Idea of a University Discourse 2 Part 1: Theology is a Science

In his book, The Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom recalls the 1960s and ‘70s, when some Black Power student groups at Cornell University held professors at gunpoint until they met their demands. What is remarkable about this, Bloom thinks, is that these students were never punished or given consequences for their dangerous behavior and anti-intellectual tactics. Still today, university campuses are increasingly strange places that do not devote to respectful intellectual inquiry and dialogue, but permit (and sometimes encourage) censorship, oppressive monologue, indoctrination, and name-calling. Authentic intellectual inquiry is being denigrated, while radical political posturing is being rewarded. What happened? How did we get here?

Discourse 2 of The Idea of a University begins to answer these questions. We must recall that, in the Prologue and Discourse 1, Newman works with the definition of a university as a place devoted to universal knowledge. We must also keep in mind how Newman works with the root meaning of the word science: derived from the Latin verb scire, it simply means “to know.” So, Newman uses the word science to mean “knowledge,” or more specifically, a method of knowing something. In Discourse 2, his main point is that, in light of these definitions, a university that lacks theology as a science is in fact not a university. Every science has an object, a thing it is trying to know the truth of–the biologist seeks to know the truth of plants and animals, the physicist the laws of the universe, and the theologian God.

Newman insists that studying the truth of God is an objective science within the realm of what is called natural theology, a discipline that explores theological principles through logic and reason—using data that is available to us naturally (i.e. Reason). It attempts to do so without appeal to Revelation—which uses data available supernaturally. For instance, the idea of the Trinity, that God is one being in three persons, is beyond the realm of logic and requires an act of faith in the fact that God reveals himself as Trinitarian. On the other hand, Newman lists the following attributes of a Supreme Being as discernible through philosophical reasoning: “Individual, Self-dependent, All-perfect, Unchangeable, intelligent, living, personal, present, almighty, all-seeing, all-remembering,” transcendent, uncreated, all-sufficient, Creator, Sustainor, and final judge of the “Law of right and wrong he has written on our hearts.” If these truths are knowable on the natural level, then “theology is a science”–it is a discipline of knowing something that is not just for churches and pastors, but is proper and essential to universities.  Newman stresses that theology is a branch of knowledge about something–God–within the objective universe, and it would be an “intellectual absurdity” to exclude it from the curriculum of a university which aims at universal knowledge.

Theology is not only fitting to university education, but necessary and indispensable. One can try to “divide Knowledge into human and divine, secular and religious, and to lay down that we will address ourselves to the one without interfering with the other; but it is impossible in fact.” He says that “mutilation of the divine” will “break up into fragments the whole circle of secular knowledge.” Just as Jesus Christ is both God and man, and his Church is both Divine and human, just so, Newman shows that authentic intellectual inquiry, and thus sound university education, is Incarnational–it requires both the Divine and the human in order to fully be what it is. Theology is “…the subject-matter of a science, far wider and more noble than any of those which are included in the circle of secular Education.”

Theology is the cornerstone upon which the entire edifice of knowledge stands and subsists. If a university lacks theology, it can not aspire to universal knowledge, and thus would not in fact be a university. In the next post, we will be begin to look at what Newman thinks happens when a university foregoes theology as a science.

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