I wrestled and wrestled with this segment of the essay. Each of three attempts to articulate what truth might look like in a college context, or what college might look like in the light of the Christ who is the Way and the Truth and the Life, ended up looking, respectively, like a college version of Christian Music Radio, a reverse-engineering of Wellhausen-style scholarship, and a relativism that says that Christians should be just like other academics, except not as nasty.
This third one, not itself adequate to the question at hand, ended up being my best starting point.
Remembering the Fall
Of course, personal nastiness is not the real hindrance to what we Christians might call Truth in the academy. Beyond individualistic personality lie (pun intended) categories and agendas and assumptions that, irrespective of how nice their professors are (another pun intended), they will lead not to truth nor even to ignorance but to active lies. One would do well to remember that in Confessions, Augustine noted without irony that Faustus the Manichean was one of the most self-aware and kindest men he knew.
My point here is not that academics are Manicheans (though some of them are pretty close) but to analyze the problem of truth in the academy in roughly Augustinian, anti-Manichean terms. The inadequacy of Manichean theology, in Augustine’s terms, is that their concept of God is inadequate. Rather than being the ground of all being, thus by definition both good and comprehensive, Mani’s good god that Faustus professed was merely one player on a larger ontological stage. Evil for the Manicheans was something, whereas for Augustine evil is nothing. The difference is more than semantics: if reality is a contest between light and darkness, a struggle without a point of origin and without an intelligible terminus, then ethical sophism would be the natural outcome: whichever course of action on earth will align one with the power winning at the moment is the good one.
Augustine, on the other hand, because he insisted that evil is no-thing rather than some-thing, because good is both the origin point and the teleological goal, because goodness, with divine intervention, pulls all of creation towards Himself, because evil as we know it is not ontologically prior to goodness but fallen from goodness, is free to celebrate God’s succinct “it is very good” upon the world’s creation, Plato’s insistence that all being is good, Paul’s anticipation of resurrected bodies. Thus Augustine need never wonder whether the good things in life are really bad things, only whether his own desire for them is loving (that is to say, properly ordered relative to his relationship to God as creature) or lustful (that is to say, out of that order).
Privation in the Classroom
Thus my initial musings: I was at first approaching the life of study as if my task were to winnow out which things were good and which bad when, had I remembered my Augustine, I should have begun with the affirmation that all of creation is good, very good. Thus to study biology as a Christian is not to tag something extraneous onto a logically prior “secular” biology but simply to study biology fully where some might only study it partially. The same goes for sociology and literature and law and business: if indeed God created all things and called them good (God did), then human community and human art and human justice and human commerce all stand to be good if only we will submit to the reality that God rightly orders all of them and devote ourselves to lifetimes and dynastic explorations of what that might mean.
Such is not to say that our dynasties of educational theorists will always agree with other dynasties of educational theorists; instead a Christian philosophy, and by extension a Christian college, will approach the work that others have done in a field both with a sense of gratitude and with a sense that we are here to bless the nations. Daniel and Abed-nego did not build Babylon, but Babylon was a better place for their involvement. Likewise Christians did not invent the German-style research university (we did invent the teaching university), but we can, by our insistence upon research with love (that is to say oriented properly towards our Creator), we can offer a richness to their work that without us simply would not be possible. But I should not get too far into the fifth part of this essay; I need to bring this idea of a love-that-is-truth back to the realm of the Christian liberal arts college.
Accurate, Comprehensive, Accountable
Too often modern theorists of knowledge surrender all the territory to the German critical philosophers without thinking about what that might mean. They assume that before Kant, people thought that their human minds were apprehending things-as-such and that nobody ever stopped to think about what we humans could and could not know. A brief run through some medieval philosophical history points in a starkly different direction. Saint Thomas for one knew that humans are unlike angels in that God’s creation has to come to us through five senses rather than the unmediated intellection that angels enjoy. He also knew that the senses, employed either in apprehension of human artifice or divine, were media, that they stood to foul some things up. The medievals were no dummies.
Where the medievals were, in fact, more humble than the German high moderns was that they did not declare a priori where the ontological boundaries of reality lay. To translate that into geographic terms, they did not draw on the map of reality a border between the “natural” and the “supernatural,” and by no means did they forbid all mortals to cross such a line, as Kant and his generation did. Instead Aquinas realized that nature was not a bounded space but that which was inherent in a creature, that divine revelations were supernatural not because they were weird (Augustine among others knew how weird the world of matter could be) but because they’re not normally within human capacity. Thus revelation, though it didn’t happen all the time, wasn’t out of bounds for philosophy any more than were those things that we humans can only see by secondary means or with the help of those disciplined to see them (e.g. magnetism, allegory, and tax law).
For those of you still reading, this is where truth comes in to our discussion of a Christian college. No Christian has to assert contra Kant that right now, at this moment, we have angelic, unmediated access to things as they are. Instead, the Christian story of human knowledge is a rich and complex one, encompassing both supernatural revelation and natural sensory experience, and we should be able to start with those data and speculate about how they connect one to another.
Therefore Christian pursuit of truth is not raw angelic assertion but the more mundane and ultimately rewarding life of the scholar: we seek to represent accurately the details both of what all of us can sense and of what those supernaturally gifted relate to us. We seek to speculate in comprehensive manners, not omitting significant chunks of experiential and revealed data but including as many as we can and standing willing to revise our theories when our friends propose more comprehensive ones. And we always stand accountable for our theories, willing to hear other theories and to respond truthfully when one ends up being more accurate or comprehensive than another.
So truth in our Christian college, that pursuit that binds Christian philosophers together, is nothing more than the scholarly life and nothing less than pursuing that life in love. I can only hope that my next post, an account of liberal arts in the Christian life, ends up being this clear to me.