Don't Drop Theology Requirements : They are the foundation of Catholic education
It’s probably all due to football, but when the University of Notre Dame contemplates changing something that has been part of the institution’s life for years, people—even far from South Bend, Ind.—tend to notice. So over the last few months, discussion has surfaced in the media in response to proposed changes in the university’s “core” curriculum: the set of courses every undergraduate is expected to take, regardless of major. The most controversial of these is the dropping of two required courses in philosophy and two in theology, to be replaced by other courses defined more generally in terms of “learning goals.” These would, it is hoped, lead in a more creative, pluralistic way towards the desired effect of studying these traditional disciplines.
So, one assumes, the clarity of analysis and respect for intellectual argument that is meant to result from a student’s learning to argue with philosophical rigor could be reached by a variety of courses in other disciplines that require well-designed reasoning, not simply by reading ancient and modern philosophers. Courses focused on human religious experience and feeling—perhaps an anthropology course on religious practices in Latin America, or a literature course on Christianity in Dickens—might achieve the same goals, within a broader horizon, that are now aimed at in traditional courses on theology. The advantage, it is suggested by those who have proposed these changes, would be to encourage faculty and students to look away from disciplinary specialization, to make possible the exploration of great human experiences by scholars with a variety of backgrounds, and to develop a core set of learning experiences that is more inclusive of different points of view, more diverse, than the current disciplinary model. In contemporary American society, after all, diversity and inclusivity are often assumed to be ultimate goods.
Revisions, even wholesale reconceptions, of the core curriculum tend to take place every 20 years or so in most universities, and the process usually involves a certain amount of rancor and pain, as faculty members reflect on what they and their departments stand to lose or to gain in the process. At Notre Dame, though, it seems to have more than local significance; the issues are centered around what undergraduate education in a Catholic university really is. As a theologian myself, I don’t claim to be able to articulate the best reasons for keeping philosophy courses in a general core. I leave that to my philosopher-colleagues. But I am deeply concerned about the effect that abolishing a general theology requirement—already quite minimal—might have on the character of Notre Dame or on any university that tries to attract students, and to justify its high tuition rates, by calling itself “Catholic.”
Roots of Faith
Every university, of course, shares a culture that reflects, in tacit as well as acknowledged ways, its goals and values, the things it sees as defining success in what it does. The characteristically American institution of the private religious university—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and now also Muslim—claims as the core of that common culture a vision of reality grounded in a worshipping community’s faith. Its study of human action and thought, and of the structures of the human and natural world, is done, these institutions argue, within the wider framework of that faith, which is understood not to be a hindrance to students’ growth in a sophisticated, contemporary understanding of the world we live in, but rather to foster its integration. For Christians, as Pope Benedict has often reminded us, faith in God, as God has revealed himself in human history, has always been understood not to be in a negative tension with reason or logos at its best, but to express reason’s deepest intuition in a way that urges it on to investigate what it sees as the truth. The religious university, and certainly the Catholic university, understands its commitment to the production and communication of knowledge as growing out of the common, intelligible faith at the root of its culture. And the point of requiring all students—even those who are not Catholics, or who are struggling with questions of faith—to have at least a minimal introduction to serious theology while they are growing in their knowledge of other fields, is to give all of them at least a vision of what it would be like to be thoughtful, intellectually articulate religious adults.
For Christian faith, God is not simply a reality to be studied alongside the facts of history and the data revealed by an electron microscope. God is ultimate reality, the source of the reality and the structure, the “facticity,” of all else that is. Things exist, in the understanding of faith, because God has generously and lovingly brought them into being—because they are created. And God, in Biblical understanding, is not simply a starting-point or a presupposition. God has revealed himself in history, calling and shaping Israel as his people, and ultimately revealing himself humanly in Jesus, who addressed him as Father. Christian faith, then, is built not only on the Hebrew Scriptures, and on the early disciples’ understanding of Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes, but on the continuing articulation of that faith by the community of those who still follow Jesus, guided by the charismatic presence of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sends down on the community through the centuries.
Theology, as Christians have classically understood it, is the encounter of that communal faith with human reason—with the rest of our knowledge of the world and its history, with critical thought, with our growing ability to know and control the world around us and to unravel its mysteries. Theology is not just the objective study of religious custom or feeling, or of the history of religious thought; it is, in St. Anselm’s phrase, “faith seeking understanding.” For that reason, theology has a content, from which it takes its start: the intelligible content of the church’s Biblical faith, which we call Revelation.
If a Catholic university, then, is a community of learning specifically and uniquely founded by Catholics to carry on the expansion and communication of human knowledge, at its best, within this integrating perspective of faith, theology, as a discipline, clearly plays a central role in determining the university’s identity. It is not a role that can be removed from the framework of disciplinary content—translated into “learning goals,” or reflection on generic religious feelings or “values.” Intelligent reflection on the content of faith—on the being of God, on the historical experiences of Israel and the church, on the person of Jesus and the activity of the Spirit—is of fundamental importance to the life of a Catholic intellectual culture. If this does not go on in a serious and challenging way, as central to the heart of a student’s university experience, there is really no justification for a student’s taking on a mountain of future debt to go to a place like Notre Dame, or for parents making the huge financial investment involved in sending a son or daughter to a Catholic university. There are plenty of fine state schools, after all, whose “learning goals” will do the more general educational job for half the price.
In February of 1841, John Henry Newman wrote a series of letters to the Times newspaper, which were later collected into a pamphlet with the title, The Tamworth Reading Room. Newman’s letters were a witty and trenchant set of reflections on an address given the previous month by Sir Robert Peel, leader of the Tory party in Parliament and soon to become Prime Minister for the second time, on the occasion of the dedication of a new public library in Peel’s Parliamentary district, the city of Tamworth. Such libraries were a relatively new idea in the early nineteenth century; for a small membership fee, anyone could borrow books, come to lectures and broaden his or her knowledge and interests. In his address, Peel had waxed eloquent on the benefits of mass education—especially education in modern science and technology—for improving the human mind and heart, leading even those who could not afford a formal education towards an intuitive grasp of the divine beauty and wonder of the world, and to an enjoyment of the moral, humanizing effect Victorians saw as the benefits of religion. Provided one avoided discussing “matters connected with religious differences” or subjects “calculated to excite religious animosities”—provided one aimed at respecting diversity and stayed non-sectarian, we might say—a public institution such as this was almost as positive a force as a well-staffed church for forming good Christian character. It produced the social benefits of religion by other means.
Newman’s response went right to the heart of the Enlightenment’s understanding of the nature and sources of religious knowledge. He first points out that Peel, the leader of the Tories (the party that had historically defended the importance of Christian institutions in English society) was here sounding almost indistinguishable from the anticlerical, rationalist Whigs, who promoted “natural religion.” Political correctness can lead to self-contradiction! More importantly, Newman challenges Peel’s central assumption: that literary and scientific education automatically leads a person to spiritual improvement—that “you have but to drench the popular mind with physics, and moral and religious advancement follows.” The texts and ideas that truly have the power to change people’s hearts, Newman argues, are the revealed words of faith, handed on in the community of faith. “Knowledge is not ‘power’; but ‘grace,’ or ‘the word,’ by whatever name we call it, has been from the first a quickening, renovating, organizing principle. It has new-created the individual, and diffused and knit him into a social body, composed of members each similarly created. It has cleansed man of his moral diseases, raised him to hope and energy, given him to propagate a brotherhood among his fellowmen…” (Letter 2)
“No religion yet has been a religion of physics or philosophy,” Newman points out in a later letter. “It has ever been synonymous with revelation. It never has been a deduction from what we know; it has ever been an assertion of something to be believed” (Letter 6). And theology, he might have added, in its classical sense, is precisely our attempt to bring such belief into energetic contact with physics and philosophy, literature and history, so that all of our human experience has at least the chance of making sense within a larger whole. The good news of the Gospel, in fact, is what has always formed communities of Christian faith, in which other human knowledge then flourishes in a coherent way; to be truly wonderful, the world needs to be seen not simply as an extraordinarily complex system, but as creation, a gift—and this is precisely a Biblical and theological category, not something obvious to the empirical observer. So “Christianity, and nothing short of it,” he concludes, “must be made the element and principle of all education.” To begin with science or engineering, poetry or history, and simply hope that religious wonder and “Christian values” will be the result, is to condemn oneself to aimless superficiality, to details without a pattern. “But reverse the order of things; put faith first and knowledge second; let the University minister to the church, and then classical poetry becomes the type of Gospel truth, and physical science a comment on Genesis or Job…” (Letter 3)
In March, 1962, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., then in the early years of his storied presidency here at Notre Dame, published a thoughtful reflection in this magazine on the distinctive contribution of Catholic universities in our complex modern world, and on the continuing relevance of Newman’s classic thoughts on the subject—an article America recently republished (March 23) in commemoration of Fr. Hesburgh’s death. Fr. Hesburgh points out how strikingly different our world and its needs are today from the world of the 1860s, in which Newman delivered his own famous lectures On the Scope and Nature of University Education. Yet despite the massively increased complexity of the technical, social and political problems our global society now presents to us, and despite our common recognition of the importance of religious pluralism and freedom in today’s world, Hesburgh argues here, “the Catholic university must demonstrate that all the human problems which it studies are at base philosophical and theological, since they relate ultimately to the nature and destiny of man…The truest boast of the Catholic university is that it is committed to adequacy of knowledge, which in effect means that philosophy and theology are cherished as special ways of knowing, of ultimate importance.” To play its distinctive role in the wider community today, he insists, and “really to come of age,” the Catholic university needs to derive “special life and vigor” from these two branches of human learning. Presumably, that need will even affect the way we design the core curriculum.
One wonders how the Blessed John Henry Newman might respond to the proposals currently under discussion at Notre Dame—whether he would detect the same Enlightenment ideology, the same mistaken understanding of the role and intellectual content of faith, in the wider work of education, now being repeated in a campus culture that, ironically, so urgently wants to be considered Catholic by the wider world. Whether or not that Catholic character is to function more than simply as “branding” may depend on details as small as the texts and convictions we require each undergraduate to ponder and study, as he or she sets out on a much longer intellectual journey. If theology and philosophy are dropped in favor of “learning goals,” it could be a sign that the Whigs are still with us.