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Theology to the rescue.

"Newman, God, and the Academy" by Daniel Cere, in Theological Studies (Mar. 1994), Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass. 02167.

In the modern academy, there is "a strange silence about ultimate questions of good and evil, life and death," observes Cere, a lecturer in religion and theology at Concordia University, Montreal. Theology - the tradition of inquiry into the "God-question," the question of the "supreme good" - has been pushed to the margins of academic debate, replaced by "religious studies," which deals with religious experience only in descriptive and historical terms.

In his controversial 1987 book about higher education, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom blamed the academy's malaise on its blanket repudiation of the Socratic tradition of philosophical inquiry, yet he ignored "the foundational role of the Christian tradition in the development of the university," Cere says. Bloom's own nemesis, Nietzsche, "warned that we cannot expunge `God' from our grammar and expect that things will go on as before. Athens needs Jerusalem since metaphysical reason cannot stand without a universal ground."

John Henry Newman (1801-90), in his classic defense of liberal education, The Idea of a University (1853), presented a more balanced picture, Cere believes: "Newman's bifocal view of the Greek and Judeo-Christian heritage of the academy alerts the reader to the critical role of theology in the emergence of the European university and in the evolution of Western academic discourse."

A Roman Catholic cardinal who, before his conversion, had been a leader of the high-church Oxford Movement in the Church of England, Newman saw theology not as a sovereign "queen" reigning over the academy but as a legitimate "sister" in the "goodly family of sciences." "I am claiming for Theology nothing singular or special, or which is not partaken by other sciences in their measure," he wrote. Its exclusion - already begun in Newman's day, Cere notes, "on the basis of some narrowly defined and typically indefensible theory of what constitutes a `scientific' discourse" - left the character of academic discussion deformed. "Attempts to `slur over' the God question, to deflect attention from it, impose closures on intellectual debate that are without any sufficient warrant," Cere explains.

Theological inquiry, Newman maintained, would respect "the integrity of the distinct theological traditions (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, etc.) in their approach to the God question," Cere notes, but those traditions "must engage in dialectical encounter." The dialectic, Newman believed, moved toward universality. That these claims might ultimately compete with one another was no excuse for a retreat into exclusive rehance on faith or into relativism. "No traditions have a claim upon us which shrink from criticism, and dare not look a rival in the face," Newman wrote - a challenge he might well have hurled at the champions of the modern university, from which theology has been banished. Restoring theology to its place alongside its sister sciences, Cere writes, could do much to revive "the shriveled and cramped soul of modern academic discourse."

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Title Annotation:Roman Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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