On Athens and Jerusalem

“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from ‘the porch of Solomon.’…. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!….With our faith, we desire no further belief.” Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 3, p. 246)

I’m going to treat Tertullian’s series of questions separately, as I have different answers to each: the relationship between the secular Academy and the Church, between Christians and unbelievers, and “mottled Christianity.”

My perspective on the Academy has been developed over the course of a dozen years involved in ministry to higher education. The university, classically understood, is a place devoted to the search for beauty, goodness, and truth–and thus should hold its arms open wide for all who wish to engage in that search. It is, as Newman reminds us, “not a convent, not a seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world”; and so Christians who do not seek to withdraw to prayer or dedicate themselves to the Gospel ministry, but instead seek to live out their calling in the world, do well to seek to prepare themselves for that calling in the university.

The Academy, in this sense, should not be seen by Christians as foreign territory–nor should the Academy see Christians as intruders. Indeed, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in Ex corde ecclesiae, the university was born “out of the heart of the church” in medieval Europe. It was a Christian creation which, at the same time, drew upon classical learning to illuminate and understand everything.

Should secularists suggest that religion, or, specifically, religious faith should be excluded from the university, or that the search for truth should give way to an agnostic disinterest in whether there is truth, that narrows the university’s scope–dare I say, it makes it sectarian, even “fundamentalist.” Christians are in the Academy as professors, as students, as researchers and as support staff, and rightly so; they, their beliefs and their passions can only be excluded by a university that has ceased to be universal.

My work in ministry to higher education is built on this foundation. Campus ministry isn’t done by building a house on the outside of campus and drawing students to it as to a refuge; it is done by entering onto the campus and engaging with all others who call this place home. I teach world religions at a community college, not to seek converts to my own faith but to encourage students to study and explore this marvelous subject. I serve on the Advisory Board of the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University to help ensure that there is tolerance for religion itself, as well as the different religions, both at Rice University and throughout the world. Tolerance does not mean accepting the view that there is no truth; rather, tolerance is the necessary precondition for exploring truth and listening to new ideas and living peaceably in the world.

Ten years ago I helped plan a Veritas Forum at University of California at Santa Barbara; a couple years later I helped plan one at Rice University. The Veritas Forum, founded by Christians at Harvard University, seeks to underscore the point that we are at home in the university, and to do so by bringing together philosophers and scientists, poets and artists, theologians and historians who are willing to stand before the Academic community and say, “Come, let us reason together.”

And that brings me to the second point, the relationship between Christians and unbelievers. In both the Academic community and in the courts of Caesar there must be no difference. Civil and academic freedom both require a genuine tolerance that grants all, believer and unbeliever (in whatever academic discipline or theory, ideology or creed) the right to advocate passionately that their path is the true one, and to seek to persuade others of that truth. Any secularism that seeks to automatically exclude religious belief from the public square or the lecture hall, or to denigrate it as an inferior form of knowledge, is but another form of intolerance.

For Christians to be tolerant of other beliefs in the halls of Academia is to practice the teaching of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is to speak with respect, to discuss in a cordial spirit, to defend the rights of others and to seek peace in society. It does not mean that Christians must give up their claims to having Truth, or that they must treat Divine revelation as just another human ideology. If there is to be discussion of ideas, there first must be ideas, ideas that are held to be true, and worthy of adherence, which others are invited to accept. Math professors do not say, “2 + 2 may be 4, but you are entitled to hold to another opinion and still get credit on the exam.” Historians do not write papers with a caveat that discounts what they have argued. For there to be tolerance there must be ideas which are presented in the conviction that they are right and others are wrong.

I believe Christianity to be true. I believe its source is Divine revelation–communication by God to humanity of concepts that come not from reason or intuition. Like the early Christian apologists I believe it to be reasonable, and that it can be shown to be reasonable and coherent. I believe that we must be able to explain it in whatever terms may make sense to people who do not share our worldview or our presuppositions. Thus Paul on Mars Hill sought to present Christianity by appeal to what was believed by Greeks–and he did so without surrendering to their worldview or acknowledging it was true.

But Paul was followed by some who thought that human reason could attain to truth absolutely, who relativized Christian claims and suggested they could only be true insofar as they agreed with other truths. These produced that “mottled Christianity” of which Tertullian warned, an amalgam of Greek and Christian, human and divine, Biblical and pagan, that was created out of the desire to win favor from the world. This was a “gnosis falsely so-called” (1 Timothy 6:20). And while Gnosticism was repelled, corruption had taken root. Christianity adopted ideas that were accepted in the Greek world but foreign to Biblical thinking: the immortality of the soul, an eternal hell, purgatory, a sacrificial priesthood, levels of mediation–ideas that formed the basis for a system that was willing to compromise to gain acceptance and popularity, and which then, when it had power, proved to be one of the most intolerant in human history, advocating torture and killing in the name of Jesus.

Where did our modern ideas of liberty and tolerance come from? They were born in the hearts and minds of men and women who suffered under that mottled system. They said, “We don’t want to be bullied by human authority or tricked by reason, but persuaded by the pure teaching of Scripture alone.” They defended the right and duty of each person to seek truth through studying that Scripture. They taught new ideas of freedom of conscience and separation of Church and State and religious tolerance–which is why we are able to have this discussion today.

Tertullian’s argument, though, is not an apology for dialogue with the world, it is an apology for presenting Christianity purely, unmixed and untainted with the wisdom of the world. He was arguing against Marcion and against Valentinus, who took their starting point not from Scripture but from Greek questions–Where did evil come from? Where did God come from? Question upon question, debate upon debate, ideas thrown up and torn down, fanciful speculation and genealogies of angelic powers. This, he said, is what we don’t need. We have a message, and it is clear: “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).