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Piety's Rightful Claim

Faith involves convictions about God, sin, and salvation, but it’s also a habit of mind, a disposition of piety. We need to be clear about this distinction if we’re to understand—and respond effectively to—the challenge that modern secular education poses to the life of faith. For the contemporary university is far more hostile to the pious disposition of trust and loyalty than to the content of any particular creed. To thrive as a student with faith, you need to become a pious intellectual, not just an intellectual who happens to be pious. You need to learn to think under the authority of a living tradition of truth.

Piety involves more than religion. True patriotism (which is very different from nationalistic jingoism) is a kind of piety, one that encourages us to look to our national traditions for renewal and guidance. We often speak of filial piety, which means honoring our parents. Religious piety follows this pattern. It disposes us to honor and trust the people, traditions, and institutions that guard and transmit the faith.

Our contemporary educational culture works against all pieties. Professors argue about what to believe. Some psychologists insist on the priority of nature over nurture; others argue the opposite. Some philosophers are skeptics; others, rationalists. Physicists argue for this or that view of the origins of the cosmos. But on one point nearly all agree: the great goal of higher education is to encourage “critical thinking.”

This goal involves encouraging students to question and doubt inherited authorities. This is not easy to do, because human beings have a natural tendency toward piety. We tend to be loyal to our families, to our communities, to our nation, to our culture—and to the faith of our childhood. So to encourage “critical thinking,” teachers use techniques designed to drive a wedge between students and their inherited assumptions. For example, a history professor can attack patriotism by teaching the history of the oppression of the “marginalized” or “excluded.” The point is not simply to introduce new facts about the evils in our national history, which in itself can enrich piety. Rather, the professor wants students to achieve “critical distance,” which means a colder, less ardent love of country.

Similarly, the philosophy professor typically begins with what seems like a perfectly reasonable requirement: we must have good reasons for our beliefs. He then goes on to show that we don’t. Or the sociology professor teaches about the sexual moralities of other cultures. The aim in either case is not to convince students of anything but to make them question whether their own assumptions aren’t really just contingent, changeable aspects of our cultural history.

The ideal of critical thinking undermines the faith of most students. If you say that you believe something because you trust the one who taught it to you—and religious faith always relies on this sort of trust—you’re committing a cardinal sin in present-day academia. Professors tolerate bizarre beliefs, but not piety. They’ll indulge students who experiment with Eastern religions or who adopt totalitarian ideologies, but they’ll hammer away on anything the majority of students are inclined toward because of loyalty and trust, which is why Christianity so often comes in for rough treatment.

We can be tempted to criticize the critics by pointing out that universities have their own favored pieties, most often liberal political ones. But I caution against this approach, for it only contributes to the skepticism and ironic detachment of higher education (and of our culture more broadly).

Better, I think, to recognize that wrongly believing what is false is not the only danger in the intellectual life. Another, perhaps greater danger is failing to believe what is true.

A sparsely furnished mind is more impoverished than a full one that includes things that are false. As John Henry Newman wrote, “I would rather have to maintain that we ought to begin with believing everything that is offered to our acceptance, than that it is our duty to doubt of everything. The former, indeed, seems the true way of learning.” Only when we’re enlarged by truths we draw near to in love and loyalty, however mixed they may be with error, can we enter into the answers to the big questions about the meaning of life.

Piety, therefore, is a crucial element of any genuine intellectual life. Deep truths often speak in a whisper, and we need to draw close to hear. We must submit ourselves to truth.

For a college student in America, that means developing an active loyalty to the Western tradition, however imperfect it might be. Dwelling in one place for an extended period of time produces a great deal more depth of thought than does a multicultural bus tour. Choose courses that introduce you to this tradition. Seek out teachers who love the great books. Fill your own shelves with classic texts. Become a pious intellectual.

When I arrived at college many years ago, I didn’t have very clear ideas about God or Christ—or much of anything else for that matter. (I was, after all, a freshman!) I couldn’t answer philosophical objections to theism. I wasn’t able to formulate cogent moral arguments. I had, however, a vague but nevertheless real faith. I presumed that the answers I didn’t have to hard questions about life I couldn’t clearly formulate were most reliably found somewhere in the neighborhood of Christian teaching.

In a word, I was pious. I remained loyal to Christian teaching, not always knowing how it added up, not always able to meet secular objections, but trusting in its power to heal my soul and illuminate my mind. I have, of course, failed in many ways. I’ve entertained stupid thoughts and done sinful things. But in my piety—in my refusal to be seduced by our academic culture’s false promise that critical thinking will get us anywhere worth going—I have not been disappointed or betrayed.

You won’t be disappointed either. You don’t need to master apologetics or be able to persuade all your colleagues and professors that Christianity is true. Settle down into the tradition. Trust its essential truth. Some answers will come with study, some with time. The life of faith is in that sense very much like the life of the mind. We receive the deepest truths only when we’re patient enough—and stable enough and docile enough—to allow ourselves to be taught them.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things and a former professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University.

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