The Countercultural Idea of a Christian University

American liberties depend, in part, on American pluralism.  But not just any pluralism will do.  We need a pluralism rooted in a culture committed to the idea of truth, a culture that recognizes authority higher than individual autonomy.  And, among the many liberties associated with the American story, we are here interested in a certain liberty of groups against the liberty of a democratized mass.  Or, to put it as Pierre Manent does in A World Beyond Politics?, if “the idea of liberty prevail(s) completely over the idea of truth” liberty will be “deprived of its conflicting relationship with truth” and liberty will “collapse.”

The American system of liberties has persisted against the modern and democratic tendency to resolve all tensions because its robust separations of powers and institutions produce loyalties and low-level conflicts that prevent both the unitary and comprehensive state (communism) and the individualistic masses (atomism under the protection of the administrative state).  Of particular importance for this essay, the longstanding American attachment to churches that claim to possess the truth and require of their members obedience to a transcendental authority has supplied a sharp but productive contrast with the ideals of democracy, which aim most of all at the autonomy of individuals.

This system can only work when the religious pluralism is of a grudging sort—the sort in which believers in Church A know that they have the true path to salvation but that they lack the power to coerce believers in Churches B, C, and D to comply.  This practical toleration allows churches to insist on a universal truth and with it an assertion of final authority beyond human choice without undermining the goals of individual liberty and personal autonomy at the heart of the democratic ideal.  But when biblical religion (religion that asserts a universal truth) is “absorbed” into democracy, a believer, Manent argues, views his religion as a matter of personal choice rather than a dedication to truth and obedience to authority.  At this point, the salutary separation and tension between religion and democracy is dissolved.  The believer now recognizes in his choice an expression of his autonomy and he demands not tolerance as described earlier but affirmation of his choice.  At that point, the institutional pluralism most responsible for checking the tendency toward mass society is effectively useless.  The new imperative requires public indifference to the truth claims of any religion and the new religious pluralism becomes an adjunct of the democratic moral imperative to individual autonomy—an imperative that, in due course, will require both the state and society to obey and enforce.

Manent rightly stresses the overriding moral claim of ownership over the self which comes with the collapse of cultural institutions that stress authority and obedience.  Both state and society must, therefore, be made supportive of each person’s autonomy.  The state does this through representation in which the laws and rules issue from one’s self—obedience is to self.  But it is with social power that the truly sinister consequences emerge.  The moral imperatives of the American regime found in Natural Rights are transmogrified into the very particular rights of each individual to affirmation of his beliefs, “affiliations and qualities, cultural identity, religion, sexual orientation, among others.”

Institutions dedicated to universal truth and a higher authority cannot subsist in this environment because their defining beliefs are an offense to the singular (no longer bound in a tensional relationship) ideal of individual autonomy.  American liberties depend (among many other necessary conditions), therefore, on healthy religious institutions that affirm universal truth and  transcendental authority.

Manent’s argument is important for understanding the nature and importance of universities and, in particular, Christian universities in the United States. A whole host of regulations and structures rooted in the Progressive drive to centralize power, enforce uniformity, and drive religion from the public square have chained the university to the state and to a modern ideology hostile to both its proper mission and to American liberty. In pursuit of funding and prestige, universities have given up their autonomy and their very reason for being as they have sunk into a culture of conformity and indoctrination.

Idea of a Christian University

The next great Christian university will, therefore, be countercultural. It will oppose the combination of modernism and cultural ideology now regnant in the academy, offering instead a compelling, ordered vision of the good life and the good society, and an education to form mature, well-ordered persons.

No educational program is neutral; each emerges from a vision of reality. Any university that is serious about its Christian mission must recognize that today it confronts an educational establishment that operates with a vision that is incompatible with the most basic philosophical commitments of a Christian institution. A Christian university must offer an alternative vision, or fail to be a Christian university.

By “vision” we mean a set of interlocking conceptions about reality and existence, truth and knowledge, authority and power, teleology and purpose, and finally of the goods that structure human action and the pursuit of knowledge. There is nothing neutral or “objective” about the competing Christian and modernist/ideological visions; each determines the nature of the education offered. Because these visions are incompatible—contemporary society provides no common standard by which we can judge them—this conflict of visions must be the starting place for thinking through the mission of a Christian university in our time.

The contemporary university has two central, defining characteristics: it is relentlessly analytical or “scientific,” and fiercely ideological. Modern universities are committed to careful, uncompromising analysis of the parts while neglecting urgent questions about the whole. This commitment produces an explosion of discrete knowledge and narrow expertise without truth or wisdom capable of integrating that knowledge. It results in knowledge of the inner life of stars but ignorance of the inner life of the person; knowledge of the biology of reproduction without wisdom to create lasting marriages and friendships; knowledge of traffic patterns, patterns of commerce, distributions of income and health, but no understanding of how to build community, neighborhoods, and polities.

Since the advent of the modern research university in the nineteenth century, universities have pursued knowledge in every discipline according to rigorous, professionally chosen methods. This scientifically-produced knowledge is judged by the power it offers humans, not by the truth it reveals. This knowledge has enabled society to acquire power to transform our environment (and hope of transforming ourselves), but it has failed in securing the most essential human knowledge of all: of who we are and why we are. Writers as varied as Newman, Eliot, Lewis, Arendt, Percy, and Solzhenitsyn have seen our problem clearly: we moderns can observe, measure, and critique the external world, but remain a sad mystery to ourselves. Sad, and dangerous: according to Alasdair MacIntyre, much of the disorder of the last 100 years can be attributed to well-educated people “acting decisively and deliberately without knowing what they were doing.”

Modern knowledge without truth or wisdom leaves a void in the soul of the university. Nowhere is this clearer than in the humanities. Until recently that part of the university that still recognized the importance of pursuing the humane life ordered around virtue, beauty, and the deepest truths about the person, the “humanities” today offer only the cold comfort of ideology, the modern substitute for religion. Ideologies promise comprehensive insight into the way society “really” works, outline a plan for action, and promise a bright future to be achieved through activist struggle. Their goal is power to remake the world and its people in the image of the ideology. All search for knowledge, every institution, and all human activity is subordinated and harnessed to the imperatives of ideological struggle. The current dominant ideology is multicultural leftism, in which the reductive and weaponized categories of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation are part of a leftist agenda of absolute equality, and in which the enforcement mechanism is political correctness and re-education. The soulless modern university has proven to be particularly susceptible to the false meaning and purpose of ideology. Modern scientism offers no moral or normative challenge to it. Students enter these institutions with precious few cultural and intellectual resources to challenge or meaningfully question the new orthodoxy, and so too often are spiritually and intellectually crushed by the oppressive weight of an unchallenged intellectual authority.  The promised liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan understanding of the world dematerializes into mere shadows.

The scientific/analytical university has in the past been largely and publicly indifferent to religious faith. Leftist ideologies take this further; they are unambiguously hostile to any religious inquiry that fails to serve ideological ends. From places in which traditional religious faith were engaged or at least tolerated, universities are now “safe spaces,” free from what they consider the hateful (and therefore hurtful) beliefs of orthodox Christians.  Because Christian beliefs not only hurt those offended by them but subvert the approved ideological training that is central to the new moral imperatives of higher education, universities must defeat rather than tolerate Christian beliefs.

We can no longer afford to hope that people who have no idea (or false ideas) of where we come from or where we are going will serve or lead society well. Liberated, as it were, from the most important human knowledge of all, universities are undermining the formation of civilized, mature persons. Modern secular universities are, in short, bastions of a new barbarism, whose methods ignore the civilizing influence of a humane education, and actively, aggressively, arrogantly, utilize the humanities to coarsen society, undermine ideals of human excellence, and obscure from their students the most important truths about being human.

A Christian education, grounded in an ontological realism—a recognition that the universe is, that it has a structure and reality independent of our own thoughts about it—seeks an understanding of the whole and the proper place of humans in the reality we inhabit. Governed by the dictum of faith seeking understanding, Christian schools recognize a source of knowledge and truth – Christian revelation – which is excluded from secular education. Because of this we know that secular universities cannot lay claim to all knowledge. Moreover, the source of knowledge – the Creator of all truth, being, and goodness – makes us confident that truth exists, and that we can hope to draw near to it. We can only draw near in this life: no one academic discipline (let alone a reductionist ideology) can ever embrace the fullness of truth. Nevertheless, in the relationship of discipline to discipline, of past knowledge and wisdom to present intellectual inquiry, and of scholarly activity to personal experience, we can glimpse the unifying wisdom of God. However impossible it is for us to grasp the fullness of truth in this finite life, we know that such a view is possible, that we can grow toward it in community with others, that drawing closer to it both satisfies a deep need and improves our lives.

John Henry Newman, in The Idea of a University, called this practice of putting knowledge into conversation with knowledge, of seeking the whole and of restlessness in the face of partial knowledge claiming to be the whole, a ‘philosophical habit’, an ‘enlargement of mind’. He argued that growth in this intellectual habit is crucial to the formation of the soul, by imparting intellectual humility, freedom, and creativity to the persons who acquire it.

This vision of truth is capable of ordering human life. It is desperately needed by us, by our students, and by our culture. By its nature it is invisible to the modern mind: it exists but cannot be encompassed by any formula or analytical frame. It is beyond the boundaries of any one discipline or ideological program. We do not create this vision to use it; instead, we enter into it and invite others. We approach its environs in earnest, respectful conversation by finding the limits of each discipline and relating each to each, by our growth in humility about what partial knowledge and power can accomplish. This vision is within the grasp of a Christian university.

The Counterculture in Action

The idea of a Christian university outlined here is incompatible with the dominant, ideological vision of the educational establishment. In light of this conflict of visions, any Christian university that wants to offer a truly Christian education must 1. Challenge and encourage its own faculty, whose own narrow and specialized education may make it difficult to see past the ideological obligations of their disciplines; 2. Begin an ongoing conversation with its many constituencies (faculty, students, alumni, and supporters) on the true nature of a Christian education; 3. Question the need for layers of university administration that exist to serve the social justice imperatives of the academic establishment; 4. Confront and perhaps reject a potentially hostile accrediting system; and 5. Be prepared to fight continuous and public legal battles with hostile governments (usually state governments) that will not tolerate certain Christian beliefs.

An essential first step in this process may seem radical and even self-destructive, namely, rejection of all governmental support, including through various federal grants and student loan programs. For decades, now, the federal government in particular has used subsidies to universities as a means of empowering bureaucratic elites to control their personnel and policy. In the name of fairness and efficiency, Education Department bureaucrats have used “action letters” and other “advice” to bully (all-too-willing) universities into adding indoctrination sessions on race, sex, and sexual orientation, and helped spawn entire departments aimed at combating “hostile environments” for radicals who find Christianity and Western civilization intrinsically evil. The administrative bloat crippling universities is in significant measure rationalized as necessary to keep federal, state, and accreditation bureaucrats happy. And only unquestioned, uniform adherence to today’s radicalized, secular “diversity” will keep them happy. The expense of foregoing governmental support seems daunting but has not stopped a number of universities from successfully making the move to complete self-funding. The added freedom and decreased expense, not to mention the clear statement that this university will stand on its principles, bowing to no human institution in its pursuit of truth and virtue, has the potential to bring great rewards internally and significant support from the wider Christian community.

The challenges are great, but so are the opportunities. While many small liberal arts colleges offer real and valuable alternatives to the spiritually deadening orthodoxy of academia, among top universities few Christian alternatives exist. As a result, a bold stance by a major university immediately creates a market. The more countercultural, the greater the opportunity. The very challenges we’ve enumerated above can become assets — evidence that a particular university fully recognizes the incompatibility of visions and is unwilling to compromise, since compromise under these conditions is surrender.

The hope of a Christian university is found in recognizing the fact of this incompatibility and the rejection of the embarrassing tendency among Christian schools to emulate secular institutions, especially through constant appeals to “best practices”. The hope of a Christian university is found in its unwavering commitment to its mission—its vision. To make my point, we end with a quick look at our own university’s “Affirmation Statement”.

“Pepperdine University affirms:

That God is.

That He is uniquely revealed in Christ.

That the educational process may not, with impunity, be divorced from the divine process.

That the student, as a person of infinite dignity, is the heart of the educational enterprise.

That the quality of student life is a valid concern of the University.

That truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, must be pursued relentlessly in every discipline.

That spiritual commitment, tolerating no excuse for mediocrity, demands the highest standards of academic excellence.

That freedom, whether spiritual, intellectual, or economic, is indivisible.

That knowledge calls, ultimately, for a life of service.”

Fidelity to this statement requires commitment to a certain realist ontology, but also a recognition of authority, standards, and teleology that govern human life and purpose. Embedded in the statement is a claim about the role of education in forming humans with respect to divine purposes and relative to the highest parts of their own nature. It commits the university to a view of human good and flourishing that is not of our choosing but of our discovery. Rather than power to transform, this statement is devoted to wisdom and the deepest human truths that are acquisitions of a well-formed soul.

In short, fidelity to this statement requires the university to reject modernist and ideological visions of reality, the person, and society. Pepperdine (or any major Christian university) will be countercultural when it decides to be faithful to its mission. Until then, all such institutions will be captive to a hostile ideology, however much they attempt to baptize modernist and ideological visions of justice and good. No truly great (meaning excellent, not well-esteemed) Christian university can emerge until it recognizes that a Christian education is incompatible with the regnant vision of the educational establishment.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on December 18, 2019 at 08:11:06 am

This seemed to me important, but to leave us with a couple of problems.

The first is, that there will be a number of such claims (e.g. by Muslims, Calvinists, traditionalist Catholics), and thus a number of such universities - so that the setting will be a pluralistic one. There is also the question of whether the vision behind such universities will be of a rather general character, or more specific. What I have in mind, here, is that Kuyper, in setting up the Free University of Amsterdam as a specifically Calvinist university, had a particular vision of how it would conduct research. But this seems not to have been shared by the (very worthy, and Calvinist) faculty who were recruited to teach there.

The second, is whether the aim of such a university is to be defensive - i.e. to secure an environment in which young people can be taught on the basis of what it takes to be the truth - or as setting out a program for research to show that the world is, indeed, as its teachings claim. But if it ventures out into the second task (and it would require a good knowledge of competing views, and the current problem-situation in the various relevant disciplines). Further, it may always risk losing, not least because, even if in fact its underlying claims are correct, how they are interpreted is fallible; but this may pose problems for the young people whom they are teaching, or for those who are providing them with financial support. (Compare, in this context, the academic controversy about intelligent Design.) There is also a certain risk for the scholars who join the university, rather than persisting with mainstream employment, in the sense that they might find that if the institution that they join founders, they may find it difficult to get a job in the mainstream.

My own view is that a competitive pluralism is needed, and that it is vital that such visions are developed, that the intellectual problems involved are faced, and that donors are then willing to give them support - even if the institutions are likely to encounter failures, and - if people really do engage with the current state of secular scholarship - they may come across problems of which they were not initially aware, and to which they do not have any immediate response.

read full comment
Image of Jeremy Shearmur
Jeremy Shearmur
on December 18, 2019 at 09:13:09 am

Scratch the first two items of the Pepperdine credo, and this could be almost any American university.

read full comment
Image of Alan Kahan
Alan Kahan
on December 18, 2019 at 09:14:06 am

Sorry, 3 items.

read full comment
Image of Alan Kahan
Alan Kahan
on December 18, 2019 at 09:45:28 am

Including this? "That freedom, whether spiritual, intellectual, or economic, is indivisible."

I doubt it. Or the reference to "spiritual commitment" as the primary motive for excellence...

read full comment
Image of Ben
on December 18, 2019 at 14:15:14 pm

1. Let us put aside the metaphysics: What exactly does Manent expect a religious person, motivated by Truth, to DO? Should such a person seek to impose his religion on others? After all, if that person is confident of his grasp of truth, why not? I'll return to this topic.

In any event, Manent does not seem to acknowledge religious traditions that value autonomy and choice. Many religions place moral significance on the exercise of free will. For example, many religions eschew child baptism because they regard a person’s affirmative choice to embrace the faith as a crucial aspect of their religion. It is not clear to me that practitioners of these faiths would seek to coerce others into their practices, given that coercion is antithetical to their practices.

Now, perhaps Manent means to say that practitioners of these faiths would seek to impose their faiths on X in that they would seek to PRECLUDE X from imposing her faith on Y.

2. Perhaps the nature of editorials is to find fault. But after reading decades of editorials, the patterns grow tiresome. Let me see if I can simplify this editorial:

People hold different beliefs, and act in a manner consistent with those beliefs.

Some people value autonomy, and promote/defend the autonomy of others. These people may seek to minimize coercion in the status quo by creating “neutral” policies and a “level playing field.” These people may also criticize purportedly “neutral” policies for failing to achieve actual neutrality.

Other people reject autonomy, and criticize “neutral” policies as promoting an outcome they do not value. These people seek to impose their will on others—though they may also cynically embrace the norms of autonomy where doing so may help them advance their agenda of coercion.

I value autonomy (among other things). Thus, I have some sympathy with McAllister’s and Yuengert’s concerns that certain actions taken in the interest of “political correctness” or “social justice” may inappropriately intrude upon their autonomy. For example, I have long expressed concerns about the Supreme Court’s decisions in Bob Jones University, (removing the school’s tax-exempt status for embracing certain segregationist policies), Locke v. Davey (upholding a state scholarship for any purpose BUT “devotional theology”), and PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin (basically telling people what they should value—albeit in the context of sports). I recognize the irony here, given that that McAllister and Yuengert seem to reject the very autonomy that prompts my sympathies. But no matter: I value their autonomy regardless of whether they value mine. As Archbishop John Vlazny remarked, “We serve people not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.” In other words, people act consistent with their values—even in seeking to promote the welfare of people who hold different values.

And let’s face it: Arguments about university norms are nothing new. Catholic University’s Board of Trustees publicly embraced the norms of the American Association of University Professors, which call for academic freedom—and then abrogated those norms and fired Rev. Charles E. Curran when he had the temerity to acknowledge multiple viewpoints on various topics. Apparently some people regard lying as an acceptable method of promoting Truth—as we discussed that over on First Things (before they banned me).

In contrast, I tend to agree with Robert P. George, who led a campaign to get universities to adopt the following statement:

”Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom”.... Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. [T]he University … fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.” [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.

(Curiously, First Things does not seemed to have banned George yet.)

Rather than autonomy, McAllister and Yuengert claim to value Truth. They articulate no test for gauging Truth; merely saying “the Bible” or “Natural Law” provides no solution, since people who embrace those authorities nonetheless reach a variety of conclusions.

Nor, more significantly, do McAllister and Yuengert specify what ACTIONS they would take to promote Truth. And I regard this as the biggest shortcoming in McAllister’s and Yuengert’s editorial: They present their argument as addressing ENDS, but they neglect to address MEANS. After all, they are hardly the first people to argue that their truth claims should trump autonomy claims. The Inquisition made such claims. The Nazis made such claims. The Communists made such claims (and the Chinese Communists seem to be making such claims regarding the Uighurs right now). What made these three examples noteworthy was not their claims, but the means they were willing to employ to enforce their claims.

So—which means are McAllister and Yuengert willing to employ? And more significantly, which means are they unwilling to employ? This may tell us about the sincerity of their beliefs in Truth over autonomy. Because, frankly, I’m skeptical. Imagine we strap someone who embraces “social justice” to a chair and place all the tools of torture at McAllister’s and Yuengert’s disposal. What would they be willing to do to enforce their understanding of Truth?

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
on December 18, 2019 at 15:02:31 pm

" Imagine we strap someone who embraces “social justice” to a chair and place all the tools of torture at McAllister’s and Yuengert’s disposal. What would they be willing to do to enforce their understanding of Truth?"

Well, if either of these two editorialists are Swedish teenage girls, wouldn't they "Line them up against the Wall"?

Then again, if you are "nobody", they could simply ban you. (Still wrong in my humble opinion, BTW).

Perhaps, these editorialists are suffering from a Large Case of Truth (OK, awful pun) when in fact a small case of "truth" may suffice.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on December 18, 2019 at 15:28:46 pm

"Universal truth." What kind of monstrosity is that? Is it simply truth? Then why the adjective 'universal'? Is it what everybody everywhere in fact calls truth, whether it is or not? Once we are past such simple truths as "2=2=4," there is no such truth. Is it what everybody everywhere ought to call truth, no matter whether it is in fact true or not? Presumably not. Presumably, in an ideal world everybody ought to call true only what is in fact true. But how is that to be brought about? Presumably, in the real world, everybody ought to call truth what he believes to be true, even if what he believes true is not true; otherwise he will be lying. But calling what one believes true won't make it true; and since we disagree, it won't be a "universal" truth. So, what is McAllister talking about? Presumably, as one commentator notes, it is Truth with a capital T? But how does capital T truth differ from simple lower-case truth? Is it absolute truth rather than relative truth? Again, how does absolute truth differ from simple truth? The truth of the matter is that the phrases "universal truth" and "absolute truth" are obscurantist terms that nobody ever thought of until Immanuel Kant introduced them into modern discourse, along with other obscurantist terms such as 'apodeictic truth.' Kant meant, of course, to distinguish his own "truths" from the "truths"--i.e., the beliefs--of those whose beliefs he did not share. So, I think, does McAllister. Clearly, what he has in mind and is calling truth is that very set of dogmatic beliefs that universities in the Christian Middle Ages declared to be divinely instituted truth--truth absolute, truth for all mankind. While I agree that the current preference in today's universities for "relative truths" is an abomination and the curse of our times, it is the semantical partner of so-called absolute and universal truth; the two concepts are inseperable and logically abominable. S0, although I would also defend the right of any institution to teach what its supporters and funders sincerely believe, I also think it misleading and question begging, if not also hypocritical, to call the unproved and disputed faith of Catholicism, Calvinism, or any other religion "universal truth" and expect, or suggest, on such questionable grounds that it ought to have public support and financing.

read full comment
Image of Max Hocutt
Max Hocutt
on December 18, 2019 at 15:36:31 pm

PS: Sorry, McAllister and Yuengert. In my opinion, the right stance is not theirs but that of Hillsdale College, which teaches what it wants but does not expect the government to pay for it.

read full comment
Image of Max Hocutt
Max Hocutt
on December 18, 2019 at 17:27:29 pm

The problem with the “Golden mean” Philosophy is that Truth and Love cannot be found between two extremes. Truth and Love cannot serve in opposition to one another due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. He Who Is The Author Of Truth And Love cannot possibly contradict The Truth Of Love Incarnate.

Caritas In Veritate; Veritas In Caritate, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. Amen.

There Is Only One Truth Of Love Made Flesh, Who Has Revealed, Through His Life, His Passion, And His Death On The Cross, that the Fullness Of Love, is desiring Salvation for one’s Beloved .

read full comment
Image of Nancy
on December 18, 2019 at 19:20:23 pm

Just as every element of truth will serve to complement and thus enhance the fullness of Truth, so, too, will every element of love, serve to complement and thus enhance the fullness of Love. Truth and Love do not divide, they multiply, as in The Loaves and Fishes.

Thus we can know through both Faith and reason that what we are witnessing in this particular Time and Space in Salvational History is not a “clash of orthodoxies”,. Every erroneous orthodoxy, like every erroneous philosophy, serves in opposition to an element of truth and thus the fullness of Truth which is devoid of all error. There is nothing that can be construed to be orthodox about error, just as there is nothing that can be construed to be Christian about a counterculture that serves in opposition to Christ, The Truth Of Love Made Flesh.

To be a Christian, is to already be converted to Jesus The Christ ; in Christ, there is no debate about The Truth or Love, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, The Eternal Perfect Love Between The Father And The Son, That Was In The Beginning, Is Now, And Forever Will Be.

read full comment
Image of Nancy
on December 18, 2019 at 20:09:31 pm

In 1967, representatives of a number of prominent Catholic Universities drafted an aspirational statement regarding the role and function of Catholic Research Universities. The resulting statement, commonly referred to as the Land-O-Lakes Statement, is widely reviled among conservative Catholics, who identify that document with the secular drift of Catholic Higher Education. Whether this is true or not is the subject of another debate, but the statement does contain one interesting concept:

"There must be no theological or philosophical imperialism; all scientific and disciplinary methods, and methodologies, must be given due honor and respect. However, there will necessarily result from the interdisciplinary discussions an awareness that there is a philosophical and theological dimension to most intellectual subjects when they are pursued far enough."

According to this view, the "truth" will be the result of investigations that are "pursued far enough." This seems to be comfortably consistent with a schematic notion of a university. A university, and in particular a research university, has two main duties: to question things and to notice things. If it does these competently, it will, if not uncover, at least pursue truth. The crisis in higher education, religious or secular, is to be found in neglect of this principle. It is the truncation of inquiry because of frivolous and shortsighted concerns, the banning of questioning and the sanctioning of noticing so as not to make someone feel uncomfortable, or because an opinion is inconsistent with some "value" that was discovered the day before yesterday, that corrode universities. Couple this with the inevitable laziness and uselessness that contaminate all bureaucratic organizations, and throw in semantic silliness that calls conformity "diversity," and censorship "inclusion," and the result is not surprising. If I interpret nobody.really's comment correctly, I agree that it does not matter if inquiry is constrained because it conflicts with religious dogmas, any more than because it conflicts with post-modernist ideology. The modern university is dangerous, not because it discovers forbidden knowledge, but because it mistakes its vanity and silliness for knowledge.

Truth, if it is what we think it is, is not the exclusive province of religion, nor is its understanding incompatible with personal liberty and individualism. Truth can endure the most fanatical attempts to conceal, alter or defame it. To the extent that Manent believes that liberty has a conflicting relationship to the truth I disagree with him. Truth is after all a destination, not a point of departure. It does not matter to an honest person if the principle guiding its pursuit is autonomy, or skepticism, or empiricism, or something else. If the truth is the truth, it is the same destination no matter the route taken.

read full comment
Image of z9z99
on December 19, 2019 at 12:21:43 pm

'The next great Christian university will, therefore, be countercultural. It will oppose the combination of modernism and cultural ideology now regnant in the academy, offering instead a compelling, ordered vision of the good life and the good society, and an education to form mature, well-ordered persons."

My son is a sophomore at Hillsdale College in Michigan, exactly the kind of institution described in this quote. This year, it dedicated its new $35 million Christ Chapel. Video coverage, including remarks by Clarence Thomas, here: https://youtu.be/1XqHV_yjv08

read full comment
Image of R Henry
R Henry
on December 19, 2019 at 15:07:20 pm

I concur that institutions (not just colleges) create their own cultures. Thus, EVERY institution is counter-cultural—though some will appear to deviate from expectations more than others.

The curious history of Hillsdale College helps to explain its counter-cultural culture—or does it?

The Pilgrims (“Separatists”) came to the New World in the hope of fashioning a religiously pure community unsullied by popular culture. And the same impulse would drive generations of settlers ever further west. In the early 1800s, a new crop of religiously motivated settlers moved into the upper Midwest to organize a school for training ministers to spread the Gospel throughout the world. The school would eventually erect a memorial arch in honor of all the missionary alumni it would lose in China’s Boxer Rebellion of 1899. The school was so counter-cultural that it would admit black students on the same basis as whites, and women on the same bases as men—in the 1830s! That’s a full generation before the Civil War. Naturally it would become a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves flee to Canada. And well before John Brown would lead his abolitionist rebellion at Harpers Ferry, he was a land agent for the school.

And the name of this school was … Oberlin College.

In 1843 Daniel McBride Graham graduated from Oberlin with a degree in chemistry, and would go on to receive eleven patents. But notwithstanding his technical focus, he fully embraced his school’s strong counter-cultural beliefs in abolition, temperance, women's education, and women’s suffrage. Thus, one year after graduating, he moved west and founded … Michigan Central College, later renamed Hillsdale College. It would become the nation’s second school to grant degrees to black and female students on the same basis as to white male students. Such is the nature of counter-cultural institutions.

Yet today Oberlin is on the vanguard of progressive activism, while Hillsdale is on the vanguard of conservative activism. This, too, is the nature of counter-cultural institutions.

So when McAllister and Yuengert emphasize the importance of colleges being counter-cultural institutions, I would admonish them to be careful what they ask for—because they just might get it.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
on December 19, 2019 at 16:11:36 pm


Ok, good commentary BUT.....
Why do YOU suppose that the essayists would object to "what they just might get."

Are you intimating that these two gentlemen would, or do, object to the racial fairness exhibited in the practices of Oberlin and Hillsdale Colleges?


Would it not have been better to have asked:

"I would admonish them to be careful what they ask for—because [what is counter cultural may, over time, change].

Do we suppose, a not atypical supposition of many Proggies, that the fact of ones opposition to the current cultural dysfunction need also implicate a certain racial animosity?

Please clarify as I would be surprised to learn that a writer, quite as adept as yourself, would make such a mistake.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on December 19, 2019 at 17:26:51 pm

Would it not have been better to have asked:

“I would admonish them to be careful what they ask for—because [what is counter cultural may, over time, change]?

Well, sure--but I'm quoting the traditional admonition "Be careful what you ask [wish] for--because you just might get it." Your statement is fair and more narrowly tailored, but less fun.

That said, you appropriately observe that I'm having some fun at McAllister's and Yuengert's expense by removing context: I don't know that they value counter-cultural colleges in the abstract. Rather, they seem to value colleges that counter the CURRENT culture--and that counter that culture in a rather specific (Christian) direction.

But maybe they do value counter-culturalism as an abstract principle. But it seems like a facile principle. In the early 1800s, they may well have supported Oberlin College for its commitment to opposing the then-prevailing culture of racism, sexism, and slavery. However, because cultures change over time, the problems that a culture produces change, too. If we can assume that every culture will produce some shortcoming that may warrant reform, or at least resistance, we might adopt an entirely content-neutral statement about supporting counter-cultural efforts. (Recall "RESIST" bumper stickers? Or "Stick it to the Man"?) But, these content-neutral statements are easily co-opted in the name of any radical proposal someone wants to offer. I rather expect McAllister and Yuengert would reject that.

Thus, the goal is not to be pro-culture or counter-culture. The goal is to determine what you value, and then to support or oppose the prevailing culture to the extent that it is conforms to your values.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
on December 19, 2019 at 18:07:22 pm

"Hillsdale is on the vanguard of conservative activism. "

How do you define "activism?" The Hillsdale students are actively discouraged from taking part in political activism on campus, and are instead urged to buckle down and study hard. Hillsdale admin knows students cannot receive a classical liberal arts education if they are engaged in mindless twitter wars.

Is Hillsdale College "the vangaurd " of Conservatism? Insofar as it does NOT subscribe to mindless Progressive cultural drivel, yes.

How ironic that the study of the Aristotle, Plato, Locke, Hegel, and the US Constitution serves to set Hillsdale College's curriculum apart from so many other college and universities. Just 50 years ago, what is now the "vanguard" of Conservatism was just an ordinary liberal arts education.

read full comment
Image of R Henry
R Henry
on December 19, 2019 at 18:20:09 pm

Those who question the concept of "universal truth" betray their full allegiance to Moral Relativism--the philosophy that hold there is no essential good or essential evil....something is only good or bad in relation to something else. Trouble is, the logical progression of such thinking is a complete LACK of morality.

Yes, there is Universal truth, both in terms of objective reality, and in terms of moral teaching. That some people reject the concept of Universal Truth does NOT mean it does not exist.

read full comment
Image of R Henry
R Henry
on December 19, 2019 at 21:42:00 pm

Mr. Henry:

Nice comments. agreed as to Hillsdale and its curricula.

In your 6:19 comments on Universal Truths:

Perhaps, you are being overbroad in claiming that those who do not believe in Universal Truth are subscribers to Moral Relativism?

I critiqued the essayists for thier call for LargeCase Truth as opposed to 'truth." This, however, does not mean that I (simply as an example) do not believe that some "truths" are universal. With Jefferson, et al, I do believe that some truths are self-evident and are universally applicable at all times, even if they are rarely adhered to in practice. Does this cast me amongst the "relativists"?
I think not.

Nor do I think that even someone like our L&L blogging compatriot "nobody.really", contrary to much of his previous commentary, may be said to deny the existence of some "truths" that are universally applicable.

The problem as I see it is this:

All too often, SOME Truths are propagated as both *universal* and FOUNDATIONAL to either a) a political regime, b) a culture and / or c) a religious doctrine.

It may be that some actually meet one or more of those conditions, rarely all three.
That, in and of itself, is NOT the real issue; nor is it the ostensible concern of many commentators. Rather, it is the predilection of many who seek influence, authority and / or power, be it sectarian or secular, to expand those "foundational Truths" beyond that which may be generally accepted by the"common mind" (culture, nation, etc).
If one is to argue, e.g. for a Trinitarian God, would he / she not be confronted with the Mohammedan conception of the All Powerful Godhead, Allah.
If one were to assert that God not only permits "free will" in humans but revels in it, they must also confront the extreme voluntarism of the Asharite school of Islam which preaches the direct opposite.
And as nobody. really (no pun there, nobody) is wont to assert, even the rules of baseball are not universal and are in fact arbitrary.
Is "one man, one vote" a Universal Truth - or is it simply a truth by edict of the Black Robes of SCOTUS?

The list may go on forever.
The simple recognition of the "relative" acceptance of certain creedal formulations DOES NOT make one a moral relativist.
BTW: wish all the best for your son at Hillsdale. Good Luck!

read full comment
Image of gabe
on December 20, 2019 at 08:20:01 am

“Truth is after all a destination, not a point of departure.”

Although it is true that Truth is where you hope to arrive after a debate, and error would be, in every case, a departure from Truth, and certainly not an affirmation, let us not forget how often we fail to recognize Truth, even if He Is right in front of us.

“[37] Pilate therefore said to him: Art thou a king then? Jesus answered: Thou sayest that I am a king. For this was I born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. Every one that is of the truth, heareth my voice. [38] Pilate saith to him: What is truth? “

We can know through both our Catholic Faith and reason, and thus The Law Of Noncontradiction, that, there is nothing that can be construed to be “aspirational”, about the erroneous belief that a Christian can be autonomous from and in communion with Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, simultaneously. How can you be following Jesus The Christ, if you do not know Who He Is?
Even if it was never their intention, by default, The -Land -O-Lakes statement is a departure from God’s Truth, by its denial of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, which affirms the fact that There Is Only One Son Of God, One Word Of God Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Take Away The Sins Of The World, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ.

Who do you say that I Am”, is the question, the answer of which Christ Has Revealed to His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, In The Deposit Of Faith, Through Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, And The Teaching Of The Magisterium Of Christ’s Church, Grounded In Sacred Tradition, And Sacred Scripture. You cannot depart from The Word Of God, and remain in communion with His Church.

No doubt, God’s Word Is Universally, The Ultimate Truth, from beginning to end.

“I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

To be converted, is to desire to be with Christ every step of The Way, and thus accept Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And Mercy.

read full comment
Image of Nancy
on December 20, 2019 at 08:33:56 am


read full comment
Image of Nancy
on December 20, 2019 at 12:10:23 pm

“The simple recognition of the “relative” acceptance of certain creedal formulations DOES NOT make one a moral relativist.”

It does, if that certain creedal formulation serves in opposition to Christ and thus in opposition to The Truth Of Love, Himself.

read full comment
Image of Nancy
on December 20, 2019 at 22:18:47 pm

I suspect that there is some definitional hysteresis at play here, in that the precise meaning of terms depends somewhat on the direction from which they are approached. I would allow, for example, that the phrase "autonomous from...Christ" is not representative of the word "autonomy" as it appears elsewhere in this discussion.

Twenty-three years after the Land-O-Lakes statement Pope John Paul II delivered the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, related to Catholic Universities. In may ways, it was similar to the Land-O-Lakes statement, including for instance

"The Church, accepting 'the legitimate autonomy of human culture and especially of the sciences', recognizes the academic freedom of scholars in each discipline in accordance with its own principles and proper methods(28), and within the confines of the truth and the common good."

The Land-O-Lakes statement differed from Ex Corde Ecclesiae in that it implied that scholarly inquiry should be free of any interference, including from the Church. Pope John Paul II, however stated that

"The identity of a Catholic University is essentially linked to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic doctrine. It is the responsibility of the competent Authority to watch over these two fundamental needs in accordance with what is indicated in Canon Law(49)," and

"In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching," and

"Each Bishop has a responsibility to promote the welfare of the Catholic Universities in his diocese and has the right and duty to watch over the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic character."

Thus, the Pope indicated that Bishops had the right and duty to monitor the scholarship at Catholic Institutions to ensure that it remained, in some degree, Catholic. One might expect, however, that the result might depend on whether Archbishop Weakland was overseeing Marquette, or Archbishop Chaput overseeing Villanova. Even at the top of the current hierarchy, a portion of the faithful is uneasy that the current Pope may be tempted to break some theological eggs to make an ideological omelette.

To the point of the original essay, a College or University is counter-cultural to the extent that its own culture is contrary to the dominant culture. This implies that there are subcultures, e.g. a Christian culture, an academic culture, a libertine culture, a culture of death, etc., that collectively influence the broader culture. Perhaps John Paul II recognized that totally free inquiry might lead to degenerate cultures within academia, that knowledge without truth produces a culture, in an academic environment or elsewhere, that inclines toward nihilism. We may consider the three separate concepts, knowledge, truth and culture, and realize that knowledge does not always lead to truth, that truth may confound knowledge, and that culture need not be dependent on either. The World War II Japanese research on biological warfare using unwilling human subjects, or the Tuskegee syphilis study, or the German studies immersing POWs in freezing water may have had some trappings of a search for knowledge; they may have disclosed truth, although a truth having nothing to do with germs or hypothermia, and were in a cold and discouraging way, reflections of culture. Knowledge and inquiry, by themselves, do not improve culture or people. Knowledge is indifferent to good, and culture has a rather simple garbage-in-garbage-out relationship to human experience. Maybe John Paul II realized that Catholic Universities could lose their cultures, their roles and their value unless they remained vigilantly, and even defiantly Catholic. One also suspects, that at the present time, any University that retains its Christian or Catholic character will be, almost by definition counter-cultural.

read full comment
Image of z9z99
on December 21, 2019 at 12:32:44 pm

Z: A cuppla things:

1) Just so! on commentary.
2) Would be interested in your thinking on difference between "foundational" truths vs "Universal" truths and if you believe any truths are universal.
3) Happy to see someone else is familiar with Japanese Project X biological warfare (they also aped some of the Nazi medical experiments).
4) Merry Christmas to you (as I may not be back before the holidays) and a Christmas thanks for your continuing fine commentary / thinking.



read full comment
Image of gabe
on December 21, 2019 at 23:11:18 pm


Merry Christmas to you and yours as well.

A brief reply to your question regarding truth:

Foundational truths are those upon which humans can arrange their affairs, i.e. they are the foundations of human institutions and endeavors. Among such truths are:

Human beings in general have the capacity to use tools; they have the ability to exploit;

Humans have the ability to contemplate the future and consequently, to plan;

Cooperation is an optimizing mechanism that allows humans to make efficient use of resources, and to derive the benefits, and misfortunes, of collective action;

Competition is an optimizing mechanism that improves processes and practices;

Human must have at least some challenge and struggle in order to thrive.

Human beings have both social and antisocial instincts.

These truths are empirical observations. They are the foundations of the social arrangements that people design, to promote individual and collective interests.

There are Universal truths, but one must be careful to ensure that the term is used in a consistent way. Some people may define a Universal truth as recognized as true by everyone, or applies to everyone, or is cognizable by everyone, or is unchanging, or is verifiable (which is circular given that verify comes from the Latin word for true). Discovery of the truth is compromised by a sentimental notion that there is a congruence between truth and beauty, or truth and goodness. Even accounting for differences in aesthetic tastes, the truth may often be found in things that are not beautiful, and not in any way good. Refusal to accept the biological affects of cyanide as a truth will not allow one to consume it without consequence. It is in fact in the concept of consequences, good and bad, joyous and tragic, that we are likely to find truths.

As a first cut, Universal truths begin with the notion that every thing has a nature, and this nature affects how the thing changes, if at all, as it interacts with the world. A basic truth is that things tend to change according to their natures when stimulated or disturbed by some part of the world. In order to say something has a nature, we imply that the thing obeys certain rules, or laws, and these are consistent. This is why we can speak of natural law, why we can discern physical laws and why we can plan. Excluding metaphysical and theological inferences, a Universal truth is that there is such a thing as human nature, even though all humans do not have the same nature. From this humans can look backward toward their origins, inward to their meaning, outward toward their purpose, forward toward their fate. Knowing that they have a nature leads them to believe they have a place. Universal truths are susceptible to semantic parsing and philosophical critiques, but these cannot vitiate the essential thing to understand about them: one does not have to recognize them, believe in them, or respect them to be subject to their consequences.

Looking forward to hearing from you in the New Year.

read full comment
Image of z9z99
on December 22, 2019 at 11:32:39 am

My son is a sophomore there. You are entirely correct.

read full comment
Image of R Henry
R Henry

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.