Athens, Amherst and Jerusalem

Last week I spent an evening immersed in two parts of my university world. The first part began with hosting a reception at the University Club for a group of faculty friends – we are a disciplinarily mixed-up crew from eight different university departments, but all of us share overlapping interests in sustainability teaching and research. Our stated excuse for enjoying an hour of conversation at the end of the workday was a 7 p.m. evening public lecture by author Charles Mann on his recent book 1493. A gifted historian, Mann has a fine flair for storytelling, and his talk on sustainability was humorous, insightful and thought-provoking.

Listening to him reminded me how wonderful it is to be part of a university community, or as they called it in the middle ages, “universitas magistri et scholarum.” It was therefore with some reluctance that I dragged myself away ten minutes before the end of Mann’s talk, however, I had, several months before his public lecture was scheduled, agreed to address a weekly gathering of some seventy undergraduate Christian students. Serendipitously, Charles Mann’s lecture was in the Student Union Ballroom located directly next door to Earthfoods Café where the student gathering was held, so I slipped out the door at the back of the ballroom, walked a dozen steps down the hallway, and snuck into the back of the room. There a violinist, acoustic guitar and keyboard player were leading the group in singing a beautifully lyric version of a contemporary worship hymn.

I’d been asked to speak on the theme of Moses’ ancient injunction to the Hebrew people to love God with all their mind as well as with all their heart; I’ve been thinking about this theme for a good many years, and was glad to share some ideas. The students seemed engaged, and the Q&A session at the end went on another thirty minutes after I had done speaking.

Arriving home that night, I couldn’t help reflecting on how odd it is that these two groups of people – my fellow-faculty and my fellow-Christians seem to regard each other with so much distrust. Perhaps you would accuse me of exaggeration if I said that the contemporary American academy and the contemporary American church view each other as antagonists, but few would argue that church and university are natural allies. For a moment, I imagined an alternative universe in which the two audiences somehow arrived at the wrong events only to find me speaking to the sustainability audience on faith and intellect while Charles Mann addressed the Christian audience in the Earthfoods Café and spoke to them about Chinese soil erosion, Brazilian rainforests and sustainability.

Personally, it was no stretch to be at both events one after the other: I happen to love the academy and the life of the mind, and I happen to love the church and the cross-cultural experience of worshiping alongside people from many different walks of life. Because I coexist in both these “worlds” I find myself wondering why so many people perceive reason and faith at odds with each other. Although there are some distinctively 21st century facets to this particular brand of mind/soul dualism, it is neither a new nor modern problem.

In the 4th century A.D., one of the Church’s most prominent African theologians, a brilliant lawyer and intellectual named Tertullian said famously (and with not a little scorn), “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, said Tertullian, faith is faith, and the sacred things (epitomized by Jerusalem) are, well, sacred things. Reason, he was saying, is something different, and perhaps even something a little corrosive of faith. The life of the mind, the academy (epitomized by Athens), the intellect, all those things belong to a different order, and it would be better for Jerusalem not to allow herself to be tainted too much by the faith-corrupting influence of Athens. Today in the academy the scorn runs in the other direction: “Of what  possible value is Jerusalem to Athens, for crying out loud?”

Reason or faith. Athens or Jerusalem. Academy or Church. I think that many of my church friends tend to agree with Tertullian (“universities corrupt well-brought up Christian kids”), and my secular friends agree with him too, mutatis mutandis (“we’re a public institution – those students’ private religious ideas have no bearing on my academic discipline.”) The result is that the two worlds are treated as oil and water. The underlying ideology is (at best) that reason is epistemically neutral, or (more likely) that faith is for the immature, for those who aren’t intellectually honest enough to ask the tough questions and face up to the hard truth that God is one of those myths which all right-thinking people grow out of.

To be fair, I suspect most of the prejudices I hear from both sides are due to ignorance. Many of my Christian friends, like most normal people who live outside the weird bubble of academia have no clue what the work life of a faculty member looks like. And many of my secular faculty colleagues have very little idea of what really goes on in churches on a Sunday morning, or at a weekly evening Bible study group.

But I suspect that neither set of my friends has ever wondered why nearly all the older European universities were originally founded as schools of theology, or why so many American colleges and universities, including Harvard (1634), Yale (1701), Amherst (1821) and Mount Holyoke (1839) were founded to train ministers and missionaries. If it is true that reason and faith are inherently at odds, it seems strange that so much of the story of higher education in the west is essentially the story of Christians creating institutions for the rigorous study of philosophy, theology, and the humanities. All these so called “branches” of learning, theology prominent among them, were long seen as being connected to the trunk of same tree, constituting an integrated epistemological whole, each shedding light on and informing the other. I have a theory that if my church friends and my faculty friends would only get to know each other a little better, they’d find a whole lot to like about the other group.

First, they might both find that the chasm between what the Church does and what the Academy does is narrower than they think it is. Remove prayer and singing and the fact that it happens every week, the student meeting at the café is not as different as a public lecture in the Student Ballroom, and a graduate seminar reading Durkheim around a table bears some interesting similarities to a Bible study group reading first century texts around a coffee-table.

Second, my Christian friends could benefit from the love of rigorous thinking and argument that is deeply embedded in academic culture. I’m not talking about being obnoxiously argumentative: the Christian virtue of charity leaves no room for that. Truth-seeking, as Harvard Law professor William Stunz has pointed out, is a deeply Christian enterprise, and our churches should be swimming in it.

Thirdly, universities could become better, richer places if they would take some lessons in humility from the church. We all know stereotyped Christians who are a little too full of themselves, but in my experience, most Christians are deeply aware of their failings and willing to admit that they don’t have all the answers. In the world of academia on the other hand, arrogance and pride are never very far beneath the surface. Anyone who has explored the frontiers of their discipline in the course of writing a PhD should have a healthy view of how much they don’t understand, but somehow our graduate training imbues us with the crazy notion that our expertise and learning entitle us to look down on others because (supposedly) they know so much less than we do.

I have been focusing on ways that the groups might learn from each other, but there are also areas in which there are deeply-held common values. For example, many faculty and students at our university have a deep concern for social justice and the poor. Our church has a long record of helping lower income families with food, and (more recently) an active service to house the homeless during the bitter winter months. By and large, however, the Christians have their own social service programs, and the university has its own. Could more be accomplished if more of these programs partnered together, given that the goals and concerns are so similar?

As I reflect on these things, it strikes me that the reactions of these two groups to each other might be based in fear. Why should Christians get defensive around scientists and rigorous academic debate? Is it perhaps due – at least in some instances – to an underlying fear that God’s love for them or their own intellectual grasp of the faith may not be secure enough to withstand hard questions? Carl Sagan once said “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.” I wonder whether some Christians have embraced faith merely because “it feels good” rather than because it is true, and have never had the courage to dig deeply into what they believe and why. How many Christians steer away from the life of the mind out of misplaced fear?

And why do so many academics scoff at faith? Could it be a smokescreen covering the fact they feel unsettled by the existence of the supernatural? Deep down do we fear, as C.S. Lewis did, that “giving in and admitting that God is God” might lead to radical changes in their thinking and indeed their own lives? Is it easier to sneer at faith and to hold onto the Carl Sagan ideology, namely that “the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” The beauty of Sagan’s Weltanschauung is that it allows us to remain the captain of our own lives, and to remain behind the shield of our great learning, our disciplinary expertise, and our hard-won PhD titles. It is humbling—and perhaps unnerving—to admit that we are not in control and that we understand only a little about the world. How many intellectuals steer away from religious faith out of misplaced fear?

Many wars have been fought over fear of differences, but this is one that doesn’t need to happen. There is no need for my tree-hugging sustainability friends at the Charles Mann lecture and the Christians meeting at the Earthfoods Café to live in two parallel universes, much less to treat one another with distrust or hostility.

If our hearts’ deepest longings as people imprinted with the imago dei is to know Him and love Him, then we shouldn’t be expected to check our soul at the door when we walk into the lecture hall, the seminar room or the University Club.

The love of serious ideas, the humility that comes from honestly admitting the limits of human knowledge, and a commitment to the poor and social justice: I wish these things were embraced equally by both my faculty friends AND my church friends. If only my two groups of friends could lower the separating barriers. If only they could learn alongside each other, teaching one another the best virtues associated with reason and faith; imagine what they could accomplish. Amherst and Jerusalem working together. They may even change the world.

Craig Nicolson is the Director of the Sustainability Science program at UMass Amherst.

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