Fr. Coughlin's Address, August 25, 1995



Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J.

August 25, 1995

At the beginning of each academic year it is my pleasure to address the faculty and the entire University community. I welcome the opportunity to speak of things that I believe to be of great importance to a community that professes to teach and to advance the mind and the life of the human person. Today I invite you to reflect on what a high vocation that is. But it is a vocation that in most American universities has become greatly diminished and is diminishing still. Diminished, because many universities have all but given up the pursuit of wisdom -- the understanding of things human and divine and how they interrelate -- having cut away their theological and philosophical roots, and some threaten even to cut away their cultural heritage.

What makes university teaching such a magnificent vocation is the greatness of the human being -- those of us who teach here, and those who comes to the university to learn. He is a microcosm. He is dust -- of the slime of the earth; he is living being; he is sentient animal; he is spiritual being, with powers of intellection and free choice. So, he moves about in a physical universe, yet towers over it by intelligence which allows him to take it all in, and to govern it.

In the beginning God said: "Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves...." The sacred writer thought it so marvelous that he repeated it: "God created man in the image of himself; in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them."

Early Christian theologians would write and speak of the Son of God as His perfect Image. As the Son is the Eternal Image of the Father, human persons are created images of the uncreated Image.

Of no other beings in creation is it said: "In God's image He created them." Only the human being is so constituted: with powers of knowing, freely choosing from among goods, and freely giving himself in love -- that's what it is that constitutes personhood; and that's what it is that makes us to be in His image. Being intelligent and free, man therefore participates in the providence of God, but in a way unique to a free being. John Paul II explains how Divine Providence is imaged in man:

"God provides for man differently from the way in which he provides for beings which are not persons. He cares for man not 'from without,' through the laws of physical nature, but 'from within,' through reason.... God calls man to participate in his own providence, since he desires to guide the world -- not only the world of nature, but the world of human persons -- through man himself, through man's reasonable and responsible care." (Veritatis Splendor, #43)

Quite an honor! Thus, through the powers of intelligence and free choice man embraces all being, including the infinite being of God, and freely guides the world over which, under God, he presides.

In his famous passage, John Henry Newman describes how in intellection the mind is not simply a passive, receptive vessel, but an agent active in becoming the known object. When this occurs the knowing subject is enlarged:

"The enlargement consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind's energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas, which are rushing in upon it. It is the action of a formative power.... making the objects of our knowledge subjectively our own, .... "

Newman goes on to explain that in great intellects, the mind, once having become the object, interrelates these newly acquired intentional beings to others formerly acquired: "A truly great intellect, .... is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near .... without which there is no whole, and no centre." (Newman, Idea of a University, Discourse VI in the Great Treasure of Western Thought, page 399)

Newman is describing wisdom. As he says, this knowledge is "not merely considered as acquirement, but philosophy." What Newman described in his characteristically elaborate style, St. Thomas said in his characteristically concise style: "a wise man in any branch of knowledge is one who knows the highest cause of that kind of knowledge, and is able to judge of all matters by that cause; and a wise man absolutely is one who knows the cause which is absolutely highest, namely God." (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 9, 2 in the Great Treasure of Western Thought, p. 678)

Philosophers say that in the act of intellection the object known takes on a spiritual existence in the mind; it is possessed, the knowing subject becomes the object known, intentionally, in an immaterial way. Scripture seems to confirm that, even when the subject is a human person and the object of knowledge is the Infinite being of God. St. Paul says: "We shall become like Him for we shall know Him face to face." Reflections on the teaching vocation may begin with reflection on this magnificence of the human beings -- ourselves, of course, but also those whom we are privileged to teach -- and this awesome destiny of knowledge and love to which we and they are called.

A great teacher, then, can take a great student as far as both want to go, speaking to the highest reaches of the soul, about the highest truth, the first cause. Great teachers treat, not simply the phenomena of science and art, but the metaphysical realities that lie beneath the physical layers of the microcosm. At a great university, at least some social scientists look beyond the statistics and the techniques of social engineering, to treat the metaphysical community and the community of faith of which philosophy and theology speak. At least some students from great universities are, not simply political scientists, but political theorists and philosophers, not simply legal technicians who can write flawless wills and contracts, but legal philosophers. At great universities there are at least some poets and literary scholars capable of suggesting the transcendental goodness and beauty that exists in nature. At least some economists from great universities are economic philosophers capable of inter-relating the goods of this world, with the goods of nature and the Eternal Good; who raise the question that was raised early on in human history: "Am I my brother's keeper?" From great universities come at least some scientists and engineers who teach not simply the laws of nature, but who wonder about questions that those laws prompt: Where do the physical laws come from? And why those laws rather than some others? Who think with Chesterton: "If there is a purpose, then there is a person." At least some students from great universities are wise enough to understand both what knowledge brings to faith, and what faith brings to knowledge.

American Universities, by and large, are not doing this. That's why I say the vocation of teaching has been diminished. The result is that students are the losers; and society as a whole is the loser. The student is undervalued, because the human person is undervalued. Generation after generation of students have graduated from the universities having never heard: "In the image of God He created them." Or if they have heard it, they have not the faintest idea what it means.

It was not always that way in the universities. Once faith was assumed, and God as the efficient, formal and final cause of all creation was recognized. Theology and philosophy were in the curriculum as central, unifying principles. Truth and its objectivity were taught. Human nature as ordered to God as its final end was taught.

The Enlightenment ended all that. They called it "Enlightenment" because it was supposed that, once religion was removed from education and public life, the human mind would return to its pristine elegance prior to its corruption by faith. Faith, said the Enlightenment enthusiasts, was an obstruction in the path of progress. It was supposed that religion had darkened and deluded the mind and held humans back from achieving their infinite perfectibility. In pursuing its agenda the Enlightenment distorted the history of the Middle Ages, and named them the Dark Ages. The Middle Ages admittedly had their dark years, but they also had unquestionable achievements: in art, architecture, human rights, science, and monumental developments in philosophy and theology, the likes of which will probably never be equaled.

In the wake of the Enlightenment came its offspring, Relativism, which threw out human nature, and the objectivity of truth. Truth was said to be something that man creates. Human beings, it was said, create their own destinies and their own being. Man, not God, became the center of things -- and that's where we are today.

This assault of the Enlightenment and Relativism upon the universities has been often documented. It is an interesting story. First came the removal of theology from the curriculum. By the end of the 19th Century, theology, formerly the crown of the curriculum, had disappeared, not only from the state universities, but from the major private universities as well. The great irony of the Enlightenment is that when it threw out faith, it turned off the light of the mind from everything beyond the physical universe. it redefined the microcosm. There have been no greater defenders of intelligence than the great Christian intellectuals, who recognized faith to be, not an obscuring cloud, but an illumination. They believed the prophet and found him, and I think history ha found him,to be true: "Unless you believe, you will not understand."

The removal of theology from the University curriculum was the beginning of the removal of a great deal more. Historian George Marsden details how once theology was gone, the Universities became outright hostile toward Christianity and much of what the Universities formerly stood for. "On the one hand," he wrote, " it is a story of the disestablishment of religion; on the other hand it is a story of secularization." The result has been "the virtual establishment of unbelief, or the near-exclusion of religious perspectives from dominant academic life...In other words, the free exercise of religion does not extend to the dominant intellectual centers of our culture." (Campus, Spring 1995. p.6)

They then went to work to remove philosophy, or at least that grand historical development in philosophy that stretches back to Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, and so influenced Western Civilization. Look now at the philosophy curricula of the Yales, Harvards and the public universities, and you might think that philosophy began with the Enlightenment. The long and illustrious tradition of Christian philosophy, developed by towering intellectuals over more than a thousand years, the academy today treats as an exhibit in a natural history museum. The questions that those great Christian philosophers raised, explored, and left as a rich legacy, are casually referenced as historical curiosities rather than serious questions of study. The bias against a metaphysical world led to the ignoring of metaphysical questions and discarding the philosophical concepts that respond to those questions. Such concepts as being, essence, nature, spirit, form, soul, potency and act are rarely in the vocabulary of modern philosophy. Natural law is disdained, thought to be a limitation on human creativity, perfectibility and freedom; in fact, it is not understood.

With theology gone and philosophy dismembered, what would be the backbone of the University curriculum? There was nothing left but the humanities. So, not surprisingly, university presidents and deans turned to those other great achievements in Western culture: literature, art, history, and science. "Great literature such as Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, thus became the cannon for a popular cultural idealism," wrote Marsden. Thus, throughout most of the 20th Century the arts, sciences and literature have been the backbone of the University curriculum.

Today, Relativism has an offspring, which goes by the name multiculturalism, and which many would like to see as a third wave to roll over the university curriculum. Let it be understood that I am as much a proponent of our teaching other languages, histories and cultures as anyone. I have traveled broadly, studied a number of languages, classical and modern, and appreciate the educational value of learning the languages, customs and cultures of other peoples, and of sensitively engaging them in thought, communication and commerce. But the modern multicultural movement is about something else. It is often found to be a child of relativism, and to the extent that it is, its insistent clarion is that there is no truth, no nature, and no culture is better than any other. All cultures are products of human beings, it is said, and since human beings are all equal, so their cultures are equal. So, study anything that suits you. The egalitarian movement's influence is obvious.

Should that philosophy of education roll over our universities, it would leave them in a shambles. The prospect of such a shambles is not far fetched. Our culture is charmed by the truisms of relativism: truth is whatever man creates; whatever he does is good; there are no norms; there is no nature. The Enlightenment movement that began with the removal of faith so that human intelligence, unobstructed, might discover truth, has gone full circle: the search for truth as the object of intelligence is abandoned, since truth as something to be sought is nowhere to be found.

If you think I exaggerate, read Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban's recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She is an anthropologist, a discipline that in its early years of development came under the influence of Margaret Mead. Relativism has long dominated that field.

The theory went like this: -- and Mead claimed to document it from her field studies -- humans, tribes and cultures are not to be compared or judged, for there is no common ground, nature or norm by which to judge them. There is no such thing as morality, only mores, or customs and practices. Carried to its logical conclusions absolute relativism leads to absurdities, which is the point of Fluehr-Lobban's article. The article begins: "Cultural relativism, long a key concept in anthropology, asserts that since each culture has its own values and practices, anthropologists should not make value judgments about cultural differences." Therefore, anthropologists have not participated in international conventions on human rights. Nor have they taken a stand on such practices as female circumcision, infanticide, or killing of the aged, as practiced in some cultures. By way of rare, unexplained exceptions, they did oppose Nazi genocide and apartheid in South African.

For twenty-five years Fluehr-Lobban conducted research in the Sudan where female circumcision is common. For many of those years she felt trapped between her professional commitment to moral relativism and the feminist campaign in the West to eradicate such "barbaric" customs that enslave women. She wrote; "To align myself with Western feminists and condemn female circumcision seemed to me to be a betrayal of the value system and culture of the Sudan, which I had come to understand. But as I was asked over the years to comment on female circumcision because of my expertise in the Sudan, I came to realize how deeply I felt that the practice was harmful and wrong." (The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 9, 1995, B2) In 1993 at the Human Rights Conference in Vienna, female circumcision was on the agenda. Fluehr-Lobban wrote: "Those discussions made me realize that there was a moral agenda larger than myself, larger than Western culture or the culture of the Northern Sudan or my discipline. I decided to join colleagues from other disciplines and cultures in speaking out against the practice." (Ibid. p. B2)

Fluehr-Lobban began applying the same thinking to other cultural practices: the Japanese wife who feels honor-bound to commit suicide because of the shame of her husband's infidelity; the "honor" killings of sisters and daughters who are accused of sexual misconduct in some Middle Eastern societies; the genocide in Brazil and Venezuela of the Yanomami people which, says Fluehr-Lobban, "may allow the clearest insight into where the line between social culture and universal morality lies." Her article concludes: "When there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, anthropologists should chose to promote and protect human rights. We cannot just be bystanders." (Ibid. p. B2) When it comes to truth, consistent relativists are bystanders.

What Fluehr-Lobban has demonstrated is a clear process of reasoning from natural law, which, of course, relativism abhors: That some things are right and should be done; others are wrong and should be shunned; that there is a universal morality that is larger than culture, because there is a universal human nature with certain rights and obligations, that must be respected wherever human nature exists.

John Paul II's observations in Veritatis Splendor are apropos:

"It must certainly be admitted that man always exists in a particular culture, but it must also be admitted that man is not exhaustively defined by that same culture.... There is something in man that transcends those cultures. This 'something' is precisely human nature: This nature is itself the measure of culture and the condition ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being."

Relativism is a disease that has infected the mind and the culture, including the university culture. It is a destroyer of truth which universities are called upon to uphold, and which teachers profess at least to seek and to safeguard. Relativism puts freedom out front and nature follows wherever freedom wishes to take it. That's backwards. Nature and finality belong out front, then intelligence seeking to know the good of nature, then freedom. Finality, of course, as Chesterton said, implies an intelligence and a will. And the problem is that this generation's children of the Enlightenment will not swallow that there may be an intelligence superior to their own, and will accept no competing will, even if it be the will of God.

So I think it no hyperbole to say that the teaching vocation, so magnificent in itself, has diminished and is diminishing still as the universities are diminishing. We train many good technicians capable of holding a job, making a living and improving the physical world in which we live. But we educate few wise men.

Thank God, there are exceptions to that among American universities. But far too few. I count Gonzaga among the exceptions. But I daily live aware of the duty we have to remember whose image we are, the heritage of faith we have received, and what by the finality of our natures we are called to be.

I am confident that among us there is enough intelligence and humility to see ourselves for what we are and to accept, nay, to glory in what we are: only an image, to be sure, but of what a Being.

I am confident that among us truth is not seen as just anyone's arbitrary desire of the day. So I am confident that here the vocation of teacher is not diminished.

I am confident that, while the number may not be as many as we would like, a not inconsiderable group of scientists and poets, artists, business persons and lawyers, teachers and engineers leave Gonzaga University also as wise persons, who indeed have heard it said, and know what it is to be "made in the image of God."

I thank you for making this the great university that it is. I wish you a happy and successful academic year. God bless you.