Whither the University? A Conversation with Paul Griffiths on Theology and Education
The Western church finds itself in a dubious position in regard to education. On the one hand, the church affirms the understanding that human beings should seek knowledge about the world, humans, and the various ways in which humans interact with this world. On the other hand, the mode in which this pursuit is enacted in the model of the secular and/or church-related university may diverge from a full-fledged Christian vision of education, in which all ways of knowledge such as the various disciplines in the university are ultimately understood to be most energized and fecund when united in and harmonized by the praise of the triune God. Such a duplicitous situation raises a host of questions. How is a Christian understanding of education similar to and different from the dominant definition of education that is operative in Western research-based universities? What is the relationship between theology and education? Are there resources in the history of Christian theological understandings of education that help guide confessing Christian scholars in their educational endeavors in secular and church-related universities? How might Christian theology contribute to a recovery of a full-fledged Christian understanding of education, and how might this contribute to conversations across the disciplines that free scholars and educators from our respective disciplinary ghettos? The Roman Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths recently sat down with Greg Voiles on behalf of The Other Journal at Big Bear Cafe in Washington DC to discuss these and other questions concerning the church and education in the contemporary Western milieu.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In this issue The Other Journal is exploring the topic of education. As I read through your two essays in First Things, “Theology as Knowledge” (with Stanley Hauerwas and David Bentley Hart) and “The Very Idea of Religion,” a question arose in my mind that I will start with: In discussing theology and education, is there a universal notion of what education even is? Is there a notion of education that Christian and non-Christian share so that when we have these conversations there is what J. L. Austin would call “uptake” or a common understanding from which to begin a conversation? Does this even exist, and should that be questioned at the outset of our conversation?
Paul Griffiths (PG): Well, the problem with trying to answer this series of questions is that there is a complicated history that arises. One way to get at this history is to realize that the context in which education occurs has shifted dramatically in the last eight hundred years. First of all, from the monasteries to the new universities in the twelfth century and then to the universities that we know now, which are essentially creatures of the nineteenth century; the University of Berlin in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries being the archetype of such universities. So places like the Catholic University of America and Duke University are essentially the same. They have, of course, surface differences, but they all have the same fundamental idea about education, and that is that education is essentially two things.
First, it is equipping people with a range of technical skills—the first technical skill being literacy, with subsequent skills of various kinds built upon that. Those skills are meant to equip those who receive them for being citizens in our late-modern democratic capitalist society. That is universally held, although not usually thematized like that, but that is universally held nonetheless. Second, at the higher levels—you get this at the undergraduate level, but in postgraduate work especially—is the idea of the discipline, so that education is formation by and into a particular discipline, whether that be theology, history, physics, et cetera. And that whole idea of the discipline and what it means to be formed by it is what happens at the higher levels of education.
All that is held pretty universally, and that is how theology works too. If you are a graduate student in theology, you are being disciplined by a particular academic discipline, whether that is biblical studies, systematic theology, or whatever. So all of that is universally held, I would say, but it has almost nothing to do with a properly or fully Christian understanding of education. So that, whatever that is exactly, has effectively been institutionally lost. That is the complication we have at universities, but it is one that has essentially nothing to do with Christianity. That’s the situation we are in.
TOJ: In light of that reality then, is there a distinction between “formation” and “education”? I am particularly thinking, in religious education and liturgical catechesis, about how in some of the documents and literature in Roman Catholic circles there seems to be a distinction between religious education on the one hand and liturgical catechesis on the other.
Religious education, whether at the secondary or higher educational levels, finds itself often in situations where it cannot impose on people their becoming Christian, so it is the imparting of information about Christianity on a purely cognitive level.
However, liturgical catechesis, thought by many to be more parochial, is much more holistic in the sense that all of the dimensions of human being are drawn toward and into friendship with God, including the cognitive. So is there a distinction to be made between education and formation? If there is, is that helpful for a Christian understanding of education?
Maybe within that question lies the question that if the situation is as you have articulated, what might be a more proper Christian understanding? I ask this as sort of a critique of the situation you are speaking about. If you talk with many educators, perhaps the president of a liberal arts university for instance, they will tell you that liberal arts education is not to serve the market or even necessarily the nation-state. Rather, liberal arts education is to make one a “well-rounded, good citizen of the world.” So what would be a thoroughly Christian understanding of education, and does that involve a healthy distinction between “formation” and “education?”
PG: The Catholic way of putting this does distinguish between the closely linked pair of catechesis and mystagogy, on the one hand, and something called education on the other hand. And what’s distinctive of the catechesis/mystagogy part is, or should be, a close integration between a formation of the intellect—by the division of knowledge, by the formation of habits of thought—a close integration of that with worship, with liturgy so that those who are being prepared for baptism or reception into the church (catechumens in the technical sense) also begin to be formed by the church’s practices of worship. Then once received, once baptized, they enter into mystagogy where they begin to be formed more deeply. But this should go along with the formation of the intellect as well. These two are not separable, for one is an aspect of the other. The whole person is being formed by the process.
However, that is quite different, I think, from the religious education model where we communicate various things like doctrinal facts and this and that. “Catholics think that X and Protestants think that Y,” for instance. That’s not to denigrate it, but that’s just not the same thing.
What we find, I think, in the world of educational theory is that there are remnants of this Christian idea about the formation of the whole person through worship as well as study. For instance, there is this lovely German word Bildung, which is something like moral and personal formation. Throughout the twentieth century, German theorists of education were always arguing about this word. They wondered how we make sense of this idea. They thought that education is not to be only about the communication of information but also about the formation of people, but without understanding what that meant in a quasi-Christian, sub-Christian, or post-Christian view.
Those are the remnants, and you still hear some of that from liberal arts theorists in the United States, but when you talk about formation of the whole person, who knows what that actually means? Then you get a problem because there is no sense of telos in secular education, whereas for Christians there is a sense of telos, that is, formation through unity with God. So there are still remnants of that, but for Christians the situation is that there are these highly developed, very precise, technical skills in universities that we can use, but that we ought not to think are the whole story. We can use them because they provide tools for the formation of the intellect, which is very important, but they have to be kept closely together with the formation of the whole person, by worship principally. It means that Christians in universities, even in places that are church-affiliated, like Catholic University and others, are always somehow not fully of them. It’s not necessarily a problem, but it is the context today.
TOJ: When thinking about this contemporary Western context that you have just described, I am reminded of your essay “The Very Idea of Religion.” In that essay you describe the university’s subordination to—and this is in line with the recent thought of Stanley Hauerwas on the subject—the global market and the nation-state in which the university equips people for citizenship and falls into the incoherent position of imparting information without an acknowledged telos for the formation of the whole person, and you explore how we as Christians thereby find ourselves with strange allies. Some of these allies are people like Pierre Hadot, and his recovery of this idea of “philosophy as a way of life,” the idea that for the Greeks and for various philosophers throughout time there has been this idea and practice of philosophy as formation into the “good life.” So philosophy is much more than the imparting of data or information. These allies such as Hadot figure into some of the thinking of the essays in the volume you edited with Reinhard Hütter titled Reason and the Reasons of Faith (Lois Malcolm’s essay in that volume particularly comes to mind). What might these strange alliances mean for Christian theologians and confessing Christians teaching in the humanities, various sciences, et cetera? Could these be tactical alliances, and what might that mean for us, though they are not perhaps fully Christian in their thinking?
PG: Well, yes, they certainly could be. From a Catholic point of view, anyway, this is where the otherwise odd discourse of natural law comes in, because from a Catholic point of view, and for some Protestants too, I think, one should expect the remnants or the traces of the triune God’s creative act to be evident. What this means is that often people quite outside of the Christian sphere, either pre-Christian, Buddhist, or something like that, do in fact have an idea about the formation of the whole person that’s very much like, structurally like, the Christian idea. That is to say that they don’t divorce the division of information and technical skill from the formation of the whole person. So there are alliances of all kinds with pagan or quasi-post-Christian theorists like Michel Foucault or even more interestingly, contemporary theorists like Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, or Slavoj Žižek, in his own strange way, who are now writing about bits and pieces of the Christian archive, especially Saint Paul.
So yes, these people have a deep sense, I think, of the problems with the separation of formation and information, and so they are allies. They are the “righteous pagans” you might say in older language. But that is the very problem. At universities, all are in a very strange position at the moment. Almost everyone, at the theoretical level, rejects the old disciplinarity idea. But in fact we all still do it. So we haven’t figured out what else to do. We might read de Certeau or Michel Foucault and think “Well, yes, in a sense he is right,” but because institutional forces are so strong, we don’t know actually what to do with it. All we know how to do is to form people in the old way. However, there are people like Žižek, and they are very interesting.
TOJ: It seems to me in this situation that it is very necessary, and this is of course a fairly popular thing to do these days, to reach out on the contemporary stage to the thoughtful or righteous pagans as well as the simultaneous ressourcement of reaching back to the sources of scripture and the patristics or matristics. This way of addressing the situation makes me wonder if there is the need to recover a particular idea of the Christian tradition, and here I am particularly thinking of folks like people of the Radical Orthodoxy ilk. I am also thinking of others who are at least loosely connected with them such as Gavin D’Costa and Robert Barron in his, as far as I can tell, unpublished work on John Henry Newman. These figures are in dialog with the contemporary theorists that you have mentioned, but they are also interested in the recovery of aspects of the Christian tradition that have been lost.
One idea that they particularly want to recover, which is pertinent to our conversation, is the concept of “theology as queen of the sciences.” If I understand them correctly, they do not seem to be longing for an all-out return to the Middle Ages, as if such a thing were possible, but they do want to recover this concept in some fashion. The importance of a possible recovery of this concept arises in my thinking as I consider the overall project of your Reason and the Reasons of Faith as well as the aforementioned essays that you penned “Theology as Knowledge” and “The Very Idea of Religion.” This comes to mind because part of the problem is that we have all of these various disciplines (biology, the arts, philosophy, physics, et cetera) which fragment away from one another in their pursuits because there is no unifying telos. We therefore get stuck in the ghettos of our various disciplines, and we find it difficult to have conversation across those lines. So I wonder, first of all, is there a viable recovery for Christians, not just theologians, but confessing Christians in all of the disciplines, of the concept or idea of theology as queen of the sciences as a concept that funds a practice that somehow unites all knowledge as the praise of God?
PG: It’s not viable institutionally at all. It’s viable as an idea, and it’s viable perhaps in small enclaves within the university, but this is not what happens institutionally. You must have been around universities enough already to know about the fragmentation and, under the label of faculty governance, the idea that each part of the university controls its nature, form, and destiny. That goes very, very deep. So any proposal to unify the university is, institutionally, not even going to get off the starting blocks. There’s no institutional viability—none. It simply can only be practiced as an act of resistance within something that is fundamentally opposed to it, although it can be attractive and instructive.
TOJ: I agree. This seems to be the case at not only avowedly secular universities; church-related universities find themselves in this situation and educational philosophy as well. Particularly, evangelical Christians and universities share something in common with post-Vatican II Roman Catholics and their universities, whose memories go back to pre-Vatican II, in that there is a fear that academic freedom will always be squelched. So if you recover an idea of theology as queen of the sciences, evangelicals fear that a legalistic fundamentalism, with its anti-intellectualism, will control things. For many Roman Catholics theology as queen of the sciences scares the hell out of them because of their memory of hierarchical control from a pre-Vatican II Magesterium. So there may be some rightful fears there.
PG: Yeah, those things are deep, I think. There are Catholics who have profound memories of this, partly I think imagined, but there is a deep fear there. I don’t think the idea of academic freedom can be sustained given the state of secular universities. There are all kinds of external pressures upon faculty as to what they may or may not say in teaching, I think. It tends to operate on a subconscious level, but it is very much there. The idea of the disconnected individual who can say or think whatever he or she likes has no sense of reality anyway.
This question of academic freedom, for evangelicals and Catholics, tends to surface with particular questions. In the Catholic world, does this mean that if one teaches something that contravenes the Curia’s teaching on contraception that you are not going to get tenure? It is a very particular question like that. Or in the Protestant world, if you are at Wheaton College, and you say something that seems to contravene the statement of belief you signed as a faculty member, “What does this mean, what does this mean—you can’t say that or you will get fired.” But those are very particular instances. They are not for a generic question.
TOJ: William Cavanaugh, in his essay on academic freedom in the collection Conflicting Allegiances, makes the claim that the idea of academic freedom in secular universities, the image of the disconnected individual scholar saying what she likes, no matter what it may be, is really incoherent. Once one tries to live this out in her discipline it doesn’t really make sense. Cavanaugh goes on to make the case that something like the recovery of theology as the queen of the sciences, whether it is in the dream or vision of a possible ecclesially based university or in one of the enclaves of resistance of which you speak, on a micro-level, really offers a paradigm that would fund a true academic freedom. Do you concur with this? If that is the case, what might be some of the contours of an “academic freedom” that comes from a recovery of theology as queen of the sciences? What might be some of the implications for these enclaves of resistance, for confessing Christian theologians, physicists, economists, social scientists, literature scholars, et cetera?
PG: That is a really difficult question. I think we need to distinguish here among kinds of intellectual activity. So for example, the activity of a mathematician or physicist who is involved in formal, technical, abstract activity, perhaps trying to prove a theorem, will not be distinctively different when done by a Christian who understands what she does as in the service of the triune God or as conforming her to that God and who understands the very theorem and its proof being items in the mind of God. That won’t make a difference in the main proof. So the pagan mathematician and the Christian mathematician will be doing the same thing. There would be no difference, I would say. The difference then is not going to be evident there. Where it will be evident is in what is ancillary to that activity. That is to say, the difference will be in how the practitioner of that activity understands what it is for and how it relates to other activities.
So the Christian university (were there one) or an enclave within the university, those who belong to that, would want to give an account of what the mathematician does that is theoretical, that is theological, that is not itself a mathematical formula. The sense in which theology is queen of the sciences is that it can provide an account of what each of the sciences is and is for, but it is not queen of the sciences, I hope, in the sense that it itself provides either the activity or the answers. It can’t do that and shouldn’t try. But it can do what no other discipline can do, which is to provide an account of what all the disciplines are, how they relate to one another, and what their telos is. Thus, how it relates to particular activities depends where on the level of activity you are. If you are fairly low down the ladder, with respect to this question of how we give an account of it all—proving a theorem, trying to figure out whether the genome of the fruit fly is like this or like that—then there won’t be any direct impact. There will be direct impact only with respect to what that is in the service of. But there will also, I think, be an impact in various ways on what the next steps are and what should and shouldn’t be done now.
One thing really to avoid is the idea that Christians somehow have privileged access to all types of knowledge. We don’t; we only have access to what is explicit in regard to the triune God. That is extremely important. Some people actually do think this—they think you can do something like get astronomy out of Thomas Aquinas, for instance. This is not essential for us.
TOJ: It seems that the shape of the recovery of theology as queen of the sciences, as you are narrating it, does not mean something like having the theology department centrally located on campus or in the middle of the enclave in order to police the thinking of various departments or members of the enclave. It really seems more like this general rendering, which would unite the various disciplines in terms of their ultimate telos, the worship of God. Perhaps it might even mean a more viable opportunity for conversations across the disciplines. It seems that you are articulating a vision which still gives a relative autonomy to different disciplines while, because of the unifying telos, providing an opportunity to have conversations across disciplines that get us out of the ghettos of our particular disciplinary departments, conversations where a molecular biologist often can have no meaningful, scholarly conversation with, say, an anthropologist, for example.
PG: Well, I think that is right. If you have ever tried to have these conversations about what the disciplines are for, it usually doesn’t go well because most people don’t think about that or want to think about that. It is not relevant to them. They do what they do, and they do it within the context of a fairly well-established national or international disciplinary organization. More than that, they do not want to do it. So most of those conversations are not happening.
What we do is only talk about particulars. And of course, particulars are often incomprehensible. If we wanted to talk to a mathematician about the current analysis of, let’s say, the difference between John Figgis and Henri de Lubac on natural law, they would neither know, nor care, nor be able to understand. Likewise, if they presented to us the latest info in trying to prove some mathematical theory, we would neither know nor understand. Thus, this idea of the queen of the sciences does provide the possibility for coming to terms with what the disciplines are, how they should be practiced, and what they are for. But it is not going to have much of an effect on the university. In fact, in Catholic and Protestant institutions that try this, like Ave Maria or maybe Calvin College, in its own way, it doesn’t really work very well, though I don’t know any of these places from the inside really. That is to say, it is not really that people in the disciplines really do think about things in these ways. They may pay lip service to the idea of theology as queen of the sciences, but it doesn’t actually have much impact. That is because there are all of these external forces. If you are a mathematician at Calvin or Ave Maria, you’ve still got all these connections to disciplinary forces outside the institution. That is the context.
TOJ: As I am listening to you articulate the contours of our situation, you seem to be saying that in the research university, as Christians, we can develop this vision of the unifying factor of theology as the queen of the sciences, but when we think about our place within the research university, a place where theology may not even be welcome, we have to work in an almost ad hoc fashion.
PG: I really do think that, I mean, short of some dramatic change anyway.
TOJ: How is our reflection on whether or not theology has a place in the research university shaped by the fact that for orthodox Christian theology, and perhaps Jewish and Islamic theology as well, God is not an object in or an aspect of the universe? God is the transcendent creator and sustainer of all that is, and so is not a being alongside other beings. Rather, God is the giver of being or at least a qualitatively different “being” than any created being. So studying God is qualitatively different than studying flowers or politics. How does this shape that discussion?
PG: It does so paradoxically because if you really think theology is about God, then—and parenthetically, of course—most of what we call theology is only indirectly about God. We talk about historical theology when we mean trying to understand whatever people thought about God, which is one removed from actually thinking about God, when we talk about what Newman, Aquinas, or whoever thinks about God. Or we talk about biblical theology and that means exegetical, linguistic, or historical questions about the canon of scripture. These are perfectly worthy things, but they are not directly theology. Theology, in a full and proper sense, is actually thinking about God. Now hardly anybody does that, even in departments of theology. Some of us do, but not much.
Now, the paradox then is that that activity, thinking and writing about God, must be different in kind than any other intellectual pursuit. It’s got to be because its formal object is distinct in the sense that it is not an object at all, whereas all these other things are objects. You can actually talk about a type of tree as an object; there it is. So the paradox this yields is that in the ordinary research-university understanding, theology cannot possibly have a place if you think it is about God. The only kinds of theology that have a place are the ones that are not directly about God. Of course that’s most of it, so that’s OK.
But then, from the point of view of the practitioner of theology, theology is the only thing that counts. It is the fundamental intellectual practice because thinking about God is the presupposition and the horizon for every other kind of thinking, if rightly understood, I think. So then one has got to say, as a theologian strictly senses, that what one does invariably embraces at once what everybody else does; but there is no place at all for that, none whatsoever. It cannot be accommodated. In principle it can’t be accommodated because the whole point of the research university is to not accommodate that.
Max Weber is really good about this. In substance he is wrong, but he sees it precisely. He understands this. So he says, “Sure, a research university is not a theological place.” And he is quite right; it can’t be, because of this fact about theology proper. However, you know it must be said that many Christians, and some Jews and Muslims too, do think of God as an object, an item, one more being among beings. And to the extent that they do, what they do theologically is perfectly accomodatable. It’s like thinking about Superman or something. So there is a deeply Christian problem with that, because many Christians do not really think about God. They think about other things.
TOJ: Perhaps if God is truly understood in this orthodox fashion, it seems that there is a possibility for what I would call an icono-sacramental understanding of the various disciplines. This is true in that, if the creation is understood to be viewed properly through Christ, by the Spirit, then the creation is transparent to God. Certainly a physicist or someone is not going to see something other than quarks or something, but there could be a level at which that could be transparent to God.
PG: Absolutely, there must be or God’s own creation would be meaningless. The Augustinian version of this is then to say that the extent to which something exists is the extent to which it bears witness to God. The phenomenological version of this, which I take from Jean-Luc Marion, is that the extent to which something exists is the extent to which it is given, given as gift. It is the same fundamental point, so of course things are transparent to God. Of course there is an extent to which everything is damaged and flawed in a way. And to that extent it is not transparent, because it doesn’t yield itself as gift.
TOJ: That is really helpful. To round things up, in light of what you mentioned earlier about the alliances with post-critical people and others, there are a number of folks like Pierre Hadot and others who talk about the recovery of certain practices in the formation of the person. You yourself explore, in the collection The Scope of our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher, reading as a spiritual discipline in the wake of Hugh of St. Victor. That points toward the question of how for confessing scholars of various stripes of the humanities, arts, and sciences our craft or discipline is situated within or connected to the worship and prayer patterns and practices of the church. Are there specific practices that are essential for the confessing scholar and/or theologian, as well as the Christian student, to approach the disciplines in an icono-sacramental way?
PG: I think that if you just think for a moment about reading texts, perhaps some of the works that other people in the tradition have written, that it is important to do so slowly and repeatedly rather than quickly. For example, if I am teaching a seminar on Augustine, let’s say, I would much prefer that we read fewer texts for the semester but read them more than once and read them more in an illuminative fashion. Why? Well, because it’s going to make it theological. To the extent that these things exist as theological, we have to respond to them well, not easily, not rapidly. So that is a practice. But the problem is that it’s almost not realistic for me, because if I am teaching in that way, another professor who has these students the next semester and continues with their instruction on Augustine will have a difficult time upon realizing the students have only read two texts of Augustine. They normally assume that they will, after my class, know at least these things, and they don’t because of my slower method. So there are problems here with how to implement these practices.
For instance, even though Thomas Aquinas wrote massive books, the mode of approach is a different model than the dominant mode today. So implementing these practices involves a complex set of issues.
TOJ: It seems to me that in light of that type of situation where we do not have a comprehensive alternative to neatly turn to, one could end in despair and simply capitulate to this high-paced, massive-amount-of-data approach. However, perhaps one could take the mustard-seed approach where one begins in small, ever increasing ways to introduce these practices such as the one you have helped us think about.
PG: Yes, something like that.
TOJ: Well, thank you so much for the gifts of your time and thoughts on this subject today.
PG: You are quite welcome.
Greg Voiles is an Anglo-Catholic hillbilly Thomist from middle Tennessee and a PhD student at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC with a focus on Christian Spirituality and Historical Theology. He thinks that a healthy urban neighborhood is a lot like a small town and that a life without dance, laughter, and beauty is not likely to deserve being called life.
Paul J. Griffiths is the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School. His main intellectual interests and topics of publication include post-1950 Catholic philosophical theology, the philosophical and political questions arising from religious diversity, fourth- and fifth-century African Christian thought (especially Augustine), and Gupta-period Indian Buddhist thought (especially Yogacara). He has published ten books as sole author and seven more as coauthor or editor, including Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Catholic University of America Press, 2009) and Song of Songs: A Commentary (Brazos Press, 2011). He is now at work on an eschatology, whose working title is: Decreation: Toward Nothing.