On Campus

The end of the religious university?

The debate over Trinity Western University is merely a skirmish in a long war. A war that traditional religion is bound to lose.

I have been following with great interest the debate stirred up recently about the nature of Trinity Western University and its statement of faith required of all instructors. Much of this has spiralled off into debates over the nature of absolutist vs relativist belief and whether there is really such a thing as secular and so on. But I think the issue is, at heart, a simple one.

A university’s main goal should be the rational pursuit of knowledge and truth.  Traditional religion, premised as it is on faith and revelation, is incompatible with that goal.

Related: Academic freedom at Trinity Western? Also see: TWU in its own words: special no-straw edition, and Christian universities are necessary.

Take, for example, Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I am teaching to my introductory literature students right now. Paradise Lost attempts a defence of God’s justice in the light of evil and suffering in the world. This, of course, is a knotty issue and one that philosophers have struggled with over the centuries, and any decent presentation of Paradise Lost must at least acknowledge the complexity of the philosophical problems that the poem raises. If evil exists in the world because humanity — in the form of Adam and Eve — have brought it upon themselves, why is there so much evil? Why are children made to suffer in this world without having done anything wrong? For that matter, why should any humans suffer for the crimes committed by their ancestors? There may be good answers to these questions, but any responsible professor will have to acknowledge that the problem of evil may pose insurmountable difficulties to traditional theism. But how can the English professors at TWU propose such a possibility if they are committed to traditional Christianity “without reservation” as their statement of faith requires?

Let me put it another way. Imagine that you are a student and you have written a paper and received a low grade on it. You go to your professor and the following conversation ensues:

YOU: I believe I deserve a higher grade on this paper.

PROF: Okay. Why is that?

YOU: Well, that may be, but I felt inspired to write what I did. I really felt that God was speaking to me when I wrote that paper.

PROF: Hmm… that’s strange. Because I really felt that God was speaking to me and told me to give you an F.

YOU: But I have faith in this paper.

PROF: And I have faith in my red pen.

The above is absurd, of course, because there can be no resolution to this disagreement. How can you argue about belief when the only reason for the belief is the belief itself. The only real standard for university work must be the conventions of reasoned scholarship. Did the paper conform to the standards of the discipline? Did it cite appropriate evidence? Were its arguments logical? Was it clearly expressed?

A university based on traditional religion cannot claim to value any of these standards very highly since religion, as it is normally practiced, discounts evidence and reason in favour of the choice to believe, otherwise called faith. Faith, of course, is the right of the believer, and I will always defend the right of citizens of this country to believe what they choose and to express that belief. And I have no objection to any religious group setting up whatever schools or colleges they like (provided they are not funded with public money). But we should hold institutions called “university” to a higher standard.

Eventually, I think, the problem will solve itself. Religious universities will fade away as more and more people feel free to evaluate traditional religion with an even hand and find that, at its heart, its claims are nonsense. Christianity is very quickly going the way of Greek mythology, becoming a series of shared stories embodying potentially valuable lessons, but not an account of the world to be taken literally. Does anybody really believe that Noah saved all the animals of the world on the Ark? Or that Joshua made the sun stop in the sky? Most sensible Christians that I know are not dogmatic or evangelistic; but then, Milton would have considered them atheists. Even devoted academic Christians are fast becoming near-atheists, increasingly seeing the Bible as a series of metaphors and fables, and God as merely an underlying force, rather than a personal being.

No doubt a few old-fashioned die-hards will hang on for a while yet, maybe centuries yet, but the day will come when TWU’s statement of faith won’t matter a bit. Because no one in their right mind will sign it.

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