The Center of Culture Is–Cult: Hey, Hey, It’s Bound to Stay!

I remember it so vividly. We had just started high school a week earlier, and one of the first assigned readings for my English class was Genesis, chapter one. Still eager to show my new teacher that I wanted to “go the extra mile,” I decided to research the topic outside of the required reading. The following day I came to class armed with two copies of the Bible; one was the required King James Version, and the other was my personal copy.

During the class, each of us took turns sharing personal comments on the reading. When it was my turn, I began by stating that Genesis had been written by Moses, and how important he had been to the Jewish people.

Stares came across the room at me from every one of my classmates. My instructor inquired as to where this caveat of knowledge had been found. I proudly opened my personal copy of Kenneth Taylor’s The Living Bible (paraphrased, the Words of Christ in red) and showed the teacher the line where it said that Moses wrote Genesis. He was not impressed. I slid back down in my chair and, with a look of total confusion, refrained from continuing my scholarly discourse on Moses.

My willingness to vocalize my belief that Moses wrote Genesis was a bad idea for two reasons. First of all, it showed clearly that I was not trained in the “proper” and more “academic” approaches to scripture; instead, I still maintained a belief that my more sophisticated colleagues knew to be archaic and superstitious. But even worse than that, I had been naive enough to approach the story of Genesis as if it were of some practical value. I should have known that in English class, we were expected to realize that Genesis has no practical value; our purpose was rather to see what literary gemstones we could glean from this “universal creation myth.”

That was in the first two weeks of school. By the end of my two-year sojourn at this institution, I had weathered required school assemblies with titles such as “Homophobia” and “Hot, Sexy, and Safer” and a “science lecture” on the fakery of Fundamentalist circuit preachers. Much harder to take than the incidents themselves was the barrage of criticism I received for writing a series of articles in the school paper categorically refuting the beliefs that these various presentations presupposed. I also encountered a headmaster who, while a scholar of Mesopotamian and Biblical history and languages, was nevertheless bent on becoming the next Joseph Campbell.

Needless to say, my high school years were not the “best years of my life.” My basic understanding of life and why it is to be lived was being systematically undermined. Although the experiences of those years have actually served to strengthen my original convictions, they have also changed the course of my life. My former career interests (most notably a five-year-long desire to be an emergency physician) have been temporarily obscured by a more pressing aspiration. Since those prep school days, I have had the burning desire to understand where things “went wrong” with my education. What had happened to me at that school? What caused it? And what is the solution to this crisis? Like the late great Evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer, I wanted to know “How Should We Then Learn?”

During my toughest times at prep school, I happened upon and eagerly read The Opening of the Christian Mind by Dr. David Gill, founder of New College Berkeley. Gill advocates a Christian approach to education that emphasizes the fact that “the Bible calls us to be strangers in (but not of) the world; we are designated salt of the earth, sheep among wolves, and light in the world…. Our call is not to unify, master and manage the society, but to bear witness to it with truth and love.” While I agree with this statement, Gill emphasizes the witness of the individual in the midst of a pagan world. My experience with this paradigm had been to watch many Christian young people either burn out (like myself) or fall prey to the dangers of their hostile surroundings. While I felt that Dr. Gill had a good point, I was, nevertheless, tired of seeing Christian individuals trying to take on entire educational institutions alone.

I soon finished prep school and was by then convinced that I would find answers at college. I had chosen where to attend college based on two criteria: (1) the school was to be Evangelical Protestant, and (2) the Yale Insider’s Guide had to give it a bad review. I located a school that met those criteria (the Yale editors were shocked that this school still had single-sex dormitories!) and soon found myself embarking upon a new journey.

During my first year there, I wrote my definitive treatise, a research paper entitled “Crashing the Canon: Power Struggles in the American University.” It was largely inspired by Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, and in it I concluded with some thoughts from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and from the editorial comments of Brad Miner and Charles Sykes in the recently published National Review College Guide. It was in that last book that I first stumbled upon a reference to Tertullian’s question about the relationship between “Athens and Jerusalem.” I was so impressed with this quote that I made it the central theme of my conclusion. Christ is the absolute Truth, and we must bring our hearts and our minds to the foot of the Cross. Little did I know that many considered this a “Catholic” idea — all I knew at the time was that it made sense.

Reading the works of Allan Bloom and Mortimer Adler also exposed me to the “Great Books” concept. This was to have a major impact on my educational decisions later on.

After completing “Crashing the Canon” in the spring of my freshman year, I located a copy of the course catalogue for my university and read it from cover to cover. I was searching for something resembling the ideas of Tertullian, Bloom, and Adler.

Much to my utter amazement, nowhere in the five hundred pages of the course catalogue, nowhere in the entirety of a 12,000-student university, was anything of the sort to be found. Ironically, instead of Athens meeting Jerusalem, it appeared that the higher-ups had done all they could to separate the two from each other. The Philosophy program was extremely secular. Newman’s “Queen of Sciences” was relegated to a department of “Religion” with hardly any courses truly focused on theological study. In fact, the so-called “Great Books” themselves had been relegated to a few seminars and graduate classes that were offered sporadically and intended only for those pursuing graduate degrees in specific fields.

This made no sense to me. First of all, how could a student graduate with a degree in Religion without having read Aquinas? Or with a degree in Sociology without having read Marx, Durkheim, and Weber? Or in Physics without even having a nodding acquaintance with Leonardo Da Vinci? It made absolutely no sense whatsoever as far as I was concerned. And as for my situation: I had decided that I wanted to leave my undergraduate years with a strongly developed world-view, rooted in the history and thought of the West. How could I do that if the courses weren’t there in the first place?

Not to be stopped at that, I spent the ensuing month painstakingly creating my own “core curriculum” with existing university classes. I presented it to one of the deans, and after he brought it to a committee, I received the reply in person: “The committee wants to know: ‘Who do you think you are, telling this university how to create a curriculum?’ ” Needless to say, my proposal was rejected.

Ironically enough, the following fall the university president created a special faculty committee charged with the task of creating a new “Core Curriculum” for the school. Although I was happy with such a pleasant surprise, I began to notice that not only was this “University committed to Christ” seemingly unable to offer me a balanced Christian education; it started looking as if many of the professors were downright hostile to Christian ideas. It was feeling like prep school all over again.

Many Christian educational leaders today complain about the seeming “threat” that Fundamentalists pose to the stability of many Christian colleges in the Southwest, but I found that the Fundamentalists weren’t the threat at all — a flood of secularist ideologies coming straight from my native Northeast was the real danger.

The most enlightening book we were assigned in my History of Western Civilization class was Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (which essentially concludes that Luther was nothing more than an extremely uptight psychotic looking for a way out of the priesthood). Ironically, I had just decided to join the Lutheran denomination a few weeks earlier.

My research continued. Evangelical scholarship seemed increasingly disappointing. While some of the staunchest Protestant publishers were putting out works advocating the writings of Third World revolutionaries, (most notably Susan Gallegher and Roger Lundin’s Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, published in cooperation with the Christian College Consortium), I was just discovering many good works published by Ignatius Press.

Spurred on by a Catholic priest I had recently met and by my English professor (also Catholic), I continued to dig. I also began collecting catalogues and brochures from colleges that the National Review Guide had described as having Great Books programs or strong Core Curricula.

A strange development was taking place – my alleged allies, the leaders of Evangelical Protestantism, were apparently no longer interested in supporting the ideas I was researching. Instead, I found myself gaining support from conservative Catholics and from strong inerrantists and Fundamentalists. Indeed, my two mentors during this time were a conservative Baptist pastor and an orthodox Catholic priest.

A watershed was reached when I went to a small conference held in town by a renewal group in the local Episcopal parish. An Episcopal bishop from Pennsylvania came and spoke of “Reclaiming the Future” — and I was introduced to three strains of renewal: the Charismatics, the Evangelicals, and the Anglo-Catholics. At the end of that weekend conference, I realized that the Spirit was really alive in the renewal within the “mainline” churches, not outside of them.

I was not trying to favor mainline Evangelicalism over free-church Evangelicalism. But it was strange that I was in the midst of the “Bible Belt,” at a so-called “University committed to Christ,” and was finding spiritual strength coming from two unexpected source — those totally committed to Tradition, and those totally committed to Scripture. Thanks to the Episcopal renewal conference, I finally realized that these two need not be diabolically opposed.

Now, many would argue that I am not being fair. There is much good Evangelical scholarship, and they would say that there is certainly a strong philosophy of education that Protestant Evangelicals have put forth. I am not disagreeing with these claims, but such critics must recognize the situation I was in: I was not trying to become a self-taught philosopher of education, I was trying to find a home for my intellectual pursuits. This aim was not theoretical, it was practical. I was looking for solutions in reality, not on paper.

A few orders from Ignatius Press brought me such books as Fr. James Schall’s Another Sort of Learning and Dr. Otto Bird’s Seeking a Center. By this time I had accumulated catalogues, numerous book lists, and lots of ideas. The issue now was finding a place where I could study these things coherently. By this time I had grown impatient. I was tired of being a “lone candle” — I wanted to go study at a “lighthouse.”

My historical research also came to a head as I realized that the pillars of the Western world — education, research, government — were at one time founded by or under the leadership of the Christian faith. Realizing this, I then had to ask: Why should Christians allow the “pluralists” to take over institutions that were once rightfully under the Lordship of Christ?

And thus I realized, finally, that the study of Western culture is truly the study of Christian culture. It would be another year before I would find out that the late Catholic scholar Christopher Dawson had said these very words himself.

I finally came up with a list of colleges that I felt embodied the “Athens-Jerusalem” ideals and the curricular goals I was searching for. By this point it was no surprise to me that six of the seven schools were conservative Roman Catholic institutions (and no, Notre Dame and Catholic University were not on my list). At least from an educational standpoint, I finally concluded that “Evangelical is not enough” and that, indeed, this was “the Catholic moment.”

Seeking a balance between orthodox theology, a committed spiritual climate, and a healthy ecumenism, I finally singled out one of the Catholic schools. I also chose to visit the one non-Catholic school left on my list.

That latter school is best known as a college committed to leading the fight against government control in the affairs of its citizen — a belief I whole-heartedly agree with. A strong dedication to Judeo-Christian values was clearly evident, both in the institution’s mission statement and in its community life. For many reasons, I felt much more comfortable at that college than at the Catholic school I later visited.

But after a long period of deliberation, I finally had to come to grips with this question: Which school is better at bringing Athens to Jerusalem? Albeit without knowing everything I could have taken into account, I decided on the Catholic school. Why? Because I needed more than a com¬munity of Christians to engage with intellectually. I needed a community of Christians with a strong theological stand deeply rooted and clearly written, constantly operating on the conviction that “All Truth is God’s Truth.” Although this is the motto of perhaps the best known Protestant Evangelical college in America, I have concluded that, at least for the time being, only a handful of America’s colleges have truly taken this to heart.

Dr. George Roche, one of the strongest leaders of the renewal of higher education today, has written a book entitled A World Without Heroes, about how modern secularism has destroyed that “habitual vision of greatness” that sparks fires in the hearts of men. I have finally found a place late in my educational journey where this vision is still being pursued; where, as Pope John Paul II has so often said, we can learn to understand the “fullness of the Human Person.”

I am still very much a child of the Reformation. While I read Anton Pegis’s powerful introduction to the thought of the Angelic Doctor, I also keep a copy of Norman Geisler’s Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal handy. But I must admit that I can no longer refute the logic and conviction of men such as John Henry Cardinal Newman. I am just beginning to see a glimpse of the perspective that such men had.

I do not know where this journey may lead. I don’t know what kind of career I will choose. Maybe I’ll become an emergency doctor after all. Or maybe I’ll turn this burning desire to understand the history of my world into a lifelong pursuit. Maybe I’ll even try to do both.

There is some special comfort in the uncertainty of one’s future. It is not bad to not know where your life is headed, as long as you are confident that you have chosen the right path to take you into the rest of your life. I have found that path and, for the moment at least, it is leading my mind and my soul together to a shared home; and that home is most definitely in Rome.

  • W. Douglas Wendt

    At the time this article was published, W. Douglas Wendt, a philosophy major at Franciscan University, was the of Humanitas, a student humanities journal. He now serves as President and Senior Strategist for Wendt Partners.

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