We Christians should expect our proclamation to appear mere foolishness to our unbelieving interlocutors (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), so the March 21 guest column (“Eruditio versus religio”) by Fedja Pavlovic is hardly shocking. He asserts that, since Christian theology is in the business of making things up, Duke Divinity School has no place in a modern research university. But since Christians are equally called to give a reason for the faith that is in us (1 Peter 3:15) by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), we—an unofficial and perhaps unrepresentative collection of Duke Divinity students and graduates—would like to suggest a different vantage on the important questions that Pavlovic raises.
His argument is disarmingly simple: Christian theological method depends on the uncritical acceptance of an untested starting point; there are other disciplines that rely instead on something called “rational inquiry,” to which Christian theology is inimical; since the modern university exists to foster disciplines that limit themselves to this “rational inquiry,” Christian theology, and the institutions that shelter it, can have no place there.
Pavlovic’s second point is really the most interesting for our purposes, because it betrays a misunderstanding, not only of theological method, but of the nature of “rational inquiry,” full stop. He suggests that respectable disciplines work by “constructing hypotheses from systematic observations using some kind of logical reasoning.” That is, a rational inquirer simply looks at the data, draws the appropriate inferences and so arrives at the truth, without needing to bother with any such wooly notions as rival theoretical frameworks, testimony or tradition.
Put bluntly, this is vulgar positivism, warmed-over Auguste Comte. Pavlovic betrays no awareness that this account of knowledge has been subject to wide-ranging critique in twentieth century philosophy of science (Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi), philosophy of language (W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson), moral philosophy (Alasdair MacIntyre) and philosophy of knowledge (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga). In their various ways, these thinkers underscore that all human inquiry depends fundamentally on trust in testimony and in received theoretical frameworks that condition (rather than simply reflect) our encounter with empirical evidence. The would-be positivist thus finds herself left with very few friends in contemporary epistemological debates.
If even human knowledge in general depends on willing trust in received traditions, on what St. Augustine and St. Anselm taught us to call “faith seeking understanding,” then the knowledge of God must depend even more so. In fact, as Augustine and other early Christian thinkers stressed, if there is a God, reflection on him that proceeds apart from his self-revelation (i.e., the type of religious investigation that Pavlovic would allow to remain on campus) is in fact bound to be a nightmare of idolatrous self-projection. So, following a line of thought initially sketched by Blaise Pascal, if there is even a glimmer of likelihood that a crucified Galilean named Jesus was resurrected and enthroned as the Lord of all creation, then the claims of Christian theology, embedded as they are within the social and moral revolution effected by the Church’s witness, merit very serious consideration indeed.
Nevertheless, Pavlovic is certainly right to claim that the modern research university was born, at least in part, out of a struggle to free human knowledge from the strictures of tradition and the dependence on testimony that so marks Christian theology. There is a complex history here, and some of the more timid strains of post-Enlightenment Christian theology played a key role in birthing the university as we know it today. So, as the Divinity School’s Dr. Paul Griffiths has acknowledged, Christians should indeed expect their claims about God and creation to sit uneasily alongside the research university’s organization of knowledge.
But it was not always so. Many, including Duke’s own Stanley Hauerwas, have observed that the medieval university took its bearings from the fundamental conviction that creation was intelligible to human investigation precisely because it was drenched in God’s own creative rationality. As Nietzsche presciently predicted, absent these theological convictions, the pursuit of truth has steadily given way to a vision of human knowledge as the servant of power and profit, a vision that is underwriting the gradual excision of humanities departments from America’s universities. Toppling theology from its ordering role in the university has left a void which the market and the state, institutions whose interest in the university can scarcely be considered neutral, have been quick to fill.
We are grateful to Pavlovic for opening up an important discussion regarding the relationship between faith and reason. We hope that he and all our non-Christian peers from around the University will consider engaging the Divinity School community in a sustained conversation to explore how Christians and atheists (and Buddhists and Muslims, etc.) understand the basis for their most deeply-held beliefs.
Christina Carnes, M.T.S. ’13
Brendan Case, M.T.S. ’12
William Glass, M.Div. ’14
Ryan Grove, M.Div. ’14
Ty Monroe, M.T.S ’13
Brandon Walsh, M.Div. ’14