Wednesday, May 28, 2008

From uni-versities to plural-versities

I'm taking a break from Pascal and Upton Sinclair to read Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit's Power by J.P. Moreland. The long title should give you an idea of the wide-ranging character of this book. I'm only a quarter of a way in and haven't formed an overall opinion of the book yet, but I found Moreland's chapter on postmodernism very effective. Postmodernism is one of those terms (like evangelical) that's hard to pin down. Moreland describes it as "both a historical, chronological notion and a philosophical ideology."

From my reading and knowledge of the subject I think he's right. It's a reaction to the Enlightenment ideas and ideals (good and bad) that Western society has been built on and it's a philosophy that in various forms and degrees rejects the idea of absolute truth. While I agree with some of postmodernism's critique of modernity, as a Christian I must reject it's stance(s) on truth. To Moreland, the acceptance of postmodern ideas on truth within the church would be nothing less than "intellectual pacifism" and "the easy way out." He's surprisingly tough with those within the Christian community (he mentions the Emerging church and quotes several "Christian postmodernists") that have done so.

Moreland traces the turn to postmodernist ideas within the American university from 1880 to 1930 borrowing from a book by Julie Reuben titled The Making of the Modern University. At one time "spiritual, ethical, aesthetic, and political truth and knowledge were real and on a par with truth and knowledge in other disciplines, including science." But things started to change as science and technology became more specialized, and educators lost confidence that there was a unified source of truth and that knowledge existed in all fields of study. I didn't attend university, but Moreland's description here of the change from uni to plural seems to me to hit the nail on the head.

The realm of religion and values became noncognitive (knowledge is not possible in these domains) and nonfactual (their claims are neither true nor false); the function of religion and ethics is to help people live better lives (whatever that means). The idea that there exists a stable body of knowable truths gave way to the notion that truth changes constantly, that progress, not wisdom, is what matters, and that university education should focus on method and "learning how to think," rather than trying to impart knowledge and wisdom to students, especially outside the empirical sciences. Academic freedom, "open" inquiry, a spirit of skepticism, and specialized research became the central values of American universities.

The abandonment of Christian monotheism from the cognitive domain meant that there was no longer a basis for a unified curriculum. Without a single, rational God, why think that there is a unity to truth, that one discipline should have anything at all to do with another discipline? Thus, uni-versities gave way to plural-versities, and we have lived with fragmentation in our schools ever since the 1930s. No longer did possession of a body of knowledge distinguish college graduates from those without such an education. Instead, the main gift of a college education, besides helping one get a job, was the impression of a vague "scientific attitude," of the mental discipline to "think for oneself," of a spirit of open inquiry, and of an attitude of tolerance for various viewpoints.

J.P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle (pp. 69-70)

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