Monday, September 29, 2008

Knowledge and Truth

File photo of Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, taken February 11, 2007, at the meeting in which she was named president.
File photo of Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, taken February 11, 2007, at the meeting in which she was named president. Image by Getty Images via Daylife
Harvard's president Drew Faust made the following comments at her inauguration last October 12th. I just ran into her speech last Thursday evening at a special meeting of CrossGlobal Link, The Mission Exchange, and the Evangelical Missiological Society/EMS--a dinner held in honor of the lifetime achievements of my former boss and mentor Dr. Ralph Winter.

One of the speakers quoted a portion of Dr. Faust's comments and expressed a certain degree of contempt.

"Harvard is both a source and a symbol of the ever expanding knowledge upon which the future of the earth depends," said Dr. Faust, "and we must take an active and reflective role in this new geography of learning."

And what is the content of the knowledge upon which the future of the earth depends? According to Faust,
The "Veritas" [Latin for "Truth"] in Harvard's shield was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion. We understand it quite differently now. Truth is an aspiration, not a possession. . . . [I]n this we – and all universities defined by the spirit of debate and free inquiry – challenge and even threaten those who would embrace unquestioned certainties.

We must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt, to the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand. . . .

Clearly, Faust means to place herself and the Harvard University outside the scope of "those who would embrace unquestioned certainties."

But I wonder where such a refusal to embrace certainties--questioned or not--might lead? With what is one left if truth is always and only "an aspiration [and] not a possession"? If it is true that one can never possess truth, then on what grounds can Faust urge any form of responsibility such as what we read in her last quoted sentence: "We must commit ourselves . . ."?

The question I have just raised becomes even more insistent as we listen further to what she said in her speech:
We are able to live at Harvard in a world of intellectual freedom, of inspiring tradition, of extraordinary resources, because we are part of that curious and venerable organization known as a university. We need better to comprehend and advance its purposes – not simply to explain ourselves to an often critical public, but to hold ourselves to our own account. . . . We must regard ourselves as accountable to one another, for we constitute the institution that in turn defines our possibilities. . . .

It is not easy to convince a nation or a world to respect, much less support, institutions committed to challenging society’s fundamental assumptions. But it is our obligation to make that case: both to explain our purposes and achieve them so well that these precious institutions survive and prosper in this new century. . . .

James B. Conant, Harvard’s 23rd president [wrote in 1951 that he] was confident "[that Harvard] will maintain the traditions of academic freedom, of tolerance for heresy. . . ." We must dedicate ourselves to making certain he continues to be right; we must share and sustain his faith. . . .

This is a ceremony in which I pledge – with keys and seal and charter – my accountability to the traditions that [Conant']s voice from the past invokes. And at the same time, I affirm, in compact with all of you, my accountability to and for Harvard’s future. As in Conant's day, we face uncertainties in a world that gives us sound reason for disquiet. But we too maintain an unwavering belief in the purposes and potential of this university and in all it can do to shape how the world will look another half century from now.

Fascinating all the "necessities" laid upon us by someone who is confident that she possesses no truth!

But, of course, she does believe in truth . . . and truths. And she holds certain perspectives by faith. She said so herself. Indeed, she laid it upon her audience as a necessity that they hold certain perspectives by faith.

I wonder if she overstates her intent?

I sense a kinship with her in her stated desire always to express "the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand." And I find it in accord with my own personality to "challeng[e] society’s fundamental assumptions." So I find it no difficulty to "support . . . institutions committed to [these ends]."

However, it seems a fool's errand to seek "knowledge" when there is no pot of gold--no truth, i.e., therefore, no real knowledge--to be found on the other end of the rainbow.

I am reminded once more of the statement attributed to G. K. Chesterton: "The purpose of opening one's mind, as of opening one's mouth, is to close it again on something solid."

Or of Budziszewski's question for the intolerant professor of tolerance, "Don't we have to use standards to describe what is tolerable and what isn't? What are yours?"

Because, ultimately, isn't that a goodly portion of the real question: "Choose you this day whom you will serve"?

Whom will you serve?

Faust has made clear it is not the god of the Puritans who founded the institution she now leads.
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