Our first task is to define the nature of the crisis that besets not only the church but also its environing culture. Though the church exists to make witness to the world, it often serves as a mere mirror to it. Nowhere is this malady more evident than in the massive ignorance about Christian culture and traditions that any college teacher of the humanities repeatedly encounters. In her story entitled "Greenleaf," Flannery O'Connor names two of her child characters Wesley and Scofield, yet almost none of my students ever catch either allusion. I might not expect them to know of Cyrus Scofield (1823-1921), editor of the celebrated Scofield Reference Bible, which was much revered in the South because it was annotated along Dispensationalist lines. But surely it is a scandal that virtually no one recognizes the founder of Methodism. After one of my Methodist pastor-friends kept quoting Wesley in his sermons, his wife overheard two parishioners discussing the matter: "Who is this Wesley fellow?" asked one of the Methodist ladies. "I don't know," replied the other; "it must be a friend of his." A Baylor colleague began a class by asking if his students were aware of that particular day's special significance. No one had noticed that it was Yom Kippur. Yet these students were ignorant not only about the timing but also about the meaning of the day. When my professor-friend then explained what happens on the Day of Atonement, they were still largely oblivious to its connection with Christianity.
Still another friend tells of the shock she received upon attending a Christmas party for her university's computer technology staff. When the time came to sing carols, she quickly discovered that most of the technicians did not know even the most basic songs of the season. I also recall a memorial service, held in the chapel of my former university, for three students who had been run down by a reckless driver. Asked to repeat the 23rd Psalm, most of the audience could not do so. If these pieces of anecdotal evidence are indicative, as I believe they are, they reveal that even our Christian colleges and universities are in danger of producing what C. S. Lewis called "trousered apes" and other critics have described as "barbarians with clean fingernails." We may be in dire peril of graduating professionally well-trained people who are almost wholly ignorant of their own intellectual and religious traditions.
Such litanies of Christian illiteracy could be multiplied endlessly. Lest I be found guilty of my own smug self-congratulation, let one final example suffice. Our own formerly Baptist minister, journalist, and presidential adviser Bill Moyers helped John Kennedy gain the American presidency in 1960 by writing a celebrated speech wherein Kennedy assured a meeting of Houston pastors that his Catholicism would not prejudice his presidency. Moyers was rightly commended for having helped Baptists and many other Protestants to overcome their anti-Catholicism, for in his speech Kennedy pointed to both the Constitution's Bill of Rights and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom as protections against the denial of elected office to anyone because of their religious convictions.
Yet virtually no one bothered to question why Moyers should have had Kennedy stress that his "views on religion are his own private affair." "What kind of church I believe in," Moyers had Kennedy declare, "should be important only to me." The one thing that mattered, he added, was "what kind of America I believe in." Kennedy also insisted that the fulfillment of his presidential office would not be "limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual, or obligation." This is an astonishing claim to be made by any Christian who, as in Kennedy's case, has vowed in his baptism to abjure the devil and all his pomps, in the sacramental Supper to die with Christ rather than forsake the faith, and in reciting the creeds to give first and last fealty to none other than the triune God. Moyer's speech had Kennedy appeal, instead, for Protestants and Catholics and Jews to "promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood." Perhaps Kennedy would not have been elected if Moyers had written a speech urging Baptists and other Protestants to vote for Kennedy only if his religion would indeed shape his policies and decisions as president, since Christian faith is not chiefly a private but a public matter, and since the church has a rich and complex tradition of teaching about the right relation of the church and the state. But perhaps we might also have been spared the horror of Vietnam.
Civilization vs. Culture
Our task is to ask what we might do about this crisis of Christian culture in church-affiliated colleges and universities. I will argue in the following chapter that we should seek vigorously and diligently to create a Christian educational culture of our own. But such a prescription must follow a prior description of what I conceive to be our massive educational malaise.
We would do well to begin with a definition of terms. The word "culture" has immensely complex origins and uses, many of them contradictory. Suffice it to say that the Latin cultura was linked to the cultivation of crops and to the husbandry of animals. Not until the sixteenth century was the word extended to the domain of human growth and development. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, culture had become a virtual synonym for civilization. Yet a huge shift had occurred. The term "civilization" pointed to life in the civitas-to the truly human state or city wherever it is found, not only in Athens or Rome or Constantinople. Civilization entailed a set of restrictions and limitations no less than a host of virtues and possibilities. To be civilized meant that human character is to be shaped by received communal traditions and mores, that citizens are formed by values and virtues which they do not choose for themselves, but which they receive almost through the pores of their skin, via the very atmosphere of their homes and schools, their holy places and their cities.
It is true that the word "culture" seeks to retain the old meaning of civilization as a particular way of life. Hence Max Weber's definition of culture as the "web of significance," the matrix with reference to which everything else makes sense. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines culture in similar terms as "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols." But the prominence now given to "culture" represents a decisive novelty. As with the old Latin cultura and its link to agriculture, so does our modern word "culture" imply what "civilization" never connoted-namely, growth and development and progress. From the Enlightenment forward, culture came to mean an advance upward from barbaric savagery-first into the domestication of wanderers and gatherers, then slowly into the social existence of mature human societies, and finally into the life of free and autonomous beings. Unlike civilization, culture in its modern sense does not seek to shape us toward definite pre-determined ends, so much as it liberates and improves us according to ends, whether personal or social, that we freely choose for ourselves. No ancient Greek or Roman or medieval Christian could have conceived of freedom in this fashion-as lying in what the Declaration of Independence calls our own "pursuit of happiness." For our ancient forebears, by contrast, happiness was a derivative by-product of civilized life in the well-ordered polis. It is not surprising, then, that the word "civilization" gradually became linked with stagnating and calcifying institutions which were thought to work against the aims of freedom-enabling culture.
Two Kinds of Multiculturalism
There is neither world enough nor time to trace out the radical implications of this seismic shift in emphasis from civilization to culture. The most obvious result is the contemporary notion that there is not one but many cultural ways of seeking our liberty and pursuing our happiness. It has become a commonplace, therefore, to call ours a multicultural age. If we mean by this claim that ours is increasingly a world of multiple races and ethnicities and religions, then the truism is surely true. It is often observed that there are now more Muslims than Episcopalians and Presbyterians in the U.S., and that there are more Anglicans in Africa than in Britain. When my family lived in the London neighborhood of St. John's Wood in 1988, we noticed that the outstanding landmark in this elegant old section of the city was, even then, a soaring mosque. A huge new Hindu temple is now visible from the train that plies between London and the Heathrow Airport. San Francisco and Toronto and New York, like Houston and Washington and Los Angeles, have the feel not of western and Anglophone cities so much as multilingual and multicultural places. Most of our major urban centers, if the recent population statistics are reliable, will become ever more fully hybridized. Challenging the de facto reality of multiculturalism is rather like challenging the August heat in Texas.
Many educators believe that it is a good thing when our college campuses display a kindred diversity of cultures and ethnicities. If by this assertion they mean that Christian schools must welcome "all sorts and conditions of men," as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, then surely they are right. Yet it is another matter entirely for the Christian academy to embrace what Stanley Fish calls a "strong" multiculturalism. It values difference in and for itself, believing that we must honor the particular and substantial ways in which persons and cultures differ. These strong multiculturalists call us to nurture particularity and diversity through a tolerance that is understood as a first principle of both personal morality and public policy.
This multiculturalism of difference holds, as its central premise, that the greater the differences among us, the greater the good. Multiple viewpoints and multiple interests enlarge our comprehension of truth, whereas a singular culture and perspective shrink both knowledge and wisdom. Christians can find much truth in this assumption. Dialogical encounters with the "other" have been intrinsic to the Gospel at least since St. Paul's sermon on Mars Hill recorded in Acts 17. Yet the majority of Paul's pagan hearers turned away from his preaching when he mentioned Christ's scandalous resurrection from the dead, revealing the limits of even the Apostle's irenic attempt at engagement.
Fish declares that such an impasse will always come, not only for confessing Christians, but for serious multiculturalists as well: the time when a particular religious and cultural tradition will reveal itself to be intolerant at the core:
The distinctiveness that marks it as unique and self-defining will resist the appeal of moderation or incorporation into a larger whole. Confronted with a demand that it surrender its view point or enlarge it to include the practices of its natural enemies-other religions, other races, other genders, other classes-a beleaguered culture will fight back with everything from discriminatory legislation to violence.
Fish cites, as an obvious example, the death sentence handed down by the Ayatollah Khomeini against author Salman Rushdie for his alleged slurs against Mohammed in his novel entitled The Satanic Verses. The dilemma for serious multiculturalists quickly becomes evident. They must stretch their tolerance to include the intolerance of a group that they abhor, thus rejecting tolerance as their first principle; or else they must condemn the intolerance, in which case they no longer advocate multiculturalism at the very point where it is most obviously at stake. In a very real sense, one must conclude, there is no such thing as a thoroughgoing multiculturalism, either epistemically or morally. At bottom we are all willy-nilly particularists, for we all privilege the practices and institutions of one social order over others.
Over against the multiculturalism of difference Fish poses what he calls a "boutique" multiculturalism, a trendy admiration of nearly every other culture than one's own: "Boutique multiculturalism is the multiculturalism of ethnic restaurants, weekend festivals, and high-profile flirtations with the other in the manner satirized by Tom Wolfe under the rubric of 'radical chic.'" Boutique multiculturalism cannot finally value the central affirmations of other traditions, because it sees them not as basic and definitive, but as mere accessories to a standard model of universal humanity as defined by the boutiquers own Enlightenment rationalism. Boutique multiculturalism thus limits itself to a superficial respect of other ways of life, unable to regard radical cultural particularity as any other than "icing on a basically homogeneous cake."
There is much that is fashionably anti-American and anti-Western in the boutique multiculturalists. They often invest so-called "indigenous" cultures with highly idealized qualities that they want American society to make its own: peacefulness, non-competition, care for the environment, sexual liberation, and the like. Yet while deploring the ruination of pristine native cultures by the spread of dreaded "McWorld" values, they have no desire to import the Chinese custom of female infanticide, the Indian system of caste, the practice of clitorectomy among certain African Muslims, etc. Already in 1965 the philosopher-scientist Michael Polanyi had given an apt name to the force that undergirds boutique multiculturalism. It is a "moral nihilism charged with moral fury," declared Polanyi, that should be properly called "moral inversion."
The enmeshment of cultures is altogether as likely to divide as to unite-indeed, to produce war and permanent strife, as Ireland, Israel-Palestine, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa all attest. Ortega y Gasset thus insisted that cultural and ethnic differences are beneficial only when a civilization is imbued with a common purpose and mission that unifies deep cultural disparities. Without commonality of vision and virtue, I would add, only inexhaustible wealth and unlimited consumption can serve to bond a culture. Perhaps such materialist glue is the real substance that makes twenty-first-century American culture cohere. If this is indeed the case, then Christian education has an even more radical call-namely, to help remedy a malaise that is devastating the church and the academy alike.
The Post-Modern Character of the Church and the Academy
Just as there are two kinds of multiculturalisms, so are there at least two varieties of post-modernism. The multiculturalism of difference holds, as we have seen, that there are no value-neutral distinctions to be made among cultures and civilizations: we see by way of the blinders and binoculars of our own time and place. Such strong multiculturalism, at least in this regard, is closely allied to post-modernism. They both deny the Enlightenment assumption that it is possible to stand above the flux of history and to view things sub specie aeternitatis. This modernist and foundationalist premise holds that all people of good will and right mind can agree upon the basic moral rules that are essential for human existence. The American Founders are perhaps the most obvious exemplars of the notion that we can sacralize certain virtues-indeed, that we can build a new world order on them-without much regard either for their dependence upon particular historical communities or their rootage in particular narrative traditions and religious practices.
It is precisely this modernist premise that post-modernism denies. There is no vision without glasses, the post-modernists insist, since we all wear lenses of one culture or another. To stand outside time and space is the ultimate Enlightenment delusion, for it ignores our locatedness, and thus the historical character of all our knowledge and truth. This radical post-modern premise can be taken in opposite directions, one destructive and nihilistic, the other constructive and redemptive. Post-modernists such as Richard Rorty conclude that, since all of our seeing is a lensed seeing, we cannot declare any single perspective superior to another. There is nothing outside ourselves that can command our obedience. "'Post-modern' philosophers," Rorty writes, "are willing to respect reality as presenting us with problems to be dealt with, but not as an authority to be obeyed." Given such a view of "reality," it follows that we must choose whatever way of life conduces to our own private happiness, so long as it doesn't harm others: "[...] the only test for a political proposal is its ability to gain assent from people who retain radically diverse ideas about the point and meaning of human life, about the path to private perfection." The substance and content of this curious "assent" remains open and undefined, for Rorty embraces what he calls "the Whitmanesque and Whiteheadian romance of unpredictable change." The preferences of individual agents must always have supremacy. Hence Rorty's utopian confession of "the need to create new ways of being human, and a new heaven and a new earth for these new humans to inhabit, over the desire for stability, security and order."
Excerpted from Contending for the Faithby Ralph C. Wood Copyright © 2003 by Baylor University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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