The Liberal Arts and the Secular

Einstein once said, “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

Since we live in a time of surface utility and pragmatism, anything that can move us beyond this flat plane is welcome. We are a nation that loves facts, but not wisdom. We are a nation that loves information, but not knowledge. We are drowning in minutia—a regular trivial pursuit of a national conversation, while a deep sensibility of grace, love, forgiveness, and redemption, no longer seems to appear on the radar screen of our national life.

Given where we are, it is no wonder there are those in higher education who wonder if students can, it would appear, waste their time on a liberal arts education instead of investing in those areas that might lead to more lucrative rewards.

This post gives us some hope that such a short-sighted view will be countered. It also gives us hope in the sense that we might continue exposing the “secular” for what it is, another metaphysical narrative and certainly not one that names anything fundamental about reality.

“From the start, this project was motivated by the tremendous reevaluation that the notion of the “secular” has undergone over the last two decades. It is now well acknowledged that the American academy, at least from the standpoint of theory, has been in a full-blown period of recovery from the dominance of the secularization thesis. One of the remarkable things about this conversation has been the tremendous variety of theorists—of different political and religious convictions—who have come to agree on one thing: that it is both philosophically incoherent and phenomenologically inaccurate to posit a secular scrubbed free of religion and committed to a neutral and rational public discourse.”

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1 Response to The Liberal Arts and the Secular

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell, and happy Thanksgiving!

    That's alot of bold words. The retreat from liberal arts is just as condemned from the secular perspective as from any other. While atheists make something of a fetish of STEM knowledge and education, that isn't to the exclusion of other arts and forms of humanism. We are all about critical thinking in all its forms, and a major form is the criticism of religion as fundamentally untrue from philosophical, scientific, humanistic, and sociological perspectives, among others. Even while we seek to explain its origins and continuing attraction from a psychological perspective.

    The idea that the arts necessarily involve some kind of religous perspective is also false. We can appreciate Homer without believing in his religion. And that is because religion is at base a psychological exercise in humanism, ornamented with error-ridden science and power politics. Cultivation of the arts helps us to tease apart all those threads so that we can save the good, throw out the bad, and create new and better worlds for ourselves. That doesn't have to label itself secular, but it should be rational, wherever that leads. Once the irrational power of religion wanes, (if it does), such labels won't be an issue at all.

    As for rational discourse, I think the religion has not acquitted itself particularly well over the last couple of decades, as it has played, in the form of evangelical political action, the role of shill for corporate interests, shill for militarism, denier of plain facts, and platform for the lowest political aims and actors we have seen for a long time. So it seems rather rich to wait for religion to raise our level of discourse, let alone education.

    “The notion of secularity that emerges from “Secularity and the Liberal Arts” rejects the Enlightenment conception of universal reason and the idea that religion is a discourse that should be subject to special rules restricting its expression. Rather, it encourages the expression of views guided or governed by religious commitments.”

    Firstly, secularity is an enlightenment concept, tied to the truce among religions and the preservation (even expansion) of a “workspace” of civil action free from theocracy. So trying to separate them is incoherent.

    Secondly, the restriction of expression on religious views arises solely from their irrationality, not from their sheer existence. Views enunciated by schizophrenics about how they are pursued by demons are freely expressed as well. The problem is that without some common ground of truth to the enunciated view/claim, there is no power to the discussion- it will not move others, nor should it. In the same way, you can claim religious sanction & rationale for your views till you are blue in the face. You are free to do so. But civil discourse demands more- a pursuasiveness based not on assertion or cultural myth, (shared or not shared), but on reason. So I am afraid that these writers are paddling in the wrong direction.


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