Creeds at War Intelligibly: Pluralism and the University

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Creeds at War Intelligibly

Pluralism and the University

THE ARTICLES OF PEACE which are the religion-clauses of the First Amendment designed a framework for the solution to the problem of religious pluralism in America, in so far as this problem admits and requires a solution in terms of constitutional law. Whether this legal solution, genial in principle, is satisfactory in its current application to the major area of difficulty, the historic School Question, is a matter for later discussion. In any case, religious pluralism is far more than a problem in law. It does indeed present itself to the state, to constitutional assemblies, legislatures, and courts. But these institutions have only a severely limited function, since they can do no more than bring the directive and coercive force of law to bear on the order of external social action—what is called the public order—in the interests of a necessary minimum of public peace.

In its deeper implications religious pluralism is a problem in the order of truth. It goes without saying that it presents itself to the mind and conscience of every individual who is concerned, as every individual must be concerned, to know the truth and to find God in peace. This, however, is not the aspect of the problem that claims my attention here. My narrower point is that the problem of religious pluralism presents itself to society. More exactly, it presents

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itself to the university. By the university I mean here that social institution whose function it is to bring the resources of reason and intelligence to bear, through all the disciplines of learning and teaching, on the problems of truth and understanding that confront society because they confront the mind of man himself.

What then is the competence, and what is the function, of the university with regard to the social problem of religious pluralism? The question is not easy to answer. This may be a major reason why it is so seldom asked.


It must first be noted that religious pluralism in America today has its own distinctive historical quality. Our society is not the ancient Christian Empire, with its divisions between Arian (or Nestorian) and Catholic Christianity. It is not the medieval commonwealth, with its many schools of contrasting philosophical and legal thought, whose conflicts were often sharpened by involvement in the constant polemic between the imperial power and the authority of the Church. It is not the post-Reformation Continental nation-state, with its religious wars between Catholic and Protestant. Nor is it the post Revolution "Catholic nation," with its pluralism of attitudes towards Catholicism, ranging from the most devout fidelity all the way to the extremes of anti-clericalism in the Latin Continental sense. Religious pluralism in American society is basically related to the kind of Ultimate Questions that have become the typical concern of modernity, as modernity has run its historic course and, in the process, carried the perennial human argument to ever more fundamental issues.

The Basic Question that modernity has come to ask is, of course, what is man? From this question all the others proliferate; to it, in one way or another, they all return.

What is the rank of man within the order of being, if there is

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an order of being? Is the nature of man simply continuous with the nature of the cosmic universe, to be understood in terms of its laws, whatever they may be? Or is there a discontinuity between man and the rest of nature, in that the nature of man is spiritual in a unique sense? Whence is man's origin? And what is his destiny? Is it to be found and fulfilled within terrestrial history or does it lie beyond time in "another world"? What is the "sense" of man's history, its direction and meaning and finality? Or is the category of "finality" meaningless? What can a man know? What do you mean when you say, "I know"? What manner of certitude or certainty attaches to human knowledge? Is knowledge a univocal term or are there diverse modes and degrees of knowledge, discontinuous one from another? What mental equivalents attach to all the words that have long been the currency of civilized discourse—freedom, justice, order, law, authority, power, peace, virtue, morality, religion? Can man's knowledge and his love reach to realities that transcend the world of matter, space, and time? Is there a God? What is God? A Person, or a Power, or only a Projection—whether of man's consciousness or of his unconscious? Does God have a care for man? How has He shown it? Has God entered the world of human history? Has He undertaken to accomplish a "redemption" of man? Does man need to be redeemed from sin or only from anxiety? Is man to be rescued from death or only from the fear of death? Is "salvation" only a reassuring ambiguity, an illusion and not a hope? If it is a hope, is there a plan of salvation? And if there is, does it include the Church? What is the Church? Is it a human thing, the work of man himself? Or is it a divine gift to man—not a "gathered" but a "given" Church? Since the Church somehow looks to Christ, who is this "man, Christ Jesus"? By whom was the truth about him stated—by Arius or Nestorius or Eutyches, or by Chalcedon? Was Chalcedon only Hellenism, a human accomplishment, or was the Holy Spirit in assistance to the assembled Fathers? And, farther back, since the Fathers appealed to the Bible, what is the Bible?

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Is it singly the work of men or is God Himself somehow its "author"? Do its books tell simply a human story or do they record the magnalia Dei, the wonderful deeds and words of God?

All these questions, and others related to them, concern the essentials of human existence. Through all of them there runs the continuous thread of modernity's basic question, what is man? The multiplicity of answers to all these questions, and the multiple ways of refusing the questions themselves, are in general what we mean by the religious pluralism of the modern age. Integral to the pluralism is the skeptic or agnostic view that it is useless or illegitimate even to ask Ultimate Questions.

If the university takes its function seriously, it ought to find itself in the characteristically modern situation of religious conflict, which is at once intellectual and passionate, a clash of individual minds and of organized opinions. Any refusal on the part of the university (and the university sometimes makes this refusal) to recognize its own spiritual and intellectual situation would be a flight from reality. The university would succumb to a special type of neurotic disorder if it were to cultivate an "inflated image" of itself as somehow standing in all serenity "above" the religious wars that rage beneath the surface of modern life and as somehow privileged to disregard these conflicts as irrelevant to its "search for truth." The only inner disorder that would be worse than this would be a flight to the fantasy that the university is omnicompetent to judge the issues of truth involved in all the pluralism of contemporary society.


If pluralism in the sense explained is the characteristic fact of contemporary society, it is also the original root of certain problems that are no less characteristic. An increasing preoccupation with the problematic aspects of pluralism is indeed one of the most interesting

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phenomena of the present time, which distinguishes it from the heyday of classical liberalism, when man's faith in the assumptions, spoken and unspoken, of an extreme individualism was still unshaken. For instance, it used to be assumed, as a cardinal merit of a pluralist society, that the truth would always be assured of conquest if only it were subjected to the unbridled competition of the market place of ideas. But it is now no longer possible to cherish this naivete. For further instance, it used to be assumed that an ever expanding variety of conflicting religious and philosophical views was per se an index of richness, a pledge of vitality, a proof of the values of individualism, a guarantee against stagnation, and so on. But history has not left this assumption intact. In a word, it used to be assumed that pluralism represented "progress." But now the question has arisen, whether its proliferation may not be causatively related to certain observable decadences within the area of intellectual life. A few might be mentioned, but without any intention of exploring the whole subject here.

There is, for instance, the advance of solipsism, the view that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared by another, much less by a community; this view is, of course, the destruction of the classical and Christian concept of reason. There is the dissolution of the ancient idea of the unity of truth, a unity that admits and demands distinctions and differentiations interior to itself, in consequence of which the concept of truth acquires an inner architecture whose structural elements are articulated in accord with a hierarchical principle. There is the consequent dissolution of the idea of truth itself, to the point where no assertion may claim more than the status of mere opinion, to be granted an equality of freedom with any other opinion. In further consequence there has occurred the dispersal into meaninglessness of all that Socrates meant by the "order of the soul."

There has also occurred that drastic contraction of the dimensions of reason and that severe devaluation of intelligence which usually

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goes by the name of "scientism," or, if you will, "positivism." This is the theory that "truth" is a univocal term, and that the single technique valid in the "search" for truth is the empirical method of science. This theory is the denial of the possibility of philosophy in the meaning that the word has had since Plato. Finally, there has taken place a decay of the political intelligence, a loss of confidence in the power of reason to fix the purposes of political life and to direct the energies of freedom in such a way as to impose a due measure of human control upon the forces of history, upon the automatisms of technology, and upon the hurrying pace of events. But perhaps the ultimate tendency of the pluralisms created by the era of modernity is felt, as I have elsewhere said, rather in the realm of affectivity than in the realm of reason as such. The fact today is not simply that we hold different views but that we have become different types of men, with different styles of interior life. We are therefore uneasy in one another's presence. We are not, in fact, present to one another at all; we are absent from one another. That is, I am not transparent to the other, nor he to me; our mutual experience is that of an opaqueness. And this reciprocal opaqueness is the root of an hostility that is overcome only with an effort, if at all.

My suggestion then is that the problem of pluralism has begun to appear in a new light. Perhaps the basic reason for this is the fact that we are entering a new era. Whether it will be a better or even a good era is another question that still remains open. In any case, we have reached the end of the era that gave itself the qualification "moderm."

This observation is not original. A Catholic theologian, Romano Guardini, has written a book—The End of the Modern World. The thesis of this book is sustained firmly, if not so formally, by an English social scientist, Michael Polanyi. A Protestant philosopher, W. Ernest Hocking, has defined today's problem as the "passage beyond modernity." A political scientist, Eric Voegelin, has pointed to the fact that the "reduction" of man, from image of God down to

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a mass of biological drives, has "run its whole gamut"; and he has drawn the conclusion that this fact is "for the social scientist the most important index that `modernity' has run its course." A historian, Geoffrey Barraclough, has done an essay with the title, "The End of European History," meaning in context the end of the history of modern Europe. A Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, has put forward the thesis that in some identifiable sense an end has been put to what he calls the "Protestant era," which was itself an important aspect of modernity. Arnold Toynbee has gone so far as to popularize the notion that our present era is not only post-modern but also post-Christian.

If these observers, whose points of view are so diverse, may claim credence, it follows that we confront a whole new set of problems. There is, of course, the problem of salvaging those elements of truth and moral value which gave vitality to the whole movement called "modernity." But my question concerns only the manifold pluralisms, in the sense explained, which have been the special creation of modernity. With the dissolution of the age that made them, are these pluralisms somehow and to some extent to be unmade?

It would seem that the process of unmaking them is already importantly afoot. Protestantism, for instance, now feels its own inner discordant pluralisms as no longer an unqualified glory but as something of a scandal; and in the Ecumenical Movement it is in quest of its own unities. Catholicism in turn now feels that certain of its past unities were something of a scandal; we now reject, for instance, the specious unity asserted in Belloc's famous thesis that "Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe." In consequence the Church is asserting with sharper emphasis its own proper sacramental unity, altogether universal, altogether spiritual, not enfeoffed to any historical culture but transcendent to every culture at the same time that it is a leaven in aII cultures. Again, the entity called "Europe" has realized that its modern pluralisms of many kinds, of which it was once boastfully jealous, are importantly the cause

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of its own present impotence. The "good European" has now emerged, and his quest is for some manner and measure of unity that will begin for Europe a new history and regain for it a due share of its lost significance in the realm of historical action. The Communist too, whether Soviet or Chinese, cherishes his own dream of a demonic unification of the world. And in the United States, finally, the problem of unity in its relation to the pluralisms of American society has begun to be felt with a new seriousness.

True enough, the problem is not seldom raised in a way that is false. One thinks, for instance, of the New Nativism, as represented by Mr. Paul Blanshard; or of the issue of "conformism," about which there is so much confused talk; or of the current anxieties about internal subversion, regarded as a threat to an American unity ("there are those among us who are not of us"). And so on. But even the falsities attendant upon the manner in which the issue of unity-amid-pluralism is raised bear witness to the reality of the issue itself.

The question has been asked: How much of the pluralism is bogus and unreal? And how much of the unity is likewise bogus and undesirable? The more general question has been asked: How much pluralism and what kinds of pluralism can a pluralist society stand? And conversely, how much unity and what kind of unity does a pluralist society need in order to be a society at all, effectively organized for responsible action in history, and yet a "free" society?

Similarly, certain words have now acquired a respectability that was long denied them—the word "order," for instance, which now is disjunctively coupled with the word "freedom," with the fading of the typically modern illusion that somehow "freedom" is itself the principle of order.

Finally, responsible and informed thinkers can now discourse about the "public philosophy" of America, considering it to be a valid concept which furnishes the premises for dissent, to be identified as dissent even though the public philosophy itself contains no tenets

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that would justify coercion of the dissenter. In the same fashion serious inquiries are now made into the American consensus—whether there be such a thing and what it is and whence it came and how it may be kept alive and operative by argument among reasonable men. Moreover, since every social consensus that supports and directs the historical action of a given political community is always to a considerable extent a legacy from an earlier age, questions have been asked about the American heritage and about the manner in which it has developed. Has the America of today been true to its own spiritual origins? Indeed, were the principles that lay at its origins ambiguous to some extent, so as to permit various lines of development, not all of them happy? Is the American man of today an "exile from his own past" (as Geoffrey Brunn said of European man)?

The central point here is that the quest for unity-amid-pluralism has assumed a new urgency in the mind of post-modem man.

In this connection it might be well to advert to the fact that, since St. Augustine's description of the "two cities," it has been realized that societal unity may, broadly speaking, be of two orders—the divine or the demonic. It is of the divine order when it is the product of faith, reason, freedom, justice, law, and love. Within the social unity created by these forces, which are instinct with all the divinity that resides in man, the human personality itself grows to its destined stature of dignity at the same time that the community achieves its unity. Societal unity is of the demonic order when it is the product of force, whether the force be violent or subtle. There are, for instance, all the kind's of force that operate in the industrial society created by modernity (irrational political propaganda, commercial advertising, all the assaults upon reason and taste that are launched by mass amusements, and the like). These forces operate under the device of "freedom," but unto the disintegration of the human personality, and unto the more or less forcible unification of social life on a level lower than that established, forever, by Aristotle's

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"reasonable man" and by his Christian completion. The quest for unity-amid-pluralism must therefore be critical of its own impulses. Its stimulus must not be passion, whether the passion be imperialist (the will to power) or craven (fear and anxiety).


What then might be the functions of the university in the face of the problem of pluralism as newly presented at the outset of the post-modern era? The premise of the question is the fact that the basic issues have come to matter to men in a new way. Does this fact matter to the university? Many of the commitments of modernity—shared by the university, because it too has been modern—have dissolved in disenchantment. Does their dissolution make any difference to the university? The positivistic universe (if the phrase be not a contradiction in adiecto) has come to seem a wilderness of disorder to the soul of man, which cannot be content to live in chaos, since it is always aware, however dimly, that it is natively committed to the discovery of an order in reality or, alternatively, to the imposition of an order on reality, perhaps at high cost both to reality and to itself. Is post-modern man's new commitment to order of any interest to the university?

I know, of course, that the word "commitment" used in regard of a university raises specters. I am not myself fond of the word; it is more distinctively part of the Protestant vocabulary, which is not mine. (Moreover the dictionary adds to its definition: " . . . esp. to prison"!) In any case, some nice questions center around the word. Is the university, as a matter of fact, uncommitted? And in what senses or in what directions? Is "non-committalism" an intellectual virtue or is it a vice of the whole personality? Is a commitment to "freedom," understanding "freedom" to be a purely formal category, any more a valid premise of the intellectual life than a commitment to the Kantian Moralprinzip, understood as a

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purely formal category, is a valid premise for the moral life? What, in the latter case, are the "universal norms" in accord with which the individual is to act, in such wise that the norms of his action may be made universal? And analogously, in the former case, what is this "truth" for which one is to be "free" to search?

Leaving these interesting questions aside, we might better come to more concrete matters and venture a few assertions of a practical kind. First, I venture to assert that the university is committed to the task of putting an end, as far as it can, to intellectual savagery in all its forms, including a major current form, which is the savagery of the American student (perhaps also the professor?) who in matters religious and theological is an untutored child of the intellectual wilderness. Again, the university is committed to the task of putting an end to prejudice based on ignorance, by helping to banish the ignorance. Unless indeed the university wishes to commit itself to the prejudice that religious knowledge is really ignorance.

The assertion I chiefly wish to venture, however, is that the university is committed to its students and to their freedom to learn. Its students are not abstractions. And whatever may be the university's duty (or right, or privilege, or sin) of non-committalism, the fact is that many of its students are religiously committed. To put it concretely, they believe in God. Or to put it even more concretely, they are Protestants, Catholics, Jews. The university as such has no right to judge the validity of any of these commitments. Similarly, it has no right to ignore the fact of these commitments, much less to require that for the space of four years its students should be committed to being scientific naturalists within the university, whatever else they may choose, somewhat schizophrenically, to commit themselves to be outside its walls.

The major issue here is the student's freedom to learn—to explore the full intellectual dimensions of the religious faith to which he is committed. He comes to college with the "faith of the charcoal burner," of course. And it is the right of the univer-

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sity to require that his quest of religious knowledge should be pursued in the high university style—under properly qualified professors, in courses of high academic content, in accordance with the best methods of theological scholarship, and so on. But this right of the university should itself conspire with the student's own freedom to learn, so as to create the academic empowerment that is presently almost wholly lacking. Your college and university student is academically empowered to grow in all the dimensions of knowledge—except the dimension of religious knowledge.

What is the formula for translating the student's freedom to learn about his religious faith into a genuine empowerment? The question would have to be argued; and it might not be possible to devise a uniformly applicable formula.

In any case, the formula of the "religious emphasis week" is hopelessly inadequate; and when it becomes simply a piece of public relations it is also unworthy of a university. Again, the formula of a "department of religion" is no good, unless the "religion" of the department includes the major historic faiths, which is rarely the case. As for a "department of religion and philosophy," it chiefly serves to confuse the issue. In its most destructive concrete mode of operation it blurs the clear line of distinction that traditional Christianity has drawn between the order of faith and the order of reason. (Incidentally, it is not for the university to say that this line ought to be bluffed or moved from its traditional position.)

Whatever the concrete formula may be, it must reckon with the factual pluralism of American society, insofar as this pluralism is real and not illusory. There can be no question of any bogus irenicism or of the submergence of religious differences in a vague haze of "fellowship." It is not, and cannot be, the function of the university to reduce modern pluralism to unity. However, it might be that the university could make some contribution to a quite different task—namely, the reduction of modem pluralism to intelligibility.

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This is an intellectual task. It bears upon the clarification of the pluralism itself. The Protestant charcoal burner today knows well enough that he differs from the Catholic charcoal burner, and vice versa. But it is not so certain that either of them could say why, in any articulate fashion. And if one or the other should undertake to give reasons, they would probably be mistaken, or distorted, or unclear, or even irrelevant. Anyone who has attended a run-of-the-mill college "bull session" will know this.

From this point of view I would specify two general academic objectives at which a college or university could legitimately aim, in the field of religious knowledge, as its contribution to a clarification of the problem of pluralism.

The first is a genuine understanding of the epistemology of religious truth—or, if you will, an understanding of the nature of religious faith. It is precisely here that modem pluralism has its roots. Karl Barth was making the point when he said, in effect, that it is no use discussing the question, whether we believe in common certain articles of the creed, when we are in radical disagreement on the more crucial question, what is the meaning of the word with which the creed begins, "Credo." It is in consequence of this radical disagreement that Catholicism and Protestantism appear as, and are, systems of belief that bear to each other only an analogical relationship. That is to say, they are somewhat the same, and totally different. One would expect the mature Catholic and Protestant mind to understand this fact, which takes a bit of understanding.

The second understanding—and academic objectives can be stated only in terms of understanding—would be of the various systems of belief, precisely as systems, in their inner organic consistency (whatever it may be), and in their relation to other areas of human knowledge (insofar as these relations are intellectually discernible).

These two objectives are not unworthy of an institution of higher

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learning. They also coincide with the objectives that the student should be made free to reach. If he did reach them, he would be on emergence from college less a rustic than when he entered. And would not his college gently rejoice? The preservation of rusticities can hardly rank high among the preoccupations of the college dean.

When considered in terms of these two objectives, the practical difficulties appear less formidable than they are sometimes thought to be. There may indeed be some three hundred religious bodies in America. But there are not that many "styles" of religious belief. In fact, there are generically only three—the Protestant, the Catholic, and the Jewish. They are radically different "styles" and no one of them is reducible, or perhaps even comparable, to any of the others. And in each case the style of the epistemology of faith is related to the structure of the theology (or possibly to the absence of a theology).

The academic content of possible courses would be no great problem, except as it involves selection from a wealth of materials. The Catholic theological tradition is a treasury that even lifelong study cannot exhaust. Judaism has its learning, rich and venerable. And today the Protestant has the task of assimilating the already great, and still growing, body of ecumenical theology. No college or university should have to worry about its academic standards if it were to turn its students loose, under expert guidance, into these three great storehouses of thought.

Under expert guidance—that might be the greatest practical problem. Specially trained men would be needed. One could only hope that they would become available as opportunities opened before them. For the rest, I should only insist on one principle. It was stated by John Stuart Mill when he said, in effect, that every position should be explained and defended by a man who holds it, and who therefore is able to make the case for it most competently. This is, in a special way, a restatement of the principle upon which St. Augustine tirelessly dwelt: "Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis."

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Unless you believe, you will not understand. The communication of understanding supposes its possession. I do not myself accept the pedagogical canon, seemingly popular in university circles, that every position ought to be explained by one who is sympathetic with it but who personally rejects it. It has never seemed to me that this is a canon of "objectivity" at all. Nor does it ensure the communication of a critical understanding of the position in question, given the principle that only an immanent critique, as it is called, can lead to this desirable type of understanding. In any case, my own view is that the only path to genuine understanding of a religious faith lies through the faith itself. The possession of the faith is therefore the proper qualification of the professor who would wish to communicate a critical understanding of it.

These are but a few practical suggestions toward a definition of the role of the university in the face of the problem of pluralism today. In conclusion, it should go without saying that the function of the university is not at all messianic. It is entirely minimal. The basic issues, deeply considered, do in the end raise in the mind of man the issue of "salvation." But if post-modem man hopes for salvation, he must set his hope elsewhere than on the university. Henry Adams' gratitude to Harvard for its contribution to his intellectual development is the highest gratitude that the university can merit from man in search of salvation. Harvard, said Adams in effect, did not get in my way. But this is no small cause for gratitude when the issue at stake is salvation.