The long view

The long view October 16, 2015

 I am reading a fine collection of essays entitled Christianity and the Disciplines, which invites scholars from many fields to address two questions:

  1. Methodologically, what shifts might occur in your subject and the study of your subject if Christianity were taken as true?
  2. Substantively, what transformations might be seen in your subject area if the truth of Christianity were to penetrate those like yourselves who study and engage with the subject? (3-4)

I’ll post a review of the book later. For now, I want to highlight a salient point raised by the late Mervyn Davies, a scholar of Newman who, like Paul Shrimpton, understood the real genius of Newman’s understanding of the university.

In his essay “Newman’s Challenge to the Contemporary University,” Davies points to Newman’s long view of university education as building human beings, not servile actors in an economic order. Like Shrimpton, he emphasizes Newman’s hope for a university that balanced the role of the professor as a lecturer and expert in a field, and the role of the tutor as a formator who challenged young people to reach their fullest God-given potential. The university is thus a meeting place of persons, not merely a “knowledge ATM” (my term) from which one can withdraw whatever the market demands at the moment.

The relinquishing of theology in the modern university–Newman criticized this move at the University of London, for example– is due largely to the misunderstanding of what constitutes theology as a discipline concerned ultimately with the truth of things. Davies points to an early essay of Newman in which he critiques the view that “[r]eligion consists, not in knowledge, but in feelings or sentiment.” The trajectory of this view has been disastrous, because it evacuates from disciplinary research the possibility of speaking intelligently about ultimate things.

One fallout of this state of affairs has been the siege mentality espoused by some Christians. Davies points to Adrian Hastings’ book A History of English Christianity 1920-1990in which the author describes three possible responses: despairing of ultimate meaning; withdrawing into a private, religious sphere (which sounds much like the much-discussed Benedict option); and–the one Davies prefers–taking the long view of “the ultimate redeemability of things, despite evidence to the contrary” (24).

The third option is the hardest for any university, let alone the entire system of Catholic higher education. But the new evangelization demands it.

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