KARL JOHNSON: Good evening. And welcome to the inaugural Alan and Linda Beimfohr lecture. My name is Karl Johnson. I'm the Director of Chesterton House. And we are very pleased to have Professor John Sommerville from the University of Florida with us this evening. Chesterton House is an affiliate member of Cornell United Religious Work. And part of the premise of our work on campus is that religious discourse has the potential to enrich university life, and not just social life, but academic life.
In the last several years, we've seen the return of religion and religious discourse to various sectors of society, international relations, recently this summer in the area of film-- perhaps most notably, but not only with Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life. And there have even been some hints and suggestions of the return of religion and religious discourse to university life.
Our speaker this evening is just the right person to speak on this topic. After a long and distinguished career as a historian, primarily of English history and of the processes of secularization in England, he has written in the last few years three books worth mentioning. In 2006, a title from Oxford Press, The Decline of the Secular University, which has received quite a bit of attention.
In 2009, Religion in the National Agenda. And most recently, a book entitled Religious Ideas for Secular Universities. So it's a great privilege to have him with us here this evening. Professor Sommerville is a member of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton and a senior fellow at Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions, in addition to being professor emeritus of History at the University of Florida.
This is the first of a lecture series that will happen once a semester for the next several years in honor of Alan and Linda Beimfohr, who live in Southern California, and it's a gift from Carl and Elaine Neuss, Carl being an alum of Cornell. And Carl is here with us this morning and his family. And Carl, if you would, just take a minute and tell us about the Beimfohrs, who you've named this lectureship after. And thank you very much for the opportunity for us to all be gathered together for this evening's lecture.
CARL NEUSS: Thank you all for being here. It's very encouraging to see so many young people. It's been a few decades since I've studied at Cornell. I was an engineer and became reacquainted in recent years and have been teaching some semesters. I may be teaching again next semester with the graduate program in real estate development. But also through that process I was introduced to Carl and Chesterton House a couple years ago.
And Elaine and I and the Beimfohr's are so excited about the mission of Chesterton House and the exploration that they're encouraging in the intellectual tradition and discourse at Cornell to bring religion and Christian tradition into that discourse as well, or return to discourse. And we're very encouraged about that.
Let me introduce very quickly my wife, Elaine. Elaine, wave your hand. She's kind of shy. She won't get up here. But the topicality of this, I just want to draw your attention to one thing we just get off stage. But secularism and faith. We all know we lost an important person to our economy and technology industry, Steve Jobs. This was in The Wall Street Journal on Friday. And it was termed "The Secular Prophet." This article was written by Andy Crouch, who was the editor and chief of Christianity Today. And a very bold and provocative article. So those of you who have not read it, I would suggest that you have.
I'm just going to read one thing, then I want to sit down. In thinking about Mr. Jobs legacy and technology and the wonderful things it can do for all of our lives, he writes, "Steve Jobs was extraordinary in countless ways-- as designer, innovator, idea mean, and occasionally ruthless leader. But his most singular quality was his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope.
Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apples early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallen-ness, the bitten apple, with a rainbow arched over it, of course. And turned it into a sign of promise and progress." And then later he writes, "Mr. Jobs apple is a religion of hope in a hopeless world-- hope that your mortal life can be elegant and meaningful, even if it will soon be discarded like his iPod 2001."
So with that reflection, we're so encouraged to be here today and look forward to Dr. Sommerville's comments. Thanks.
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: I don't know why we consider Steve Jobs secular. He finished his at an ashram, you'll remember, and recommended that Bill Gates could have benefited from some experience there, too. It's a very great privilege and honor to be asked to give the Alan and Linda Beimfohr-- is this on? You can hear it. To give the Alan and Linda Beimfohr lecture in recognition of a Cornell alumnus. An even greater honor to inaugurate a series of speakers on the interface between religion and scholarship.
From its very beginning, Cornell has been careful to keep the two from interfering with each other. So it's important to see that we give attention to their obvious connections. It's also an honor, and this was unexpected, to be giving a lecture in a room named for Goldwin Smith, fellow British historian, person whom I have admired who fit Cornell perfectly in its early days.
I first gave this talk the title "How American Universities Might Recover Some Social Leadership." Because I want to talk about the condition of American universities, their decline in social leadership, and how religion might figure in a revival even of our tax supported institutions. It's obviously a sensitive issue in our diverse population, but I think there are encouraging signs in the area.
So you'll know where I'm headed. I want to look first at what's happened to American universities just in my lifetime and why they seem irrelevant to our big questions. We'll look at some of the other recent critiques of the university. And then I'll offer my formula for recovery of social leadership, which involves a more forthright consideration of the human good within all university programs. And finally, we'll consider how religion remains important to thinking about the human.
When I retired from university teaching five years ago, I could look back over 50 years as either a student or professor at a number of large, secular, public and state, private and state, universities. That's nearly half of the entire life of the secular university which only began in the late 19th century. And now that I was on the outside, I was struck by how much had changed in that time.
Of course, universities are much bigger than they were in 1956 when I was a freshman. They command tremendous resources, produce more and more of whatever they produce, but still it seemed to me that they had lost a lot in the meantime. I don't think this was just me becoming jaded about an institution that I thought should be more special. I thought I was finally able to see our universities the way American society sees them-- as a good way of preparing us for our jobs, but not where we look for answers to our important questions.
There seems to have been a loss of focus as the institution sprawled, a loss of coherence as they have a hard time saying what they stand for, a loss of confidence and prestige as they find American society going its own way. As I remarked in my book The Decline of the Secular University, the most notable failure of our current universities is not teaching students how to spend their money. Amid all the programs that tell them how to make money and be useful, we're short discussion of what is valuable in and of itself.
Money, after all, is not an end in itself, but only a means to real ends. What might stand as our ultimate value? Is the university going to help us discover that? If not, you can understand why our students, including our current politicians, don't look back once they've left. As I remember things, it seems to me that the high point of the importance or the sense of importance of universities must have been around 1960. Universities took it for granted that the whole world was undergoing modernization in its institutions and that universities would be guiding much of this development.
The West seemed clearly the model in politics, economics, science, technology, law. Other areas of the world would surely follow our lead. Among other things, this would involve a continuing secularization of cultures. This didn't necessarily mean religions would disappear, but they would become an entirely private matter and could be ignored in our public discussions.
What would replace religion, we thought, would be something like rationalism. Rationalism is the sense that our reason is self sufficient, self-validating. In relation to culture generally, the rationalism was related to modernism. We should be entirely open to change in art, music, literature, values, ethics, mores. We didn't need to protect traditions as we tried so hard to do. We would follow reason and nature into the heart of the human experience.
In the 1950s, it was assumed that universities would play a central role in modernization of institutions and modernism in culture. In 1960, President Kennedy ratified this sense of the university's importance when he called on so many university faculty to staff his administration. That hadn't been done before. It hasn't been done since. To commemorate that triumph of the academy, the historian Richard Hofstadter published his "Anti-intellectualism in American Life" to put the university's critics in their place.
But you know what's coming next. The mid '60s saw a train wreck on our way to the future. Modernization and modernism imploded. Professor Hofstadter saw his own Columbia University in revolt. Of course, the student rebels were anti-war, but they were also anti-university. They rejected the very modernization and modernism that the university was helping to promote. Their complaint was that America was forcing these on the rest of the world. Our professions of democracy and internationalism were interpreted as imperialism.
Who on Earth would want to emulate America's record on race or poverty or our aggressiveness abroad? So the '60s saw a comprehensive attack on an Americanism that was already effectively secular. By the 1970s, faculties were joining students in this protest against rationalism. Feminism, multiculturalism, a relativizing history of science, kept the shaking going on.
In the 1980s, the so-called postmodernists. Were making modernism stand in the pillory with a sign reading "Dead White European Male." Postmodernism succeeded in popularizing what philosophers had long known, that rationalism is not self sufficient. Different rationalities go down to commitments that we may as well call faiths. Or as the postmodernists would say, it's all political.
Postmodernism was the more troubling from having come from inside the university. It didn't stem from McCarthy-ites or moral majoritarians or something, but amounted to reasons revenge on rationalism. Nowadays, there's a new criticism of the university that focuses on corporate management. This is not a big concern of society generally. They all support anything that promises to keep costs down and speed up the assembly line. That's what the corporatization of education is about.
But it should be a huge issue with faculties, for it threatens a whole way of thinking and learning. But somewhere back in the 1980s, accountancy became the queen of the sciences. Universities are now measured in terms of money-- the amount of their endowments, their research budgets, how much they can charge for tuition, the return on that investment in the starting salaries of their graduates. Universities are now expected to become self supporting. There are thought to exist for the economy.
The idea that the economy exists to support them, that the end of life is contemplation rather than accumulation, seems to have been lost. This economic threat to the university culture seems-- the economic threat to the university culture some of us grew up in might well make us despair. We know better than to think that university budgets are ever going to recover. We brace ourselves for the adjustments that the economy will demand and the changes that society will expect.
We watch the ads for online universities in astonishment. Several dozen critiques of the university have been published in recent decades. It seems recently there's been one a month. At first they place the blame outside in society or the economy or some sort of cultural collapse. One thinks of Martin Nussbaum's several books. But recent secular critics think the university's bigger problems are of our own making. Stanley Fish claims political correctness for undermining this, the intellectual rigor that universities were meant to embody. He thinks this is no more than a fashion.
But Anthony Kronman sees the same political correctness as the result of something deeper, the research ideal that was foundational to the secular university. Of course, the research ideal has brought an amazing expansion of knowledge. But in Kronman's view, it has obscured what he calls "the question of the meaning of life." That's a quote.
And he challenges those that think this is too juvenile a question for the university to engage or not a question at all. Taking on the research ideal is a very radical critique which only someone tenured at Yale can safely make But Louis Menand at Harvard has amplified this criticism of the research ideal. He shows how in English departments like his own, it's brought a deadening professionalization meant to protect the academy from the public and from the market. So Menand's title is ironic-- The Marketplace of Ideas. Exactly what the university is not.
Because they have succeeded in professionalizing their activities-- professionalization guards one from other economic and social forces. So the university has created its own ghetto. In short, the university has been crippled by a professionalization that was meant to avoid wider involvement. And it's a professionalism, he shows, that will block reform. Essentially these books agree with my characterization of the secular university as failing to offer American society any real leadership.
I'm going to try to put a little flesh on that. Take public opinion. It struck me how seldom we see professors on television. We could measure the importance of academics against all others by comparing the audience for C-SPAN, where you may see a professor, with the audience for all the rest of the networks and cable channels combined, where you will not. So in our virtual world where we look for public opinion, you'll rarely be hearing from an academic.
Take politics. Would we ever have close elections if the universities were giving us political leadership? Given the self report or overwhelmingly liberal leading faculties, it's a wonder that the other party even keeps things close. Meanwhile, politicians that we once had in our classes are those who now want to micromanage our programs and trim our budgets.
Take culture. A commercialized pop culture seems to have eclipsed the more sophisticated culture that universities used to enshrine. Universities commitment to elective choice ensures that younger generations need never make contact with any of the world's heritage of high culture. Take science. Scientists commonly lament that they must take their orders, along with their funding, from business and government. They aren't being polled whether they think NASA's budget could be used more productively elsewhere.
My university was recently proud to announce that we are now seventh in the number of patents award. Universities serve, but they do not lead. It's good to serve, but it's not what the founders imagined long ago and it doesn't match the academy's vanity. What do universities offer? Obviously professional training. In my university, 60% of undergraduates take their degrees in professional majors.
Many of the rest still in arts and sciences majors will go into professional programs as graduate students, where 80% of the degrees are in professional fields. We've given students the elective power to make this change in our universities as they follow the money. When I hear university presidents give speeches now, their worry is often whether other institutions will take over job training or do it cheaper or quicker. They're less likely to mention developing our inherited wisdom to meet new challenges.
Here's where I may go against your expectations. Unlike many of the Ivy League critics, I don't think professional training is unworthy of universities. It seems a perfectly natural development at this point, for I think a new paradigm of the university is emerging. In the first half century of the secular research university's life, the excitement was quite properly on the discovery of reality. At some point along the way, the balance shifted to that of applying our knowledge.
Nothing wrong in this. It's the justification for such large and expensive institutions. But we need to recognize that applying our knowledge always means applying it for human benefit. That's what professional education is all about. But how aware are our professional schools of that aspect of their job? What would they say is their goal? Helping people find jobs? Helping the economy to help people? But how do we measure the help we offer the economy and society? In money terms?
Nowadays, that seems easier to argue than espousing some measure of the human good. The Academy will probably say that what society does with the money is a personal matter or political decision, thus it abandons the leadership role in American society. But to be fair, where would it go? Where would the professional schools look for help for a deeper understanding of the human good?
What's the university's official understanding of the human good? Granted, it's an enormously complicated subject. Our initial reaction is to protest that people may differ. So we seem to see the university dismissing or actually undermining the concept of the human. Again, several examples. Take science. Scientists are charged with trying to find naturalistic explanations for as much of our behavior as possible. Naturalism uses the terms derived from a study of the most basic elements of reality
Seeing how far such naturalism can go is justified and leads to useful applications in medicine, psychology, and so on. But there is a frontier between the biological and the personal where naturalism seems to fail. You may remember the efforts of the 1980s to colonize all human values within the terms of social biology. If these evolutionary psychologists could reduce all values to survival value, it would be a denial of anything distinctively human.
Our species, like the others, would be defined in terms of instinctual behavior rather than purposeful action. And we could rub out the line between humans and the rest of nature. When the results did not live up to their promises, these metaphysical naturalists asked us to wait until they could. The frontier has now shifted to neuroscience and journalistic reports of their efforts-- it's all I've read-- suggest that tracing or measuring the energies involved in mental activity will say all there is to say about our minds and ideas.
They would not agree that tracing the neural pathways of scientific thinking would explain their science away. I'm referring to reports that one can see which parts of the brain light up when religion is the subject of thought. Well, what's parts light up when you're doing neuroscience? Neural impulses will never account for the neuroscientists intentions. We shouldn't forget that the very existence of science as a framework of values is itself proof that humans transcend the nature they study.
Let me repeat that. I think that's a wonderful sentence. We shouldn't forget that very existence of science as a framework of values is itself proof that humans transcend the nature they study. Oddly enough when we turned in humanities, we find a similar effort to dismiss the very concept of the human. One would expect them to define the human in terms of its difference, as definitions try to do.
But In fact, they were recently deconstructing the very concept of the human and the various humaning values, showing them to be confused or contradictory or to be relative to different cultures and discourses, is meant to suggest they aren't as real as the things that science deals in. So it's been common to dismiss ideas of human nature as essentialism, of giving the human a false reality.
Some of those in the humanities would like to change that name to cultural studies. And then the study of cultures would be seen as ethology, the study of the species specific behavior of Homo sapiens. I can well believe that our understandings of the human are culturally contingent and mostly a Western notion. But as Harold Bloom, the famous literary critic cheerfully admits, that doesn't dispose of it any more than the fact that modern science is largely a Western construction makes it unreal.
Unfortunately we still have those like Richard Dawkins who famously wrote-- I think this is the most common quote you'll see on the web from Dawkins-- "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we would expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." One has to wonder what he meant.
When Dawkins looks in a mirror, he sees nature transcending itself, for he himself embodies purpose, good, maybe evil, pity, and the intelligence to design. Does he think of himself as part of nature, or has he dropped in from some other dimension? Reality includes personality in the sense that it contains us, who are as real as irreducible in our values, purposes, and laws as gravity or galaxies are real. I'm justified in that statement by the long career of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who spent the first half of his career showing the inability of scientific reductions of the human and the last half of his career writing Sources of the Self, which starts with pretty much what I just quoted.
Real means conceptually irreducible. But our confusion over the reality of the human has made considerations of the human good awkward to say the least. It's unfortunate that these attacks on concepts of the human have come at just the time when the university has become so largely about professional education, which needs to be clear on the human good.
A new paradigm for the university could change things. We need to recognize that everything the university does has some relation to the human good. This would suggest a different relation between science and religion. Back when the university's task was discovering reality, the burden was on religion to show that it had anything to offer. Now that the university's job is showing how to apply our knowledge, the burden is on science to show it to make our choices for us.
Religion has traditionally offered us the language, the discourse, we use in discussing the human and human needs. That's because it's hard to discuss values without getting into consideration of one's ultimate values. You should remember Paul Tillich's classic definition of religion as one's ultimate concern.
So now we have to ask where could go from here. I've said that if the university is to gain a position of importance, it must be seen to be engaged with concepts of the human. Naturalism and utilitarianism are not going to be entirely satisfying. We can hardly avoid some of the religious concepts that gave birth to the idea of the human. You might suppose we could allude instead to classical thought as if we could ground such subjects in philosophy, pure and simple.
But of course the Greeks and Romans were religious and their ethical notions reflect that. When Plato talks of the end of life, when Aristotle cannot begin his epics without mentioning god in the singular as ultimate end, we see notion of purpose and ultimacy birthing Western philosophy. Certainly Saint Augustine is a central figure in Charles Taylor's classic Sources of the Self for its importance in the emergency of self, a major sense of the human at present.
In literature, Harold Bloom, again, contrasts the primitive Homeric heroes who are mostly battlegrounds for contending forces clash with Hamlet, who he says is in the biblical tradition of a human spirit. We should develop such concepts rather than abandoning them. Is it too much to say that the human is best seen as a religious category? It depends. If you want to describe the physiology and instinctual behavior of Homo sapiens, the outside of the subject, then you should use naturalistic terms.
If you want to describe human freedom and purpose of action, the inside of the subject, you will need terms that are at home in a personalist, and ultimately a religious, discourse-- religious in that they inevitably raise questions of ultimacy. Doubtless, it's necessary to see how far a methodological naturalism will take us. But the ideology of a metaphysical naturalism needs to be steadily questioned. For the very concepts of human and humane turn out to have ethical aspects. It's when we say that one person is more humane than another or that someone is inhuman.
Reviews of my previous book note that it's lacking in examples of the kind of religious concepts I'm talking about. This was partly by design, as I want to encourage others to engage in what will be a very large venture. And after all, there's not just one religious or even one Christian answer to many questions. They're different religious perspectives. And some are more convincing than others.
Christians haven't been refining their particular contributions lately because they haven't been in the conversation. Even Anthony Kronman comments on this fact. He's got no use for religion personally, but he says our churches become weaker on account of not having to defend themselves against the challenge of consequence. So he's blaming secularism for not effectively challenging religious perspectives.
Anyway, I didn't want to offer just a few religious arguments or positions and have critics think they had taken the measure of my position. Some of them would have sounded like mere common sense. But they are common sense of Christian cultures. You find that out when you travel to other cultures. To explore our common sense would make us conscious of our dominant Jewish and Christian perspectives.
In general of course, religious arguments will contrast with naturalistic arguments. They'll be along the lines of personalist philosophies, that is, they will take personal categories such as responsibility, justice, sanity, guilt, science, freedom, purpose, truth, as basic to understanding what we call the universe, for persons are as real as galaxies. We didn't worry about anchoring personal categories in physicalist concepts. As personalist philosophers see it, the most real things in the universe are those things that can act, demonstrating freedom and purpose.
Philosophical discussion must begin with the appropriate irreducible terms overcoming the modern physicalist prejudice. So religious arguments by contrast with naturalistic ones are those that concern things like what is good in itself-- as again against what is good as a means. They may concern what is ideal for human life and take up questions of human rights in a more coherent way. They're likely to deal with our responsibilities to creation. Even E.O. Wilson brought himself to write that book using the term creation in it in hopes of drawing religious minds into ecology he had. Conversation.
They're likely to deal with our responsibility to future generations. What has the future done for us lately? That's a hard question for a naturalist to answer. All these concerns touch on notions of ultimacy, of our final term, our final obligation. What is worth dying for? How much inequality should we tolerate? What are the marks of a good society? Right now, academics are likely to declare these to be either individual or political.
But this shows the limits of a secular discourse. It was adopted provisionally for the earlier for purposes of discovery. I'm not saying that religious arguments should be entertained in the university just because they're religious. We shouldn't privilege religious arguments anymore than we should privilege secular arguments because there are secular. Initially, they've all got to strike us as intuitively justified until they can be proved plausible and helpful. And then we can explore further whether they make better sense of our situation than the alternatives.
So I'm not arguing that universities should become religious. We already have religious colleges and universities which may approach these problems a little differently. With regard to our public institutions, I'm arguing that their discussions should be more open-- open to a wider range of voices, rather than censoring certain positions in advance. As I've said, many of the perspectives in academic culture are already fundamentally religious and should be understood as such.
So I'm all for secular universities, where secular means neutral-- as it does to the Supreme Court, by the way-- and open to all those arguments that can make their case. My objection is to secularist universities that rule religion out and have thereby become irrelevant. As far as university administrations are concerned, I would not want them to try to force religion in the curriculum. That would indeed risk establishment clause violations. Explaining religious perspectives should be left to those with some stake in those outlooks.
Students will respond better when the sincerity of the whole discussion is not in question. Administrators only need to see that the rules of hiring, tenure, and promotion are not biased against people who get labeled as religious. And this requires no change in present rules. Support for such a project is already coming from unexpected sources. We think of Europe as more secularized than America, but there are academics there who seem to have gone through secularization and come out the other end.
Besides scholars like Hanz Gadamer, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Ellul, Richard Swinburne, who have never concealed their religious sympathies, there are others like Jurgen Habermas, Rene Girard, Gianni Vattimo, Lazar Kulikovsky, Antony Flew, Hala Ziza, and Jacques Derrida who have rediscovered religious and specifically Christian concepts as necessary in their analysis. In America, most trenchant critics of the New Atheism associated with Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, are secular thinkers like Thomas Nagel, Stanley Fish, Luis von Ahn.
So my big point is that the university needs to consider religious voices not just for their historical interest, but for the help that a secular neutral university might gain from them. Now you may be asking is this really a pressing need? Aren't we muddling through reasonably well as things are? We need to think how many questions are on hold in American society that concern the logic of the human. What is a life worth, in terms of liability costs or court settlements? Or in terms of victim restitution, wartime casualty counts, capital punishment?
Beyond this, our vague ideas of the human underlie disagreements on sex education, city planning, human rights, poverty programs, biomedical hybrids, criminal punishment, art galleries, public relations, health administration, general education requirements, conservation, to name a few. The list could go on to prisoner interrogation, spanking, policies regarding fertility and mortality. I fear that college classes may raise these questions in an offhand manner on the way to declaring them to being beyond the university's mandate.
And so these debates are carried on by politicians and lobbyists. Is that out fine idea? Think how far short naturalistic or utilitarian arguments come of concluding such issues. Say the topic is genetic enhancement of a fetus. Religions might have different positions on the subject but might still be able to ground therm. Is there a secular position? Is there a secular position on who should make the decision-- whether parent, doctor, insurance company, scientific authority, government official, or elected politician.
Our power children focuses many such questions. My mind goes back to a course I taught on the history of the concept of childhood, where I offered my students a list of our dilemmas. Do we mostly want the child to achieve or to be happy? Should we try to make the child feel normal or special? Should we have a longer school day or year or shorter, and why? Should the state or the family be the final authority over the child, or how should they divide the child? Should we treat girls and boys the same or differently, or would it depend? Is tolerance to encourage differences or to overcome them?
Before the students' first glib answers had died on their lips, they'd begun to realize that our society is confused. We don't know whether we should be arguing for what is good for the existing society or for the child or for the adult the child will become or for the family that is the child's world or for the society we want to create. We don't know how long a time frame, how many generations, we should be dealing with. We don't know how to justify our responsibility or authority over other humans.
We don't know how to measure their progress towards full humanity. And we would be hard pressed to say which of our arguments were properly secular and what made them so. Even if religions offered answers, whether they were religious answers might be a question. We are all sort of amphibious in this regard-- not too conscious of our footing in our arguments. But I expect that more satisfying answers might emerge from debate that allows religious voices to join the discussion.
The most troubling aspect of my proposal to me is to realize how long it may take before religious arguments are forthcoming. Religious intellectualism has been kept alive in seminaries and the like, but are they addressing our common questions? Having long been discouraged from participating in academic life, religious voices will need to be awakened to their intellectual resources. I will offer one suggestion about the structure of religious argument in a more open university.
Ordinarily it's assumed that religious arguments will start from first principles or from doctrines. This means confrontations between religious and secular world views. A more promising approach seems to me is to argue to religion rather than from religion. That is, one could take up quite ordinary questions and show how rapidly they pushed into issues of ultimacy. Arguing to religion rather than from religion might seem more like ambush than like honest, frontal confrontation.
But actually it means that you and your conversation partner are more interested in discovery than in victory. Contest the world views point to victory, whereas probing assumptions seeks discovery. So this would embody a new academic etiquette. Finally we need to ask whether there are any reasons to think that today's university will be receptive to talking about religion or entertaining religious perspectives. Religion has forced itself into the public consciousness in ways that would have surprised academics back in the 1950s.
It was impossible then to foresee that religion would reemerge in American politics as it did in the '70s. But as some might regret the political forms it's taken, we can't ignore it. Likewise, it was impossible before the '70s to foresee how the world's religions would upset our theories of modernization. The challenges to the existing world order require us to address religion diplomatically.
Third, there's been a drastic change in our news product over the past 50 years. Back then, journalists were too polite to mention religion. They would not believe how much attention the news industry and public give religion today. It's part of that industry shift from the public to the private sphere. This mingling of public and private spheres involves culture wars that always seem to have religious dimensions. And religion often turns up on both sides.
Fourth-- within the university, modernism has become passe along with secularization theory. In the early 20th century, almost all disciplines looked at the sciences as their model. They declared their allegiance to the fact value dichotomy, which supported secular approaches. Now the fact value dichotomy is under philosophical investigation. Discovering that there are different traditions of rationality, as Alastair McIntyre calls them, means we must take responsibility for our intellectual judgments.
We could also mentioned the confusion over diversity or multiculturalism, which may bring religions into view. There's distress over the decline in government funding of universities. There's the intrusion of corporate management, which sees education as a product rather than a process. There's also the internet and online professional training. And we're seeing articles on whether one would be better off just skipping college-- in The New York Times, of all places. This would have been unthinkable a few years back.
I think we're at an interesting place in history. Universities are in confusion and decline in certain respects. There's a certain amount of anti religious bluster left, thinking that religion is the last undefended target. But there's also a greater thoughtfulness among many academic leaders. What is still lacking? Unfortunately what is missing are Jewish and Christian academics who have found a language and the issues that could offer religious contributions to the discussion.
As I've been saying, I think that addressing human needs, discussing the human good, using the language of humane values, may be the way to get started, for everything the university does is related to the human good, or there would be no point in doing it. Thank you.
KARL JOHNSON: We'll take several minutes for some questions from the audience and discussion. I wonder for starters if you might be able and willing to comment on the concepts mentioned in your recent book of the post-secular. You mentioned the fading of post-modernist lecture. But there's also some discussion now of the advent of the post-secular. What do you have in mind when you use that term?
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: That term has been used differently by different people. Jurgen Habermas has become fond of it recently. What I meant as I stated in one of my books-- I think it was The Decline of the Secular University, was that robust secularism depended on rationalism, on limits on discourse. And it was institutionalized. And the institution's of intellectual life are in bad shape now. By post-secular I mean-- I mean-- the rule of fashion among people trying to engage in intellectual discussion.
Things are run up the flagpole to see how many salute. But it's not an argument. It's more a-- not a debate. It's more like just throwing ideas at one another, seeing if any of them stick to the target. A post-secular world is one in which intellectual life is not being carried-- doesn't have a momentum or development to it. It's one thing after another. I don't know whether that would be useful to anybody to use the term in that sense. But I threw it in because I thought it was catchy. A fashion I was trying to start.
KARL JOHNSON: Other questions from the audience? And John, to the extent that you're able to, if you're able to repeat the question, it helps us to capture it on the audio.
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: Do you want to--
KARL JOHNSON: Yeah?
AUDIENCE: You talk a lot about how the university is increasingly sort of irrelevant to the public discourse on big questions. And I was wondering if you take that as something new? There's a picture of JFK with a sort of brain trust of university professors on a live stage where university was seen as relevant to that public discourse. And I'm just wondering if-- I'm just having a hard time imagining what it would look like with this university engagement in public conversation, whether the changes you talk about are going back to some golden age or whether you're trying to do something new?
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: The question is, were things really any different 50 years ago in terms of the university setting, the actual agenda for society maybe. Well, I do remember a time-- you don't know Life magazine probably, but you can't imagine People magazine having a profile on a theologian. Life magazine did. There were giants in the land in those days. I remember articles on Tillich, on the neighbors and others in Life magazine, which was the rough equivalent, I guess, of people.
And I don't know how many people read the articles, but they didn't have TV to watch to wile the time, so they must have. Important philosophers were known by name. I wonder if that's still true today? I will admit to you that I wrote the book-- where I used this very example, by the way-- The Decline of the University, I wrote impressionistically. I wrote it immediately after retirement. I was asked whether I had been afraid to publish it before I retired. Not in the least.
The university is really quite accepting, I find, of someone who will stand up to them. But I wrote it in a big hurry. And the first chapter was sort of a hurried introduction to a bunch of papers I'd given in various guises. So it doesn't do the historical spadework that would justify my answer here. But expressionistically, I remember myself at your age finding intellectual debate in society.
People looked up to newspapers in a way they do not now. We use them to line the bird cage and whatever else. But they're sinking fast. Newspaper readership is declining faster than church attendance. Think of that.
AUDIENCE: Where do you see the bar is secularism as opposed to religion? And honestly, lots of people [INAUDIBLE]. But it seems that it comes from the real questions, religion versus Darwin, the secular half against the fundamental ideas that fundamentally are different than comes out of the technical field. And so if we're appraising what religion is, the assumption that we are fundamentally smarter now than we were 2,000 years ago. So if you have reason to disbelieve someone saw a resurrected person 2,000 years ago, some lady had a baby 2,000 years ago-- because most people are fundamentally less intelligent, [INAUDIBLE].
But it doesn't necessarily mean mistrust religion. Some people would come up with a religion today, then they would trust it more because it's of today-- you can talk to the person, the Dalai Lama or whatever. It seems to me people don't like religion-- there's kind of an eclectic reason that says, I want what I want. Don't ask me why. And now if science helps me get it, helps me convince people that I deserve it, that I want it.
So I see it as more of a-- people are just looking for a weapon in a war to get what they want. And science was a good weapon to not have to be restricted against abortion. If religion becomes a good weapon to get what they want, they'll go for religion. And let the universities go.
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: His question has two parts that I would like to speak to. The last part was a wonderful example of just what I was struggling to say I meant by post-secularism-- an eclectic period where people grab whatever ideas justify them at the moment. And I think that is where we find ourselves today. Universities are putting up some resistance to this. Students ought to be learning how to argue coherently. But not all students are taking the courses. They're free to take the courses that don't operate in that way.
The first part of your question, though, had to do with a difference in the means of the term secular. There is a sense in which secular means the change of eons and the change of centuries. That is not the way that sociologists use the term. And since most of what's written on secularity, secularization, is written by sociologists, that's the use that I'm using, which means the separation of religion from other aspects of life and thought. Doesn't mean necessarily the decline of religion within it's never narrowing sphere.
But I don't have a quarrel with your interpretation of why we are becoming a more secular society. And what you've described is indeed not a secularist situation. Nobody's ruling religion out, not as much as they did in the Victorian period when secularist meant not just neutral between religion and more rational approaches, but trying to get religions to shut up.
That's what I-- a secular university can include religious perspectives, it just doesn't privilege them. A secularist university tries to censor them in advance when they're identified as religious.
KARL JOHNSON: Yeah, in the back.
AUDIENCE: I guess I would think that the objective of the-- I guess I should speak for myself as a faculty person. I would think that if what I want to do is try to teach a student how to think and how to learn so that they can create knowledge and ultimately apply it in new ways. And that's different than how to accept information or how to even just believe somebody. And I was wondering, from your perspective, has there been a change in your view of academicians or faculty over the years from instead of trying to either initiate or steer the development of thought processes in students to come up with something new or to apply something new, to like, you need to ingest this information.
And if so, does that have to do with-- is there some sort of hesitation on faculty that they'll lose some core bit of worldview if students somehow are able to stray outside of this kind of boundary of thinking? Or what do you think might be the underlying cause of that?
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: Now what is the change that you're pointing to? A change from just presenting knowledge and a change toward encouraging students to generate the knowledge themselves?
AUDIENCE: So have you seen a chance-- first of all, when you started, was it one way and is it different now. And two, what do you think--
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: Well, I think both then and now-- and again, without doing the research that would justify any such generalization-- I think that the ideology of higher education has shifted a little from making available the knowledge that the students need to getting them to think for themselves. I don't think this shows any lack of assurance on the parts of faculty.
I don't think they do it because they themselves aren't sure. They may do it because they are better educated than their forebears were and they have been introduced to a great range of perspectives. However, I think that both then and now, faculty differed a great deal on a personal basis with how they operated in the classroom. Some wanted to have coming back on exams what they had told their class. Some liked seeing originality even if it's obviously got holes in it.
And I think that was true. I don't know whether it was as true when I was a student as it is now. I haven't been a student in so many years, I wouldn't know. But there is-- I think there's been a little shift in the professed method along the lines that you say, that you describe. You all heard his question, I'm sure.
KARL JOHNSON: John, as a bit of a follow-up to that, would you say that one of the changes in the university over the years has been a narrowing of the scope that once included a sort of shaping of students for either character building or for citizenship or moral, religious formation to professional training. That's part of the shift over the course of the 20th century, isn't it? Even within the original secular university that was envisioned.
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: You're really talking about the distinction between colleges and universities. I don't think the earliest universities-- well, as we know, even the earliest state supported secular research universities sometimes required chapel. Can you believe that? But the sort of character formation that went on in the president's office with graduating seniors, that was something more characteristic of colleges that the research university replaced.
And I don't know to what-- I've not met even people from that generation who could tell me how effective they thought that molding process was. I know that there were some university presidents like Robert E. Lee at Washington College, now Washington Lee, who were so revered by their students that you could imagine them trying to mold themselves on his personality. But that must not have been universal.
KARL JOHNSON: Yes?
AUDIENCE: I'd be interested in your comparing American research universities with British universities. It seems that most people would agree that Britain is considerably more secular as a society than the United States. And yet it seems that British universities. You cited Richard Swinburne. There are professors of historical theology at Oxford. There's not the bracketing out of religion and theology into seminaries and Christian colleges like there is in the US. Why this difference? And is this an extension of the American value of separation of church and state that has somehow gotten woven in to public education.
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: He's asking about the British comparison with American universities in all these regards. It's a puzzling question. You know in Denmark, which is the quintessentially nonreligious country, they have religious instruction required in primary schools. You wonder who's teaching it and what it amounts to. But in Britain, they have a great deal more religious instruction in the public school system and their students come out having far more knowledge of Christianity than American students, who might consider themselves Christians.
And it is true that in the top British universities, you have important faculties in theology and religious history. I don't know that those are any better integrated into the university than your religious studies program is here. Maybe less so. I do know from having hung around English universities that they are looked at as a foreign body within the university. A relic. I don't know-- of course now Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago have divinity schools in connection or in the neighborhood, at least.
I don't think there's even as much disdain here as their is in Britain for the religious component in there universities. Certainly nothing I said tonight should be construed as thinking I think we need more instruction on religions as such. That puts religion off in a box where it's understood and it doesn't interfere with anything else, as it should not. What should happen is that it should be discovered in the course of almost any line of argumentation that involves values at all, which will lead you to discover your faith, whether you thought you had one or not.
And that's what religious voices should be doing. I didn't mention Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. I think that despite Steve Jobs benefit in the ashram, they will have a hard time finding the university's idiom. They will not impact that Jewish scholars or Christian scholars would, since they shaped our culture in the first place and it hasn't been dismantled or deconstructed.
One of the interesting developments recently is how more Jewish instructors are finding an interest in raising religious perspectives. Jews used to feel that secularity benefited them as a minority. Now everyone's a minority, as we know. They're finding, well, Hilary Putnam at Harvard recently discovered his Jewishness. Little late in his career. He was on point of retirement. But better late than never. And it's affected his writing.
AUDIENCE: Professor Sommerville, thank you for your thoughtful lecture tonight. At the very end of your lecture you raised the question, or you raised the issue, that we need a new generation or we need to create or have a generation of Jewish and Christian scholars who are setting a new agenda and who are creating this new language and this new discourse that interests the university. But they don't exist now, by and large, and university is probably not going to produce them. So can you speculate at least a little on where they come from? Because they're not going to develop this on their own. How do we begin to create a generations who think and produce this kind of work that the university needs?
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: You all heard the question? That's a wonderful question. And I was giving some thought to it this morning, again, on another talk on the subject at various other places on this trip. Now there are some Christian colleges that produce one or two estimable scholars who are speaking to these issues more than the seminaries do, which have a different agenda.
But I think really answer to your question might come from institutes, extra collegiate institutions, maybe think tanks, things like the Templeton Foundation, who convene scholars. Calvin College has had a number of conventions bringing together summer seminars on this question or that. And I can well imagine that might be the way forward, that they could-- by a good choice of questions to address-- they might publish, in a small way, things that would give some guidance to-- not just to other Christians who might want to voice these, but to their secular colleagues.
We can't take this Machean view of the world that it's divided drastically between the religious and the secular. There's a huge middle ground of people who don't know where they stand-- the amphibians that I mentioned-- who don't know when they're arguing from a secular position or maybe a religious position. Just bringing greater clarity might do wonders for the discussion. Good question. Do you have ideas?
AUDIENCE: No. I mean, some, but I don't have a career to look back on or history that you have, things that happened, places where you saw it successful. So I was kind of wondering, when you look back where it had been shaped and how do we begin to create that kind of generation that can carry on that work.
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: You know, I am impressed when I see identifiably Christian scholars show up on a campus, at the good reception they're given. And depending on their status, true respect. And I think this would surprise a lot evangelical Christians who take this Machean view of world, I'm afraid, and who expect to hate anyone that turns up with the Christian label on. And they in turn expect to hate anybody who raises embarrassing questions to them. So that's something I would like to get us passed. I think there's plenty of good discussion out there that's not being carried on.
AUDIENCE: Yes. That was a, I thought, Dr. Sommerville, a very intriguing list of, you might say, public policy and societal dilemmas in your talk, much of which is brought about by modern science and secularist thoughts. But it seems almost like you were saying that we've driven into a dead end. In other words, we've gone on this trip, but secular thinking can't provide answers to these questions and therefore it's spilling into politics and it's amplified by the fact that we no longer have common values that we used to have. So it's part of-- first of all, is that correct?
And secondly, is part of what you're saying is that the religious discourses the university can somehow start to help us navigate these questions and try to reintroduce common values, or is that a bad thing?
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: Well, I think that if you go back far enough, you did have colleges and early universities telling people what to think and what decisions to make. We've taken a self denying ordinance now to not -- to stop short of making our student's choices for them. And that's a good. That's not the-- maybe a religious college or university would want to go beyond my limits. But I'm glad secular universities are limiting themselves at the point of decision. I think that's proper for them to do.
What they're not doing sufficiently, I think, is giving the students the array of possibilities out there, if they might include religious possibilities. So I don't think it's wrong for all these questions to come up and to be troublesome. It may be that they won't be answered on campus. I don't think they probably should. But they ought to be able to discuss them seriously in a political debate or a campaign, as we manifestly do not. Is that to the point?
KARL JOHNSON: Yes, in the back?
AUDIENCE: Just a kind of case I wonder if you could give a comment on. In most secular universities, let's say state universities, you might have 10 or 15 courses in ethics. Virtually all of them, if they deal with normative questions, will be secular. It strikes me that in the age of postmodernism, there's a fundamental injustice that we as Christians have been far too tolerant of, that the secularists can deal with normative questions openly and publicly-- this is also true at Cornell. But we have virtually no courses in normative Christian ethics-- how we ought to live, how we ought to deal with these various dilemmas.
And to me it seems that this is a fundamental injustice because secular reason is not epistomilogically privileged as people used to think and that, in a way, it strikes me that we're far too nice and tolerant of that kind of injustice. And I'm sensitive to this coming out of the Mennonite background where for 400 years my ancestors were persecuted by church and state working together.
I'm very sensitive to the fact that societies can be fundamentally unjust. And I think we need to deal with the issue that the present structure of our universities and the role of the state in those structures is simply unjust and Christians should stop being so tolerant of that kind of injustice.
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: In my university, which is a very secular university. Not secularist at all. University of 50,000 students. Not even the biggest in Florida, actually, at that. That problem was dealt with by a donor. Universities never turn down money. And the donor endowed a chair in Catholic social ethics which is filled and-- he's not quarantined somewhere within the department. You can do it that way.
You can a-- we had a wonderful series at the University of Florida. Two of my colleagues in the history department with contacts at Princeton on one hand and Berkeley at the other brought in the leading 15 religious historians in the United States. None of them turned him down. They went down their list and got the 15 they wanted. They came over a year and a half and put religion on the map at the University, insofar as public lectures can do that, in a way that it had never been before.
It was a memorable experience. The president finally came and introduced one of the speakers-- a Christian, as it happened-- sat through the lecture, which presidents of universities usually don't do, and was enthralled by it. Insisted that we do more of this. The doors is open. People are just not walking through it, I'm afraid. Incidentally on the matter of philosophy, that's one of the bright spots of recent years in Christian terms.
All the disciplines have their Christian auxiliary that meet at the main national convention. Well, the society of Christian philosophers-- I don't know what it's called-- is the largest and most active of any of these. It's not surprising, actually, when you think about it. Why wouldn't Christians be drawn to philosophy? So they're staffing a lot of colleges. I'm afraid that they've been trained at schools that don't get the attention of Cornell when hiring decisions are made.
They need to be more careful where they go for their training. They need to go to Yale and work with Nike Wolterstorff or something like that. Or to Notre Dame and work with whoever.
KARL JOHNSON: We'll take two more questions. Right here.
AUDIENCE: Thank you, Professor Sommerville, for your insights on this. There was one point you mentioned early in your lecture, the idea that the economy exists to support learning, to support universities. I think one thing I would question is whether, in fact, the people who serve and the people who are served by universities has changed. 50 years ago, a very small number of people came to university.
And they were the focus of the university itself, whereas now increasingly you do have this accumulation of universities with the students themselves being very, very heavily indebted through that. And I suppose one question would be whether in fact the university now is just to support the students and to support them to make good choices and help them to realize-- or whether it supports a research agenda at the expense of the campus.
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: Well, I think it's demonstrable, this new book by-- I can't think of the name of it. But there was a book last year that followed the money to show that instruction had suffered at the hands of the research budget, that instruction was increasingly in the hands of TAs and adjuncts, rather than tenured faculty, while research budgets continued to be sacred cows.
So I think the general answer nationwide is clear. I was almost making a joke in suggested that the economy exists to serve the interests of contemplation rather than accumulation. But Martha Nussbaum would be fond of my argument in that Greek society was created, the economy existed, slavery existed, to support the very who could benefit from this. But she says, isn't it wonderful that machines have made slavery unnecessary. And then everyone can benefit this. But they're not doing it. They're not taking advantage of the opportunity that exists out there.
They're, instead, trying to maximize their income in a time of falling incomes, a time of America's declining status.
KARL JOHNSON: And one last question.
AUDIENCE: What do you think the pros and cons are about being honest with students about faith commitments?
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: What are the pros and cons of being upfront about your faith commitment in your classes? Well, seems to me that in some classes it would be kind of out of place if it wasn't a subject that would come up naturally ever. But is there such a discipline where your faith would never come up naturally? Even in technical fields and scientific ones, there's a point to why you're doing the research you're doing. And you could allude to it.
And I don't think it requires a lengthy testimony of your personal journey. But I think it might very well interest students. And they could come up and talk to you about it if they felt like it. But it would seem a little forced in a lot of cases. But in the humanities, my gosh, I would think it would always be relevant to how you were interpreting a poet, the questions you wanted to do research on, why they were important to you. It's bound to be associated somehow with your deeper values.
AUDIENCE: Might there not be a risk that some students might feel unable to ask certain questions or be silenced just by knowing that you have a certain faith?
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: Oh, I see. Yeah, it could, if you did it in a clumsy way. But I've found that students from other religious traditions than Christian are very happy to talk about their religious background. It's just Christians that hunker down, hiding. So yeah, you can be inviting and I don't know how much discussion goes on in your classes or how much the students are involved. Do you teach here?
AUDIENCE: I'm a graduate student, as well as a TA.
JOHN SOMMERVILLE: Well, you've seen successful discussions and unsuccessful ones, I suppose. That's why teaching is learned at an apprenticeship system as you're having to go through right now.
KARL JOHNSON: Wonderful. Thank you very much. This has been instructive and enjoyable. Please join me in--
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University of Florida historian C. John Sommerville delivered the first Alan T. and Linda M. Beimfohr Lecture October 12, 2011 at Cornell. Sommerville is the author of "The Decline of the Secular University" and "Religious Ideas for Secular Universities."
The Beimfohr lecture series is designed to bring public intellectuals to Cornell to address issues related to faith in a pluralistic society.