The “Church of Reason”: Cardinal Newman and the American University

Are there any universities in America today? The question should not come as an old idle one to anyone familiar with the Victorian classic The Idea of a University, written in 1854 by Father John Henry Newman (thereafter to become Cardinal Newman). Even to read the first page of Newman’s profound definition of what a university should—must—be is to wonder about the identity of America’s hundreds of “universities.”

A university, declared the new Rector of the Catholic University at Dublin, is “a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object…is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a university should have students.” What then shall we call American institutions where professors live or die based on research, published research, and where students are a tolerated nuisance? Now that a major study by a 19-member commission of the Association of American Colleges has recently concluded that faculty preoccupation with research is damaging undergraduate education, perhaps after 130 years the wisdom of Newman’s first paragraph may finally be acknowledged.

But we may wait even longer before Newman’s second paragraph is conceded, or even seriously considered, for it is there that the primary thesis of the book first emerges: the university, properly defined, “cannot fulfill its object duly…without the Church’s assistance; or, to use the theological term, the Church is necessary for its integrity.” To most of those now on American campuses—administration, faculty, students—the idea that the university requires theological integrity provided by the Church is an utterly foreign notion, not only unacceptable but beyond the pale of discussion. Yet Newman adduces strong reasons for his position.

First, Newman insisted that a university must impart “universal knowledge.” To claim this goal “without making any provision…for theological chairs” is “an intellectual absurdity.” “How,” Newman inquired, “is it possible to profess all branches of knowledge, and yet to exclude not the meanest, nor the narrowest of the number?” Nor is the problem merely that education without theology is not universal: since virtually all of Western culture rests upon Judeo-Christian premises, any account of history, literature, art, or sociology which leaves religious doctrine out of account must be fundamentally distorted. “If there be religious truth at all, we cannot shut our eyes to it without prejudice to truth of every kin, physical, metaphysical, historical, and moral,” Newman wrote. Thus to exclude theology from the curriculum could only “impair the completeness and…invalidate the trustworthiness of all that is actually taught.”

Very few of America’s universities today devote serious academic attention to theology or religion. Writing in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Loyal D. Rue, a professor of philosophy at Luther College, called the absence of academic study of religion “our most outrageous blind spot” in university life. “In fact,” Professor Rue opines, “I would go so far as to say that the presence of a department of religious studies is one standard for judging a university.” Dr. Rue’s proposition is unarguable and—given the usual range of academic opinion—even daring.

But Newman went much further. He maintained that the university must not only teach theology, but that theology must preside over all other studies. After all, a university must be unified, as well as universal, in its intellectual life. And only theology can provide an integrative center; only theology can function as a “science of sciences,” checking the natural tendency to make “political economy, or geology, or astronomy, not theology, the center of all truth, and [to] view…the chief parts of knowledge as if developed from it, and to be tested and determined by its principles.” As Newman explained more fully in a lecture not included in The Idea of a University, only from the “sovereign and unassailable position” of theology may the university perform its essential task of assigning “to each study which it receives its own proper place and its just boundaries.” So guided by religious truth, the university “acts as umpire between truth and truth, and, taking into account the nature and importance of each, assigns to all their due order and precedence.”

A century before Newman, the leaders of America’s fledgling colleges (which did not yet claim the lofty title of “university”) held similar views. Harvard’s founders declared that the object of education was “to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3), and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” Yale, founded when New England Puritans saw Harvard drifting into Unitarian heresy, declared in the early 1700’s that “every student shall consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ.” The president of Columbia announced in 1754 that his school aimed “to teach and engage the children to know God in Jesus Christ and to love and serve him.” Even state universities founded in the 1800’s initially required students to attend chapel services and dismissed faculty members who openly attacked religion.

Need it be said that things are different now? There is indeed a delicious irony in the adoption of Harvard’s long-discarded religious objective by the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College. On the contemporary campus, the only supra-academic “umpire between truth and truth” is on the baseball and football fields—and (fans will attest) such fallible umpires cannot guide us into a community of mind. Most university presidents are powerless to prevent the endless fissioning of disciplines into more and more competing “specialties” with no meaningful relationships or cooperation between them. Women’s studies, inner-city studies, business ethics, interpersonal communication, leisure studies…the list grows longer every year. Professors become increasingly territorial, rarely evincing intellectual commitment that transcends the institutionalized limits of their own narrow disciplines.

Often modern academics lack even the language necessary to discuss first principles together. On what terms, for instance, will a materialistic biochemist and a scholar of Romanticism discuss the nature of man? The undergraduate student is offered the bewildering spectacle of countless possible “truth-claims” or “value systems,” none definitive. It comes as no surprise that the recent study by the Association of American Colleges concluded that higher education now requires too few classes and offers too many choices in its academic smorgasbord. But which courses should be required and which eliminated? Without the ontological hierarchy defined by theology, there is simply no way out of the current maze; so administrators call it “pluralism” and say it is a good thing. But as Newman understood, university and pluralism are contradictory terms.

In his brilliant history of unbelief in America, Without God, Without Creed (John Hopkins University Press, 1985), James Turner concludes that the emergence of agnosticism has “disintegrated our common intellectual life.” Nowhere is this more evident than on America’s campuses. Most institutions of higher education in America, as some observers have noted, should now rightly be called “multiversities” or “polyversities.” As Newman presciently observed: “Religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unraveling the web of university education.”

Insofar as there is one discipline acknowledged as sovereign on American campuses, it is physical science. Three and a half centuries after Galileo’s victory over Scholasticism, science’s mathematical and empirical framework continues to be regarded as the path to Truth. But science fails as an integrative center for learning. Not only is science, as Newman observed, “in a certain sense atheistic, for the very reason it is not theology,” but as Oxford philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has recently pointed out, science has no philosophical content. “[Science] does not deal with reality at all,” he writes, “its meaning being utilitarian, rather than cognitive.” What this clearly implies is that science can never provide unity or coherence to college programs in the humanities or liberal arts.

Some disciplines deform themselves trying vainly to mimic the sciences (nothing is more ridiculous than a book on literary criticism, education, or home economic masquerading as some kind of physics text). But inevitably the most damaging results of permitting science to usurp theology’s central role in the university are institutionally licensed solipsism and amoralism. Just as in the days of Genesis, every attempt to unite mankind about a tower of technology results only in babel and chaos.

So long as science excludes and the humanities ignore transcendent truths, liberal education must have the effect, as Newman observed, of “throwing us back on ourselves, and making us our own center, and our own minds the measure of all things.” For those so educated, “their minds [become] their sanctuary, their ideas their oracle.” Pride acquires the elevated title “self-respect,” as students become “victims of an intense self-contemplation.” Anyone who has sat through college education courses endlessly reiterating the need to “build students’ self-esteem” must marvel at the prescience of Newman’s analysis.

A necessary corollary of such educated self-obsession is amoralism, since who is to say which self is immoral or evil? The “voices of the natural man” found in literature cease to find a censor when religion is banned, observed Newman. “Poets may say anything, however wicked, with impunity; works of genius may be read without danger or shame, whatever their principles; fashion, celebrity, the beautiful, the heroic, will suffice to force any evil upon the community….Thus at length…that very refinement of intellectualism, which began by repelling sensuality, ends by excusing it.” Who that has endured the usual college class on Norman Mailer, Sylvia Plath, or John Barth can quarrel?

It would be pleasant to report that only America’s state institutions of higher learning have disintegrated, while the nation’s religious schools are still properly called universities. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In his recent book, The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America (Eerdmans/Christian University Press, 1984), William C. Ringenberg concedes that virtually all of America’s major Protestant universities have become as secularized as their state counterparts. Perhaps this is to be expected. Protestants generally are very dubious about the exercise of ecclesiastical authority, yet Newman astutely argues that only such authority can successfully inculcate “doctrines which have not been authenticated by facts.” To the degree that the collapse of the university is a crisis of authority, it may even be said that protestantism (small p) is as much to blame as secularism.

Yet how much different are things at America’s Catholic universities? My own experience in earning a Ph.D. in English literature at Marquette University suggests that things are actually much the same. Only one of my professors—a fine scholar and an admirable man—made any serious attempt to integrate religious convictions into his teaching. Elsewhere, except in actual theology courses (whose orthodoxy I will not comment on), religious doctrine was generally ignored—when not attacked. Reports from those who have attended other major Catholic schools indicate that this is not atypical.

The reasons that church-sponsored universities have become secularized are probably several. No doubt the simple desire to conform academically—to be like all of the other universities—exerts considerable pressure. Resisting such pressure is especially difficult in today’s atmosphere of sloppy ecumenism. And, too, the acceptance of Federal funds comes with its price of government regulation and standardization. Yet it is hard not to wonder if part of the problem is not that the leaders of Catholic universities are themselves uncertain about the exercise of institutional authority. If so, it is but another instance of what some have called the “Protestantization of Catholicism” since Vatican II. In any case, at present Newman’s hope that Catholics could build universities “not only more Christian, but more philosophical in their construction” appears unfulfilled.

Ironically, though, at the very time that theological doctrine and ecclesiastical leadership—Catholic and Protestant alike—have all but disappeared from academic life, the newly secularized university how claims to be a church, the church. For example, Northrop Frye, a Presbyterian minister as well as a professor of English at the University of Toronto, believes that the university seems…to come closer than any other human institution to defining the community of spiritual authority.” Frye relegates the Church to a “partial and peripheral role” in modern society. In advocating this position at a conference of Victorian literature, Frye naturally had to acknowledge that Newman held the quite different view that the university should be subordinate to the Church. But, Frye contended, Newman’s vision “does not seem to be borne out by the development of universities in the last century.”

In one sense, Frye is right: Newman’s positive hopes for the preservation of the university through religious instruction have not been realized. But in another sense, The Idea of the University has been thoroughly vindicated, for events have amply justified all of its warnings about the dangers of dismissing religion from higher education. On the negative side, Newman’s understanding of the university has been completely confirmed in this century.

Even some who share Frye’s faith in the university as a replacement for the Church admit that, somehow, something has gone wrong in the new temple. Wayne Booth, a lapsed Mormon and professor of English at the University of Chicago, has long identified himself as an intellectual who has joined in the effort to make “a church out of the home of reason—the college, the university.” He indeed views the university as “the last true church,” with its libraries serving as sacred “shrines.” Yet the spectacle of New Left activism shook his faith. “Whether anything worthy of allegiance will survive the rising warfare of fanatical sects and schisms is not clear,” he wrote in 1970.

Booth perceives that the root problem uncovered by the 60’s unrest was the uncertain character of modern academic authority. He even admits that he sometimes feels “envy [for] the old Catholic professors who could fall back on the authority of the Church and ultimately of the good and learned Lord.” Yet this passing envy never leads Booth to question seriously the secularized foundations (no Rock here) upon which his new church of scholarship is built. He still hopes that appeals to reason, “academic sermons,” will be sufficient to put things right again.

Don’t look for references to Newman in such sermons. nor in most current intellectual discussions of the role of the university. Almost everywhere in the academic community, Newman’s volume is neglected, even deliberately ignored. The book as a whole is almost never assigned reading for students, and standard anthologies typically excerpt the least representative chapters, those explaining how the study of the liberal arts makes a gentleman. (See, for instance, The Victorian Age: Prose, Poetry, and Drama, edited by John L. Brooks and John W. Bowyer.) The professor who taught my own undergraduate Victorian literature class, and who had taught the course for 20 years, apparently did not even know that Newman wanted theology and the Church to govern university education. (I say this because, having then read only the assigned anthology, I opined in an essay that Newman appeared to have replaced the Church and religion with academia and the university; for this egregious error I received a high mark.)

Newman’s landmark analysis is passed over in silence largely because the issues it raises simply cannot be accommodated within the current academic agenda. And the agenda cannot be changed without revealing some of modernism’s most embarrassing inconsistencies. Academicians are unfailing in their support for truth-in-advertising laws preventing profit-hungry corporations from pawning off imitation mayonnaise or peanut butter as the real thing. But few are eager to discuss publicly the possibility that they hold professorships at imitation universities. It may even be that in the free and open modern “Church” of academe, certain dangerous books must be proscribed, certain heretical ideas suppressed. Perhaps it is time for some bold and rebellious soul in academic vestments to disrupt the already chaotic worship within the “last true church” by nailing The Idea of the University to the cathedral door.


Bryce J. Christensen teaches composition and literature at Southern Utah University. He is the author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (2005) and Utopia Against the Family (1990). He earned his doctorate in English literature at Marquette University in 1984.

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