Teaching at a Catholic university is a career, but it is more; it is a high Christian vocation upon which much depends. As a unique intellectual, pastoral, and apostolic venture, it calls for careful preparation and continued attention to the renewal of the mind, growth in charity, and zeal for God’s Kingdom. While university teaching is a source of livelihood, and so necessarily brings with it certain practical issues and constraints that need to be taken into account, these valid concerns need to support rather than subvert the Christian vocation inherent in the teaching profession. In light of our current situation, how might the professor best respond? What sort of attitudes and virtues will help in preparation for the vocation? In short, what are some aspects of the quality of wisdom that is meant to characterize the Christian teacher?1
1. The professor as a servant of truth
Humility of Mind
Universities are gatherings of intellectually gifted people working together to assimilate, increase, and pass on knowledge. If there has been a besetting temptation for clever people in all times and places, it is intellectual pride: the confidence in one’s own powers of thought and action to address and resolve the ills of life. This perennial difficulty has been greatly exacerbated in our current academic culture. Having left behind the idea of original sin along with the practices that had been in place to address its effects, in an unfortunate but inevitable development, the modern secular university has become a hotbed of this kind of intellectual pride. Moderns tend to situate pride mainly in relations between humans; we think people are most prideful when they consider themselves in some respect better than others. But Christians have understood pride to refer most centrally to a person’s orientation to God. It is possible for thoughtful and courteous people to be lost in profound pride toward God, as they set about “creating” whole universes of meaning and morality – godlike activities – with no reference to that One who is the center of all existence and the source of all meaning and goodness. Christian professors need to be especially on their guard against their own inclinations to intellectual pride and ready to deflect the influence of their environment when it leads in that direction. They will take special concern to cultivate humility of mind and to develop corresponding intellectual habits: such things as understanding the limits of reason, accepting mystery as a necessary aspect of God’s revelation, resisting the idea that the world can be cured of its ills by human activity alone, embracing the identity of a created being and rejecting the current culture’s attempt to set humans in the place of God, and remembering that intellectual talent is a gift whose purpose is found in service to others rather than in self-aggrandizement.
The special antidote to intellectual pride is found in worship. When we worship God rightly, we give ourselves unreservedly to this mysterious Being at the center of all as a sacrificial offering, and we make ourselves available to whatever he might wish to do in and through us. Habitual worship of God rightly situates us amid the cosmos and helps to fashion our identity. More specifically as regards the intellectual vocation, it opens for us the possibility of knowing the truth of things and so is essential for a healthy life of the mind.2 Furthermore, to worship alongside our students is a tremendous act of wholesome witness and a powerful encouragement and consolation to young minds and hearts.
Christian educators are builders of the Kingdom in a direct and momentous way.
Developing an Integrated Vision
The specialization of university study, to a certain point inevitable and at times necessary, tends to favor a narrow development of mind that works against a quality that John Henry Newman called the highest activity of the intellect: namely, the integration of all that is known toward an understanding of the whole of reality. Professors at a Catholic university will want to find ways to stay interested in everything – in the entirety of things – even while pursuing a specialty. They will want to avoid the blunting effect produced on the mind by the tyranny of specialized knowledge and the tendency it induces toward forgetfulness of the larger meaning of the intellectual venture – the pursuit of truth – which can then trivialize or commodify that noble activity.
Proper Critical Thinking
One besetting vice among academics is the tendency to take up a habitual attitude of hyper-criticism. Both by talent and by training, academics become adept at the practice of “critical thinking.” If by critical thinking is meant logical clarity, care and thoroughness in scholarship, precise use of language, and sound and fair judgment, then of course it is a good and even necessary quality for professors. But too often the critical attitude goes in a different direction and becomes an optic by which one deals with all of life. Modern academics are taught to begin with universal doubt, to question everything, and to submit whatever they deal with to a searching process of analysis and dismemberment. Hidden in this kind of critical thinking is an illusory stance of supposed distance and objectivity from whatever is being studied. Forgetting that all knowledge begins with the act of entrusting oneself to an intellectual tradition and working within it, just as all true friendships begin with entrusting oneself to another person or community, those who practice hyper-critical thinking separate themselves from what they bring under their critical eye and are ready to pronounce definitive judgments from those lofty heights. This not only distorts one’s view of reality but often leaves the critic infected by the dire intellectual disease of skepticism. Like the pitiable person who is unable to trust others and so can develop no meaningful relationships, the skeptical mind is unable to trust itself to any tradition of thought or belief and so can develop no meaningful view of the world. Such critical thinkers have learned the knack of seeing around every corner and of pulling apart every thought, belief, and principle in an endless reductive process by which all is dissolved in the universal solvent of their skepticism. The highest quality of the strong mind – that of perceiving the unity of the whole of reality in its constituent parts and of articulating a cosmos of meaning by which to understand and purposively act in the world – has been lost to them. Mistaking an intellectual disease for strength of mind, they become adept at destruction but are incapable of building anything solid. The habit of hyper-criticism then becomes expansionistic and infects the rest of life with its withering presence: relationships with colleagues, attitudes toward the particular institution where one is serving, family life, friendships. The joys of the intellectual life are understandably far from such people.
Given our current culture, it is inevitable that those who hold and teach a Christian understanding of reality with clarity and conviction will face opposition. More than ever, Christian professors in our time need to cultivate the intellectual virtues of both love of truth for its own sake and of courage to stand for truth whatever the cost. Opposition to the truth comes in many forms; most often in the current environment it operates subtly. The academy holds out its prizes and its approval for those who do not rock the academic boat in respect to secular assumptions and principles. It is easy enough for Christian professors to avoid unpopular truths without explicitly denying them, going along for the sake of peace. In some societal and strategic contexts that may be exactly the prudent and reasonable stance, but for those whose special charge from God is to pursue truth and to pass it on to young minds, it can also be a disastrous failure. Simply put, the vocation of service to the truth in an age such as ours is not a place of peace but of conflict. In this respect our time resembles that of the first teachers of Christianity. Saint Paul wrote, “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Teachers and administrators who are not prepared and willing to engage that conflict – rightly and prudently, with the weapons of warfare provided by Christ – will sooner or later betray their vocation.
2. The professor as a servant of others
Hyper-specialization in the academy has another and more personally devastating effect on those in its grip. It tends to move the professor into a highly individualistic and self-centered mode. We all know how the system works. The way one succeeds in academia is by finding a bit of intellectual turf one can call one’s own, becoming expert in it, and then consorting with whatever mini-community is pursuing the same highly specialized interest, as a way of promoting one’s career and sustaining a personal corner of the knowledge business. Under this conception, the professor’s true identity as a servant of others can easily die through neglect. The primary (and sometimes the only) loyalty expected of the professor is to personal career advancement, with perhaps a secondary loyalty to a small community of like-minded scholars who meet at conferences and exchange one another’s articles and books. A bleak loneliness will lie in wait for such persons: hardness of heart toward students, the missed opportunity for one’s daily work to transform others and oneself, the lost chance to join together in the ever-necessary renewal of one’s university (the alma mater for students) and of the surrounding culture.
Simply put, the vocation of service to the truth in an age such as ours is not a place of peace but of conflict.
Current academic culture structurally favors this kind of knowledge business. Research and publishing are valued as career enhancers without much regard for the quality or the importance of the work done, while time spent in preparation for teaching and with students, if occasionally given lip service, is not rewarded and is often viewed as an impediment to career advancement. Such realities as these can hardly be avoided by those in the profession, but the professor will thoughtfully forestall them when possible and will not allow them to become a formative influence. The question the Christian teacher will consistently keep in view is: “Who and what am I serving, and how can I best serve?” The answer to these questions is multiple and may change over time: Christ, of course, then my students, the mission of the particular institution where I am teaching, my colleagues, some portion of the Church, some segment of the society. But the concrete answer to these questions is of fundamental importance.
An expression of an individualistic mindset is seen in the way some professors utilize the colleges and universities at which they teach simply to further their own career goals while keeping themselves distant from the institution’s mission. Rather than seeing themselves as contributors to a common project as members of a team, academics can tend to chart their own course, “paying their dues” to the host institution while keeping as much time and energy as possible for “my work,” for the pursuit of their own personal interests and goals. This has been an understandable response to the incoherence of the modern secular university. If there is no common mission and no greater good to which one can give oneself, the only sensible thing to do is to work out one’s own career path. But the Catholic college or university has, or should have, a clear common mission that transcends the personal career ambitions of any of its faculty or administrators. The professor at such a place looks beyond self to the intellectual, cultural, and moral tradition in which the intellectual vocation is embedded. Not only through professional generosity, but by profound personal devotion to family life and friendships and the Lord (surely, the mature integration of all this within one life is no simple task and takes time), such a scholar grows into an ever-truer incarnation of that deep treasury of wisdom, becoming an icon or window through which the student can see the radiance of the living tradition shining in the lives of its members.
By keeping the identity of a servant in the forefront, the Christian professor can also battle against certain potent but ultimately self-absorbed images of the university teacher that can influence the unwary mind: the “Herr Professor” who is looked up to by all because he knows all things, and who speaks a strange academic argot that makes clear the distinction between the intelligent and the stupid; the “Abelard” who is idolized by adoring students and whose cleverness amazes everyone in the room; the “Oxford Don” who wears a tweed jacket, smokes a pipe, and spends long hours in fascinating conversations in pubs; the “Simone de Beauvoir” who is smart and sassy and breaks down outworn conventions while discussing Kafka in a café. Whatever may be true or attractive in these romantic images, they have self-regard at their center, and they tend to obscure the key question: “Who and what am I serving, right now at this moment?” As is true for all of Christ’s servants, the answer should never be: “Myself.”
3. The professor as apostolic missionary
To speak of university teaching as a kind of mission work can seem odd and even out of place. Is this not to confuse different gifts and ways of service? Is the professor to engage in what we usually think of as mission work: preaching, leading Bible studies, engaging in various activities meant to attract people to the faith? Isn’t that the point of campus ministry? And who has time for it anyway, given all the teaching, research, and administrative tasks that already dominate life? This kind of response reflects the reduction of our vision of the intellectual task that is so prevalent among us. We tend to think that going to classes and learning is one thing, an objective and often impersonal thing, and growing as a Christian is another, unless we happen to be teaching explicitly theological subjects. But the Christian teacher knows that conversion, something that touches all of a person’s powers, is rooted in the renewal of the mind. Learning, even technical learning, is meant to be a growth into the life of Christ “in whom is hid every treasure of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). We gain knowledge of whatever kind in a moral and spiritual atmosphere that provides a kind of lens for seeing. To understand teaching as a missionary apostolate is to treat learning itself as spiritual activity and the classroom as a place of apostolic mission.
The special antidote to intellectual pride is found in worship... Habitual worship of God rightly situates us amid the cosmos and helps to fashion our identity.
The professor at a Catholic university thus looks at teaching as a kind of mission field. Every student is an immortal soul, and every interaction between professor and student is a communication between one entire spiritual and moral being and another. The Christian teacher does not fall into the debilitating and reductionist error of compartmentalizing humans by setting up zones that supposedly deal with only one aspect of the human. Whether the subject in hand is microeconomics, human anatomy, or history – to say nothing of philosophy or theology – the whole person is present in the professor and the student: mind, will, and spirit. Every student has been made by God for an eternal destiny, and the professor has been given a share in helping others toward that destiny, in however indirect a way. The more the professor cultivates this attitude, the more certain beautiful practices will naturally arise, such as habitually placing study in an overall context of human purpose, noting moral and spiritual questions that naturally arise in the intellectual life, and praying for each student as part of professorial responsibility. Professors who cultivate such attitudes will more naturally be sought out by their students outside class times as well. When the professorial task is understood as an intellectual apostolate, there is no sharp distinction between serving students in or outside of the classroom.
There is a built-in difficulty whenever one is addressing a situation that has become corrupt and in need of serious reform. By necessity one has to speak of the ways things have gone wrong or have been bent out of their proper shape. But we note what is misshapen only so that we can recognize the right shape. We glance at what has fallen short only to turn the fullness of our gaze upon all things true and good and by that means to approach the One who is Truth and Goodness himself. To be entrusted with the vocation of the Christian professor is to run forward along a road of light and grace. Freed from the deadening shackles of intellectual pride, moved by an ever-deepening insertion into the mind and heart of God, and braced by the high responsibility of preparing other immortal souls for their temporal and eternal destinies, the characteristic note of the Christian teacher, in the midst of lots of hard work, is hope-filled joy. As we continue to grow in the vocation we have received, let that great prayer of Saint Benedict be fulfilled in us: "Ut in Omnibus Glorificetur Deus" – "May God be glorified in all things!"
1 “Christians among the teachers are called to be witnesses and educators of authentic Christian life, which evidences attained integration between faith and life, and between professional competence and Christian wisdom. All teachers are to be inspired by academic ideals and by the principles of an authentically human life” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, par. 22).
2 “It should be kept in mind that Revelation remains charged with mystery. It is true that Jesus, with his entire life, revealed the countenance of the Father, for he came to teach the secret things of God. But our vision of the face of God is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding. Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently” (Fides et Ratio, par. 13).
This article is the fifth of a five-part series drawn from The Vocation of the Catholic University Professor, published by the University of Mary (2020).
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