Seek the Flourishing of the University (Part 2 of 2)

An Interview with Steven Garber of The Washington Institute

Steven Garber is the director of the Washington Institute, which exists “to encourage the recovery of the integral relationship of faith to vocation to the responsible engagement of the culture across the country and beyond.”

As a sponsoring teacher, advocate and friend of Covenant Seminary‘s D.Min. Cohort on Faith, Vocation and Culture, Steven is helping several graduate students reshape their ideas about how Christians are called to be a redemptive presence in an increasingly diverse and post-modern American culture, as well as respond to questions raised by his book, The Fabric of Faithfulness, available from Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Penn.

If you missed Part 1 of this interview, published Aug. 22 on ESI, you can find it here.

QUESTION: In chapter 2, “The Problem and Its Parameters,” you wrote that, “True education is always about learning to connect knowing with doing, belief with behavior; and yet that connection is incredibly difficult to make for students in the modern university.” In the simplest possible terms, can you briefly explain why this is so? How is today’s model of higher education stacked against an honest exploration of belief?

RESPONSE: The simplest possible terms, huh? Take two of the words I have already used to describe our moment, e.g. secularizing, pluralizing. As the days pass we are an increasingly secular culture, with most windows to transcendence and truth denied. And at the same time we are an increasingly pluralistic culture, with every vision of the good life presented on equal terms. What do I mean? Over the last few years I have argued that one of the oldest ecclesiastical traditions in America is more “Hinduism with an Enlightenment face,” than it is a church that has a meaningful claim to historic Christianity. In reality it is more Hindu – every god is believed, every pathway is trusted. And also it is proud of its Enlightenment legacy – and so more shaped by dualisms like facts/values, sacred/secular, objective/subjective, modern/non-modern. Moving from the church to the academy, the same cultural pressures are seen. A “street-level” Hinduism, marked by an Enlightenment face, is normative in the academy. Anything is believed to be true, as long as it does not claim to be true.

But twined together with the pantheism-of-sorts that it is, is also a fierce commitment to the Enlightenment, and a strange pride that we “know” because we are modern or strangely, even post-modern. But they are not only ideas in the abstract. The very structures of learning are shaped by the forces of secularization, and so it is in the questions that are asked, and how they are answered pedagogically, that is in many ways even more destructive to “true education.” T. S. Eliot gave four lectures in 1952 at the University of Chicago, “The Aims of Education,” and brilliantly analyzed this phenomena, arguing that we cannot define the purpose of education without inevitably defining the purpose of man, the nature of the human condition, i.e. who are we? why are we? what is the point of life? If we are to think and live coherently as Christians in the university we will have to do our homework, and develop intellectually honest and rich paradigms that can make sense of life and learning in a secularizing, pluralizing world. I would recommend reading Lesslie Newbigin, most of all, with a good dose of Vaclav Havel too. There are thoughtful voices that can help us think through these difficult questions. If we don’t, we will compartmentalize and then privatize our faith, and it will have no forming power in our lives or in our communities.

QUESTION: In chapter 3, “Education for What Purpose? Competence to What End?,” you state that the primary challenge facing higher education today is that, “meaningful education is possible only if questions of meaning are allowed in education.” That’s a concise, memorable way to phrase the issue at hand. The problem, of course, is that we live in an increasingly anti-Christian society, with the majority of university faculty and students rejecting outright the meta-narrative of faith. How do we winsomely inject questions of meaning back into higher education given the chilling societal climate of “Culture Wars?”

RESPONSE: You don’t let up, do you?! The first rule of engagement is always to be excellent at our work, whatever it is. As students, as professors, as staff – if we are not known as people of true integrity, then whatever we believe will be seen as irrelevant to the common good. Integrity is a rich word, with meaning for relationships as well as responsibilities. The hardly-interested student has a hard time persuading the professor about the importance of honest faith; the laggardly professor will not win the respect of colleagues or students. But from the position of real integrity, we can talk about ideas, and the reality that ideas have legs. Sometimes in some places, people are deaf to meaningful conversations about anything. But that is more rare than the rule. Most people can be engaged by an honest question, asked by an honest person. We probably need to do more within the Church to help people understand this. Again, I love Havel for many reasons, but one is that he is a world-class intellectual leader who, while not a Christian, sees the line-in-the-sand clearly about the most important things, viz. he argues that if we lose God in the modern world, then we have to give up talking about meaning, purpose, accountability, and responsibility. Not unlike another European more than a century earlier, really. Nietzsche argued that if we lose God, we also lose the ability to speak of meaning and morality. That is stark, and in the “Enlightened” world of the academy, their critiques will not be happily received – as honest as they are. Sometimes our best friends are not other believers, but simply other human beings who are willing to be more intellectually and historically honest.

QUESTION: In chapter 6, “Masters, Mentors and Moral Meaning,” you affirm the importance of our students entering into relationships in which they can find mentoring, older – and presumably wiser – teachers and advisers who will shape and influence the thinking of our students. But the quote that you included from Cardinal Newman – “An academic system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified cast-iron University and nothing else” – hits squarely on the outcome that most Christian parents fear the most, i.e. that their “good Christian kids” will fall under the influence of a charming professor who positively delights in dismantling their faith and confusing them precisely at that critical point in life when they are making lifelong belief commitments. So what would you say, for example, to the Christian parent who absolutely does not want their child to be mentored by “godless academics?”

RESPONSE: What would I say? Either keep them at home, or send them off to a place where there are no “godless academics.” More and more, people make that choice – and it is not a bad choice, for a time. But we all have to realize that at some point, our dear ones will have to live in the world, the globalizing, secularizing, pluralizing world. And then what? Years ago I wrote an article for a magazine, Christian Home and School, “Don’t Leave Your Brains at the Box-Office: Teaching Our Children to Be Prudent, Not Prudish” (and later published by Critique). While it was focused on teaching children to make sense of movies, the point is a larger one. Being “prudent” is learning to see truthfully, while prudishness is always a knee-jerk reaction which can never be healthy over the long-haul. If we are not teaching our children – and this is the task of both home and church – to make sense of faith in the face of the challenges of secularization and pluralization, then they will not grow into people with faith that lasts for life. And here we are all glad for the gift of thoughtful, able Christians who are professors at the Mizzous of this world, offering another way to imagine living and learning in the “godless” world of the academy and beyond.

But one other thing. If there is one theological truth that changes the terms here, it is the reality of common grace for the common good. Most of the work of the world, the university included, is a work of common grace. Learning to build buildings, to write novels or screenplays, to analyze biological systems, to understand the complexity of history, each is what I would call a work of common grace, a gift that every human prizes – whatever we believe about the deepest questions of the cosmos. We need bread, justice and roads. So Christians can be fully engaged as professors and students in the work of the university – with gladness and singleness of heart – knowing that most of what is done is able to be done for the common good, for the flourishing of the city – to remember Jeremiah writing to the exiles.

QUESTION: In the preface to the expanded edition of The Fabric of Faithfulness, you make the statement that, “Men and women who sustain visions of faith over a lifetime learn to take into their hearts the disappointments and sorrows that come to them, finding a deeper, truer faith as they do so.” Given that all men and women will one day face disappointments and sorrows, why is it that only those with a meta-narrative of faith can find meaning and learn from these events? Would you say that the ability to make sense out of suffering applies to all people of faith, or is that truthfulness unique to the Christian?

RESPONSE: Let me say very plainly: I don’t think anyone can “make sense out of suffering” in a way that is final and definitive. There is too much mystery in our brokenness, and at our best we see through a glass darkly. Often our experience of the wounds of the world is terrible and tragic. So the question in the question you are asking is complex, and difficult. But to press into your question, I suppose the important words here are “all people of faith.” What does that mean? Hindus, animists, Maoists, materialists, Jews, Christians, and on and on?

One of the good gifts of Christians to the academy is to speak truthfully about the reality that all people are people of faith. We all have pre-theoretic commitments that shape us in the most implicit and explicit ways. The myth of philosophical neutrality is just that – a myth. Believing this then about all of us, I think that Bono is our best apologist here (and is helped by the thinking of people like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Francis Schaeffer, Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright). He is onto a profound truth when he contrasts grace and karma, arguing that they are deeply different accounts of life in the world. I am going to smile as I use a word from the contemporary university, but I don’t use it to be mean, or pejorative. Bono “privileges” the gospel of grace, arguing that its vision of life is unique, completely different from every other religious vision, which in their own different ways are forms of “faith.” His thesis is that they are each a kind of karma, whether a version of Eastern pantheism or Western materialism, e.g. Hinduism or determinism. I think he is making a cosmically-important statement about who we are and how we live. Karmas of any kind cannot have a good answer to disappointment and sorrow. In different languages and cultures, it finally comes down to “it is the way it is,” viz. fate – and we cannot act against fate. “Things are the way they are, and I am the way that I am.”

But if we choose against karma as an adequate account of life, what does grace mean, beyond a theological category? Simply this: if there has been an incarnation in history, then we are able to take the wounds of the world into our hearts – and still live, and love.

God knew the world in its sorrow and injustice, and still chose to love the world – an amazing grace. But knowing the hurts and wounds, God cried over them. That he did matters tremendously; if he didn’t, it would be hard for me to be a Christian. The tears of God are complex, though; if we are willing to work this through carefully we will learn from his tears, making them our own, crying for what God cries about – and laughing over what he laughs about. It is as Bono says in the song, “When I Look at the World,” viz. “I want to feel it like you do!” We cannot be romantics about the hurts of the world. They are devastating sometimes, and always painful. The hard question is this: knowing what we know of the complex wounds of the world, can we still love the world? Can we give grace, be grace? If there has been an incarnation, yes. And if we can, then we see the implications of this for our callings and careers within the university: it is in and through our various vocations that we know the world, and love it – physicists, agronomists, historians, and on and on. When we see it this way, we can keep at it, sustaining our visions and commitments over a lifetime – because we are called to do so, in imitation of Christ.

Steven Garber, Director

The Washington Institute

Jeremiah 29:7 (ESV)

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

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