The modern culture today is very open to

Is There a Place for Theology in the University?
27 January 2010
Gerald R. McDermott
Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion and Philosophy
Roanoke College
Many today would say no, and often for two reasons. First, because theology is
not neutral but makes proposals from a distinct point of view. They reason that it is the
responsibility of the university to present all subject matter from a position of
philosophical neutrality, and that to do otherwise is a compromise of both the teacher’s
integrity and the student’s right not to be indoctrinated. Hence for a professor to teach
from a particular perspective or from within a tradition is a flight from the Enlightenment
ideal of objectivity to the medieval tyranny of dogmatism and indoctrination.
There is a history to this, of course. Kant imprinted the idea of autonomy on the
modern consciousness. The ideal society was thought to be composed of individuals who
voluntarily submit to a moral law arising from within. The aim of liberal education was
to get people to think for themselves rather than submit to indoctrination, which would
discourage curiosity and criticism.
The twentieth-century rise of fascism and communism reinforced fears of
indoctrination. Teaching normative truths from within a tradition came to be considered
authoritarian, intolerant, bigoted (because it teaches exclusive claims to truth), and
threatening to individual rights because of its appeals to a community's beliefs.
Scholarship and teaching with a point of view then became associated with superstition
and false consciousness, in contrast to "progressive," "open," and "scientific" teaching.
Teaching theology was thought to be merely inculcating ideas without providing
sufficient evidence and reasons for proving those notions beyond any doubt.
The problem with this criterion is that no discipline of learning passes muster, not
even the hard sciences. Physical chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi has shown
that the scientific enterprise depends on a community of scientists governed by tradition
and authority. Scientists do not learn by proving beyond a doubt every step in every
process of the innumerable processes which are held to be so. Instead there is an
apprenticeship of pupils to masters—or as "a modern version of the Apostolic
Succession."1 A master can teach an apprentice only if the apprentice can follow the
master's example and assimilate unconsciously rules of which neither may be explicitly
aware. Hence an apprentice is one who surrenders herself to some extent uncritically to
the imitation of another. While she is learning, the apprentice must accept the master's
judgments even when she does not know the evidence for them. As Wittgenstein put it,
"The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief."2
And what about research itself? Shouldn’t it too proceed without any
preconceptions, but instead apply the tabula rasa mind to an inductive encounter with
naked, empirical facts? A recent generation of scholars in many disciplines thinks this
view naive. Take the hard sciences again, for example--the supposed paragon of
objectivity. Since the seventeenth century we have been told that science is based on
empiricality, objectivity and rationality. Empirical data impress themselves upon the
Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1964),
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, eds. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright (New York: Harper and
Row, 1972), para. 1.
observer through the senses (empiricality), the observer collects the data without
preconceptions or theories (objectivity), and then concludes in rigorously logical fashion
But philosophers of science since Thomas Kuhn have rejected this theory of
"immaculate perception." They have portrayed the scientific method in practice as full of
imaginative leaps. Einstein confessed, "There is no logical path leading to [discovery] or
highly universal laws. They are only to be reached by intuition based upon something
like an intellectual love . . . . The mechanics of discovery are neither logical nor
intellectual. It's a sudden illumination, almost a rapture . . . initially there is a great leap
of the imagination."3
If this is true in the hard sciences--at the important junctions of Kuhn’s “scientific
revolutions” if not in every scientific experiment--it is more true in the social sciences
and humanities. It has now become a truism that one’s social location has as much to do
with one’s perceptions as the research that one argues supports those perceptions. Few
historians, for example, would agree with historian Hayden White that “we can tell
equally plausible, alternative, and even contradictory stories . . . without violating rules of
evidence or critical standards,”4 but most today would concede that “just the facts,
ma’am” can yield different perspectives on the same historical event by two equally
conscientious historians—depending on the point of view they bring to their research.
Like theology, the physical and human sciences are human enterprises, shot
through with elements of subjectivity but not entirely subjective, and all searching for
Albert Einstein, quoted by Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1989), 31.
Hayden White, “Historical Pluralism,” quoted in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity
Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 602.
truth. All these disciplines use a variety of criteria including but not limited to empirical
data: coherence, simplicity, elegance, explanatory power. If Kuhn is right, even the hard
sciences proceed with a point of view, and scientists are just as capable of being blinded
by their preconceptions as anyone else.5 Of course the same is true for historians and
practitioners of the human sciences, and—theologians.
A second reason why theology is sometimes said to have no place in the
university is that it is said to provide no knowledge, for real knowledge is founded on
empirical research. This proposition is often founded on the convictions that
consciousness arises from what is insentient and unconscious, that the mind is nothing
more than a product of chemical brain processes, and that all statements about quality
(such as meaning, values, ideals spirit) can be reduced to more fundamental quantitative
substrata, or are merely subjective expressions of arbitrary preferences, personal or
collective. It is important to recognize that all of these propositions--that are often
assumed without debate in the university—are unprovable empirically and therefore rest
more on faith than empirical experience. Few of those who would oppose theology in the
university consider alternatives such as the possibility of real knowledge of non-sensory
If Kuhn is right, this is true in their theorizing about the nature of the physical world. But it is also true in
their theorizing about the origin and nature of ultimate reality. Think, for example, of the opening verse to
Carl Sagan’s book and TV series “Cosmos”: “The cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be.” One thinks,
too, of Richard Dawkin’s statement that “the more you understand the significance of evolution, the more
you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism.” Dawkins, “A Scientist’s Case
Against God,” The Independent (April 20, 1992). Or Stephen Jay Gould’s pronouncement, “No
intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature (though Newton’s clock-winding god might
have set up the machinery at the beginning of time and then let it run). No vital forces propel evolutionary
change. And whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature.” Gould, “In
Praise of Charles Darwin,” in Charles L. Hamrum, ed., Darwin’s Legacy (San Francisco: Harper and Row,
1983), 6-7. Or the “Statement on Teaching Evolution” passed by the National Association of Biology
Teachers in 1998 that evolution is “an unsupervised, impersonal, and unpredictable and natural process of
temporal descent from genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical
contingencies, and changing environments.” The statement was withdrawn later only after protests from
Alvin Plantinga and Huston Smith. First Things (February 1998), 75.
and supersensible realities. Little effort is made to develop the suggestions made by
Polanyi that all knowledge contains mystery and uncertainty, and that therefore in our
knowing we must entrust ourselves to the “intimations of the unseen.” Nor do many
explore Coleridge’s insistence on the intuitive dimension in all knowing, or the proposal
made by both Coleridge and Steiner that qualities are both objective and subjective. If
the university is to explore not only physical reality but also the most important issues in
life—such as justice and love and meaning—then it must not insist that the empirical is
the only way of knowing.6 What’s more--the assertion that the non-empirical must be
excluded cannot be proven empirically.
Let me close with two observations. First, the university needs theology if it is to
consider fully the larger meanings of its other disciplines. Only by being able to locate a
new idea within a “big picture” does the best learning take place. To insist on the
methodological principle that religious questions (or for that matter, philosophical
questions probing the meaning and limits of reality) must be separated from other kinds
of questions about truth in the university is to diminish the quality of learning. For, as
Newman argued, without religious truth (and I would add, philosophical truth) one
cannot see the fullest extent of any particular truth: “If there be religious truth at all, we
cannot shut our eyes to it without prejudice to truth of every kind, physical, metaphysical,
historical, and moral; for it bears upon all truth.”7
Second, the recognition that there is no research or teaching except from a point
of view does not warrant a subjective, self-indulgent free-for-all. No, the proper model
This begs the question of the kinds of non-empirical knowing, and what relation if any divine revelation
has to any of these. But this is not the place for that discussion.
Newman, Idea of the University, 88-9.
for research and teaching theology and all the other disciplines must involve fairness,
balance and restraint. By fairness I mean that scholars who learn and teach from a point
of view (which means all scholars!) should relate their perspectives to others’ within and
without their own discipline, and in doing so use scholarly rigor, fairness to others
(especially their opponents) and charity.8
By balance I mean that we should take a cue from Stephen Jay Gould, who warns
scholars that while they must acknowledge that there is no absolute objectivity, they must
not go to the opposite extreme of assuming that objective evidence plays no role in
scholarship or that perceptions of truth are entirely relative. What he wrote about science
can be said for all learning and teaching: it is a complex dialogue between data and
Finally, restraint means that good teaching is not indoctrination. Because of the
perspectival nature of knowledge and the existence of rival theories within every
discipline, teachers of theology will face the temptation to indoctrinate no more than
teachers in other fields. It is incumbent upon us all not to be subtly coercive in our
teaching by implying students are unethical or less academically competent if they do not
accept our point of view. But at the same time we should not be afraid to introduce
students to claims, practices and sensibilities that may be new to them. To speak
metaphorically, it is our task to lead students to a new country. We should not expect
students to change their citizenship but to see and hear and taste a bit of life in that new
See George Marsden, “Christian Advocacy and the Rules of the Academic Game,” in Bruce Kuklick and
D.G. Hart, eds., Religious Advocacy and American History, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 3-27, esp.
10, 18.
Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: W.W.
Norton, 1989), 244; cited in Paul A. Carter, “Seldon’s Choice: Variations on a Theme by Asimov,” in
Kuklick and Hart, eds., 207.
land. We can ask them to open their eyes and ears to what is truly other, but we cannot
expect them to get new passports. That is up to them.