Where did universities come from?

La Sapienza students support the pope at his Wednesday audience. The conventional view nowadays regarding faith and reason is that there is simply no relationship between the two. It is inconceivable. The notion of a "rational" or "reasonable" faith is viewed as an oxymoron. Consequently, any ethical judgment associated with a religious faith is deemed non-rational and irrelevant to those not sharing that faith. 

In a lecture intended for delivery at La Sapienza University in Rome earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI undertook to address this issue and to show that faith cannot exist without reason and that reason itself cannot flourish without the faith. His whole argument is based on the concept of the Western university, whose emergence in the Middle Ages was not some sheer historical fluke, but an outgrowth of the intellectual requirements of the Christian faith itself -- a point which suggests why universities did not develop in Asia, Africa or the Middle-East.

What students and faculty were rejecting was not simply a religious institution but the very foundations of Western culture.

The pope first notes that "the true, intimate origin of the university lies in man's craving for knowledge". In this sense, "the Socratic questioning is the impulse that gave birth to the Western university". He then explains that it is precisely as a response to this kind of questioning that the Christians of the first centuries embraced the faith: "They accepted their faith as a way of dissolving the cloud that was mythological religion so as to discover the God that is creative Reason as well as Reason-as-Love."

In short, the first Christians were drawn to the faith not by inner frustrations but by their intellectual quest for the truth. "For this reason, asking themselves about the reason for the greater God…was part of the essence of their way of being religious." Far from putting aside Socratic self-questioning, they felt not only able but compelled "to recognize as part of their identity the demanding search for reason in order to learn about the entire truth". It was precisely because of that difficult and unrelenting search, says Benedict, that "the university could and indeed had to be born within the Christian world and the Christian faith." The medieval universities were thus a response to an urge to find answers to questions raised by reason enlightened by the Christian faith.

Moreover, while truth "pertains first and foremost to seeing and understanding theoria, as it is called in the Greek tradition", it is "not only theoretic." This is because "truth makes us good and goodness is true". The God that is "creative Reason" is also "Goodness itself". The knowledge that God gave us through his incarnation in Christ is thus both a theoretical and a practical knowledge. Revelation is not only about what we need to know, but also about what we need to do.

This, says Benedict, helps to explain why the relation between theory and practice, between knowing and acting, was so prominent in the four faculties of the medieval university - medicine, law, philosophy and theology. The fact that medicine, for example, was part and parcel of the "universitas" meant that "the art of healing was seen as something guided by reason and was thus beyond the domain of magic". Similarly, in the faculty of law, the question of the relationship between practice and theory arose as a result of the need for an ordering of freedom, i.e. the need to identify the standards of justice "that make freedom as part of a whole possible and serve mankind's goodness".

Here the pope notes that contemporary scholars are still addressing this issue and that, whether Christian or not, they must acknowledge "that responsiveness to truth is a necessary component of political argumentation." The words he uses are borrowed from Jürgen Habermas, a prominent German atheist writer, so as to show that, irrespective of one's beliefs, one cannot escape the need for some kind of transcendent truth. But, if that is the case, we cannot help asking: What is truth? Even if one adopts the secularist view that equates it with "public reason", as does John Rawls, whose influence on political philosophy the Pope acknowledges explicitly, the question immediately arises: What is reasonable? Even today, legal issues cannot be addressed without reflecting on the nature of justice, which is precisely what led our medieval forebears to set up law schools in the first place.

The pope goes on to note that the mission of the two other faculties of the medieval university, those of philosophy and theology, was "studying mankind in his totality and thus keep alive responsiveness to truth". The two disciplines constitute "a peculiar pair of twins", neither of which can be totally separated from the other and each of which must nevertheless retain its autonomy. Drawing from the works of Thomas Aquinas, Benedict says that philosophy and theology must relate to each other "without confusion and without separation." "Without confusion" means that "each will maintain its own identity". Philosophers should conceive of their discipline as "truly a free and responsible search for reason [within] its own limits." "Without separation" denotes that philosophy "never starts from scratch in isolation, but is part of the great dialogue found in the accumulated knowledge that history has bequeathed and which it always critically but meekly accepts and develops."

Here, of course, Benedict is using language unacceptable to the secularist mind. The notion that philosophy "never starts from scratch in isolation" is anathema to the modernist creed, whose foundational claim is precisely that true knowledge begins by positing Descartes' tabula rasa -- the notion that each individual mind is born "blank" and thus has the ability to author its own "soul" without the help of a religious tradition, the latter being essentially alien to the "free" exercise of reason. The pope's response is that "the history of the humanism that has developed on the basis of the Christian faith is proof of the truth of this faith in its essential core, making it something that public reason needs". In other words, irrespective of one's beliefs, one can acknowledge that the Christian tradition has produced an accumulated wisdom that ought not to be "thrown into the dustbin of the history of ideas".

To those who say that religious belief has its origin in superstition and fear, the pope in effect responds that there is a body of evidence testifying that our universities, our legal tradition, the development of modern science, philosophy, architecture, literature and arts are grounded in the fecundity and reasonableness of the Christian faith. To ignore all of that would be contrary to reason. More generally, there can be no conflict between true faith and right reason. If there appears to be one, we need to question, not faith or reason per se, but rather our premises or our mode of reasoning.

That Pope Benedict's lecture had to be cancelled as a result of protest by students and faculties says more about the state of modern universities than it does about the papacy. What students and faculty were rejecting was not simply a religious institution but the very foundations of Western culture. Tabula rasa might well have been their rallying cry. Perhaps we need to reflect on T.S. Eliot's observation about the relationship between Western culture and the Christian faith:

If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.

Richard Bastien is director of the Catholic Civil Rights League for the National Capital Area of Canada and a regular contributor to Égards.


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