Faith, Reason, and the Christian University: What Pope John Paul II Can Teach Christian Academics

By Beckwith, Francis J. | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Faith, Reason, and the Christian University: What Pope John Paul II Can Teach Christian Academics


Beckwith, Francis J., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


BAYLOR UNIVERSITY, the world's largest Baptist university, is a remarkable place with many fine Christian men and women on its faculty and in its student body. It boasts a rich tradition of academic excellence, and it is a privilege for me to be able to make a contribution to that tradition, however modest my contribution may be. However, soon after my arrival at Baylor in 2003 it came as a surprise to me to learn that among the university's most respected faculty, denominational leaders, and alumni are those who reject creeds as normative for Christian belief. For example, one theologian of this stripe, James Dunn, enthusiastically asserted that the only creed his tradition accepts is "Ain't nobody but Jesus goin' to tell me what to believe." (1) Of course, there are many Baptists, including Baylor faculty, alumni, and regents, who disagree with the point of view held by Dunn and others. (2)

As one would suspect, this anti-creedalism, as its advocates argue, has implications for the life of a Christian university. For they maintain that an academic institution's embracing of a creed--as a standard of orthodoxy to assist the university in assessing the Christian faith of prospective and current faculty members--is a violation of academic freedom as well as oppressive to the believer's liberty and spiritual integrity.

I believe this view is mistaken, but not because its advocates do not mean well or that they are not committed to the truth of the Gospel or the primacy of the Christian message. Rather, it is because they have assimilated into their theological understanding, sometimes inadvertently, philosophical beliefs about the nature of liberty and knowledge that are inconsistent with the preservation of their institutions' theological commitments.

I. Anti-Creedalism and the Christian University

In order to make my case, I want to conscript the work of Pope John Paul II. For the late pontiff, the sort of view embraced by anti-creedalists seems impossible to sustain if one claims simultaneously that one's academic institution has a particular character or end in mind that must be developed, nurtured, and promulgated. Although he is writing of Catholic universities in Ex corde ecclesiae, John Paul's remarks may be applied to non-Catholic Christian institutions as well:

  A Catholic University pursues its objectives through its
  formation of an authentic human community animated by the spirit
  of Christ. The source of its unity springs from a common vision
  of the dignity of the human person and, ultimately, the person
  and message of Christ which gives the Institution its distinctive
  character....

  Every Catholic University, as Catholic, informs and carries out
  its research teaching, and all other activities with Catholic
  ideals, principles, and attitudes. It is linked with the Church
  either by a formal, constitutive and statutory bond or by reason
  of an institutional commitment made by those responsible for it.
  ... The University, particularly through its structure and its
  regulations, is to provide means which will guarantee the
  expression and preservation of this identity. ... The
  responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic
  identity of the University rests primarily with the University
  itself. While the responsibility is entrusted principally to
  university authorities ... it is shared in varying degrees by all
  members of the university community, and therefore calls for the
  recruitment of adequate university personnel, especially teachers
  and administrators, who are both willing and able to promote the
  identity. The identity of a Catholic University is essentially
  linked to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic
  doctrine. (3)

John Paul is suggesting that a university as a whole cannot claim to offer a distinctive theological alternative to its peer institutions while at the same time claiming that it is illegitimate for the university to require that its individual members be committed to the particular beliefs and general worldview on which the university's unique character depends. …

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