into the discussion'' and allow religiously committed scholars ''to be themselves in their academic roles.''

Welcoming religion into academic debates ''will strike many as outlandish,'' Professor Sommerville concedes.

''Partly,'' he adds, ''that could reflect our simplistic notions of what religious arguments would be like. Those whose last brush with religion was in Sunday school may be underestimating them.''

''The Decline of the Secular University'' is an intentionally provocative book. It weighs in on the notorious philosophical debate about the relationship between facts and values, on science and religion, on the ''hermeneutical turn'' and the new role of narrative in the humanities and social sciences and on the demise of Western civilization courses, once a replacement for religion in the college curriculum.

It is a book filled with pointed observations. Noting the many programs teaching students how to make money, he illustrates higher education's failure to address ''our life questions'' by asking his students ''where in the university they would go to learn how to spend their money.''

Playing with the familiar formula that schools should ''teach about religion but not teach religion,'' he devotes a chapter to ''teaching about secularism, instead of just teaching secularism.''

But the book will also prove frustrating to anyone seeking specifics on how thoroughly and by what means religion is really excluded from secular universities. Professor Sommerville's impressions of ''official secularism'' certainly coincide with those of many other people in the academy, but there are enough counterexamples to leave room for argument.

Recent surveys from the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. show that 80 percent of college faculty members consider themselves ''spiritual persons'' to one degree or another and that almost two-thirds of the college faculty members describe themselves as religious, either ''to a great extent'' (35 percent) or ''to some extent'' (29 percent). Yet just 30 percent believed that colleges should help ''spiritual development,'' while twice as many endorsed strengthening students' ''self-understanding'' or ''moral character.''

On the other hand, from half to two-thirds of third-year undergraduates reported that their professors never provided opportunities to discuss the meaning and purpose of life or spiritual and religious matters.

Had Professor Sommerville mined findings like those, he might have nuanced his impressions but not, one suspects, by much. Clearly, there is a gap between what undergraduate students are looking for and what professors, regardless of their religious convictions, feel they can or should try to provide.

Many readers may also find Professor Sommerville tantalizingly elusive about exactly how he envisions that religious viewpoints might be introduced into university discourse.

Obviously, he thinks that serious theological thought should be a presence on university campuses, not limited to divinity schools or restricted to religious studies departments that emphasize detached description of religions but not working out problems from within them.

He is appalled, he writes, that '' 'sin,' 'trinity,' 'incarnation' and 'creation' are words that would be greeted with incomprehension in the academy today.''

Yet, along with other legacies of Christian thought, he judges them essential to much of what the university holds dear, including its often critical stance toward its own culture.

Still, when it come to prescriptions, Professor Sommerville remains vague, and deliberately so. In the book, he begs off any effort ''to decide in advance'' what ''a more inclusive university should teach.''

And in a phone conversation yesterday, he added, ''I felt that the book should not go too far in settling things when its purpose was to start a conversation -- or even a controversy.''


Unveiling the Gospel of Judas highlighted the good in religious diversity. And it is good -- to a point.

Peter Steinfels.
Published: April 29, 2006
The New York Times

The common note sounded three weeks ago in welcoming the Gospel of Judas, the recovered second-century Gnostic text, and justifying the surrounding hoopla was that it demonstrated the diversity of early Christianity.

But only the tone deaf could miss that this demonstration was more than a matter of disinterested scholarship. Demonstrating the diversity of early Christianity was not just a fact, it was a good thing. It was a good thing because it opened new possibilities of what could be altered or legitimated within contemporary Christianity.

Marvin Meyer, an expert on Gnosticism and a major influence on the way that the National Geographic Society presented the restored Gospel of Judas to the public, was explicit about this in a telephone interview.

''I feel a kind of a mission here,'' Dr. Meyer said. Embracing this diversity ''has possible implications for how we see the 'other,' '' he explained, and even for public policies.

This passion for diversity cannot be understood without noting what these scholars pose as the contrasting reality. For them, the opposite of diverse is monolithic.

''These discoveries are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion,'' said Elaine Pagels, the Princeton scholar who has won a wide audience with lively and personal books on Gnosticism.

Monolithic, of course, implies religious authorities enforcing the party line, primarily the ''heresy hunters'' of early Christianity, as they are branded by scholars like Dr. Meyer and Dr. Pagels, but maybe even the Sunday school teachers of today. Terry Garcia, a vice president at National Geographic, implied as much when he extolled the Judas Gospel project as showing that things are a lot ''more complex than what you were once taught in Sunday school.''

The unstated equation often goes something like this: diversity (and heresy) good; monolithic (and Sunday school) bad.

Would it, then, be another, presumably acceptable heresy to suggest that religious diversity is not necessarily good in itself, nor for that matter is heresy?

The white racist Christian Identity movement, for example, is a heresy. Even if the diversity of Christianity were diminished by the disappearance of its exponents like the Aryan Nations, most Christians (one hopes) and certainly the scholars mentioned here would count this a very good thing. What is true about Christianity can be said about religions generally. The religious belief that cosmic order rests on regularly ripping out the hearts of virgins has disappeared (again, one hopes), and it is hard to imagine anyone regretting that particular loss of religious diversity.

Forty years ago, the Second Vatican Council effectively declared it heretical to believe and teach that Jews shared in some sort of collective responsibility for the death of Jesus. Should the church leaders who solemnly made that declaration be labeled ''heresy hunters''?

The question of diversity is also central to what may be the most important debate in the world today, that between different understandings of Islam.

Muslims opposed to understandings of Islam as monolithic, self-contained and defined by unyielding rules and sharp dichotomies naturally emphasize their faith's rich diversity of thought and practice over many centuries and cultures. That is the basis on which many of them advocate an Islam diverse, complex and flexible enough to find common ground with modernity or democracy. One doubts that they worry that the disappearance of authoritarian and violence-prone versions of Islam would be a crime against diversity.

All right, the point may be obvious, but it often gets obscured in contemporary scholarly discussion of religion. Diversity may be good in itself -- up to a point. Ultimately, however, it cannot be evaluated without regard to other values. Does diversity (or heresy) serve or damage generosity, compassion, justice or reconciliation?

To entertain reservations about diversity as an unexamined catchword should not lead to exaggerations in the opposite extreme. Recognizing limits to the benefits of religious diversity certainly does not mean defending monolithic religion. And in cases where diverse expressions of a religious tradition or of religion in general hardly deserve celebration, recovering knowledge of them does enlarge one's sense of religion's mixed potential, for evil as well as for good.

In some circumstances, highlighting diversity in religion past or present can be an effective challenge to a monolithic fundamentalism. In other circumstances, highlighting diversity is far less likely to explode a monolithic fundamentalism, which is well-equipped to ignore intellectual challenges, than to fragment nonfundamentalist belief, precisely because of its openness to new knowledge. The dynamics of religious discussion, discovery and change are complex and often unpredictable.
Tags: biblical studies, books, education, ethical, faith and reason, gnosticism, historical, new york times, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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