Written by Karl Johnson

Karl Johnson


Karl Johnson received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Cornell University. Karl previously served as the Dan Tillemans Director of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center, a division of Cornell Outdoor Education. Karl was recognized as a 1999 Academy of Leisure Sciences Future Scholar and has received several writing awards, including the 2014 Literary Award of the Christian Society of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies. His interests include human relations with the natural landscape, from wilderness to urban environs. Karl currently serves as Chief Strategist for The Octet Collaborative, the center for Christian study at MIT.  Beginning in January 2021, he will serve as the Director of the Consortium for Christian Study Centers.

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November 2, 2009

Time was when goodness, beauty, and truth held together. Back in the fourth century, Augustine held that the Good, Beautiful, and True are united as one because they are established in the reality of the one, triune God. At Chesterton House, that is our view as well.

The Christian conviction that all truth is God’s truth characterized much of higher education from the Middle Ages up through the founding of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Harvard’s original motto, for example, was “Veritas in Christi Gloriam” (Truth for the glory of Christ). In the middle of the 19th century, however, educational reformers attempted to ground moral and religious knowledge in science rather than revelation (see Julie Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University). Harvard changed its motto to “Veritas,” and new research universities such as Cornell were founded on the German model that emphasized human reason over against revelation.

In many respects, the modern university has been an extraordinary success. Scientific research in particular has generated both new knowledge and a significant degree of consensus across worldviews. By the 1920s, however, the project of grounding moral and religious knowledge in science had failed. As a result, scientists became content to pursue more specialized research, and the big questions of life were left to the humanities, thereby institutionalizing the fact/value dichotomy espoused by Enlightenment philosophers such as Hume. Simply put, truth and beauty were rent asunder by secularization.

Faith did not fare well amidst these changes. Conservative Protestants voted with their feet and largely withdrew from American universities to start their own Bible colleges. Meanwhile, back on the quad, literary theorists began critiquing the cult of objectivity in science, asserting that truth was relative to one’s story or narrative. Hence the era of diversity and multiculturalism, with its emphasis on race, class, and gender. Religious knowledge claims that aspired to objectivity and universality were largely jettisoned from respectable academic society. In less than a century, the suggestion that God was dead went from the radical writings of Nietzsche (1882) to the cover of Time Magazine (1966).

God, however, has a habit of coming back from the dead, and sociologists are now talking about the “de-secularization” of society. In 1999, Peter Berger published a little book entitled The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. “The world today is as furiously religious as it ever was,” Berger wrote. The secularization thesis–the idea that modernization inevitably leads to the withering away of religious faith–“is essentially mistaken.” Rodney Stark published an article the same year entitled “Secularization, R.I.P.”

Although nobody seemed to care about these observations at the time, that changed quickly on 9/11. Most obviously, religion has “returned” to politics and diplomacy. “Like many other foreign policy professionals,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote a few years ago, “I have had to adjust the lens through which I view the world.” “God is winning in global politics,” concludes an article in Foreign Policy magazine. “And modernization, democratization and globalization have only made him stronger.” (See also “Why God is Winning” and “Kicking the Secularist Habit”.) Even the New Atheism may be understood as a reaction to the pesky persistence of faith in the modern world.

Although universities are behind the curve–highly educated Westerners remain a highly secularized subculture–change is in the air on college campuses as well. A UCLA study recently found that increasing numbers of students are practicing both traditional forms of religion and newer, alternative forms of spirituality. According to Elaine Howard Ecklund, young faculty members in the sciences are more religious than their older colleagues, and more religious than those colleagues were when they were young. Although “the secularization of the university remains a dominant storyline,” write sociologist John Schmalzbauer and coauthor Kathleen Mahoney, “strong evidence indicates a new story needs to be told about religion in the academy.” Timothy Shaw, coauthor of the above-mentioned Foreign Policy article, refers to this story as “the desecularization of the academy.”

The desecularization of the academy entails much more than a mere uptick in student religiosity; it in fact points toward “a new settlement between faith and knowledge.” “American universities,” says Alan Wolfe, yet another sociologist of religion, “increasingly are finding that a century-old truce between the forces of faith and the demands of knowledge is no longer holding.” Contrary to popular opinion, he adds, faith traditions are not a threat to liberal discourse. They are rather resources needed to sustain true dialogue and diversity. In her recent review of Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition, Naomi Schaefer Riley similarly observes that many professors find religious students refreshing because they “have been made to think seriously and speak publicly about Big Questions from a young age.”

Few people have considered these developments more thoroughly than historian John Sommerville who, in The Decline of the Secular University, argued that “the secular university is increasingly marginal to American society and this is a result of its secularism.” Although I once lamented that Sommerville didn’t say how administrators should respond to these observations, his recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece addresses this very question. Administrators, he says, don’t need to do much of anything, other than to “ensure that the rules of debate, of tenure, of recruitment, and of promotion are not tainted by an antireligious agenda. The burden is not on the universities to bring religion into the picture; it is on religious spokespersons to show where such ideas are relevant.” What should “religious spokespersons” do? That is the topic of Sommerville’s recent lecture “How Can We Change the University?”

These are important questions not just for persons of faith, but for everyone. As our guest and Houghton College president Shirley Mullen put it recently, “To what extent do current discussions about spirituality and values reflect a reaction to the modern Western separation of ‘knowledge’ from the categories of faith and values? To what extent are these discussions welcome to those who long for a return to the classical ideal of the academy as home to all Truth, Beauty and Goodness?”

Augustine’s view, and our view, is that the unity of Goodness, Beauty, and Truth is aided by faith in that other Trinity–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Augustine described his massive work on the Trinity in its opening sentence as “written in order to guard against the sophistries of those who disdain to begin with faith, and are deceived by a crude and perverse love of reason.” Perhaps the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord after all.

Chesterton House Painting