Former NYU president John Sexton on faith, reason and free speech on campus

America Media/NYU

John Sexton is an attorney and academic who served as president of New York University from 2002 to 2015. Formerly Dean of the School of Law, Mr. Sexton continues to serve NYU as Benjamin F. Butler Professor of Law. A lifelong Catholic, Mr. Sexton graduated from the now-defunct Jesuit high school Brooklyn Prep, later earning a B.A. in history, an M.A. in comparative religion and a Ph.D in history of American religion from Fordham University. He earned his J.D. from Harvard University and has authored several books including “Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game” in 2014.

On May 23, I interviewed Mr. Sexton via telephone about his newest book, Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age(Yale University Press). The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.

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Let’s unpack the title of your new book. What does the phrase “standing for reason” mean to you in regard to the role of universities in our public square?

I think that the university, at least when it’s operating well, is the center for preservation and advancement of thought—and I think it has structural advantages, especially in the present political climate, for society to have meaningful dialogue. So when I say “standing for reason” in the title, in one sense I’m arguing on behalf of reason, but in another sense I’m arguing that universities can, in a very special way that’s beneficial to society, both incubate and witness to reason.

How do you understand the phrase “dogmatic age” in your subtitle?

I was formed as a Catholic in the 1940s and 1950s, before the Second Vatican Council. I was educated at probably the finest educational institution I’ve ever seen, Brooklyn Prep, by enlightened men. And yet until the Vatican Council, John XXIII and Teilhard de Chardin, I lived in a world of theological triumphalism, of virulent religious dogmatism where the only way to heaven was through the Catholic faith. That was jarring to me as a young intellectual. Fortunately, I studied for my doctorate during the time when the enlightened teachers at Brooklyn Prep and Fordham exposed us to the Vatican Council—to the notion that while we had our Truth and our Faith, there was a lot of truth in other religions.

So I’ve seen this wonderful growth in ecumenical dialogue flourishing in theological circles. Meanwhile, I’ve seen our politics over the same 60-year period—in a secular sense, to use the metaphor—move from a world where people cooperated to a world where political views aren’t reasoned anymore.

From your vantage as a lawyer and historian, what troubles you about this dogmatic political climate?

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It’s the fact that we stand in dogmatic camps unable to communicate with each other, that our political views are taken as revealed. They’re not thought out, and because they’re not thought out, dialogue is impossible and the result is there’s no real advancement in political thought and political policy like I’ve seen in Catholicism. There’s this huge chasm that has created an impossibility for conversation about the complex problems of our day, and this is going to be catastrophic if we don’t reverse it.

How does your Jesuit education at Brooklyn Prep and Fordham University inform your response to this situation?

The Jesuits, both in the classroom and outside of it in extracurricular activities, introduced me to the power of genuine debate and dialogue. I myself was a competitive debater. At Brooklyn Prep, the debate team was more revered than the football team or the basketball team. What a Jesuit education taught me, and what I think the Jesuits continue to teach better than anyone, is real critical thinking: the notion that a conversation doesn’t stop at the first level with an exchange of slogans, but rather that there’s a real attempt to understand the other person’s position and engage with it, explaining your position in an iterative process of advanced thought.

As a proponent of reasoned free speech as an antidote to our political discourse, how do you respond to reports of college students shutting down lectures at campuses like Middlebury College and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where the president has defended controversial social critic Camille Paglia against recent student calls for her firing?

First, while attempts to shut down speech on campus are widely reported, it’s important to contextualize them. Each year there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of external speakers welcomed to the 5,000 college campuses in the United States. The organizations both right and left that track these numerous speakers report that only three dozen speakers were disinvited in 2017, the last year it was reported, and that was down from four dozen the year before. So the phenomenon that hits the news actually overstates the issue—there actually is a lot of robust dialogue on our campuses with controversial speakers across the spectrum.

That having been said, there have to be rules of engagement that protect the sanctity of dialogue on campuses. No one is entitled, in my view, to shut down a speaker. You can respond to a speaker, you can question a speaker, you can even protest in a way that allows dialogue to continue. But anyone who breaches the rules of civil discourse by shouting or pulling a fire alarm should be disciplined, because there should be codes of conduct that protect dialogue on our campuses. Most universities have them, and if a speaker is brought to campus or a professor is articulating a view, there are ways within the system to voice disagreement and extend dialogue. Shutting down speech and thought, in my mind, is never a good idea.

As a Catholic serving at a secular university, what values do you bring from your own tradition to this issue which may not be immediately visible to people?

I have four degrees including one honorary degree from Fordham, and Fordham president Fr. Joe McShane, who is also my confessor, has referred to NYU as the largest Jesuit university in the world. We here at NYU—not in a religious sense, but in an aggressive and deeply ingrained secular sense—have embraced what I would call a secular ecumenism, the notion that we should welcome difference and dialogue with difference. Not in a relativistic sense, where we say “well, anybody can have an opinion,” not in the sense that we give up our own views, but in the sense that we learn from seeing both the world and ourselves through the eyes of others. If we see the world as they see it, in a genuine secular ecumenical dialogue, and we see ourselves as they see us in that same dialogue, we will advance our own thinking.

In your own faith life, how do you pray in our current times, when even religion seems to have become politicized?

When I was a professor of religion at Fordham and St. Francis College, I would say to my students that they should pray, but that they should understand that prayer changes people, it doesn’t change things. Don’t expect God to come down and make your baseball team or your side in a war win. But pray to express the existence of something greater than you and to express your concern for others and your love for them. That’s my life of prayer. My faith is Catholicism, I am a product of the times of the Vatican Council, I rejoice in the papacy of Francis, I touch the transcendent and the deeply meaningful through the liturgy and the Eucharist. So my faith is important to me and I hope that, as each day I try to live in witness to the teachings and person of Christ, that I become a better person each day. I understand I’m a victim of original sin and I will never be perfect, but I take that as an explanation for the mistakes I make and I try to get better every day.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what might that be?

Continue to speak for those who do not have a voice and create as many ways as you can to give them voice. And continue to understand that faith and reason are not at war, they’re different domains.

What’s one good reason for people to read your new book?

It will provoke them to think about the state of our body politic and the role of universities in them—and if we don’t start thinking about that, before we realize it, we may have lost the battle.

What provocative surprises will readers find in this book?

That it’s possible to have hope, because if we can move from where we were theologically in 1956 to where we are today with robust ecumenism, so also we should be able to do it in the political sphere. They may also be surprised that a lot of the conventional wisdom around universities paints a much more negative picture of their capacity to be part of the solution than is actually the case.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

A militant commitment to thought and dialogue.

Any final thoughts?

I just want to express gratitude to my teachers, and to the Jesuits in particular, who helped introduce me to the power of reason.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

A militant commitment to thought and dialogue...the power of reason- What a rarity!.

Rhett Segall
2 months 1 week ago

“A militant commitment to thought and dialogue”: Militant because thinking things through “to the ruddy end” (CS Lewis) is demanding, as military life is demanding. And “dialogue”, not for the sake of finding a weak point in the other’s argument to prove him/her, wrong (Plato calls this “eristic” ) but for the sake of considering things thoroughly (Plato calls this” dialectic”) to arrive at the truth.

arthur mccaffrey
2 months 1 week ago

fascinating comment--- would love to see you elaborate on this or even write a follow up article for America. Sounds like modern American politics is too eristic and not dialectic enough

Rhett Segall
2 months 1 week ago

Arthur, I first read it in Bernard Lonergan, S.J.‘s “Method in Theology”. Lonergan stresses dialectic's role in grasping life’s meaning. In “We Hold These Truths” Jesuit John Courtney Murray lays great stress on the importance of argument for gaining convictions. But again, it’s not eristic arguments, which as you say is ubiquitous, even in our personal life,, but dialectic, a genuine effort to get the cobwebs out of our thinking. Murray underscores that arguing meaningfully necessitate shared core truths; hence "We Hold These Truths"

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Probably one of the most insightful comments in a long time here or anywhere. Shame this thread has disappeared on America. I have seen the eristic strategy hundreds of times here and a least a thousand elsewhere. I described it as nit picking something to undermine it. Feel free to bring it up continually. I plan on using the term in the future. Thank you.

Vince Killoran
2 months 1 week ago

It's a shame that the Jesuit emphasis on economic justice didn't inform Sexton's tenure as NYU's president. His treatment of graduate student employees who were unionizing is well-known and shameful.

Kevin Murphy
2 months 1 week ago

Also, how much of Greenwich Village did NYU absorb during his tenure?

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Here is a question I continually ask and no one responds. It is based on a comment in this article as well as several other articles written on this site.

Why should anyone be a Catholic?

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

I maintain that the Church committed suicide at Vatican II (hyperbole) and that assessment is reinforced in this article. In order to be more ecumenical, did the Church say we are not special. It seems that way from Dr. Sexton's comments. Maybe he or Fr. Salai might want to take a crack at it. He referred to Our Truth but also to their truths. I was under the impression there can only be one truth. There cannot be two things that are true that contradict each other.

Rhett Segall
2 months 1 week ago

I am a cradle Catholic. I remain Catholic because it is within Catholicism that God has given himself to me in sacrament, scripture and community. Catholicism’s sinfulness is reflective of my own sinfulness. I have no illusion that there is any perfect Christian community. There never has been.

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

So are you saying that Christ was incapable or providing a perfect way to attain salvation or that He didn't provide one? I am not saying that humans perform this way perfectly but does the perfect way exist? By the way (pun), the early Church was known as "The Way."

This term is currently popular as a pilgrimage to Santiago or the Camino de Santiago or the Way to Santiago.

rose-ellen caminer
2 months 1 week ago

The Neo- Catechumenate uses that term too.

Sean Salai, S.J.
2 months 1 week ago

Thank you all for reading. Let's continue to pray for thought and dialogue. Mr. Cosgrove, your criticism of Vatican II's teaching on ecumenism (one of the 10 non-negotiable principles of Vatican II according to the late Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ) and the recognition of truth in other faith traditions reminds me of William F. Buckley, who put the same challenge to Archbishop Fulton Sheen in a Firing Line episode on "Skepticism and Disorder" now available on YouTube. You might find Sheen's response instructive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZwcU4EfJYM&t=513s

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

I will look at it later and see if Bishop Sheen provides a reason why one should be a Catholic. But if ecumenism in the form that truth resides in other faiths is the current teaching, then I cannot see any reason why one should be a Catholic other than personal preference. Such as I am a St. Louis Cardinal fan. It becomes just one among many options and that doesn't lead to anything goes but to it really doesn't matter which of the many options I choose. I am going to an Alpha session tonight and will see what is said other than being a do-gooder.

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Fr. Salai, I watched the video and did not see anything that answered my question (by the way I have no trouble answering the question. I just think the current Church cannot answer it or wont). I also didn't see anything that I thought was positive about Vatican II or ecumenism. The most interesting thing was that there was strong awareness that Church attendance was deteriorating in 1970. I also saw in the discussion by Bishop Sheen an intense desire of the Church to enter politics as a way to justify itself in a modern world. I am a firm believer that the Church should stay out of politics because whatever position it takes it will not be right and there will be lots of negatives.

Sean Salai, S.J.
2 months 1 week ago

Mr. Cosgrove, thank you for engaging the discussion. I also do not have any problem answering that question, but I feel wary when people ask rhetorical questions they have already answered (as you now confirm) for themselves, as it typically does not lead to productive dialogue in my experience. As I'm sure you know, the Catholic Church contains the fullness of truth, but teaches that we may find truth in many different places -- for example, as the early Church did in pagan Greek philosophy. Augustine and Aquinas (who himself received much criticism for "baptizing" the pagan Aristotle) believed that truth is truth no matter where we find it. The part of the video that I thought relevant to your question came when Archbishop Sheen spoke about the need to soften some of the sharp black-and-white distinctions between the Catholic and non-Catholic world; the popular belief that anything not formally branded by the Church as "Roman Catholic" could not contain any truth had caused great harm (witness the Feeneyism of Fr. Feeney SJ) in many circles that took it to extremes. When people tend toward simplistic answers based on authority (the weakest validity for an argument according to Aquinas) rather than rigorous examination of whether something is actually true, we get the sort of ideological dogmatism (in a negative sense) that Sexton seems to be discussing. Rather than reasoning things out, we settle for simple answers to complex problems. While you are certainly entitled to your opinions, Catholic social teaching does suggest a role for the Catholic Church in politics, as John Paul II exhibited (and this speaks to Sheen's point about Communist meetings emphasizing transcendence that Buckley concedes in the video) by taking such a strong geopolitical stand against Communism, especially in publicly supporting the Solidarity movement of 1980s Poland. By your logic, it seems he committed a great sin by taking a policy stance against global Communism, as did Moses (and by extension God himself) by leading the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt rather than remaining politically neutral as the Pharaoh preferred. Time and again, God liberates his people from political oppression (see Maccabees as well) in the Scriptures, and blanket prohibitions against all political involvement whatsoever do not resolve these issues in my opinion. But let's agree to disagree and continue to pray for one another.

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Wow, thank you for the reply. You are the first to do so. I made my comment many times because numerous articles on this site asked how could the Church keep young people Catholic given the abuse crisis or in other places given the Church's dogma on homosexuality. But none suggested why anyone should be a Catholic in the first place or why shouldn't everyone be a Catholic? I ask the question rhetorically because I know there is an answer to my question but no one gives it which I find curious. It would then be the basis for the answer to both the issues I mentioned. There are obviously other issues besides these two but I bring these two up as examples.

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

As far as truths, I believe there is only one truth but is that what we are talking about. I get the feeling that what is meant by other truths are things claimed by other religions that contradicts Catholic doctrine. And Catholics should accept this as possible truth. If it is truth, it is truth. The Church never intended to encompass all truth, for example how the universe was made, how life progressed, how best to satisfy people needs to live etc. In terms of people in other religions, I have found many of them some of the best people I have ever met even if I find their beliefs incorrect. The best example are the Young Earth Creationists.

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

As far as politics I still believe the Church should remain out of it unless it is called for by Church dogma. By universal acceptance there is no one best way for people to be organized so for the Church to have a position is guaranteed to be wrong on many aspects. The greatest example of the Church being egregiously wrong on social policy is the "Great Chain of Being" endorsed by the Church for well over a thousand years and led to oppression for nearly all its members. Their freedom resulted from Protestant religious wars in England and Holland. Liberation Theology will also lead to oppression. The Church's expertise is morality, not social or economic policy.

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

As far as Vatican II, Bishop Sheen was incredibly wrong on its effect on the Church. He expected great expectations but we got just the opposite. I wonder if what the Church taught afterwards was the main reason. About 20 years ago I talked to some Catholic high school students about what they were getting taught in religion and it seemed superficial. Benedict seems to indicate changes in Church theology in his long essay a few months ago. There was a lot more than speculation about what exacerbated the abuse crisis.

rose-ellen caminer
2 months 1 week ago

I'll try to answer that;its a curious question.
If ones believes that the Catholic Church contains the most truth that can be known regarding the mystery of existence , the most that can be known of God in relation to man, then one would WANT to be a Catholic.
However outside this revealed truth about God and his connection to man, contained in the Catholic Church, in other religions there are some truths about God, about the mystery of being too. Any truth about God has value in knowing.So if all you know or believe about God is that he is all powerful and we are not, [primitive beliefs ; God[s] are powerful and can harm or help us so lets make offerings to God to appease and please them so they won't harm us] that is something true; we are not all powerful, there is a greater power[s] and what we do matters to the more powerful[ but not the blood offerings, primitives thought; that truth about God; "blood offerings I don't want", Christ subsequently revealed]. If all you know about God is the Old Testament, that is a deeper truth about God too; he chooses humans as his own,[ the Israelites then, but as Christ subsequently revealed, all humanity], is involved with us and expects a moral code of us, for example.[ many other truths are revealed in the OT of course].Or in the Hindu religion that ones ethical behavior matters supernaturally ;karma; that too is a truth about God; God is good and our behavior vis a vis others matters to God,All religions contain some truths about God as God[ creator, sustainer, powerful , knowledgeable] or in relation to man; concerned with our ethical behavior.

When Christ says that no one gets to the Father but through Him, it is no longer tenable given our modern psychological /humanist insights to believe that one must be a baptized professed Catholic or else one is damned. So we have to reevaluate that past notion . We can take from what Jesus does tell us, that He is present in the least of these .Ergo how we live ,our ethics vis a vis others is itself an encounter with Christ, and can be an acceptance of Christ. [ we go to the Father though others for Christ is present in others; the least of these, he says].Or, we can say that there can exist cryptic Catholics; not adhering consciously to the tenets of the Catholic Church, but in how they live, their concerns and ways of living and trying to live as decent human beings, which aproximates conformity with Christ; for such people, be they professed atheists or of other religions, Christ, who knows his own, knows them as his followers.
So to answer your question J Cosgrove, ;One is a professed Catholic not as an "aught", it's not a moral imperative, not out of moral necessity or because the church's teachings are more ethical, more humane then non Catholic teachings, or because only consciously baptized professed Catholics get to heaven, but because in ones heart one has accepted the gift offered you; that the most that has been revealed about God in relation to humanity, is contained in the Catholic Church which Jesus Christ instituted. Not all accept the gift, not all need to accept the gift, but all ARE saved by Christ's incarnation and many [if not all one day?] may in one way or another accept Christ himself.One should be a Catholic only if one IS a Catholic i.e., accepts with doubts and all, the Church's premise that God has, through Christ, redeemed the world;speak Lord your servant is listening you have the gift of everlasting life; for God so loved the world,the WORLD, not just professed Catholics or baptized Christians mind you but all humanity , each and every made in God's image human being] and instituted the Church,,with its sacraments, its mass, its liturgies, prayers, Holy Spirit as a sign for all in time of the revelation .

JR Cosgrove
2 months ago

Rose-Ellen, i was taught by nuns, Christian brothers and Jesuits, that there is a God, Christ is God as part of the Trinity and died so we could be saved, and Christ then established a Church to help us achieve salvation. If these three things are true, then the Catholic Church was established by God. The question for each individual is do we believe this? The problem has always been about belief. The goal of the Catholic Church since the beginning has been to lead people to salvation.

rose-ellen caminer
2 months ago

The Church can help us get to heaven; it can be a source for deepening our faith, a comfort, a restorer of faith, and a source of holy joy, a means to examine ones conscience and vow to turn away from sin. How would I feel[ yes feel] I wonder if there really were no Catholic church,no Catholic faith , no beautiful buildings, no other believers, no catholic mass, or catholic prayers, rituals sacraments anymore on the face of the earth. Could I really reason my way to being a christian;would not the temptation to be a materialistic atheist not win me over in a snatch?Do you read what these very brilliant atheists say? They are quite compelling.Would existence itself not seem to me to be even more terrifyingly empty then it often does anyway?Maybe the Orthodox church's have it[but they are rather ghettoized in the world due to the political conditions of Earth] which just shows how they are really one,in spirit. And all christian denominations partake of the reality of the church which Christ instituted,but Roman Catholicism, has substance on earth, it has power, presence even with all its crimes and errors and horrific sins,and that it does in spite of its scandals is indicative of it having a connection with Jesus Christ.[IMO}"Where God is the devil is too, and vice versa", someone said.I believe it.
Christ's death has already redeemed the world[ humanity] and so all can now partake of the holy; eternally fulfilling existence {God], as children, heirs sons and daughters.Since Christ has already redeemed us, .i.e., made it possible for us to share in his love which is Being that sustains all beings;which is why we exist to begin with,the question becomes what conditions must exist for us to NOT be saved? If God is good then it cannot simply mean that if you don't happen to believe in the faith, if you don't happen to have been baptized in the church, Christ's saving act of redeeming mankind from eternal death and damnation [separation from the good; the holiness of existence;God himself; Jesus our flesh and blood brother God] does not apply to you.It makes no sense; only a relative handful of humans are and ever will be outright professed baptized Catholics . There is no sin in that; no willful turning against God; from truth, from life..But what Christ says is true nevertheless; Jesus is the way the truth and the life for all humanity. So though the church is a very real expression and promoter of that fact , that fact holds true for everyone. Some recognize the gift that is the church and some don't.Its not a sin to not ; it can't be, for God is good.So there are other ways of accepting Christ then calling oneself a Catholic and being baptized.There has to be, for God is good and has redeemed us all. Vatican 2 had to make this clear and explicit;the Holy Spirit willed it for it's the truth!; logically, rationally , ethically and in full truth!

Alan Johnstone
2 months 1 week ago

In philosophy and rhetoric, eristic (from Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and discord) refers to argument that aims to successfully dispute another's argument, rather than searching for truth.
Thank you Rhett for using this code word in real life comments which so aptly designates much modern discourse.
I have a hard time accepting that either this or dialectic gives rise to truth.

I think the subject of this article was done a terrible disservice being conditioned into rationalism rather than invited into Catholicism.
Theology is not revelation, theology is not truth, theology is human mental processing of human thought, belief and experience in human language. Word processing.
A clue to your plight is a confession that de Chardin was part of your transforming enlightenment.
The entire work of that man is nonsense but it does require that those who read him have more than a passing acquaintance with biology, palaeontology, astronomy and Biblical revelation of the nature of God and the nature of creation.

JR Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Yes, Chardin was mainly a fraud but he is a hero to many which is one of the main problems with our modern Jesuit educated world.

Todd Witherell
2 months ago

Everything that rises must indeed converge, Mr. Cosgrove. (For example, immigrants from beyond our southern border). And brown is, in many ways, a convergence color, isn’t it? Sort of an e pluribus unum in the crayola world, you might say, especially if you’ve read Richard Rodriguez. The Last Discovery of America. I highly recommend it.

JR Cosgrove
2 months ago

An example of Jesuit politics. They helped install Robert Mugabe. He died today. They also helped install Chavez in Venezuela.

Todd Witherell
2 months ago

I would like to say how much I enjoy the dialogues in this magazine initiated by Fr. Salai. The people you speak with are usually unknown to me and almost always well worth listening to with attention. Please more!

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