Tag Archives: science

Re-Thinking Bible “Study”: William Rainey Harper’s “Biblical” University

This is the first post in a multi-post series reflecting on the practice of “Bible study” as it is commonly practiced in its diverging forms  among biblical scholars and students at universities.

In 1899, the Old Testament scholar and founding president of the University of Chicago – William Rainey Harper – invited the age’s most famous revivalist and lay evangelist – Dwight L. Moody – to speak on campus, citing that

I do not understand, of course, that you, as a matter of fact, represent any other position than that which is actually maintained here at the University. The differences between us are merely differences of detail. [1]

To those of us more familiar with the very differing directions that the University of Chicago and Moody Bible College have taken since, this is a  statement that requires some unpacking. But for all the differences between William Rainey Harper and Dwight L. Moody, one thing underlay both their visions: the centrality of the Bible.

This might be a bit unexpected for those of us used to hearing narratives of secularization in which the development of research universities went hand in hand with decreasing religiosity. It also certainly doesn’t help that Chicago is now famous for its history-of-religions approach towards the faith that both invented and defined the departments of “Religious Studies” whose historical-critical approaches to the Bible are often alternatively lamented and criticized by evangelical campus ministries. In retrospect, the differences of detail Harper pointed out might have been quite a bit larger than he had anticipated.

More people today, however, are familiar with Moody’s winsome, practical approach to Christianity than Harper’s academic version, but both have had an incalculable impact on our approach towards Scripture today. William Rainey Harper was one of the first Old Testament scholars in the Americas to adopt the historical-critical method and to promote the reading of the Scriptures in the original languages. Much of the contemporary seminary curriculum today was innovated by his reform of Chicago’s affiliated seminary (now the Divinity School) – requiring practical field education, the study of the Bible in its original languages and contexts, a class on the English Bible, and (unfortunately) expecting seminarians to pay their own way through as training in financial management.

Harper’s skill as an administrator and educator were unparalleled. During his days as an Old Testament professor at Yale (the first full time professor of “Semitic Languages and Literature”), he was  running a correspondence Hebrew course that managed to draw tens of thousands of subscribers and simultaneously serving as one of the primary organizers of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Society at Chautauqua Lake, New York which would give birth to the entire idea of “continuing education”. Harper’s experience at Chautauqua would lead him to innovate with the idea of transferrable credits, laying the foundation for the system of institutions we today know as the “community college”. At the University of Chicago, Harper made the individual researcher more respectable than ever before (and also attracted all the best talent) by setting a new standard for professorial salaries that elevated the status of faculty above that of the schoolteacher. Harper’s deep involvement in so many things meant that, at some point, his correspondence alone constituted half of all letters processed at the New Haven post office!

Institutional accomplishments aside, what was perhaps most important about Harper was his singular vision for the birth of Biblical universities that would serve as the linchpin of a new American society grounded on the worldview and world of the Bible. Historian James P. Winds recounts in his book on Harper’s life and accomplishments how Harper’s commitment to building the University of Chicago can be seen as a basic working out of his commitment to the historical-critical method [2]. George Marsden, in his Soul of the American University, characterizes the University of Chicago as essentially the working out of the ideals of a “low-church” university, a Baptist university in all but name [3].

We in the 21st century dwell in the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies in which questions of biblical inerrancy have skewed our perspective on how religiously driven and conservative the original rise of Biblical criticism in America was. Early advocates such as Charles A. Briggs saw themselves as continuing the work of the Reformation in letting the tools of Biblical criticism help contemporary Christians recover the words of the Bible itself by clearing away the “dead wood, dry and brittle stubble, and noxious weeds” of “dead orthodoxy, every species of effete ecclesiasticism, all merely formal morality, all those dry and brittle fences that constitute denominationalism, and are the barriers of Church Unity” [4]. “It will ere long become clear to the Christian people,” Briggs would insist,

that the Higher Criticism has rendered an inestimable service to this generation and to the generations to come. What has been destroyed has been the fallacies and conceits of theologians; the obstructions that have barred the way of literary men from the Bible. Higher Criticism has forced its way into the Bible itself and brought us face to face with the holy contents, so that we may see and know whether they are divine or not. Higher Criticism has not contravened any decision of any Christian council, or any creed of any Church, or any statement of Scripture itself. It has rather brought the long-neglected statement of the Westminster Confession into prominence: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependenth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God.” [5]

Harper would combine this hope for a Biblical renewal of religion with optimism in the new research university ideal (before the advent of research universities, American colleges were more focused on developing “gentlemen”) to come up with a new Biblical vision for American democratic society built upon a new “biblical science.” In the words of James P. Wind, Harper transformed “the Holy Land of Palestine” into “God’s great laboratory, devoted to the solution of a single problem: how to live. In this reading, the Old Testament became a scientific notebook kept by a host of ‘laboratory assistants’ who labored in different periods of experimentation'” [6]. Harper would rejoice in

The elevation of the study of biblical history and literature to a level, scientifically considered, with that of other history and literature. We may frankly acknowledge that the methods employed almost universally twenty-five years ago in connection with the study of the Scriptures – methods still in vogue in many quarters – were unworthy, not only of the subject itself, but of any place in an institution of higher learning. [7]

Harper’s insistence on a “scientific” approach to the Scriptures was part and parcel of his vision for a “democratic” society built around the study of the Old Testament because the civilization of the Hebrews represented the most well-kept resources for understanding the laws of human progression and development:

In the course of their long-continued history they [the Hebrews] passed through nearly every form of life, from that of savages to that of highest civilization, and they lived under nearly every form of government, from the patriarchal, through the tribal, the monarchical, and the hierarchical. The history of no other nation furnishes parallels of so varied or so suggestive a character. [8]

This critical and scientific study of the history and literature of the Hebrew people would serve to improve the state of religious education, which, in lieu of such methods, was of a lesser quality. Harper lamented the bifurcation of minds that accompanied many well educated people of his day:

A teacher in the public schools, trained in all the modern methods of pedagogy, will do work of a most modern and scientific character through five days of the week. That same teacher in a Sunday school will give instruction which is of an infinitely lower grade, and will undertake the religious work with a lack of knowledge of her subject which she would regard as disgraceful in connection with her regular work throughout the week. [9]

Harper was deeply driven by an evolutionary progressive vision of the development of society in which the tools of scientific research and study would lay bare before humanity the laws of human life and civilization. In order for these to triumph, however, humans had a duty to transcend the traditions and superstitions that they continued to inherit and spread. Universities were supposed to serve as the “prophets of democracy” that would take the lead in spreading the forces of enlightenment and education across the land [10].

There was, in other words, an inherent elitism in Harper’s vision for a Biblical science. The importance of critical methods is that they are set over and against “uncritical” and traditional approaches characterized by the current state of religious education. For the ultimate rise and triumph of a scientific civilization, these “unscientific” ways of doing things would have to go.

This elitism manifests itself in a number of various ways, i.e. a reconstruction of the canon into various historical strata based on historical reconstruction of the Biblical texts into various “sources”. Instead of working with traditional demarcations such as the Pentateuch, one ends up with an exilic P source, a Josianic D source, a united monarchy J source, and a northern kingdom E source. Confusing sections in the text which would traditionally lead readers to search for intertextual syntheses are now explained as the product of differing theologies. The binding of Isaac (Gen 22), for instance, has seen interpretations that actually suggest that, at one strata in its history, the sacrifice actually went through and that the final form of the text is actually a composite mash-up of at least two disparate sources [11].

I do not mean to suggest that all critical scholarship is necessarily elitist – indeed, one can say that the emphasis on plurality in the Bible has done a good job pushing back against false syntheses that have been made – but insofar as the enterprise of Biblical scholarship in the U.S. has been heavily shaped by the visions of individuals like Harper, it is important for any attempt to grapple with the question of how Christians ought to study the Bible to be conscious of the ways in which a good number of scholars have indeed been socialized into a particular way of practicing their craft which reflects a particular vision for society (and its variations). Insofar as the University of Chicago has been one of the preeminent influences on departments of Religious Studies throughout the United States – and indeed, more than just that, based on how often the “Chicago Style” of citation is used – an awareness of this history goes a long way to explain current tensions between biblical scholars and Christian laypersons today [12].

One of the biggest challenges confronting any attempt to reform higher education today comes out of addressing the deeply (heterodox) theological roots underlying today’s system of higher education. This history has tended to be obscured due to the kinds of stories that today’s secular universities like to tell about themselves (usually some variation of some slow evolutionary progression of the powers of reason and free inquiry over the forces of religion and dogmatism). And insofar as the project of the Reformation is tied up with the project of scholarship, Christians today who are serious about Bible study are going to need to be serious about the academy and the ways in which it has and continues to shape our understandings of what it means to study the Bible.

I have tried, in this post, to lay out some of the background behind why there might be a kind of “divide” between lay and academic approaches to Bible study in the U.S.: the academic approach to the study of the Scriptures has been heavily shaped by an elitist vision for a scientific society that is grounded in an evolutionary conception of history that sees itself as necessary sublating “tradition” and “superstitions” of the past as part and parcel of a true recovery of a Biblical society. In our next post, we will try to discuss a bit more the conception of study that makes this possible, the conception of scientific “methods” which permit for the isolation and examination of texts in abstraction from one’s one social context, the ideal of scholarly “critical detachment” or “objectivity”.

This allows us then to consider what is probably the most manifest irony in all of this – the ways in which lay bible studies spawned out of a reaction against the elitism of academic Bible studies often share very similar assumptions, but merely flip the values around. If Protestants are to be faithful to their commitment to the Scriptures as the final norm and authority of the church, we are going to have to find ways to transcend the limitations fostered upon us by the modern mindset. Without being able to substantiate my claims here, I want to suggest that the very idea of being “modern” (and thus at a divide from “the ancients”) plays an important role in alienating Christians from approaching the texts of Scripture as living texts, blinding us to the ways in which we continue to be surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses with whom we are still contemporaries.

[1] Quoted in James Gilbert, Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991), 202.

[2] See James P. Wind, The Bible and the University: The Messianic Vision of William Rainey Harper (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1987).

[3] Indeed, the reason Rockefeller had wanted to endow a university was so that the Baptists could have a flagship university of their own comparable to the other mainline denominations of the time. See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[4] Cf. the inaugural address of Charles A. Briggs, “The Authority of Holy Scripture,” upon in-statement as the Edward Robinson Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in 1891. See Briggs, Charles A. The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981), 66-67.

[5] ibid., 33-34.

[6] Winds, The Bible and the University, 63-64.

[7] Harper, William Rainey. The Trend In Higher Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1905), 56.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 61-62.

[10] To expand upon this point would take us far afield, but here are a few quotations to whet one’s appetite. In short, Harper’s ecclesiology replaced the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man in the form of democracy, with the university in place of the church as its privileged torchbearer:

Democracy has been given a mission to the world, and it is of no uncertain character. I wish to show that the university is the prophet of this democracy and, as well, its priest and its philosopher; that, in other words, the university is the Messiah of the democracy, its to-be-expected deliverer. (p. 12)

Is democracy a religion? No. Has democracy a religion? Yes; a religion with its god, its altar, and its temple, with its code of ethics and its creed. Its god is mankind, humanity; its altar, home; its temple, country. The one doctrine of democracy’s creed is the brotherhood, and consequently the equality of man; its system of ethics in a single word, righteousness. …it was Jeremiah of olden time who first preached the idea of individualism, the idea that later became the fundamental thought in the teaching of Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest advocate of democracy; while the supplementary idea of solidarity, the corollary of individualism, was first preached by Ezekiel, and likewise later developed into Christianity. (p.21)

He [the priest] is the mediator between the individual and the ideal, whether abstract or concrete, which constitutes his God. For the god of each individual is that individual’s highest conception of man, his ideal man. The priest of democracy’s religion is therefore a mediator between man and man; for man is the constituent element in democracy, and humanity is the ideal of all its aspirations. (p.22)

Now, let the dream of democracy be likewise of that expected one [i.e. the Messiah]; this time an expected agency which, in union with all others, will usher in the dawn of the day when the universal brotherhood of man will be understood and accepted by all men. Meanwhile… the university spirit which, with every decade, dominates the world more fully, will be doing the work of the prophet, the priest, and the philosopher of democracy, and will continue to do that work until it shall be finished, until a purified and exalted democracy shall have become universal. (p.34)

All excerpts are taken from Harper’s essay “The University and Democracy” in The Trend in Higher Education.

[11] What is even more fascinating is the way in which these interpretations are not all unique to the modern era, many finding precedents in Rabbinic midrash and exegesis, suggesting that there may be a Jewish conception of the study of Scripture at play here. For an example of someone who reads the Abraham story as I have mentioned, read this article: “When Abraham Murdered Isaac”.

[12] This, of course, is not the only way in which Biblical scholarship has been practiced in the U.S. Conservative (and fundamentalist) reactions against the rise of higher criticism has promoted an alternative approach towards the study of the Bible that tends to see Bible study as attempting to discover eternal truths (understood in propositional terms) revealed to man by God’s direct inspiration. Interestingly enough, one can also see the influence of a form of scientism (though one that is more benign) on this conception of science, as the original progenitors of such a view (the Old Princeton school of theology) were trying to come up with a way in which they could conceive of theology as a “science” in a way akin to the various “sciences” of their age. Influenced more by Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which saw truths as mostly static and eternal, their dispute with the new Biblical scholars as much reflects the rise of more progressive and evolutionary approaches to the question of truth in the aftermath of Darwin as a matter of theological dispute.

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The Birth of the American University

Probably one of the most significant shifts in the way we think about higher education today has resulted from the widespread questioning of the secularization thesis which had long held sway over the way we conceive of the history of higher education. The thesis, in the academic context, typically maintained an inverse relationship between the advance of science and continued adherence to religious beliefs. In other words, as science progressed and continued to shape and improve our lives, the need for religion in people’s lives would decrease and eventually disappear. In keeping with this narrative, histories of higher education in the United States have tended to focus on various episodes which would demonstrate the slow working-out of the secularization principle as institutions such as Princeton University (formerly The College of New Jersey) morphed from religious colleges deeply shaped by colonial piety to “secular universities” which trumpet the values of critical thinking, societal improvement, and progress.

Not only is this narrative completely wrong, but it has also seriously affected the way that Christians have tended to approach the task of scientific research by framing the question in terms of “faith” and “science”. Whereas those who touted the secularization thesis tended to see the former as disappearing as the latter gains ascendency, Christians engaging in the latter tend to take an apologetic stance which insists that the two are somehow “compatible”. This, however, tends to obscure the very real philosophical and theological issues at play in the social practice of science. Even if the practice itself – after the innovation of making physics without metaphysics possible with Boyle’s invention of experimental science [1] – may be metaphysically minimalist (i.e. one merely needs to commit to some form of “methodological naturalism”), the who, what, where, when, why and how of practitioners engaging in the practice is often quite theologically fraught [2]. In the words of Abraham Kuyper, “Does not everyone who practices science as a man and not as a measuring stick view things through a subjective lens and always fill in the unseen part of the circle according to subjective opinion?” [3]

This becomes increasingly clear once we actually go back to the history and take a look at how various important figures in the history of higher education conceived of their work. Take, for instance, the “Father of the American University”, Daniel Coit Gilman (1831-1908). Gilman played a crucial role in the founding of Yale’s Sheffield School of Science, was essentially the founding president of what is today known as UC Berkeley, the founding president of the Johns Hopkins University – the first genuine graduate school program in the US, meaning that a huge number of the first generation of Ph.D.s given in the U.S. stemmed from his school – as well as the founding president of the Carnegie Institute (which funded scientific research). Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard (yes, the Charles Eliot of the Harvard Classics fame), admitted that it was not really until Gilman’s Johns Hopkins came along that Harvard’s graduate program actually figured out what it was doing [4].

Gilman was a man possessed with great singular vision, a vision which would forever leave the landscape of higher education in the United States changed. Before Gilman, American higher education was dominated by various denominational colleges which saw their role as the formation of the next generation of societal elites by inculcating them with the knowledge of the classical tradition. The idea of the “liberal arts” – those studies taken by those who are “free” of the need to labor for their livings – was that of the mastery of a particular body of knowledge which would provide the leaders of society with the common sensibilities with which they would be able to govern and serve. As such, lectures would be supplemented with “recitations” in which students would be tested on how well they were retaining and understanding the material which they were being taught.

Gilman, on the other hand, possessed a quite dynamic vision for the great universities of the future. In the aftermath of the failure of the religious and intellectual elite to broker some kind of solution to the slavery problem, he proposed a move away from the formation of classes of college graduates towards a focus on excellent individuals – from whatever background [5] – who would give their lives to the advance of Science. Instead of merely passing on knowledge, universities now had the role of advancing it via research. Instead of the recitation, one would now build the university around the experimental methods of the laboratory. Thus, the Johns Hopkins University would begin, not as an undergraduate institution, but as a graduate school, with the undergraduate college only added later as a result of popular pressure from the citizens of Baltimore. From the beginning, the advance, conservation, refining, and dissemination of knowledge would be the aim of Gilman’s new university, which would stand at the center of an entire network of new scientific institutions made possible by the philanthropy of the nouveau riche – libraries, museums, academies, technical schools, and scientific societies. These would, in Gilman’s words, orbit around a strong university as “planets around the sun”. What, for Gilman, was the significance of these new universities?

It is a reaching out for a better state of society than now exists; it is a dim but an indelible impression of the value of knowledge; it is a craving for intellectual and moral growth; it is a longing to interpret the laws of creation; it means a wish for less misery among the poor, less ignorance in schools, less bigotry in religion, less suffering in the hospital, less fraud in business, less folly in politics; it means more study of nature, more love of art, more lessons from history, more security in property, more health in cities, more virtue in the country, more wisdom in legislation; it implies more intelligence, more happiness, more religion. [6]

Interpreting the laws of creation. Less bigotry in religion. More religion. Historians of higher education in the clutches of the secularization thesis have tended to interpret these and other similar statements made by Gilman and his fellow university builders in the late 19th century as mere rhetoric made for the sake of winning the support of the yet-pious populate while secretly pushing the science that would put an end to such superstitious nonsense. Gilman and his companions did indeed seek to combat dogmatic religion, but they did so by articulating an alternate theological vision. Indeed, as historian D.G. Hart argues, Gilman preached an “intellectual gospel” that did for the natural sciences what the “social gospel” would do for the social sciences – articulate a theological justification for them that would stand roughly in continuity with the religious background of American evangelicalism while adapting to developments in science such as that of evolutionary theory [7].

From Gilman’s perspective, he and his colleagues were standing at the dawn of another new era in theological development. Theology, once dominated by dogma, was given a shake-up in the Renaissance with the re-introduction of the study of the classics into the university curriculum. Now, the sciences were clambering for a hearing. And just as the dogmatic theologians persecuted those influenced by the classical learning at first (i.e. the Reformation), now the defenders of the classical education would persecute the sciences. He and his friends believed that they were in the midst of witnessing “the most striking evolution of morals and religion in the history of our race” in which the legends and myths of Dogmatic Theology were being swept away in favor of a purified form of Religion centered around scientific criticism and the “comparative method.” In the words of his Yale classmate Andrew Dickson White,

The races dominant in religion and morals have been lifted from the idea of a ‘chosen people’ stimulated and abetted by their tribal god in every sort of cruelty and injustice, to the conception of a vast community in which the fatherhood of God overarches all, and the brotherhood of man permeates all. [8]

The language of the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of man” should be familiar to anyone who has passing familiarity with what would eventually be known as “theological liberalism” at the dawn of the 20th century. While it would be unfair to label Gilman a “liberal”, he certainly shared the sympathies of the proto-liberal movement known as the “New Theology” at the end of the 19th century which drew inspiration from the revised Romanticism of Horace Bushnell, the evolutionary theory of Joseph LeConte, and the preaching of the popular pastor Lyman Abbott. At the core of Gilman’s convictions was not that science was compatible with theology, but rather, that the work of scientific research was theology.

The wisdom of God was not to be discovered by reflection on Jesus Christ – in other words, in Christology – but by the study of nature. Indeed, whereas Paul of Tarsus would sing a paean of praise to Christ, the wisdom and knowledge of God in whom, for whom, and to whom are all things, Gilman would sing his hymns to Science, mediator between God and man. Where Paul would declare that it was the cross of Christ which has broken down the “dividing walls of hostility” between men, Gilman would declare that the study of comparative linguistics

has broken down the middle wall of partition between kindred races and kindred studies; …it has taught us that the study of language is one study. As man is the same in all ages, the history of man is one in all ages. [9]

In a speech on the new word that had arisen to describe the new task of study, “research”, Gilman would offer his gloss on the Nicene Creed:

The study of nature has usurped the throne of human authority… so that many men of many minds find in an ancient Credo the best expression of their knowledge and their faith: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible.’

He does not go on to confess faith in Jesus in the next line. Nor the Holy Spirit. Though if one asked, there is no doubt that Gilman would readily affirm faith. The election of Christ and the fellowship of the church, however, did not play a huge role in Gilman’s theology. Indeed, having replaced Christology with the study of the world – nature and history – there is no need to wade into divisive sectarian controversies over theological details such as Christology when one can merely appeal to what everyone can see in common – the world around us. In making this move, Gilman was by no means innovating. Indeed, he was merely re-articulating the Enlightenment synthesis that had already dominated American colleges as early as the American Revolution in a new form. Instead of teaching theology, on which various Christians disagreed, America’s early evangelicals (this is a comprehensive term that includes both theological conservatives and liberals who inherit the tradition) emphasized moral philosophy and natural theology/apologetics instead.

Unhinged from Christology, Pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit) took a different turn as well. Instead of being centered about the church, all mankind (gender-specific language intended) was brought into a “brotherhood” for the advancement of “civilization”. Yet, in a way, this was merely a further development of the Halfway Covenant of the Puritan state-church synthesis which was, in its turn, a legacy of Constantinian Christianity. Instead of a distinction between the church and the world grounded in an already-but-not-yet eschatology, Gilman and his colleagues would operate from a post-millenial conception of the progressive organic “evolution” of the kingdom of God through the course of human history and culture. There is good reason that today’s academy is dominated by conversations about the legacy of colonialism vacillating between affirming the goods brought about by modern “civilization” and condemning the arrogance of Western imperialism. The very foundations of the American university are grounded in a vision for a universal church of mankind’s progress and civilization.

Science, politics, economics, and religion all fused together into Gilman’s vision of a better humanity. The truth of America’s first great “secular” universities is not that they were without theology, but that they were dominated by a particular one, one that blinded itself to its own background and presuppositions. Little wonder, then, that the university would experience “secularization” once the first generation of scholars, aware of their religious motivations, died off. There is, as such, no non-theological answer to the question of “faith and science”. Any Christian who wants to adequately get at the roots of the problem will need to deal with the reasons why the various positions eventually adopted were ultimately adopted. For the American church, this means, at the very least, grappling with the legacy of the Enlightenment, the question of the relationship between church and state, and slavery. In doing so, one finds oneself confronting theological issues that have gone unresolved as far back as the Reformation and, indeed, perhaps even as early as the formulation of the Nicene Creed.

There are no easy answers to these questions, but they must be asked. The solution to bad theology is not no theology, but good theology. If, at the heart of America’s research universities is a particular theological vision of Christian participation in science, only an alternative vision will suffice. Only thus will we move beyond the “faith and science” dispute and the benign attempts of various Christian apologists to resolve the issue without really hitting to the deep theological presuppositions at the heart of the question.

Endnotes:

[1] Historians of science Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer discuss the political/epistemological implications of the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. The fact that we see the former as a scientist and the latter as a political theorist despite the fact that both were engaged in political and epistemological reflections goes to show how much our contemporary debate is shaped by the results of the kind of sphere differentiation that is made possible by the victory of Boyle’s paradigm, in which his “metaphysically neutral” experimental method triumphed over Hobbes’ “metaphysically laden” natural philosophical approach. See Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985).

[2] One of the more fascinating attempts to understand modernity can be found in Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1991), in which he suggests that modernity attempted to build society based on a nature-culture distinction that would differentiate between various spheres in society in which various principles would hold sway, but that this differentiation remained blind to the way in which various “hybrids” continued to cross-contaminate spheres such that they never completely operated according to their supposedly purifying principle. In other words, while we often think of politics, science, economics, religion, etc. as demarcating different sectors of society in which differing principles reign (i.e. economic principles in the market, scientific principles in science, political principles in politics, etc.), this has never been the case. Science has always been economic, political, and religious. And the other spheres as well, despite the fact that we try our hardest to police the boundaries between them. (Note: This blog roughly divides into categories which have stemmed from such a modern synthesis).

The problem with most attempts to reconcile faith and science (indeed, the very metaphor of “reconciliation” itself ought to be suspect) is that they have essentially bought into this “modern” division of labor and see their task as trying to demarcate exactly where the boundaries between two different realms lies. These strategies fail insofar as they continue to share the same assumptions as the view(s) they wish to contest. Any genuine attempt to do justice to the issue will need to bring many of the categories with which we use to interpret our history into question and try to more faithfully trace out the various neglected dimensions of our contemporary existence.

[3] cf. Kuyper’s essay “Common Grace in Science”.

[4] His words in a speech given in honor of Gilman’s accomplishments. “[T]he graduate school of Harvard University, [which] started feebly in 1870 and 1871, did not thrive until the example of Johns Hopkins forced our faculty to put their strength into the development of our instruction for graduates. And what was true of Harvard was true of every other university in the land which aspired to create an advanced school of arts and sciences.”

[5] The democratizing impulse present in Gilman would become even more pronounced in his friend, Andrew Dickson White, who would become the founding president of Cornell and a key player in orchestrating the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act that would establish most of the land grant universities that make up today’s State universities.

[6] See Gilman’s inaugural address as president of Johns Hopkins.

[7] See Hart, D.G. “Faith and Learning in the Age of the University: The Academic Ministry of Daniel Coit Gilman” in The Secularization of the Academy ed. George Marsden and Bradley J. Longfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 107-145.

[8] White, Andrew Dickson. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, reprint edition (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), 394-395. I have benefited from Mark Noll’s short essay on the figure: Noll, Mark. “Science, Religion, and A.D. White: Seeking Peace in the ‘Warfare Between Science and Theology’” The Biologos Foundation, accessed Dec. 16th, 2014, http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/noll_scholarly_essay2.pdf.

[9] cf. Gilman’s inaugural address as president of the University of California.

The University Beyond Schooling

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.

-Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971)

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this past year thinking and reading about the history and meaning of the university, and one of the things that has increasingly struck me is the radical shift in the way universities have been conceptualized in the past couple of centuries. Although I’m still in the process of formulating my thoughts on this shift – and probably will be for quite a while yet – one particularly fruitful way of characterizing the change is to see institutions of higher learning as being caught up in a general movement to create a “scientific society”. This is, I would note, not the same thing as creating a “technological society” (for those already reaching for their Heidegger). Rather, it has a lot to do with the new normative social role that university practices were increasingly expected to play in shaping modern society – especially those associated with the new instrumental science that had reached new institutional heights with the incorporation of the “laboratory” into the university vocabulary. We have the German Idealists to thank for that.

We still live in the aftermath of that shift today, a shift that makes us take the things that a few isolated scientists making measurements through various instruments do and see as more determinative of what we consider to be reality than our common sense intuitions themselves. This table I’m sitting at? It certainly appears solid, but we know that it’s actually mostly empty space, populated by a neat lattice of protons, neutrons, and electrons arranged in such a way so as to produce the electrostatic repulsion that keeps my computer from falling through. How do we know? Science.

This is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it crowds out the place that worship had at the center of the Christian conception of reality. What is most real about markets is not so much what various economists coming up with “scientific” theories of value say about the nature of distribution in the midst of scarcity, but the economy of gift and exchange that celebrated every Sunday in the liturgy as the church offers their sacrifice of thanksgiving in response to God’s gracious giving of his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. What’s most real about humans and social relations is not the current dominant sociological theory (evolutionary, functionalist, structural, etc.), but the communion of the Holy Spirit which derives its life from Jesus Christ Himself. What’s at the center of reality is not quarks, gluons, photons, and Higgs bosons smashing into one another, but a Trinitarian god who has swept humanity up into the eternal perichoretic dance of self-giving love. This is not to say that there is no place for various academic theories about the nature of reality, but rather that they only truly find their place within the larger context of the liturgy. That is how the academic vocation can be understood as an aspect of a sinner’s response to the free grace of God.

Much more can be written on this topic, but I want to consider the second major implication of the scientific society as it has often been worked out – the displacement of the church from the center of society (indeed, the idea that society, or culture, or religion, or politics somehow has more reality than Christ or the Church is a product of this shift). Ostensibly, this puts the university at the center of society, but as any historian of the university would all-too-readily admit, the ideal of “academic freedom” has long remained illusive for all but the most fortunate of institutions. In the place of the church, the university has often been subordinated to the interests of state and, increasingly in our society, economics. It is in this context that one can understand the quote with which I opened this post.

Ivan Illich was a 20th century Catholic philosopher and priest who spent a good chunk of his time leveling a devastating critique of the ways in which the Vatican and Western nation-states were engaged in and complicit with modern theories of “development” and dealing with “global poverty”. In doing so, he heavily critiqued the ways in which the rhetoric of “equal opportunity” ended up becoming a new way of assigning social ranking by educational attainment in abstraction from one’s personal life history, constructing new definitions of “poverty” in its wake. “Equal educational opportunity,” he writes,

is, indeed, both a desirable and a feasible goal, but to equate this with obligatory schooling is to confuse salvation with the Church. School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age. The nation-state has adopted it, drafting all citizens into a graded curriculum leading to sequential diplomas not unlike the initiation rituals and hieratic promotions of former times.

In the place of mandatory schooling, Illich articulated the beginnings of what he termed “network education”, an approach that focused less on making sure that schools had enough money for “custodial care, indoctrination, and the selection of social roles” (i.e. “physical plants, curricula, teachers, and administrators”) and more on trying to use technology to connect people with skills with people who wanted to learn skills, one of the basic drives behind the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) movement today.

A fuller evaluation of Illich’s project will have to wait for another day, but for now, it is enough for me to note the ways in which his diagnosis of the situation, though coming from a very different place, dovetails with my own interpretation. High-flying rhetoric aside, one finds in Illich the concern that “basic needs have been translated by society into scientifically produced commodities [so that] poverty is defined by standards which the technocrats can change at will.” Poverty, instead of being defined in terms of our universal condition towards God (with our social and economic needs a reflection and expression of that), is now defined by the new “priests” of society, the Ph.D. toting political scientist. What is most real is no longer the confession of the penitent and cry of the oppressed before God, but the “objective” evaluation of the academic. (Note: post-colonial theory has taken note of much of these critiques, but often falls to the trap of either uncritically affirming local traditions or failing to articulate coherent alternatives that escape the dialectic).

There are no easy solutions to the problems that I have tried to highlight. There are legitimate Christian reasons for wanting a scientific society. Indeed, a glance at the history of the development of a research ideal in the United States is intricately tied up with the history of Protestantism in the nation. There are also legitimate Christian reasons for seeking the (relative) freedom of the academy from the entanglements of church, state, and the business world.

I think it is safe to say, however, that the “science and religion at war” narrative is woefully insufficient for our needs. Ivan Illich, for one, gives a trenchant analysis of the kind of society that has resulted from positivist optimism about science. If the institutions of church and academy are to be distinct in our society, the relation between the two should not be that of replacement. But what should the relationship between the two of them be? And what might that mean for how universities engage the task of education?

Those of you who have followed thus far might already have sensed the spirit of Abraham Kuyper hovering over my words. In Kuyper, one finds a different path than the one that American society has trod – a separation of church and state that nevertheless has a role for the church to play in the rest of society without also having to dominate it, and a vision for scholarship in society that nevertheless finds its ultimate foundation in the divine decree.

As I have already hinted above, worship might play an important role in rethinking higher education such that it is not merely dominated by standards, curriculum, and degrees. For Christians, the communal pursuit of truth and sanctification that takes place at the university finds its ultimate grounding in the eucharistic worship of the church on the first day of the week. Communal. That brings up another key aspect that is often lost in the schooling-mindset that tends to dominate discussions of education today. Friendship plays a key role in the life of learning that tends to be ignored theoretically if not in practice.

Living faithfully in a scientific society, however, is not a task to be sneezed at. Shifts in our conception of history have affected the way we conceive of Scriptural authority. Theology, having been formally separated from philosophy, struggles to find its voice in-between the academy and church. Emphasis on objects and the pursuit of “objectivity” has left us trying to explain the organic in the terms of the inorganic. Statistics and probability have made the pursuit of “normalcy” normative. All these and more have radically changed the way that Christians approach living out the life of faith. Yet the reality at the center of it all remains the same: the love of God for his people, unchanging, unvarying, without limits, and without end.

The Tree of Pythagoras

How many penguins are there on the ice?
One, two, three, four, five. There are five penguins.

How many fingers are on a baby’s hand?
One, two, three, four, five. There are five fingers.

It is quite odd that, despite there being quite little in common between penguins and baby fingers, we can still proceed to count them in exactly the same manner. This is because counting is not so much about things as it is about us–about how our minds work with distinguishable volumes.

We take a mirror and observe ourselves amidst the counting process, and we find a lot of things going on! When we count, we recognize a large mass of interest, identify pieces that are similar and pieces that are different, associate a different number to each piece, and separate the unidentified mass with the mass we have previously identified.

Counting has three traits that make it very interesting. Firstly, it is a basic ability of (roughly) all human minds; secondly, it is consistent, producing the same result regardless of who is counting; and thirdly, it is intangible.

Although these are very crude distinctions, not many things satisfy the three traits simultaneously. For instance, desires, aesthetics, and opinions are intangible, and are capacities common to everyone, but they are not consistent, whereas  limbs, organs, and DNA are (roughly) consistent and common to everyone, but are not intangible. Even still, tradition, culture, and expertise are consistent and intangible, but are not common to everyone.

But to name a few other things that do (or could) share the three traits of counting are reason, justice, morality, and harmony.

A natural question to ask here then would be: is the process of counting at all more intimately related to any of reason, justice, morality, and harmony? Can we create an ideal world of justice through reason alone? Can we prove what is good and righteous with the tools of mathematics?

To begin with, the relation between counting and harmony had been known since the ancient times; its discovery is accredited to Pythagoras. Pythagoras discovered that every harmonious sound can be expressed by comparing two ways of counting, and it was striking, because well, there seems to be no immediately obvious reason for them to be related at all. Excited with this result, Pythagoras went on to establish an exclusive cult-academy of Apollo, where he preached the divinity of numbers and  taboos against beans as the ultimate truth.

One could say Pythagoras went overboard with a cult; but I would suppose he was only very optimistic that the aforementioned similarities between mathematics, harmony, justice, reason, and ethics would ultimately all point towards an essence that would unite them all. Pythagoras was just the first to carry the hopes that would later fascinate the dreams of Plato and the Enlightenment philosophers as well, of utopias governed by perfect morality and perfect faculties of reason.

Driven by the success in the theory of rational numbers, one of the things Pythagoras taught was that every existing number was in fact, rational, and was treated by his followers as a demigod with exclusive access to divine knowledge. However, his teachings turned out to be incorrect, as it did not acknowledge the existence of irrational numbers. According to folklore, Pythagoras is accused of murdering the student who approached him with the length of the diagonal of a unit square.

The Pythagoreans’ murder of this student seems to be only one of the many instances of persecution towards those with foreign knowledge, by those who defend a knowledge system already established in its place. In these instances, it seems as if there is a curious underlying connection between what the knowledge system would claim as right and what the moral system would pronounce as evil; is it natural to assume our knowledge systems capable of distinguishing even moral goods and evils as well?

But before we incriminate Pythagoras for the murder, I think we can at least first understand his desire to assume perfection and mastery, as also one that we might as well find in ourselves–to wish that every number must be one we have known very well already, to wish that everything that could be would already be something we were good at, seems a very common wish that anyone could naively hope for.

In fact, I think this desire can also be found in the story of Adam and Eve, the first created man and woman in Genesis. Adam and Eve also, I presume, knew of the same marvels of knowledge, the power of that godly point of view around which things seem to fall to complete order and harmony. They desired it so much that they were tempted to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that God had expressly forbidden them from eating. They assumed their knowledge was enough to tell them what was Good for them; but their knowledge could only foresee the forbidden fruit, as another harmless, nourishing fruit. With great excitement would they then have been tempted to believe, that the fruit would in fact, make them even more like God.

Instead, as the narrative turns out, taking the matters of Good and Evil into their hands resulted in a curse of humanity they could not have foreseen. The knowledge of Adam and Eve was not robust enough to predict the outcomes of good and evil as they had supposed. The story of Adam and Eve makes me wonder then, whether pretending our knowledge is all, that we can determine what is good by ourselves, that it would make us godly, will one day only make us realize how bare we really are, and our “perfect knowledge” compared to the light of God, or a spark of truth from an other, instead end up only creating space for fear, lies, and sin.

Reading Genesis as explaining the cause (rather than the origin) of evil, the story might be telling us that when we mistake our knowledge as godliness, it follows as a natural consequence to be banished from the lifestyle of Eden, of the joy in observing and cultivating the beautiful things of the world, wishing only the best of things to come.

I follow a Christian tradition that teaches that we are not to assume any righteousness of ourselves apart from the one given to us by grace, and that we are not to think of anybody as stupid, likening this very thought to the equivalent of murder. Though humanity has long been banished from the Garden of Eden, I think it may well be the case that we are still forbidden from writing the knowledge of Good and Evil ourselves. Rather, we are to obey what has been revealed as Good and Evil by the laws of God.

My own experiences of learning was as much a revelation of my ignorance as it has been an acquiring of knowledge; and it makes me doubt whether there can be ultimate knowledge of any kind. Even in matters of doctrine and theology, so deeply intertwined with the revelation that we hold ultimate, I think that what we know now has always been very little compared to what we have not yet known; and thus, that our growing knowledge should bring us to humility, instead of bringing others to our judgment.

In our current body of knowledge, there are two large portions of “facts” (statements considered consistent and universal) that constitute our ultimate notions of reality. One consists of historical facts, and the other consists of scientific facts. I think the reason they are so deeply trusted is because both kinds withstand the passage of time.

Historical facts withstand the passage of time by the way we understand the system of causality. Since an event cannot be influenced by any event occurring after it, a historical fact remains true for all moments after it occurs.

On the other hand, scientific facts withstand the passage of time by making average statements of time. Since we have taken the average  behavior of all time, the resulting phenomena are essentially timeless; ready to be imagined to reoccur at any arbitrary point in time, given the right preconditions. Scientific facts are produced after assuming the inductive hypothesis–that what has occurred today will occur tomorrow–which seems bizarre in the time scales of our schedules, but holds for much material behavior.

Both systems are powerful, but I think it deserves noting how the initial assumptions of the two types of facts are in fact, mutually exclusive. One assumes the fundamental particularity of every moment in time, viewing reality as consisting of events, while the other assumes the fundamental homogeneity of every moment in time, viewing reality to consist of timeless substances. Thus it is inevitable that these portions by themselves can only illuminate a portion of the reality that we believe is ultimate; what is really real, really important, really true.

As such, I think that even facts can only be as ultimate as the rational numbers had been to the Pythagoreans, and there will yet to be an infinitude of truths of faith that do not yet pertain to such facts, among the miraculous, the mysterious, and the cosmic imprints that have been revealed.

It sure must be exciting to share!

Hyunmoon graduated from Princeton in 2013 with a degree in mathematics. He is interested in modern cosmic ideologies and is now at Seoul National University trying to understand the structure of empty space through the mathematics of Lagrangian Floer Homology.