The Newman Lecture, November 4, 2005
Oregon State University
This is the text of a lecture based on my book, Teaching as Believing: Faith in the University (Baylor University Press 2005).
“Pride asserts, humility testifies,” St. Augustine says. What I’d like to do today is testify, to tell a little of my own story as a way of inviting you to tell yours. Narrative is often better than argument, it seems to me, especially in matters of faith. “Of course we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Augustine says in another sermon. “If we knew what we were talking about, we wouldn’t be talking about God.” This is the real theme of the book that I want to share over the next 40 minutes, and it explains the form of it, too, why I wrote it the way I did.
To give you a sense of what I’m trying to do, I’ve taken seven short pieces from different chapters and arranged them, somewhat arbitrarily, into seven “days” in my teaching of English 207 and 208, the Literature of Western Civilization. This is the course that the book enacts, the standard sophomore level survey, from Homer to the Bible to Dante in a few short weeks. The number seven, as I say, is arbitrary. I just liked the Biblical sound of it.
If you’re not used to hearing a lot of God talk, some of this may make you feel a little uncomfortable at first. But let me assure all of you who are not believers or not Christian believers that my purpose this afternoon isn’t to convert you. I’m not trying to argue for my faith but from my faith, and in a way, I hope, that honors everyone in this room, of whatever point of view.
For all of you who are believers, here’s how I ask and answer the question in the introduction to the book:
How do any of us who are Christians teach what we teach, in whatever field, at the public university, the American university, the postmodern university, where it sometimes seems that everyone is welcome except believers?
By being ourselves. By professing who we are.
By professing who we are while also respecting the good and necessary boundaries—boundaries that are good and necessary for us, as Christians.
Day One: Will
On the first day of English 207, and of all the classes I teach, after we talk about the syllabus and I try to learn names, I tell my students that I’m a Catholic Deacon. I’m a full-time English Professor, I say, but I’m also an ordained minister for the Catholic Church. Deacons are usually married men and usually work full time in their own professions, but they are called out of these professions to baptize, witness marriages, preside at funerals, and sometimes to give the homily at mass.
Most of my students are unchurched, without a lot background in organized religion, and it’s tricky to talk about religion like this, particularly Catholicism, which even now, in this part of the country, can draw out an instinctive anti-Catholic bias. Universities in America as in Europe were established jointly, by both church and state, even public universities, no strict separation assumed. Clergymen were the first teachers of literature as of everything else, but that sense of the relation between faith and reason has long since pulled apart into all our current pluralisms. The extreme religious right has captured the public discussion, the newspapers reduce the issues to easy oppositions, and the average person assumes that faith must be merely a private matter, not a subject for discussion in Moreland Hall, Oregon State University, or any other public place.
Like all faculty of faith I of course respect the real boundaries: no preaching. In a classroom at a state university I must be open to all points of view, to all faiths and varieties of doubt, as I am, and I must teach as “objectively” as possible, which of course I never do. No teacher can. Objectivity isn’t possible or desirable, in the teaching of the Bible or in the teaching of any other subject, and that’s the reason I talk about my own situatedness as a reader. Partly I’m trying to be honest. Partly I’m hoping to suggest a kind of competence, since our focus will be the Christian classics, on the same principle that an engineering class should be taught by an engineer--or appropriateness, as in a woman teaching women’s literature, an African American teaching African American literature.
But deeper than that what I’m trying to do on that first day is to begin the process of complicating how my students understand the nature of meaning. That’s what I take to be the purpose of the university: to complicate, to show that there’s more than meets the eye, that the world is a much bigger and more interesting place than we often assume it is.
I talk about my faith in the classroom both the first day and throughout the term—talk about it, not urge it on anyone else—because I want to help students think past the assumptions in the following journal response from Will. I had asked the students, in light of my introduction, to tell me what they wanted from the class.
What I really want from you is an objective look at the reading. I understand that the Bible has played a large role in your life, which I consider personally admirable. But I do not think that you should express how much affect the book has had on you as much as you do in class. I think we would all be able to think clearly about it if we could further detach from the religious implications of what we are reading.
This is an intelligent and courteous paragraph written by an intelligent and courteous student. In fact, what it expresses so clearly is the unexpressed assumption of many in the university, the assumption that seems to govern the work of the university and that I very much want to subvert: that knowledge is true knowledge only when it’s “detached,” that effective reading is reading that never shows the “personal” “affect” of the text on the reader.
Day Two: What Not To Wear
The next day I come to class with an exercise in one hand and my alb and stole in the other, on a hangar. I hang the alb on the top of the open door, without comment, and hand out the exercise, a list of questions asking students to think about how they’ve been taught to read the Bible even if they think they know nothing about it--what they’ve heard about it, the kinds of books they read, if they read, the movies they see, the majors they’ve chosen.
As the class is working I am vesting, slipping my arms into the sleeves of my robe, tying up the waist, and snapping the buttons on the neck until I am covered from my chin to the tops of my scuffed Clarks in polyester white. Alb: Latin for white, to symbolize spiritual purity (though I am wearing jeans underneath). Placing the stole over my shoulder--green now, for ordinary time--I start talking about the exercise, very matter-of-factly. Some of you come from religious backgrounds, I say, Jewish or Christian, Protestant or Catholic, Evangelical, fundamentalist. Some of you wouldn’t be caught dead in churches or don’t know a thing about them one way or the other, but that’s a way of reading, too. None of us come to this or any text naked. Human beings live, I quote from Northrup Frye,
Not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from [our] existential concerns. Most of this is held unconsciously . . . . Practically all that we can see of this body of concern is socially conditioned and culturally inherited. (xviii)
When I ask students to share what they developed in groups, I identify each answer as evidence of this unconscious “body of assumptions and beliefs,” this “mythological universe” that we inherit and that conditions us whether we know it or not. “I didn’t do much reading as a kid,” someone says. “I mostly just watched TV and played video games.” So, I say, you come to the Bible conditioned by SuperSmash Brothers and by a way of interpreting information, visually, quick image by quick image. “I’m an Engineering major.” “I’m a biochemistry major.” So, I say, since you probably spend most of your time reading textbooks in your field, you may come to the stories of the Bible the way you come to a linear equation, as if it’s a problem to be solved rather than a story to be experienced.
“I was raised in a Church but I hate it all now,” someone says, and then another jumps in, defensively, “I’m a Christian, and that’s the most important thing in the world to me.” The word “Christian,” I know, means that the student belongs to a nondenominational group on campus, but I suggest that both students have a kind of faith. Both have a set of attitudes they bring to the text, to read literally, to reject all literalism.
Which is of course why I’m standing there wearing a lacy white robe. Ever since the expulsion from the garden, the fall that Genesis describes, none of us have walked through the world without something to cover us. We all wear albs because we all make assumptions. Mine is only whiter, only longer.
The point, I say--taking the alb off now, and hanging it back up--the point is simply to be aware that our interpretations are interpretations, not facts. The point is for all of us to take off our albs. Not to burn them. Not to throw them away. Just to become aware of them, as garments, as one set of clothes hanging up among many others, coats of many colors.
Though in another way we can never do that. Because our faith isn’t finally a garment. It’s our skin. It’s not our glasses, it’s our eyes.
Day Three: The Fishbowl
A student brings me a magazine advertisement to explain her faith. A beautiful young woman floats in the air of a gray, futuristic room, a smile on her face, arms spread out like wings. A silver teapot rises from a weightless table. On the right a television rises, too—a Sharp—even as it displays a picture of an astronaut spacewalking above a curve of earth.
“No boundaries,” the ad says. No boundaries, and that’s what the student wants to proclaim, against my efforts to show her inevitable relation to the interpretative cycle, her responsibility to detail. I don’t have to choose, she says. I’m free.
But the woman is floating inside a room, contained by four walls, and if she’s weightless, she’s presumably in space herself, she’s in orbit, blasted there by a rocket and maintained there by supplies of oxygen and water and food. It must cost millions of dollars a day and involve around the clock ground crews just to keep her flying around the room like that, smiling.
If she thinks she has no boundaries she should try opening the window.
A cartoon. Two fish in a bowl. The larger one says to the smaller one: “You can be anything you want to be—no limits.”
Day Four: The Model
Let’s move several months ahead now, into winter term and into the central metaphor of the book, the metaphor of the cross.
Say the horizontal beam represents the secular, intellectual work of the university, in any department, the kind of work that I’ve been trying to do in these first three days of class. Say the vertical beam is the way of faith, of belief in a reality that extends beyond our ordinary lives. I’ll talk about this in the last three days of this fictional week.
But sometimes, too, there is overlap, there is intersection--the two beams of the cross suddenly come together--and this day, briefly, is one of those moments. For a moment now the way of the university and the way of faith are not at odds at all but somehow, scandalously, in harmony.
We are discussing Augustine’s Confessions, this difficult fifth century book that students always resist and misunderstand, when I decide to write the word “Christian” on the board. Free associate, I say. Write whatever words first come to mind, as quickly as you can. Here, God help us, are the first three phrases that students share: “close-minded,” “judgmental,” “exclusive.” Here, God help us, is the sense that so many students and faculty have of Christian tradition, whether through ignorance or prejudice or lived experience, of a faith narrow and hurtful, of a faith so sure of itself as to lead right away to the judgment of others.
No one suggests the words and phrases that would naturally come to Augustine himself: humility, confusion, joy in complexity.
Earlier in his life, Augustine says, “I wanted to be just as certain about things which I could not see as I was certain that seven and three make ten” (116; 6.4), a longing that Manicehanism satisfies for a time. But Augustine has too much intellectual integrity to rest in the reductions of such a system. Finally, Augustine arrives at an understanding of Christianity completely the reverse of my students’:
From now on, however, I began to prefer the Catholic faith. In requiring belief in what was not demonstrated . . . I felt that the Catholic faith showed more modesty and more honesty than did the Manichees, who made rash promises of certain knowledge. (117; 6.5)
For Augustine Christianity means open, not closed. For Augustine, Christianity isn’t a matter of finding the answers but a way of living with the questions, ever more deeply. For Augustine this is Christian orthodoxy, at the source: the embracing of complexity.
My argument has been that the metaphor and density of the Christian classics lend themselves especially well to the critical thinking that the university is all about. Now that argument expands: that the central theme of these works, their consistent and explicit point, is the need for exactly such critical thinking and intellectual humility in the face of God’s enormous mercy.
And if this is what Christianity is really all about, if this really is orthodoxy, the aims and methods of faith are very close to the aims and methods of the university.
“What we need,” Paul Ricouer says, declaring, as a Christian himself, what can be taken as the aims of the university, “is an interpretation that respects the original enigma of the symbols, that lets itself be taught by them, but that, beginning from there, promotes the meaning, forms the meaning in the full responsibility of thought” (349-50). This is exactly what Augustine does. He respects the enigma. He promotes interpretation. To model the intellectual life for our students, to show them what a university is all about, we could do no better than to hold up The Confessions, for its passion and drive for connection, for its grounding in the person, for its combining of the personal and the intellectual, for its impatience with the superficial and the partial, for its love of truth even and especially when it is so very difficult to find.
Day Five: Crossing the Line
But I want to move on again, several months later, into the spring and into the last stage of my argument.
It’s Good Friday, and I am teaching the Gospel of Mark.
Look, I say. Mark observes his great authorial silence at the most important moment of all, in his description of the crucifixion. Here is the cross, on a hill, here are the soldiers and the people and the chief scribes and priests standing around it and interpreting it, providing for us a number of possible names for it, and Mark doesn’t intervene, he doesn’t tell us explicitly how he wants us to understand this image, this silence. This is showing, not telling, literary technique, not moralizing. Mark is imitating Jesus himself in this terrible and overpowering scene that Christians honor on Good Friday each year, Mark is imitating Jesus who says nothing except once to cry out in pain and questioning, Jesus who offers his body to be looked at and read.
The effect, I say, is to put us as readers in the same position as the people standing around the cross in the story. We have to name it.
“Well, all I see when I see the cross is oppression and hypocrisy.” This from one of the better students.
“All I see are the Inquisition and the Crusades,” another says.
“I just can’t get past those people knocking on my doors,” another joins in, “all those people asking if Jesus Christ is my personal savior.”
A ripple of laughter.
In the back of the room an undergraduate is reading the Barometer.
Another walks in late, carrying a skateboard.
As Parker Palmer says, some days we know we were born to be teachers and some days we wish we had never be born. Finally, blessedly, the period ends and I race out the door--out of the classroom and off across campus, through the leafy quads and the crowds of students and across Monroe Street, with its pizza joints and coffee shops, past the fraternities and the apartments and the old houses, until a few blocks further up I reach St. Mary’ and crossing the threshold, almost too late, throw my alb over my khakis and process up the aisle with the priest.
It’s Good Friday and I am the deacon, standing on the altar, holding up a large wooden cross. The first readings were read and I proclaimed the gospel, still breathless, the passion according to John, and now I am standing with the priest supporting a large wooden cross as the people file up the center aisle, genuflecting before it or touching it or kissing it. It bumps and shifts with the pressure of each contact: a little girl in a pink t-shirt, kissing it near the bottom, an old woman in a walker reaching out with her hand, a man wrapping both arms around the vertical beam.
The cross is made of two 6 x 12’s of oak. The priest stands on one side and I stand on the other, both of us supporting it from behind, lifting up our arms.
What I am holding now isn’t merely an option, a marker in some critical thinking exercise. I’m not stepping aside from it and explaining its function and history, pointing out the gaps to be filled and interpretations to be made. I am venerating it. I am humbling myself before it, I am standing behind it, and it’s this cross, this particular cross in this exact moment that I am steadying for the people to touch—not a cross on a page, not the idea of a cross. This cross, these two oak beams. This weight. This joy.
Because we don’t just die. We live. We don’t just interpret, we believe.
We move from a first naivete and innocence and ignorance into a difficult stage of analysis and unmasking, of realizing that what we first thought was true is complicated and constructed. But then we make a leap. We make a wager. We give in, we let go, and we reach another stage, a higher one, the one that Ricouer calls the stage of “second naivete,” where in spite and even because of all the suffering and analysis that we have endured we believe anyway, we believe again, we enter into the realm of joy and conviction, knowing it now not as fact but as choice, as risk, as faith.
As all of us do, as all of us risk, in one way or another. I talk about this moment because it’s representative, not just for those of us who are believers but for all of us at the university, all of us who teach and profess.
Yes, I was angry and hurt in class that day, but I was right to walk across campus and into the church. Yes, the constitution even allows me to declare to my students that I am a Catholic Christian and that I read from a believing perspective. But it was necessary for me to cross Monroe Street before offering up my prayer and praise. It’s one thing to say, I believe, another to say, this is true; it’s one thing to teach and another to preach.
The university reveals the gaps to be filled, the church fills them. The university shows the process. The church goes through that process, to its end.
The vertical beam of the cross intersects the horizontal, but then it keeps going. It continues out of sight.
Of course there are values that the university endorses, and it should: respect for others, acceptance of diversity, attention to detail, precision of proof, the need for documentation. But these are basic, foundational values that all people can share, regardless of faith or variety of doubt, intellectual or civic virtues that all traditions hold in common. In a state university made possible by the Morrell Act, as ours is, religious belief should neither be coerced nor prohibited. Individuals are free to express their particular positions as long as they adhere to certain generic principles of inclusion and respect.
Even Christians can join in these agreements. Even Christians can argue for the awareness of complexity and an intellectual humility, for the ecological attitudes and practices that make any university possible. We can argue for compassion. We can argue for justice. In resisting the dehumanizing forces of the culture of death, say the Catholic Bishops in their letter on campus ministry, “the church joins its voice with others in promoting the ideal of educating the whole person.”
But this is just the point: that we are joining with others, making general claims that others make, too, from their own points of view. And more important: we are arguing from our point of view, not for it, as Stephen Carter puts it in The Culture of Disbelief. There’s a difference, he says, between arguing “for official recognition of the exclusivity of one’s faith,” and arguing, for example, against the war in Iraq. Religion can be the source of a claim in the public university, but it can’t be the object, not if we accept Carter’s call for true “epistemic diversity,” true acceptance of a variety of premises, drawn from a variety of ways of knowing.
Because this is what a university should be about, “epistemic diversity.” Beyond the level of core agreements, “what is essential is that presuppositions be uncovered,” to borrow Walter Moberly’s phrase in The Crisis of the University, an important book published in England in 1949. Faculty should always be trying to uncover their presuppositions, me as a Christian, my colleague as a feminist, another colleague as a Marxist, another as a scientist—for science, too, is never innocent, as science at its best is the first to admit. We don’t honor the line by claiming a false objectivity. We honor it by continually pointing out that we’ve crossed it. We honor it by repeatedly showing how we’ve crossed it and why we’ve crossed it and that we’re crossing it even now.
Day Six: The American Paradox
It’s of course true that the university is sometimes hypocritical in its treatment of Christianity, allowing every demonstration of bias except that of faith. Feminism or multiculturalism or any other ism is sometimes presented as truth, without self-consciousness, faith dismissed as stupidly subjective. This is true in society at large, where as Carter has pointed out the legal system has so misinterpreted the original intentions of the founders as to exclude from the public square nothing but the religious argument.
In this sense, because it is a faith, explicitly and avowedly, Christianity is uniquely situated to call the university to remember its own mission. Christianity is so obviously biased and committed that it best represents what is less obviously true for every other position. My alb only reminds us of our caps and gowns, of where they came from originally--of how, like our students, we are always clothed in what we believe. It’s the opposite of the emperor’s new clothes.
Or to put this another way, the postmodern university professes to be postmodern: to embrace the rough knowledge, the discontinuous and shifting and located; to resist any efforts at oversimplification and ease and chauvinism. But Christianity has always known this roughness, always celebrated this mystery, as Augustine demonstrates. “The unbeliever thinks he really knows all about God,” Cardinal Walter Kasper says. “The believer, on the other hand, knows that he cannot provide himself with answers and that the answer which God gives is a message about an abiding mystery.”
The university, on the other hand, for all its multiculturalism and new historicism, for all its ideological claims, often acts as if it’s naked, as if it’s pure. Moberly noted this with great clarity right after World War II, attacking what he calls “camouflaged partisanship” in the academy, the most dangerous kind of all. Noah Porter, the president of Yale, made the same point nearly a hundred years earlier: “The question is not whether the college shall, or shall not, teach theology, but what theology it shall teach,--theology according to Comte and Spencer, or according to Bacon and Christ.”
From this perspective the question is not whether Christianity should be allowed to speak somewhere on the periphery, tolerated among whatever else is seen as peripheral. The question, as Moberly puts it, is “what can Christian insight contribute to enable the university to be the university.” The question is whether Christianity has something central to offer to the very identity of the university. And it does: it professes the mystery, and it insists that the university profess the mystery, too, that it not claim to have mastered it once and for all. In its own honesty—when it is honest—the church calls the university to recognize its limitations and so to respect what at heart it is always professing: that easy answers won’t do, that what is and what seems to be are never the same.
But the paradox in all of this is that the church can make these contributions to the university only by staying detached from it. It can make a difference only by maintaining difference, staying on the other side of the line.
Gary Wills call this an “American paradox”: “that our churches have influence because they are independent of government.” It’s the paradox that the founders had in mind when they established the first amendment, according to Carter. In his view the first amendment’s separation of church and state was really intended to protect religion from the state, not the state from religion, to keep religion free from government regulation, and this because such freedom of expression is finally essential for the government itself. The government knows that it needs to be resisted. It knows that to be truly democratic, it needs a critique, and that such a critique can only come from organizations not dependent on its own power, and that the only organizations not dependent are the churches, organizations with allegiances beyond the power of any government. The founders, in other words, intended to give religion a special place within the state, and they did this because in the end they distrusted the state, unchecked.
The Civil Rights movement could not have been effective in opposing the government if it had been sponsored by the government, on its payroll. The Christian community gave Martin Luther King and the others exactly the strength to resist official persecution, to endure the beatings and the imprisonments and the murders.
Without distinction, there is no resistance. Christianity must be grounded in an alternate source of meaning, it must be grounded in God, if it is to speak the truth to power.
Day Seven: Sabbath
And this, finally, is a theological, not just a constitutional issue. It’s a spiritual issue, one of the central themes of The Divine Comedy, for example, that the church is always corrupted when it loses its own identity. Virgil as reason can take us only so far, to the Earthly Paradise, there on the top of the mountain of Purgatory. Beatrice must lead us the rest of the way, into the heavenly spheres.
I am speaking now primarily to my colleagues who are believers.
We must die to live and the university wants us only to live. Or the university is always killing us, always tearing us down, and we long for life again, for wholeness.
“To live divided no more,” Palmer says, “is to find a new center for one’s life, a center external to the institution and its demands. This does not mean leaving the institution physically; one may stay at one’s post. But it does mean taking one’s spiritual leave.” Palmer was once a community organizer and still thinks like a community organizer. He is far from recommending quietism. And yet what’s both so practical and so profound in this statement is its recognition that institutions are limited. Institutions are just not going to change in our lifetime, except so slowly, so incrementally, that in the meantime we need to find for ourselves other ways of staying alive and supporting each other. These are what he calls “communities of congruence”—Henri Nouwen calls them “communities of resistance”—modeled on just such groups in both the civil rights and women’s movements. We do what we have to do to keep our jobs and get by in the institution, we are smart and savvy, but privately we keep getting together and sharing our stories, deriving strength from this alternate source of power and meaning. The best way to influence institutions is to stay healthy inside of them, but to stay healthy we have to stay separate. We have to cross the line.
Even a Christian university can only train the “gentlemen,” not the Christian, as Cardinal Newman says in The Idea of the University. “Knowledge is one thing, virtue another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith.” Reason in itself is no “guarantee of sanctity.”
I’m not trying to make the university Christian. I’m trying to convince people to leave it. Not because it’s bad: it isn’t. We can have faith in the university, in its powers of analysis and description. It isn’t evil and it isn’t wrong, only partial. I’m not crossing the line in the classroom, I’m crossing it by leaving the classroom. I’m saying: make your spiritual home elsewhere.
In short, the line between church and state is blessed. It’s good. The creative tension between the secular and the religious powers a critique, and that critique doesn’t flow in only one direction. If the church unmasks the university, the university unmasks the church.
“We aim at second naivete through criticism,” Ricouer says. Second naievte is better than first, because it’s mature and informed. We have sacrificed the happiness of the child but gained the joy of the adult, and we’ve done this exactly through analysis, by realizing that what we thought was fixed and easy is in fact shifting and mysterious. Critical assessment like this is the role of the university. It’s the job of the university to unblock and unthicken the images so that we can see what’s behind them. Or as David Tracy puts it, to be true to themselves religions must be able to resist illusory models of pure autonomy and easy coherence. Because the very nature of Christianity is to argue for a reality beyond all language, even its own, its own language must always be subjected to “retrieval, critique, and suspicion” (86). That’s why the church needs the university: to be suspicious of it. The university is where faith continues to discover and rediscover its own otherness, its own difference, its own need.
In fact, for Cardinal Newman this dynamic isn’t a dialogue at all but a kind of “warfare” between what he calls the “Infalliblity” of the church and the creative and analytic power of human reason. “It is necessary for the very life of religion . . . that the warfare should be incessantly carried on.” Every exercise of infallibility, Newman says, is “brought out into act by an intense and varied operation of the Reason, both as its ally and as its opponent, and provokes again, when it has done its work, a re-action of Reason against it.”
This is Moberly’s point, too, though he rejects the very idea of “infallibility,” at least in one sense of that word. “Any implied claim to infallibility is unchristian,” he says, “since it clashes with Christian insight into human creatureliness and human corruption.” Newman would agree, though, if by “infallibility” is meant the pretensions of merely human activity. It’s Newman, after all, anticipating Vatican II’s great document, Lumen Gentium, who makes it clear that this church that might otherwise, in another context, be described as “infallible,” is finally “but the expression in human language of truths to which the human mind is unequal.”
In this sense Newman might even agree with Moberly’s startling conclusion:
“that an all-Christian university, if we could have it, would be defective.” Even in Newman’s Catholic university, even in the nineteenth century, the liberal arts and the sciences are allowed to function independently and without censor except at the extremes. Much has changed by the time that Moberly is writing, in the twentieth, as much has changed now, since 9/11, but this only makes his argument truer. “In the present state of the world,” Moberly says, “Christians themselves ought not to want an all-Christian university.”
This is the paradox. This is the saving tension that I try to explain in my book and that I want to celebrate now, that there is no resurrection without crucifixion, no paradiso without purgatorio. The way up is the way down. This is what I want to say to my colleagues who believe and what, in the end, I want all my other colleagues to overhear, what I want everyone in the university to know we believe.
This is why Christians need the university--the public university, the American university, the postmodern university.
Because it crucifies us.