Tag Archives: scholarship

The Religious Character of the Secular University

Like the modern nation state, the contemporary research university “with its size, population, and complexity, certainly surpasses the limits of our natural attachments.” So again, the university, like “the nation must invent ways to build unity among strangers.”

Walk on to any university campus and you will see the secular equivalents of icons (sport’s mascots) and churches (stadiums). If not precisely substitutes for the Decalogue, codes of conduct and student judicial procedures certainly hold a prominent place in the lives of most students even if, unlike the 10 Commandments, they are not typically objects of reverence.

But while the university, again like the nation-state, can become the object of religious or at least “quasi-religious” devotion, to do so is not only false worship and so harmful to the soul. It is also detrimental to the health and well-being of the university.

To the degree that the university asks the students and faculty to reflect critically on the received wisdom of the past, it does something not only good but necessary. As the late Thomas Merton points out somewhere, the old answers are right because their old but because they are true. While the received wisdom doesn’t need to be reformulated in every generation, it does need to be reappropriated.

Doing so requires not only effort but also a community that can sustain our inquiry as we struggle to understand for ourselves and make our own that which was to a previous age–even if only as recently as our parents and grandparents–well known and understood.

Phrased in this way, the theological genealogy of critical scholarship hard to miss.

The modern scholar is more Augustinian than he or she might wish to admit. As was the case with the bishop of Hippo undergraduates and senior scholars alike take up his quest. While object and method differ, anthropologically scholarship is faith in search of understanding.

But faith is always received. Whether it is eventually embraced or rejected, faith must first be given to us from those who have gone before us–and again, even if only a recently as our parents’ or grandparents’ generation.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that scholarship requires a community. This community must not only be not composed of our immediate peers. It must also be extended backwards and forwards in time because faith is not faith not just when it is received but also when it is passed on.

A community of only the present moment is not a community in any meaningful sense of the word. It is rather little more than a mob even if, unlike the mob, it doesn’t engage in violence.

To return to our initial observation, the contemporary research university “with its size, population, and complexity, certainly surpasses the limits of our natural attachments.” This is why most large universities have not only sports teams, fraternities and sororities but also a dizzying array of clubs as well as formal and informal social, ethnic and political groups.

Of all of these though, it is the religious community–Christian or not–that is best able to foster the kind of community that critical scholarship requires. What is often missed–and even actively rejected–by many is that not only in its origin but in its institutional DNA the contemporary university is a religious undertaking because education is fundamentally a moral undertaking.

A university that fails to turn out students who are virtuous has failed not only the student and society but also itself. Without virtues of diligence and honest but also piety and gratitude and hope, scholarly life is impossible. 

In Christ

+Fr Gregory,