Few disagree that higher education is in a state of crisis. But many disagree on the specific nature of the crisis, its causes, and how to fix it.
Announced in 2021, the University of Austin (UATX) represents a reset, a new institution committed to a tried and trustworthy philosophy of education, one that’s rare in our time. The University of Austin is radically committed to the principle of independence—political, intellectual, and financial. Such a model, the schools’ founders posit, reinforces this university as a place where students can engage in the unfettered pursuit of truth. The school claims no prior philosophical commitments, and is firmly committed to the idea that no argument is off the table for discussion. This educational approach, UATX’s leaders suggest, is a cornerstone of a free and ﬂourishing democratic society.
For Christians, UATX’s educational model poses a dilemma. On the one hand, guided by the truths of revelation, how could Christians endorse an institution that eschews all claims to prior knowledge? On the other hand, is there a strategic advantage to allying with nonsectarian schools when the bulk of American universities are unyielding partisans of secularism? In sum: Why would Christians embrace the University of Austin?
Thick and Thin Communities
First, Christians should embrace UATX as a function of democratic society—where people from diverse thick communities form thin communities to discuss differences and find common ground. It’s an institution where truth-seekers (both professors and students) originating from thick communities convene for the relatively thin encounter of the classroom. “When we build this institution, there will be people of every intellectual stripe, or we will have failed,” UATX founding president Pano Kanelos commented recently in a Wall Street Journal report.
Richard John Neuhaus (1936–2009) explores the differences between thinly and thickly constructed communities in America Against Itself: Moral Vision and the Public Order (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992). He says that the “national community to the extent it can be called a community, is a very ‘thin’ community. The myriad communities that constitute civil society are where we find ‘thick’ communities that bear heavier burdens of loyalty.” As was affirmed recently by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s “Campus Free Expression Project,” institutions of higher education must prepare students “for the rigors of citizenship in a diverse society.” This requires a community of learning that knows the intellectual sources of our diverse civilization, interprets them fairly, and communicates them cogently, charitably, and clearly. The University of Austin is being set up to be just that.
Fr. Neuhaus also suggested that democracy was, by its nature, an exercise in dissonance. This clash of ideas is not only inevitable in a fallen world, but also necessary for a free society. Robust, reasoned, and respectful deliberation serves as a basis for how we order our lives together. This means that Christians can get behind UATX’s principles as a microcosm of democratic principles. As members of earthly society, Christians can and should participate in organizations and communities that help sustain a free society—including places like UATX.
Thinly constructed communities like UATX are not less important or necessary than thick communities. Thin communities’ obligations to society are merely different.
Thick communities equip their members to answer questions like Who is the human person? What am I called to be in the world? and Who is my neighbor? They are primarily “communities of memory and mutual aid, of character and moral discipline, of transcendent truth and higher loyalty,” according to Fr. Neuhaus. The reference here is to mediating institutions like churches, synagogues, mosques, neighborhood associations, community organizations, local political halls, and, of course, families.
In his essay “Liberal Education: The United States Example,” New York University philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes thick communities this way: “We believe that children should be raised primarily in families and those families should be able to shape their children into the culture, identity, and traditions that the adult members of the family take as their own.”
Thinly construed communities, by contrast, do not posit answers to questions about what it means to be a human being, who God is, or what kind of world we live in. They include members with diverse answers to these questions, and involve dissonance, debate, procedural rules, and few prior philosophical commitments. These kinds of communities exist at the macro and micro level: as Fr. Neuhaus wrote, our national community is a thin community. But our non-religious schools and universities can be thin communities, too. By participating in communities like these, Christians become better neighbors and citizens, cooperating and collaborating with groups profoundly different from themselves.
As I explained above, Christians ought to endorse and join thin communities like UATX as a form of democratic participation. Democratic concerns are reasons external to but compatible with the Christian faith. But there are also reasons for participating in thin communities like UATX that are internal to Christianity. Christianity, while firmly grounded in its creedal commitments, is enriched by contact and conversation with other belief systems.
For example, as a Lutheran pastor, I spent eight years in higher education at institutions affiliated with the right-of-center church-body of my ordination, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Later in life, I earned two more degrees from a left-of-center institution—but just as thick—affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Neither institution experienced much dissonance. These thick institutions provided important formation but were highly insular.
While creedal institutions are necessary and indispensable, there’s also a need for institutions that resist commitments to traditionalist or progressive orthodoxies. Hillsdale College historian Wilfred McClay has said that it’s important to dispel the idea “that a genuine Christian commitment requires a robotic and closed-off institutional commitment to Christian orthodoxy. . . . From the earliest days of the Christian faith—at least as far back as St. Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus in Athens, a recognized place of public contention—Christians have championed an intellectual tradition that welcomes reasoned debate and is respectful of non-Christian sources of learning.”
St. Augustine offers a striking example of how Christianity benefits from interacting with pagan ideas. Not only is he a doctor of the church, but also a shaper of Western civilization. Even after Augustine’s conversion to Christianity, he spent six months at a retreat in Cassiciacum where he engaged with non-Christian truth seekers in a series of serious academic discourses. Augustine refuted pagan philosophical arguments not by quoting Bible verses, but with the words of non-Christian rhetoricians, poets, mathematicians, and philosophers like Cicero, Virgil, Pythagoras, and Porphyry.
In other words, Augustine employed rigorous, well-read, well-reasoned, and respectful deliberation on worldly topics like how to live a life of full human flourishing. If he were a rigid Biblicist, his breathtaking exploration of Christian truths would not have been possible.
Christians, of course, need to spend years in formative communities: families, churches, schools, and even some universities. But it’s important that some Christians, after receiving the requisite formation, participate in institutions outside of thick, orthodox communities—like UATX—where they will encounter diverse beliefs, arguments, and ideas. In doing so, like Augustine they can learn about other sources of truth that ultimately can adorn Christianity’s teachings—without diluting or distorting them.
Christians and secularists alike sometimes impose on higher education functions that it is ill-suited to perform. Universities, religious or not, cannot solve humanity’s perennial challenges such as rootlessness or spiritual restlessness. Only thick, religious communities can address these needs. The academy, by contrast, serves a multitude of other roles: it explores our civilization’s cultural resources, cultivates the intellectual virtues needed for civil engagement, instills a responsible work ethic, and develops the mental tools for meaningful lives of truth-seeking. Christians should get behind UATX because it seeks to recover these more genuine academic aims of the university.
Secularism especially has sought to displace academia’s civic and intellectual functions with existential ones. Commentators—including, ironically, Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, who is an atheist—have noted that when religious faith is in decline, it is often replaced by counterfeit religion: an intense passion for politics, ideology, or identity. McClay observes that the ideological secularism that has taken over many universities is the reason “why religious believers and independent-minded atheists [such as McWhorter] have more in common now than they have ever had before, as truth-seeking outsiders to the prevailing academic ethos.”
When secular, tribal identity becomes the orthodoxy, the academy’s attitude degenerates into what McClay deems “an increasingly militant outlook that proscribes Christianity rather than allowing it the space to flourish and contend with its rivals.” The more the university becomes a secular tribe, the less welcome Christian ideas will become on campus.
Rather than accepting their status as learning institutions of intellectual contest, too many universities have become shrines for symbolic protest or centers for superficial celebration. New orthodoxies of hollow rhetoric are imposed. They consist of theoretical rage directed at stereotypical, straw enemies. They consist of cultural celebrations amounting to not much more than an airbrushed giddiness and an inauthentic silliness. Rather than honoring identity, these end up fetishizing it. I think about a recent Kwanzaa celebration that was clumsily commemorated on a college campus, even though its practice within thickly constructed African Americans communities has waned considerably since the 2000s.
Thickly constructed communities such as churches are the appropriate sources and sites of authentic cultural and religious celebrations. College campuses are not the place do justice to real injustice. UATX’s vision understands and appreciates academia’s proper function, goals, and limitations as a thin community. When we try to make the academy something more, it becomes vulnerable to the religious fervor of contemporary politics that has infused so much of American society. By attempting to circumscribe the university within its proper framework, UATX offers an educational model that Christians, as opponents of ideological secularism, should actively encourage and endorse.
UATX’s marketplace of ideas, where free exchange is guarded, where meaningful and respectful dialogue is promoted, where rigor is applied to research, where truths are pursued for their own sake, and where epistemology is not primarily determined by one’s identity, is an academic vision that is not only compatible with Christianity but also complements it. UATX’s commitment to recovering the university as an institution of truth-seeking loosens secularism’s stronghold on academia, and enables Christians to learn from intellectually diverse traditions—something from which Christianity has always benefited.
When Christians endorse and participate in thin institutions like UATX, they’re not compromising their commitment to the truths they have received from revelation, tradition, and Scripture. Rather, they’re acknowledging that universities are thin communities that Christians should rightly join for both their own benefit and for society’s benefit. And as they join thin academic communities, they can do so while remaining firmly grounded in thick communities such as families and churches—places equipped to provide existential fulfillment.