Friday, July 20, 2012

Post-Secular Academia: Part Deux

"The Platonic Academy," writes Josef Pieper, was a "thiasos, a religious association assembling for regular sacrificial worship," an educative norm that Christianity obviously perpetuated, even if they shut Plato's Academy down.  In Exiles from Eden, Mark Schwehn elaborates:
Few would dispute the central point here.  Whether we look to the Platonic Academy or to the teachers of ancient Israel or to St. Augustine at Cassiciacum or to the medieval university or to Pico della Mirandola's disputatious Florence or even to the small colleges of early nineteenth century America, we find learning flourishing in communities formed by the conscious practice of spiritual virtues.  Over the course of the last century, the modern university has ceased... to attend to character formation, or it has imagined that such attention should be an 'extracurricular' enterprise having little or nothing to do with knowledge.  From this perspective, the current resurgence of the community question may be Western culture's awakening from a comparatively brief slumber induced or at least maintained by what Parker Palmer has called objectivism.  If so, the 'problem' is not to explain, much less to justify, the relationship between religion and higher learning: it is to account for how we could ever have lost sight of it.
The post-secular university so frequently discussed today is consequently more norm than novelty, boasting an embarrassment of historical riches upon which to draw.  So what then was this secular modern interlude?  I prefer Mark Noll's definition:  Modernism was "a recent heresy maintaining that only certain learned rationalists could see the true character of all things as essentially natural and also recognize the mythic unreality of the supernatural realm."  That viewpoint has obviously not disappeared, but it has been dethroned, and the icy core of its onetime dominion - the academy - is unevenly thawing.  Perhaps the first imperative to insist upon in the new context is that religiously inclined individuals need show more hospitality to the secular mentality than the secular mentality once showed to them. 

Some friends have expressed unease when I speak of this religious turn, and their point is well taken.  Academia is of course not monolithic, and anti-religious prejudice is still thick on the ground in many places.  It is easy to overerplay the new (and possibly quite tentative) state of affairs.  There is also a case to be made this all comes much too late.  In 1970, before any of this was on the immediate horizon, George Steiner surveyed the prospects of secular reason, whose momentum he considered unstoppable.  Strangely enough, the apocalypticism on offer in Bluebeard's Castle was rooted less in Spenglerian conservatism than in the Frankfurt School!
The notion that abstract truth, and the morally neutral truths of the sciences in particular, might come to paralyze or destroy Western man is foreshadowed in Husserl's Krisi der europäischen Wissenschaften (1934-37).  It becomes a dominant motif in the theory of 'negative dialectic' of Horkheimer, Adorno, and the Frankfurt School.  This is one of the most challenging, though often hermetic, currents in modern feeling and in the modern diagnosis of the crisis of culture...  Reason itself has become repressive.  The worship of 'truth' and of autonomous 'facts' is a cruel fetishism...  The disease of enlightened man is his acceptance, itself wholly superstitious, of the superiority of facts to ideas...  Instead of serving human ends and sponteneities, the 'positive truths' of science and of scientific laws have become a prison house.  As Horkheimer and Adorno emphasize in the Dialektik der Aufklärung, the old obscurantism of religious dogma and social caste have been replaced by the even more tyrannical obscurantism of 'rational, scientific truth.'  ...We cannot turn back.  We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing.  We shall, I expect open the last door in [Bluebeard's] castle even if it leads, perhaps because it leads, onto realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control.
Do not combine that prose with whiskey.

Steiner laughs off any hippie holdouts: "The flower child in the Western city, the neoprimitive chanting his five words of Thibetan on the highway are performing an infantile charade, founded on the surplus wealth of that same city or highway."  And what of the brave resistance of the humanities?  Curiosity's Blitzkrieg happens as they sleep:
Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist.  There it leads a bizarre pseudo-life, proliferating its own inert environment of criticism (we read Eliot on Dante, not Dante), of editorial and textual exegesis, or narcissistic polemic.  Never has there been a more hectic prodigality of specialized erudition - in literary studies, in musicology, in art history, in criticism, and in that most Byzantine of genres, the criticism and theory of criticism.  Never have the the metalangauages of the custodians flourished more, or with more arrogant jargon, around the silence of live meaning.
This religious turn, this return to practice, this shift described by Mark Schwehn from Wissenschaft (knowledge) to Bildung (formation), and from Henry Adam's self-creation back to Augustine's created self, may consequently be like trying to turn an oceanliner with a paddle while the rusted rudder is fixed.  But the religious virtue of hope, of which there are whiffs in Steiner, mitigates his conclusions, as does the fact that Steiner issued those dim predictions over forty years ago, and we're still here.  In many places, the native religious shape of education flourishes, the sciences are understood as they first were in this country (Walter Minto called them "a continued act of devotion"), and the humanities thrive in their native habitat of meaning.  Religiously inclined academics have new resources and new confidence, and theirs, unlike Steiner's flower children, is no infantile charade.

But will we ultimately succeed?  Carry the day?  Turn the ship?  Eliot answered that one in Four Quartets: "For us, there is only the trying, the rest is not our business."

(Here, by the way, is part une.)