The Limits of Science and Theology

Nicholas Capaldi

Brad Gregory has diagnosed several dysfunctional features of higher education in America and he has proposed a remedy. In response, I want to do three things: first, add to his diagnosis; second, disagree with his proposed remedy; and third, suggest a few alternative remedies.

First, almost all institutions of higher education, including so-called religious schools, are now secular institutions with a secular social/political agenda. Gregory provides a good history of how that evolution took place.

What needs to be emphasized is not how that drift occurred but what animates it. Behind that evolution, or more accurately, the disenchantment of religious institutions of higher education, is the ascendancy, since the eighteenth century, of a new intellectual paradigm that has taken hold of the university. The intellectual movement to which I am referring is the Enlightenment Project first enunciated by some of the French philosophes. It goes something like this: Science is the whole truth about everything (scientism); anything that is not like physical science is to be rejected and eliminated; there can be social science that explains, predicts, and controls social phenomena; social science gives rise to a social technology that permits us to reconstruct the social world along utopian lines; the university in general and the social sciences in particular are the locus of this technology.

What are some of the consequences of this paradigm? The first institution that must be reformed is the university, and that entails both a positive and negative agenda. Negatively, it means the transformation or elimination of those disciplines that claim to enunciate our highest values: theology becomes religious studies (staffed by atheists determined to deconstruct the Judeo-Christian heritage); literature and history become quasi-social sciences (authors no longer articulate the human condition but serve as data for gender, race, class, etc.); philosophy pretends that it is mathematics; and political correctness marginalizes and silences everyone who dares to challenge the new paradigm. The university cannot be the home of “the” truth and the new social technology if we argue with each other (what would the public think?).

Positively, the new paradigm must substitute a new grand narrative. Unfortunately, the new mandarins cannot agree, and in fact, some of them argue that there cannot be a grand narrative (Lyotard). What they fall back upon is what they dislike. They dislike technology not only because they do not know how to use it but because it reflects creative destruction. They dislike markets both because markets cannot be reduced intellectually (Damn! Hayek) to a formula and because market societies seem to reward business persons and geeks more than academics. They dislike limited government, the U.S. Constitution, and the rule of law because they believe that change requires an all-powerful government that can control all other institutions. They dislike inequality of any kind (except for their own favored position) because inequalities must be symptomatic of historical accident or of oppression (there will be no inequalities when social technology takes over). So, we know what they are against but not really what they favor. It is no wonder that some students become desocialized.

Second, unfortunately, the reintroduction of theology en masse will not help, and in fact may make it worse. To begin with, there is no correlation between taking theology seriously and avoiding political correctness. There is strong evidence of a major rift between those who take religion seriously and conservatively, and those who, having lost their faith, substitute and embrace social welfare. There are people with serious religious commitments who also eschew theology. There are secular individuals who embrace a strong moral ethic. In fact, our present situation is not “belief” versus social disintegration but, rather, a moral pluralism.

Even within particular religious traditions with highly developed theologies there is no unanimity. The Catholic Church, for example, has a nominal head, the Pope, but there is no longer any central intellectual authority. In appearance there is a giant global bureaucracy with a set of pronouncements, namely Catholic Social Thought, that reflect rival factions who understand the social and political implications very differently. The history of Christianity is a history of councils, schisms, heresies, factions, etc.

Turning to theology, we note that Judaism has always followed a juridical model. But Christianity introduced a new set of problems. In the beginning, Christians relied on the Gospels (no footnotes and no reference to Greek philosophy). When it became apparent that the second coming was not imminent, Christians “rationalized” (this term is not used pejoratively but to mean “provide a rationale”) their beliefs using the resources of classical Greek philosophy (especially Aristotle), and this gave rise to theology.

There are a number of problems with this. Aristotle’s metaphysics is an improper vehicle for Christianity. There is a purely naturalistic reading of Aristotle even within medieval Christendom. Averroes, an Arab commentator on Aristotle, exercised enormous influence on the early introduction and understanding of Aristotle in the West. Averroes maintains that (1) God is so self-contained that individual human actions are not guided by divine providence, (2) the material world is eternal and not created, (3) the material world is further governed by an internal necessity under the influence of celestial bodies, (4) there was no first human being, (5) the individual soul dies with the body, and (6) the human will acts within material necessity.

Christian theology is ultimately rooted in the same Aristotelian metaphysical tradition that is at the root of scientism. What I mean by this is that it presumes (1) that there is an order or structure in nature independent of cognition; (2) that human beings can grasp that structure in a purely naturalistic way because human beings are themselves a part of the natural order; and (3) that the study of the natural order leads inexorably to an understanding of the supernatural behind that order. The common philosophical assumption is that we first start with the intelligibility of nature and then move to the understanding of ourselves and then of God. It assumes that how we understand the world is primary and that how we understand ourselves is secondary. It assumes that we gain an understanding of God through an understanding of the natural world. Christianity is reduced to the status of an ingenious hypothesis within the scientific game. The modern secular misrepresentation of morality is nothing more than Aristotelianism in new garb. The Aristotelianizing of Christianity has unwittingly contributed to the misguided growth of secularism.

What happens in ethics is that natural law is replaced by natural rights thinking, which becomes an exercise in which one pretends to find one’s favorite practices to be natural. Rival natural rights theories become thinly disguised private political agendas. Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin, and analytical philosophical political theory still play this game:

  • Human beings are, basically, good, not sinful, and the ultimate goal of human existence is happiness in this life (secularization).

  • Human beings are to be understood mechanistically, hence evil behavior is exclusively the result of external forces (scientization).

  • Social technology can create a utopia by the control of external forces (scientization). The classic discussion of this gnosticism is found in Voegelin (New Science of Politics, 1952), who provides a historical progression that begins with medieval immanentism, then progresses to humanism, and then to the Enlightenment to progressivism to liberalism to positivism and finally to Marxism.

  • Society is a hierarchical structure best served by a powerful and authoritarian state supervised by the new clerisy (usually law school graduates).

None of this can be avoided by turning back to traditional natural law since the latter makes no sense in a modern scientific universe. It was the grounding in Aristotelian naturalism that got us into trouble in the first place. Theology, as I have defined it, is not capable of generating a global ethics. On the contrary, in its corrupt forms it becomes a basis for a new barbarism.

Third, here are some positive steps. In principle, there is nothing wrong and a great deal of what is right at colleges that teach from a particular religious position with clear implications for how to live one’s life. There is a commendable coherence and honesty about what goes on. This is surely a welcome relief from the secular materialism and progressivism that currently masquerades as tolerance but is intolerant of religion. Nor is there anything amiss about a plurality of such institutions. We need to recognize that while there are certainly lost souls, we live in a morally pluralistic world in which some (but only some) of the substantive worldviews are intellectually capable of generating the tolerance that sustains a truly liberal polity and education. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for one, who specifically advocates the recognition of sharia law, does not seem to understand this point. Certain sets of religious beliefs lack the capacity for doctrinal development and tolerance. You cannot advocate tolerance of intolerant systems. We should remember that it is not skeptics who generate cultural suicide and genocide but fanatics.

We can begin by rejecting the accreditation process because it is easily captured by the wrong people. We can call out some philosophers and the academic discipline of philosophy for ensconcing and making intellectual assumptions (e.g., scientism) that cannot be rationally established.

Finally, while I do not have the space here to argue this at length, I am ready to maintain that a truly liberal education is not rooted in a doctrine, or discipline, or in a select reading list with a rigid interpretation, but in a process where students discover their own voice, where they come to understand the importance of freedom and responsibility in sustaining that voice, and how sustaining it requires a true respect for individual autonomy rather than indoctrination masquerading as tolerance.

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