The unity of a university
The very name of a university means that it is a unity of knowledge; without Christ as its center, it is little more than a network of thoughts and a federation of sciences
Your Eminence, Mr. President, Members and Friends of the University:
The privilege of speaking today is a singular one, especially given the distinction of this institution and the valor with which you have contended with the challenges of the recent hurricane.
There often is disorder in the cultural climate as well as in nature, and that sums up what I would address: the importance of a university in unifying a culture, and the importance of Christ in unifying a university.
The very name of a university means that it is a unity of knowledge, and without Christ as its center, it is little more than a network of thoughts and a federation of sciences. A dismal problem in our time is the lack of confidence in any morally unifying principle at all in our schools. That disorientation may be traced back to loss of the source of sovereign and objective truth, when power usurped reason.
Now when did that happen?
Each generation is tempted to blame the previous one. In the third century, the philosopher Plotinus saw it in the confused claims of Gnostics, who somewhat resemble today’s vague “New Age” spirituality, who separated ideas from reality, replaced virtue with emotion, and substituted theory for fact. But when did the confusion really start? Put simply and boldly, that disorder originated when our first parents, countless generations removed, were seduced by the illusion that they could be gods, and their Paradise was abandoned for a culture rather like more than a few of our modern college campuses.
In other words, the human ego became the axle of the wheel of creation. And like any wheel that does not have a real axle, it spun out of control. Since then all human laughter and joy has been mottled with groans of mortality. In 1919, when a war slaughtered people worldwide and revolutions were shredding much of that world to pieces, William Butler Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart/ The centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
In the 11th century, many might have said the same: The old Roman unity had collapsed, Viking and Norman invasions were rattling western Europe, the Church herself was splitting east and west, and in Jerusalem the Holy Sepulchre of the Risen Christ was destroyed. In that period, however, in Bologna, confident scholars established the first model of a university and St. Bruno founded the Carthusian Order with a motto: “Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis”—The cross stands steady while the world spins.
You have an image of that perspective in your chapel with its cross. The one on the wall looks recumbent, but I trust that such iconography means that in in every age Christ who seemed to fall is rising.
There was a speaker, and I regret to say that he was that consecrated form of speaker called a preacher, who wrote in the margin of his manuscript: “Weak point—shout.” There is much shouting these days on the campuses because there are a lot of weak points. When scholarship loses its heart for truth, it raises its arm against it. While there will be contending opinions and healthy debates, if there is no confidence in universal truths, then there will be no desire to seek them. Reasonable discourse will be overwhelmed by irrational shouting.
I knew a German Jewish woman who grew up in the 1930s and remembered how speakers in the public parks who tried to speak against National Socialism would be drowned out by Hitler Youth banging drums and blowing whistles. There was no rational discussion; there was only a contest of noise. As the Church gave the world the university, so must the Church preserve the integrity of the university as a place of reasonable discourse to defeat the willful forces of irrationality.
Your patron, Thomas Aquinas, was a philosopher and a theologian. He did not think, as some overwrought thinkers like the impetuous Tertullian asserted, that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem. He held, and embodied, how philosophy and theology inform each other, as the First Vatican Council taught: faith and reason can never be at odds for right reason established the foundation of faith and faith delivers reason from error. In recent times, Pope St. John Paul II taught us in documents such as Faith and Reason and The Splendor of Truth that reason and faith are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to contemplate the truth.
In his Regensburg lecture in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI uttered words that will be remembered long beyond any frail commentary of our present day: He said, “The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.” His essential point was that God gives us in Christ the “Logos”—the unifying logic which creates, maintains, and explains the entire order of creation. Divinity is not arbitrary power, for the Divine will is the reason for reason.
Saint John leaps into rapture when he says that the Logos, the source of all wisdom, became flesh and dwelt among us. Now, John Henry Newman feared that any university that is not centered upon that Logos will degenerate into a training school for various ways of making a living. There is nothing pedantic with teaching practical things, contrary to an Oxford don who boasted recently (when he boasted) that for nearly nine centuries his university has produced graduates totally incapable of doing anything useful. That worthy Thomist, Etienne Gilson, said: “We are told that it is faith which constructed the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Without doubt, but faith would have constructed nothing at all if there had not also been architecture; … faith built the cathedrals, but geometry also had something to do with it.”
But to know practical things can also do great harm to society if there is no intelligence of the purpose of practice. Every university should require a knowledge of Newman’s Idea of a University to cultivate the joy of learning and caution about its misuse. His university functions to teach the mind how to think, while its Catholic identity rests upon its purpose to manifest how right thought leads to the truth of the Faith.
Newman said that students in a university without God at its center “have no discriminating convictions, and no grasp of consequences.… They are merely dazzled by phenomena instead of perceiving things as they are.” It is also a good use of time to read what Jonathan Swift wrote about the flying island of Laputa, where people skilled in technical crafts float above the surface of reality, filled with information but unable to know what do with it. A university without the Divine Wisdom is like that floating island, where the clever men spend their time trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.
If philosophy and theology are not to evaporate into fantasy and fable, they are to be rooted in history. If, as the cynic has said, history is philosophy illustrated with facts, the use of facts to support a theory, the fact remains that facts are facts. We have abundant examples of how our culture is ignorant of the past. There are many comic examples from students’ answers on history examinations such as: “Magna Carta held that a man may not be hanged twice for the same crime.” “Shakespeare was born on his own birthday.” “An epistle is the wife of an apostle.” Worse are the cases of those who do not know when or why we became a nation. And it is fatal not to know when or why the Eternal Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.
You may be aware that I am a New Yorker. I love my city, which is the Houston of the East. The first resident bishop of New York was a Frenchman, Jean DuBois. As a youth, he studied in a Parisian academy, the College Louis le Grand, by the Sulpician Fathers. One of his quiet classmates became a noisy figure in history: Maximilien Robespierre engineered the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution and sent thousands to the guillotine, splattering the pavements with brains in the name of rationalism. His contempt for the Catholic Church did not overwhelm an old school tie. He smuggled his classmate DuBois to safety and eventually to New York, the Houston of the East, where DuBois led the Church.
This was something like the fourth century when a young scholar, Basil of Cappadocia traveled from Turkey to Athens with his friend Gregory of Nazianzus to study philosophy, and one of their school mates was named Julian. Basil and Gregory now are saints and doctors of the Church. On the other hand, Julian became an emperor and is known as the Apostate because he tried to revive the old pagan cults to destroy the religion of Christ of Galilee. It is said, with vague attribution, that his dying words were, “Vicisti Galilaee”—You have conquered, Galilean.
After the French Revolution, as part of the restructuring of the Church, a group of priests in 1822 founded the Order of Saint Basil, and we are here today because of them. As they renewed, so now the commission is offered to you here to do the same in your own way, with your own equipment and resources, and under the leadership of your new president.
The cultural landscape these days seems bleak with its moral ambiguities, and when we think back to the great voices we have heard not long ago who spoke so eloquently of faith and reason, it is tempting to feel that we are, in the words of Bernard of Chartres, “dwarfs on the backs of giants.”
But just after he said that, one of the world’s greatest buildings was begun. Chartres Cathedral became a hymn in stone to faith and reason, the symbiosis of revelation and geometry. Chartres is Chartres. And Houston is Houston. Texans never think of themselves as dwarfs. But if you are going to do gigantic things, remember God who holds all things together. When things seem to be falling apart, that is the precise moment to bring all things together. We remember the melancholy of William Butler Yeats, but I propose to you the words of Paul of Tarsus, who preached both in Jerusalem and Athens, and who explains the energy and inspiration of a university in the universe: for the apostle says of the Supreme Teacher:
“For in Him (Christ) all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (1 Col 16-17).
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