A Sinking Ship?

Review of C. John Sommerville. The Decline of the Secular University.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. x + 147 pp., with index. $22.00.

A Sinking Ship?

Reviewed by Ralph C. Hancock

Not long ago, at a convention of political scientists, after a formal discussion
of the role of the judiciary had ended and the conversation had spilled over
into a civil if quite animated debate, I overheard what seemed to me a very
telling remark. In a final, somewhat exasperated plea, one of the protagonists
offered this distillation of his concerns: “All we are asking is that restrictions
on individual freedom be based on reason.”

What, indeed, could be more . . . well, reasonable than the requirement
that deliberations on disputed matters of public policy appeal to the common
ground of reason? The trouble is, though, that we seem no longer to be in
common possession of an understanding of reason that is substantial enough
to give us any guidance. To be sure, evidence of the technological power of
modern science pervades our existence, and we trust the experts that the foundations
of the scientific method and of pure logical and mathematical reasoning are
secure. But technology is a tool that cannot supply a purpose, any more than
can logic or mathematics.

Does anyone in fact believe in reason anymore—reason not only as a
formal method but as a substantive, authoritative principle? Do we even know
what it means, for ourselves as individuals or in our communities, to look
to reason for guidance? Of course we know how to appeal to the norm of rationality
to disqualify arguments we oppose, showing them to rely upon moral or religious
beliefs, or other inherited prejudices—that is, convictions or intimations
that reason cannot establish beyond doubt. But if this negative function is
all that remains of reason, then, short of an appeal to some nonrational guidance,
are we not left truly destitute, unable even to hear the Socratic question
that gave rise to the Western idea of reason: how shall I live?

C. John Sommerville is convinced that we have indeed lost our faith in reason
and that this loss deeply undermines the integrity of our universities. More
precisely, the secular rationalism that presided magisterially over the modern
age and that marginalized religious questions is now itself teetering. The
moment is therefore ripe, the author argues, for a reconsideration of the
place of religion in higher education. His reflections ought to be of deep,
even urgent interest to all who are committed to the ongoing project of faithful
higher education that then President Jeffrey R. Holland once called “a
school in Zion.”1

“My thesis,” Sommerville states, “is, first, that the secular
university is increasingly marginal to American society and, second, that
this is a result of its secularism”
(p. 4). When the modern, secular American university was founded about
a hundred years ago, the general hope and expectation, sometimes quite explicit,
was that “professors would replace clergy as the official authorities
on life’s questions” (p. 8). In the contemporary, postsecular university,
this ambition has been all but completely abandoned, leaving only a complacent
habit or fashion of rationalism—a rationalism committed to the acidic
criticism of all norms and institutions except those upon which university
intellectuals themselves depend. The decisive question—what does it
mean to be human?—is one that these intellectuals are utterly unable
even to ask. This, Sommerville argues, is because, in eliminating the religious
dimension of questioning, the secular university is approaching the point
where it will have “eliminated the human distinction as well”—have
eliminated, that is, our very ability to articulate our own humanity (p. 38).
Sommerville does not shrink from the prescription that follows quite evidently
from this diagnosis: “The academy needs to learn to speak theologically.”

It would be a big mistake, however, to assume that Sommerville has in mind
some completed theological system that he believes can give an adequate account
of human things. On the contrary, he criticizes the notion of religions as
“tight propositional systems,” or what John Rawls, the most influential
philosopher of secular liberal justice, called “‘comprehensive views'”
(p. 127). Sommerville prefers instead to see religions as “perspectives”
of inquiry, or as “narrative” traditions that make it possible to
explore the human condition in all its richness. It is only by defying the
barriers that have been built up between secular and religious disciplines
that “in the university today [we] could . . . face the overwhelming
question of human significance” (p. 33).

The walls defining a secular viewpoint are already falling all around us,
Sommerville observes. The fact/value dichotomy, or the idea that the study
of facts could be insulated altogether from questions of human meaning, is
under pressure, not so much from external critiques, religious or otherwise,
as from secular scholars including Hilary Putnam (philosophy), Amartya Sen
(economics), and Francis Fukuyama (intellectual and political history). Sommerville
summarizes Putnam’s argument, for example, in The Collapse of the Fact/Value
“that what we call ‘values’
are subject to the same kind of objective consideration as what we call facts”
(p. 42). Once the collapse of this dichotomy registers in the university,
the door will be wide open to “debates involving values,” and so
“religion may be heard from in areas from which it was banished”
(pp. 45, 46). To be sure, we will be left without a universal method
for settling such debates. But this suits John Sommerville’s idea of higher
education just fine: whereas, since the Enlightenment, we have assumed that
“we should be striving to simplify,” “the task ahead will be
to complexify things” (p. 46).

If many old-fashioned secularists seem a bit defensive, even desperate, these
days—quick to associate their enemies with some threatening (though
in reality very tiny and marginal) corps of theocratic fundamentalists and
to link these in turn with Islamo-fascists—this may be because they
see or sense the walls safely enclosing their rationalist realm crumbling
around them. In a suggestive little chapter entitled “Science Gets Strange,”
Sommerville points to evidence that the barriers between thinking with maximum
rigor and thinking about human meaning are eroding even in what one might
imagine to be the safest stronghold of secular scientism—that is, the
natural sciences. At some point the question of humanity emerged at the furthest
reaches of the physical sciences, in the form of an awareness of dozens of
astonishing “Anthropic Coincidences” that link the genesis of reality
as we know it to the requirements of the existence of human beings and therefore
of the human intellect. We seem thus to be seeing what might be called a Second
Socratic Turning of the Western Mind, as the most ambitious scientists are
liberated to wonder at “the universe’s becoming aware of itself through
humanity” (p. 79). “Thus,” Sommerville observes, “there
is now wonder and mystery on the boundaries of science that suggests a religious
awareness if not a religious response” (p. 77).

Just what reason might mean for us now, in this postsecularist era, as we
venture out beyond the once-comfortable confines of the fact/value distinction,
is of course an open question. Professor Sommerville is hardly to be blamed
for failing to give a definitive answer. In a difficult chapter on “Trouble
Judging Religions,” he does seem to lose control of his own argument
somewhat as he implicitly confronts the question of what standards or styles
of judgment might emerge on the horizon as we leave behind the clearly mapped
terrain of secular rationalism. Openness to religious sensibilities and insights
does not remove the necessity of exercising judgment. Thus the question we
now confront is “how to judge religion or religions and by what standards.”
But here we realize that we are not sure even how to define religion or whether
belief-orientations of all peoples are adequately addressed in terms of the
Western understanding of religion, heavily conditioned as this understanding
is by a monotheistic tradition. Thus Sommerville risks being unable to say
just what it is toward which reason should now be open. At one point he seems
to retreat behind a clear distinction between belief and intelligence, arguing
that “intelligence is built on belief,” and not the reverse (p. 64).
But this is precisely the dichotomy that grounds the rejected distinction
between Is and Ought, or between fact and value. By falling back on this distinction,
the author risks endorsing a relativistic irrationalism as the only alternative
to rationalism.

The only way to avoid this vitiating recourse, I think, would be to articulate
candidly the insights available in a Christian understanding of humanity and
divinity (as the author often very promisingly begins to do) and to be ready
to stand by the judgments implicit in such an understanding, at least until
other insights grounded in another tradition proved richer or more fecund.
Sommerville’s Socratism is Christian, and his Christianity is Socratic, and
he should articulate it and defend it as such, not as just one possible belief
commitment among many.

Prof. Sommerville’s sometimes spirited polemic will be welcomed by many who
promote the interests of religious universities, including Brigham Young University—as
well it should. But on closer inspection it should be clear that his book
is as much a critique of “religious” higher education as of secular.
Both in fact have been impoverished by taking for granted a stultifying distinction
between faith and intellect. If religious universities are not to justify
the suspicions of would-be rationalists, they must overcome their insularity
and “take the intellectual dimension of their faith more seriously”
(p. 58). This would mean something much more than topping off a conventional,
secular, discipline-bound lesson with an edifying nod to the importance of
faith. If faith is really fundamental to understanding, then it might be time,
for example, to critically examine the narrowly rationalist assumptions underlying
the disciplines we are paid to promote. If we are not teaching about secularism,
Sommerville suggests, we are still teaching secularism—teaching it all
the more secularly, one might say, because we are not aware of what we are
teaching (p. 86). That such a critical engagement with the assumptions
buried in our conventional disciplines might lead to confrontations with complacently
secular accreditation agencies (p. 143) and “assessment” regimes
(p. 139), and with the consumerist, mercenary expectations of many of
the university’s constituencies, might be regarded as additional benefits.

Sommerville’s call for mutual openness between study and faith serves to
remind us of the rich possibilities of “a school in Zion” and of
how far we still have to go even to begin realizing these possibilities. Are
we clamoring for passage on a sinking ship?


1.   Jeffrey R. Holland, “A School
in Zion,” in Educating Zion, ed. John W. Welch and Don E. Norton
(Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1996), 143–64; see Doctrine and Covenants 97:3.