Religion and the humanities

I recently attended an interesting lecture on the decline of the humanities by Georgetown political science professor Patrick Deneen.  Deneen’s overarching point echoed that of Allan Bloom’s in The Closing of the American Mind: The rise of the research university in the 19th century, with its emphasis on science, created an inferiority complex in the humanities.  The humanities felt compelled to ape the sciences in the pursuit of new knowledge, thus casting aside their proper function as conservators of the accumulated wisdom of the past.  Throughout his lecture, Deneen rued the disappearance of “revealed truth” from the curriculum and discourse of the university, which got me to thinking: What exactly is “revealed truth”?  It’s certainly not revealed to me.  If it’s truth, why does it need revelation?

Deneen’s use of the term reminded me of a feature of some conservative public discourse that I find disconcerting: the unself-conscious invocation of Christian doctrine as if it were universally accepted.  It is not uncommon in some general interest magazines to come across references to “Our Savior” or other specifically Christian assumptions.   I am clearly overly sensitive on such matters and not a good bellwether, but I always wonder: Are such things properly  mentioned in mixed company?  Doesn’t it matter that not all of your audience believes that Christ was the Messiah?  Deneen and other thinkers are far more worldly and sophisticated than I, but such references carry just a slight hint of parochialism in my mind.  This is probably just an illusion on my part.  If Jewish readers of conservative publications don’t mind references to Christian doctrine as common truth, who am I to feel that a certain public etiquette is being breached. 

As for the respective roles of the humanities and the sciences in the university, the sciences came to dominate through the sheer grandeur of their accomplishments.  It is very hard to argue with their success.  Deneen is right to stress the urgent value of humanistic study, but a religious sensibility is in no way a prerequisite to a just reverence for Mozart, Keats, Milton, Aeschylus, Palladio, and the thousands of other creators who crush us with their beauty.

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10 Responses to Religion and the humanities

  1. robert61 says:

    It is odd, isn’t it? Reminds me of the Californians who would blithely reference the healing power of crystals as if said power were entirely uncontested during my brief tenure there in the 80s.

  2. John Goes says:

    Perhaps I don’t have a clear understanding of what specific references bother you, but references to God and revealed truth are a part of the Western mind even modulo theism. Does Shakespeare offend because of the frequent references to God in Hamlet? Einstein, though at most a pantheist/Spinozoan and most likely an atheist, felt comfortable enough using God and some religious language in a [meta]scientific- a science that was born uniquely from a society with a monotheist understanding of the world.

    Because I may be liable to be misunderstood, I want to be clear I am not arguing for the truth of Christianity, but it is certainly a very important part of the understanding of the world (and the history/evolution of that understanding) that has led the West to the Light(!) of scientific understanding, even if it strikes you as a bit artifactual. Life is mysterious and big ideas and metaphors are viscerally useful and beautiful. It’s hardly worth obsessing about.

  3. “Jewish readers of conservative publications don’t mind references to Christian doctrine as common truth”

    Who are these Jews of whom you speak? AIPAC/Neocon propaganda to the contrary, American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal and thus don’t read conservative publications. Since Jews are only, what, 3% of the population, they are likely only a tiny slice of the conservative publication’s readership. There are probably 10 times more Christian fundamentalists.

  4. Gotchaye says:

    Building on what Derek said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the vocal Christianity of conservative public discourse was a big part of why not many Jews are reading National Review. Those Jews that are still conservatives don’t mind as much, but that’s because they’ve been strongly selected for tolerance for vocal Christianity.

    I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the Republican Party is seen as too overtly religious by many voters (particularly young ones). That’s got to be even more true for people who don’t share that religious identification.

  5. John says:

    I think the relative decline in the humanities is the result of two causes. The short-term cause is the type of PC that Bloom talked about. When talking about Shakespeare, most humanities professors would rather talk patriarchal repression in society rather than the main issues Shakespeare was talking about. Students have figured this out, and are leaving in droves.

    The second reason, that Heather referred to, is simply the success of science. Not only have the physical sciences grown greatly, but now we are beginning to make serious strides in the social sciences. Questions like “Is it efficient to allow trade between countries?”, “Why are men less choosy about sexual partners than women?”, “Are people with better verbal skills also usually better at math?” now have answers. The best way to find knowledge is to make reasonable hypotheses, make predictions, and test them: i.e. the scientific method. There is no way around it; literature and art are great sources of pleasure, but they are not sources of wisdom in the same sense that chemistry is, or even economics.

    The PC problem won’t last forever, but science isn’t going away.

  6. David Hume says:

    Who are these Jews of whom you speak?

    in the *elite* conservative pundit class of NYC & DC jews are well represented. though as you note, they are well selected. frank meyer, a founding co-editor of national review, was a jew who converted to catholicism on his deathbed. in fact, national review has always been top-heavy on jews & catholics, even while american popular conservatism is overwhelmingly a protestant affair.

  7. Aaron says:

    Heather Mac Donald: I am clearly overly sensitive on such matters…


  8. When I was younger I would only visit an interesting church on Wednesdays because it was as far from Sunday as it could get, but as I have gotten older I have mellowed a bit and have become less evangelical about my lack of belief in Bronze age faiths.

  9. One thing that bugged me about Alan Bloom’s book when it first came out is his utter lack of knowledge and disregard for Jazz. He droned on a length about how important it is to know Beethoven (and he confessed his own relative ignorance about music in the book) but had nary a word for one of America’s most important contributions to music. Perhaps it’s because jazz & blues are the basis of rock & roll.

    The humanities has definitly gone off the rails quite a bit, but at least it doesn’t suffer from physics envy, which IMO has done a lot of harm to economics, particularly as it intersects with politics.

  10. JGP says:

    I think John’s comment above is pretty much correct but there is also a demographic and historical aspect to this. In 1810 there was only Liberal Arts education. Scientists and engineers were self-taught everyone – Doctors, Lawyers, members of the landed gentry, as well as scientists, business owners etc received a Lib Arts education. That meant the pool of students was top drawer and diverse in the good sense of the term.

    The combination of an enormous diversification and specialisation of types of education with a push by the state to artificially inflate the number of University grads meant that LA became a holding tank for much less talented people who were “supposed” to attend University but had no real ambitions in their fields and were weaker intellectually than previous LA students. Yet again the state is a big part of the problem.

    2 Blowhards is the future of the Humanities.

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