Why I ... advocate faith universities

May 10, 2002

George Bernard Shaw declared that a Catholic university was a contradiction: university investigation opens discussion; Catholic dogma closes it. Shaw's contradiction can be refined as a conflict between the objective procedures of university research and the subjective nature of religious faith.

I am all for having objective views about the stars and the evolution of frogs. Unhappily, I am less than (or more than) objective when it comes to my own life, death and loves. Ah well, says the objectivist, these are precisely the subjective urges that cannot fit the curriculum. But what does "subjective" mean for my factual friend? My affection for wife and child is more than my taste for spinach. The subjective arena of human life and love may not be the stuff of strict science, but it has certainly been traversed, mapped and established beyond taste by the arts.

Give the objectivist his or her head and the poets will be escorted from academic life with the same determination with which Plato banished them from his ideal state.

If we teach poetry, it is because there is some "truth" to it - it tells how humans live and love. Religion maps the same territory, if in a messier, more all-embracing way. But what does a Catholic university mean in practical terms? Don't most universities offer courses in the arts and religion? It is not, however, simply to do with providing topics for discussion. There is something "dogmatic" about religion because there is something "dogmatic" about life. My life is not merely a "topic for discussion", it is a place of decision. Discuss all you want but life demands more than Hamlet-like dithering.

Because religious schools are inevitably framed within an overwhelming life question, they direct study beyond discussion to decision, beyond classroom debate to commitment. Secular education is directed at skills for job and career. Religious schools address vocation. For example, religious schools and colleges normally hold initiatory classes called "Love, decision and commitment". The title offends normal academic diffidence, but that is its purpose. It deals with why love, decision and commitment are essential to life's meaning and, most important, how risky, complex and convoluted a life with them will be. The principal difference between the usual secular school and a religiously based one is that the secular institution may be quite content to be an arena for discussion, delighting in all the diverse ways of humankind. The religious school accepts discussion but presses on for decision. Secular education seems intellectually open but it may be no more than a supermarket of indifferent life options. Life choice becomes fashion. Religious dogmatism may seem to close discussion - and bad dogmatism does just that - but it is not wrong in pressing for choice beyond fashion. Those who have been deeply imbued with the religious spirit often reject the specific dogmas of their sect but they are likely to sustain a demand for deep decision.

If discussion can go awry, diverting life into endless debate, religious education can degenerate into dogma. Religion and religious education exist only in the midst of life. Academicism demands objectivity and it attains it by being outside what it studies, the neutral spectator. But I am not a spectator on my life, I am a participant. What I "know" as a participant cannot be objective. Fundamentalists, stung by the accusation of subjectivity, are wont to claim that religion is objective fact standing eye to eye with science - but fundamentalism is false dogmatism.

Art and religion in their various ways offer true and demanding insights into the good life. We know their truth only as we are willing to study inside life beyond "objective" discussion. That is a lesson worth bringing to education.

The Idea of a Catholic University is published by University of Chicago Press this week, £18.00.

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