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The Idea of a University
A University Must Be A Place Where Jerusalem And Athens Meet
O. P. Kretzmann
Almost two decades ago a very naive young man said a few thousand words at his inauguration as the president of a small Midwestern college. The occasion was completely inauspicious. It was a dark, rainy afternoon, the student body of fewer than four hundred men and women had decided that Homecoming activities were more important than a new president, and the appointed delegates from neighboring colleges listened with tolerant inattention. It was an occasion for free-swinging idealism. Such high and noble phrases as "pursuit of truth," "community of scholars," "center of learning and of faith," "transmission of truth," "the search for truth" came from the naive young man's lips with more speed than weight. He knew all the answers to the mysteries of the educational process. He had read a few philosophers and a few more theologians. The application of their high principles to the day-by-day life of a little academic grove would be a simple and gracious thing.

Today, after twenty years, I return to the hour of the crime. From the ivory tower which I entered so glibly and blindly two decades ago I have seen a world in which clichés are no longer the comic overtones of immaturity but a tragic evasion of the dark tacts of life and history. None of the phrases I used twenty years ago have lost their charm or their verity; they have merely returned hauntingly, to ask me to give them life and meaning, to measure their value and validity in a world which has flatly denied them. I have seen a century move from morning to afternoon in blood and sweat and tears. I have watched mankind acquire the power to commit corporate suicide. I have seen good little men locked in a deadly struggle with bad little men. I have seen my comfortable Western world become, steadily and alarmingly, an ever smaller minority of the population of my planet. I have lived for twenty years with a generation upon whom the ends of an age have come. Personally, I too have come to the quiet afternoon of my journey and the shadows now lie longer to the east.

Twenty years ago I affirmed my faith in the desirability, even the necessity, of a true university which would stand Squarely and courageously in the Christian tradition. At one point I said: "There can be no doubt that the world of tomorrow [this was 1940] will be the scene of two battles. One will be fought with bombs and guns on land, on the sea, and in the air; the other, and, I suspect, the far more important, will be fought in quiet classrooms, in libraries, in laboratories; and in the hidden meetings of men of thought and good will. Nor will it be a battle suspended in the thin lifeless air of theory; the issue will be a matter of concrete living and desperate importance for the next generation. It will revolve about the great questions which must be answered in our time—our view of God, of the Church, of the State, of man, of the human mind and spirit, its origin, nature, function and destiny, of the nature of truth, and many other related issues. It is our destiny to throw ourselves into this battle with all the resources of body, mind, and soul.

What about all this, twenty years later? I confess that I would not change a word. This is still the place where the battle is joined. Around these questions sound the hammer blows which even today must mark the building of a university. What has changed, however—and it is vastly important—is my consciousness of the enormous difficulty of the battle, the wounds that must be borne, and the price that must be paid. What I had seen as a battle is really a continuing war, both cold and hot, which requires greater resources mind and spirit than I had envisioned twenty years ago. The years have not been disillusioning, but they have been chastening. I now know, as I know few other things, that victory is not easy, that the walls of our contemporary Jerichos will not crumble before the trumpet blasts of commencement orators, and that our modern wasteland is more thorny and unready for conquest than I had imagined.

And so at the end of two decades I return to the basic problems of a Christian University in the afternoon of the twentieth century. Is it really possible? What are its distinguishing marks?

 

What Is Man?

Certainly the first characteristic of a Christian university in the twentieth century is its unique evaluation of the present crisis in the Western world. We must see, sharply and realistically, the essential nature of our days and our years. The shattering changes in human life, the frightening spectacle of men trampling to power on the blood drops of humanity, the nihilistic atmosphere of change and decay must be measured with calm, dispassionate eyes sub specie aeternitatis. The world has been in a far country and the hour of the husks is upon us.

It must, however, be clear that many of the things, we see are merely surface manifestations. International tensions, economic dislocations, even the vast social forces at work are all merely symptoms. The Christian university must know that beneath all these there is something else that will not be cured at conference tables or alleviated by collectivism or eliminated by ore education, either in the humanities or in the sciences or in metaphysics.

A true university must recognize the tact that the present crisis is in the spirit of man. It is rooted in the meanings and values, intangible but very real, by which he must find his way between the eternities. Somewhere, about two hundred years ago, our Western world became a Christian heresy. The eighteenth century largely lost its faith in God; the nineteenth century lost its faith in man; and the middle of the twentieth century lost its faith in things. Some of the latter two may be good, but we are now in the convulsions brought on by our wrongness. This was too much loss of faith in too short a time.

Curiously enough, an analysis of our problems—the first step in the idea of a Christian university—leads basically to the question which is also at the heart of the educational process: "What is man?" On the answer to that question everything else depends. Our philosophy of history, of society, of economics, of education is finally rooted in the answer to that question. For a hundred years we have had, dominating and destroying, the biological, economic and political answers to that question. Only now there is the first faint sound of a better answer. Even the thoughtful secularist now says, "Man does not live by bread alone nor is he made for the State."

Here is the first great task of the Christian university. It must clarify our thoughts and maintain our loyalties to the historic Christian answer to the question: "What is Man?" It will be inevitable that in a day of unprecedented confusion and fear such an answer will result in a majesty of power, an immovable loyalty, a serene faith, and a driving devotion to Him Who has made man for Himself and Who has placed upon man the burden and the challenge of the restlessness which comes when man is separated from his Maker. Man is made by God and for God—and any answer to the problem of his origin, nature, and destiny which says less than that is irrelevant. The Biblical concept of man—created, redeemed, sanctified by the Triune God—is the first essential element in the idea of a university.

 

The Theological Idea

It follows, therefore, that the idea of a university is basically theological. It would be most salutary for our obsolescent secularists to look again to the rock from which they were hewn. Beginning with the University of Paris and extending through the later medieval d, through the Reformation, both in Geneva and Wittenberg, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the university was centered about theology. The university was the tree daughter of both the Church and the State, responsible to both, but even more responsible to the disciplined and essentially theological commitment involved in the search for truth. This has now again been eloquently summarized at the dawning of a new age of faith in George H. Williams' scholarly little monograph, The Theological Idea of the University: "Truth is the truth, known or to be made known in the thrust and counter-thrust of open debate and untrammeled experiment. There is a truth which is taught and a truth which is caught—a truth which is a matter of grit in library and laboratory, and a truth which is a matter of grace. We who are Christians, of course, will never abandon the supposition that in the perspective of our Creator Himself there exists a unified field of truth; but we finite human beings—both believers and those untouched by faith—must continuously report back and mutually revise our findings on the several levels of inquiry." Professor Williams' conclusion is especially timely and timeless: "We may be citizens, then, of three cities. Of Jerusalem, which is the church of all ages and climes, sustained by the love and tutelage of redemptive faith. Of Athens, which is the university where reason—that in us whereby we of all His creatures reflect uniquely the image of the Creator—is tree to pursue its inquiries to the very brink of human perception; and of the City of Man, the free society, grounded in law which safeguards constitutionally the rights of diverse voluntarist associations gathered within the City, including the rights and privileges of the two historic communities of scholarship and faith

Certainly one of the strangest developments in our recent intellectual history is the fact that the man of Jerusalem is now called upon to rescue the man of Athens from the modern prison of totalitarianism. The ancient battle between faith and reason, never very real, can now become a magnificent alliance. The man who has found his complete and ultimate freedom in the accepted fact of redemption now has "the unexpected assignment of defending the approaches to Athens" (Williams). Tertullian's famous query "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?" must now be answered with a single word: "Everything." The freedom of Jerusalem — rooted in God and His revealed will for the heart and mind of man — becomes the guarantee of the freedom of reason to pursue the truth, wherever the far country to which the quest may lead. The hand of the Church upon the university need not be inhibiting or deadening; it can actually be lifting and life-giving. Even the freedom of the secular university depends ultimately upon the theological idea of free­dom introduced into and maintained in the Western world by the faithfulness of Jerusalem to its God-given charter of liberty in Jesus Christ.

 

The Centrality of Jesus Christ

Here is the heart of the matter. Let Jerusalem and Athens stop their petty quarreling about faith and reason and let Jerusalem point to the basic assumption in the idea of a university—the centrality of Jesus Christ. This is, of course, a phrase which every practitioner of Christian education would use easily and glibly. In reality, however, it is so vast, even terrifying, in its implications that it has seldom been worked out with all the high courage and high intelligence which it demands. Negatively, it requires the relegation of all other "religious" questions to a minor place in the hierarchy of academic values. The problem of faith and reason, the relation of science and religion, the involved problems of cosmogony, are all submerged in the single, tolling question addressed with singular force and insistence to the academic community; "What think ye of Christ?" Even from the solely intellectual point of view this is vital. In a recent article D. Elton Trueblood writes: "How can any person claim to be educated and to participate intelligently in what is in part a Christian civilization if he has never tried to understand the conviction that 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself?"

It is obvious that this question must be answered both by the individual persons in the community and the corporate academic community itself. In an age when also the university is still suffering from the aftermath of humanistic idolatry—the worship of man-centered, society-centered, race-centered gods—it is our task to climb our way up to the foot of the Cross. In its shadows there is light and in its madness there is ultimate wisdom. "Scientia," human knowledge, is ordered, informed and illumined by "Sapientia," the wisdom of Jesus Christ, the highest gift of the Spirit of God.

It is only in Jesus Christ that belief in the existence of God as a philosophical or scientific truth becomes truly religious, an act of reverence. His appearance in time and His life in eternity demand a total commitment of mind and heart which alone can make a man or a community truly religious in the Christian sense. It follows therefore that the idea of a university requires a unique emphasis on worship, both private and corporate, as an essential part of the life of the academic community. Here is the place where reverence and commitment are nurtured, become visible and audible, and flow back into the intellectual life of the university as a life-giving stream of divine power. Reverence for God and His work in Jesus Christ results in love for one's fellowman, in a divinely given love of liberty, in reverence for all truth. Nothing has been more disastrous for university communities than the false and artificial divorce of the life of the laboratory and the library from the life of the chapel. When all is said and done the college chapel, as the symbol of the reigning Christ, is the great center of the university's wholeness of purpose and its unique and monumental commitment to values beyond the boundaries of our humanness.

 

Conflicts and Tensions

Inevitably, this emphasis will result in certain tensions. Like the Church, the university lives in two worlds. It moves "zwischen den Zeiten." It is forever becoming, not being. A great part of its life is life of faith, the substance of things hoped for. Living "sub specie aeternitatis," it stands forever poised between two worlds, the physical, visible, temporary, imperfect; and the spiritual, eternal, everlasting, perfect. It uses the second to determine its attitude over against the first. It lives forever under the dynamic of dawn.

Inevitably, too, this communal commitment poses very real problems for the individual member of the community, especially the teacher. He is, by definition and destiny, perennially involved in the existential dialect between involvement and detachment. Athens draws him toward detachment; Jerusalem demands involvement. Obviously, there will be varying degrees of the latter. There will be less in the physical sciences and much more in all the disciplines that concern man, especially the humanities. Here the truly Christian university can proudly engage in what Kierkegaard called "passionate thinking." It becomes less cold, less abstract, less "objective." Kierkegaard notes: "All Christian knowledge, however strict its form, ought to be anxiously concerned…the high aloofness of in­different learning is, from the Christian point of view, far from being seriousness; it is, from the Christian point of view, jest and vanity." This is the major reason why the truly Christian university can be home of the liberal arts at their highest and best. It pursues their teaching and learning under a dynamic of love and faith which can change them radically from a mere quality of the mind to an imperative for action in the world. Since they are known and communicated in love they represent high learning transmuted by the alchemy of personal involvement. Under this view the university becomes as no one else the high follower of the Man Whose love for man flowered into magnificent expression amid the cold traditionalism of the synagogue.

Perhaps all this means that the university under the Christian imperative and orientation is merely the Church in action at a given point in its total responsibility. Curiously, this is an almost forgotten truth. For several centuries there has been a determined and misguided effort to drive a wedge between the Church and the university. We have been told that they are really opposed to each other, that they are always at war and that the life of one endangers the life of the other.

Now it is perfectly true that there have been repeated and bloody battles between certain universities and certain churches. Universities which originally were daughters of churches and were supported and nurtured by them have disowned their parentage in the name of freedom. Often these conflicts have left intellectual and spiritual scars which mark both the churches and the universities to this day. It is equally clear, however, that all these alarms and excursions have been the result, either of tragic misunderstanding, usually on both sides, or of bad thinking and bad theology, also on both sides. In the academic community a wandering scholar has drunk too exclusively of the heady wine of Athens, has broken truth into little fragments discernible only by the methods of the laboratory and has become contemptuous of the truth to be found in Jerusalem. In the church—in it’s empirical form as a given denomination—the normal pattern is that its leaders have substituted single threads of tradition for the centrality of Jesus Christ, have set up doctrinal standards which have never been in the mainstream of historic Christianity, and have elevated tenuous theologizing above the clear, clean words of Holy Writ. At times, the resulting chaos has been almost comic. When bad theology and bad intellectualism meet, the air is filled with dismaying irrelevancies and flying strawmen. The Evil One is the only one who has been edified.

 

Confrontation and Confession

In contrast, there is the university which considers itself the Church in action on certain vastly significant frontiers, particularly the frontier of confrontation and confession. Here "church" and "world" can meet, both at their highest and best. The university is the last home of examined faith and examined science. The Cross throws its light over the thought patterns of the age. There are inevitable tensions and conflicts but they are continuously being resolved in an atmosphere of alliance which is born of a profound respect for the totality of truth, whether it be found in Aristotle's "Ethics" or in the Gospel according to St. John.

Again it must be emphasized that there is nothing inhibiting or negative in this process. It is admittedly difficult—largely because of a latent and continuing unwillingness both in the university and in the Church to examine and re-examine the habitual assumptions which undergird all the disciplines of the university. A valid faith cannot live at the expense of truth; and truth will never compel the abandonment of an examined faith. Both live most fruitfully when they dwell together in humility, devotion, and discipline.

This is the great tradition of the university that stands squarely and honestly in the mainstream of Christian history. As I have indicated earlier there is a singular timelessness about its life and work which makes it uniquely able to rise above the winds and tides of mere humanism, to escape the prison house of the senses and the sin-imposed chains of reason. As a part of the Church it views the life of the individual and of society as a parenthesis between two eternities. It considers the parenthesis important, even great and beautiful; but it never forgets that its ultimate meaning depends on what has gone before and what will come after. With reverence vital and fellowship real it can face the world with unmatched power and dignity. Within its walls Jerusalem and Athens can meet, and their meeting can kindle a light which is like the morning sun over a world darkened so long by the heresy of an exclusive emphasis.

   
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