Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Idea of a University - revisited (Books, Part 3)

I wrote a post on this book a couple years ago, but since I'm still doing this whole "books" thing, I figured I'd give it another shot. The complete list is at the bottom, as well as links to previous entries.

The Idea of a University is John Henry Newman's defense of the need for Universities--and not just any old Universities, but Catholic Universities.

He starts off pretty simply: "A University, I should lay down, by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge." College Mackenzie, realizing that something important was happening, underlined "universal knowledge" there. Good job, College Mackenzie! You recognized that he was setting up for something!

And College Mackenzie was not wrong, because on the very next page, it gets really real, really fast. He asks whether it is logically consistent for a University to exclude certain branches of knowledge--in this instance, Christian theology. He goes on to say that if a University does exclude Christian theology, then--
"One of two conclusions is inevitable - either, on the one hand, that the province of Religion is very barren of real knowledge, or, on the other hand, that in such a University one special and important branch of knowledge is omitted. I say, the advocate of such an institution must say this, or he must say that: he must own, either that little or nothing is known about the Supreme Being, or that his seat of learning calls itself what it is not... Such a compromise between religious parties, as is involved in the establishment of a University which makes no religious profession, implies that those parties severally consider - not indeed that their own respective opinions are trifles in a moral and practical point of view - of course not; but certainly as much as this, that they are not knowledge." (bolding mine)
And then comes the clincher, the knock-out punch, delivered on the second page after the introduction: "Did they in their hearts believe that their private views of religion, whatever they are, were absolutely and objectively true, it is inconceivable that they would so insult them as to consent to their omission in an Institution which is bound, from the nature of the case - from its very idea and name - to make a profession of all sorts of knowledge whatever." (bolding mine)

Later, he would go on to state the logical follow-up to this: "If the Catholic Faith is true, a University cannot exist externally to the Catholic pale, for it cannot teach Universal Knowledge if it does not teach Catholic theology."

If Christianity is true, and a University is where universal knowledge is taught, then a University literally cannot exist without Christian theology.

"Mere semantics!" you might object. "After all, we don't even get anything close to universal knowledge anymore! You majored in English - Writing, your one math class was "Nature of Math," whatever that means, and you don't remember a single thing from that one Biology class you had to take! You can't even remember what it was called!"

And you would be correct in objecting that, even if making it so personal was a little uncalled for. But the thing is, Newman's assertion has much broader implications than whether a "University" is, in fact, a University.

Christian Truth is Truth. It is not of a different nature than, say, mathematical Truth.  It is not less important or less true, and it is certainly not less teachable. And I know we can lose sight of that in this age of glorifying "Seekers" and "Questioners", who seek but have lost desire to find, who question but have no desire for answers. But Newman, Catholic Bad-Ass that he is, has an answer for that as well:

"The religious world, as it is styled, holds, generally speaking, that Religion consists, not in knowledge , but in feeling or sentiment. The old Catholic notion, which still lingers in the Established Church, was that Faith was an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge."

Boom. Did that just blow your freaking mind? It should. Feelings shift. Sentiment fades. A religious lifestyle built on feeling is shattered by a toothache, and one built on sentiment is destroyed by a change in circumstance. But Faith is an intellectual act, aiming towards real truth, and resulting in real knowledge.

There is no halfway point. Either it's not true, and shouldn't be taught at all, not even as "one possibility among many"...or it is true, and should be taught as the most important thing anyone can ever know.

John Henry Newman, everybody. This isn't a book that I'm going to say "Everyone should read," merely because many won't enjoy it as much as I did. But the ideas are true, and especially necessary in the world we find ourselves in today.

1: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

2: (Everything else by Chesterton: Manalive, Orthodoxy, The Ball and the Cross)

3: On the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria

4: The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country by Karl Barth

5: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

6: CS Lewis section (Space Trilogy, Chron. of Narnia, Abolition of Man, Till We Have Faces)

7: The book of Job

8: The book of Ecclesiastes

9: The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman

10: The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

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