God, the University, and Wisdom:
Reflections on the Idea of the University in Light of two Recent Philosophical Interventions
Duke University Divinity School
In recent years numerous books have been penned that decry the crisis or even the end of the university. And rightly so. Universities in the present state of late modernity are plagued with a significant curricular fragmentation, an acceleration of the centrifugal forces of knowledge production, the assessment and rewarding of research productivity by the criterion of quantity instead of quality, and the instrumentalization of knowledge to technical or social applicability. The late modern research university has morphed into a sprawling “multiversity,” a vast polytechnicum with a marginal “humanities” appendix. The global success of this “multiversity” is about to suffocate the very idea of a university. Two untimely works by the eminent philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Benedict Ashley, O.P. help us understand what is at stake in the present crisis of the university. While they do not offer a panacea, they do offer an argument why the Christian and especially the Catholic university does play an indispensable role in restoring the idea of the university by restoring first and foremost the pursuit of wisdom.
Both MacIntyre and Ashley share the concern for the integrative role of philosophy in the university: the first argues for it by way of a narrative account, the latter by displaying concretely how this integrative role of philosophy as meta-science actually works. Moreover, MacIntyre and Ashley share a fundamental normative presupposition, namely that the enterprise of the university should be essentially informed by “the very notion of the nature and order of things, of a single universe, different aspects of which are objects of enquiry for the various disciplines, but in such a way that each aspect needs to be related to every other” (MacIntyre, 16; cf. Ashley, 20). The pursuit of such a substantive interdisciplinarity, such a “connected view or grasp of things,” as John Henry Newman puts it in The Idea of a University, is nothing but the pursuit of wisdom, and such a pursuit entails an ever widening horizon of reason, indeed, the inherent openness of reason to transcendence. It is by way of teaching such a “connected view or grasp of things”—or “teaching universal knowledge”—that the whole of reality in its essential interconnectedness is attended to. For it is first and foremost the coherence of the curriculum of a particular science and the interrelationship between the university curricula that reflects best the “nature and order of things.” This is the reason why for MacIntyre, as well as for Ashley, the extension of knowledge by way of teaching (as integral to education in a comprehensive sense) is the first and foremost task of the university. For by attending primarily to this task, the university realizes and maintains best the unity and coherence between all academic disciplines. The advancement of knowledge by way of research is, on the contrary, not absolutely essential to the normative understanding of the university defended by MacIntyre and Ashley. For highly advanced research can just as well be undertaken by globally networked academies, think tanks, and laboratories sponsored by corporations and governments. Such research institutes and laboratories are not essentially directed toward the extension of knowledge by way of teaching and hence are also not in any need whatsoever of students. Consequently, a university that focuses primarily on research and only secondarily upon teaching—in short, the modern research university—will eventually become a victim of the systemic forces unleashed by making research, and hence knowledge production, its dominant purpose and end. Both MacIntyre and Ashley hold that an increasing transmutation of universities into such conglomerates of advanced and ever more specialized knowledge production will necessarily increase those centrifugal, purely research oriented forces that will lead to the all too familiar fragmentation of the university as a whole and of the field-specific curricula in particular. Consequently, for both authors the very nature and vitality of the university depend on the role philosophy as a meta-science plays in ensuring a “connected view or grasp of things.” For a university cannot be “a place of teaching universal knowledge” and hence of pursuing wisdom if it lacks interdisciplinary integrity and fails to reflect reason’s openness to transcendence.
I. God, Philosophy, Universities
I shall turn now to the first and the second elements of MacIntyre’s narrative: God and Catholic philosophy. The most important, albeit elusive strand of MacIntyre’s narrative is clearly his restrained but persistent philosophical reflection upon God. From his brief and brilliant opening adumbration of a theistic grammar of God to his concluding insistence that human beings can only comprehend themselves in even an approximately adequate way if they understand themselves as fundamentally directed towards God (an ever so careful general allusion to the long and hotly debated desiderium naturale visionis Dei), his focus is evident. However, in MacIntyre’s discourse, God-talk remains very distinctly and precisely that of philosophers—theistic philosophers, that is, of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim variety—and never crosses over into the explicitly Christian discourse governed by the Trinitarian grammar of Scripture and tradition. Notably, however, MacIntyre states explicitly that Catholic philosophers qua Catholic are committed to the revealed truths of the Catholic faith. That is, the God of theistic philosophical enquiry is none other than the One Who has revealed Himself as the essentially and eternally triune God of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The revealed truths of the Catholic faith, however, are not the subject matter of Catholic philosophy properly conceived, but rather the subject matter of sacra doctrina, the science of revealed truth. MacIntyre’s precision at this point is greatly to be welcomed and identifies him not only as an astute student of Thomas Aquinas but indeed as a Thomist. For any imprecision about and subsequent confusion between doctrina fidei Christianae (Summa contra gentiles) or sacra doctrina (Summa theologiae) as the science of divinely revealed truth, on the one hand, and philosophia humana (Summa contra gentiles), on the other, will be detrimental for both disciplines. MacIntyre seems to have a clearer sense than many contemporary theologians about the utter importance of this distinction, an importance not so much for the sake of philosophy, which as metaphysical enquiry has its proper completion in a natural theology, an enquiry into the first cause, but rather for the sake of sacra doctrina. For the distinction is not simply between two kinds of enquiry, but between two orders of discourse. For sacra doctrina considers everything in light of an essentially supernatural principle, that is, divine revelation. The theistic discourse that MacIntyre affords, however, is not at all the discourse of sacra doctrina proper, but rather a contemporary application of an important distinction Aquinas introduces in SCG II, c. 3-4. What he observes about Aquinas’s distinction between theology (doctrina fidei Christianae) and philosophy (philosophia humana) in SCG II, c. 4 holds for the way he himself maintains the distinction between these two orders of discourse:
Philosophy begins from finite things as they are and from what belongs to them by nature. It leads us from them through an enquiry into their proper causes to knowledge of God. Theology by contrast begins from God and considers finite beings only in their relationship to God. So, although there are matters of which theology treats and philosophy does not and vice versa, they also have a common subject matter. (74-5)
It is this common subject matter, God, as first cause of all finite things, that opens the space for a theistic discourse proper to the philosophical order.
What connects the narrative’s first with its second strand, the tradition of Catholic philosophy, and eventually with its third strand, the nature and task of a university, is Aquinas’s fundamental operative assumption—following Aristotle—that there obtains a philosophical enquiry that integrates and orders all other scientific enquiries: metaphysics in the broad sense of the term or, in Benedict Ashley’s apt terminology, “meta-science,” and that the acme of this meta-science is nothing but an enquiry into the first cause of all being. MacIntyre seems to be in agreement with Aquinas on this fundamental operative assumption, and it is significant that John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University entertains a similar operative assumption—only that he does not do it along Thomist lines and that he calls it more broadly “philosophy.”
The normative thrust of the argument underlying MacIntyre’s narrative entails an ambitious agenda for Catholic philosophy. Arguably, Benedict Ashley’s The Way toward Wisdom can be received most fruitfully as an equally ambitious implementation of MacIntyre’s agenda avant la lettre.
II. The Way toward Wisdom
In order to pursue the goal of genuine interdisciplinarity, the meta-science Ashley unfolds must be essentially dialogical, not in order to achieve conversion or refutation, but in order to achieve reconciliation. The mode of this dialogic approach is analytic, “since it aims to formulate basic assumptions held by the dialogue partners so that what is true in both positions may be recognized” (19).
As it turns out, the agenda Ashley prescribes for philosophers and theologians in contemporary Christian universities is no less ambitious than the one MacIntyre prescribes to contemporary Catholic philosophers. However, Ashley’s approach and agenda seems more capable to accommodate the modern, Berlin-type research university with its ideal of an integral unity between research and teaching. Ashley’s agenda, while admittedly not very likely to be adopted by any present research university, Christian or Catholic, let alone secular, still betrays more hope in the potential redeemability of such universities than MacIntyre’s narrative does. For Ashley can acknowledge the modern research university as the great-grandchild of Aristotle’s comprehensive program of research, from whence Ashley also sees arising the very potential for its internal reform. For in the case of the Aristotelian research program (and its modern adaptation by the River Forest School of Aristotelian Thomism), the advancement of knowledge by way of research always remains integral to a comprehensive program of education for which the teaching of universal knowledge holds primacy. MacIntyre, more deeply committed to Newman’s exclusive vision of the university as “a place of teaching universal knowledge,” will keep high the critical bar on the hopes Ashley entertains for Christian universities. For not only would theology and philosophy have to reoccupy a long lost central position (and in consequence reinvent themselves) in these Christian universities, but these Christian universities, in order to be in a position of adopting Ashley’s agenda, would have to become again primarily places of teaching universal knowledge on the basis of curricula that would facilitate, indeed mandate, the interface between theology and philosophy with the natural sciences—and would only secondarily be places in which research agendas are also maintained for the sake of the expansion of knowledge. But the fundamental question remains: From where would come the faculty who themselves had received the kind of integrated interdisciplinary education that would enable them to appreciate, adopt, and pursue Ashley’s agenda? But to questions of this kind, MacIntyre, has a rather blunt response:
We do possess the intellectual resources to bring about the kind of change I propose. What we lack, in Catholic and in secular universities, is the will to change, and that absence of will is a symptom of a quite unwarranted complacency concerning our present state and our present direction.
Should we entertain any reasonable hope for Christian universities in general and Catholic universities in particular? I should say that any undergraduate curriculum that approximates the normative vision of the university shared by John Henry Newman, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Benedict Ashley—and for that matter, by the late Pope John Paul II and by Pope Benedict XVI, two former university professors—should be applauded. For resigning oneself to increasing curricula fragmentation, to acceleration of centrifugal forces of knowledge production—with its accompanying tendency to instrumentalize and commodify—and to dismissing philosophers like MacIntyre and Ashley as incurable romantics will only cement an already emerging reality: that the label “university” held by these late modern institutions is an illegitimate claim at best and quite simply an equivocation at worst.
When this is going to happen, though, will depend largely on the time the first part of the conditional clause of Pope Benedict XVI’s never delivered speech for “La Sapienza” ceases to obtain:
If our culture seeks only to build itself on the basis of the circle of its own argumentation, on what convinces it at the time, and if—anxious to preserve its secularism—it detaches itself from its life-giving roots, then it will not become more reasonable or purer, but will fall apart and disintegrate.
Are there presently any signs of hope, any instantiations of an institutional awareness of and concern for Pope Benedict XVI’s sobering analysis and grave warning? That there are at least some liberal arts institutions that seem both aware of the Pope’s somber analysis and capable of acknowledging MacIntyre’s and Ashley’s proposals can perhaps be gathered from the remarks of the late Dr. Thomas E. Dillon (1946-2009), president of Thomas Aquinas College:
Our fundamental endeavor at Thomas Aquinas College is a modest one: to help you make a good beginning on the ascent to wisdom. . . . These four years at the College are a precious opportunity to develop your minds and refine your habits of thought and action. You will be reading and discussing the greatest works ever written; works that have defined eras and shaped civilizations. In a community of friends, and under the guidance of tutors who care deeply about your good, you will seek to make reasoned judgments about the nature of reality. You will be aided in your inquiries by the rich intellectual tradition of the Church as you study Her wisest teachers—wise especially because of their own docility to Christ and His Church. Liberal education concerns not what is servile and transient, but what is intrinsically worthwhile and permanent. By coming to Thomas Aquinas College, by devoting yourselves to four years of a liberal arts education, you are standing with Socrates and opting not for the life of convenience and trivial pleasure, but rather for the life rooted in the love of wisdom and ordered to virtue. Such a life is not easy, for it demands discipline and self-denial, but it is a life of genuine freedom and happiness.
An institution of higher education shaped in its core curriculum by such a vision provides the proximate context for an intelligent and fruitful reception of Ashley’s The Way toward Wisdom and offers some warrant for the hope MacIntyre expresses at the very end of God, Philosophy, Universities. It is to liberal arts institutions shaped by a vision like the one expressed by the late Dr. Thomas E. Dillon that the modern research university will eventually have to turn in order to find the medicine that will cure it from the ruinous disease that has befallen it. Neither an ivy-covered neo-gothic architecture, nor a top placement in international university rankings, nor the desperate acceleration of research production, nor the foundation of another research institute of bio-engineering will prevent the fatal consequences of the disease unless the medicine be taken from marginal and often belittled and ridiculed Christian, and especially Catholic liberal arts institutions as Thomas Aquinas College. Considering such medicine to be vital is the first step for resuscitating the heart of the modern university and restoring the pursuit of wisdom.
 For a fuller version of what is presented here in a highly condensed and abridged form, the reader might want to consult chapter 11, ““Seeking Truth on Dry Soil and under Thornbushes”—God, the University, and the Missing Link: Wisdom” in my book Dust Bound For Heaven: Explorations in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).
 John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University (The New Edition of the Works of John Henry Newman), ed. by Charles Frederick Harrold (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947), xxv.
 John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University, xxvii.
 In the following I understand modern research universities to be institutions geared primarily to producing knowledge by way of highly specialized research (primarily in the natural and medical sciences) that is meant to serve interests that almost exclusively arise from the practical and technical demands of the modern world. Newman rightly anticipated what eventually would become the modern research university by way of Francis Bacon’s method: “I cannot deny he has abundantly achieved what he proposed. His is simply a Method whereby bodily discomforts and temporal wants are to be most effectually removed from the greatest number; and already, before it has shown any signs of exhaustion, the gifts of nature, in their most artificial shapes and luxurious profusion and diversity, from all quarters of the earth, are, it is undeniable, by its means brought even to our doors, and we rejoice in them” (John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University, 106). Immanuel Kant’s intensely ironic and passive aggressive opuscule, Der Streit der Fakultäten, anticipates the present de facto hierarchy of university sciences in late modernity—a secular modernity that has now lost its optimistic élan and instead has become tired and cynical. In the agonistic world of irresistibly corruptible, interminably quarrelling, and tirelessly consuming bodies, hence a world in which the greatest dangers are disease, litigation, and the inability to consume, the hierarchy of university sciences stands in service of the avoidance of these evils: at the top is the medical school supported by all the auxiliary bio-sciences, followed by the law school and the business school supported by their respective auxiliary sciences, first and foremost computer science and mathematics, but also any useful remnants of the liberal arts. However, since it has been discovered that religious practices might contribute to health and longevity, the gods are making a come-back—of sorts!
 John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University, xxvii.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).
 What MacIntyre describes here in a possibly too epigrammatic manner must be spelled out along the lines provided by Aquinas in SCG II, 3. Ralph McInerny offers a more detailed and precise rendition of Aquinas’s distinction, a distinction that applies to MacIntyre’s, as well as to Ashley’s, modus operandi of a theistic discourse proper to the philosophical order: “1. The theologian treats God for himself and all other things with reference to God; the philosopher treats nature and man for themselves and of God only as their cause. Call this a matter of the object, the material object of the two. 2. The theologian treats the properties of things that refer them to God, the philosopher treats the properties of things in themselves and as they are. Call this a difference of formal object, but of the formal object quod; still the formal object quo, the ratio sub qua, the matter of principles, is also involved. Thus if the theologian and the philosopher should study the same things, they do so in the light of different principles; the philosopher, through their proper causes, the theologian with recourse to the first cause. 3. In terms of method, the philosopher first studies nature and man, and then through knowledge of them comes to knowledge of the first cause. But theology begins with God, who is both its first object and its light, and then goes on to creatures that emanate from God and are related to him” (Praeambula fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2006], 103).
 “And further, the comprehension of the bearings of one science on another, and the use of each to each, and the location and limitation and adjustment and due appreciation of them all, one with the another, this belongs, I conceive, to a sort of science distinct from all of them, and in some sense a science of sciences, which is my own conception of what is meant by Philosophy, in the true sense of the word, and of a philosophical habit of mind, and which in these Discourses I shall call by that name” (The Idea of a University, 46).
 Benedict Ashley, O.P., The Way toward Wisdom: An Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Introduction to Metaphysics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).
 Alasdair MacIntyre, “The End of Education: The Fragmentation of the American University,” Commonweal (October 20, 2006), 10-14; 14.
– to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture” (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2008/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080912_parigi-cultura_en.html accessed on August 10, 2009).
 Communio: International Catholic Review 35 : 672f. Incidentally, in the 2010 edition of the popular College guidebook of the Princeton Review: The Best 371 Colleges (New York: Random House, 2009), Thomas Aquinas College received a rating of 99 (out of 100) for its academics and is included in the “Top 50” Colleges in the country.
 In order to find the proper cure it might often suffice for modern research universities simply to reform themselves along the lines of their founding charters. Here is Duke University’s: “The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to advance learning in all lines of truth, to defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals, to develop a Christian love of freedom and truth, to promote a sincere spirit of tolerance, to discourage all partisan and sectarian strife, and to render the largest permanent service to the individual, the state, the nation, and the church. Unto these ends shall the affairs of this university always be administered.”