I’ve noticed something strange about Duke’s crest. The blue and white shield has a banner running beneath it which is supposed to bear the school’s motto—Eruditio et Religio. “Knowledge and Religion.” On the signs in Wilson Gym the banner is there, but the motto is not on it. All of the crests on campus signage have the banner, but many of them don’t have the motto on it. Just a blank banner. There could be any number of reasons for the this; maybe to save money, maybe it’s an oversight. It doesn’t really matter. and I’m not passionately upset that the motto is absent from the sign reminding me to leave my shirt and shoes on.
But it did get me thinking. Perhaps the motto being left off of the crest actually points to something real. We are occasionally reminded of the motto at Convocation, Commencement, but I wonder whether we write it off as a vestige of a bygone era. It seems that Duke, one of the top research universities in the world, couldn’t possibly cling to this outdated and overtly Christian take on education and religion.
Duke was undeniably founded as a Christian school. The motto is indeed a historical remnant. The Dukes—Washington and his sons—were committed Methodists. They supported Trinity College and endowed Duke University partially in the hope that it would turn out well-educated Methodist ministers. We are not unique; Harvard and Yale were also founded for the education of clergy. It seems almost ludicrous today, but Duke’s first bylaws declared that the school must "assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the character of Jesus Christ." If you’ve ever wondered why we have a massive chapel smack in the middle of campus, there’s the answer.
The founders of the University put it there on purpose. And they expected that it would be used by all students and faculty.
So what do we make of our motto? It certainly doesn’t mean what it meant in the early days of the University. Study and religious practice are separate things, and Duke has clearly cast off its original mandate to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all knowledge and faith. Even so, our motto is worth preserving if we can reinterpret it.
Real talk—I know religious people can be annoying. I say that as a devoted and active Christian who spends a lot of time with them. I often find myself baffled by religious people who use their faith to defend opinions that have almost nothing to do with the core beliefs of the religion they claim to practice. I’m often embarrassed by religious people who use their faith to make careless generalizations and hurtful judgments. I'm horrified when some Christians compare gay people to pedophiles and rapists. And Duke students always seem to fall into frustrating conversations with conservative Christians like these, usually concerning hot-button issues like gay marriage or abortion. Occasionally they even crop up here in the Opinion pages.
So it’s no wonder that people are wary of letting religion into serious discussions. Some religious people—even at Duke—perpetuate antiquated prejudices and make similar judgments. Some really do hurt people and diminish the quality of the academic community. After all, it’s hard to sit in a classroom and learn with an open mind when those around you have voiced unkind and narrow-minded opinions. But there is more to any religion than a few political issues—certainly loud conservatives don’t speak for entire traditions.
The “Religio” in the school’s motto does not in any way sanction bad theology, make poor arguments reasonable or justify the apparent inability of some religious people to act like decent human beings. “Religio” describes a mode of thinking rather than a set of thoughts. It describes, just like “Eruditio,” a way of seeking understanding. Knowledge and faith are not opposites, they are different ways of making sense of things. Both can be used badly and both can be used well.
This is what Eruditio et Religio should mean for us today—we ought to hold our practice of religion to the same high standards we have for our academic practice. Both knowledge and religion should be pursued seriously and thoughtfully, and both should be taken seriously. Seeing religion as a blinding fiction—incapable of doing real good—is as narrow-minded as any religious dogma. Religious traditions, when practiced well, have much to say about community service and social responsibility. Duke’s religious life groups could lend some interesting voices to the discussion surrounding DukeEngage and volunteerism. Faith just as often motivates people to work for the full inclusion and equality of all persons. And, of course, religious traditions can force us to look beyond our own problems and needs, opening our eyes to the world around us and how we might help.
if you should happen to hear the Chapel bells on Sunday (and your Saturday night hasn’t left you completely debilitated) consider going to the Chapel and seeing how one group of religious people makes sense of the world around them. You can see others—Shabbat at the Freeman center or jummah prayer in the Chapel basement on Friday afternoons. I hope you’ll agree that religious traditions contain a lot of beauty, though marred by ugly prejudices. They also contain a lot of serious intellectual work, work that is too often distorted and used destructively.
Eruditio et Religio doesn’t demand religion of anyone. But it does encourage those of us who are religious to practice our faith as well as we pursue our academics. It asks that we practice our religion for the betterment of the entire Duke community. And of those who are not religious, the motto asks that you not discount faith because you choose not to practice it yourself. Those of us who are religious and those who are not exist on the same campus. We live in the same dorms, we study in the same library and we cheer for the same basketball team in. If we can meet each other in the same intellectual space, we will all be better for it.
Zachary Heater is a Trinity sophomore. This is his first column of the semester.