Unbuilding the Christian Academy

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Published on: July 4, 2015

In his book Building the Christian Academy, the late Arthur F. Holmes of Wheaton College reminds us that the great American Universities were built on Christian foundations.  They subsequently jacked themselves up off of those foundations and moved down the street to new secular foundations.  This is a monumental movement.  The lateral force, or more likely the absence of gravitas in the ‘Christian’ university, has been epic.   Holmes asks:

What was it that the Christian tradition in higher education contributed that has now been lost?  What should we know about that tradition as a condition of practical wisdom for the present?  (Page 1)

The answer to the second question seems easy to come by.  What we should know about ‘that’ tradition, which is so extremely important for the present, is that it is inherently anti-rationalist.  This was not going to work for long at the great AE (after Enlightenment) universities unless the Christian academics administering them understood how profound and pragmatic this anti-rationalism was and is, and how completely compatible with scholarship.  The Christian tradition was bound to lose on campus if its instructors had no appetite for publicly flogging Secular Reason.

Holmes goes on to tell us, just one page later, why our Christian ancestors in the great American universities did not, in fact, parade a profound and scholarly flogging of the great god Reason before their students, demonstrating how much fun it was, and then hand them the whip, generation after generation.  He finds four recurring emphases in the great Christian academy including “the usefulness of liberal arts as preparation for service to both church and society” and “the unity of truth.”

Of course, the “unity of truth” is an insubstantial truism.  The really hard part is finding the truth in the first place, at which point everyone assumes it is unified.  If we disagree about how to find it, we are probably disagreeing about its unity.  That is, we are disagreeing that all the truth proposed can possibly be integrated because much of it is not actually true.  What is left over would be rather obviously unified.  The truth-is-unified slogan is a stalking horse for the naïve view of reason underlying the liberals arts — namely that it is a universal, tradition-transcendent method or criterion; that liberal artists can generate all kinds of truth independently and then get together over a logical quilting table, each using the exact same tools, and stitch it all together.  All of this, with no tradition in sight.   The moment an account of reason, in which it is tradition-independent, gets off the ground, why would anyone need Christianity at the table?  In this case the true meaning of the Christian tradition is determined by Reason, not vice versa.

With respect to Holmes’ first question, the problem is not that the Christian tradition, as such, once contributed something it no longer contributes, let alone is no longer able to contribute.  The reason why Christianity was thrown out of the universities, aside from an over-reaction to Calvinism, is looking us, and was looking Holmes, right in the eye.  Holmes could not see it because it looked like him.  It was, and is, faith in tradition-independent reason. 

The failure of nineteenth century orthodoxy to kick the rationalists out of the universities (after all, Christians were Scottishly “enlightened” at the time) parallels Edmund Burke’s incapacity to actually deconstruct modern rationalism and scientism, substituting a hopeless admonition to be prejudiced, customary, and conservative.  One is supposed to stand in the middle of the road shouting “stop” as the army of Reason and Science approaches, just as an act of overt prejudice.  I do not think so.  I think one blows the army up, taking no prisoners, from the side of the road, rather than traveling on the same road.  But one has to have a weapon which can decimate a whole army.  Burke’s philosophy has done little or nothing to stop the liberal onslaught.  It is not anti-rationalist in any aggressive sense.   It has been a defensive, not an offensive action.  As a postmodern, Christian anti-rationalist, it is my intention to be extremely offensive. 

The direct cause of the rise of apostasy in the American university is what was not contributed by the rationalist, anti-traditionalist Protestants of old — the deconstruction of reason.  And this is what rationalist, anti-traditionalist, that is liberal, Protestants in our own time continue to withhold.  Of course, with a view to reversing the situation, there is no point in becoming Catholic.  Catholics too, have become modern liberals by the bushel.  These days neither Protestants nor Catholics are capable of imposing enough traditional discipline on their organizations to check a steady stream of heresy in their academies or headlines about hypocrisy and corruption in their brick and mortar churches. 

Given the unity of truth, both religious and secular, the saccharine glorification of the liberal arts is inevitable.  Holmes, who explicitly rejects pragmatism as a theory of truth (see All Truth is God’s Truth) seems determined to convince us that the universal truth to be found in the liberal arts could not be more useful.  He tells us that faith in the usefulness of the liberal arts is part of a biblical influence on educational thought and practice. 

I never knew that a biblical ‘influence’, no matter how abstract and theoretical, could be so non-controversial.  This is not to deny that academics lay claim to biblical influence.  Progressives have been hijacking the Bible for a hundred years.  Holmes goes on:

Consider some biblical examples of educated leaders.  Moses…had opportunities unavailable to the Hebrew people.  [No doubt they are about to make him better than his Hebrew brothers.]  Educated in the learning of the Egyptians and exposed to governmental leaders [now THAT has to be good] he gained a sense of political responsibility [like Obama or Reagan?] and acquired thinking skills and qualities of mind [like Obama or Reagan?] that are essential for leadership [which kind of leadership, whose kind of leadership?]  Although he retained his Hebrew identity [was this a shortfall?], he spent forty years in the wilderness contemplating what he had learned [from those wise Egyptians] before God called him, a man now of both faith and learning, to lead his people.  He was timid about public speaking, but demonstrated tremendous organizational skills and administrative know-how.  (Page 2 – 3)

Holmes thinks that Moses was a model of the modern bureaucrat.  The greatness of Moses was largely a product of what he learned from the Egyptians.  And our greatness today will, apparently, depend upon what we learn from those who are enslaving us. 

Here is my alternative interpretation of the life of Moses.  He came to realize that he had been programed, indoctrinated in Egyptian Reason.  The scales fell from his eyes at God’s behest and he could see that the Egyptian empire was a pagan tyranny which needed to be “spoiled” (wrecked), just like the US Federal government, which the church today should be leading the people away from, out of slavery.

Of course, Holmes thinks that Solomon was an even greater and more liberally trained bureaucrat than Moses. 

Holmes forgets to tell us about Samuel who does not have the liberally educated image he is straining to find in salvation history.  The people of Israel wanted a king to make them as sophisticated as their neighbors.  Samuel, that rube, could not understand why they would want such sophistication.  They certainly did not need it.  Perhaps they just wanted to be ruled by someone less judgmental.  Of course Samuel’s sons were not up to their father’s legacy, but things could get worse.  Samuel’s prophecy was that a king, wielding a lot more authority than his sons, would be not only corrupt but overwhelmingly powerful.  A king would be permitted whether or not he was wise and would tend to abuse them no matter how liberally educated.  There was no best and brightest to save them.  Poor, parochial Samuel just did not know what a liberal arts education could do for a man.

And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”  (1 Samuel 8:7)

 The people cried out for secular reason and government to lord it over them, instead of the authority of God and His tradition.  And they got what they deserved.

He [Samuel] said, “These will be the ways of the king who shall reign over you: he will take your sons…he will take your daughters…he will take the best of your fields and give them to his servants…and you will be his slaves.” (See 1 Samuel 8 for the whole sad litany of stuff that a king will do to you and do more effectively if he is educated and pretentious.)

Now I know Christ was a student of the Jewish tradition, but if he was liberally educated why was it that people in his own time did not believe anything good could come out of Nazareth?  (Maybe Nazareth was a college town.)

And just look at what the liberal western tradition about reason — the liberal arts — have done to our children on most campuses, even some Christian campuses. 

Apparently, in the eyes of God, even an educated and relatively successful king like Solomon is chump change compared to a ragged old judge. 

Why do Christian liberals do what they do with the Bible — anachronistically suggesting that what Moses and Solomon illustrated is just like modern liberal learning?  How could we even know that?  Is this their way of making the Bible relevant — by suggesting that its heroes were something like modern experts?  I say that the Bible is relevant precisely because it is a revolutionary attack on secular expertise and bureaucrats, like those of the Roman Empire.  The empire is rooted in pride and, as a Christian, I seek no regard from it. 

Look at how much there is to question and object to in just the first six pages of Holmes’ book. 

The thing about wisdom is that it is not actually dependent upon, or even a dimension of, the modern liberal arts as such.  Wisdom is tradition-bound.  Each tradition has its own competing, incommensurate view of what wisdom is.  Just ask the liberals and conservatives, let alone the Jews and the Muslims.  There is no such thing as a tradition-independent narrative of wisdom.  In the meantime we can get the story in our cultural neighborhoods without ever setting foot on a liberal arts campus.  The liberal arts do not determine the meaning of the tradition and therefore “flesh it out.”  The tradition determines the meaning of the liberal arts.  In the case of orthodox Christianity the meaning of the liberal arts in our time is that modern culture has become insipid.

And there is no account of natural law which is strictly empirical, strictly liberal.  Our concept of natural law is tradition-bound.  Otherwise, a study of nature is as likely to make us headhunters as liberals.

I studied under Art Holmes.  I knew him and I loved him.  But even at age twenty, I knew he was putting too fine a shine on the usefulness of the modern liberal arts as such.  It is perfectly obvious that the contemporary liberal arts are not inherently moral and certainly not inherently Christian.  If Holmes actually rejected the cornerstone of western rationalism — universal, tradition-independent standards of rational justification — he did not do so clearly.  Neither did his forebears in the great American universities.  This would have been too threatening to the whole concept of the liberal arts.

There is something very sorry about Christian academics harping on the notion that believers have been, can be, and should be liberally educated modern experts who, as such, are valued and respected by a world which should otherwise ignore them for their paucity as mere Christians.  If a Christian feels irrelevant and boring without expert credentials there is obviously something wrong with his theology and spirit.  One smells an evangelical inferiority complex which can only be overcome by rejecting its false premise — that without integration with the world’s pretentious “learning” the Christian tradition has no meaning and value.  The irony is razor sharp because what is actually becoming clear is that modern expertism is inherently, not just contingently, morally empty and incompetent, even intellectually bankrupt, and that faith must assert itself, if at all, as the rejection of modern expertise as the primary, competing, and false conception of salvation.  When someone as saturated in the presentations of the modern Christian liberal arts college as I was walked away a total skeptic it is a sign of the times.  Did I reject the notion of universal reason and the inherent value of the liberal arts because I was a less thoughtful Christian than my fellow graduates, or more thoughtful?

Although I got good grades in philosophy at Wheaton I was an uninspired student.  I had arrived with the instinctive, innocent, and manly goal of destroying modern culture which had already deeply offended me in high school.  But at Wheaton I could not find an officer with combat experience to report to.  I could not find a killer.  Like all young men I needed a leader who scared me a little and challenged me to buck up.  A young man should not have to kick his own rear.  Even back in 1975 Wheaton’s rear kicking days were over, or had never seen the sun at all.

The very themes which Holmes considers the draw of the Christian academy has made it, of course, all too academic, all too boring.

It is ironic that my interest in philosophy barely survived Wheaton’s extreme unction about learning which is off-putting.  It was revived by the Johns Hopkins University, where I went to graduate school, and where I began to realize that (a) I did not want to be a professional philosopher (which I am not) living among eccentrics who believe in learning for its own sake, and (b) philosophy was deconstructing itself (see Wittgenstein).  (b) was too delicious to leave on my plate.  At Wheaton, I was fed this carbohydrate called “the liberal arts” and the “integration of faith and learning” in a cafeteria erected on the sand of western rationalism.  At Hopkins I found a supply of deconstructive protein and developed an appetite for hunting down and killing bad culture.  The meat I should have gotten at Wheaton, was accidentally, but still providentially, being served at Hopkins.  I had to go to the desert to find the manna.

Art Holmes has passed away.  Let me assure you that I have criticized not just the dead, but the living for holding secular reason in such high regard.  There has been no reply, for there is no reply, to this foundational question:  What are the universal, tradition-independent standards of reason and morality?  Every standard comes embedded in a whole form of life, a whole paradigm of language about Reality.  There is just one natural kind of standard of rational justification — the whole grammar of a tradition; all of its rules for using language correctly.  In my case, this grammar is the Word of God.   

Liberalism has turned out to be just another competing tradition.  Liberals like Richard Rorty have admitted it.  The rational and moral standards, as the benchmarks of virtue, arrive together.  Our practical understanding of what is coherent and incoherent arrives not before, but with, our whole view of Reality.  Our inductions and deductions are part of the whole grammar of our form of life, our paradigm of language.   

We cannot maintain the Christian Academy on rationalist foundations.  These foundations have been deconstructed and the modern version of the whole academy is now unbuilt.  The cornerstones of universal reason, the unity of traditional and tradition-independent truth, and the concomitant preciousness of the liberal arts, have disintegrated under a weight they could not bear — the weight of salvation. 

We must rebuild the Christian academy on new cornerstones.  These are the relativity of reason as the whole grammar of a whole tradition, the Logos as this grammar insofar as it is revealed, the impossibility of scientific realism, the tradition-bound nature of all knowledge (moral and otherwise), the universality of the human moral subject (all of our moral dispositions as the image of God) versus the limited and relative experience of every expert and scientist.  In other words, everything is tradition-bound (so we are done with rationalism) but one tradition, the Christian tradition, is absolutely true.  It is grounded in wholly practical salvation history.  Reason is not absolute, not universal, not God.  But the reason we actually get from God is right reason.  To speak of right reason is to assert that reason can be reason and still be wrong.  Human beings cannot get to the universal truth on their own.  It must be revealed.   

And so the Christian Academy’s postmodern work is deconstruction, not integration.   We must unbuild, deconstruct, the distinctively modern Christian academy and build on the whole new foundation of explicit anti-rationalism.

The Apostle Paul was not a liberal arts professor.  He was a cofounder of a tradition based on historical events which constituted a revelation and a whole new grammar.

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