Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Christian Learning

I think I need to read John Henry Newman's The Idea of a University (or here).

Having grown up in a strongly pietistic denomination (the Assemblies of God), in a reasonably anti-intellectual American culture, I've never been able to take for granted the connection between academic study and Christianity. But at the same time, as the former valedictorian of my high school class, and a summa cum laude graduate of both my BA and MA programs in theology, I have a natural predilection towards study and a firm belief in its value.

This means that, in the abstract, I can usually express the value of academic study fairly well: after all, we are called by God to exercise a dominion over creation, and presumably that means understanding the human cultures, histories, traditions and even theological formulations which are a part of God's creation continua. (Hauerwas, in an off-hand comment in The State of the University, helpfully connects Christian learning up to eschatology, the other end of theology: "Christians had no choice but to develop a robust intellectual tradition" because "what has occurred in Jesus Christ is cosmic, 'unsurpassed and unsurpassable', revealing what was previously hidden" [p. 125].)

The problem comes when I start trying to connect this theoretical understanding with what I actually see of the current state of academic study. Even theology, which is supposed to be rooted in the Church, seems very often to have little connection with the Christian life. To an outsider like myself, many of the debates seem pointless, and many books and articles are written in language that could only charitably be described as English. How very different were the voices of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther or Calvin! Their voices were like giants, and the deep rumble of their bass could be understood throughout the earth. The proceedings of the AAR sound like so many chittering mice in comparison.

It's been refreshing, therefore, to read Stanley Hauerwas' take on The State of the University, and more specifically, on the state of Christian theology within the academy. He's been able to provide a much more detailed and nuanced diagnosis than I could, but he's clearly concerned with many of the same issues. His fundamental idea (elaborated in previous books, and bearing a marked resemblance to MacIntyre's thought) is that knowledge must serve the community in which it is established, and more specifically, that Christian knowledge must be firmly rooted in the faith and practices of a Christian community. The modern American university fails this test rather badly, and the theology it produces is not always much better off.

Theology should never be done to pass muster in the university. Theology must be done in a manner that glorifies god and serves God's people. It has always been my conviction that when theology is so done, those in the university will take notice because what we have to say is so interesting. (p. 31)

Which is why I need to read Newman. Hauerwas quotes more extensively from Newman than from any of his other interlocutors (with the exception of Alasdair MacIntyre), and many of Newman's ideas (as translated through Hauerwas) seem spot on to me. I'm hoping to find in Newman a sense of, well, exactly what I want to accomplish if I go back to school.

On a side note, I enjoyed this entry in the index of The State of the University (p. 218):

neo-Constantinianism, 172
neo-neo-Constantiniamism, 172
neo-neo-neo-Constantinianism, 173
neo-neo-neo-neo-Constantinianism, 173

You gotta love a book like that.

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