Notre Dame's Curriculum Review, Part II

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I began looking at the issue of the core curriculum at the University of Notre Dame and, specifically, the place of theology in that curriculum. I argued that, on its face, theology most certainly deserves such a place because a university aspires, as the name implies, to of the study universal knowledge and one can scarcely do that without studying the knowledge of God we call theology. Today, I would like to expand the conversation a bit, arguing that the consequences of removing theology would be horrible and that the removal of philosophy and humanities requirements just as grievous. .

Also, yesterday, I finished with Newman’s Idea of a University. Let’s start today with that same text. In Discourse IV, Section 2, he writes:

I observe, then, that if you drop any science out of the circle of knowledge, you cannot keep its place vacant for it; that science is forgotten; the other sciences close up, or, in other words, the exceed their proper bounds, and intrude where they have no right. For instance, I suppose, if ethics were sent into banishment, its territory would soon disappear, under a treaty of partition, as it may be called, between law, political economy, and physiology; what, again, would become of the province of experimental science, if made over to the Antiquarian Society; or of history, if surrendered out and out to Metaphysics? The case is the same with the subject-matter of Theology; it would be the prey of a dozen various sciences, if Theology were put out of possession; and not only so, but those sciences would be plainly exceeding their rights and capacities in seizing upon it. They would be sure to teach wrongly, where they had no mission to teach at all.

Each discipline has its own methodology, its own historical landmarks, indeed its own data. For theology, that data is quite unique insofar as it consists in God’s self-revelation. The data of theology can overlap with data surveyed by other disciplines insofar as theology examines the signs of the times in its quest for the workings of the Divine, but it surveys those signs from a distinctively theological perspective.

This problem is not abstract, nor was it confined to Newman’s time. You can’t go a day really without some newspaper or magazine article publishing something in which the author confuses one discipline with another. I have written frequently against the encroachments of “scientism” which is not to be confused with science. Scientism is science pretending to be philosophy. In his brilliant takedown of Steven Pinker’s essay “Science is Not Your Enemy,” Leon Wieseltier began with these words:

The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate. The credibility of physicists and biologists and economists on the subject of the meaning of life—what used to be called the ultimate verities, secularly or religiously constructed—cannot be owed to their work in physics and biology and economics, however distinguished it is. The extrapolation of larger ideas about life from the procedures and the conclusions of various sciences is quite common, but it is not in itself justified; and its justification cannot be made on internally scientific grounds, at least if the intellectual situation is not to be rigged. Science does come with a worldview, but there remains the question of whether it can suffice for the entirety of a human worldview. To have a worldview, Musil once remarked, you must have a view of the world. That is, of the whole of the world. But the reach of the scientific standpoint may not be as considerable or as comprehensive as some of its defenders maintain.

I am not sure either man would appreciate the compliment, but Wieseltier is carrying on Newman’s work. Theology, philosophy and the humanities in general are needed not only if one is to be truly educated, but if the educational enterprise as a whole is to help the broader culture develop the capacity to distinguish the types of reasoning called for in given situations. When people invoke natural science to make an ethical claim, as happened when eugenics was popular in the 1920s, bad things happen. When a sociological answer is offered to a theological question, as has happened far too often in the past fifty years, people can too easily equate what is right or true with what is popular or what is practiced. Or, consider how confused the religious influence on political discourse has been for the past sixty years or so because Catholic politicians, starting with John F. Kennedy, confused the personal, which faith must always be, with the private, which faith can never be. And, more importantly, whether bad things happen or not, truth is frustrated, not advanced, when confusion about first principles, and last things, reigns supreme.  

And, as Wieseltier points out further on in that same essay, objective, scientific truth is not the only thing that animates the human heart and human genius, nor the only variety of truth available. He writes:

Pinker tiresomely rehearses the familiar triumphalism of science over religion: “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures ... are factually mistaken.” So they are, there on the page; but most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures have evolved in their factual understandings by means of intellectually responsible exegesis that takes the progress of science into account; and most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures are not primarily traditions of fact but traditions of value; and the relationship of fact to value in those traditions is complicated enough to enable the values often to survive the facts, as they do also in Aeschylus and Plato and Ovid and Dante and Montaigne and Shakespeare. Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence. Like many sophisticated people, Pinker is quite content with a collapse of sophistication in the discussion of religion. 

Couldn’t have said it better myself. And, on that final point, certainly it is one of the great tasks of Catholic higher education in our day to fight the “collapse of sophistication in the discussion of religion,” a collapse that happens regrettably in the ranks of the believers as often as in the ranks of the unwashed.

A grounding in philosophy and the humanities is as important as a grounding in theology, and not merely so that we can distinguish different types of knowledge and the capacity and competencies of different disciplines. Without theology and philosophy, it is not merely the “Catholic” identity of a Catholic university that is placed into question, but the “university” identity of a Catholic university. For a rousing defense of the humanities, here is a link to Wieseltier’s commencement address at Brandeis. Like him, I fear, and fear greatly, that a culture that no longer values theology, philosophy and the humanities is a culture well on its way to becoming more brutish, more coarse, a culture so enamored of its aptitudes that it loses sight of the ends to which its skills and knowledge are devoted, a civilization that has not only lost its capacity for seeking and attaining truth, but its capacity for love and desire.

I raise this issue of desire and love here, which for the Catholic is an issue about communion, even though, in one sense, my argument will now run counter to what I have put down so far. Having argued for the necessity of distinguishing between academic disciplines, I would now like to make the argument that theology must engage the other disciplines and that the University of Notre Dame, on account of its resources and its tradition, must really take a leadership role in such engagement. But, I have gone on long enough today and will pick up that thread tomorrow. 




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