FEATURED: GOD, PHILOSOPHY, UNIVERSITIES by Alasdair MacIntyre. [Vol. 2, #29]

July 24, 2009

 

“Toward A Historical, Christian
Intellectual Infrastructure”

A Review of
God, Philosophy, Universities:
A Selective History of
the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

by Alasdair MacIntyre.

 Reviewed by Mark Eckel.

 

God, Philosophy, Universities:
A Selective History of
the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

Alasdair Macintyre.
Hardback: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.
Buy now:   [ Amazon ]

 

What good is philosophy anyway?  Those not interested in the life of the mind often sidestep discussions that probe human ways of thinking.  Yet the Church, celebrating philosophy as from the hand of the personal, eternal Creator (Prov. 8), should honor the “love of wisdom” more than anyone.  Indeed, for Christian higher education, proper thinking about how we learn and live is essential in training future generations.  Alasdair MacIntyre’s masterwork After Virtue has now been augmented in his newest work God, Philosophy, Universities as character education is given here a historical, Christian intellectual infrastructure.

 

Philosophy is “of crucial importance for human beings in every culture . . . philosophy aids in answering the seminal questions: “Who am I?,” “Why am I here?,” and “What happens after life?” (165). This basic formation of thought must be accessible for the common person.  MacIntyre’s chapter on Augustine, for instance, clearly shows the importance and benefits within the limits of philosophy.  While pursuit of wisdom in itself cannot give adequate knowledge of God nor lead us to Truth, “the project of understanding is not only one for those engaged in teaching, studying, and enquiring within universities.  Every one of us, in our everyday lives, needs in a variety of ways to learn and to understand” (69).  For the Christian “the ends of knowing and of loving God” are a pastoral guide for “plain persons” so that:

 

By developing habits of obedience to the natural law, habits that are also expressed in the exercise of the virtues, we direct ourselves toward the achievement not only of the common goods of social life, but also of our individual good, that good by the achievement of which our lives are perfected and completed (89).

It is the deepest desire of everyone “to be at one with God” (6).  Unity of all truth can have full comprehension through a God-centered context.  Only theology has the ability to integrate all studies working together with philosophy prompting the interrelationship.  But life and teaching is based on transcendence which must be revisited again and again.  An “external and independent,” “not a dependent being,” is the core of Christian philosophical understanding.  How we should live with others is directly tied to this metaphysic.  And Scripture provides the transcendent One’s self-revelation “as the only adequate response to basic questions of life” (171).

 

Ultimately, it is concern for an eschatological wholeness that gives “point and purpose to the activities of the university” (146).  Key to a Christian university is the unity of the universe and the underlying unity of all subjects of study.  If there is one target on which MacIntyre trains his sights, it is higher education in general and the Christian academy in particular.  He builds the case for and unapologetically demands integration of disciplines to be practiced in the hallowed halls of learning.  While philosophers decry “sub-disciplines” without a central focus, within higher education the problem of disintegration begins with professionalization: the fragmentation of departments and coursework.  The origin of division (begun in Genesis 3) is dualism – separating the human person into pieces and parts – which destroys “the unity of the human being,” and is antithetical to the Christian view of unity.

 

MacIntyre concedes, however, that the mandate of God being central to every discussion will raise howls of protest in the university.  The author expects objections and protests.  Statements such as “about fundamental human reality the natural sciences are and must be silent” clearly draw a line in the sand.  MacIntyre argues that by taking theology out of the sciences “other disciplines fill the void, answering questions they cannot answer.”  It is God’s revelation which can correct distortions.  Indeed, the great event of individual reclamation through salvation is no where better expressed than in the life of Pascal.  The point is that regeneration and revelation will provide the intellectual footing necessary for real change.  The purpose of education should be to complete the wholeness, the unity of the student by creating students into self-teachers (94-95, though MacIntyre concedes this is not how they are currently being served).

 

The whole argument for the unity of truth in teaching is wrapped in historical essays showing the progression of Christian thought and its results.  Interesting insights unfold in unusual places.  For instance, a variant and interesting view of the purpose behind Pascal’s famous wager is seen in new interpretive light.  Those looking for a historical review of the interaction between philosophy and university will not be disappointed.  Pedestrian readers may skim sections that dig the shaft too narrow and deep for a layperson’s mining of truth.  But jewels are strewn across the ground above; no doubt indicative of MacIntyre’s contention that philosophy be accessible to all.

 

While integrationists will cheer another masterwork from MacIntyre, only a question or two lingers in the mind as the pages unfold.  Contending that colleges cannot adequately develop the character of their students MacIntyre seems to want it both ways, advocating “teachers to teach virtue who themselves are virtuous.”  He suggests the influence of teachers on students will have an impact on everyone outside of the schools.  In addition, editorial quibbles cause irritation.  It irked me to have footnote material embedded within the text (i.e., page 23).  And the constant use of “it,” “that,” “these” grated on me, leaving me, as the reader, to wander and wonder “where exactly is the antecedent?!”

 

Professors invest our lives to help Christian minds build a framework of thought.  And so, I cheer the buttressing impact that MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities may have on the academy as a whole, for the Church as a whole.  So enthused was I by the book that my copy is littered with exclamation marks throughout.  I can think of no more fitting conclusion than allowing one section of punctuated excitement to speak for itself, repeating my call above for the continued building of Christians’ intellectual infrastructure:

 

First, the attainment of truth is integral to the goal of understanding.  Acts of understanding always involve knowledge of truths and of the relationship of those truths to others.  Second, insofar as the achievement of a perfected understanding of the nature of things requires relating the truths of theology to those of a variety of other disciplines, it matters not only that within each discipline enquirers acknowledge the various standards by which truth is discriminated from falsity, but also that they share a single concept of truth that gives point and purpose to the application of those standards. Third and finally, the project of understanding is not one only for those engaged in teaching, studying, and enquiring within universities.  Every one of us, in our everyday lives, needs in a variety of ways to learn and to understand.  The ability of those outside universities to learn and to understand what they need to learn can be helped or hindered by the good or bad effects on their intellectual formation and their thinking of those who have been educated in universities, by the good or bad influence, that is not only of parents, but also of school teachers, pastors, and others.  One condition for that influence being good rather than bad is that what is communicated to and shared by the whole community of teachers and learners is a respect for truth and a grasp of truths that presupposes, . . . an adequate conception of truth (68-69).

 

Mark Eckel is director of the Mahseh Center and Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College (Indianapolis).