Education has long been one of the pillars for the bridge between Christian faith and the world, fostering the development of reason, giving meaning and order to human life and facilitating an appreciation of ultimate reality. Michael L. Peterson, Fred Herron and George Dennis O’Brien offer three perspectives on the intersection of Christian faith and education, all exploring in detail how the sacramental nature of the world should influence theory and practice in education.
Peterson takes on perhaps the most ambitious challenge, attempting to extend the influence of Christian perspectives to address the crisis pervading mainstream American education and culture. Chair of the philosophy department at Asbury College, a Protestant liberal arts college in Kentucky that eschews federal funding so as to avoid any restrictions not in keeping with its institutional identity, Peterson believes that contemporary secular education is bereft of any coherent theoretical framework or system of values. He adroitly provides an overview of the basic concepts of three traditional schools of thought (idealism, naturalism and Thomistic realism) and four contemporary philosophies (experimentalism/pragmatism, existentialism, philosophical analysis and postmodernism) that have influenced education. After exploring what their principles mean when applied to curriculum, pedagogy and moral formation, however, he then summarily dismisses them on the grounds that they distort Christian beliefs or drastically conflict with Christian doctrine.
There is something exasperating about these conclusions; they are akin to criticizing an orange for not being a banana. The systems were not meant to accommodate Peterson’s views, and it is not quite right to condemn them for failing to achieve a goal they never envisaged. His larger point, though, is that there is no system already in place that he could appropriate for his current project. But by demonstrating how established systems fail to represent Christian concerns, he highlights certain tenets that a Christian system must embrace.
Peterson is especially concerned with cultivating moral virtue. His question, a good one considering that he presumably wishes to influence public education, is: For schools that are not officially Christian, what reasonable theory of moral education might we adopt that is compatible with Christian teachings and yet does not explicitly teach them? This critical question is not forcefully addressed. At one level, parents bear a significant burden for conveying to their children an understanding of the Christian vision. Parents’ options include home schooling, something he mentions several times but never evaluates critically. In primary and secondary education, teachers who are Christian play a key role. Peterson suggests that teachers can help direct students in implicit worshipstudy and contemplation of ultimate concerns. In higher education, both secular and sectarian, Christian teacher/scholars have a responsibility to advance the Christian perspective in their own fields and in broader intellectual culture. They are to treat important subjects in ways influenced by their faith, and they are to take on projects of Christian concern, disregarding the skepticism of peers.
Christian intellectual life must reach beyond the academy, though, and for Peterson this seems to be the most urgent issue. He views contemporary intellectual life as dominated by non-Christian and even anti-Christian thinkers, while Protestant voices are largely silent. He acknowledges that Catholic intellectuals are prominent in debates about pressing social and policy issues but overlooks entirely the influence of the Christian religious right on public policy. And more than a few of his claims would benefit from more serious factual demonstration. Both oversights suggest that he is willing to take rhetorical shortcuts to advance his argument.
In the end, Peterson identifies elements that constitute a framework for a Christian philosophy of education. Rather than indicating how to persuade mainstream education of that framework, though, he opts for a map of places where those who subscribe to the view might penetrate and affect the system.
In Wood, Waterfalls and Stars, Fred Herron directs his message to those involved with the spiritual formation of adolescents. Herron is spiritual director and director of campus ministry at Fontbonne Hall Academy, a Catholic school in Brooklyn, N.Y., for young women founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph. He is less concerned with intellectual development than with spiritual development, which he sees as equally essential to preparing young people for openness to truth and an ability to respond to their deepest longings for knowledge and wisdom.
Herron echoes Peterson’s concern about the prevalence of threats to both the well-being of children and the efficacy of the educational enterprise. Amid competing influences, there is little space for them to find solitude or to reflect on questions about humanity, community, God in the world and mysteryquestions that for Herron are essential to progress toward true selfhood.
Herron is forthright about the challenge of getting young people to think seriously at all about their relation to God or intimate encounters with Christ. He argues that the task at hand is not evangelization but pre-evangelizationhelping adolescents first to understand what it is to be human and then to glimpse that something exists beyond the human. His essays are thoughtful and engaging, drawing effectively on a wide range of sources from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to Karl Rahner, from a Buddhist monk to Zbigniew Brzezinski. Knowledgeable about adolescent and developmental psychology, Herron seems both highly tolerant of the lack of enthusiasm he encounters among students and highly optimistic about his ability to succeed. He sees the role of a guide as inviting young people on an ongoing journey rather than establishing specific fixed goals.
In exploring the place of the Catholic imagination in spiritual formation, Herron emphasizes the importance of narratives like the story of the resurrectionstories that can subtly and even dramatically alter one’s view of reality and that present a clear and coherent vision for faith. He also argues for the importance of enduring symbols of faith when ambiguity is the hallmark of everyday experience. These symbols are reminders of God’s presence in the world, and appreciating the world as sacramental is, he argues, the primary aim of the Catholic imagination. (The book’s title comes from a poem by Father Padraig Daly about the mind’s search for the solid certainty of wood and waterfalls and stars; the imagination to see God mediated in the natural world is what gives the objects this assuring certainty.)
A sacramental view of the world also plays a central role in George Dennis O’Brien’s The Idea of a Catholic University. O’Brien has served as president of two secular institutions, the University of Rochester and Bucknell University. In considering Catholic institutional identity, he presents a fresh and sometimes brash perspective. Few sitting or former Catholic university presidents, for example, would so flatly assert that they find a number of official church positions...poorly argued and finally quite wrong.
O’Brien believes that Catholic universities must proudly and resolutely present themselves as contrarian to the secular modern research university, with the defining difference being the respective understandings of the real. The real for Christians is something fundamental to the human condition but beyond the full grasp of academic inquiry. Specifically, the real becomes available through the belief that the core of the biblical story, climaxing in the life and death of Jesus, is somehow the paradigm story of humanitythe fundamental metaphor that gives meaning to human life. Catholic universities must concentrate on making this reality accessible to human understanding.
O’Brien’s argument is complicated and likely to deter some readers. With Peterson, he believes strongly that while there are differences between the concerns of the Christian faith and those of the modern university, the divide can be bridged. In a Catholic university, O’Brien writes, there is a conjunction between a community organized around a defining experience that resists definition, and an intellectual community that seeks clear definitions and [detaches] from defining experiences in favor of intellectual distancing and appraisal. A secular university is concerned with truths of reason and empirical truths; a Catholic university is concerned with these kinds of truth but with revealed truths as well and, ultimately, the sacramental truth of God made real in the world.
Central to O’Brien’s conception of Catholic higher education is the restoration of theology to the pinnacle of the curriculum, a ranking he believes appropriate because theology straddles the world of accepted academic pursuits and the realm beyond that exceeds the grasp of art and science. Restoring theology to its proper place will be difficult, O’Brien warns, primarily because the contemporary academy does not view its curriculum hierarchically. Against this egalitarian view he sets the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum, designed to lead students through a path of ordered inquiry culminating in study of philosophy and theology.
In addition to exploring tensions between the Catholic university and secular universities, O’Brien considers tensions between the Catholic university and the church hierarchy. These tensions center at present on the implications of implementing in the United States Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on the nature of the Catholic university. O’Brien asks from which heart of the church universities in fact spring. He argues that the Catholic university relates much more closely to the sacramental model of the church than to the juridical model that looms large in the debate over the requirement that theology faculty members, in order to teach at a Catholic university, seek and secure the local bishop’s mandatum signifying their conformity to official church teachings. For O’Brien believes the sacramental model most effectively accommodates the natural truths in which universities normally traffic, as well as religious and revealed truth, the core enterprise of the Catholic university.
Placing the sacramental model at the fore suggests interesting implications for some of the factors that are often taken as meaningful measures of Catholic identityissues such as what kinds of speakers appear on campus, if and how abortion is discussed and whether there is an official club for gay students. Doctrinaire conformity with church teachings on such subjects will not make a university Catholic in the terms that O’Brien proposes. With respect to these lightning rod issues, in fact, he suggests that it is the duty of the Catholic university to discover whatever exists of genuine moral interest, love, and compassion in [a] contested position rather than to dismiss the subject out of hand.
In some ways, O’Brien’s book is more complicated than necessary, given his aim to write in a way accessible to anyone interested in Catholic higher education. Overall, though, he makes a skillful contribution to the debate about what defines a university as Catholic and what should define the future of Catholic higher education in the United States.