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Towards a Christian Ethic of the University (Part 1)

Joshua Kellard, Outreach Coordinator at Christian Heritage, continues our series on the University. 

Discussions of the mission of the University are always ethical in character: they are concerned with how we ought to live. Specifically, they are concerned with what we ought to do, and why, in the context of higher education. What are the proper goals of the University? What is it for? 

The Magna Charta Universitatum documents claim that the University has a universal and rational mission. But if we wish to maintain this, we will need an ethical framework which can justify the University’s activities, showing them to be good. But the fact remains that not every worldview is able to ground the University’s mission in moral reality. In the last post, we saw that secular humanism, committed to the idea of an uncaused and amoral universe, struggles to ground any moral values which are universally valid. It is just not clear how the humanist can move from a description of things that are, to a prescription of how things ought to be. If human beings are the source of all moral values, then ethics will be as changeable and relative as we are. One implication of this worldview-enforced relativism is that we simply cannot speak of universally binding principles and goals for the University. Despite the claims made in secular documents like the Magna Charta Universitatum, humanism ends up undermining its own attempts to cast a coherent vision for the University’s life. 

What is needed is an ethic worthy of the University. And that entails that we embrace a worldview which is able to make sense of the mission of the University in moral terms. In contrast to humanism, Christianity offers a worldview in which right and wrong, meaning and purpose – the Good, the True and the Beautiful – are part of the very nature of reality. As such, Christian ethics can succeed where humanism falters, and provides a uniquely solid foundation for the University’s mission. In this post, we will first consider the general ethical frame of the Christian faith, before applying it to the University to ask, ‘What does a Christian ethic of the University look like?’ 

Christian Ethics: Grounded and Perspectival 

Before asking how Christianity frames the work of the University, it is essential to understand how it frames ethics itself: the business of human living. Christianity holds that ethics is grounded in the self-existent nature of the Lord Himself, and in the consequently dependent nature of the things which He has made. Ethics is a matter of seeing all things, including human life, in the light of God. We know right and wrong as we understand God’s varied revelation. Christian philosopher John Frame* points out that the Bible shows that we encounter ethical reality in three main modes: 

– Through God’s Speech, primarily in Scripture, we understand God’s norms for human life (the normative angle)

– In and through the Self we understand our true nature as God intends it to be (the existential angle)

– In and through the World we grasp the proper ends of all things, as ordered by God (the situational angle) 

Ethics is a matter of understanding the right norms for human life, the true nature of human beings, and the proper ends of human life. Ethics thus has to do with authoritative norms, natures and ends. And this, in a funny way, validates the main ways in which non-Christian thinkers have sought to ground the Good. Secular ethicists have looked for the Good variously in moral law (deontologism – a normative approach), in the expression of the self (in virtue ethics and existentialism – existential approaches) and in isolating right consequences for action (in consequentialism – a situational approach). The Christian ethicist can appreciate all three of these modes of reasoning, even as he criticises them as lacking authority without God. The reason why norms can be binding, human nature can itself be morally instructive, and ends can be authoritative, is because they proceed from the Lord. Their reality comes from God; their delegated authority is ultimately His authority. 

There is another key difference between secular moral theory and the Christian vision at this point: whereas secular philosophy has often seen these ways of grounding the good as competitive and mutually exclusive, the Christian can happily integrate them. At the end of the day, the norms that God has revealed for human life are those which promote our flourishing as human beings, enable us to express our true nature, and to pursue our proper end. It turns out that each of these ways of understanding what is good are actually complementary, and mutually affirming. In fact, we can see each of these ways of defining the Good as perspectives on the whole of ethics, and we can represent them as a triangle (1.1), in which each corner can be taken as a way of seeing the whole.
Each of the corners can be explained in terms of the other two. Right norms enable creatures to embrace their created natures, and to pursue their proper ends. Right ends will encourage the expression of the true nature of a creature as they follow the norms for their existence. Right expression of a creature’s nature will always accord with the norms for its life, and will honour the proper ends of its existence. Stated even more strongly, the perspectival nature of norms, natures and ends means that we can see each as a mode of the other two. Our nature and the proper ends of our existence become ‘norms’ for us to obey. Obedience to norms and the outworking of our nature are properly seen as ‘ends’ of our existence. And obeying the right norms and following our true ends make up what it means for us to express our ‘nature’ freely and authentically. The three cannot be disentangled. 

How the Christian ‘ethical triad’ works in practice can be illustrated using a fairly uncontentious example. The Christian who wants to understand the ethics of using a particular technology, social media for example, can approach it fruitfully using all three of these perspectives. Using the normative perspective, he can ask whether the technology helps him obey God’s commands, or whether its use might impede such obedience. In which ways can social media be used to love God (the greatest commandment) and to love others? Are there features of the technology which make the dynamics of interaction less conducive to loving people, and more conducive to practices like gossip, judgement and hypocrisy? He could use the existential perspective to ask whether social media helps him manifest the virtues which are proper to human beings. Will particular uses of social media engrain certain habits in him, and will these be healthy or harmful? A mixture of both, perhaps? Finally, using a situational lens, he can ask what the purpose of social interaction is, and whether social media helps or hinders the attainment of the proper ends of networking. What should be clear is that these perspectives do not immediately solve the question the Christian started out with. After consideration, he may or may not sign up for Twitter. However, the perspectives do point the way to asking the right questions in a framework which is not relative, but undergirded by the Lord’s person and authority. 

In summary, a Christian view of ethics rests on the authority of God, and keeps the person of God central. But it also recognises that ethics is perspectival; something like a three part harmony in which the sung parts keep swapping around. The Christian is attuned to each perspective: the authority of the norms that God has revealed, the natures which He has given us, and the ends towards which He has ordered us. As we turn now to consider how Christianity can provide an ethic of the University, we will keep these perspectives in mind. 

The University’s Threefold Cord: Grounds for Limited Agreement 

There is an interesting consensus in higher education about the range of the University’s tasks. Almost all universities today aim simultaneously to perform a research function, a teaching function and a cultural/societal function. Consider the following university mission statements, from three leading British universities and note how each of them contains the three functions in one form or another: 

The University of Cambridge: ‘to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.’

The University of Edinburgh: ‘benefiting society as a whole…the mission of our University is the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge.’ 

The University of Oxford: ‘The advancement of learning by teaching and research and its dissemination by every means.’**

Almost every major university desires to contribute to the advance of knowledge, the training of students, and the service of society. And as we noted in the first post, the Magna Charta Universitatum mirrors this threefold structure as well. We may question the specifics of how these tasks are understood and practiced, but there is broad agreement in the world of higher education that the University should learn, teach and serve. 

What is not commonly appreciated is how well these three goals correlate with the age-old pursuit of the ‘transcendental triad’: Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Rightly regarded, research is the pursuit of Truth, teaching properly aims at cultivating Goodness, and the service of society entails a commitment to extending the reach of Beauty, broadly understood: the ordered flourishing of society, economic productivity, justice in all its forms, and the wise stewardship of natural resources. It isn’t going too far to see shades of ancient wisdom in even the most utilitarian of modern university mission statements.

University Realism: Ground for Substantive Difference 

A Christian approach to the University’s mission will want to affirm each of its three commonly-accepted goals. The University should indeed pursue knowledge, teach students and serve society. But while these pursuits are often assumed to be good without ethical explanation, and left ambiguous as to their purpose, the Christian vision grounds them in the integrated quest for Truth, Beauty and Goodness. “Integrated” is the key word here, for the Western intellectual tradition has noted time and again that Truth, Goodness and Beauty are so closely related that at times they are indistinguishable. When one is pursued, all are, and when one is neglected, the others will be also. Indeed, the transcendentals have often been understood perspectivally (1.2), even when this language has not been employed. Truth has been seen as Goodness of a particular kind, and as Beauty in a particular mode. Goodness has been viewed in terms of conformity to Truth and its embodiment of Beauty. And Beauty has been seen as a manifestation of both Truth and Goodness. The Western tradition has seen the True, the Good and the Beautiful not only as real features of the world as it is, but also as mysteriously, yet undeniably, related.  

This assumption is not universally shared. The language of higher education today often assumes that Truth, Goodness and Beauty are just constructions of the human mind. This notion creeps in subtly, in phrases like ‘the creation of knowledge’ and the preference for the notion of ‘value’ over the more objective ‘virtue’. One effect of such language is to give us the sense that Truth, Goodness and Beauty are commodities which are at our beck and call. We use them, but they do not read, judge, challenge or reach out to us. After all, at the end of the day, they are not real, independent features of the world. A second effect of this language is to sever any necessary connection between knowledge, character and skill, and therefore between research, teaching and service. If the three transcendentals are, in effect, human constructions, then there is no reason to suppose that they have a ‘nature’, let alone some kind of necessary connection. On a practical level, this means that there is no necessary connection between the University’s research, teaching and service. Neither is it imperative that a student’s knowledge, virtue and skill-set are developed together. Without positing a real unity between Truth, Goodness and Beauty, it is not immediately clear why the success of one task of higher education would depend on, or contribute to, the other two. 

In contrast to this, a Christian vision of the University insists on what we could call ‘University Realism’. This is the view that what the University pursues when it seeks Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, is embedded in reality itself. Truth isn’t created, as much as encountered. Virtue isn’t contrived, as much as cultivated. Beauty isn’t merely projected onto creation, but discovered within it, and imitated. And this has some implications which are uncomfortable. As every teenager has to learn, coming to grips with reality leads to responsibility. The reality of Truth, Goodness and Beauty demands a response from us, and makes us responsible to that which we do not control. Our freedom consists in the liberty to pursue these things, and to be pursued by them. Our bondage turns out to be our unwillingness or inability to recognise and run after them. 

So, a Christian vision for the University insists on a realism concerning Truth, Goodness and Beauty. But it is crucial to see that this realism, on its own, will not get us to a Christian ethic of the University. 

Both Real and Personal

There is a huge danger, when speaking of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, of reducing everything to the abstract. Arguably, this is where Plato ended up, as he sought to defend the Good as an absolute, but also as impersonal and unresponsive. A more biblical vision will save us from this fate. Christianity posits that our integrated search for the True, the Good and the Beautiful is ultimately a search for a Person who is, in Himself, all these things. We do not have to choose between the infinite and the personal: uniquely among religions and philosophies, the Christian tradition reveals an Infinite Person as the source and goal of our lives. And, before we can gain a new vantage point on the University, we need to understand three implications of this personal realism. 

Firstly, only an Infinite Person can be the source of Truth, Goodness and Beauty as most of us accept them to be. If they are real features of the world, and not mere projections of human subjects onto an amoral cosmos, then they must have a transcendent source.  Christians don’t deny entirely that it is subjectivity which makes things to be True, Good and Beautiful. But it is an Infinite Subject, the Lord, in whom these things are grounded. Secondly, only an Infinite Person makes sense of the unity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. If God is these things in Himself, then they are perfectly and non-competitively present in Him. As such, we should expect that when creation reveals the Truth, Goodness and Beauty of God to us, these things will be interconnected in a real way. It really is the case that they are one in creation, because they are one in God who created. Christianity makes sense of the unity of the transcendentals. Thirdly, only an Infinite Person provides the content and meaning for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. As expressions of God’s nature, they are not ‘things’ in themselves, as much as they are God-reflecting attributes of creation. They are signposts to the reality which sustains them. In this way, the Christian faith avoids making abstract idols of the transcendentals. Rather, God is the One to whom these realities refer. Like tastes and aromas, Truth, Goodness and Beauty are associative. They connect us to experiences we haven’t fully understood. They invite us to a richer, fuller experience of reality in a person, Jesus Christ, who wasn’t afraid to call Himself, ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6). As St. Paul said in another context, ‘the substance belongs to Christ’ (Colossians 2:17). 

The Practical Consequences of a Personal Quest

By this point, the basic contours of a Christian understanding of the University should be emerging. We can offer a simple definition: The University exists to glorify the Lord through an integrated pursuit of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. And, with this in mind, we can circle back and take another look at the threefold task of the University.

We noted above that all universities, no matter how secular or religious, strive to practice and unite research, teaching and service. We then saw that Christianity grounds these tasks in an integrated pursuit of Truth, Goodness and Beauty as they reveal a Person. And this has astonishingly practical consequences. It means that there is a necessary and real connection between scholarship, formation and service. The real unity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty in God demands the unity of their pursuit in the University. It isn’t simply preferable to unite research, teaching and service in the University: it is imperative. Truth cannot be pursued without Goodness and Beauty, and vice-vice-versa. Students cannot be truly educated without their knowledge, virtue and vocational formation informing one another. Returning to what we earlier observed about Christian ethics, we can adopt a perspectival approach. The University’s three distinct tasks may be seen as perspectives on the whole. Research, or enquiry, will call us to the ‘truth’ of Goodness and the reality of Beauty. Teaching, or Formation, will prepare us for encounter with Truth, and transformation through Beauty. Service, or Vocation, will order our formation towards others and the world, and will demand that we enquire and research for the sake of that world. We need to see that pulling these things apart will leave us impoverished, and the University’s purpose frustrated. Not only is the unity of tasks important, but their integrity will be, too. We are called to recognise that each of the three tasks has its own distinctive flavour (1.3). Research, the quest for truth, orients us to norms and rules for thought, and can be described as having a ‘normative’ character. Formation deals with people, in all their irreducible complexity, and has an ‘existential’ nature. Finally service, or vocation, has a ‘situational’ orientation, inviting us to contribute to the ends for which the Lord has designed creation. This is more than coincidental: it speaks to just some of the ways in which the University calls us to the kind of life for which we were made, a life lived in response to God’s norms, our natures and creation’s ends. Such a vision makes profound demands of us, but also promises far greater rewards than any subjectivist reading of the University’s purpose. Only a Christian ethic of the University, with a realism and personalism rooted in the Lord God, can unite its particular mission with our broader telos as human beings. 

Conclusion: a perspectival adventure to be continued 

I am aware that we have covered much ground in this post, and, even so, that much more could be said in support of its claims. My aim has been to show, at the very least, that Christianity provides an ethical basis for the University which is solid, and which stands in stark contrast to that offered by worldviews based on the ‘impersonalism’ of humanism. As we have seen, this basis looks to an infinite person for its orientation and validity: the God of the Bible. It also reveals the great value of seeing ethics, and the University, in perspectival terms, recognising the fundamental connectedness of the life that God has called us to, inside and outside of the University. What remains to be done is to flesh out how this perspectival and personal vision begins to reform the three specific tasks of the University: enquiry, formation and vocational service. In Part 2 of this post, therefore, we will dig deeper into each area, and explore the promise of a Christian ethic of the University for these spheres of its life.



*Anyone familiar with John Frame’s work will recognise my indebtedness to his methods and insights in this article. I take his ethical perspectivalism to be a wonderful way of bringing together the necessary affirmations of biblical ethics, and understanding its scope. While Frame has not, to my knowledge, applied his ethical vision to the question of the University (or to the transcendentals), much of what is written here is ‘Framean’ in character, though I do not claim to be representing him or his viewpoints. For more on Frame’s ethics, see this article as a good place to start.

**Strictly speaking, this is not the mission statement of the University of Oxford, but of its 2018-2023 strategic plan, which can be found here. I take it that this does, in fact, represent the true vision of the university authorities for the institution.


Photo Credits: 

Banner by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Plato and Aristotle detail from Raphael's 1509 fresco, The School of Athens. Public domain.
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