Survey finds that U.S. students from majority religions feel more support on campuses than those from minority faith traditions -- and that very few students are frequently engaged in organized interfaith activities.
Pope Francis was not thinking of Marx when he made his prophetic call that the church be an inclusive “home for all” and not a “small chapel” for select groups. But his timing could not be better. Today’s religiously charged political climate is bubbling over. We see it in Syria and the Sudan, in Iraq and Ireland, in Afghanistan and, at times, in America. And it’s not discriminating. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others are all affected.
The Pope’s vision that “God is all promise” is echoed by Eboo Patel, a distinguished Muslim advocate for interfaith dialogue, who believes the nation’s colleges and universities can be catalysts for productive faith-filled discernment and service.
A member of President Obama’s Faith-based Neighborhood Partnership and CEO of the Interfaith Youth Core, Patel was recently in economically hard-hit Reading, Pa., to talk to students and community members about the interplay of religion and politics. He believes students at American colleges can become interfaith leaders, marshaling the mind-power, energy and enthusiasm needed to make religion a bridge, not a barrier -- a shield, not a sword.
It’s a vision compatible with the Pope’s challenging analogy -- that the church be a “field hospital” after a battle, where wounds are healed.
It is not just in the Middle East that religion is used to divide, even polarize, societies. History provides a sad encyclopedia of examples, including the long history of religious prejudice in the United States. The presence of Patel on Alvernia University’s campus drew objections from some outside the university who complained about the mere appearance of a Muslim, just as they had when an imam participated in an interfaith service at my inauguration.
Universities are often criticized for hosting a speaker who holds positions at odds with a particular religious perspective. Outside protesters at my campus did not object to the content of Senator Robert Casey’s recent lecture, but instead felt that because of some of his opinions, he should be barred from speaking at a Catholic university.
It is ironic that the speeches of Patel and Casey dealt with the importance of civility and respectful discussion about religious and political differences. And ironic, too, that both men sought to motivate students to be active citizens. Such controversies help explain why religion sometimes gets a bad rap.
Yet religion is, for many, a positive inspiration for personal and social transformation. Religion can unite rather than divide us, especially in a country with a far stronger tradition of tolerance than of narrowness and prejudice. And it is in the university that differences of religion and politics should be engaged -- disputed strongly, sometimes stridently, yet always responsibly.
The university, in its treatment of such differences, should model for students the democratic culture envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and others. It should be a “sacred space” for dialogue and debate. A place where students are encouraged to explore the values -- including religious beliefs -- that they hold dear.
There is social good in this: studies confirm that religious people are significantly more likely to be civically engaged and serving those in need. So those colleges and universities shaped by distinctive religious traditions -- be they Catholic, Lutheran, or otherwise -- have added responsibility to ensure ethical, values-based perspectives infuse intellectual inquiry and campus culture.
Before his convocation address, Patel and I discussed his observation that Catholic universities are ideal places for Muslim students since such schools support the personal and spiritual growth of all students. By celebrating differences of belief and the common ground of shared values, interfaith dialogue models the civil discourse at the heart of the contemporary university.
Marx’s dismissal of religion as an opiate may seem strangely out of date today, when religion inspires both destructive strife and positive passion. Interfaith dialogue at a university rebuts Marx by helping ensure religious faith is an active force for good. It requires the self-reflection, collegiality, and genuine openness to the beliefs of others we value on our campuses and sorely need in our nation’s capital and throughout our country.
As Pope Francis said, “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one.”
Thomas F. Flynn is president of Alvernia University, in Pennsylvania.
As a new academic year gets under way, the writing is on the wall: higher education might well be lurching toward a period of creative destruction of the sort that has affected many other sectors of the economy in recent decades. Mention of “the University of Phoenix” or “MOOCs” or “the Minerva Project” strikes fear in the hearts of the tweed-wearing set, just as hand-loom weavers once trembled at the sight of textile mills. But the present moment offers religious college and universities a propitious opportunity. In fact, many have been quietly keeping aloof from the very things that have soured so many on the state of higher education.
The patchwork of faith-based schools in this country is a vital legacy of the American experiment in religious liberty. In the 19th century, when many European nations were centralizing education as a function of the modern state, the United States became a virtual hatchery of private, small church-related liberal arts colleges. From large institutions today such as Notre Dame and Baylor to smaller ones like Providence College, St. Anselm’s, Westmont College, Hope College, Valparaiso University, or my own institution, Gordon College on Boston’s North Shore, these schools have defied many odds, weathered many crises for the chance to compete in the current predatory ecosystem of higher education.
But the changes afoot today also pose challenges. For a brighter future, these schools will need to do more than look enviously at the Ivies or anxiously at their peers; they will have to look within and boldly and creatively articulate what sets them apart.
It begins with people, and not virtual ones. Personal mentoring and leisurely interaction between faculty and students have long been the heart of faith-based education. Neither the soulless PowerPoint-driven lecture hall nor any amount of MOOCs can substitute. Education about things that matter, Aristotle tells us in his Ethics, is often more about emulating a person than mastering a precept. Developing lasting mentors and true friends over the course of four years hardly figures in college rankings. But perhaps it is the factor that matters most.
In loco parentis was perhaps not such a bad idea after all. In a debauched hook-up and drinking campus culture trenchantly dissected in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, curfews, visiting hours, and behavior codes seem not altogether beside the point. My college has all three. Radically, on our campus, men and women still visit separate bathrooms.
Young people are called to a vocation, not a career. Thanks in part to a major grant initiative by the Lilly Endowment to faith-based schools several years ago, the Protestant idea of a “calling” or “vocation” has been reinvigorated; vocation is the new “V-word” on many campuses like mine. Ideas about it vary according to the particular environment, but they share a common vision that 18- and 19-year olds should think of the arc of their lives not primarily in terms of credentials, prestige, or power, but in terms of a calling to a higher good, an orientation of the whole person away from vices such as sloth, pride, and avarice and toward virtues such as justice, prudence, and charity. Many can lead an interesting, distinguished or successful life; few, a good one.
Finally, education is about doubling down on the liberal arts ideal, on what Plato and Platonists ever since have regarded as the exhilarating eros of truth-seeking — something lost on rightist utilitarian approaches to learning and sneered at by guardians of leftist orthodoxy on elite campuses. Great books courses, common core programs, capstone seminars flourish at many religious colleges, in which young people still converse with Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Erasmus, Pascal, Dostoyevsky, Tocqueville, Jane Austen, and many more. And such figures are not treated simply as benighted foils to our enlightened present nor as fodder for sophisticated deconstruction, but rather in a manner, to quote Donald Kagan, “to keep alive the possibility that the past may contain wisdom useful to the present.”
In the early Middle Ages, monasteries preserved the highest in the classical world for posterity. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians provided a clear theological rationale for this: “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things.” Schools like my own earnestly desire to carry forward this ancient dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem, between intellect and piety.
To be sure, many colleges not explicitly religious share some of the values of religious schools. And religious school themselves are far from perfect. Their rhetoric can exceed their reality, their budgets show much red, they may fail to fully practice what they preach, and some persist in confessional polemics of a bygone era.
But as outliers in the current scene, they harbor much promise. Generally, they evince more political diversity among their faculty than elite schools; they see that a life given to Mammon alone is a hollow one; they recognize the claims of community and tradition; they cherish the eros of learning; they are repositories of moral seriousness in a culture of ironic incredulity. Most importantly, they recognize that the dignity of our humanity, particularly in the realm of learning, longs for a transcendent horizon, a supreme wisdom and highest good — what Dante called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Thomas Albert Howard is professor of history and directs the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College, in Massachusetts.
So henceforth we have a whole new category of eminent religious figure: Pope Emeritus. I don’t know if the expression will catch on, but at least it’s less irreverent than the meme describing the current situation as Popus interruptus. (That’s proper cod-Latin, by the way. Please don’t feel obliged to correct the grammar.)
It can’t continue this way for long. Easter falls on the last day of this month; as a Catholic friend puts it, “The show must go on.” Those of us who are neither believers nor gamblers have no real investment in the outcome, of course. But the office and its claim to authority are intriguing, even so, and I spent part of the weekend reading a couple of dialogues between Vatican dignitaries and eminent secular thinkers.
The most recently published of them, Belief or Unbelief: A Confrontation (Helios Press, 2012), is also, oddly enough, the earlier of the two. It consists of a series of open letters exchanged, in the pages of a newspaper, between Umberto Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, who at the time of his death last year was a cardinal. In his introduction to Belief or Nonbelief?, the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox notes that Martini -- besides being a prominent scholar of the New Testament and the organizer of an annual standing-room-only lecture series for nonbelievers -- had been spoken of “as a possible future pontiff.”
The occasional reference in their dialogue suggests that it originally took place circa 2000 as part of what Florian Schuller, the director of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, calls “a very intensive, open, and committed discussion” under way in Italy “between intellectual representatives of the credenti (‘believers’) and the laici (‘secular persons’).” The colloquy between Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger making up The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (Ignatius, 2006) was held at the Academy in early 2004, about 15 months before the cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI.
From Schuller’s introduction to The Dialectics of Secularization, it’s clear that the exchange between the philosopher and the pontiff-to-be was arranged with the example of the Italian discussions in mind. Schuller sounds an almost diffident note. “We in Germany,” he writes, “seem to lack a common philosophical dialogue on the basis of different positions that are interested in each other (as in Italy) or structures that permit a plurality of world views to engage in a societally institutionalized yet completely free conversation on a high level of reflection (as in France).”
On the other hand, Habermas can engage in a public dialogue on religion and secularity without anyone expecting him to clarify whether or not he believes that Adam and Eve shared Eden with the dinosaurs (as in America). No doubt Schuller’s chagrin is heartfelt, but from this side of the water it can be difficult to credit.
Max Weber once referred to himself as “religiously unmusical” – not hostile to religion, that is, but temperamentally unable to respond to whatever it is that inspires or motivates faith. To judge by his writings on religion over the past decade or so, Habermas is a religiously unmusical person trying very, very hard to feel the rhythm. By contrast, Eco can actually carry a tune (he cites Thomas Aquinas with an evident passion for nuance and implication) even if he says he lost his faith in his early 20s and addresses Cardinal Martini from the standpoint of a nonbeliever.
In his exchange with Ratzinger, as elsewhere, Habermas maintains that (1) the modern, democratic, constitutional state does not require metaphysical legitimation, but (2) religious traditions, which do involve large claims about the nature and meaning of the universe, provide something crucial to making society livable, since they transmit and sustain values that otherwise would be pretty scarce.
All citizens may be equal in the eyes of the law, at least in principle. But recognizing formal equality is one thing, and respecting the dignity of others, or feeling an imperative to reduce their suffering, is quite another. It is, in short, a careful if rather vigorless effort by an adherent of “methodological atheism” (as Habermas describes himself elsewhere) to acknowledge that religious faith is not just the un-integrated remnant of pre-modern culture.
Nothing in Eco’s open letters to Martini is incompatible with what Habermas has to say, but they strain less to make room for the idea that believers and non-believers might be sharing a world together, rather than just putting up with each other. He begins with the point that even the most secular-minded people may find something fascinating about the biblical notion of an apocalyptic end of the world. And in the book’s closing pages he writes, “I’m not in favor of instituting a clear-cut opposition between believers in a transcendental God and those who don’t believe in any notion of a superior being.”
Eco and Habermas, then, are Unitarian Universalists, in the sense of the old joke that UUs believe in one God at the most. And their opposite numbers from the Vatican are as patient and indulgent of them as possible. It is the appropriate response to dealing with thinkers who are stumbling in the general direction of absolute Truth. (Lest my Catholic mother-in-law read this and take it the wrong way, let me make clear that it’s Martini and Ratzinger who regard the church as possessing absolute Truth. Indeed, they both spell it with the capital T.)
The worldly philosophers struggle valiantly to make some accommodation between the pious and the profane. The cardinals respond in kind. But in the end, each poses what is essentially the same question to their interlocutors. “It’s difficult for me to see,” Martini admits, “how an existence inspired by” the standards of “altruism, sincerity, justice, solidarity, [and] forgiveness” can be upheld universally “when their absolute value is not founded on metaphysical principles or a personal God.” Ratzinger warns of “the hubris of reason that is no less dangerous” than blind faith. The atomic bomb is preeminently the product of human intelligence exercising itself. And what guidance will keep us from succumbing to that hubris? It can only come from Whoever created reason in the first place.
Not a new thesis, by any means. It's one of the oldest strategems of Christian apologetics: You value compassion, charity, forgiveness, etc. Those values must have a basis, or else they are arbitrary. And if you don't think they are arbitrary (if you don't think that the difference between empathy and viciousness is simply one of taste), then you implicitly believe they have a source, hence a creator, hence God. The merits of the argument have been debated in dormitories for ages, and in the Vatican for even longer. But Eco insists on a reality that can't be reasoned away:
"It seems evident to me that someone who has never experienced transcendence, or who has lost it, can make sense of his own life and death, can be comforted simply by his live for others, by his attempt to guarantee someone else a livable life even after he himself has disappeared. Certainly, there are those nonbelievers who are not at all worried about giving meaning to their own death. There are also those who claim to be faithful but would be willing to rip the heart from a living baby in order to preserve their own lives. The power of an ethical system is judged by the behavior of the saints, not by the benighted cuius deus venter est [whose god is the belly]."
Eco is suggesting, then, that there are unbelieving saints, just as there are pious psychopaths. I have no idea how they would get canonized, but it's an uplifting idea.