Submitted by Mark Yudof on December 14, 2015 - 3:00am
George Orwell remarked in 1984 that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Orwell’s aphorism describes the strategy of today’s proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on college campuses against Israel. They see their movement as a way of protesting Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinians, its efforts to defend itself in a dangerous neighborhood and its purported colonialism. Yet their rhetoric corrupts the language of human rights and expropriates the words historically used to demean the Jew, focusing instead on the Jewish state. The strategy, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has stated, is to accuse “Israel of the five cardinal post-Holocaust sins: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide.”
Part of that strategy -- though apparently not the goal, which is to delegitimize Israel -- is to root BDS on campuses in a progressive coalition. If you are opposed to homophobia, if you are concerned about events in Ferguson and Staten Island, if you favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the party line is that you also should perceive Israel as an illegitimate colonial-settler nation. If, in the endless student government debates over BDS, the occasional 19th-century blood libel surfaces, those calumnies are ignored for the cause is just. For example, at the University of California at Berkeley, a professor who attended the BDS debate reported to me that Israeli soldiers were accused of deliberately killing women and poisoning wells. In age of exquisite sensitivity on some campuses to microaggression, or language that subtly offends underrepresented groups, the ironic toleration of microaggression against Jews often goes unnoted.
The fact is that, despite the hallowed traditions of academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, many campuses today are hostile to genuine conversation and debate. Freedom of expression is viewed by a vocal minority as a ploy to preserve privilege. There is a fear of listening to those with whom one disagrees. Campuses are viewed as “safe” only if they are ideologically pure. In the words of Santa Barbara Hillel Rabbi Evan Goodman: “At a university, of all places, there must be space for legitimate political discourse and analysis. This includes legitimate critiques of Israeli policy …. But when the one Jewish state in the world is obsessively singled out for condemnation, Jewish students recognize that their own religious and cultural identity is being called into question.” This corruption of facts and history must be rebutted.
Words do matter. The Jewish people have a long memory for the vituperative words and vicious pogroms of the past, most recently in 20th-century fascist Germany and Austria. Not surprisingly, however, people on campuses robustly debate whether BDS is itself anti-Semitic. Logic and history dictate that it is certainly possible to be highly critical of Israeli policies and yet not to be a Jew hater. Allegations of anti-Semitism against the speakers should not insulate the Israeli government from criticism. Many Jews and non-Jews alike are troubled by Israeli government policies on settlements and the West Bank. They embrace a two-state solution. Many back the agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons.
In what sense then, can BDS appropriately be described as anti-Semitic?
There are four reasons to be apprehensive. First, as former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has urged, the impact if not the specific intent of the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. Why focus solely on the world’s only Jewish state? While nations like China, Iran, Russia, Syria and others get a pass on campuses, Israel is the sole object of BDS. There are many displaced peoples around the globe, many conflicts and many settler nations. The double standard for Israel yields suspicion about the real agenda. Or, as Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law professor and leading defender of civil liberties, frequently challenges critics of Israel: “Name a single country in the history of the world, faced with threats comparable to those faced by Israel, that has a better record of human rights, compliance with the rule of law or seeking to minimize civilian casualties.”
Second, as Pope Francis recently noted, challenges to the right of Israel to exist smack of anti-Semitism. If one reads the writings of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and related groups, it is my impression that the ultimate aim is one state and not a Jewish state. The official ideological line of SJP is it is nonpolitical. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) insists “the BDS movement is consistently and completely neutral on the question of the political solution to this colonial conflict.”
But Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of BDS, has said that “definitely, most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.” Other BDS leaders by their words and actions also seem to oppose a two-state solution.
At bottom, BDS is a challenge to the legitimacy of the state of Israel and not just its policies; it is a disestablishment movement. No doubt, in the view of many people, controversial Israeli policies fan the flames, but the ultimate objective is not policy reform or redrawn boundaries.
Third, the narrative surrounding advocacy for BDS is often anti-Semitic. Jews are privileged and powerful; they block efforts to expose Israeli misadventures; they are too influential with Congress, the news media and the corporate sector. Perhaps that is why a group of student leaders told me when I was president of the University of California that the First Amendment should protect only marginalized peoples and not privileged folks like me (and presumably other administrators, Israelis, Zionists, etc.). I had the temerity to object to students trying to prevent the Israeli ambassador from speaking on one of the UC campuses. In recent protests at the City University of New York, SJP protesters screamed “Zionists out of CUNY.”
Fourth, whether deliberate or not, whether outliers or mainstream BDS advocates, the epiphenomena of BDS are anti-Semitic incidents -- swastikas painted on Jewish fraternities and other campus sites at Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, the University of California at Davis and elsewhere, and questioning of Jewish candidates for student government posts on their likely positions on BDS (Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles). The distinction between the Jewish people and Israelis is often completely lost. As in parts of Europe, Jews are likely to be considered unreflective auxiliaries of Israel. Hence questions are raised about the suitability of Jewish students for student government service if they are active in Jewish organizations or have visited Israel. No wonder that the most common question I am asked when addressing Jewish audiences is, “Where is it safe to send my children and grandchildren to college?”
As I write, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) estimates that dozens of campuses are at high risk of a student government pro-BDS votes; as many as another 100 universities show signs of significant BDS activity. In the last few years most University of California campus student governments have embraced a version of BDS, as have those at Northwestern, Stanford and other esteemed institutions.
What is to be done? Outraged emails and letters signed by Jewish leaders will not alone turn the tide, although I applaud the effort. Some off-campus Jewish organizations (I choose not to name them) have demanded the silencing of pro-BDS voices, a violation of free-speech principles in public universities (and most often voluntarily adopted in private institutions). There have been a handful of cases where the local pro-Israel community tried to "ban" SJP from campus. Such approaches violate democratic norms and will fail. An effective response requires less heated rhetoric, more truth telling, more organization and more tenacity, staying power, resources and planning. The BDS movement is an organized political campaign; only the tools of politics and committed opposition will defeat it.
A primary focus should be on the students, particularly the undergraduates who bear the brunt of campus BDS contretemps. They need support, including mentoring, which requires empathy -- understanding their needs and perspectives. It will not do for outside groups to helicopter in with ideologies that do not resonate with them; it will not do to offer to accomplish things they don’t want done.
Students also need better access to professionals who can help them organize, assist in reaching out to other student groups and in recruiting candidates to run for student government, and in fashioning tactics and strategies. Only the students can carry out these things, but others can empower them.
The role of faculty is crucial, but much work needs to be done to galvanize them. A subset of all faculty, including Jewish faculty, strongly endorse BDS. Most faculty members, however, stand apart from the fray; they are scholars and teachers who largely avoid controversies that do not immediately impact their important academic work. Most Jewish faculty tend to be unaffiliated and not necessarily strong supporters of Israel.
But it is vital to cultivate faculty voices that will fill the void. If only a dozen faculty members and administrators out of the many hundreds on a campus will educate themselves and others on the hurtful symbolism of BDS, write op-ed pieces to explain the complexities of the Jewish state, stand up for robust campus debates on Middle East policies, eschew the ideology of “antinormalization” of Israel and nonengagement by its critics, and take the time to mentor students, much can be accomplished. Who better than savvy faculty to put a stop to the Orwellian logic and corruption of language, facts and history in the BDS debate?
The path to success in all of this is an end to ad hoc and often amateurish responses. It is best to think of anti-BDS initiatives as a campaign and not just a series of one-off incidents requiring evanescent responses. Certainly the BDS proponents think in these terms. Faculty members and administrators from various campuses have formed a national network. They will meet periodically to test messages, devise communications strategies, research the issues, produce fact sheets, mobilize community groups, provide support and training, and bring together colleagues to share views and best practices. Such expertise should be available to students, staff and faculty on affected campuses, including the availability of speakers well versed in the issues, campus field teams and microgrants to campuses in crisis. The campaign should include a digital strategy, websites and video production.
Most important, people on campuses and in the larger Jewish community should strive to establish a new narrative based on universal values and not on the distortions and linguistic corruptions of the BDS movement. That narrative should emphasize democratic participation and civil rights; tolerance; equality for people of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations; human rights; freedom of expression and academic freedom. If Israel or its neighbors fall short of these expectations, criticism is quite warranted and legitimate and should be a part of the narrative. No hypocrisy, no double standards.
A crucial part of this effort should be to repair relationships between Jewish students and other groups, especially communities of color. More than 50 years ago, Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in Selma, Ala., with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Heschel walked only a few feet from the great civil rights leader. Jewish people overwhelmingly supported civil rights for African-Americans. Most Jewish leaders appreciate the plight of immigrants and object to homophobia and other virulent forms of discrimination. Whatever other differences may or may not exist among these groups, they should walk arm in arm, as King and Heschel and others did in 1965, unified in pursuit of equality.
In the long run, education is the key. Israel studies programs, professorial, administrator and student exchanges, administrator and faculty leadership trips to Israel and the like are vitally important. So too, research collaborations with Israel, already extensive, should be expanded. If exposed to the realities on the ground, including the genuine issues for Israeli Arabs and those in the West Bank, unfettered by Orwellian prose and distortion, I trust people to make up their own minds. Better personal observation and reflection than the corruption of language and events offered by the BDS movement.
The stakes are high. It is not so much that BDS will have an immediate economic impact on Israel, nor is it that boards of trustees and regents will ban investments from their endowments. They will not. (In fact, not a single board of regents or trustees at American campuses has yet embraced the boycott.) Nor is it my principal fear that American universities will withdraw from collaborations with the many outstanding Israeli educational institutions.
My concern focuses more on the underpinnings of BDS that challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state. In the coming decades, today’s university students will become leaders of America -- in public service and in the academic, corporate, military and nonprofit realms. What will be their understanding of Israel and its history and culture? Will they comprehend the relationship between anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitism? Will the historic friendship and mutual support between the United States and the Jewish state be imperiled? Will they perceive Israel as part and parcel of white privilege and colonialism?
And what will be their attitude toward violence in Israel? Today’s BDS leaders defend the recent intifada and stabbing of civilians in Israel as an appropriate means of resisting the occupation of the West Bank. How will future American leaders view such terrorism against Israelis? What happens on campus never stays on campus.
Most of all, I worry that the spirit of democracy may be withering on college campuses. Those who seek to silence campus speakers -- as occurred most recently at the University of Minnesota, when pro-Palestinian protesters tried to shout down Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal -- argue that they have a First Amendment right to drown out opponents. Another Orwellian twist of language and law.
American colleges and universities should affirm their commitment to robust debate and discussion of public issues and to the human capacity to reason and to educate and to address the perplexities of the human condition, including the longstanding conflicts in the Middle East. Campuses should never be “safe” from ideas and disagreement. They should be safe from ideological constraints on what may be expressed.
Mark Yudof is chair of the advisory board of the Academic Engagement Network, a new organization that brings together faculty members and administrators to address issues related to Israel, and president emeritus of the University of California.
Let’s not let the sideshow in Tennessee -- where, pretty much on cue, politicians have been waxing indignant over the call for “inclusive holiday celebrations” at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville -- distract us from the real war on Christmas: the one nobody at Fox News wants discussed.
Early campaigns to abolish the holiday form a largely forgotten chapter in American history. They were part of a larger cultural war, inspired if not actually led by the intellectual elite in Europe. Today the educational system and mass media of the United States make sure that everyone knows that Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the Pilgrims. But they somehow never get around to telling us about the Pilgrims and the other late-year holiday, the one they loathed: the ungodly, blasphemous abomination known as Christmas.
First things first. We need to go back a little farther in history to consider the cutting-edge scholarship of the 16th century. The hot field of the day was chronology, a controversy-laden discipline that you do not hear much about anymore and haven’t for a while. It was in part a response to the flood of new information coming into Europe about other parts of the globe and amplified by the invention of the printing press.
Chronologists scrutinized -- and struggled to integrate -- the historical record available from Jewish and Christian Scripture, the pagan authors of Greco-Roman antiquity, and newly available secular material from the Levant (what today is usually called the Middle East), such as the lists of Egyptian dynasties. The goal was to piece together into a coherent, consistent timeline running from the Garden of Eden down to the present. Chronologists knew they would eventually have to incorporate the records of far-flung civilizations in the Orient and the New World, but the documents at hand by the mid-1500s presented more than enough challenge at the time.
And the stakes were enormous, given the rift in Christendom. There were Catholic specialists in chronology, to be sure, but the painstakingly critical re-examination of the historical record had a particular urgency for reformers. Any established doctrine or traditional religious practice was fair game. If it did not find sanction in Scripture, it was surely a Romish affront to true Christianity -- and the Protestant chronologist could not help noticing that the Gospels were conspicuously silent on the date of Jesus’s birth.
The simplest argument appealed to both classical literature and common sense: “Could one seriously assume,” writes Nothaft in paraphrase, “that such a wise administrator as Augustus would have ordered a census, which forced people to travel long distances, at such a rainy and inconvenient time of the year? And even more strikingly: the shepherds attending to their flocks in the outside was hardly a scene to be expected during winter, when sheep were supposed to stay inside their stables, as Columella (De re rustica 7.3) taught.”
Other chronologists tried to determine the possible date of the nativity through textual analysis and deductive reasoning, some of it fairly convoluted. The Gospel of Luke has the angel Gabriel informing Mary of her unusual conception six months into the pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth, whose husband Zechariah is a priest. Gabriel had visited Zechariah while the latter burned incense and let him know that Elizabeth, despite her age, would give birth to a son named John (aka “the Baptist”).
So if the time and circumstances of John’s conception could be made congruent with the date of Zechariah being in the temple, then there would be sufficient grounds for determining Jesus’s nativity. That is, of course, one big if. Various dates for the incense burning from the Jewish liturgical calendar were advanced through various arguments too complex to digest here.
The upshot is that Jesus was born sometime between September and April -- probably toward the beginning or end of that period, considering the shepherds’ weather concerns. Chronologists could not reach a consensus on the date, but they could at least agree with a statement by Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), the pre-eminent thinker in their field. A French Protestant scholar of almost appalling erudition, he gave the Jesuits a run for their money in polemical combat. Questioning Dec. 25 as a Christian holiday could get you hauled in front of the Inquisition, he acknowledged, but that was because the pope and his minions had no better argument. “In fact,” Scaliger said, “the basis of their assumption is so absurd that it is astounding that all of Europe has agreed with it.”
Protestant militants had other, less recondite reasons for disliking Christmas and wanting to stamp it out. Nothaft quotes the First Book of Discipline issued by the Church of Scotland’s listing of Christmas as one of the holidays that, “because in God’s Scripture they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm.” Not to be too reductionist about it, but all those feast days on the calendar of the medieval church must have been quite galling to the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The theological arguments were sincere, but so was the emerging mentality that prized hard work and self-denial.
And indeed, the drunken office party at Christmas has deep roots. Chronologists suspected that the holiday was a holdover from the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, decorated with some Christian trimmings and without the orgies. (This remains one of the more plausible theories of how Christmas began.) Certainly, the holiday had too much of an odor of paganism for the Puritans. One of them, cited by Nothaft, complained that Christmas was just an excuse for “Drinking, Stage-plays, Enterludes, Masks, Mummeries, Dancing, and all licentious dissoluteness.” The road to hell is paved with reminders to have a very merry Christmas.
James P. Walsh’s paper “Holy Time and Sacred Space in Puritan New England” makes clear that Puritan New Englanders not only disdained Christmas (they called it “Foolstide”) but also were pretty aggressive about how utterly nonspecial it really was. The Lord’s command was to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy -- full stop. When Dec. 25 rolled around, the Puritans approached it with a tactic Walsh characterizes as “profanation.” His account bears quoting:
“In Plymouth, on Dec. 25, 1621, the Pilgrims went off to work, well aware that the date was regarded holy by most Englishmen. On their way to the fields, the Pilgrims encountered a group of their neighbors, recent immigrants, who refused to work on Christmas Day. After a heated discussion, Governor William Bradford grudgingly excused their benighted conformity to ancient custom, and the working party continued on its way. Upon returning from the fields at midday, however, Bradford found the idlers playing. Totally exasperated, Bradford broke up the game by taking away the ball. Samuel Sewall acted in the same spirit when he snooped around Boston on Dec. 25 to make sure that shopkeepers remained open for business.”
In 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay colony enacted legislation fining those who celebrated Christmas in any manner. An earlier Dec. 25 in Massachusetts Bay was officially observed as “a special day of fasting and humiliation.” I guess you could call that “celebrating Christmas,” but it’s a stretch.
The righteous struggle against Christmas waxed and waned, but it continued in America well into the 19th century. As late as the 1830s, the day was marked in Providence, R.I., only by the tolling of a single church bell on Christmas Eve. A writer who spent his boyhood there recalled that “the airy music of that evening bell, and the cheerful church next morning, dressed with aromatic hemlock sprays, were his only Christmas.”
Resistance to the holiday eventually eroded, for reasons only indirectly related to its religious significance. For one, there was the impact of immigration (e.g., not that many Calvinists coming in from Ireland). Even more, there was the practically irresistible culture-shaping course of mass media and consumerism.
“In the 1820s and ’30s,” according to one account, “the newspapers began their campaign of Christmas advertisements, with an occasional ‘Christmas or Holiday Offering,’ consisting chiefly of clothes, books and the illustrated annuals then popular. …”
I’m not sure whether the expression “Christmas or Holiday Offering” appeared in newspapers of the 1820s and ’30s, or if it was coined by the author of the article just quoted, which was published in 1935. Either way, it seems suspiciously inclusive, at least by the standards of our exhibitionistically aggrieved demagogues who wait all year for the opportunity to act like they’re being persecuted. They would embarrass the Pilgrims -- and not just for making an idol of Christmas. Say what you will about the Puritans, but at least they understood that self-pity is a vice, not a badge of honor.
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.