Make It Different

By Heft, James L. | Commonweal, July 12, 2002 | Go to article overview

Make It Different


Heft, James L., Commonweal


The Idea of a Catholic University George Dennis O'Brien University of Chicago Press, $28, 239 pp.

George Dennis O'Brien is the former president of Bucknell University and president emeritus of the University of Rochester. He is also a philosopher. A graduate of primary and secondary Chicago Catholic schools, O'Brien never attended or worked in a Catholic university. But as a Catholic and a philosopher, he has given considerable thought to what should make a Catholic university distinctive. He is convinced that a truly Catholic university offers the promise of a more adequate and existential approach to "the real" than do secular universities. His argument pinpoints a number of the troublesome moral aspects of the modern research university, such as its inability to assert the relative value of different types of knowledge.

O'Brien believes that the ideological assumptions typical of today's research university are incompatible with the idea of a genuinely Catholic university. A Catholic university should be contrarian in the sense that it embraces "the real" in nonreductive ways, affirms the importance of participatory knowledge, does not hesitate to describe "the real" as revelatory, and sees in the story of Jesus who is "the Truth" a reality important for all humanity. The distinctive "Truth" that Catholic universities can explore is personal (not subjective), grounded in history, and illuminates at the deepest levels the meaning of life as a vocation, that is to say, life as something more than a job or even a successful career, but rather as what God wishes for us: life in abundance in Jesus. O'Brien does not believe that God calls anyone to be rich and powerful, which is precisely what most prominent universities prepare their students to be. Thus, few of the educational tasks of a Catholic university fit easily into the intellectual assumptions of the modern secular university.

In setting out the tasks of a university, O'Brien argues that we need to distinguish three understandings of truth: the scientific, the artistic, and the religious. These need not be opposed to each other, but unless they are distinguished, the scientific will marginalize the other two. Science brackets all factors that might compromise its objectivity: history, gender, race, religious belief, and time. This bracketing, most multiculturalists would argue, removes precisely what is important to understand. By contrast, Christianity locates truth historically and personally in Jesus Christ, who is "the Truth."

The appreciation of art, for example, requires a different understanding of truth than does science. Art is not just subjective; at its best, it aspires to be transcendent and universal. Art is at the same time historical and personal, originating as it does from a particular person in a particular time and place. Judging art requires that people compare it with works already judged to be great. O'Brien explains how over the past century the humanities and art have replaced the teaching of specific religious traditions and the work of moral formation in most major universities. O'Brien further argues that the Christian religion requires us to encounter "the real" in all its particularity and messiness. Typically, universities teach students how to abstract, make generalizations, and exercise control over "variables." Even art may be described as luminous and clear--a visible abstraction--but religion is all "inclusion and confusion." Whereas science strives at great cost to be neutral, and art to shape and control visual expressions, religion confronts a person with existential truth, an "Other," whom mere spectators and critics never encounter. At the heart of religious truth for the Christian is the person, Jesus, who claims to be "the Truth." How does a university bring its students to a greater capacity for encountering the "Other"? Not through abstractions and criticisms, but by reverent exposure to religious realities, texts, and the encouragement of practices that support commitment and personal knowledge. …

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