The Death of God and the Death of Higher Education

Mark T. Mitchell

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by RealClearEducation on April 2, 2021 and is crossposted here with permission.

As colleges and universities become increasingly consumed by identity politics and social justice ideology, higher education is disintegrating. True education is being eclipsed by political movements hell-bent on destroying the very institution that made higher education possible.

This has been a long time coming, but once education was separated from a religious principle capable of justifying the rational pursuit of knowledge, the demise of the university was merely a matter of time. Sound far-fetched? Let me explain.

The modern university was invented in Medieval Europe, but its roots go back to antiquity. Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, along with Christian thinkers who came later, held that the cosmos was an intelligibly configured reality and that human beings could flourish only if their lives conformed to that reality. To act justly was to act in a way that corresponded to a reality “outside” of the self, a reality that existed prior to human will. The intellect and the will, therefore, were subordinate to (or obliged by) a divine reality that humans did not create. To act contrary to this intelligible order was to condemn oneself to frustration, unhappiness, and incoherence.

However, as the Medieval world gave way to what we call the modern era, the unity provided by belief in God began to fray. Faith and reason were separated, and rather than Augustine’s “faith in search of understanding,” the rational intellect came to be seen as autonomous. In the moral world, facts and values were separated; facts came to be seen as universal and objective, while values were merely subjective preferences. The soul, oriented to God, was replaced by the self, oriented merely to self-fulfillment – thus paving the way for the triumph of the therapeutic, which validates and energizes our current obsession with personal identity.  

When, in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche declared that God is dead, he was merely giving voice to a sentiment that had been in the air for some time. Nietzsche understood that without God, the cosmos has no intelligible structure. There are no moral conditions for happiness or flourishing, only a chaotic array of individuals and material systems. Submission to divine reality or to a transcendent moral standard is, on this account, an unreasonable concession to an imaginary “reality.”

Nietzsche understood that if God were dead, the very notion of truth would have to be reevaluated. According to Nietzsche, Plato is responsible for establishing “truth” as the West’s highest ideal. He argued that there exists a reality “beyond being” – he called it the Good – that gives life and meaning to all that exists. For Plato, the most real is also the most good, and the pursuit of knowledge is inseparable from the pursuit of this transcendent good. Nietzsche declared that “Christianity is Platonism for ‘the people.’” Both posit an intelligible and moral order that is the proper object of rational inquiry.

Nietzsche believed, though, that the Platonic and Christian construct was breaking down, allowing people to begin “breathing freely again.” Nietzsche recognized that God and truth go hand-in-hand, and on this point he agrees with Plato and the Christians. The Greeks and later the Christians thought of truth as participating in the divine. Heraclitus of Ephesus (d. 475 b.c.) posited that all things come to be in accordance with the logos – for him, a general principle by which the world is governed. When St. John called Christ the logos, he was appropriating this image and explicitly identifying Christ with the divine. Logos means “word,” but it also connotes “rational principle,” suggesting that Christ is the representation of a divine order that can be articulated through language.

Thus, a commitment to the notion of truth implies a commitment to theism. To be “free spirits” – a term Nietzsche uses regularly – we must extricate ourselves from the idea of God. It is here, Nietzsche believes, that twenty centuries of “training in truthfulness” will actually destroy theism. When those committed to the idea of truth recognize that God is, in fact, dead, their commitment to truth will turn on itself with a vengeance. Once God is jettisoned, the very notion of truth must be put to question. No longer will we speak of truth, dragging along with it the musty implication of theism. Now we can see more clearly that life is not characterized by the search for truth but instead by the quest for power.

This quest for power is the characteristic feature of modern “higher” education. Students are taught that the world is divided into various groups whose primary identity is reducible to power differentials. A common pursuit of truth is replaced by overt and covert power struggles. In this new and barren world of power, the pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful is replaced by grievance and accusation. Concerted efforts to locate and correct injustice (a concept derived from a theistic account of the world) have been replaced by sweeping claims of “systemic” injustice, in which the entire civilizational edifice must be destroyed in the name of justice. But justice torn from its theistic grounding is merely a blunt instrument of power disguised in the moral language of a rejected world. Such a notion represents a self-refuting enterprise that will usher in not justice but unrestrained power cloaked in the God-haunted language of equality, social justice, and anti-racism.

Given this account, is it surprising that Christianity is increasingly the target of hostility on college campuses? Yet as the Easter celebration reminds us, the logos cannot be simply killed, buried, and forgotten. The resurrection of Christ is a profound symbol of a truth embedded in the very structure of reality. Logos prevails.

The few institutions of higher learning that retain a commitment to a theistic order hold the key to the renewal of higher education. As the screaming mob seeks to shut down all serious inquiry and silence all debate and opposition, the logos remains the only serious alternative.

Image: Sangia, Public Domain

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