Friday, July 10, 2009

Faith, Reason, and the Christian University: What John Paul II Can Teach Christian Academics

That's the title of an article I just published in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 12.3 (Summer 2009): 53-67. You can find it online on my website here. Here are some excerpts (endnotes omitted):

John Paul is suggesting that a university as a whole cannot claim to offer a distinctive theological alternative to its peer institutions while at the same time claiming that it is illegitimate for the university to require that its individual members be committed to the particular beliefs and general worldview on which the university’s unique character depends. Moreover, anti-creedalism, a belief in the wrongness of normative theological judgments, cannot by its nature function as a normative theological judgment even though it must do so in order to make any sense. Anti-creedalism, in a word, is incoherent....

The reason for this philosophical confusion is that anti-creedalists do not think of their theology as a knowledge tradition, as they do their law, medicine, political theory, or monetary policy. Faith, according to this view, may be true, but it cannot be known to be true. Faith and reason are different ways of acquiring beliefs, with the former being the weaker epistemic stepbrother who always must answer to the latter, with the latter being equivalent to the empirical deliverances of the hard and social sciences. This is why anti-creedalists seem to consider matters of religious belief as less epistemically important than other matters. Such a posture is what happens when a religious community uncritically assimilates a “positivistic mentality,” which, according to John Paul, “not only abandon[s] the Christian vision of the world, but more especially reject[s] every appeal to a metaphysical or moral vision.” It is, in the words of the late pontiff, one of the many fruits of scientism, “the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy.”

In a Christian academic community in which this positivist mentality is dominant, a chemistry professor, for example, can be dismissed for denying the veracity of the periodical table, but a theology professor may treat the Apostles’ Creed as no more normative, or less so, than the editorial page of the New York Times or the latest issue of Dissent. Under this paradigm, bioethical issues are assessed in a similar fashion. To employ but one example, the resolution of the morality of abortion, according to this understanding, is a matter of faith, and thus the procedure ought to be permitted under our laws. for to forbid abortion, because we Christians happen to believe that the unborn is a person, would be to violate the religious liberty of fellow citizens who want to procure abortions because they believe that the unborn is not a person. But as John Paul has noted in Evangelium vitae, to treat as an open question, or as unknowable, the nature of human beings is in fact to call into question the very liberty affirmed by secular liberals and religious anti-creedalists, since that liberty is entailed by unassailable first principles of human conduct that the secular liberal and the anti-creedalist implicitly claim to know. Thus, the secular and anti-creedalist resolution of the abortion debate is achieved by sequestering a priori any philosophical anthropology that depends on knowledge claims that are not reducible to the hard or social sciences, even though the right to abortion does not itself seem amenable to that reduction either. That is, if one thinks of the “right to abortion” as a universal right of human beings by nature, it seems that that right has all the earmarks of an irreducible immaterial property, and thus cannot be accounted for as knowable under the secularist and anti-creedalist epistemological framework.

You can read the whole thing here.
(Originally posted on First Thoughts)

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