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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