1 Thessalonians 5:21
1 Peter 3:15
The Professor as Servant
teaching statement by Ken Elzinga
The conventional talk about Christianity in academic life is, “What does it mean to do biology or philosophy or economics or French literature from a Christian perspective?”
David Dockery wrote that Christian higher education meant not only an integration of faith and learning but an integration of faith and living.
This suggests considering what it might mean as a teacher in any discipline, to teach like Jesus. That is to model oneself after Jesus as a teacher or, if you like, as a rabbi.
Developing my Teaching Philosophy
The particular connection that concerns me is not to our discipline, but rather the Christian professor and his or her students. My thinking was profoundly affected when the faculty at the University of Virginia was asked to write out a teaching philosophy. At an institution where virtually all one’s paycheck is based on research productivity, this attention on the teaching caused quite a stir. This was seen as a threat to the research agenda of the university, even though the exercise was totally voluntary.
Since I claimed to want Jesus to be Lord of my life, I wanted Him to be the Lord of my teaching philosophy. I wanted this not to be an “add-on” or an addition to the house; I wanted it to be at the very foundation I wanted this philosophy to be connected to multiplying images of God.
My teaching philosophy statement is posted on my UVA homepage – so this is digitally quite visible, not buried somewhere in an administrator’s file cabinet, it reads:
My colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies might contend that the most prominent image or picture of the Christian faith is the crucifix. For me, as a teacher, it is the picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The scene illustrates the upside-down and paradoxical biblical principle of leadership: the one who leads should be willing to serve; if you want to be first, you line up last.
I endeavor to apply that picture to my teaching: if I want best to lead a class of students, I should be willing to serve them. My authority is linked to my willingness to serve my students.
This principle is not void of content. Rather, it is practical (and sobering).
For example, it seems clear that one way a teacher serves is by thorough class preparation. For me, this has meant not scheduling any substantive activities before my lectures, so I can focus my attention solely on the material and its presentation; it means mining an entire book for one small nugget: a useful classroom illustration.
It probably goes without saying; we serve our students in the classroom (and I include the laboratory here) by a mastery of the material – by thoughtful, if not winsome, presentations of the material, and a desire to see our students learn. All of this is part of the Biblical principle of “Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do it as unto the Lord.”
No matter what I teach, I think it’s possible to serve my students and to let them know that I’m a follower of Jesus. First I do this by example, and in teaching economics, I can reference scriptural principles in a way that signals to students that I take the Bible seriously, not as a dead and worthless book.
The development of a Christian teaching philosophy turned out to be a very important event in my professional life. There are many times when I am about to short-change a student, or take an action that builds me up or makes my life easier—and then I am convicted by this image of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet.
One of the most profound and sobering teachings of the Christian faith is that I can serve Jesus indirectly by serving others directly—especially the students I have the privilege of teaching.
by joe kaboski
I think it was Fulton Sheen who said that applause is a manifestation of the theological virtues: applause at the beginning of a talk expresses faith, applause in the middle is an expression of hope, and, all too often, applause at the end is an act of charity.
So let me start by lowering expectations. I was asked whether I would speak on virtue and intellectual life at Catholic universities, and I said, “Sure.” Only afterwards did I fully realize how poorly qualified I am for the task at hand. First, although I’m a cradle Catholic, I am brand new to Notre Dame. Until this year I had never attended or worked at a Catholic school of any kind in my whole life. So I know very little about Catholic universities. I’ve taken the easy way out and added a good deal of personal reflection. Second, I am aware that many of you may see a certain irony in having an economist speak about virtue. This is not what we typically do. So I know unfortunately too little about virtue as well. For your sake, I have stripped all the charts and equations out of my original lecture. Please keep in mind, this is a little like watching a dancing elephant: It is not that he dances well, but the amazing thing is that he can do it at all.
Virtue is Central to a Catholic University
So let me ease into my discussion of virtue by starting with something that I do actually know well: sports. Sometime in the next year, Mike Krzyzewski will pass Bobby Knight as the winningest coach in college basketball history. The interesting thing here is that Krzyzewski played for Knight as a college student. Knight himself passed Dean Smith, who is part of an immense coaching tree that includes Larry Brown, Pat Riley, Adolph Rupp, Phog Allen, and goes all the way back to Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game of basketball. This isn’t a tree of coaches who learned the X’s and O’s from each other as assistant coaches, but student athletes, who were recruited as athletes and came into contact with great coaches at impressionable ages, and they learned habits of success, which they later passed on to their own players.
To emphasize that it is a story of habits and attitudes, not simply strategies and game plans, note that Dr. Naismith, the inventor of basketball, spawned an equally large and impressive tree of football coaches, including Amos Alonzo Stagg, who invented the forward pass as an offensive strategy, Knute Rockne, Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, and Bill Parcells. Naismith was Stagg’s basketball coach, Lombardi was Parcells’ basketball coach; so it wasn’t the strategies and plays they had learned but the habits and attitudes of success.
Why did I go off on this seeming tangent? (My wife asks me this all the time when I talk about sports!) Well, this is one example, but these chains or trees are common across all walks of life. You even see them in canonized saints, and of course, in some sense in all saints, since the entire Church is like a giant tree of faith springing forth from Jesus and the apostles. But you see these trees especially in academia. So, first, I think it is a reminder of the importance of studying with the best. Excellence is a necessary part of intellectual life. Second, I think it shows the importance of universities in developing life-long virtues in students. This topic is crucial, and I think after the family and local parishes, education, not least tertiary education, is perhaps the most important social institution for developing virtues in people.
So universities play a big role in developing virtue, and even secular virtue. As I said, I’ve spent most of my life at secular universities and in secular circles. I think while it is important to acknowledge that there is virtue in the secular world, it is also important to acknowledge that we live in an essentially pagan culture. Christians still make a sizable portion, even a majority, of the population, but for most I don’t think that Christianity is at the core of our consciousness nor reflected in our culture. I don’t say this as fire and brimstone from a doom and gloom perspective. Even pagan cultures have some merit, some redeeming value. Sodom and Gomorrah are the rare exceptions. But I think it is important to have an accurate assessment of the world we live in.
So how do we, as Catholic universities, engage the secular world? One approach is to look for areas of common ground, and there is certainly benefit to this. We can work for peace, justice, and equality, and all of this is quite important. But we economists often talk about the benefits of focusing on one’s “comparative advantage”. A comparative advantage is that thing which a person or group is particularly good at especially relative to others.
As Catholics, do we have anything especially valuable, especially unique to offer the pagan world? Of course. We have Good News, amazing news. Eternal salvation. Emmanuel, God with us. God dwelling in us. The Holy Spirit pouring out the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love into our hearts. This is the life of grace, the abundant life.
If I think about the great public witnesses of my lifetime, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II, were respected because they made these three virtues so evident. They weren’t universally acclaimed – no servant is greater than his master – but their lives struck a chord in people.
It is these three virtues that are at the heart of the Christian life. These are what we need to be passing on to our children. This is what we can most offer to a world in desperate need. Hope to relieve the besetting hedonism of despair, but hope that is derived in faith and poured out in love. And so it is these theological virtues that I would like to focus on.
In addressing faith, I will refer to the intellectual aspect of faith. Faith is clearly more than intellectual. It involves entrusting your life to God, obedience to God’s will. This side of faith is probably more important than intellectual assent, but since the talk is on intellectual life I will focus on this aspect of faith.
Everyone has faith, faith in all sorts of things. We can’t even wake up in the morning and cook breakfast without having faith in something. What is particular about Christian faith? One aspect is that we believe in absolute truth, even absolute moral truth. Another defining aspect of Catholic faith is the relationship between faith and reason. The belief that both come ultimately from God, and so there can be no true contradiction. A third aspect is of course the content of Christian faith: the Revelation passed down in Scripture and Tradition, the Creed, the Sacraments, etc.
When I was starting at Cornell as an undergraduate, there was a tradition of a first lecture that started before classes during the orientation period. The content of that lecture has always stayed with me. The esteemed professor, who will remain nameless, started with a skeptic’s statement to the effect of, “There is nothing that you’ll hear in your four years here that you can be certain of”, and we were all amazed by the depth of this statement. With this single statement we had been liberated from the oppression of dogmatic truth to believe whatever we fancied. Later on, he gave us a stern warning, “I told you earlier that you can’t be certain of anything, but here is one certainty. Ninety percent of you were in the top twenty percent of your high school graduating class. At the end of the first semester, exactly twenty percent of you will be the bottom twenty percent of your freshmen class.” It struck me at the time because I had not been in the top twenty percent of my graduating class, but looking back since, it is the absurdity of the original statement that strikes me. “There is nothing that you’ll hear in your four years here that you can be certain of.” It was so blatantly false, that it couldn’t stand fifteen minutes without being contradicted. And the original sense of liberation I had felt was certainly misguided as well. To the contrary, Jesus himself has assured that it isn’t skepticism, but the truth that would set us free.
There are at least two necessary conditions to being part of a university: First, you need to have the ability to learn. Finding certain truth must be feasible. Second, you must have something to learn. If we are certain about everything there is no point in being at a university. So we must strike a balance between a fundamentalism that already possesses complete truth and a skepticism that allows for no truth.
So what things should we be certain of?
First, we should be certain of the tenets of our faith. This is what has come directly from God and is ensured by the Holy Spirit. As Catholic universities we should teach and proclaim them confidently. That doesn’t mean being obnoxious or in your face about our faith, but I think it does require a certain fidelity.
On this front, a troubling reality is that the average Catholic college student does not have college-level understanding or even knowledge of the tenets of Catholicism. By this I mean they lack a foundation in the Creed, the Sacraments, scripture, Catholic morality, the Church, and its history. This past fall, I taught a course on Catholic social thought and economics, and the students who signed up were all seniors, all intelligent, all hardworking, and all enthusiastic about their faith and quite receptive. I often had to explain very simple things, however, such as e.g., “What is a sacrament?” At one point, at the suggestion of a colleague, I gave a pop quiz where I asked them to just identify the Immaculate Conception. Only half of the Catholic students knew this. (An equal fraction of the students were able to identify the Immaculate Reception of Pittsburgh Steelers lore.)
So students are not even aware of many of the things in which they should have their deepest faith and most certainty. A required remedial theology course, essentially an adult level catechism, may be necessary for well-grounded Catholic intellectual life. Courses like our Catholic social thought and economics course are also important, I believe. The goal is to introduce or review the faith but also to enable students to integrate the faith with the knowledge from their particular secular discipline.
So we should be certain of the tenets of our faith, but what types of things should we be less certain about? First, facts that are properly established should engender confidence, as should sound, tested theory. We should always be less confident about our own interpretations of these facts or applications of these theories. This holds especially for our interpretation of the Faith. We should be less confident in our -isms, our politics, and our judgments on people’s motives. In short, we should be doubtful of our own opinions.
G. K. Chesterton said it of modern man 100 years ago, but I think it holds true today:
A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. (Orthodoxy, Ch. 3)
Using my course in economics and Catholic social thought as an example, we ought to be confident in the basic principles of Catholic social thought: man created in the image of God, endowed with dignity, body and soul, in solidarity with all humanity and creation, called to holiness and communion with God and each other, called to have compassion, especially for the poor. We also ought to be confident in the basic knowledge of economics, especially the empirical realities of the world. Our confidence in our application of all these to particular issues ought to be more restrained, however.
Last fall I was contacted by an editorial columnist at the Washington Post. He was hoping I could write an editorial giving a “clear and definitive” assessment on where Jesus would have stood on the extending the Bush tax cuts. The journalist, a Catholic, did not want an explanation of competing considerations of taxation on the budget, recession, etc., nor a discourse on the right to property and the universal destination of the earth’s goods or subsidiarity and solidarity. He wanted to know “What would Jesus do?”, and he hoped I might convince others, quickly.
Now, I do have strong views on this question which I suspect agreed with those of this journalist. And my views are based on a solid understanding of economics, an active faith life, and a good formation in the Faith, including Catholic social thought. Nevertheless, my understanding of complicated economic phenomena, though much better informed than that of the average voter, is still quite fallible, and I am certainly fallible as a Christian in my daily life. To presume to speak definitively for Jesus on such a matter is almost blasphemous. A definitive answer on such a question is not something any honest economist, lawyer, theologian, historian, philosopher or even Church leader can offer.
A desire to overstate our expertise is always a temptation in academia, and it is a problem for the idea of a university. Being a “school of universal learning”, as Cardinal Newman defined it, requires integrating knowledge from many fields. With increased specialization this is increasingly difficult. The past three years I have helped the Lumen Christi Institute organize a conference of economists, bishops, theologians, and other academics. We are all intellectually confident, accustomed to being “right”. In my experience, exaggerating our own expertise causes difficulties in these discussions. Economists become incensed by the naïve empirical or factual assertions of theologians, and theologians have a similar response to the naïve philosophical presuppositions or value-laden proclamations of economists.
I believe this temptation to overstate our expertise has also been reinforced by an attitude, a vice perhaps, among many that the knowledge and solutions to problems are readily at hand. Motivating people to social action is the real crux. In such a view, universities become merely centers of political activism. Rather than the pursuit of truth, the propagation of the “faith” and development of disciples become the purpose of the university.
I don’t want to disparage political activism, but I don’t think the university setting is its natural home. Strictly speaking, the propagation of the Faith and development of disciples are central to a Catholic university mission. The questions are, “What faith is being propagated?” and, “How do we put genuine faith into action, i.e., live out our faith even in the public setting, while maintaining minds open to critical thought?”
A similar question is, “What hope is being propagated?” As Christians we place our hope not in man or man’s expertise, nor even the increase in knowledge, but ultimately in God. “We boast in the hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:2) What is this “glory of God”? It is far greater than us, our world, what we see. We hope for a new heaven and a new earth that surpass all understanding.
As a warning, this is crucial to keep in mind, since, as St. Augustine put it,
…man, by worshipping the works of his own hands, may more easily cease to be man, than the works of his hands can, through his worship of them, become gods. (City of God, VIII, 23)
More importantly though, it is crucial to keep in mind because it is Good News that we Catholics have to offer the world. The Holy Cross fathers and brothers have a wonderful slogan that they are “Men with hope to bring.”
How does this hope practically affect the intellectual life of a university?
First, for myself, as a Catholic social scientist, my focus is on improving the world via the economy. As important as GDP, unemployment and life-expectancy are, however, these are not my true measure for progress. This helps me to keep my research in perspective.
Second, I have no illusions of any sort of man-made utopia. I am keenly aware of the effects of original sin. When studying economic development in the third world, their presence is clear: corruption, civil strife, ethnic and religious violence, power struggles, sexism, the spread of AIDS, a lack of human rights. Back home, the recent financial crises and scandals have also reminded us. They have underscored the need for virtue and cultivating virtue. Vices like greed, dishonesty, a lack of courage played genuine roles in these crises.
On the other hand, however, I think these crises and problems have also underscored the limits of human virtue. Father Vincent McNabb, a turn of the twentieth century Irish Dominican who had little use for economists, wrote,
We cannot expect from the average person more than the average goodness… while the average person will sometimes rise to heroic virtue under extraordinary circumstances, it will be found that under ordinary or average circumstances the average person will have the average goodness or badness. (Nazareth or Social Chaos, Ch. 4)
This is the reason the Church teaches us to avoid the near occasion of sin. If we put our hope in heroes, we will only be disappointed.
In the economic world, heroic virtue might be the whistleblowers at Enron and Worldcom, but the problem is that these instances are too rare and happened far too late. Go back to 2005 and imagine yourself in an executive meeting at Lehman Brothers investment firm, where profits are rolling in. It would take heroic virtue to say, “This isn’t sustainable. We’re taking on too much risk.” Indeed, it would probably be both career suicide and ineffectual, as you would be ignored and replaced by the next guy in line.
We are in a non-Utopian world. On some level, financial crises and corruption may be unavoidable parts of life. In the case of the financial crisis, perhaps we should regulate bankers that lack virtue. This leads to more questions, however. Regulators and governments are also imperfect: Who regulates them?
This idea of man as fallen is in many ways quite natural for economists. Indeed, economics has developed a field of economics called “mechanism design” for which several founders received the Nobel Prize in 2007. This field studies how one can structure institutions for desirable social outcomes when individuals are prone to self-interested behavior. There are many such questions. Is there a way of organizing corporate governance or executive compensation rules that limit the risk-taking of managers, while providing them sufficient freedom to take on necessary or good risks? How do we design tax systems or social insurance systems, when people can lie about their income, shirk from working, etc? These questions are important in a fallen world.
Yet, virtue remains indispensible, especially in an imperfect world. Although economists often succeed in pointing out the limitations of virtue, we have admittedly done too little in actually studying virtue. How do we foster virtue? What impacts do policies that affect families, churches, schools have on the formation of virtue?
But ultimately our hope is not in man, nor systems, nor even knowledge, but in God alone.
A third way that the Christian virtue of hope pervades our intellectual approach is that we trust in what we do not see. “For who hopes for what one sees?” (Romans 8:24) There is an urgency to the Christian faith, but there is also a patience. It comes from understanding that while we try to respond to the Grace we receive, much of what happens in this world is beyond our control.
Remember the coaching tree I described. There is no way that Dr. Naismith could have had any idea what he was starting. He didn’t know exactly what he had done, but things happened nonetheless. Recall that I also mentioned that the saints and the Church are in many ways another one of these trees. This dynamic, even the secular aspects of life, captures or points to a part of the mystery of the Kingdom. “One sows and another reaps.” (John 4:37) Dr. Naismith planted a seed and knew not how it grew. Low and behold: the mustard seed became the largest of plants.
Academic research also seems to follow this dynamic. It is, by its very nature, forward looking. I think academic research and the frontier of human knowledge moves at a pace more easily measured in centuries than decades. Occasionally, I have perused the issues of economics journals, even the most prominent journals, from 75 or 100 years ago. What strikes me is that most of the research was either blatantly wrong or completely irrelevant. It has been completely forgotten and with good reason. The true contributions that last are rare. I suspect this is true of other fields as well.
Cardinal Newman put it this way:
Theories, speculations, hypotheses, are started; perhaps they are to die, still not before they have suggested ideas better than themselves. These better ideas are taken up in turn by other men, and, if they do not yet lead to truth, nevertheless they lead to what is still nearer to truth than themselves; and thus knowledge on the whole makes progress. The errors of some minds in scientific investigation are more fruitful than the truths of others. A Science seems making no progress, but to abound in failures, yet imperceptibly all the time it is advancing, and it is of course a gain to truth even to have learned what is not true, if nothing more. (Idea of a University, 8, 8)
As Catholics we are aware of the long history of the Church, and that the coming of the Kingdom of God is often a slow process. It’s been said that the Catholic Church thinks in centuries not decades.
How does this affect our approach? We do not need to chase the most recent intellectual fads in order to be relevant. We do not need to claim to have answers to all the tough questions right now. We can have the boldness to tackle big questions that may not have immediate payoffs. Indeed, universities are often the only institutions with the freedom to tackle such questions.
In any case, as researchers and teachers we are able to admit that we do not have all the “clear and definitive” answers. We will never have them all, nor will we solve every problem. We are simply planting seeds that, with the help of God, will bear fruit, perhaps long into the future and in ways unknown to us. But our hope is in God.
“And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)
And so last we come to the greatest of the three theological virtues, love. The word love is thrown around so much today that it can lose meaning. So a third question is, “What love are we propagating?”
St. Thomas Aquinas says that to love is to “will the good” (Summa Theologica, I-II, 26, 4), and so the Christian concept of love already has a unique characteristic. As a theological virtue it is oriented ultimately toward God. It is therefore based on an objective view of “the good”.
True love is exactly that: love that is in harmony with the truth, what the Pope called caritas in veritate or charity in truth. In order to be love, altruistic intentions and sentiments must be in harmony with the truth about man, and the circumstances of the world that we live in.
Immediately, we can see the importance of faith and reason again. Faith tells us the deep truths about man, reason can also point to these truths. So, knowing that man is body and soul, to love man is to will the good of both body and soul. Knowing that man is a person, and that persons are individuals but in communion, we will the good of each member of society and each segment of society. How do Catholic universities practically fulfill this call? We do this in part by offering a broad intellectual approach: The humanities that nurture man’s soul, the sciences that deal with the realities of the material world, the professional schools that cater to man’s practical needs.
But how do we instill Christian charity into these fields, and what makes them different from a secular department? One way is to chose to build up in fields and hire faculty whose research is not only characterized by excellence but is also relevant to the needs and good of mankind. Of course, in economics we focus primarily on the material/bodily needs. This is what we have tried to do at the new economics department at Notre Dame.
On the macroeconomic side, we have people researching bubbles and financial crises, business cycles and unemployment, international trade and the impacts of globalization. Our microeconomists do research on health economics, the impacts of Catholic schools and faith-based social programs, domestic poverty measurement, the economics of religion, clean water and sanitation in rural Africa, and the economics of the family.
Charity in truth also means that understanding economic realities and consequences is important. Good sentiments are not enough. One of my own current projects involves evaluating a microfinance initiative of Catholic Relief Services in East Africa. The people who receive these services are very poor, poor at a level that is hard to imagine for Americans. Many live on just a dollar or two a day. Many don’t have shoes, or clean water, or elementary schools with books – things we take for granted. They have children who die of malaria.
CRS has received millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to bring microfinance services to hundreds of thousands of the poorest of the poor, and whether or not they receive more money depends on how successful this program is.
And yet I need to be in some sense level-headed and detached when I evaluate this. Some might say that I ought to do anything possible to get more money and services to these people. Microfinance sounds like a great idea in principle, and these people certainly need anything they can get. Yet, Gates is right. Whenever resources are limited – and that is what economists study, the allocation of limited resources – those resources ought to go to the places where they are most productive. The programs that should get money are the ones that work. What might seem the most compassionate or might be the most emotionally attractive may not actually be charity in truth.
Economics often involves tough choices. People tend to shy away from these implications, perhaps one of the reasons why the moniker, “The Dismal Science” persists. We would often like to believe that tough choices are avoidable. For example, I’ve heard it said that firms that pay their employees more are also more profitable. On a policy side, some claim that raising the minimum wage will also lower unemployment. Or that lowering tax rates or perhaps increasing spending will actually improve the budget. Personally, I’d love to believe it wer that simple, and sometimes it is, but as an economist, I am initially skeptical. Free lunches are rare, tough choices are everywhere.
But tough choices are I think what most distinguishes Christian love from the secular view of love. The world puts value on love, but it doesn’t think that love should involve tough choices. You can be devoted to your family and your job. You can be socially conscious and yet live a comfortable life too. You can marry but not have to compromise your life goals. You can eat what you want and still lose weight. Here in Lent, we can have a holy Lent, without sacrificing. There is really no need for sacrifice.
I remember when Mother Teresa and Princess Diana died within a week of each other. Princess Diana had done a lot for charities getting rid of landmines and supporting AIDS relief efforts. I remember the press coverage: two admirable women had died. However admirable Princess Diana was, there was certainly a difference. Sadly, I think many of us, perhaps most of us, would rather be Princess Diana than Mother Teresa. Princess Diana was compassionate but also a celebrity: beautiful, young, a princess with two handsome princes for sons and a romantic and wealthy boyfriend with a sports car. In contrast, Mother Teresa was a leathered old saint who lived amongst the untouchables of India. The love of Mother Teresa certainly required tough choices, but I should add that I think Mother Teresa was the happier for it.
Another example: When I was young, my mom had this bumper sticker on our car that said, “It’s cool to be Catholic.” That’s not always true. I mean, the sticker itself was self-refuting. I was painfully reminded of this every time my friends saw that ridiculous bumper sticker. It is definitely not always cool to be Catholic. Jesus never promised us that we would be cool. Being Catholic can require tough choices.
Everywhere around us, however, the motto of the world is, “You can have it all.” Yet, that motto has little to do with Christian love. Indeed, it resembles more the message of the serpent in the Garden of Eden than the message of our God crucified on Calvary. Jesus’ example, the Paschal mystery itself, teaches us that love must be sacrificial if is to be true love, life-giving love. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24)
How can sacrificial love have any place in the intellectual life at a Catholic university? This is a hard question, for which I don’t have a great answer, but it seems important. If I think of my wife, who has sacrificed much of her career, her sleep, and her sanity in bearing and raising young children, the sacrificial and life-giving aspects of her life are clear. But intellectual life, the lives of university professors and students, are in many ways the antithesis of sacrificial love. We live comfortable lives in the ivory tower. Faculty have tenure, we enjoy prestige with little risk, like the Pharisees, we love the “seats of honor” in our departments, and “the places of honor at banquets.” (Luke 20:46). So, how can our professional lives reflect this Paschal mystery?
Well, there are certainly ways to sacrifice. We can work hard in active research despite having tenure. We can invest in the public goods, like committee work, at the department and university level that create a climate of cooperation. We can go the extra mile with our students. At Notre Dame, several people have given up jobs at more prestigious departments to try to do the impossible: build a great economics department at a Catholic University. On occasion, there have even been cases where people have become professional martyrs, as Cardinal Newman was, or even actual martyrs to truth.
But I think perhaps in intellectual life, the biggest way we can sacrifice in an everyday sense, the biggest way we can die to self in the service of higher truth, is to die to our own egos. We can think less about the lines on our CVs and more about truth itself. A proper humility helps distinguish opinion and conjecture from established fact and objects of true faith. It helps with dialogue amongst the different disciplines. It also places our hope firmly outside of ourselves.
There is an idea in our public consciousness, perhaps a remnant of Nietzsche, that humility inhibits us from doing great things, that some level of hubris or ego is needed to accomplish great things. I disagree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. Humility does not ask, “Who am I to do great things?” It says, “Who am I to say no to God’s call?” whether he asks great things or small things. Humility enables us to sacrifice prestige, even risk ridicule, for ideas that may not be the most popular at the moment. It also enables us to sacrifice our own ideas, perhaps even our life’s work, if it turns out that ultimately these ideas were not popular for a reason.
I am thankful to a colleague in theology at Notre Dame for pointing out a quote from Cardinal Newman that sums up this sentiment. He contrasted Pagan scholars with Christian virtues:
They [the pagan scholars] were notoriously jealous of each other, and anxious for their personal consequence, and treasured up their supposed discoveries with miserable precaution, allowing none but a chosen few to be partakers of their knowledge. On the contrary, it was Christianity which first brought into play on the field of the world the principles of charity, generosity, disregard of self and country, in the prospect of the universal good; and which suggested the idea of a far-spreading combination, peaceful yet secure. (Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford between 1826-1843, 9-10)
With faith and hope, we trust that such charity will be life-giving. Rest assured, charity will give life – life to us and to our universities.